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In New York City, following in David Bowie's footsteps

Allow at least two hours to explore the exhibit's costumes, original artwork, photographs, videos and custom audio mixes. (Photo for The Washington Post by Kristen Hartke)
Allow at least two hours to explore the exhibit's costumes, original artwork, photographs, videos and custom audio mixes. (Photo for The Washington Post by Kristen Hartke)
Published May 23, 2018

NEW YORK

There are few artists who merit a true pilgrimage — a concerted attempt to walk in the footsteps of greatness — but if there's one luminary worth traveling for, it's David Bowie.

With the final stop of the Victoria and Albert Museum's experiential "David Bowie Is" retrospective exhibition now on view at the Brooklyn Museum, I knew a pilgrimage was in order. But rather than simply fit a museum visit into a typical day trip to New York City, I wanted to plan a visit that would allow me to see New York as Bowie did. New York was the place where he found stability after a restless, decades-long search for both comfort and anonymity within the confines of art and fame.

Bowie, who died in 2016, highlighted his penchant for walking the streets of Manhattan, particularly in the early morning hours, in a 2003 article for New York magazine. "The signature of the city changes shape and is fleshed out as more and more people commit to the street," he wrote. "A magical transfer of power from the architectural to the human."

I devoted a single, intense day to my pilgrimage, scouring through Bowie's interviews to not only get a sense of the places he frequented in New York but also to try to imagine what his routines might be. I decided to set off from Washington Square Park a few blocks from his home. Bowie referred to the park as "the emotional history of New York in a quick walk."

Circumnavigating the park, with its famous triumphal arch, allowed me to settle into the rhythm of people-watching, something at which I suspect Bowie was adept. Old men arguing politics, municipal workers resting on a bench, moms drying the tears of crying toddlers all populated my vision as I strolled toward Caffe Reggio, just southwest of Washington Square.

Frequented by Bowie, it's a pleasingly cluttered spot where they've been serving up cappuccino for close to a century. It was easy to imagine him tucked into the alcove — somewhat unexpectedly graced by a bust of Queen Nefertiti — perhaps reading a book he had picked up at McNally Jackson Booksellers, just around the corner from his home. That's at 285 Lafayette St., in Lower Manhattan's Nolita neighborhood, where Bowie lived with Iman, his wife of 24 years, and daughter Lexi.

Fortified with caffeine, I turned my steps toward the perpetually traffic-clogged block he lived on, taking a few moments to stand in front of the building and crane my neck for a glimpse of his rooftop home. I tried to imagine how he might stop for a chat with the doorman in the lobby before heading out on the 10-minute walk down nearby Prince Street to Olive's takeout shop just in time to grab a sandwich for lunch. Bowie's favorite was reportedly grilled chicken with watercress, followed by a warm chocolate chip cookie. While I opted for the roasted shiitake mushroom and goat cheese sandwich, that cookie was, indeed, on point.

With a 3 p.m. timed entry for the exhibition in Brooklyn looming, I hopped onto the C Train at Spring Street to head down to the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian walkway near City Hall. Catching a ride on New York's subway system is, actually, an appropriate addition to spending a day in Bowie's shoes. The Scottish novelist William Boyd once wrote in Harper's Bazaar that Bowie revealed to him, somewhat delightedly, that he was able to navigate New York's public transit system anonymously by carrying a Greek newspaper, thereby convincing curious subway riders that he was just some Greek guy with a remarkable resemblance to the Thin White Duke.

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It wasn't until I stepped onto the pedestrian walkway that I finally popped in some ear buds to listen to Spotify's "David Bowie's New York" playlist while on the 1.1-mile walk across the East River. I don't know if Bowie ever walked across the Brooklyn Bridge — he did tend to avoid tourist areas — but I like to think that he made the trek at least once, maybe at dawn, to watch Lower Manhattan wake up through the weblike cables attached to the bridge's two towers.

Once in Brooklyn, the exhibition I had wanted to see since it first opened in London in 2013 was finally within my grasp.

This wasn't my first time hitting the road in pursuit of David Bowie. The summer of my 16th year, I donned a brown polyester uniform five days a week and trudged up the street from my parents' apartment to sling biscuits and mix up dehydrated mashed potatoes at Kentucky Fried Chicken. For other teens, this job might have been to fund a car or a new wardrobe or to save for college; for me, it was all about Bowie.

It was 1983 and I was unabashedly, unashamedly what people called a Bowie Girl, to the point that I even wrote my 11th-grade honors English term paper about the many diverse literary influences behind Bowie's lyrics. (I got an A+.) As the "Serious Moonlight" tour crisscrossed the globe, the closest it was going to get to my home in Florida was Texas; a friend of mine had just moved to Houston, so I cadged an invitation to visit in mid-August and started saving my hard-earned fried chicken money for plane fare and concert tickets.

Rather than a pilgrimage, that particular trip turned out to be a bit of an odyssey, a classic quest marked by adversity — primarily Hurricane Alicia, which slammed into Houston three days before Bowie's arrival, knocking out power and water, flooding the streets, blowing windows out of the skyscrapers looming over the concert venue. I lost sleep with worry that the concert would be canceled, but the show did indeed go on, complete with the man himself dressed in suspenders and baggy trousers while belting out Let's Dance to Lenny Pickett's soaring saxophone solos. I may have shed a tear or two (thousand).

This time around, my heart skipped a beat as I walked up to the Brooklyn Museum, knowing that 400 items from the David Bowie Archive were waiting inside, providing an exceptional glimpse into the creative process of an artist whose work I have followed since my tween years when he was writing concept albums in Berlin. Museum attendants handed out headphones for the multigenerational crowds to wear while moving through the exhibit, immersed in interviews and music. We pored over hand-drawn stage designs and diary entries, surrounded by original "Aladdin Sane" costumes made by Kansai Yamamoto, video projections spanning five decades and a demonstration of the custom text randomization software Bowie co-invented to help combat writer's block.

I'll admit it: Tears were shed again, and not just because I logged 8 miles on foot during the course of the pilgrimage. Besides, a Bowie-inspired cocktail from BKW by Brooklyn Winery at the end of the day took care of any residual aches and pains.

When the touring exhibit was originally conceived years ago, Bowie is said to have maintained a hands-off approach with curators with one exception: The tour would begin in London and end in New York, a request that mirrored the trajectory of his own life. Perhaps this was a gift from Bowie to his adopted hometown as thanks for welcoming him into the family, for allowing him to walk the streets of Manhattan as a citizen, not a legend.

Kristen Hartke is a writer based in the District of Columbia.

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