My previous visit to the Big Apple was largely spent in insalubrious bars in the East Village.
This time, I covered more ground in my first afternoon than I had spent in a week 28 years ago. I paced through Manhattan until my aged knees showed the strain of a half century’s wear and tear. In the same bitter cold, I circled Lady Liberty on Freedom Island under whose shadow a hungry seagull snatched my beef-burger from my hand in a gesture of unwelcoming contempt. I was briefly outraged, but knew immediately that this vignette would outlast my hunger.
I passed the downtown financial district through China Town and Little Italy, back through the East Village where my hostess Liane lived, midtown to the Empire State Building, the moneyed splendour of Madison and Fifth Avenues, the museums around the park, and up to down-at-heel Harlem. My limited time didn’t allow for the contrasts of the boroughs beyond. The scale of this crowded island was only truly revealed from the 80-something stories of the Empire State Building – no longer the biggest kid in the class, but still standing with proud dignity like an esteemed patriarch amongst youthful successors.
Liane’s bachelorette pad was an ideal springboard for daily jaunts. While she worked long and hard as an immigration lawyer, she felt guilty about living in the heart of things rather than commuting from more distant boroughs like the masses. One night, she took me to a friend’s gig. The 99-cent pizza we grabbed on the way was a slice of New York life that paid her back for a few minutes of the board and lodging I was saving elsewhere. I briefly met her man-of-the-moment who was perhaps hoping for a more full-time contract of intimacy. He shook my hand before retreating as quickly back down the corridor of apartment from whence he came. He answered my questions through Liane – much as if she was interpreting our Anglo-Saxon dialects. He was off to a gig for which he dressed up in shiny patent leather shoes, shorts, and a dress shirt over which he wore a hoodie. He refused to wear a coat before braving the sub-zero temperatures. He was an accountant by day.
Overall, the behaviour of the natives was perhaps no different than before, but I was. I now found them more amenable – appreciating what set them apart, and was no longer intimidated. Confrontational conversations were now reinterpreted as communication with a refreshing directness. I warmed to the multiple cultures melding under the banner of New York – much like I feel at home within the melting pot of my London home. Now, I realised it is the homogeneity of a monoculture that oppresses me
The advantages of digital technology helped tame the confusion of unfamiliarity. Google Maps may restrict the extremes of my error-prone sense of direction, but now I studied paper maps with a sense of purpose rather than bewilderment. The logic of the city’s say-it-how-it-is nomenclature guided me with reasonable precision. The avenues and street numbers stated clearly your direction and placement with only the odd exception of a hallowed Madison Avenue or Broadway to make the rule. Only the Metros unwillingness to offer up maps for the uninitiated led to guesswork regarding destinations and routes, but I can’t begrudge the locals some advantage for the arcane knowledge earned by their longevity.