My Empire State of Mind

by Jackie Sanders

Every trip I take has a soundtrack. When I was young, I used to make mixtapes with new stuff that I’d imagine sounding perfect driving through the desert, skiing down a mountain, or lying on a quiet beach. As a result, I still have many of the cassettes, labeled “Arizona,” “Aruba,” and “Road trip ’89.” When I listen to those tapes now, I can remember exactly where I was and how I felt at each song. It’s like looking at a photo album, but with more of the senses.

Last week, my soundtrack song was “Empire State of Mind,” and as my family and I flew over New York City with Alicia singing about “no place in the world that could compare,” I felt an overwhelming longing for this town that I hadn’t seen in nearly 17 years. I know it’s been that long because I haven’t been back since before my daughter was born.

The first time I visited New York, I felt this insane familiarity, this feeling that I was home. I was ready to ditch the west coast forever and begin living among these fabulous and interesting people who moved so fast and had so much purpose to their step. I was 25 years old and wanted to see and do everything. My husband and I briefly entertained the idea of moving there, and while a romantic idea, the cost of rent was sobering, and we had to be happy with the occasional getaway.

The New York of my youth (along with my soundtrack of Duran Duran) included shopping at thrift stores, dancing with the cool kids at the Limelight, wearing platinum wigs, fishnet stockings, and Doc Martens, walking everywhere, seeing the David Letterman show, going to a Yankees game, buying street art from the artists sitting in front of the Met, eating pasta in Little Italy and, well, you get the idea. It was endless.

The last time I arrived in the city, my sister-in-law picked me up from the airport on her motorcycle, and we sped home to her tiny East Village flat, which was right above a sketchy dive bar (our favorite kind). We spent the days walking around Greenwich Village and Soho, eating blintzes for brunch, and gazing longingly at the expensive clothes in the endless line of boutiques. The nights were reserved for our dive bar: flirting with the boys, playing darts, and dancing to the songs off the jukebox. It was a memorable trip, and it cemented my love affair with New York.

So why didn’t I go back until my daughter was almost 16 years old? She and my husband have gone together twice, and I begged off each time with lame excuses. I told myself I was too busy with work, or it was just too expensive, but the truth was I didn’t want to go as a 47-year-old mother. I didn’t want to be invisible, and it’s embarrassing to admit, but I just didn’t want to be old in New York.

But here’s the thing. Once I copped to that ugly little insecurity, I could finally let the past go, and decide to make new memories with my family. So what if I wasn’t going dancing or shopping for miniskirts? I could wear my sneakers and walk for days, and appreciate all the weird and wonderful characters I passed on the street. I could take my daughter to the thrift shops and get the same thrill I used to, but this time she would find that unique gem instead of me.

And so we went. And it was one of the most fantastic trips of my life, surpassing even the good old days of my youth. We walked to Brooklyn, toured NYU, hung out in Washington Square Park, and watched the freaks in the East Village. We snuck into fancy hotels looking for the famous folk, squished into the subway, shopped for clothes and books, ate from the hot dog cart, walked at least ten miles a day, and enjoyed stunning weather.

Each day we set out for a different part of town, overwhelmed by the choices. Manhattan seemed so vast, but by the end of our six days, we found ourselves hitting familiar streets, remembering that, ah yes, we explored this neighborhood the other day! I felt lifted up by the energy that swirled through those streets, and it was a thrill to be among the millions who call New York home.

Our final day was pure magic. The temperature shot up to a balmy 78 degrees, and after a long winter, Manhattanites poured into Central Park to enjoy the sunshine. We joined in the impromptu celebration, strolling lazily about the park watching happy children playing, rollerblade hockey games, newlyweds posing for photos, and musicians sharing their talents under arched bridges.

I cried a bit at the thought of leaving the next day, and as the three of us squeezed into that full-sized bed in our tiny New York hotel room, I thanked my lucky stars for these companions by my side. We’d shared this experience together, and I felt so grateful to have made new memories with my two favorite people in the world.

And now I know I’ll be back next year.

Jackie Sanders is the Director of Guest Services for Las Olas Surf Safaris for Women, and lives in Carmel, California, with her husband and 15-year-old daughter. When not busy arranging surf trips for women, she enjoys hiking in Big Sur, tennis, writing, reading, and traveling.