What a good time Nate and Philomena had on New Years Eve! They had been seeing each other for two years and Nate had made reservations several weeks in advance at a nice restaurant downtown where they had occasionally eaten before. In addition to good food the place also had a reputation for hosting grand parties - their reputation was so good that they needed to do very little advertising for their New Years Eve Gala and it was fortunate that a friend had told Nate to make reservations early. He wasn’t sure just what had made it such a memorable evening, whether it was the good food, the falling snow, the colorful decorations or just an awareness that he and Philomena had begun to know one another very well. This season the holidays had been especially memorable and Nate was even sad to see the lights, bells, Christmas trees, candy canes, reindeer, Father Time and Baby New Year start to be taken down. Taking a deep breath he looked ahead in his mind and tried to focus on the future. Valentine’s Day was approaching.
Sometimes Nate knew just what gift to buy for Philomena and sometimes he was very lost. This time he felt that he was in the middle somewhere. The past decade had been filled with electronic novelties - digital photo then video cameras, desktop then laptop computers, simple cell phones then advanced phones that were also video cameras with keyboards that could surf the internet. During the last ten years it was relatively easy to choose the latest electronic gadget as a gift for any close friend, and Nate and Philomena had enjoyed both giving and receiving some of those gifts. But now it seemed that everyone was saturated. Their friends were all up-to-date with the latest phones, tablets and notebooks, and so were they. Nate thought it might be a good idea to give technology another chance to amaze him and Philomena but he didn’t really see anything new being advertised. Sometimes in the past he had searched the internet to find obscure gifts, but even that was becoming “old” so he decided to be more “hands on” when shopping this time.
He strolled the malls and walked through a few giant electronic stores but came away disappointed. Oh, they were offering new colors, shapes and sizes but the concepts seemed to be the same old things. He remembered how his parents shopped when he was very young, before the internet and shopping malls. He remembered how they would take public transportation downtown to big department stores, and when he drove after dark with Philomena to the New Year’s Eve celebration he saw from a distance that the lights and signs of some of those buildings were still around. That was why, rather than pay a high price for parking, Nate had decided to take the subway to Center City that day. He wanted to walk up and down the busy streets with no specific store as a destination because thirty year old Nate with the same girlfriend for two years was looking for something special, but he didn’t know just what it was.
It had been a long time since Nate had taken a subway to downtown, and the newer versions were brighter, smoother, more quiet and more streamlined than the old subway cars - but he still smiled when, at the same moment, all the passenger’s heads would sway from one side to the other side whenever the subway hit a bump on the tracks. Old, young, tall or short the bumps on the tracks always seemed to be one of life’s great equalizers, like snow falling on the rich and poor alike. The subway sped forward into the dark tunnel as Nate found himself wondering which month was the coldest, January or February. He had not quite decided when the subway car arrived at his stop, City Hall. He got off the train and walked up the steps into the courtyard, deciding to head east. The sun was setting when he and Philomena had begun their New Years Eve celebration and seeing all the lights coming on had been very beautiful, but now it was daytime and Nate quickly absorbed other aspects of the big city’s charm and diversity. He had forgotten how high the skyscrapers were from street level! He stopped for just a moment on the busy sidewalk and craned his neck uncomfortably to look up so high at the buildings - until it seemed that brisk walkers were bumping into him ever more deliberately. Stepping forward and looking down his breath was taken away by a colorful window display in a major store and he stopped again, but this time he moved off to the side against the window. This allowed him a few moments to take in the winter fashions quietly modelled by the newest contemporary mannequins until the pedestrians brushing past reminded him that it was time to pick up his feet and move forward. The Christmas window decorations were all gone now and the displays were beginning to feature red hearts. He noticed the smell of diesel exhaust from buses, but with public transportation using more and more hybrid motors the smell wasn’t as strong as what he remembered from his childhood. Throughout his life Nate had spent many, many hours in the heart of his city for all different reasons, first as a boy with his parents for parades or shopping, then school, courtrooms, job interviews, more parades, and dates for lunch or dinner. Sometimes classes or appointments resulted in daily excursions to downtown, and then months might pass before he needed to visit Center City again. Many buildings had remained the same through all that time, but the name above the entrances might change every few years. The large streets were well travelled and held few surprises for Nate as he began to sense that what he was looking for might be more off the beaten path. He turned right at the next small street and began walking away from the tallest buildings. Within a few blocks the towering skyscrapers became simpler structures while the foot traffic on the sidewalks became less crowded and more relaxed, and sharp smells from small diners and mysterious alleys were everywhere. Nate was beginning to see a few stores that might offer something close to the vague concept he was looking for, but he kept walking. When he turned left at the next street he was surprised by the overlapping architectures that filled the avenue into the distance. Any old city has many eras of development, styles from different times of construction that were sometimes interrupted during war or social upheaval. Nate always marveled when he saw one building plan abruptly end to meet or overlap an entirely different plan built decades earlier or later. Sometimes a bay or a porch on the last building of a group would actually extend over a parlor or window of an earlier structure and Nate would think to himself, ‘Ahhh, only in the big city!’ He knew that it was beautiful, unique moments like these that kept people living in seemingly uncomfortable places that might have extreme weather conditions. They would have experiences so absolutely unique to their home that those experiences would outweigh any thoughts of moving to a more temperate climate. The arid deserts, frigid poles and humid rainforests are all filled with unique experiences that make those places home to others, the same way that this street was making Nate feel like this city was his home.
He became aware of the cracks in the sidewalk below his feet and quickly studied the different grades of concrete used during different eras of the street development. Looking up again he saw that in two more blocks he was going to walk under a train bridge, a remnant from a time when trains delivered the freshest and most modern goods to area stores. Continuing to walk closer he saw that there was even a small, one-story shop underneath the bridge. It was flanked on both sides by progressively taller buildings all with street level storefronts, but it was that smallest of shops that drew his attention. He was unable to see into the store from the angle of his approach, but a small sign hanging outside was visible and it read “Electronic Departures”.