I recently swapped my familiar red buses for the exotic yellow cabs of New York. It was hard not to keep on comparing the two: whose parks are better, whose shops are bigger. But I don’t want to line them up side by side in order to go through a list ticking boxes. New York is New York. London is London. I spent a whirlwind four days in the former, and it certainly was scintillating.
Kids on the move
On a Saturday morning as I found myself breakfasting in the shade of elms in Central Park, before me ran hundreds and hundreds of people. As far as I could tell this was no organised event, simply what to do on a Saturday. Old people, young people, fat people, fit people. Not just on feet either, but on skates, blades, road bikes, mountain bikes, skateboards and longboards; a never ending stream of brown legs and white arms. It was an incredible sight. Who were the youngest? There were a few pre-teens out on family jogs. There was one boy running with his father who looked no older than 7. But there’s better – there are pushchairs whizzing along, babies bouncing while mum or dad runs. And look there! A woman is about 7 months pregnant as she jogs – albeit sedately – along the edge of the bustling park road. It felt like urbanisation hitting me in the face. We have set up our environment so comfortably that, for many, our days require no physical activity whatsoever. We must seek it out in our leisure time. At home, it might be an easy life, but on a Saturday morning in the park, from day minus-several, New York kids move fast.
His eyes never once met mine, but then, I’m not a girl. I noticed him, sure. In fact I remember counting his tattoos, they were scrawled across his arms in black, snaking out from under a short-sleeved black shirt. His hair: black too, and slick. Perhaps he worked the door of some club downtown; perhaps he’d done time. Right now, he was sitting opposite us on the red line, heading south on a sunny Friday morning.
He was intent on one thing: capturing the attention of my friend as she sat next to me. He had props, too. A pack of cards he shuffled without looking as we bumped along. He began his trick. Showed her a card from the middle of the deck, without looking himself. Not as fun, or impressive, as beginning with “pick a card, any card”, but this way there was no way to refuse. He replaced the card in the deck, shuffled, shuffled, and sure enough there was the same card again, ‘her’ card. There was no applause. Nobody shouted for more. It was a short show for an audience of one. He did not even seem to take pleasure in it. There was no smile, no showman’s glint in his eye, no relishing of the magic, or of a trick well done. Has he been fishing for girls on New York underground trains for so long that he has forgotten to charm? Has he been hardened by a glaring lack of appreciation?
Or could we have got it all wrong? Maybe he isn’t trying to pick up girls. Maybe he is trapped within some place, angry or confused at the world. Maybe the only connection to other people he has left is through the rustling of his cards. Or, maybe (yes, do be careful of projection), maybe he was a happy man practising card tricks on his way to work. We didn’t leave him behind as we got off in SoHo; we left behind our impressions of who he might be.
Views and Songs
The sights from the 69th floor of the Rockefeller centre were splendid. So too were the views from the High Line park, a very different vantage point. At just one floor above street level, 68 below Rockefeller, it sounds like it might not compete, but it does offer a serene take on the city’s goings on, whilst remaining well within them. Due to railway tracks which ran through the city in the 19th century, 10th Avenue became “Death Avenue” on account of all the accidents which occurred there. Finally, someone agreed to remove the danger to pedestrians, and built train tracks on stilts. From 1934 until 1980 trains ran up high, allowing the street dwellers the privilege of safe passage below. After abandon for almost 30 years it was opened as a public space, green and invitingly quiet. I think New York demands these places, since so many streets — lined with towering blocks on either side — see almost no sky. As I walked the path I felt like I imagine a dentist might feel: enjoying unusual views not normally seen in the course of a day (or by the viewed). I watched a repairman hanging off the back of a billboard, enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of duelling taxis, and the curves of a fire escape as it spiralled downwards. High Line reenergised me, and whet my appetite to dive back in.
That evening we ate at Ellen’s. It is a diner with a difference. Each of the waiters and waitresses has dreams of the real calling of the street on which we find ourselves: Broadway. Between serving up burgers and club sandwiches, they take to the roaming mic in turns and perform one of their chosen musical classics — from Greased Lightnin’ to Luck be a Lady. They prowl the tables with pomp and charisma, picking on a diner to sing right into his or her face, or climb up on the back of the tables where, as long as their balance remains, the stage is theirs. As the evening wore on the table service became more sparse as they flocked to join the choruses. It was wildly entertaining; and so… American. Very much like Disneyland, but this show is not contained within a theme park; it is loose in the heart of the city. Yes, it is a show, but somehow it is also real life. It is cheesy but it is uplifting. If there is an American dream still alive, I don’t know if there is any better way to picture it than by serving up fries with songs on the side, sung with gusto, sung with life.