Off the Rails: A Walk Along the First Two Thirds of the New York High Line
Walk Taken: February 28, 2012
Directions: Take the A, C, E, or L to 8th Avenue and 14th Street. There are many access points to the High Line, but to begin at the south most point, walk east on 14th Street until you reach 10th Avenue, then walk south to Ganesvoort Street. The entrance is on the northeast corner of 10th Avenue and Ganesvsoort.
The New York High Line is a public park built on an abandoned railway line. The line was originally built in the 1930s to bring freight to the factories of the meat-packing district without endangering anyone at street level. As trucks began to replace trains for industrial transport, the High Line fell into disuse; the last train, carrying frozen turkeys, ran in 1980. In the late 90s, a group of concerned citizens formed Friends of the High Line to save the structure from demolition. The first section of the High Line opened as a public park in 2009. Currently, pedestrians can follow the raised track from Ganesvoort to 30th Street. The final stretch, from 30th to 34th, is still under construction.
First Stop—Above the Ganesvoort Entrance
Climb the stairs at the North West corner of 10th Avenue and Gansevoort St. Once you reach the top, head towards the river and turn left until you reach an L-shaped bench.
The setting sun warmed Tomás’ back as he supported his foot on the bench and bent forward to retie his sneakers. It whitened the gray, bare branches of the trees and made him hope for spring. He glanced over his shoulders to watch it burn above the Hudson, and just as quickly had to glance away.
“Are you ready yet?” his girlfriend, Jhumpa, asked behind him. She had finished stretching and now jogged in place. “I want get to the end of the High Line before the sun sets.”
It was sad, really, that it had taken the two of them until an hour from sunset to get themselves outside, and on the first truly beautiful day since October. But it was so rare that the two of them shared a day off—he busy with freelance photography gigs when he wasn’t on call to tutor Mrs. Gleason’s kids through their exclusive gradeschool, her with dance classes or auditions or her ever-shifting shift at the café—that it was no surprise they’d had a hard time getting out of bed. But now three cups of coffee and the setting sun was making Jhumpa anxious to spend her energy before she could relax into the night. Tomás had to honor that.
“Ready,” Tomás said, and set off.
Second Stop—First Flowers
Tomás only got about three yards before he discovered the flowers. They were little fuchsia kernels on thin brown twigs, popping open into pale pink blossoms. They were the first flowers he had seen growing wild since winter began, and he couldn’t help stopping to stoop towards them.
“Look, Jhumpa!” he said. “Spring is coming.”
Jhumpa did not stop jogging in place beside him. “They’re pretty, Tom. Now, let’s go. We’re running out of time.”
“We’re always running out of time,” he mumbled, as he fell in pace beside her.
Jhumpa either didn’t hear him or pretended not to, and Tomás felt guilty for airing yet again his constant grievance. He’d had different dreams when he and Jhumpa decided to move to the city together after graduation. It seemed so romantic—two Minnesota sweethearts off to make it big. The books and movies had lied when they’d shown young, struggling artists in love, with time to hold hands in parks or make out on bridges or play footsie in cafes. In real life, such luxuries were only for the rich. He and Jhumpa were only reliably in the same room between the hours of midnight and 7 a.m., and more often than not they were too tired or too drunk to make love.
Now Jhumpa’s steady footbeats on the pavement sounded like the ticking of a clock: thud, thud, thud, thud. His legs burned to keep time. But it grew harder and harder to strain forward as they passed a row of wooden seats, built reclining like beach chairs. Almost all of them were filled with couples basking in the last warmth of the sun: two middle aged men in Norwegian sweaters cuddled side by side; a white haired man and woman bent over the same New York Times; a young girl in denim and leather straddled her first love and dove in for a kiss. Tomás saw one chair still empty, and beside it grew another of those early flowering bushes. He wanted nothing more than to scoop Jhumpa up and carry her over to relax in the setting sun. But she was already speeding ahead of him under the shadow of an overpass.
Third Stop—Chelsea Market Public Art
Continue straight; the Chelsea Market Public Art windows are in the second tunnel on your left.
Once inside, Tomás was forced to let her gain more ground. He was staring through a wall of colored squares. Through wasn’t quite the preposition for it, but the word he needed was slightly more transparent than at. The squares were of thick glass, and they ran the spectrum from brownish red to grayish blue. The dark tones evoked a build up of pollution, reminding him that the High Line had once been a railway, built above the city to safely deliver goods to factories. And now the once commercial line had been reclaimed, first by nature then by art, as a place of rest. It seemed such a waste to rush his way along.
The windows didn’t let through much more than light, but through one square the setting sun burned a bright pink spot. Tomás couldn’t help himself; he pulled his iPhone from his sweatpant pocket and snuck a quick photo. Click!
“Tomás!” Jhumpa must have doubled back at the sound, because there she was, still jogging in place behind him. Thud, thud, thud, thud. “We promised no work today!”
“This isn’t work,” he said, holding up his phone. “I can’t use any photos I take on this.”
“That doesn’t matter! As soon as your brain’s in photo mode, I can’t reach you!
“But that’s not fair! We’re doing something physical, aren’t we? That’s your thing.”
Jhumpa had a habit of laughing once through her nose when she was angry. “That’s not what you said this morning.”
“That’s,” Tomás’ cheeks burned. “That’s different. I mean, you’re a dancer, that’s your thing. And now we’re exercising, so isn’t that work for you?”
“I can’t believe this! We’ve been saying we wanted to jog the High Line since we moved here!”
“Will you stand still, damnit? I can barely hear!”
“What’s there to hear?” If anything, she jogged harder, so that her words came out in gasps. “We get one day to spend together, and we’re wasting it arguing! If that’s what we’re going to do, then—”
“Then what?” Tomás heard his question echo in the shadow of the overpass. Jhumpa’s thudding stopped. They stared at each other, still and silent but for their breathing. Then they bolted forward, together, away from the answer.
Fourth Stop—Grass-Covered Roof
Continue straight until you come to a white building with a grass roof; it will be on your right.
Then what? Then what? The question repeated in his mind to the rhythm of their jogging feet. He tried to remember why he had fallen in love with Jhumpa. He knew it was more than her gold-brown skin and dancer’s body. But all he could think of now, with bitterness, was how obedient she was to her business. Jhumpa couldn’t relax until she’d completed every task, and once every task was completed, a new one usually emerged. If he were being fair, he knew that he was just as frustrating. His response to stress was to deny it until it was almost too late, and then finish everything in a burst of energy. For every morning she’d refuse to skip class and join him for an impromptu brunch, there was a night she’d have to spend alone because Tomás had wasted his day off and had to enter a photo contest by 10 a.m. the next day. Tomás hated to admit it, but perhaps the business of self-establishment would be easier alone?
“¡Ayúdame, por favor! Please, help!” A throaty cry shattered his thoughts. He turned towards the voice and saw a short, wide woman whitening her knuckles on the metal rail that protected the High Line walkers from the street below. Her back was to him; he could see her black and gray streaked bun tilt downwards as her eyes looked up. Tomás followed her gaze, and immediately understood the source of her distress.
About a foot from the railing rose a tall white building. It must have been used for some sort of art installation. On the level with the High Line was a balcony that had been filled with upright pieces of driftwood, and the roof of the house had been planted with grass. It was on top of that roof that a little tow-haired boy stood, looking down at the driftwood spikes below him, his mouth trembling. It wasn’t hard to understand what had happened—the driftwood forest and grassy roof must have seemed an irresistible playground, and the height the boy had scaled with ease in his excitement rose in terror now that the moment had come to climb down.
But even as Tomás saw the boy, he saw with a pulse of pride that Jhumpa was jumping the gap between the High Line and the balcony. He walked slowly up to the distraught woman and touched her gently on the arm.
“Don’t worry,” he said gently, in Spanish. He could tell from the way her cries rolled off her tongue which language she had felt most comfortable shouting in, and he had spent enough summers at his grandmother’s farm near Quito to be nearly bilingual. “Look, my girlfriend is going to get him down. She’s very athletic. It will be all right.”
“Oh, oh,” she turned towards him. Her eyes stared wide and smooth with tears, contrasting with her wrinkled face. “Oh, thank you!” With every word her voice lost volume, until the words began to tumble out in an almost whisper. “Oh, thank you. I don’t know what I’ll do if he gets hurt. Are you sure he’ll be all right? His mother will kill me. I told her I could still look after him, even after I hurt my knee, but I have no other way to work, and my own grandchildren to take care of. Oh, do you think he’ll be all right? He’s a good boy, mostly, you know. But when he gets an idea, he doesn’t understand the word ‘No.’”
Tomás could only stand with her and listen, and keep his warm hand on her shoulder. “It will be all right,” he soothed. “It will be all right.”
And it was all right, because Jhumpa had climbed over to the balcony, and was standing with her arms outstretched for the boy to jump into. She held him steady as he climbed over the balcony railing. Then they all took a breath when he jumped the gap, and landed safely. Tomás helped him back over the rail, and he ran, chastened, into his nanny’s waiting embrace.
“I’m sorry, Nanna,” he sniffled into her tummy. The woman rocked him back and forth, tears falling freely from her eyes, repeating, “Don’t you dare do that again,” and, “Gracias a Dios,” over and over in the same trembling voice.
Last Stop—25th Street Theater
Continue straight until you are above 25th Street. On your right, you will see a large wooden bench in front of a framed pane of glass that overlooks the street. Sit down in front of the screen for a while. You can then either exit at 25th St. or continue along the High Line.
Tomás and Jhumpa ran on, but now Tomás found it was easier to keep up with her. Every jog brought them closer together, until his hand brushed hers. Then she grabbed it and squeezed it tight, and didn’t let it go. Their pace slowed in unison until their run became a walk. A large rectangle of glass, like a transparent movie screen, emerged on their right and, without saying anything, they climbed onto the wooden bench that faced it.
“You were amazing,” he said, once they had settled with their arms around each other. “The way you just leapt up there and got that kid down.”
“And you,” she said, “the way you comforted that woman. You have the most amazing, calming presence.”
‘You’re so brave, decisive—“ and then their mouths found better things to do than speak.
Finally, Jhumpa pulled away, gently. “You could have told me before we left, you know, that you just wanted to stroll,” she said. “You know how I get when I psych myself up for a jog. Nothing better stand between me and my endorphins.”
“And you know me,” he smiled. “I want to want to jog, until I actually have to do it.”
She rested his head on his shoulder and they looked through the glass at the passing cars. For a moment, the bustle of the city was a film reeled for their leisure. They sat there, watching, until the night-time cold urged them to move on.