Landing at Newark Airport into the long lines that characterise every US airport I have been to is a strange, disorientating experience. The queue is badly organised, being broken into mini-queues which mean that you pray you don’t get stuck behind the Muslim (or the Hindu or the Sikh; I don’t believe US immigration officials are targeting Muslims; they seem to hate everyone) who will undoubtedly be given a long going over, or anyone who can’t speak English or Spanish, or the many, many of us who have filled in the incomprehensible forms incorrectly.
I get through and manage to pick up my luggage quickly, and I leave the sanity of the baggage reclaim into the mayhem of arrivals. It is hot, a June day, summer-hot after the cool spring of Edinburgh. I try my mobile phone but it doesn’t get a signal (due perhaps to the building, or some strange Newark-sized whole in the coverage I later found I could use my phone in Manhattan), so I queue at a Starbucks to get some change to use a payphone; I buy a bottle of water which I needed anyway, dehydrated after the seven hour flight direct from Edinburgh – it felt rather luxurious not having to change.
I call my hosts and let them know I have arrived; and I leave the clinical safety of the airport.
I decide to get a cab, which I rationalise by the need to get uptown with luggage and the need to acclimatise. The queue for cabs is a badly organised as the queue for immigration. There are officials who ask where you’re going, write it down, and tell you how much it should cost; I am not sure why, since they don’t pass this information on to the driver who cuts in front of others to get my fare. He has trouble understanding my accent; he asks me what bridges or tunnels I prefer, a question that highlights my ignorance, my out-of-townedness.
I slouch back in the cab as we pull away, drinking my water, and smile broadly as the Manhattan skyline falls into view behind the airport. Driving along the freeway parallel to the city, past dilapidated signs, along potholed roads, I feel like I am sitting in the opening credits of the Sopranos. America always feels like a film set.
I fiddle, I fidget, excited to be away, looking forward to seeing my friends. I tune my pocket radio, scanning the stations. The cab bounces along, jelly for suspension, slung low over the road. We get in the queue for the Hudson tunnel; a bad choice, because it stretches for miles: there is an accident, or a breakdown, or something; we sit in the traffic, in the heat. I feel both smug because I am sitting in a cab on my way into New York City, and irritated and annoyed because I am sitting in a cab on my way into New York City and stuck in a huge traffic jam.
Moving through the tunnel slowly, I realise the last time I saw this tunnel was in a disaster movie; I peer ahead, expecting to see a ball of flames hurtling towards us, upending the cars in front as if they were Dinky toys (instead of the computer-designed graphics they undoubtedly were).
We come back to the surface in the mid West Side; there are empty lots, wide spaces that allow one to see the skyscrapers of the Midtown. We cruise gently up Tenth Avenue; I crane my head, looking all around. We pass through Hell’s Kitchen, where D used to stay, and where I visited her (she left her small one-bedroomed flat to me and decanted to her boyfriend’s, allowing me the luxury of my own place just off Times Square to explore the city from); further up, we cut across Central Park.
I retune my radio once more, hoping to pickup the small college stations – D and B’s apartment, in the middle of a condominium complex, has lousy radio reception, and I want to find the stations before I get there. (I had visions of me listening to college jazz stations as I stroll the streets and avenues; when it came down to it, I barely listened to the radio at all.)
It is a while since I had been here; I while since I had seen D, and a lot had changed – in my life, in her life; in the world.
We stayed in and ate, D cooking meat although she was a vegetarian – she feels her kids need the meat she herself does without. (I wonder if she ate meat when she was pregnant?) We had a lot to talk about, and talk long into the night. I feels good to be sitting in a far away city, drinking whisky and wine, and talking to old friends.
When I surface the next morning, I head out into Yorkville. I go to the nearest diner – a Greek place on York Avenue – and I settle into a long breakfast: juice, unlimited coffee and a stack of pancakes. I love New York diner breakfasts. I sit reading, and planning my day. It is hot and humid. Planning my day doesn’t work; I decide just to head downtown on the bus, taking the first one that comes to see where it will take me.
It takes me to the Rockefeller Center; one of my favourite buildings in New York. The heat and humidity make it hazy, but I reckon since I am there, I might as well take the trip to the top of the building – the top of the Rock. Last time I was there, this wasn’t open – aside from enjoying the evening view from the Rainbow Room. (I have never seen the series 30 Rock, but I guess this must feature…) I buy a ticket from the booth outside the Rockefeller Center and wander inside. I manage to get lost, coming in on the wrong level despite following the directions (or, at least, thinking I was following the directions); I wasn’t alone, though – someone else had made the same mistake. We see a lift and get in; it takes us to a staff-only level, and then it takes us back again. When it next visits the staff-only level, I get out and find myself at the end of a long, long queue.
I stand in the line and after a while step into another lift, to take me and the bodies crowded in with me to the viewing floors. The doors close; and the lights go out; and the lights outside the lift come on: the lift has a glass ceiling and the lift shaft is illuminated. As it speeds right up to the fiftieth floor, the lights in the shaft whizz past, and it feels like I’m in the hallucinogenic scene from 2001. I think this might be the best lift I have ever been in.
I spent a long time in the hazy sunshine wandering around the observation deck looking at the view. I climbed as high as I could, walking around and around. Not as high as the Empire State Building, it has one huge advantage – you can see the Empire State from the Rockefeller Center. (One of my favourite views in the world is from the Rainbow Room, a few floors below, sitting with a glass of whisky late at night in front of the huge windows, looking at the illuminated Empire State and the lights of Midtown. I must go back there soon.)
Being high amongst the skyscrapers of Manhattan is like being at the center of the world. There is so much life going on.
I took a lot of photographs.
Being so near, I decided to go to the Museum of Modern Art next. My timing was spot on – I caught the last day of an exhibit. True, I can’t now remember what it was, but. I saw Guernica, too, which I don’t think I had seen in the flesh before. (Possibly it was a life-size copy.) It is a stunning work – visceral, painful, frightening; but brilliant.
I sought out my favourites, too: the intense lightning strikes of Clyfford Still; the dynamic (and huge) Jackson Pollocks; the deep monochrome canvasses of Yves Klein.
The building, too, was working well: the sunshine created a montage of shadows and light, through which the other people there walked.
In the garden were a couple of large pieces by Richard Serra – large, powerful steel sculptures left to rust in the rain and weather in the sun. They were wonderful – deeply textured, monolithic, finely balanced. It felt very special to walk between them.
I headed downtown for lunch. The guidebook I was using for this trip – I think it was mainly the Time Out guide to New York (it may have been the Rough Guide) recommended Fanellis in SoHo, so off I went. It was good – a very friendly place, it felt right sitting drinking a beer whilst I read and ate and flirted with the waittress.
I got a bus back uptown. I was going to sit on it all the way back to Yorkville, but I couldn’t resist getting off at 34th to look at the Empire State. It isn’t my favourite New York building – that’s the Chrysler – but there is something about the Empire State Building that captivates me. When I was a kid, it was the tallest building in the world; stop-action gorillas swatting at planes excited me back then. It still has that cache for me – it symbolises New York. My friends used to have an apartment a few blocks away, and we went onto their roof a couple of times to sit and drink and watch the Empire State grow dark in the dusk. It is a magnificent building.
I wandered around, back and forth, looking at the different angles and different views. I have a lot of pictures of the Empire State – every time I go to New York, I take the views of the city. Not the same pictures – the light is different, the weather is different, the year is different – I am different; but the same angles, the same views.
(The time before, it was October or September 2002; and the city, and the world, were different.)
I walked around the block, around several blocks, looking at the verticals and horizontals; the windows and decorations. I then walked a few blocks north, up to 42nd Street, where I was beguiled by the Chrysler Building.
I got back on the bus. I caught the first bus that came along; it turned out to be an uptown local, but I wasn’t in a hurry. A harassed woman clutching some boxes wrapped in bows. Several boxes – a great many boxes; more than she could carry. She placed some of them on the luggage rack and carried the others with her to a seat, where she piled them next to her. I couldn’t help thinking that the boxes were perhaps empty.
D cooked another carnivorous dinner – rather delicious pork chops – and a lot more wine was drunk. We sat and watched Strictly Ballroom after dinner – I think it was their girls’ choice, but mine too; I think the adults paid a lot more attention than the kids did.
D and I sat up late once more, as we examined how we had got to where we were, the long and tortuous journey of our lives. I drank whisky. It was a good evening.