As a lover of cities—of the pavement and the steel, of the bustling shops, the rushing people—I have been wanting for sometime now to put down in words my experience of that ultimate metropolis, Manhattan.
The simplicity of that phrase—New York, New York—belies the sheer enormity of what it signifies. New York can never be just a dot on a map, a confluence of islands and waterways at the point where New Jersey, Connecticut and New York State converge. It is more than the streets that, unlike the spidery web of a medieval city like London or Paris, assert themselves on the landscape in a stark, mappable grid.
I have hesitated because I feel that my knowledge of the city, after just five visits of no more than a week each, can only be very scant. I have never left the comfort zone of Manhattan to explore any of the unique boroughs, never in fact taken myself further uptown than 104th St and the Museum of the City of New York, or to any part of the West Side above the High Line elevated park. With that disclaimer, I can only present my vision of the city as it has presented itself to me, as a place that, impudently for someone who grew up more than ten thousands miles away, I would call a kind of home.
This sense of familiarity may be experienced perhaps by anyone who has ever watched a Woody Allen film, seen the images of John Lennon’s New York years, or listened to Simon and Garfunkel’s Bleecker Street. My sense of the city was shaped by these, and by the artists and poets who comforted me through the aches and buoyed me through the highs of young adulthood. There are Catcher in the Rye and Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Summer Crossing, with its depiction of the crushing heat of New York summer. There is the broken longing of Leonard Cohen’s Chelsea Hotel #2, and the self-assured thumb biting of Bob Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’. There is the image of a young Dylan arm in arm with Suze Rotolo in Greenwich Village, warning off the cold with that iconic tan jacket and the comfort of spontaneous affection. Most of all perhaps, there is Bruce Springsteen, who revealed to me the aching, tainted beauty of an abandoned railroad track, a rusted fire escape, of rumpled sheets damp with sweat. These have been the conduits for my senses of belonging, fulfilment and voracious hunger, tying them inextricably to the idea of New York.
You cannot find New York in the hollow glare of neon lights in Times Square, nor will rising above the grid to one of the tourist-thronged observation decks reveal to you the tangible core of the city. Rather, the metropolis will gradually divulge itself through small and scattered experiences, fleeting moments and encounters. It is in the catcall of a construction worker on Park Avenue, in the warm glitter of a lighting shop window in winter, it is in the eyes of children skipping through the fountain in Washington Square.
It is a city of contradictions, made possible by the endless variety of inhabitants and the rapid and complete change in tone from area to area, street to street. It is at once harsh and warm-hearted, a place where a haughty-seeming Madison Avenue woman in fur will kindly offer directions to the bewildered tourist unasked, but a moment’s fumbling of change will earn you the terse rebuff of the convenience store clerk. Bustling and overwhelmingly frantic at any hour of the day, the city is also punctuated by serene oases and public spaces, like Bryant Park, the High Line, the main reading room of the New York Public Library, the rooftop at the Met and the courtyard at MoMA.
I have been fortunate enough to see New York under many of its guises – I have seen the city under a blanket of snow and felt the biting chill of the wind rushing down the avenues, I have seen it fine and clear and warm, cloudy, rainy, experienced the sweltering heat and humidity of July, felt the suffocating build-up of a thunderstorm and watched the clouds break, hailing a cool change. I have seen the Rockefeller Center’s Christmas tree and seen it bedecked with red, white and blue flags for the 4th of July. I have seen the doormen of the Upper East Side clad in heavy winter coats, and the children of the Village in flip-flops and swimsuits.
I have had my fill of the city’s tourist sights, museums and stores, and relished in these encounters. But my most powerful experiences of the city have been those few fleeting moments when I have stepped into the real life of the metropolis – I have plunged into the subway system in summer, where the hot air hits you with literally breathtaking force, and jostled with commuters at rush hour for a hold on the sweaty rail. I have drunk vodka on the rooftop of a block of apartments on the East Side below Midtown, with an uninterrupted view of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State, steadily glowing green on a warm, clear evening. I have sat in a bar in the Lower East Side on a Sunday night and joined in conversation with the local residents who dropped in for a solitary beer and the company of the bartender, aware of their cliché.
To return each night to a nondescript hotel room after these moments of urban participation, passing glimpses of an alternate life through the open blinds of lit apartments or the rolled-down windows of yellow taxis, fills you with an unutterable sense of longing. It is a love affair for which the end is already mapped out. It is as if you had borrowed, for a brief time, a friend’s diamond necklace or expensive car, and felt the thrill of admiration and the inner-glow that it affords you, and that now must be returned. You can only hope that one day, you will be able to cast off the pall of pretence, and call those pavements, those bits of brick and tufts of grass, and that skyline, just a little bit, your own.