When I was in my final year at university, my friend Tom and I had a simple plan for the future: Move to New York.
This was back in 1998 and when the internet still hadn’t really come into its own. Nowadays, you just google ‘How to move to New York’. Luckily I had a friend from New York who could help us, so I did what we did before the days of email and I handwrote her a letter.
I was straight to business, New York style. I needed information: Dear Helen, I wrote, how do you go about renting a flat in New York?
My letter had two major flaws. First, that in the USA they don’t say ‘flat’ but ‘apartment’, and secondly that my handwriting, while full of flair and character, can occasionally be a little messy. The close proximity of the letters ‘F’ and ‘L’, unfortunately came over as a single letter, an ‘H’. So Helen received a letter filled with the following questions:
- How easy is it to rent a hat in New York?
- Can you rent a hat for two or more people?
- How warm are the hats in New York during the winter?
- Can you keep a dog in a hat in New York?
- Do you know anyone who might be renting out their hat while they go away? We’ll just need a hat until we find a hat of our own.
We never moved to New York in the end.
I don’t regret it, because I’ve done so much else in life, but occasionally as I walk around Linköping, Sweden’s third most exciting city for events (decision pending), I sometimes wonder how different life would be if I’d spent a few years in the Big Apple instead.
Last week I was there for the third time in my life, and as always, I felt at home immediately.
I love the energy of New York, which hits you, the moment you get off the plane. While I have reservations about the rest of the US, there is nothing I don’t love about New York. The people and accents and sounds and smells from all over the globe. If you live in New York, there’s no need to travel. The world is already on your doorstep. Every colour, every language, every personality and every increment in the spectrum of humanity. Within yards of each other, you can see the richest and the poorest, visibly flaunting or wallowing in the hand that life has dealt them. It is Dickensian and inhumane, as well as being the stuff of fairytales. The narrative plays out and all you can do is make your own contribution to the tapestry of the city, playing a bit role in the drama of the metropolis.
Without being glib or naive, there is still a uniquely NYC positivity from characters that seem to be at the bottom of the heap. On the Subway, a beggar in a wheelchair gave his spiel to the passengers. We heard a horrible story of how he’d ended up paralysed following an accident. With no insurance, his only choice was to drag his twisted body from carriage to carriage to raise enough to eat. It was a medieval sight. His story was believable, because in New York, such a story is believable. He told us that he didn’t drink or do drugs and he wasn’t proud of where he was, but that this was all he had. As he left the carriage, he wished everyone a nice day. His parting words were to be happy and remain positive, because however bad things seem, there is always someone who has got it worse than you. He wasn’t talking about himself and he wasn’t looking for pity. He believed it, and it was probably this mantra that was getting him through the day.
Despite the reputation of New York being a tough city - and it is a tough city, no doubt - it is also one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been to. It isn’t just easy to get chatting to a stranger, it’s almost impossible not to. You make new friends quickly, they may be ephemeral and of the moment, but they are genuine. Disparate characters enjoying a shared humanity.
When you aren’t in New York and try to imagine a New Yorker, to play act being a New Yorker, it always feels like the impression is too much - You do the accent, and the gestures and it's unconvincing, stereotyped, the expressions and phrasing over the top. The reality is, that pretty much every New Yorker we met was beyond parody, beyond the stereotype. It was as though the New Yorkers of our imaginations were bland compared to the real deal.
This trip, one of the highlights was meeting an old news hack called Brad, a wise-crcking New York Jew. Imagine Larry David turned up to eleven and a half. Among his many yarns, he told us the greatest story of Rock and Roll journalism I’ve ever heard. A music journalist in London at the height of the early eighties New Wave scene, he’d followed bands like The Fall, Flock of Seagulls, Television and more. And then he told us about the time he’d interviewed Bob Marley and The Wailers in a flat in Hackney. We were captivated as he painted a picture with words. There he was, with Marley, Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer in a room thick with ganja smoke. Brad set his tape recorder going and Marley prosthelytised for an hour and half. We were drawn in by Brad's description and asked him what Marley had said. Brad clapped his hands together and broke the spell “I have no fucking idea! I couldn’t understand a fucking word he said!”
Everyone in New York has a story and everyone is fighting to get ahead. I love the game, the spiel of the city. The energy which can make or break you. Most are not winning, but everyone sees themselves as winners, or like the guy in the wheelchair, they are winners who are just going through a temporary losing streak.
It’s a cliche, but I *heart* NY and I would go back there at the drop of a hat.
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