USA October 2009 : V – New York, NY
Back in NYC on a whim
Returning to New York was impulsive. Having checked out of my Baltimore B&B, I spent the morning wandering the city, trying and failing to find any internet access; I still had in my mind the idea that I wanted to go to Boston, but in all my searching I had found nowhere to stay. In the end, I gave up and fled back to New York. Nominally, this was because I knew where there was an affordable hotel and plentiful internet, but it was a flight back to familiarity on other levels as well.
I boarded a train in Baltimore, bound for Penn Station, New York, NY; does anyone ever get used to that? The immensity of that destination? Can anywhere, except perhaps Grand Central, be so storied, so laden with myth? Even in its current subterranean concrete-bound incarnation, it comes with excitement and anticipation as standard.
On the way I had finished reading a book I’d bought back in Denton, TX, five days, two worlds and thousands of miles away. Joyce Maynard’s At Home in the World, which I had started reading whilst lying in the sleigh bed in my room in Wilson House in Baltimore, was now my companion on the journey from Baltimore to New York. As Delaware and Pennsylvania passed me by outside, I was deep in Maynard’s world. I found At Home in the World difficult, and not just because it was written around (and marketed as such) her relationship with J. D. Salinger. Maynard’s early narrative is centred around the place of women in society; she became a somewhat unwilling spokesperson for her generation courtesy of a piece in the New York Times aged eighteen. At the risk of sounding fantastically naive, I genuinely believe that I am part of a generation that is significantly less misogynistic than its predecessors, and in that sense it was hard to empathise with her; not from a lack of compassion but from an inability to understand a pre-Sexual Revolution world. Maynard is a child of her time, I am a child of mine, and her narrative is unfamiliar to those of us in danger of taking certain rights and freedoms for granted. No doubt some of my frustration came from her description of Salinger. There’s a voice in the back of my head screaming “Why can’t you understand him? He’s a genius; you have no right to be so childish in your judgments!” Then you realise that she *is* a child, and that your idol might be less than perfect and indeed really quite odd; a sobering thought for one who considers Franny & Zooey their bible.
By mid-afternoon my train was crawling through industrial New Jersey and I was scanning the horizon for the Promised Land.
Ascending from the cavernous Penn Station and straight into a queue for cabs, I felt a wash of experience, fluency; familiar sights, street numbers, gridiron plans and a subway whose lines I already knew. I’d been to half-a-dozen new places since I left New York, and to return for the first time to somewhere familiar, even somewhere as gargantuan and incomprehensible as NYC was a huge relief. Nothing new to consider, I knew where I was going and what I wanted to do, even how to do it. I checked in, had a shower and put on a clean shirt and my grey linen jacket. I stepped out into the mid-afternoon Manhattan rush, letting it wash over me as I made my way across town.
I passed that evening in Metro 53, one last dose of New York bar culture, cheeseburgers and pints of Sam Adams just too much to resist. As ever, pleasant, welcoming New Yorkers defied their stereotype to engage the tourist in conversation, and proving that the drinks-buying of my first night in New York had been no fluke. Between that and watching the first beer pong tournament I have ever witnessed in a bar, my evening was a pleasant one.
That night I lay in my room, tossing and turning, unable to rest at least partly due to the fact that I had Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” stuck in my head. Swift is, and I cannot be the first to make the comparison, the Avril Lavigne of Nashville. There’s a formula here, and it’s one that someone in Nashville learned from whoever was behind Lavigne. It involves songs that supposedly document the pretty blonde waif’s teenage years, songs set in the socially segregated world of American high school where, inevitably, our heartstrings are tugged as the protagonist is rejected in favour of someonemore popular (the delightfully awful couplet “She wears short skirts, I wear sneakers / She’s cheer captain and I’m on the bleachers” , cf. Lavigne’s “Sk8er Boi” in its entirety). We are supposed to ignore that said protagonist has transformed, in no time flat, into an ultra-confident songstress rocking an electric guitar and a new haircut. I don’t have to try very hard to be cynical about the machine around the music, but the fact remains that “You Belong With Me” is both a great pop song and an inspired piece of manipulation of the music-buying-public. Just not when it’s stuck in your head and you end up sat up in bed watching CNN at 2am trying to forget the chorus melody…
Internet cafe/deli on 23rd Street, just up from the Chelsea. Came back to NYC, couldn’t resist and was having trouble finding places to stay for a prospective trip to Boston. That may come off later on, but if it doesn’t there’s enough to keep me entertained here for years, let alone an extra couple of days. Greenwich Village and Chelsea are beautiful today, gorgeous sunshine. The skating rink in Central Park is open now, I watched the skaters this morning for ages.
I hopped from the quotidian to the profound:
New York is amazing. It has changed me already and continues to do so.
I remained for a three-day stretch taking in all the less obvious things I hadn’t done earlier, including a great deal of wandering around Chelsea, Greenwich Village, SoHo and the Flatiron District, all of which seem to blend into one another along the spine of Broadway.
“Something ’bout the buildings in Chelsea just kills me”
Counting Crows, “Chelsea”
Having run around like a crazed tourist in the first few days, I could afford to be more leisurely this time round. I spent days lazing in Chelsea and Greenwich, afternoons in Central Park, I walked for miles. Found the High Line. The High Line is, as I said at the time:
Awesome, a remarkable slice of elevated artificial grassland in the heart of Manhattan.
It’s a fairy story, an improbable success and a real draw for both locals and tourists. Such a density of enthusiast photographers I have never seen, no doubt spurred on by the work of Joel Sternfeld, the photographer whose work documented the High Line in its derelict state in 2000 and part-funded the project to turn this dilapidated stretch of abandoned elevated railroad into a city park. I didn’t know this until a kindly man with a Leica rangefinder struck up a conversation with me.
The High Line drew me further into the Village, and I wandered down Bleecker St, traversed the roads between Union and Washington Squares and got magnificently lost. This was my kind of place. Bleecker St Records rewarded my curiosity with a Counting Crows rarity (an MFSL edition of their first album of no interest to 99% of the world and huge interest to audiophiles/fans like me) a stone’s throw from Washington Square, appropriately enough.
It was having the time to do things like this that allowed me to discover a little of the spirit of the place. I returned as someone who knew their way around a little, understood the streets and the subway enough to get around without looking at a map all the time, and who had ticked off the biggest sights already.
The one glaring exception to the “no big touristy places” rule on my second pass at New York was the Empire State Building. I had to go up something tall at some stage, and it was this or the Rockefeller. With hindsight I may have made the wrong choice; I certainly can’t imagine having a worse (or more expensive) experience at the Top of the Rock than I did up the ESB; queues so long and strictly marshalled that you began to wonder if it was all some kind of sick joke, extortionate ticket prices and constant sales push on the extras that nobody wanted. It was the kind of moment that gave rise to what the British call Dunkirk Spirit; communal joking, grim smiles and mutual encouragement that it’ll be over soon, there’s an end in sight lads, don’t give up now. The best moment for sure was as a few of us were given the chance to take the stairs for the last few floors (there are two elevator rides, the first takes the lion’s share of the ride to the 80th floor, then a second one to the 86th finishes the job). Anyone young, fit or deluded enough for six flights of stairs jumped at the chance. The two women in front of me fell, it seemed, into the latter category. As they reached the end of the third flight one turned to the other and said, “Whoa, we’re halfway there.” It was all I could do not to break into song…
Still, the view from the top was good.
One of the things on my to-do list for this return to New York was to find some interesting niche shops; Manhattan has shops selling just about everything, and the aforementioned record shop on Bleecker Street fulfilled one part of this. The Fountain Pen Shop on the corner of 37th and 5th Ave was a treasure trove of a different kind. Non-fountain pen fanatics won’t get this, but part of the fun, for me at least, with fountain pens, is that there are now so many interesting inks to use. Gone are the days of your choices being limited to blue or black. So many of these are unavailable outside the States, so I wanted to take a couple home with me. Pen geeks/the perpetually curious can find out more here and here.
I had wandered past the great stone lions of the New York Public Library three or four times already, but I finally took the time to step inside its hallowed hallways. It seems astonishing that one can step off 5th Ave and suddenly be tiptoeing into grand reading rooms, down corridors that echo neoclassical colonnades. Its being only a few blocks from the Empire State Building makes it seem somehow impossibly quiet by contrast.
The next day I returned to the High Line. A couple of blocks’ wandering from the bottom of the High Line, W12th and Washington St or thereabouts, I found myself in a small, triangular cobbled courtyard (formed by W14th, Hudson and 9th Ave) in what proclaimed from every lamppost-mounted sign to be the Meatpacking District. At the top of this square I found Vento Trattoria, proprietors of pizza amongst other things. This fitted my late-lunch bill better than I could possibly have imagined. If there’s one thing I miss about America it’s the service; yes, you pay for it, but people run around after you! Scarcely had I sat down, still less had time to think anything when a menu appeared, closely followed by a glass of water, some of the finest foccacia this side of Napoli and a plate with a small puddle of rosemary-infused olive oil. To achieve this in the average UK pizzeria requires several requests and the patience of a saint, and they’d charge you for the bread anyway, making it no cheaper. I revelled in this and took in the view, then enjoyed a fantastically crispy pizza washed down with an imported Italian beer that I’d never encountered before. Consider that a recommendation.
I walked down Hudson and Bleecker, back to Washington Square and onto the subway. From the roof of The Pod I took in my final New York sunset and bade some sort of farewell to the place.
A thought on the subway: storage, laundry, gardens; New Yorkers have moved them all out of private life and into public because they lack the space. Instead they have self-storage warehouses, Laundromats and Central Park.
In a much sounder state than I’d been in when I left Baltimore, and with the easy familiarity I now had with Manhattan, I called up a B&B agency in Boston and booked three nights in a self-catered apartment in the Back Bay area. I would get my New England experience after all!
Having booked myself a train to Boston, I had to obtain the print-out barcoded online ticket reservation confirmation email (prize for anyone who comes up with a more elegant, concise way to describe these things), and that meant a return to the only internet cafe I had found with a printer available, which was on 42nd St just off Times Square. When I set off I was annoyed; why couldn’t the machine retrieve my booking from my credit card like English ones do? New York, once again, reminded me why even a menial task can become a spectacular outing when it involves walking past the Rockefeller Center, skaters and all, and another glimpse of Times Square.
There was a good feeling to New York in the latter days of October 2009. The Yankees were in the process of winning the World Series. Autumn was still mild enough to take to the streets for Halloween, and pumpkins sat on the steps of the houses of Chelsea.