New York, IRL
I touch down on new snow and catch a glimpse of New York’s skyline from the train into the city. Nothing really prepares you for the beauty of this – even though I’ve seen this so many times before on celluloid, in photographs – the visual impact hits like a punch to the solar plexus. The first thing I do at the apartment is dump my bags and off we go, into the dusky twilight of New York City on Christmas Eve.
There are roasted chestnut sellers, hotdog vendors, touts selling tickets, makeshift stalls hawking bags and watches and jewellery, tourists crowding the streets and lights, movement, noise everywhere. The city ensnares me in her claws, tosses me in a maelstrom of bright sounds and flashing sirens and the smell and breath of other people jostling shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalks.
There is steam venting from the apertures in the roads and monstrous buildings hulking next to faux Renaissance façades. I slip amongst the crowd, watch the grey, blue, white clouded skies, count blocks, swipe in and out of the steel grey subways, hail yellow taxicabs, read passer-bys from shop windows, drown in accents, cross streets wearing a red beret and black boots. How can I bring a city to life with just words? How to encapsulate the brilliance that is New York; how to even begin? I soak her in; her smog, the dirt of her underground, the harsh light of her nights, the brash, loud noise of her constantly everywhere. I am in love with this city, and stumbling shy like any lover might, I am tongue tied and overwhelmed by the hard and glinting beauty of her.
I lose my heart to NYC, walking in her streets, the first night, within the first hour that I am here. I want to tear into the soul of her, eat into the core of this city, bury my self into this great glittering beast. I want to walk her streets and wear her smoke and shadows like a second skin. Shall I reduce my adventures down alleyways and along sharp turns and on boats and in cabs to pithy one-liners, sentences that will never wholly do this city the justice she rightly deserves?
Big sights in the big city
I visit all the tourist sights – the Rockefeller Centre, with its huge tree and angels out front; the Empire State, wreathed in season colours; down the bright lights and bustle of the shrines of consumerism on Fifth Avenue; the neon colours of Times Square; past the skating rink at Bryant Park; into the warren of subways I keep erroneously calling the “tube”; ramble loose and lost in Central Park’s wintry aloofness; down to Wall Street and South St Seaport; across Brooklyn Bridge; join the crowds gawping at Ground Zero; linger at MoMA and the Met; catch the ferry to Liberty Island to pay my respects to The Lady; explore Chinatown, Nolita, Tribeca, SoHo and Greenwich on unknowing feet. I do all this, but it is the moments that come back vivid and alive to me; moments that have nothing to do with anything as tawdry as sights and everything to do with the pulsing, dancing beat that is the heart, the essence and soul of New York City.
It’s sitting on a park bench watching hippies, tourists, children and parents and old men who take off their hats at Strawberry Fields; who lay roses gently on the mosaic plaque with “Imagine” spelled out in black and white. It’s a city wet with rain, roads slick with reflections, with anticipation, tense and quivering and slippery like unvoiced dreams. Look up, face the sky and the falling drops, watch as New York lights up for you, and me – lights up her skyline for us all, each distinctive shape recognisable against the taste of smog and smoke on my lips; the Empire State, the Chrysler, my favourite!
New Yorker by nature
I sip cocktails in a lowlit, highroofed bar; there is a giant buddha and golden carp swimming in pools by my feet and on raised platforms. Its 2am and we’re eating dinner, having just come from the theatre – or as New Yorkers call it – a show on Broadway. We’d made dinner reservations for midnight, and accepted it as entirely the usual to be doing so. There is a 24 hour diner around the corner from the apartment; I eat there a couple of times. There is comfort in the lino counter, the leather cracked seats, the comfortable, homely booths. There is some measure of familiarity afforded in the burgers and cheese fries and milkshakes we order – what else, if not this, is America and American ideas composed of?
I ask for the bill, realise I am unintelligible, change my way of speaking, pick up words like check cell sidewalk fantastic and kaw-fee. I buy eggnog latte from Starbucks on an almost daily basis, because New York cafes have the worst coffees I have ever had the honour of tasting. I stand in line for the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and eat bagels smothered in cream cheese on the run. I tip badly – either too much, or too little. Every corner I turn, every street I walk; there is a tableau, an emotion, an all-too-human drama being played out, a memory, a word association, a glitz, a glamour. New York City is vibrant and throbbing and alive with possibility.
I catch up with old friends in a new city – I have not seen some of these friends of mine for months and it feels good, it feels like a homecoming, to be able to catch up with them all again. I eat “dirty water hot dogs” from dirty water hot dog stands, discover the joy of caramel coated popcorn Cracker Jacks, forget about American portion sizes when ordering, fine dine on oyster, salmon, and guilty desserts in slinky restaurants. I walk home in the cold, crisp night air hardly believing I am threading the streets of New York.
I drink with friends of a friend; we are in a shabby, red velvet-lined underground lounge. The chairs are a mishmash of wooden fall-aparts, misappropriate fold up theatre sits, a gilded, threadbare Louis XVI reproduction, couches lined with beaded cushions. The lampshades hang heavily adorned with crystals that refract the candlelight. There is the slight scent of mildew, of careworn carpets and old cigarettes and smoky jazz notes and incense. The conversation clinks and crashes like new golden coins in a glass bottle – “welcome to the family” they say as I laugh with them, as we share new-old stories, new-old hopes and history. There is that frisson that comes from meeting newness head on; suddenly the paths converge and collide; suddenly there are new worlds to be explored, new words, new heads and hearts from new friends.
We discover a breakfast place near NYU, a tiny, cramped, wooden little jewel which serves the world’s best hash browns and salmon hollandaise breakfast. There are market stalls and Japanese, Korean, Nepalese restaurants lining the tiny streets. There are gems of shops selling everything and nothing in small nooks and crannies of New York. I find Starry Starry Night by Van Gogh and stand in worship for long, blissful minutes. There are Renoirs and Rembrandts and Seurats and Monets and Gaugains to pay homage to, and the white, airy space inside MoMA. I derive a delicious thrill of pleasure from the free admission tickets I procure with help from my corporate friends with corporate discounts – art should be free to all, surely?
I watch Les Miserables on Broadway and cry at the end; at the beautiful, amazing voice of the lead actor, at my favourite song that Epony sings about loneliness. I lose myself in the streets of downtown Greenwich; unnumbered, twisted, filled with new surprises and the smells of good things baking and understated, expensive shops. I fall in love and come back again and again. The Lady of Liberty is beautiful. She is gently coppered and majestically tall, she is everything one expects and like nothing you think you know, in real life. She welcomes “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse from other teeming shores, the homeless, the tempest-tost; she lifts her lamp beside the golden door.”
We go to a jazz gig, shuffled up close to each other and the rest of dirty humanity in a dark, low, joint; there is a trombone and two sax players and a piano. I eat cheesecake with strawberries and drink earl grey tea and order a cocktail – I feel entirely too New York as I listen to the brass improvs and as the piano trips its way back to the original progressions. I am drowning in music, and eating cheesecake in a jazz bar with new, old friends.
New Year, New York
I stalk the city on the cusp of a new year. There are revellers in glitter hats, and girls in tiny scraps of clothing and boys strutting like peacocks. Stern faced cops patrol the sky blue wooden barriers as one street after another closes behind us. We head away from the bright lights and certainty; we go downtown, towards my favourite bendy lanes and named, not numbered, streets, into unlettered bars and pubs filled with anonymity, the better to lose ourselves in. There is nothing I could add to this mix of electric possibility and the excitement and beauty of this city poised to dance; on the edge of a panoply of sound and movement.
The countdown finds me at a private party of a friend of a friend of a friend who knows somebody who said this would be a good place to be. There is free flowing champagne, and canapes and party hats and noisemakers. Everyone is from New York, and aside from my crew I know no one well and only a few people in passing. There is a massive dance floor and I dance with strangers, chase the rapture, usher in the new year wearing a blue hat. It is a good way of spending the hours just before 2008 – with someone who matters, in a city I am entirely head over heels in love with.