The morning we set off on our 11-hour hike down the length of Manhattan, a mulberry falls from a tree and leaves a purple splotch on my brother’s favorite white T-shirt. The four of us—my brother, two friends, and I—had met at Marble Hill on 225th Street and walked an hour south through the graffiti-layered warehouses and shaved park lawns of Inwood. The rules of the day are as follows: 1) use Google Maps as little as possible, 2) avoid all forms of public transportation, 3) rest at leisure, and 4) reach South Ferry by sundown. On the side of the road near 190th Street, cars are speeding past as we leap to pick berries from trees and taste them, at first skeptically and then with slow, unearthed delight. The last time I picked a mulberry was four years ago in North Carolina (equipped with a hand-illustrated map my friend made, we ate from all the mulberry trees in town). I never knew that a metropolis could grow mulberries at all.
I came to New York City with the vague notion that certain neighborhoods were best avoided. But on this day, hunger and fatigue aside, our walk through Washington Heights and East Harlem is beautiful and pleasant. There are ample trees and smooth benches. We buy Vitaminwater at a corner store and the cashier confides in us his sometime-luck at scratch-card games. A physical therapist named Johnny walks alongside us for 10 blocks and explains his philosophy of life: anti-meat, antiwar, anti-fast food. “You kids need to be exercising your entire lives!” he says. It is a blue summer Sunday, and people are leaning on corners, walking and talking with mouthfuls of fried street food and little dogs at their feet. Teenagers huddle in a half circle around an iPod playing rap and hip-hop. “Started from the bottom now we’re here...” I am almost waiting for someone to tell us, with as much as a glance, that we don’t belong, but this never happens. We thread through a smoky street fair in Spanish Harlem, where Latino music plays from speakers and people gather in lawn chairs. As we pass a mural of Picasso’s Guernica, an old man in suspenders sees my camera and says to me, “Take a picture, take a picture of me with Caterina! Come here, good girl!” He chuckles at the neighborhood dog and sits down with her on a fold-up metal chair.
On the cusp of Harlem and the Upper East Side we meet Buddy, an iguana basking atop a boy’s shoulder. The boy lets us take pictures of them together. Buddy’s head is cool, rough, and orange-speckled. (Weeks later, I will be talking to an old man by Union Square who will charmingly convince me to kiss his parakeet on the head. It will be warm, feathery, and green). A few hours later, we get frozen yogurt, from 40 Carrots on the top floor of Bloomingdale’s. Upper East Side ladies in line in front of us all order twice as much yogurt as we do. We dip into a pet store, drink tea samples at Teavana, and, in a sudden moment of time-panic, walk faster than all the weekend-strolling couples and shoppers. We walk all the way through Midtown, past Grand Central Terminal, and finally sit, exhausted, at Madison Square Park. My friend tries to rub chocolate off his chocolate-covered almonds and feed them to squirrels. Just before sunset, we sit again at Washington Square Park and watch young people running through the fountain. One photograph I take captures a couple in their early 30s leaning against each other, soaked and quiet and still, as if absorbing summertime through their skin. The photograph is beautiful—or at least I think so—but when I muster up the courage to show them, the woman leans back and laughs. The man eyes me with suspicion and makes me promise I won’t post it online.
That morning world—of mulberry stains and rough iguana heads— feels so distant. The Village area is my favorite, but it always reminds me of the first time I was ever alone in New York City. I was 16 and visiting colleges. My mother and brother had left me at the New School, where, after an awkward information session, I wandered around alone for 10 minutes. I can only describe it now as 10 minutes of intense, anxiety-inducing sensory overload. I looked at every person passing by; I noticed every crisp detail of color on people’s clothes and earrings and shoes, their facial expressions, the forceful trajectories of their gait. My eyes burned as if I had been exposed to too much wind or sun or action-thriller television, when really it was just my young, vulnerable self, struggling to absorb a massive city.
Six years later, I have recalibrated my attention, but maybe for the worse. On a day-to-day basis, I can see the city and its people without actually noticing, feeling, or caring. I can walk through campus with eyes glued to the emails on my phone, or ride the subway without remembering the faces of anyone on the train with me. But blindness—even partial blindness—chips away at the immediateness of life. So to remember my younger, mulberry-picking self, I started making my own hand-illustrated maps of Manhattan. Then I went on this very, very long walk.
By sunset, we had walked 15 miles: from the top of Manhattan into the vendor and tourist throngs of the Financial District. At South Ferry, we skip over the railings and rush toward the water, as if the sight of industrial ships is our salvation. A cluster of old men next to us throw in fishing lines while party-music beats throb from Governors Island.
My friends and brother walked Manhattan because they are adventure-hungry and curious. But for me it was an exercise in seeing. It was about adopting the attitude of a traveler while at home, letting myself be surprised again by mulberries—as much as by people.
To see some of Kening’s hand-drawn maps, check out wandermaps.org.