I am writing this sitting on the fire escape. I have always wanted a fire escape. Something about the seedy threadbare romance of them appeals to me, conjuring up images of elegantly impecunious young women in wilted evening gowns and discarded heels, blurry-headed and smiling in the early hours of the morning after too much champagne, dancing and general gaiety. The metal handrails have been entwined with delicate strings of fairy lights which glimmer as the evening fades in. I am eating a slice of pizza and drinking a bottle of red wine while ruefully lamenting my taste in men. This seems a very New York thing to do. In the distance, the sky melts to a peach-tinged, tissue paper softness against the sharp black silhouettes of distant apartments. I feel like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Any second I expect I’ll pick up a ukele and start strumming “Moon River”.
I am staying in an apartment in Flatbush, a suburb in Brooklyn. From what I can gather, Flatbush is the equivalent of Sydney’s Marrickville – on the fringes of the gentrified suburbs, the population primarily African-American and Carribean with lots of hip young folk starting to move in because it’s affordable and close to where they want to be. I kind of like it, now that I’ve stopped worrying about being mugged.
It was all the rapping on the sidewalks that had me concerned to begin with. (NB. rapping, with a double p, not raping.) While I can appreciate that rap is essentially just a more urbanised – or perhaps ghettoised – form of contemporary poetry, it does seem to be overly reliant on a particular, very rarefied vocabulary: to whit, “nigger”, “bitch” and “mother*&ker”. (Or possibly “mothaf*&kah”. I’m not 100% certain. The professor from the Brooklyn Academy of Linguistics whom I consulted is yet to confirm which is the more politically-correct form.)
But as I said, now that I’ve adjusted to the rapping, I’m feeling quite at home. I’ve been in America for four days now, and feel I’ve done a lot already. I leave the apartment before 8 each morning and come back around 8 at night, spending pretty much the whole time in between walking. This is good, given the food that I’m eating: at some point, pastry and bagels became a staple.
So what have I done? (And bear in mind that this is just a very brief recap.) On the first day I walked around Greenwich Village, Soho, Noho, Nolita, Tribeca and China Town . As I said, I walk a lot. On the second day I went to the Guggenheim. I had intended to go to the Met but this was closed for a private function. (NB. This will be a recurring theme.) I then ate at the famed Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station (apparently those in the know say “Grand Central Terminal” which is technically correct, but you know, it doesn’t have the same ring to it, so I’m going to stick with the plebs’ version). Then I went to the Chrysler Building, the New York Public Library (reading room closed) then walked across Brooklyn Bridge and explored Brooklyn Heights and Dumbo. On the third day I went to Prospect Park, the Frick Collection then wandered down Madison Avenue. I had a picnic lunch in Central Park, then because I can’t read a map, spent several hours walking determinedly away from the very things I wanted to see. I then went to Brooklyn Botanical Gardens (closed for a private function), then explored Park Slope. On the fourth day I wandered around the Met. And on the fifth day I created all the creatures that move upon the earth. As I said, I’ve been busy.
At this stage, I’m not going to write about the places I’ve been, because, to quote the movie Airplane (keeping with the travel theme here, people), that’s “just what they’ll be expecting us to do”. And to be honest, I’m not sure I have that much to say of any significance. (I thought I’d developed an original perspective on the Frick, but then I watched the 12 minute documentary where the staff introduces the collection, and they basically said everything I’d been thinking and had thought was so profound and insightful: it’s great to receive affirmation that you are unique.) Also, it’s too much work. I tend to get a bit overloaded with detail and if I had to write about all of those places, well, I’d have some sort of melt-down. But if you’re genuinely interested, ask me when I get back and I’m happy to tell you over coffee or something. Don’t ask to see my photos though, because they either suck or are non-existent. (Sorry.)
In the meantime, here are a few initial observations on my time in New York thus far:
- The best thing about New York is the fires escapes. I am not being dismissive here; I am genuinely passionate about them. I may write a whole separate post on them later (look forward to that one!) and when I get back, will insist that my landlady gets one built immediately as an urgent safety measure. (Never mind that I live on the ground floor of a two storey building.)
- There are lots of sirens. In fact, the sirens are almost constant, which could create the impression that you are in a hotbed of crime and lawlessness. This is not the case. I have not yet been shot once, which ran against all my expectations. (NB. I have been stabbed a few times, but you know, I asked for it.) The sirens sound different to ours. While ours sound frankly alarming, American sirens sound like the keening of a massive, grief-stricken dog. Possibly they changed the sound because people heard the other with such monotonous regularity that they became immune to it. Or possibly a marketing executive decided they needed something fresh and funky. I don’t know. I’m only speculating.
- Flying once again in the face of expectations, Americans are actually really nice and friendly. I ask for directions constantly (NB. This is because I am almost always lost as a result of my phone not working and a general ineptitude when it comes to reading maps and pretty much everything else generally) and not once has anyone refused to assist or shot me. Instead, they are uniformly helpful and well-intentioned, and even if their information is totally and utterly wrong, they supply it with a smile, a “Have a good day, now” and a heartening absence of handgun activity. When I think of the occasions I’ve had to ask directions in Sydney, I can only conclude that Americans are far nicer than we are.
- New York in Spring is one giant, delightful garden. The trees in the streets are laden with pink and white blossoms – and I mean laden. If nature were capable of hyperbole, than these trees would be A-grade offenders. The blossoms are creamy and lush and dense and fulsome and while you’re looking at them, your heart swells impossibly with joy and you can forget everything else. At the gentlest breeze, clouds of filmy petals float into the air and settle on the sidewalk like snow. Colourful bulbs are everywhere as well – tulips, daffodils, hyacinth, lupins – in all the front gardens and window boxes, in planters outside hotels and in terracotta pots on the stairways of apartment blocks. Red tulips are particularly popular; impossibly big, bobbing on their stems like air balloons tethered by green ropes. It is as if Amsterdam has temporarily docked on the grey footpaths of the city.
- Everyone knows about Central Park and Prospect Park, but they are just the beginning. At the cross-sections of city streets, tucked away like folded green handkerchiefs are tiny, higgledy-piggledy parks, criss-crossed by footpaths and lined with wooden benches. They are filled with people, separate but gathered together, reading the paper, drinking coffee, just enjoying the sunshine. They are immaculately tended, valued and cared for; beating green hearts of the community. I love that.
- Bagels, pretzels and hot dogs really are available everywhere. The cinnamon and raison bagels at the café near me are excellent. I have them with cream cheese, even though it doesn’t really go, because that is a very New York thing to do.
- The names of places are frequently absurd, but no-one seems to question it, because, I don’t know, it might make them look like a hick or something. But seriously – Noho? What sort of name is that? Flatiron? And Dumbo? (Just for your information, it stands for Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass – but who actually knew that?) And Alphabet City? That’s like something from the Wizard of Oz. You expect a series of hamlets populated by people whose names all begin with the same letter. (“Good morning, I’m Abraham Atkins and this is my neighbour, Andrew Adams. May I also introduce my cat, Abigail?” Actually, this would explain Alan Alda. Also Buffalo Bill, though he may not have been from New York.) Why do people just take these names in their stride rather than saying, “You know what? That’s a weird thing to call a place!”
- There are squirrels (!) That is all.
- I am in love with brownstones. They are so beautifully elegant, but homey at the same time, with their broad slopes of steps and squat comfortable curves. Sometimes when I see them, I feel almost overcome with joy and delight (NB. similar to with the blossoms). Fire escapes also elicit this response. Sometimes I wish I was younger so I could try on a different life. That life would involve living in a brownstone with a fire escape.
- I apparently look like I have money. This is reassuring, as I don’t. I think it’s because I strike the right tone. If anyone wants some pointers on how to do this, my advice is to keep your spine absolutely rigid at all times (think an umbrella stand or a Christian fundamentalist) and try to speak as if you’re Julie Andrews after a long and exhausting tea party. People will then offer you samples of extremely expensive skin care serums in Madison Avenue Boutiques. These will cost between $300 and $400 apiece. In order to avoid purchasing these products, you will have to draw on a recent shopping experience at Kiehls and explain that you only use skincare products that harness the anti-aging properties of glaciers. When the shop assistant regretfully informs you that said creams do not harness these properties, you will be able to decline purchase gracefully rather than looking like a cheapskate.
- Dandelions look different in America. Their yellow is more intense and they’re tougher, bawdier – possibly because they’ve been reared in the ghetto.
- Did I mention the fire escapes?