I had never been to New York before. And in the days leading up to it, the fact of it seemed increasingly important.
“I’ve never been to New York before!” I’d tell people when they asked if I was excited, as if that were explanation enough.
I see, now, that it was important. Ironically, my experience of New York was largely conditioned by the fact that I had never been there. This is not an unusual thing; many of us intend to visit places we haven’t visited before, and all these places are, to various degrees, obscured by the mist of the ‘unknown’. New York was different in that it seemed to belong to me before I had even set foot upon it; a city that exists beyond itself in the pages of books, newspapers and magazines, on television and on the silver screen, as a global epicentre for the arts, a cultural cornucopia, a metropolitan playground that is as gritty as it is glamorous. It was thus without choice that I experienced New York from a thousand miles away my entire life, unwittingly building up an idea of the city that was beholden only to me.
When I finally visited, I was humbled. It was an illusion shattered and replaced with something much more awesome, like holding up my illustration next to something I had tried my best to depict only to realise that the vibrant reality was ten times my mere piece of paper. I had stepped into what felt like a caricature of the city itself. New York roared with colour, sound, and energy. It brimmed with life. It boasted power. The closest analogy I can think of is seeing a famous singer perform live for the first time. You know they exist, because you’ve heard their voice coming through your headphones, seen their face on paper and on-screen. Still, the stadium experience is incomparable: seeing them for yourself, hearing their voice as it unfolds around you in real-time, brings with it the realisation of “oh my god, they’re really real!” Such was my meeting with New York.
Starstruck, I walked around and watched ‘New York’ the character, the realm of superheroes and superstars, the pin-up model of all cities, become a habitable space for all, a living, breathing, thriving creature. Skyscrapers hurtled upwards on either side of busy roads, each seeming more important than the last. The buildings boasted American patriotism with rows of star-spangled banners buffeting in the crisp December air; lesser Lady Liberties lining the streets. Times Square was as aglitter with lights and films and giant billboards as I had hoped. This was certainly no-prerecording I could stop and start, no book that I could close at whim.
The city has a grid-like structure like a giant pinball machine. If you get lost, you get lost in perfect verticals and horizontals. I, with my finger eagerly poised above the camera shutter and jaw dragging across the floor, craned my neck up at the infamous concrete jungle with a curiosity and delight as whole as a child’s. It was at once oddly familiar – and entirely alien. Of course, I recognised the separate emblems of New York as I saw them: the iconic Empire State building, the common hotdog vendor, distinct convoys of yellow school buses and taxis. But now, walking around the city in its entirety, I saw what happened in-between: the hundreds of smaller streets darting off main roads, friendly neighbourhood cafes, boisterous street performances, artwork hung in indoor galleries and drawn on outdoor walls, the gusty, gutsy way New Yorkers speak and work.
I could see why NYC is famously declared the go-to town of the dreamers and the doers. The city is all-encompassing, wild with variety, the air electric with creativity and fierce competition. Food-wise, there’s just about everything to satiate the appetite. The most humble and unassuming of eateries produced the best food I’d ever had. Hotdog vendors claim each corner, delis and diners churn out sandwiches of astronomical proportions, pizzerias spin saucepans of dough into the air. Movement here is constant, and flavour simply explodes.
Unfortunately my narrative is missing a huge component: New York’s colourful nightlife. I didn’t manage to get out in the evenings as I’d curse jetlag and promptly fall asleep in bed by around 8pm every night, but if the daylight hours were anything to go by I can’t imagine just how exciting the evenings are.
New York is the kind of place I could walk around for hours and not tire of. Like most big cities, it exists in a constant state of dynamism. At any given time at least one of my senses was engaged with a sight or a smell or a sound. It is alive at every second, a powerful thing brash and unabashed, loud, tireless, indefatigable. F. Scott Fitzgerald put it better than anyone else, when, in the character of Nick Carraway, he wrote: “I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.” I came to realise that this quote is the single most befitting expression of New York I have ever come across.
I have, in the past, been advised by one or two people not to believe the hype surrounding New York. “It’s dirty,” I recall one saying contemptuously, “it’s unfriendly”. Others couldn’t quite seem to sing their praises enough, gushing, “New York is amazing, I love it!”. Yet as I walked around – desperate to capture it, to clarify it for myself – I realised that this was precisely one of New York’s best and most defining characteristics: contrast. The ability to simultaneously enchant and repel.
Contrast is what makes New York, and I could see it everywhere. One afternoon I watched a pair of cops saunter into the small space inhabited by Joe’s Pizza, a famous counter-service pizzeria since 1975, on the corner of Carmine Street. Joe’s is a humble space; with only a table or two and a few barstools, the store itself is anything but glamorous save for the walls, which are plastered in hundreds of photos of celebrities. I was perched on a stool, looking at Anne Hathaway flashing a megawatt smile, Joe’s pizza box in hand, when the cops entered. They ordered a slice each and stood hand on hip, the other elbow casually resting on the till, waiting, chatting. My gaze lingered on the guns in their belt. As they casually made their way back to the car, I got the feeling that I had witnessed something extremely American and almost cartoon-like à la the clichéd depiction of a police officer with his box of doughnuts. The next time I heard the door swing open, I joked with myself that I wasn’t sure whether to expect a civil servant or Angelina Jolie.
New York is cops and movie stars getting their pizza from the same store, a deli next door to a Michelin-starred restaurant, a gigantic park sprawling amongst skyscrapers. The lines here are so fine that they barely exist at all. Anything goes.
As I left for Newark airport at 6pm I saw them, the fine lines, silhouetted in the distance, as the sun sunk and winked out of the sky.