Thursday, November 26, 2009


I've always known Thanksgiving to be one of the quietest days of the year. In high school, I remember riding my bike down to my father's house after eating with my mom, and counting only three cars on the entire (and otherwise busy) two mile ride down to his neighborhood. It was a silence I would have described as eerie, had I not known the circumstances. I considered the empty road, and smiled. It made me happy to know that the holiday was capable of slowing people down, if only for a day. But it also made me feel guilty, somehow, as if I had left the shelter of my home as a voyeuristic child, illicitly seeking the sights of the mid-day ghost town. The street was reserved only for cars taking last-minute shoppers to buy more wine, or rolls.

"You're not supposed to be out here," the silence seemed to tell me, "go back to your family, take a nap, eat more."
"My parents are divorced," I wanted to reply, as I pedaled faster down the hill.

I didn't think of that moment again until last Thanksgiving in New York, as I stepped out of my dorm with my roommate, to buy a roasting pan for our Turkey. We had gathered a modest crew of Californians and international students for the big day, and had plans to cook the entire meal in our suite.

Walking out of our building, I was struck by the silence of 114th street. The block, which I was fortunate enough to call home for three years, was otherwise populated by overbooked Columbia students, fraternity boys, delivery trucks, and ambulances. It was only when living on the 12th floor of the adjacent building three years earlier that I had been immune to the noise. On this morning, the roar of New York city had been reduced to a whisper, as if the only sounds being made were unintentional. I had rarely ever felt so calm so close to campus.

My roommate and I enjoyed the seemingly empty streets, not only on that Thursday, but for the rest of the weekend as well. We attributed the peace to the exodus of college students to their homes in the suburbs, and not to the holiday itself. For the first time in my undergraduate career (the only other was to be during spring break of that same year), I felt like I had time. With classes on break, and my social world out of town, I was free to spend three entire days with my roommate, working in the library, going to the gym, and watching TV. We were incredibly productive, and not only academically. We finished over ten movies, including the Lord of the Rings trilogy. If I had tried doing that at any other time during the semester, I might have had a panic attack.

But none of this was the reason I thought to write today. What was more striking than that bike ride, and the stillness on campus last fall, was my trip to the bus this morning. I woke up earlier than usual to finish packing my suitcase (and to watch an episode of 30 Rock) before deciding to take a cab to Chelsea, where the Bolt Bus was temporarily picking up passengers. And after carrying my bags down four flights of stairs, I exited the cage of 85 Pitt St. not to find the usual cast of characters chatting or drinking Colt 45's next to the stoop, but to an almost empty block, save one woman crossing the street nearly 20 feet away. Now I know the Lower East Side tends not to wake up early, but at 8am on a weekday, I expect to hear some noise. My roommate complains about the construction and yelling that starts at 6 every morning, and I'm never surprised to hear the newest Reggaeton beats blasting through our window from the cars passing below.

As I walked down Rivington this morning, I could have sworn I heard the trees move. The trees. In New York.

I was worried that I wouldn't be able to find a cab (a silly thought in retrospect, as the Thanksgiving stillness actually increased the ratio of pedestrians to cabs to nearly 1:1), so I rushed down to Clinton St., dragging my suitcase and bag of Trader Joe's groceries with me. I had a taxi within seconds, though, and was soon making my way across the island. As we continued on Houston, I couldn't help but stare out of the car windows at the near-empty streets. I had never seen Lower Manhattan so deserted in the daylight, and suddenly noticed buildings I'd never thought to look at before. Heading into Chelsea, the expanse of 8th avenue, a straight and massive road leading all the way up to Central Park, stood out to me in an entirely new way. The sudden halt in skyscrapers at the park entrance actually looked like the edge of the world. The city had managed to slow down, and I once again felt an odd guilt for watching it.

I'm on the bus right now, heading down to D.C. for the weekend. Most of my fellow passengers are asleep, in keeping with the day's quiet character. I didn't think about it until just now, but I think the calm I'm so attracted to on Thanksgiving is the same calm I find when I travel. In both, time comes as close as it can to standing still. Of course, nothing really changes. But sitting on a bus or a plane forces you to stop for a moment, just in the way that tryptophan forces you to stay at home, and off the streets for just one day.