USA October 2009 : I – New York, NY

Taxi to station, train to airport, plane to JFK. Gonna be a long day.

…and so it proved, and not just because I would end it 5 time zones to the west of where I began it.

5th October
Even the date is exciting today.  It’s been on the horizon for so long I feared it might never arrive.  On the 1027 EMT service to St Pancras, travelling First Class; this is the way to do it.  A whole other world.

1041
Still here.  Technical difficulties.  What a day for it!  Doing my best not to panic, but contingency plans are forming.

Movement!

After the initial hiccup, all seems to be well now.

The tone of mild dread apparent in the above was because the train was not moving.  It was a farcical scene, passengers stood on the platform wondering when the doors were going to open, then giving up and filing through the  single set of doors that did open.  Once we’d walked the length of the train to get back to our seats, we waited while 10:27 came and went and nothing happened.  Somehow, it wasn’t reassuring; just like your temperamental Windows 95 machine (remember those days!), the answer is to turn it off and turn it back on again. Trains can be rebooted apparently, and eventually this seemed to have the desired effect.

After its unnerving stand at Sheffield, my train made it uninterrupted to its destination, taking me on a journey through stations filled with memory; Chesterfield means band rehearsals, the crooked spire, dormitory hotels, the imported culture of American pizza restaurant.  Then glimpses of Derbyshire as the tourist board knew it; the Derwent and its flood plain, rolling hills, jagged outcrops of sandstone.  Then the north of Derby; Belper, Duffield.  The sites that meant home, or at least the mileposts along the way, creep into view; the Evening Telegraph, the Cathedral.  Derby will forever be coming home from university in Leeds for the weekend, Friday night or Saturday morning trains south.

This is what I was leaving behind.  That I was doing it First Class was a piece of luck that TheTrainline.com likes to deliver from time to time (although never when you need it most), in the form of very cheap 1st returns to London.  Rest assured, reader, I don’t do this often.  It is, though, a world away from the usual overcrowded experience.  Space to move, to think, elbow room and a little peace.

Finally freed from its scaffolding prison, St Pancras is once more the beautiful gateway to the capital that it should be.  To emerge into its sky-blue arch is to know you have arrived in London and feel invigorated by that knowledge.  Suddenly the years of putting up with temporary platforms and the interminable walk through the construction site barriers to King’s Cross are all worth it, because now when us Midlanders arrive in London, we have the most beautiful of all its termini, newly decorated with shops and restaurants that you might actually want to use occasionally, worlds away from the usual station fare.

Having said all that, my stay in St Pancras wasn’t a long one this time.  Touch in with my Oyster Card, silently hoping the world mistakes me for a Londoner in the process, and onto the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow.

The irony of eating at TGI Friday’s about 8 hours before arriving in New York was keenly felt, but short of champagne-and-caviar places, there didn’t seem to be much in the way of food airside at Terminal 3.  There is something deeply troubling about a spotty London teenager greeting you with the immortal American server salutation “Hello, my name is so-and-so and I’ll be taking care of you today.”  This is England; I do not want to know your name, nor do I want taking care of!  I am only here because there is nowhere else to eat and I am starving and facing the prospect of airline food.  Every detail has been replicated, from the red vinyl seats to the absurd amounts of ice in the drinks and the piping of 24-hour news channels into the dining area.  Who wants to look at the Home Secretary while eating a cheeseburger?  Still, the prospect of being able to compare it to the real thing was exciting enough to render the experience just about bearable.

American Airlines had, predictably, discarded my request for a window seat in favour of someone who had paid more for it, but a left-side aisle seat was the next best thing; anything but the middle section, where one is liable to end up sandwiched between family members and climbed over as people get out, not to mention the constant traffic of plastic trays passing across your eye line.

The Chinese-American girl in the seat next to me proved both friendly and helpful, a New York native.  Asked where I was staying, I had no idea!  A string of numbers and letters that are incomprehensible to someone who has never set foot on Manhattan before, helpfully translated with added recommendations for places to eat and drink, the nearest subway stations and a few places I might not have found in the Rough Guide.

New York City

That was interesting!  I love this city already.  After much indecision I chose a bar on 2nd called Traffic and found myself befriended by Sasha the barmaid and Will and Laura the affable New Yorkers.  Watched football.  Drank tequila.  Crazy.  You couldn’t do that in any other place…
Been up 24 hours, should really sleep…

And in an email…

Just found my first internet in NYC, distinctly dubious internet cafe/deli on East 28th/Madison. I have been here about 22 hours and it feels like a lifetime. Last night I checked in then went out for a drink, thinking I needed to stay up for a couple of hours to beat the jet lag. I got back to my room at 1am (so 6am London time…) having met, and indeed done shots with, some very friendly New Yorkers who also took the time to explain why the Packers were beating the Vikings. Best. City. Ever.

Those lines don’t really do justice to the impact that my first few hours in New York had on me.  From the moment the curve of the Williamsburg Bridge allowed me my first clear view of the Manhattan skyline, it was, as so many have said about the place before me, like watching myself in a film.  I checked into my hotel and, deciding that I

had to get out if I was to fend off sleep for a few hours, wandered out onto E 51st and right onto 2nd Ave.  After the aforementioned indecisive wandering, I ducked into Traffic, a sleek, classy-looking place that appealed.  Green, amber and red lights on a glossy black background, polished design and attractive people.  Whilst I’m not sure that it “couldn’t (be done) in any other place”, what I meant by the statement was that it wouldn’t have happened in Sheffield or London.   That within ten minutes of sitting down at the bar I was having the football game explained to me was perhaps not remarkable, but that it was in a friendly, open fashion with none of the condescension the lone foreigner might expect or deserve felt exceptional; the rest of America thinks that New Yorkers are too busy to help out strangers, especially tourists.  Not so.

United Nations from 1st Ave

6th October

Am going to have to write often if I’m going to remember all this.  Woke before 6, still adjusting to EST, and decoded (at this point the aforementioned Parker sputters the aforementioned green ink in blobs over the page; I note post flight trauma!) to walk along 1st Ave and see the sunrise.  I’d hoped to be up early enough to get to Brooklyn, but I had no idea how far that actually was.  Made it into the twenties though and looked back on Manhattan, or at least midtown.  From there I walked back to 34th and across all the way to the Empire State and Broadway.

Looking back up along the East River

Up 5th Ave to Bryant Park, from where I called home, then back again in the vain hope some shops around 34th + 5th might have opened.  Up to Grand Central and onto the subway to 51st + Lexington, a short walk back here.  I’ve seen so much already and it’s 10am on day one.  Total sensory overload, hence the retreat here for a moment to gather myself and plan my next move.

The first sight of the Empire State Building and its environs is indescribable.  If most of Manhattan feels faintly cinematic, the corner of 34th & 5th is like stepping through the silver screen and into every movie, every book, every pop song ever written about the island.  That this place actually exists comes as a kind of shock; there remained a sneaking suspicion that it was in fact a film set hidden somewhere in Beverley Hills, where animatronic gorillas

Empire State Building from the corner of 36th and 5th Ave

could climb it in peace, miniature helicopter gunships could fly unimpeded around it dissuading giant reptiles from stepping on Madison Square Garden by accident.

To find that it actually exists, close up and for real, changes you somehow.  The fear of anticlimax, that foreboding that when you walk round the corner you’re going to have one fewer of the world’s great monuments on your list.  The Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, perhaps the Brandenburg Gate or the

Houses of Parliament; in my experience at least, it’s a very short list.

It is, then, something of a letdown when you discover, at approximately 8.45am, that none of the shops open until 10.

1.35
Central Park

This day seems endless, magical.  A by-product of jet-lag-induced early rise, perhaps, but also this majestic, magnificent city.  I left the hotel and walked west, eating a mozzarella pesto panino in a public fountain garden.  Half-tripped across St Patrick’s Cathedral, which is astonishing, then the Rockefeller and Radio City.  Bought Entenmann’s cookies and apple juice at a drugstore and am enjoying them in Central Park.  There’s a sax player in the distance.

The word ‘drugstore’ might be the first obvious, self-conscious piece of American English in my journal.  It wouldn’t be the last.  Finding Entenmann’s cookies was a sudden reminder of my last trip to America, to a kitchen table in a suburb of Chicago, and another in Naperville IL.  They are magical things, and sadly unavailable in the UK, so carry a certain exotic quality for those of us who can’t get them very often.  This no doubt strikes American readers as peculiar, but there you go.

Central Park would be remarkable as a piece of parkland wherever it was.  That from the pond you can look up at 59th St makes it unique and unsettling.  Look the right way, lean against the right tree or rock and you can block it out entirely, lose yourself in this giant playground/backyard/front lawn/wilderness fantasy.  Then turn you head and the city creeps back in, silver and gunmetal checkerboards through branches or between rocks or older, yellow brick turrets on Upper West Side blocks rising over horse-drawn carriages or hired bicycles.

7th October
Washington Square

Left Central Park and, after a brief visit to Bloomingdale’s, went back down to 34th and bought boots at Macy’s, where my friend Ralph was only too happy to make my day.  Walked back to my hotel, went up to the roof for a while.  Lay down for a rest and some CNN and never got up; jet lag not quite conquered.

Got up this morning early and, with the aid of the subway, made it to Brooklyn Bridge.  Lots of photos.  Strange to see old stuff after a day in midtown.  Stone and brick again fter all steel-and-glass.  Then back on the subway, intending to go home but being tempted by Bleecker Street, where I got coffee and a Danish.  Then walked down Broadway, utterly lost the whole time it turns out (going south when I was convinced I was heading north) and taking more photos.  Another subway to 8th St and I realised how close I was to this place, I couldn’t resist.  Wrote Charlie’s postcard.

The above shows my iPod, in its cosy iPod dock in my room, and the first song I played when I plugged it in.  You trip across Simon & Garfunkel songs all the time; I couldn’t pass through 59th St subway station without thinking “Doo doo doo doo, feeling groovy”.  My parents felt the need not only to play “America” over their breakfast the morning I left, but to send me a message and inform me of this!  Simon’s music is New York music, and it was he who drew me to Bleecker Street that morning.

The temptation to go to Washington Square had to do with another songwriter, Adam Duritz.  Lead singer of Counting Crows, a band whose music has formed a more significant part of my life than the music critic in me knows they deserve.  It is precisely their appeal to the part of me that hates music critics that means they’ve stuck around as the soundtrack to my life for the best part of a decade.  The sound of their song ‘Washington Square’, the memories of a set in Hyde Park the previous summer.

MoMA cafe
3.49pm

Never been more grateful for Muji case and FLW notebook than right now.

The prices in the cafe filtered out the tourists and left, for the most part, a collection of the most painstakingly stylish people I’d ever laid eyes on. The cutlery, the glassware, the cut of the coats, the cost of the haircuts.  These, presumably, were the members that MoMA advertised for in the lobby.

Starry Night, Vincent van Gogh

Just seen Starry Night.  Call it jet lag or the shock of the unexpected, but it blew me away,  Cezanne, Picasso, Rousseau too, but I had to come out and recover for a moment.  Raspberry sorbet and orange juice overlooking 54th St.  Writing postcards.

Not sure whether to return here.  I have to spend the night of the 29th here, but I could either linger in Philadelphia or head up to Boston or somewhere.  At the moment it feels like this is the perfect introduction to the place and to come back would almost spoil it.  Still, two weeks in Middle America could change all that.

I feel remarkably at home in the E50s, I have landmarks, places to eat lunch, a bar or two, and a route to the subway.  I suppose it’s the way with some cities.  Right now I feel I could stay forever.

8th October
Esplanade

Looking out at Liberty Island.

Manhattan from Brooklyn Bridge

Did night shots on Brooklyn Bridge last night, and a quick look at Times Square.  Ground Zero this morning was disappointing in that there’s nothing to see; construction moves on apace.

Liberty and the World Trade Center seemed like an appropriate combination.

You don't take the ferry to get to Staten Island, but for the view off the back

The Pod
2.30pm

Cutest girl on the subway, late for her Political Science lecture.  Standing around at Grand Central waiting for a 6 that was really a 6, chatting.

Should I find it astonishing, in retrospect, that I had such casual familiarity with the subway lines some 48 hours after first using them?

Staten Island ferry was good purely for the views.  Ground Zero less so, in that it’s a building site.

5.25pm
Rooftop

Walked til I hit the East river.  E52st gets residential quite quickly, fuelling my wild dreams of settling in here.  Apartments for rent…

Leaving for Denver in the morning.  I’ll miss this view!

9th October

Went to Metro53, no Sasha, but drank 4 pints of Sam Adams and ate mediocre bar food whilst being flirted with by Stephanie.  All the while Andre, or possibly his friend whose name I’ve forgotten, enthused about the Stone Temple Pilots.

New York bar culture remained fascinating.  It’s one of the moments when you feel like you’ve stepped into the America of popular imagination, sitting at the bar watching the game, drinking and getting to know people.

Writing from Texas to a friend at home, a week later:

I cannot begin to explain the impact that place has had on me, so I won’t even try for the time being. It’s an amazing, perma-lively, wild, ecstatic maelstrom of a place, relentless in its appeal and sensory stimuli. Perhaps more than any place I’ve visited, I thought I could live there. At the end of four and half days, I had a subway stop, a couple of bars I liked, a place I bought lunch, a favourite spot in Central Park. Truly, I could see myself in an apartment on the Upper East Side somewhere.

I saw most of the obvious places, Empire State, Chrysler and Rockefeller buildings, the big churches, the Statue of Liberty (from the Staten Island ferry, which is close enough really), Ground Zero (which is now mostly a construction site you can’t get into), Central Park, 5th Ave with all its attractions. I shopped a bit, bought some awesome boots from Macy’s on Broadway. I took photos from the Brooklyn Bridge, I drank coffee and ate pastries, I had breakfast on Bleecker Street (which is also a Simon and Garfunkel song), I stood on the corner of 44th and Broadway (which is in a Ryan Adams song).  I went to Washington Square, which is a Counting Crows song.  Just up from Washington Square, on 14th Street, I went to Guitar Center and had a spiritual experience with a 1963 Gibson SG Junior. It was beautiful and I wanted to take it home.

New York changed me. I am, quite simply, not the same person I was before I went; I feel I can mark time in terms of before and after NYC. It is the center of so much, the focal point of the entire world in some ways, the axis of consumerism and a shining beacon of liberty, a massive, grinding contradiction. It will take me some time to fully understand my experience there.

The thing that leaps out at me upon reading this back is the word “center”.  Was it autocorrected by an overzealous American browser, or had I already begun the drift into AmEng that was inevitable?  Certainly by the time I got to Texas I was using terms like parking lot indiscriminately, and my pronunciation of schedule, croissant and tomato had been brutalised (by necessity, for the most part; it’s all about being understood!)

I was only three-and-a-half days into my New York experience, but as I didn’t know how much more time I was going to get at the far end of the trip, I crammed as much in as I could, pushing eating and sleeping into the corners to get as much living in as possible.

Speaking of eating, New York was the first place I observed that, in American cities, you will be able to smell grilling beef about 50% of the time, day or night, whether you’re surrounded by steel-and-glass sheer cliffs of midtown or the cast-iron-clad brick of lower Broadway.  Or, later, the steakhouses of Texas.

The following morning I woke early and slipped out for a pre-breakfast wander, taking the subway to 95th and ticking off another building I wanted to stand outside, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum its glorious, absurd spiral carving through the grey mist of one of Manhattan’s less magnificent October mornings.  From there I walked across Central Park, rounding the reservoir and marvelling at the number and variety of runners; New Yorkers run before work like no other people on earth, in packs, with earphones and a a joyous determination to get away from city blocks for a few moments.  I walked down the far side of the park along Central Park West down to Columbus Circle, bought my breakfast and then continued on foot back to my hotel, where I packed up and took a cab to La Guardia.  Part one was complete, I had said a morning farewell to New York City.  An entirely different world awaited me at the end of a United flight to Denver.

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