There is a black bear outside my tent. The sound of its heavy footfall and loud sniffing wakes me up on my half-deflated air mattress. I lie as still as I can, listening to it come closer. When only the tent fly separates us, the bear smells me and stops dead still. We stay like that for a moment and I can almost hear it thinking, wondering what I am. It makes up its mind and runs off between the oak trees and huckleberry shrubs. I feel my body relax and wait for my heart to slow.
In the morning, I look for its paw prints in the earth as I drink a cup of earl grey. This trip into the Catskill Mountains and this cup of tea are little things that remind me of home and pull me from the throng of New York City. Getting out of town feels vital to me. Every few weeks I take the weekend to fly fish the Delaware or even the sand flats of Jamaica Bay. These trips let me hold on to a part of me that New York City would otherwise strip away. People often ask why I moved to the city when I did. They promise me it will bounce back, as if its vitality is a reflection on their own, but I am glad I have seen a quiet, sombre New York. In some strange way, this version of the city helped me feel more at home amongst the concrete.
I almost threw up when I found out I had been accepted into a Masters program in New York. I had been hiking in the Tararuas and it was the first email I read when I got back to cell phone reception. That was back in May 2020, just after the Covid-19 lockdown had ended in New Zealand. Back then, the six o’clock news was laden with images of New York in turmoil and speculations as to how the virus worked. I was flattered to be accepted by the University but figured I wouldn’t be going.
For months, I avoided making a definitive decision, until someone I trusted told me I was being stupid, that I’d regret not going for the rest of my life. That was all the push I really needed and as Spring arrived in New Zealand, I flew to an Autumn-red New York.
People love to personify cities; William Carlos Williams wrote whole books of poetry on the endless parallels between the life of a city and that of a person. New York particularly gets slapped with personality traits and I will try my hardest not to add to that drivel, other than to say the city was wounded when I arrived.
My classes were online and there wasn’t much to do apart from study, so I read and wrote from sunrise to sunset as the days grew shorter and people raked the fallen leaves into piles. On dusk, I left to walk the deserted streets and felt a part of the city’s bizarre and proud tradition that is a feeling of solitude in one of the most densely populated places on earth. The fall migration was in full swing and I enjoyed watching the sky flutter with millions of birds heading south to Mexico and the Caribbean. Birds are hardly good company though, and I quickly sought out my few peers who were willing to meet in person. We gathered in parks and the outdoor areas of bars, where tables were divided by walls of clear plastic. We kept our meetings secret, afraid of being shamed by our more cautious fellow students.
Regardless of the pandemic, there were certain things that required adjusting to in New York. Learning how to study in another country was a major one. There are many striking differences between the two education systems, but the most pronounced to me is the competitiveness here. You have to fight to be heard in class. Opinions are defended so passionately that I often found myself shying away from contributing. I’m not sure if that is a reflection on me or on a more general apathy that pervades New Zealand. Although many of us grew up watching and emulating the culture that filtered out from the States, it is still a drastically different place when you are immersed in it. I didn’t realise that until I was treading water.
By November, I felt a part of the broken city and watched as shops began to board up their windows in preparation for the election riots. When news broke of Biden’s win, people started tooting and screaming in the streets. I caught the subway to Central Park with some friends and saw the city in its festive colours for the first time. Street parties erupted and people stood on the corners banging pots and pans, hugging strangers and drinking wine. The virus was pushed from our minds and people celebrated late into the night, but everyone knew it would be a fleeting respite.
The cold settled in not long after that. Snow blanketed the city and people seemed to vanish into hibernation as the Covid-19 numbers spiked again. University broke up for the Christmas break and I floundered about, half-heartedly writing my thesis. The other Kiwis I knew in New York said there was a seventy-day backlog for a quarantine slot back home. We were marooned, and that was isolating and sobering; but in truth, I had little intention of flying south. The knowledge that home was an oasis in the world was comforting to me and it meant I didn’t have to worry about my family when so many others in New York had lost people to the virus. I had made my bed leaving home when I did and I would sleep in it.
That bed proved to be hard and uncomfortable. As the snowstorms left the city, I tested positive for Covid. I knew statistically speaking I would be likely to get it but still, I was shocked, and I punched the couch and cursed loudly – a sign the New Yorker temperament was slowly rubbing off on me. For ten days, I anxiously waited for symptoms to appear but none came. I was lucky.
Spring arrived and the last of the stubborn snow melted. As the vaccination numbers began to rise you could feel the city stirring with excitement. Tourists took selfies in Washington Square Park and the Times Square mascots made a pilgrimage back to those bright lights. I bought a bicycle and explored the boroughs. You don’t miss anything on a bicycle. You get the smells of curbside rubbish stewing in the sun, the abuse hurled from car windows, the thrill of weaving between traffic. I noticed a racket that filled the city where it hadn’t when I arrived. It drowned out the birdsong of those returning from their winter spent in the south. The New York I had known was fading.
The black-bear prints outside my tent are large. The ranger I spoke to at the trailhead said the adults get up to 400 pounds. I lay my hand beside the prints and sip my earl grey. In the afternoon, I will train back to the city. People always say you can feel New York’s energy – as if it pulses through the air. I wait eagerly with the rest of the city for that vigour to return. And yet part of me will always remember the quiet, demure New York I seemed to have to myself, and moments like this; Upstate, beside a river full of trout and the earth trodden by black bear paws.
Benn Jeffries is a Wellington-born writer and photographer. A lover of all things outdoors, you’ll usually find him on a river with his rod and reel. Now living in New York, Benn is chipping away at an MFA and practising his cast in some leafy city park. You can read more from Benn here.