I checked the time to make sure I hadn’t arrived later than my ticket had promised. It was 4:45 in the evening but looked well into the midnight hours. It was the kind of darkness that kicks up its feet and decides to stay awhile.
After a few days of wandering through the waterfronts, alleyways, and museums of this movie set of a town, I had all the bearings I needed, or perhaps cared to.
“Are the people there nice?” I was asked when I returned. It was a predictable inquiry, one I’d come across quite a bit in my years of globetrotting.
No matter the flag flown or the language spoken, what people longed to know more than anything was simple in its prose:
Are people in other parts of the world kind?
“They’re nice enough,” I said. “They certainly weren’t unkind.”
As the last day of December approached, I tried to figure out how to ring in the new year. The angst that usually accompanied this date was absent, mostly.
It was, as my folks loved to say, “Just another night.”
I’d seen my share of fireworks and made enough toasts to make sidestepping a night of carousing a sensible alternative.
In the end, I split the difference and decided to catch an outdoor concert. Manning the one’s and two’s was a quasi-famous DJ from London who rang in the new year blaring his signature house music.
I looked around and saw mostly young men who appeared to be immigrants from Central Asia. Many looked as if they could have been my younger selves.
I thought of yet another group labeled by society to be on the fringes I could be mistaken for. Years earlier, I’d been detained in a small Wellington Airport for reasons that are still unclear to me.
A few minutes into the show I took a peek at the time. It was barely 10:00 pm but not barely cold.
Could I make it until midnight? I wondered.
What took place next was a spirited debate with myself and I.
While part of me argued New Year’s Eve in another country could be a once in a lifetime event, the other side dangled before me the comfort of a warm bed.
Undoubtedly a first world problem in another first world country.
I finally made peace, deciding it wasn’t worth freezing for two hours just to say, “I was there.”
After all, much of the solace I took in getting older was not feeling the need to make such proclamations.
And so I made my way home.
I zigged but mostly zagged my way back to Luntmakargatan Street. I thought delaying my stroll might bring a change of heart. But as is rarely the case, time didn’t tick fast enough.
As I neared an intersection I saw in the corner of my eye a young man holding a giant map. He must have been 16 or 17 years old and would have undoubtedly been robbed on the spot in a handful of cities I’d visited.
He looked so desperately like a tourist that if he’d auditioned for the part the casting director would have likely asked him to tone it down.
Just as we were about to cross paths a group of well dressed Swedes cut across like a quite stream. Surprisingly, he let them pass, deciding I might know better.
Or maybe, he took comfort in our relatable appearances; two souls undoubtedly from places other than this one.
“Excuse me, do you know how to get to Old Town?” he asked.
“Uh, yeah,” I said.
I glanced at his map before recalling such things were as foreign to me as the countries I’d traveled.
I’ll just find what I need to find,” was my unofficial travel motto. And it always worked.
Walk long enough and far enough and things come to you.
My unusual theory had worked as far back as I could remember.
My father’s mother, the world’s most devout Italian Catholic, which in itself was quite an achievement, was beginning to part ways with life. Not seeing her on this visit was simply not an option.
At that time, I knew almost nothing about how to navigate my way from Manhattan to Breezy Point, Queens. Back then phones were not particularly smart, and rarely mobile.
Yet, somehow I made it to her home where I quietly sat beside her the same way I did 6 months later at her funeral.
She didn’t say so, but I could tell she was touched by the herculean effort to see her one last time. It was a morbid understanding we shared without saying as much.
When it was time to drive home, I found my way back to the Big Apple using the Empire State Building as my North Star.
“Follow me. I’ll bring you to the street that’ll take you there. You’re going to see the fireworks, yeah?” I asked.
“Yes,” he beamed.
As we ambled through the quiet streets, he began pelting me with questions as young people do and older ones forget to.
“Where are you from? How long have you been here? Did you travel alone? What do you do?”
“I’m an actor,” I told him.
“Really?!” he asked. “Me too. I’m going to be on a series back home in Thailand.”
“That’s great,” I said.
As we reached the corner I explained all he needed to do was walk towards the music, which sounded more poetic than it really was.
“You’ll have lots of fun,” I said. “There are many young people like you there.”
“What about you? You’re still young,” he told me.
Maybe I am, I thought.
“Do you want to come with me to watch the fireworks?” he asked.
“Oh, I’m okay. But thank you very much. You go and have fun.”
I headed home still unsure of what to do for a day I’d decided was inconsequential.
As I delved back to my straying thoughts, I heard the same voice say, “Hey, do you want my phone number? You know, in case you ever come to Thailand? I can show you around.”
I nearly wondered out loud why a 17-year old boy would want to act as a tour guide for a man nearly twice his age.
But what moved me most was his genuine and unbridled earnestness. I hoped desperately he’d find some way to protect at least a sliver of that, if and when his world collapsed.
“Uh, sure,” I said.
As he typed his number in my phone I knew I’d never see him again, but feared harming the very sincerity I admired.
For a moment, I saw in him not just the same oval eyes but a reflection of who I once was, or sadly could still be —
The me that said yes to life and would brave a little cold to celebrate another year of Being.
As I inched closer to my hotel I felt a youthful spirit suddenly take hold. I turned on the feet I could no longer feel and headed towards the waterfront.
Within minutes, I was back where I started.
I looked up and saw bright red, blue, green, violet, orange, yellow, silver, and white lights dance in the blackness. I’d never heard such a beautiful raucous.
A smile slowly spread across my wearied face. Here I was, anonymous in a strange city, under a giant brisk sky, right where I was supposed to be.
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