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Empire State of Mind
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Looking down onto the taxi-clogged streets 86 floors above the ground, it sure feels like New York City is the center of the universe.

Maybe it was a cliché, taking a turbo elevator to the near-top of the Empire State Building. But up so high, it seems obvious that the island of Manhattan is the sun around which all revolves, its glimmering rays reaching past the outer boroughs to the entire world. Its iconic edifices house the masters of art, fashion and finance who we are influenced by and at the mercy of;  its legends inform our dreams and national identity. Even if we never set foot on its soot-spattered asphalt, we grow up recognizing its landmarks as symbols of struggle and success, of patriotism, of our collective history.

My nose poking through the iron framework, the wind whipping through my hair, I can see Lady Liberty holding up her torch for the entire Eastern seaboard. I steep in the understanding that I am, at this moment, literally and figuratively, on top of the world. For a girl from Arizona who’s spent a lot of time on the fringes, it is an epiphany.

Then a pasty couple wearing matching t-shirts elbows their way in front of me and my view is reduced to a wide behind encased in a pair of canvas shorts.

Such is the glorious paradox of NYC: Batman’s Gotham is at once an archetype and a real live place, with all of its attendant humanity. Being in the Big Apple means sharing your epiphanies with everyone else. Not that anyone else cares. Fuhgeddaboudit.

(On a smaller scale, Savannah shares the same paradox of its image versus its reality, its moss-draped history embedded in the national psyche as it continues to pulse along as home to all of us. Not every city can say the same, you know.)

With a week to spend in this epic metropolis with my family, there was the agenda of seeing the famed sights, of course: Grand Central Station, where we ogled the constellation-studded ceiling and giggled in the corners at the Whispering Gallery. We marveled over the Apatosaurus bones at the Museum of Natural History and wound our way up the spiral of the Guggenheim, sighing over Picasso’s “Woman with Yellow Hair” and scratching our heads at the Cobra artists’ hidden obscenities.

We cruised on the Hudson River past the Statue of Liberty and stared solemnly at the tremendous tower rising out of the ashes at Ground Zero. We gave The Lion King a standing ovation (yes, it really was that good.) We snarfed corned-beef sandwiches and street pizza and hot dogs and the best bagels, their distinctive taste and texture attributed to the clean-and-delicious tap water, which made buying bottled water an unnecessary expense in this most expensive land.

My favorite attraction had to be the High Line, an elevated stretch of industrial railway in the Meatpacking District that has been converted into a verdant urban paradise full of blooming indigenous plants and reclaimed materials. The mile-and-a-half-long trail snakes through the concrete jungle, turning unexpectedly into gardens where butterflies alight on purple Echinacea blooms while goateed hipsters busk for their supper with bluegrass classics. Locals sunbathe on plush carpet of grass or built-in lounge chairs, and public art murals face out of 20-story buildings.

It’s significant that this free outdoor destination has become one of NYC’s must-sees: As with Savannah’s squares, visitors love civic projects that preserve nature and turn urban blight into pragmatic beauty. It’s a proven case to advocate for more modern rails-to-trails projects and protection of outdoor resources; our own city’s future draw can be so much more than another high-rise hotel on the banks of the river. (If you could re-imagine an unused Savannah site as a public space, what would it be? Post your answers on Connect’s Facebook page.)

I’d been to this city before, but not for a solid week of sightseeing. It’s unlikely at this point I will ever live out my childhood fantasy of inhabiting a suite at the Plaza, but it also felt important to do more than gawk like a rube in Times Square, blinking at all the pretty lights. I confess that my favorite New York minutes were the most mundane: Reading the Times with a paper cup of coffee, passing through the subway turnstile, feeling the warmth of the boulders in Central Park. These gave me a small sense of belonging to this grandest of cities—and if I can belong here, I can feel that way everywhere else on earth, including funny old Savannah. A week in New York costs as much as a decade of therapy, but it might be far more valuable.

It helped that instead of booking separate rooms in an expensive hotel, we shared a three-bedroom apartment in the Murray Hill neighborhood with my parents, my brother and his fiancée—still plenty pricey, but it provided a common space to decompress in the afternoons and get away from the madding crowds. (Note: The key to a successful multi-generational family vacation is multiple bathrooms.)

Pretending to be residents afforded us a pace to take in the local color: An old man leading a cat on a leash, a lady practically making out with her pink-crowned cockatiel at the Boat Basin Café, an insane cab driver shrieking Scripture at us, thumbing through his Bible while steering with his elbow.

One early morning when I was riding down the cranky elevator for a solo coffee before the rest of the family roused, I encountered a woman in a green turban carrying a meticulously-coiffed Yorkshire terrier the size of a dinner roll. The dog growled.

“He really doesn’t like people,” confided its owner. “I have to board him when the maid comes every week.”

The elevator opened and she sashayed past the doorman on our way out. I turned left on 36th Street and headed down Madison, chuckling to myself: Man, New York may be amazing, but there sure is a lot of crazy.

That’s when I looked down to find that I was wearing two different shoes. One blue canvas flat and one leather black one. I shrugged and walked on, blending into the crowd.