Hello interwebs! For this week’s article, I have a story for you:
Two years ago Justin and I went on an impromptu expedition to New York state on the pretense of mining for diamonds (I’ll explain that momentarily). Today I break down what we learned in our 3 days abroad: namely, the mythologized idea of New York City is vastly different to the NYC reality. Our documentary film Two Hosers: Three Days in New York serves as a comedic look at a haphazard weekend getaway, but it also showcases the goofier version of stories more tragic than our own.
Disclaimer: We aren’t trying to offend Americans or New Yorkers or stir up tension. We’re aware a lot of you out there have national/ local pride. This article also isn’t meant to overgeneralize about American people. Our documentary and this article are entirely based on one (bad) weekend my friend and I had in the Big Apple, plus a lifetime of being neighbours to the United States. That said, if you are a strong patriot and might be angered by what we have to say, maybe don’t read further than this. If you do, remember we’re just a couple of guys from rural Ontario with opinions (more philosophical than political if that eases concern). It’s OK if your opinions don’t entirely align with ours.
Also: ***SPOILERS AHEAD FOR TWO HOSERS: THREE DAYS IN NEW YORK***
Up top I promised an explanation of why we decided to go diamond mining, so here’s a little background info: this was actually the second mining trip Justin and I have done together. Our first mining adventure was a four hour drive to Northern Ontario; this one was down to New York state. Both of these trips had a few commonalities: they were almost completely unplanned/ unorganized, crammed into long weekends and resulted in potentially dangerous situations. Though I’m sure this sounds like an absolute nightmare for some people (I’m generally a planner myself, so I get it), Justin and I have found that a “go with the flow” malleability for trips like this may increase our chances of adversity but it also usually leads to better stories.
Many people think of mining for valuable gems and minerals as a full-time, grueling job that brave adventurers uproot their lives for (ala the various goldrushes). This is all true. However, there exist a few special places in North America where average citizens may come and try their luck at mining. Sometimes these places work by donation, are completely unsupervised and leave the miner to bring their own equipment (like the Ontario location we visited), and others operate as a business where hobbyists visit for the day and try their luck (like the place we went to in New York). If you get the chance and don’t mind a little labour, I highly recommend trying one of these places out. It’s a lot of fun!
Getting back to our story now… Most of our friends declined this particular adventure for various reasons, leaving Justin and I alone for the trip. Nervous, yet full of ambition, we set out to America with the barest bones of a plan. Though we only had three days to explore the States and be back home, we were set on visiting Boston, New York City and the diamond mine. Like I said: we were ambitious. From the very beginning, we decided to document all our experiences and create a video of the best parts. Initially, our subject was to be the mining excursion and our attempts to discover valuable gems, but that thread only ended up being a small section of the larger narrative web.
The real subject of our documentary turned out to be the way NYC lures in curious individuals (American citizens and foreigners alike) with the promise of opportunity and mythological iconography only to take their hard-earned money, crush their idealism and send them back home when they have nothing left to offer… Going back to the web metaphor, NYC (ie. the realistic culture) is a spider and Justin and I fell like flies into its trap (ie. the idealistic culture). Now, a spider is not a bad creature for living up to its nature, and its hunter instincts are why it survives, but it still really sucks to feel like prey.
Before going further, I want to make clear that this is far from the first time Justin and I have visited the US. However, this is the first time we’ve been without prior planning or a clear destination. This trip allowed us to see a slightly less “touristy” side to the country than we’ve grown used to.
We were struck early on in our trip while driving through New York state and seeing a myriad of abandoned houses along the countryside. Ontario has its share of run-down buildings, but rarely are they outright abandoned, and absolutely nothing on this scale. Maybe this is more an issue in the north-eastern US. I don’t know. But the image of these houses/ properties made an impression on us. To me these places represent the abundance of people who sought to climb up the American cultural ladder only to fall off it.
Anyway, after 10+ hours on the road, we finally reached the diamond mine. The work, as I mentioned previously, involved some labour, but it was a rewarding afternoon! We had a lot of fun smashing rocks, sifting through dirt and getting excited every time we saw a glimmer. Later on, we did some more research and realized that our finds were not technically diamonds but rather “Herkimer” diamonds, which are similar but really more like quartz (in other words, they might pay off the equipment we rented for the mining, but that’s about it). That was disappointing but we were still happy with our finds. I can’t help but draw comparisons between our encounters and other idealistic folks who work to find riches in the US only to discover the opportunities are more limited than initially thought (eg. you work for diamonds and are lucky to come out with Herkimer diamonds).
It was on the highway, after our mining, where we made the decision to scrap the detour into Boston. We were already tired from 15 hours on the road and determined it would be better to see as much of New York as we could than spread our time thinly. Just in case people are starting to think my disclaimer was false and this is going to be all anti-US/ New York sentiment, I happen to love Boston. I’ve been before and it’s a beautiful city from what I’ve seen.
So, late into the evening, we found a hotel in New Jersey and tried to get a room for the night. I talked with the concierge while Justin grabbed our bags. It was at this moment the concierge asked me if me or my friend happened to be 21… I was immediately filled with dread at this question (we were only 20 at the time) because I didn’t think this would be a problem. I knew 21 was legal age to drink in the US but I hadn’t even considered this was the age to stay in a hotel too. I waited for an intense moment while the concierge consulted her manager, and then was met with the relieving news that we could stay. Part of me still wonders if the fact we paid in cash and had enough for a large deposit had anything to do with the decision… This was a moment of “culture shock” for me because, in Canada, reaching the age of 18 opens up pretty much every door (except alcohol and casinos). To enter a hotel and be met with suspicion like I was a effectively still a minor was really weird.
If Day 1 was OK but somewhat strange, Day 2 was a wakeup call to the absurdities of New York. The morning started well enough with a drive through New Jersey. We eventually reached the ferry which would take us to the Statue of Liberty! Our first view of the New York skyline was gorgeous and inviting. I even started blaring Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” from a CD I just happened to have in my car. The song perfectly set the mood for the day. We were excited to step on the ferry and visit Ellis Island/ Liberty Island. But before we got on, Justin and I couldn’t help but notice once more how run-down the buildings in the area were. We could tell they must have been beautiful and vibrant places maybe 50-60 years ago though. This made us sad. We felt like we were standing in the remains of a former civilization (I’ve been in a few such places over the years). What made it all the more creepy was that the civilization was still living around us.
Moving on… Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty lived up to their reputations! The statue, in particular, was inspiring! How many people have looked upon that same landmark and felt that surge of optimism which comes from new beginnings and possibilities? But THEN we got to New York City itself and those feelings quickly dissipated.
Our good mood was tempered as soon as we had to pay $15 for entry into the Holland Tunnel… Because we had to make that big deposit at the hotel the night before (which we hadn’t accounted for), and we didn’t want to take all our money into the city in case we got mugged or pick-pocketed (which we did account for) and we had to pay this toll (another thing which we hadn’t accounted for), we came into the city with less than $30 between the both of us… And, yes, I’m aware, that’s not a lot.
Less than a few minutes in the city and we were already being honked at constantly. I think it was something like 30 times in the first 5 minutes. The drivers were terrible and everyone was stupidly impatient. Here Justin and I thought Toronto traffic was bad. The streets were also poorly paved, the air smelled like sewage and the buildings were all ugly. Nice-gloves off now– the place was a dump… We wanted to like New York City so much! But our expectations were out the window within the first 10 minutes. They didn’t get much better throughout the afternoon.
We grabbed lunch at Tom’s Restaurant (the Seinfeld place) and then took a walk. Justin and I strolled over 80 blocks of Manhattan Island that day! Along the way, we started feeling the city’s vibe a little better. It definitely has personality. At the same time, basically everybody we saw looked miserable. Along the way Justin got drawn over to a little clothing stand and spent $7 on a hat… Considering we had so little money, I didn’t know if that was necessarily a good idea, but he seemed to like it.
Speaking of merchandise, our next stop was Times Square! A giant venue dedicated solely to corporate advertising and flash sounds like a distinctly American space to me. Too bad all the bright lights and distractions make a good opportunity for pick-pockets. Justin felt no less than 2 hands try and reach into his jacket pockets, and we were only there for 15 minutes! I got luckier, thankfully. At least Justin had inner zippers for his jacket.
From here we visited the iconic Empire State Building. We were unimpressed… The building was big, but dull. And we were shocked to find that there was no fanfare surrounding it. We thought for sure there’d at least be something there for tourists such as ourselves but I guess not. One thing this trip made us realize is that New Yorkers don’t seem to appreciate the value of tourism.
Darkness began to creep in by this point, so we decided this was a good time to head back to the hotel. We hopped the subway and rode up 80 blocks to 116th st (where our car was parked). However, we accidentally navigated the subway wrong and ended up on East 116th street, right in a notoriously dangerous section of Harlem… And to get where we needed to go, we had to cross through a little place called Morningside Park. What we didn’t realize till’ we looked up the statistics for this place later is that muggers have been known to kill people and then take their wallets as opposed to simply threatening murder. There were over 20 muggings and a couple murders reported at the park within just the previous year. And here we were going in fearless because we only had $8 between both of us…
The funny/ scary thing is, the situation could have been worse had we not picked correctly on a seemingly arbitrary 50/50 decision. A few paces into the park from where we entered, there was a fork in the path. One way would have taken us straight to the ghettos (though we didn’t know that at the time), and the other way led up a sketchy set of stairs. To make matters worse, coming down the staircase route was this creepy guy who really put Justin and I on edge. We were paranoid already, but this guy’s slow, methodical walking and haunting singing made us fear we were about to be murdered. When the man passed us by without incident (not to expect the worst of people but, like I said, the area has a reputation) we ultimately decided to take the route he came by. Thankfully this led up to Columbia University (and back to our car). Oh yeah– another thing we later discovered is that there is a guard on the Columbia university side whose sole job is to warn students not to go into Morningside Park at night. Too bad we were coming from the other side and didn’t know the potential threat level till’ we were already out.
On a slightly unrelated note, Justin and I couldn’t help but notice that there is a literal wall dividing Harlem from Columbia university. Harlem is placed on a lower level of the city and it seems the deadliest dangers and crime stay down there as well (judging by the relative affluence on the upper side of the wall). Even at the time, we felt that this was not accidental. It just seems too coincidental that the racialized and poorer neighbourhood appears to be separated by the very layout of the city. This is yet another strange observation from a couple of outsiders.
Going back to our experience now– imagine our song “Weedman of Morningside Park” (from the documentary) from the perspective of a naive newcomer to NYC (or as an American from a safe/ secure community visiting a big city for the first time):
One night in Harlem we were walkin’ through the streets
Eight dollars in our pocket, hadn’t had nothin’ to eat
We were tired and sore cause we’d just strolled eighty blocks
And we’d spent the last day in New York minin’ for diamond rocks
So here we were in Harlem, we were wanderin’ to our car
Took a quick innocent trip through Morningside Park
Didn’t find out till later lots of people get mugged here
Prob’ly should have been quite obvious we should have stayed clear
But at the time we were naive, felt we had nothin’ to fear
Cause we didn’t even have enough to afford a buck a beer (thanks Doug Ford!)
Not that it mattered cause we weren’t 21
But down in America we could still have bought a gun
Might have come in handy, but didn’t mean to digress
It’s just that walkin’ through this park caused large amounts of stress…
etc. The rest of the song mostly serves to complete the literal story, but the main point is made within these first lines. We wrote the song to be a comic retelling of what we felt was a scary situation (parks after dark are sketchy in general, let alone one in an area with a reputation for crime). However, as I re-examine the lyrics, I find that the bitterness of our experiences over the days previous is embedded in there as well.
In just two days we were treated with suspicion at every turn (from border security to restaurant employees); we felt cheated because our money and labors didn’t go as far as was expected (because of all these random tolls and the fact that we didn’t find real diamonds); we were disappointed that world famous landmarks were treated with neglect (we also hoped that they’d be “bigger” as we joked multiple times in the video); we explored a smelly, grimy dump of a city (with a literal wall dividing the races/ classes); we were nearly pick-pocketed multiple times, and to top off our second day we accidentally wandered into a place where the criminals are known to shoot first and then rob you… .
The narrative we’re sold about New York (and, by extension, urban America) is not the reality. For a country which prides itself as so great, my Canadian eyes saw a lot of neglect and poverty in places I imagine were once amazing to visit. Our tourist story is like the comedic version of a bad immigrant experience (or that of rural American citizens who move to urban areas). The United States brands itself on the notion that hard work equals riches and new beginnings are possible, but really the system just takes what you have and stops caring once you’ve got no more to contribute.
With little resources left, Justin and I (and many others) packed up our belongings and went home. “New York, New York” was a sentimental and beautiful song to listen to when Justin and I first saw the city skyline, but by the last scene of the documentary we sang it with irony. It’s an amazing song to describe the worst city I’ve ever visited. Two Hosers: Three Days in New York is a fun and decently entertaining trip documentary, but it also clearly shows how just three days in New York broke Justin and I down until we were too annoyed to care anymore.
Till next time.
Check out Two Hosers: Three Days in New York on Thought Plane Media’s Youtube channel. Link below!