At the beginning of spring break last year, I visited New York City for the first time. After hopping off the 5 a.m. train with my friend, we started our journey through the city by visiting landmarks such as the Empire State Building and Grand Central Station. Eventually we became frustrated with the cold and spent a couple of hours touring the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We made our way to Times Square, and by a great stroke of luck we even got to see my team, the Charlotte Hornets, play my friend’s New York Knicks later that night before heading to his house upstate.
When I excitedly shared these experiences with my friends from Hopkins, most responded with an underwhelmed, “That’s all?” In their minds, we should have done much more.
However, I had left out the most memorable part — spending three hours in Bryant Park. It was an experience that came about through pure luck; it wasn’t something we did but something that happened to us. Following our anxiety-inducing walk through Times Square, we settled on a bench in Bryant Park with a view of several people playing ping pong on a public table.
On one side of the table was a calm 20-something yuppie who fully embodied Brooklyn’s hipster revival aesthetic. On the other side was a man in his late 30s or early 40s, whose extreme competitiveness was a clear compensation for the pounds he had packed onto his formerly young and athletic body.
To the side, serving as referee until it was his turn, was a retirement-age man, who seemed to mediate between the two players’ opposite personalities. He was the glue of the group. Finally, on the bench next to the table, was an enigma of a man. Clad in full leather, he rarely spoke. He never joined in and played a game; he was just there to watch, but it was clear he was a recurring member.
After a while, the Brooklyn yuppie left, but he was almost immediately replaced with another younger man, whom we called The Prodigy. He immediately went to work demolishing his competition. His baggy sweatpants and fingerless gloves showed he meant business.
As we watched them play, socialize and interact with passerby, they evolved into their own characters. They all came from vastly different areas and stages in life, and yet they formed a tight and seamless group around this one interest. They never once referenced any interaction they had outside this setting either. They existed as a group only in this public space, but there was still a strong sense that this was an everyday activity for them.
I consider this moment priceless. Just by sitting back and letting something come to us, I learned more about New York City and its residents than anything else I could have done.
This year, the same friend and I went roadtripping across the Northeast for spring break, spending eight nights dorm-hopping from one college to the next. We took this lesson from last year and made sure to leave ourselves enough time in our plans to let experiences come to us. This led to everything from watching sea lions in Boston, to driving through a snowstorm to get a famous Rochester “garbage plate,” to discovering the existence of Crocs platform shoes.
We spent an afternoon pretending to be Brown students, which led to the secret-agent-esque mission to figure out which doors we could open while still blending in. Before going to a watch party at Syracuse for March Madness, we went to a College Democrats and Republicans debate. Why? Why not? These experiences were weird and completely pointless, but they are also the things that made our trip one of the most memorable I have ever had.
On my return to Hopkins, I couldn’t stop thinking about how this applies to my time on campus. Here, the pressure to be doing something is taken to its extreme. What have I missed out on when I was too busy refining my resume? Who did I not meet when I was focusing on raising my GPA a tenth of a point? What passions did I never find because I was already trying to force my life down the path I have pre-determined for it?