New York State 2
September 24, 2012
I’ve left New York now. I’ll really miss it. It’s a magic place. At 4am you can get pretty much whatever you want be it crisps, moisturiser or scaffolding. It was hotter than Satan’s stolen stereo and on rubbish collection days smelt like the aftermath of Ypres – but I’ll miss it. When I first arrived I kept getting up in the night to find the source of a constant thrum that I presumed was an air conditioning unit in my flat that had been left on. It took me about a week to realise that the noise I was trying to turn off was New York itself, which doesn’t have an off switch. I leant out of my window a couple of times and shouted a general, ‘Be quiet please New York!’ but to no avail. They couldn’t hear me. It’s a shiny, dirty, throbbing, honking, hotbox of a place. It serves you with a smile and calls you a fuck-wad in the street. I love it.
I did nothing while I was there really. I didn’t go up the Empire State building. I didn’t go to the Met or to Ellis Island. I did actually see the Statue of Liberty from the window of a speeding cab from a few miles away, which I’ve been told is the only way to see it, but that’s about it. I have no pictures of me in Central Park or stood by the Ghostbuster’s fire station or sat at the table where Meg Ryan came all over Billy Crystal but I do have a collection of pictures in my head.
I have a black friend; I’m not showing off, it’s just a fact, who came to visit me while I was there. When else would he visit me? When I wasn’t there? Some of you may wonder why I said that, and you’d be right – why did I say that? He has a south London accent that borders on RP. It’s basically as if you asked a computer to calculate the exact opposite of how most African-American New Yorkers speak and then put that voice in a head. On the street one night a stranger greeted my friend in the spirit of fraternity.
‘Hey brother wassup?’ he said holding out his fist.
‘Fine thanks how are you?’ came the response.
Oh how I wish I could have captured that man’s face. It was the reaction of a man who, while enjoying a delicious milkshake, had been bitten by a poisonous snake. In all my dreams before my helpless sight I saw him drowning. It was priceless.
‘What the fuck is that shit?’ he said circling my friend half-afraid of the witchcraft he’d just seen.
‘Peckham,’ said my friend.
‘You gotta learn to speak,’ he offered and staggered off.
New York was the first time I’ve had the sensation of being aware of actually living out a potentially unrepeatable experience. I’m approaching 30, which might not be that old (to older people) but is old (to younger people). And the sensation of perhaps not being one of the immortal fixtures of the universe, like expansion or Zeus, is an altogether new one and is becoming more vivid. I hear songs now, or smell rotting waste, and am immediately transported back to how I felt at certain times in New York, and I’m overcome with a kind of sadness about all the other periods of my life that can be triggered in a similarly abstract way, but which I never quite realised were unrepeatable. I feel like I’ve cherished them less. I think Proust wrote a short piece about it after having a biscuit once. Proust had his biscuits and I have quarter pounders and Jameson’s. (Incidentally, if you like Sambuca and are British, do not drink Sambuca in America. I mean it. It tastes like a night under a Jeep. You might think you got a ‘bad shot’ – you didn’t.)
There are a lot of people in New York who go by themselves to public areas and do Tai Chi. This appears to be a ‘thing’ here. There are two breeds of people who do it: the ones in gym wear and/or clothes appropriate to exercising and the ones who do it in suits. Now, it may be that these busy business people simply don’t have time to put on sports wear because their schedules are so packed, but I doubt it. People doing Tai Chi in suits almost always had that sort of faraway look in their eye. The kind of look you see in the eyes of a person laughing at a joke that a tree has told them. What is the reason for crazy people wearing inappropriately warm clothing? Has there been a study on the correlation between mental illness and the amount of coats you have on? If people did Tai Chi in public in London, they would certainly have to suffer the occasional ‘Dick!’ from passers by of all ages. In New York it goes by without punishment.
People think the streets of New York are run by the mob, or gangs, but they’re not, they’re run by small dogs. The pavements are awash with beautiful women with tiny dogs. The dogs are on leads, but this seems to be for nothing other than the dog to give a clear indication to the human where it is going. In all my time in New York I never once saw a dog instructed where to go, I never saw one so much as persuaded to change its plans. I saw Chihuahuas pulling grown women out into traffic; I saw French poodles forensically sniffing the base of fire hydrants while their owners looked anxiously at their watch, clearly very late for something, but with absolutely no control over what was happening. One day I saw a dog so small it could have been a thumb with legs terrorising an entire foyer of a building, pissing everywhere with excitement and wagging its stump of a tail so hard its arse was hitting the side of its head.
‘Maurice,’ the owner pleaded quietly in a tone more like resignation than anything. ‘Please Maurice,’ as Maurice pulled over potted plants, pissed on a child’s foot, stole someone’s credit card and hailed a cab. ‘Maurice please calm down,’ as Maurice leapt onto the desk, left lewd status updates on someone else’s Facebook account and gave a baby the finger. ‘Maurice come on,’ as Maurice phoned a sex chat line, let all the heat out of the building by holding the door open and struck up a relationship with a meth dealer. Then when Maurice finally jumped down from the lap of the disabled person he had been tormenting and returned to his owner, more from exhaustion than any obedience, she gave him a treat and declared him a ‘Good boy.’ Beware New York: this type of power will corrupt. I wouldn’t be surprised if upon my return the humans were the ones wearing the collars and shitting in the street.
Actually, the humans already shit in the street in New York. I stumbled on one doing a massive crap on a street not too far from where I live. The guy looked at me with absolute disgust, as if I had found exactly what I was looking for to satisfy my sick fantasies and he was a poor innocent caught up in my perverted game simply because he had the bad luck to be shitting in the street in the wrong place, at the wrong time.
‘You bastard,’ his eyes seemed to say. ‘How dare you have the temerity to happen upon me crapping out of my arsehole on this quiet street tucked away in the centre of one of the busiest cities in the world. Pervert.’
It may be legal to do that in New York. There are a couple of surprising laws there. One day I was informed by a friend that it was legal for women to be topless in the city, and that just the other day her boyfriend had seen a woman outside a café reading a book with her bazungas out. It seemed to me such an odd combination, that one of the most populous, urban areas of America should have the same rules as a limited number of Mediterranean beaches. Coincidentally, the very next day, on my way into work, I saw a woman striding down 6th avenue, perfectly typical in every way, down to the latte she was carrying, but with one crucial anomaly – she was wearing only half the clothes you’d expect in that situation. There was a not insignificant whiff of defiance in her gait as she startled oncoming families into evasive action and caused at least 4 major arguments that I saw between passing couples. I really wanted to know where she was going. Was she a nursery nurse? Did she have a nametag where she worked? Where would she put it? In my head she was the world’s only topless librarian, ‘This’ll keep ‘em quiet.’ When my friend had mentioned it I thought that the sight of boobs on Broadway would titillate me, but it kind of made me roll my eyes. We wear clothes to preserve our mystery and to prevent traffic accidents. There’s something really unexciting about someone with no mystery. That’s why the Victorians were so horny. They had nothing but mystery. I can’t even begin to imagine what fever pitch of arousal you’d have to reach to find an ankle horny, but they regularly reached it. When waltzing first hit the ballrooms people were outraged. Outraged! By waltzing! They must have had the horn all the fucking time! ‘Oh my God the small of your back! I’m touching the small of your back! Nggggggghhhh! Yeah! The small of your back. Phew. God that was good. The small of your back…yeah.’ They must have had a stonking time in the bedroom. ‘What the hell’s that? I don’t have a clue but I love it!’ Lots of syphilis, sure, but I bet they had a great time.
We celebrated July 4th while we were out there, a particularly self-conscious time to be British in America. The company we were working for had organised a rooftop party for us near the banks of the Hudson, to enjoy the firework display that every year draws crowds of thousands. A couple of hundred of us gathered excitedly, unperturbed by the two large skyscrapers in the process of being built obscuring our view of most of the left hand side of the river. Surely, all of us thought simultaneously, that must have been taken into account when organising this. They can hardly have appeared as a surprise overnight. The show started and judging from the light bouncing off other buildings it truly was an elaborate display. After a while the building sites were obscuring our view of the celebration so perfectly that I thought it had to have been part of the organisation, and perhaps a kind of symbolic revenge on the British. Ultimately, we heard a really beautiful firework display. It ended, and we laughed off our bad luck and got on with the serious business of getting drunk on a roof. New York in the summer suffers from very sudden storms that leap into action and then disappear almost as quickly. They happen fairly regularly and after a while one started up in the opposite direction from where the fireworks had been, like a consolation prize from God, and started gliding over Manhattan. The New Yorkers among us were so over their own weather that the yawning sounded like a colony of whales, but us lobster-backs, used to drizzle and sheet lightning, pulled up our chairs, opened beers and began ‘ooh’-ing and ‘ah’-ing as the lightning snatched at the buildings and burst occasionally across the clouds. I think we even applauded one particularly elaborate spurt, looking to others on the roof like a breed of underground people being shown weather for the first time. I remember thinking as the light show trundled out of sight, how nice it would be to be a storm in New York, and be certain you’d be back.