We came in on the George Washington Bridge on the Interstate, but you could see the city long before that, from deep inside New Jersey somewhere, the jagged line of skyscrapers flashing between the hills and trees, shimmering in the bright autumn sunlight like some giant bejewelled crown abandoned on the shore by a long-forgotten god. Manhattan Island. Was there ever a more iconic – or instantly recognisable – skyline?
And then we were sweeping in off the freeway along the slow arc of the ramp and down into the bustle of traffic along the highway, making for the Upper West Side.
What is it about New York? Even that phrase “the Upper West Side” is iconic – despite the fact that is no more than a geographical description – sending a spurt of adrenaline into the blood and making the heart beat a little faster. And now there we were amongst the snarling traffic, the mean yellow taxis, the lumbering behemoths of those great American lorries, the limousines, the big-wheel trucks, nudging forward from traffic light to traffic light amidst the blare of horns, the dust and confusion, edging slowly forward in the contending traffic like Darwinian creatures in an evolutionary struggle for survival.
Yes, that’s exactly what New York feels like. It’s like you’ve accidentally wandering into some accelerated version of evolution, like the city is urging you from behind – nudging you, pressing you – the whole weight of the city pushing you forward whether you like it or not.
As soon as you step out you can sense it: a kind of hormonal electricity in the air, humanity on a knife edge, an urgency, a drive, crazy, egotistical, vain, but marvellously exciting, as if anything can happen here, and often does, in the grand canyon avenues with the constant blare of traffic and the echoed wailing of police sirens, and people moving to and fro with such a mighty sense of purpose. The hustle. The noise. The constant movement, like a tidal surge of humanity welling up along the straight square streets laid out like graph paper and buzzing with life.
We parked the car, my brother and I, dropped our bags in the hotel, and went out to join the throng.
But first we stopped off for a slice of Pizza.
Throughout the whole of New York state, and probably everywhere else in the world, the New York Pizza is known as that: the New York Pizza. Except in New York, that is, when it is just called “Pizza” and is pretty well the only kind of pizza you can find.
I forget what kind I got. We just went in and pointed, like the foreign tourists we were. “I’ll have that one,” I said. Mine had olives on it, Rob’s had meat. And then we went and sat outside to eat them.
There is an art to eating a slice of New York pizza. It’s actually a piece of architecture. You hold it by the crust, folding it in half, forming a V from which the weight of the pizza hangs, and then load it into your mouth from the pointy end, like a dumper truck loading gravel onto the back of a lorry, positioning your mouth slightly below it to achieve the desired end.
The crust is a bit like the structural arch on a bridge. It holds it together. What you don’t do: you don’t rip or mangle the crust or the whole thing falls apart.
Which is what I did. I ripped off a bit of the crust to taste it, thus damaging the architectural integrity of the whole structure, so that the pointy end flopped limply forward sending the weight of the topping sliding off onto the plate, which I then had to pick up piece by sticky piece with my fingers.
It still tasted great though. My first taste of New York.
After that we went on the subway.
It was at this point that my excitement exploded and a sense of hyper-reality kicked in, on a train heading downtown towards Times Square, in a carriage of polished aluminium, hanging on to an upright post as the train jerked and screeched and kicked its way along the track. I was humming Downtown Train by Tom Waits quietly to myself, looking round, and it was like I’d been here before, on this exact train, with these exact people: the Latinos and the Blacks and the Irish and the Jews, all these shades of complexion in their various types of clothing, sitting, standing, reading, watching, talking, listening, contemplating the world, one young woman fanning herself with an old fashioned fan, on the inside of a shining silver bullet heading into the heart of downtown New York. The rattle of the train. The rhythm of the track. The train tossing us back and forth. Winding and sliding into the station. The doors swishing open. People getting on and off. Moving round to let more people on. Gripping tight again as the train jolts off. And all those finely delineated faces, all around, their characters moulded in flesh, like animated sculptures worked in various shades of clay. So precise. So alive. So human. People I felt I already knew.
But something starts to niggle me, a feeling which goes on repeating itself throughout the day: the sense that I’ve been here before, that I’ve known all this before, in some other life perhaps, in some other incarnation, as if, maybe, I have New York blood running through my veins, a New York soul and a New York sensibility, like some ancient jazz riff in the background of my thoughts, like the musical score from the movie of my life.
Something like that.
And stepping out of the subway into the noise and the traffic and the crowd, streets bursting at the seams and rippling with humanity, Rob says, “there’s the naked cowboy,” and starts to take a picture. And sure enough, there he is, a guy dressed in cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, but otherwise only Y-fronts, standing on an intersection between traffic lights, with traffic moving either side of him, and people jostling back and forth, singing and playing the guitar. A handsome black dude crossing the road just as Rob is pointing the camera says, “Did you really take a picture of him?” as we head off, and Rob says, “it’s not for me it’s for my wife,” not answering the question and sounding defensive, which makes us all laugh.
But I realise something – not then, later, on reflection – that this naked cowboy guy has placed himself in precisely this spot for maximum effect, the city swirling about him like white water rapids around a rock, and that the whole of New York is like that: like a showbiz act, people stepping out onto the streets like they step out onto the stage, the whole huge towering cityscape like a stage set, the people, the actors, the chorus line, the props, like an all-singing, all-dancing, costumed, bejewelled, sparkling, brightly-lit Broadway Musical show: like 42nd Street maybe, where all the buildings suddenly acquire legs and start kicking in unison, like the girls in the chorus line. So now Rob and I are heading into Times Square, doing the tourist thing – well what did you expect, we are tourists –– and we’re looking up at the lurching, hovering, heaving buildings towering above us, spinning round and round with the intoxication of it, the flash and the span of the building-sized neon advertisements like vast statements of overheated wealth, the whole space a display of conspicuous consumption on a grand scale – I mean, how much electricity is being used here, and for what purpose? – unashamed, unabashed, brazen and obvious, over-the-top and yet viscerally exciting, here at the navel of the world.
It is here that the layout of New York reveals itself, in this intersection, this square that is not a square, where Broadway cuts across Seventh Avenue between 47th and 42nd Streets, because whereas the town as a whole is a relentless series of grids and blocks (avenues running one way, streets running the other) Broadway is this vast sweeping diagonal that cuts across the whole of it, dissecting it at an angle and adding interesting variety to the otherwise straight-up-an-down architecture, forcing buildings into weird, aerodynamic angular shapes to accommodate it, breaking up the rhythm of the streets like the syncopated swing in a dance band number, and adding cool dissonance to the orchestration of buildings, like the blue note in a jazz riff.
And now I hear it – don’t you? – sailing in with the sounds of the city: the suave, cool, sophisticated tempo of a Duke Ellington song – Take the A Train, written to celebrate the journey through Manhattan to Harlem – this deeply-textured, moving, modern music, but with an edge, a drive, like the rattle of the train on its tracks or the whirring of electricity in the generators, living, alive, accentuated, sweet-stepping, free-flowing, swirling through the cascade of notes in a relentless pulsating chorus of change, riffs and notes scattering like sparks and eddies into the charged air: the perfect musical accompaniment to a visit to New York, this neon electric city of the Jazz Age.
So now it is time for a drink, naturally, and Rob – who’s been here a few times now, having moved to Syracuse in the North of New York state about seven years ago – decides to take me to ESPN Zone which is across the way. Now this is crazy. A huge two story bar full of TV screens showing sports channels. Not just one screen, or two screens, or ten screens but – I don’t know, I’m trying to count them in my head – maybe fifty screens, maybe a hundred screens, with baseball and American football and ice hockey and basketball and various other sports (one of the smaller screens is showing a British football match) and commentators in studios discussing the action – the whole lot – the largest screen about three times the size of the wall in my living room, a great bank of pixellated colour and light, so much sport it makes your head spin, and, like everything else in new York, way over the top.
So we order a beer and the girl behind the bar says “large or small” and we say “large”, thinking maybe it’s the choice between a half pint and a pint. Only it’s not. It’s the choice between a pint and a quart and now we have these two huge pots of beer to drink. Which is fine. We can drink them, though they are a bit on the expensive side, the round being $17. We photograph them, then we drink them, then, at some point, having consumed a quarter of a gallon of beer, I make the inevitable trip to the gents, only to discover that directly in front of every one of the urinals is yet another small TV screen about the size of a cigarette packet, showing yet more sport, so you don’t have to miss even half a second of the action. How many screens did I say there were? Well you can double it. Talk about neurosis: this is a whole building constructed around a clinical obsession with the demon of sport.
After this we walk to the Empire State Building and I say, “you can tell the tourists can’t you? The tourists are the ones looking up all the time.” And it’s true, because this is what you have to do, to look up into the soaring vertiginous depths of the sky-high city, between the buildings which suck your gaze forever upwards as they graze the clouds, amazed at the boldness, the confidence, the sheer, brazen self-assuredness of this city’s architecture, like monstrous overblown cathedrals dedicated to the megalithic religion of commerce, whose god is money, dwelling places of the economic Nephilim. It’s immoral. It’s wrong. It’s absurd. It’s insane. But it’s epic too, it’s vast, it’s intoxicating, it’s bold and it’s dangerous and you can’t help but admire it at some deep visceral level while condemning it at the same time. Who said that life was simple? Or that we can’t live with contradictions?
It costs $19 to go up the Empire State building, but you have to don’t you? Everyone has to do this once. Unfortunately the whole building is going through a refit at the moment so something of its Jazzy Art Deco sumptuousness is lost – all that layered, multi-coloured marble, the sleek, sweeping staircases, the glass and the stainless steel, the doormen in their smart maroon livery – as we are herded past plywood barriers with posters of King Kong and into the elevator to the 80th floor. And on again to the next elevator taking us the last six floors to the observation point.
OK, and I have to say how exhilarating this is, looking out across the chequered urban landscape from this vantage point, seeing the layout of the town like some vast chess board, with the towering beautiful buildings scattered about. Yes beautiful. These huge, playful, crazy edifices of a deranged imagination, soaring upwards into the sky. Two buildings strike me in particular: the Chrysler building as the epitome of Art Deco on a grand scale, definitely the most beautiful building in New York, not as large as the Empire State, but prettier, nicer, quainter, the model of what a skyscraper should be; and this other building whose name I don’t know, which looks like a copy of a Renaissance cathedral, with arches and palisades, a quadrangle and a clock. Yes a clock, a giant clock, maybe fifty stories up. A great big clock. And who can see this clock but the people in the building opposite, or us, up here on the top of the Empire State? You can’t possibly see it from the street, or from anywhere else. So what’s the point of it, except as a gesture of flamboyance, a grandiloquent statement, a pointless embellishment, a magnificent, ostentatious whim? You can’t help but love a city that puts clocks so high up no one can see them. It is a city in which time no longer exists.
So we circle the building about two or three times, looking out in the four directions, towards the four corners of the world, the west side, and the east side, downtown and uptown, Brooklyn and the Bronx, and out towards Staten Island and the Statue of Liberty, across this vast, sprawling metropolis – this hub of humanity, this vortex of ceaseless activity, of time and life and psychosis, this city of hallucination and exhilarating insanity, mad like the gods, a modern Atlantis rising out of the waves, miraculous, expansive, fuelled by vanity and electricity, by sex and by greed, breathless, startled, crazy, alive – I can’t help but pause and wonder at the works of humanity, how glorious they can be, and think to myself that this city has to be one of the great wonders of the world.
And now I get it – now as I’m writing this, a few weeks later and several thousand miles away – that one of the symbols of New York is King Kong himself, that overblown ape of humanity, trapped within this urban landscape, the instinctual beast raging against the constraints of the modern world, driven crazy by love, tortured by technology, put on display for money, before bursting free of his chains, and then climbing this, the Empire State Building in a bid for freedom, harried by biplanes, before falling to his death in the streets below..
Which is where we are now, of course, on top of the Empire State building, up in the wild, crashing skies, with buffeting winds blustering in off the Atlantic, gazing out at the city of the Nephilim, surrounded by people taking photographs. Everyone is taking photographs. They’re taking photographs of each other. They’re taking photographs of themselves. They’re asking other people to take photographs for them, positioning themselves in front of the camera with some landmark in the background. So we take some photographs too, and someone offers to take our photograph, so now we too have a photograph of us on top of the Empire State building with a landmark in the background, just like everybody else. And then you wonder how many photographs there must be from this place, over all these years? How many shutter clicks in how many seconds over how many days, how many years? How many cameras? How many pictures from this weird eyrie, this eagle’s perch, high up in the luminescent sky? Will there ever be time to look at them all?
But it’s getting as bit cold now so we decide to come down. Down, down. Down through the layers of steel and glass and marble and humanity. Down passed the offices, through the soap opera entanglement of lives, storey by storey, by story, at free fall speed, though we don’t know it, to arrive back, padded and cushioned by air, at the ground floor and find a bar so we can drink yet more beer.
There’s a bar under the building itself, which we invade with our presence, sliding past a pillar where a bunch of people are nattering away. Only they’re not nattering away in New York parlance, but in some weird foreign language only Rob and I can understand. Rob says, “can I hear Brummie accents?” And then standing next to us at the bar, where we are leaning waiting to be served, is a guy wearing a bright red football shirt on which, when he turns around, we read the words “Banks’s Bitter”.
Banks’s Bitter is brewed in Wolverhampton, not more than 15 miles from where Rob and I were brought up in the West Midlands.
“Is that a Banks’s Tee-shirt I see there?” says Rob, in his broad Brummie accent. And sure enough, there’s a bunch of Midlanders here in the heart of New York with us, and we begin chatting about our respective holidays. They’re just about to leave having spent the last five days in New York, just drinking up their last pints – “very expensive,” says the man with the Banks’s tee-shirt – after which we raise our glasses and bid them goodbye.
After this we head off again, making for Chinatown now. We have a subway map which we’ve been consulting all day, and the process of finding our way around is a bit like pinning the tail on the donkey. We’re just abstractly pointing to bits with nice names we half recognise and deciding to go there.
But first, before we go down the subway, I see this guy with a bouffant hair-do and a $10,000 suit, with buffed immaculate shoes and a crisp, white shirt and a tie, stepping out of the sleek marble lobby of some up-market hotel while the concierge hails him a taxi. He has a woman on his arm – this broad, as we’d say, using the vernacular – with a fur stole and high heels and hair piled high like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and she’s powdering her nose and checking her make up in a little vanity mirror, and I think I recognise them both. Yes, she’s Audrey Hepburn all right – Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly – and he’s Michael Douglas. Michael Douglas in Wall Street. She’s a naive socialite who takes a $50 tip for going to the bathroom, and he’s this son of a reptile who’ll eat your soul for breakfast, two movies stepping out together onto the same sidewalk. So something strikes me now about this irksome sense of familiarity I’ve been having ever since we got on the subway, that actually I have seen it all before, not in another life, in the movies. 42nd Street and King Kong and Wall Street and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. And Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy and Naked City and the Fisher King. All these movies. All these scenes of streets and people. The crowds, the taxis, the subways, the shops, the diners, the bars, the streets, the avenues, the buildings, the bridges. Tracking shots down Broadway to Times Square and Fifth Avenue. Aerial shots from helicopters swerving in and out between the skyscrapers. Long shots along wind-blown dusty streets with a solitary sheet of newspaper bustling in the wind. Night shots though a windscreen in the rain with the wipers swishing back and forth. All of these shots. All of these scenes. All of these stories. Being in New York is like walking about inside a film set. It has to be the most filmed city in the world.
So I wonder what kind of movie Rob and I are in? Hopefully none of the above.
Statue of Liberty
Finally we make it to Chinatown where we stop off for something to eat. $5 each for a meal. Can’t be bad. And then, just as the sun is starting to go down, we head off to Battery Park near where you catch the Staten Island Ferry, which is the nearest point on Manhattan Island to the Statue of Liberty, where Rob takes some great photographs of the statue with the sunset blazing in the distance.
After which we start walking back passed the National Museum of the American Indian as night is gathering in the streets and the lights are flickering on in the skyscrapers, and nearby there’s a bunch of cop cars gathered in a car park, and they start to move off slowly, each one just giving us a short burst of its siren – wee-ow: like that! – and a single red-blue flash of its lights as they crawl out into the city in a funereal procession one at a time. How many are there? I don’t know, maybe 20 or more. What is this about? Are they all just going on shift? Is this like some sort of a daily ritual? Or is it a protest of some sort or an actual funeral? We never do find out.
And after this it is Grand Central Station with its bustle and noise – I’m reminded of a scene in the Fisher King where everyone begins to waltz while Robin Williams is following his girl – then back to Times Square, and after that to a series of bars along Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side between 80th and 86th I think, which get cheaper and cheaper the further we go along, till we fall into our cheap hotel room sometime after midnight, after a night of ogling the barmaids, which beer and tiredness and lust and age had made me decide were amongst the most beautiful women in the world.
New York, City of Frustrated Dreams.