I sit at the table in the food court in Flushing, unfamiliar yet comforting smells and sounds swirling around me. Directly across from me sits a pretty young woman, earbuds in, absorbed in her reading as she deftly makes her way through her bowl of slippery noodles with her chopsticks. My own deftness is lacking, and I wince internally whenever I drop a particularly large noodle back into my soup, and glance at her surreptitiously to make sure I haven’t splashed her with broth. Her expression doesn’t change, so I think I’m good. My bowl of handmade noodles and beef chunks floating in a broth of cilantro and green onion is excellent, and before I reach the bottom I am more satisfied than I have been in days. The unfamiliar languages all around me make a calming background noise, and the occasional English word I hear is almost jarring. I know I look like a fish out of water with my white skin and inability to read all the menus, but I don’t care. I finish most of my soup, and grab my favorite taro bubble tea to go. I’m not entirely sure I’m responsible enough to live in a place with taro bubble tea at my fingertips, but I’m not mad about it! This is why I came.
It’s been a long afternoon on my feet, and I am grateful to sink into my chair in the Brooklyn Tabernacle well over an hour before the service is supposed to start. Sometimes in this cold and slightly lonely week, it’s nice to just have a place to sit where I don’t feel obligated to buy anything, other than my windowless Airbnb. The auditorium is dark and quiet, with soft and lovely background music playing as people trickle in to fill the seats or go up front to pray. I relax. After a while a girl sits beside me and we strike up a hushed conversation, punctuated by her occasional loud bursts of laughter. She tells me she’s from the Bronx, I tell her I’m from North Carolina and just moved here, and she gives me some handy local advice. Out of the blue she asks, “Were you born Amish?” “No,” I say, “But my parents were. How did you know?” “I could smell it- it’s in your aroma,” she says. Seeing my startled look, she explains. Sometimes when she senses things she doesn’t quite know how to explain it so she calls it smell. Well, that’s a first for me! The memory makes me laugh the whole way home that night. This is why I came.
The service begins at Brooklyn Tabernacle by Pastor Cymbala coming up front and leading the congregation in a song or two. The famed Brooklyn Tabernacle Singers join him on stage, but he doesn’t mind singing out in front of them, never mind that his timing isn’t perfect and that the choir behind him has won six Grammys and plenty of other musical awards. His unabashedness is heartwarming. Pretty soon the singers take over and the sound swells up into the vaulted ceiling, a glorious declaration of praise to Jesus. “…If you need freedom or saving, He’s a prison-shaking Savior. If you’ve got chains, He’s a chain breaker.” My feet simply can’t hold still. I love services without the inhibitions so near and dear to my own culture, services where people know how to praise the Lord. We are led in a communion service and prayer with the people next to us, and when the service ends I only wish I could stay another hour or two. I can’t believe I get to come back to this next week if I’d like. This is why I came.
On a whim, I take the train to 110th street, way up the Upper East Side to the the tiptop of Central Park. I wonder if I can walk the whole way down after all the other walking I’ve done today? I don’t know how far it is, but I do know Central Park is not something to sneeze at. Well, I might as well try. The path curves here and there, past many gray spots that are secretly holding the promise of a glorious spring. Here, this looks like rose bushes, and that arch over there is covered with wisteria, and that brown lawn promises to be a lovely roll of green before long. The wintery air bites fiercely as I walk the long way around the Jackie Kennedy Onassis Reservoir in the middle but the myriad of ducks paddling around don’t seem to mind as much as I do. Runners pass me in a steady succession and I admire their form and speed and think about the first and last 5k I did. Nah, I’m happy to stick to walking. I stop by the Met to give my feet a break, but before long the cold gets to me and I have to keep going. At last, long last, I see the buildings signaling the south end of the park. It’s only 2.5 miles long, Google tells me, but next time how about I do it with better shoes and a little more sunshine? A kind stranger helps me find the subway entrance I can’t spot, and by the time I cram into the train car with the other rush hour riders, my hands are so cold I can barely type out a text. I reach home, maybe an hour of riding and walking later, with blisters on my feet. I can’t wait to go back once spring hits and see what all those spots look like when I and they are not frozen. This is why I came.
I watch the passing Queens landscape through the grimy bus windows. New York is a huge city, but it’s made up of little neighborhoods that feel like small towns. There’s the bodega owner you will see every few days when you pick up some vegetables for dinner. The neighbor who will take her trash out at the same time as you do and nod at you. The barista who will know your face and favorite tea, and the bagel shop owner who tells you he’ll be there next time you come. There are gazillions of streets waiting to be explored and connections waiting to be made and tired people waiting to be smiled at and so much food waiting to be eaten. Somewhere in this metropolis there are the select people who don’t know yet that they’re just waiting to be my friends- people who love puns and dumplings and Jesus too. Anything could and just might happen. This is why I came.