From the Archives // And That Was New York

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.

Advertisements

Essay // Boston: The town that was my home

IT SEEMS LIKE AN APT TIME to be thinking and writing about Boston. I spent a year living in that city as part of a university exchange to Boston College in 2010. It was perhaps the year that—when memory flashes—causes in me the most chest-wrenchingly mixed sense of nostalgia, regret, and fondness. I am, as clichéd as it sounds right now, grieving for Boston.

I am grieving for Boston on two fronts. One is obvious—attacks of terrorism on lands familiar cannot but spawn in us a sharp pang of pain, a jolt of fear, and a strangely sad gladness at the stoicism, sense, and quick-witted kindness of strangers under fire. I am horrified to think of nail-ridden bombs exploding steps from where I used to spend much of my spare time, maiming people like me, killing eight-year-olds, denying so many the ability to walk, to dance, to just be as they were.

The second way in which I grieve for the city is more personal, and perhaps not of significance to others reading my words. Yet it must be said, for I cannot believe that it means nothing if it means so much to me. Boston will always hold a ‘place in my heart’—if I may be permitted so maudlin a phrase. I flew out of Logan Airport on a cold, snowy day, and have never since been able to quite put down in words my feeling of the city. New York, on the other hand, I cannot keep quiet about; I have had no trouble writing about my love for that metropolis and I am apt—when asked about my time in America—to speak of Manhattan more than of the town that was my home.

I suspect this is because I cannot say my experience of Boston was entirely positive. 2010 was the year in which I learned the nature of fickle female friendships. I learned it hard. Alongside intimacy, fun, and a new level of low-key being (it’s all about jeans and yoga pants in Boston, literally and metaphorically), I learned loss, embarrassment, anger, and the sheer confusion that accompanies social calamity.

I flew into Logan on as cold and snowy a day as I left, yet from winter to winter seemed no time at all. I loved that city, as I swayed from prim middle-class Catholic households to bad pubs populated with those who liked to call themselves Irish, to pristine Cape Cod beaches, to pizza shops, Tex-Mex, and ATMs that accept cheques. When I think of Boston, I think of classes taught by inspiring ex-Harvard professors. I think of the shops on Newbury Street, the beautiful public library, the gardens in spring, the uneven brick paths of Beacon Hill and the houses whose windows I tried so hard to peer into and place myself within. I think of small things—my first ice hockey game, the convenience store opposite the college campus, the walk from share-house to classroom in the morning winter snow and in the afternoon summer sun, holding hands with boys I could never see again, and smoking my first cigarette in the garage of a friend.

I remember sitting on the curb of Commonwealth Avenue watching the runners on Marathon Monday. College kids sipped from sour lemonade bottles laced with vodka and egged on their competing friends. Marathon Monday—it was an occasion spoken of for weeks in advance, a day of great joyfulness and planned intoxication.

America, to me, is a strange and confusing place. Powerful, familiar, mine, but alien. It is hard right now not to think of this as a decade of disaster for the country—from the Batman shootings to Newtown to the Boston Marathon, awful, unimaginable things happen all too often. Yet I do think that if any city can cope with tragedy, it is probably Boston. The people I knew there were tough. I send them and the city my love, even if love has long since faded from the equation. I loved that city.

Notes from a journey

edinburgh train

ROLLING GREEN HILLS, sheep, and Georgian country manors. Scraggy cliffs, never-ending ocean, ruins picked out against the sea. A great crenulated, turreted house in dark stone, geese, flocks of gulls, small towns spread around an ancient spire, farmhouses, chimneys.

Blue blue skies.

Green and ochre.

Patches of snow, churchyards, and wooded hills. A lighthouse, a golf course, a great rock out of the sea near Dunbar. Railway-side towns, a seventies housing development, laundry on the line, playgrounds. Low, snow-topped mountains over the water. Horses with coats on in snow-covered fields.

And suddenly the coast again. Container ships in the distance.

Essay // And that was New York

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.

Essay // ON TRAIN TRAVEL

train travel

ON MY FEW TRIPS through Western Europe and New England I have discovered something about myself that would never perhaps have surfaced in my native Australia – I love to travel by train. One would expect to be deathly bored, cooped up with nowhere to go for hours on end, with only the distraction of an undulating stroll to the café car and its promise of a packet of crisps and bland, expensive coffee.

But instead, there is something wonderfully serene and charming about this method of transport, despite the paired-down utility of today’s trains in comparison with their more romantic nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ancestors.

Perhaps it is the rhythmic, lolling sense of motion that belies the speed at which you are hurtling through the countryside, or perhaps the gentle, rolling clack, strangely muffled so that you feel somehow as if you were under water. You cannot underestimate the power of this sound to elicit memory – if once you’ve taken a long train journey, each time you board your local suburban service you will be transported, if momentarily, back to the unbounded fields of Spain, the dark, deep snows of Berlin, or the bare, cold trees of French chateau country.

I have become particularly fond of the East coast’s Northeast Regional, which, several times a day, makes the long journey between Boston and Washington DC, but which I have taken only so far as New York. If you can secure yourself a window seat and settle in with a thoughtful playlist or a good book, you have the makings of a rare and absolute pleasure – an excuse for solitude and the time to embrace it.

My companion for my last journey, the lamentably short trip through the Massachusetts countryside from Boston to Providence, was George Orwell, in a collection of essays on everything from junk shops, murder, and Boys’ Own weeklies published as part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Orwell’s world of pure Englishness, while perhaps not entirely appropriate for a tour of America’s crux, proved to be perfectly fitting. This world of middle class murder mysteries, public school tales, and the delights that were to be found in the wartime bric-a-brac shop, were completely congruous with the at once antiquated and entirely modern railway. The only trouble was how quickly Providence Station was upon us.