Monday morning and the red-eye rumbled out of Boston with the deliciously familiar ‘woo-woo’. I grew up with trains at the bottom of my garden, but English trains can only toot. Whilst my fellow, scant, passengers settled down to sleep, I got out my New York guide books to make a plan for the next three days.
Why do so many of the galleries close on a Monday? Can’t the city that never sleeps sort this one? Travel half way across the world to see art, two and a half days to do it in…and they close for one of them? It seemed bizarre in the extreme, until I noticed from references in one of the books that it was years out of date. Out of the window the coastline unfurled like a map. Marshes, beaches, inlets, harbours, boats and herons flicked my eyes. I wanted to read but I didn’t want to miss a single thing. It was as if every hair on my skin had super-radar, no way could I sleep despite a night fizzing with anticipation, sore eyes staring at the ceiling.
By the time we approached the outskirts of the city I had a plan. Always one to make the best of a bad situation, I realised it wasn’t just art I wanted to see. I wanted to drink in all the sights, but would content myself with a few gems. That is what I’d do this first day, Monday. The helpful HopStop app that had shrunk the city with walking times had inspired me: Walk/Don’tWalk ? Walk of course. Get a flavour of Manhattan. (When I travel anywhere I am like a homing pigeon circling my space, learning about where I’ve landed, clocking landmarks.)
I was nervous about the Airbnb. Not just the bathroom situation; would I be able to find the apartment? What if the host wasn’t there to let me in? Why were there two mobile numbers for me to call? Memories of being stuck in a receptionless, skuzzy hotel lobby in Ilfracombe, locked in the building, yet out of my room, promised key-holder absent, mobile out of range, fuelled my anxiety.
Penn Station is huge. There is a main exit, but it has more exits than the badger sett in my garden. I re-checked the map for the hundredth time. I strode out of one with a ‘I know this city, I just happen to be trailing a suitcase because I’ve been away for the weekend’ walk . Out on the street it looked just like it did on Google Earth. Everyone in England says New York looks familiar when you get there, it’s all the films we’ve watched. This bit didn’t, except for the above, but it wasn’t a particularly salubrious area. It wasn’t down at heel enough for an edgy boy movie with lots of gunfire, or smart enough for a Woody. I would say it is a typical ‘railway station’ kind of area. (Who would willingly live next to a train station other than a train spotter?) Nevertheless I was reminded of the Brazilian saying: ‘Wherever you go – there you are.’ No matter how much you get knotted up about going to a strange place, once you are there, it’s where you are. Different climate, soil, birdsong or whatever – when you’re there you’re here.
I strode on muttering to myself, ‘9th and 23rd, 9th and 23rd. Or was it 24th?’ I checked my map again. I don’t like doing this in a strange place. I might as well wear a sign saying TOURIST. Compared to Britain where roads were built to go anywhere but straight, and are wide enough to accommodate a horse and cart, this should have been a breeze. Failing to see the sun, my usual standby, I asked a stranger, and found I was walking north, not south. (Memo to fellow New York explorers: take a compass, it’ll save you walking a block or two to check.)
In no time I found the building I was after, but not the smart apartment lobby I expected. I called one of the numbers. “I’ll come down and help with your case”, he said. I soon learned the meaning of a walk-up. I can’t say I wasn’t warned, I’d checked out that it would be doable with a newly fixed knee. Relieved of my small case it was still a challenge, especially behind a sprite young man, barefoot in teeshirt and boxers, who does this regularly. Two flights for every floor, eight floors up. I wanted the authentic New York experience: I was getting it. It wasn’t quite what it said on the tin… The stairwell had dun coloured walls, with dark brown scuffed doors, repaired in places with metal sheets. The carpet was threadbare and stained, but the apartment door needed a good push to open it and a kick to close it (just like home).
“No spare keys, don’t lose them” said Adam, leading me into the corridor where I nearly tripped over a skateboard. Monosyllabic to the point of rudeness, he led me into a sitting room (which looked smaller a lot of stuff had been photoshopped out of the ad). “Room’s not ready, won’t be ready till 2 0’clock.” I’d not entertained that possibility, and forgotten it was only 10.30 in the morning.
” Can I leave my case somewhere safe?”
“Over there?” he pointed to the corner of the room.
“Nowhere I can lock it away?” I asked acutely aware there are potentially 7 other guests.
“Never been a problem before, none of the rooms lock”. I hadn’t wanted to carry my iPad around with me, but decided I probably should.
“Oh well, I’m out for the day anyway, I might be back late, can you show me where my room is?”
“Down there.” He pointed down the corridor that ran at right angles – and sloped off to his room muttering. “Just knock if you need anything” and that was it.
I knocked. “Loo? I mean, bathroom?” “Over there.” As he angled his shoulder out of the room to point I saw a bed filling the room, piled chest high with stuff, and small computer table. It had all the charms of a student flat, and he had the social skills of a 14 year old. Far from the ‘meet the friendly locals, stay in a real home’ ‘Friends‘ kind of environment that I was expecting I found that, yes indeed, I was truly going to do New York on my own. Or possibly, not quite. My nephew had deputed an old friend of his to spend the evening with this ageing English Aunt. I didn’t know Bernt, but he sounded like he’d be fun, and I would at least have a native to show me the ropes on my first evening in New York. I’d planned to go to a cocktail bar that had live jazz, I’d also heard that the Duplex Club in Greenwich Village (where performers off Broadway go to unwind) was a wild place to spend the night. Much as I thought I ought to give it a go, the thought of going there on my own didn’t really appeal. My friend Tori said that it’s different in New York, strangers would talk to me – but considering my experience with the duplicitous Mr Prong in Bangkok I don’t have a very good track record. And what about bedtime? I’m not a three o’clock in the morning kind of person and my next two days would be packed. 10 o’clock and a hot water bottle is more like me. I’d wait and see if Bernt called.
There was another contact. Someone from my old school had seen my blog and said ‘hey, I live in New York City, are you going to come and see me?’ I was intrigued. His picture on Facebook was a black and white picture of a hairyish man, naked to the waist and hiding his face with his arm in an arty kind of a way. It didn’t give me a lot to go on. I’d asked for a better picture, but still his face didn’t ring a bell. I gave him a call. I didn’t recognise the voice either, though the English public school accent fitted. I described my tight schedule and arranged to meet the next day outside MOMA. We’d have lunch together.
Out on the street, the sun didn’t shine, but I told myself that’s sometimes better for taking photographs. If I understood my map correctly I could start my day with a visit to the wonderful Highline, a mile long linear park developed on a section of the former West Side Line railroad spur. It was just around the corner. Inspired by the Parisian Promenade Plantéé it seemed to me to be the best use of an urban railroad track ever. I wondered what it was like living next to nosy people like me getting a peek into your flat. I bet Hopper would have loved it. More of him later.
I could have spent longer walking the Highline, admiring the subtle planting, but conscious that it was just one of the many things I wanted to see had to drag myself away from the breeze swishing the grasses and busy bees working the flowers. I took a horizontal street, to make my way to the Flatiron. This impossibly svelte high rise, shaped like a Dairylee cheese wedge, is snuck into the pointy triangle between Broadway and Fifth Avenue. How it stays up is a mystery to me. No one in their right minds would design a building like this, but Daniel Burnham did, in the 1920s. When it was finished it was the tallest building in the world and it started a trend. I loved it. I loved the pictures I’d seen of it. I loved the story that when it first went up men used to hang around the outside waiting for the winds it created to lift the girls’, skirts and show them a bit of ankle. (My how times have changed.)
Seeing it in the stone, unwavering, made me fall in love with it even more.Then I saw that the first room in the pointy bit at the base had been set up to advertise a special exhibition of Edward Hopper’s drawings at the Witney. Two of my favourite things melded into one. How cool was that?
Now I had arrived. I was well and truly ‘here’.