Everything suddenly honks: it is 16:00 of a Thursday and we’re drifting back and forth amongst hum-colored cabs in the warm New York air. Unlike for the millions of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island by packed ocean liners a hundred years ago, there is no Statue of Liberty at Newark International Airport at which to gape starry-eyed. Instead, our first glimpse of New York, of America, is all drab buildings, rusty-truck yards and grey, trellised bridges.
“The light doesn’t look how I thought it would”, I say to Deaks, with whom I’m sharing a car (Ryan and Joe followed, the latter barefoot, claiming that the sheer quantity of Bloody Marys he drank on the plane had swollen his feet, rendering shoes useless).
“Give it time”, he replied.
“Yes, but it looks a bit like Runcorn...”
“Give it time”.
“... And the buildings don’t look as big as I thought they would”.
“Sir,” the driver interjects after watching the exchange in his rear view mirror, “That’s Jersey City”. He gestures over his right shoulder, “New York’s that a-way”.
Rising up through the smog, a looming silhouette of skyscrapers flutters ominously in the distance; a National Park of stone and steel.
New York City.
The Big Apple.
As we turn into NYC proper, the yellow metal boxes that hang on posts above crossings flash alternate pictographs for walking (a white striding figure) and for stopping (a red hand palm-forward) and I feel a tinge of disappointment that they no longer carry the friendly-stern command of a million photographs, movies and memories: Walk. Don’t Walk.
That’s the thing about New York; it feels so oddly familiar. A bit like Liverpool (Docks), a bit like Manchester (Ancoats), sure, maybe it’s because everything’s in English but more likely it’s due to the fact that it has been the habitual backdrop to films and television shows for... Well, forever. I guess what I’m trying to say is that after all the hoopla of entering - the forms, the interrogation, the searches/what have you - the thing that’s waiting on the other side of the barriers is not only awe inspiring, but actually very, very normal as well.
- - -
Despite the time difference, there was something in the air that made sleep useless and so it was we found ourselves, already forgotten new arrivals in Manhattan, tripping the light fantastic on the sidewalks looking for somewhere that a) basically resembled the gruff joint in Bruce Springsteen “Glory Days” video and b) we could sink a couple of discounted mini-pitchers in appropriately dim lighting. And then we saw her. This red brick, corner dive bar that has somehow managed to stick around on the Avenue of the Americas in trendy TriBeCa; our hold out, our sanctuary... Nancy Whiskey.
A haven for both high and low, the regulars were a mix of bums and shift-workers, thieves and off-duty cops, each looking equally likely to be carted out of the place in wheelbarrows. There was a juke box, a shuffleboard table (the only bank shuffleboard table in Manhattan), Irish and American flags over the old metal cash register behind the bar, and a toilet so small and graffitied it more closely resembled a phone box. They served Jameson and Guinness, but most people drank Coors or Bud (lights, y'know).
A sign nailed to the wall read, “FUCK COMMUNISM”.
- - -
Having spent the evening cracking the code of living life to the fullest, it was through squinting eyes that we drew our blinds the next morning to reveal the Big Apple stretching and yawning. The sun was hot as we made our way to the Burberry store on Spring Street for the show, and cabs stirred up the air breathing the smell of bagels and pollution around us. At the shop we were rather sweetly greeted by a rider of Newcastle Brown Ale and Bass Pale Ale, leaving me wondering if, in anticipation of our arrival, Burberry had researched life in The North of England and were also preparing some bread and drippings for us teas. They didn’t, however we got go out for pizza which, as their research will have probably told them, has been readily available in The North since the early 1980s.
The gig was like going late-night shopping on an evening when it's extra busy and instead of shop assistants, there are waiters with trays of Mojitos. Which is how shopping should always be really; wanton materialism with traditional Cuban highballs on the side (Morecambe Arndale Centre, take note). “What have you got to offer American girls?” we were asked by a journalist before the set. “Chlamydia”, replied Joe, successfully managing to destroy whatever hope we had of making it in the States.
- - -
After the show we went for a drink at The Standard Hotel in downtown Manhattan. Stepping out of the elevator and into a darkened room housing the distinct scent of chlorine from a heated pool in the corner, we made our way up a graffiti adorned staircase (atop of which sat a swimsuit and condom vending machine) and out into the infinite headroom of the 18th floor rooftop bar. Covered in grassy astro turf, the glass walls that lined it were flanked by round, pink waterbeds and pieces of white wicker garden furniture. The smell of crepes could be detected from a Nutella filled Airstream in the corner and the sound of tugs singing their deep and sonorous hymns of commerce was just about audible from the Hudson below.
By now the flow of the newly-renovated High Line and the sidewalks of the Meatpacking District had kindled with lights over the harbor, burning brilliantly below us. In the distance and hanging there like a million pairs of eyes against the black, night sky was the Empire State Building (oh so high), the Rockefeller Center (oh so high) and the UNO Building, each one dazzling, entertaining and stabbing into the clouds like metal Christmas trees. The moon was almost completely hidden, while the stars pretended to hide from the shimmering perspectives spread out below them.
It’s said that one belongs to New York instantly, and one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years. Well it was in those five minutes, sat above town, listening to the rhythm of the traffic, the grinding of the city and a million blazing taxis raising a roar, that all the sprawling, streaming, struggling and chit-chattering of New York made sense.
- - -
Cruising through the brownstones of Brooklyn, it's quiet now, and what it brings is everything, calling back, a brilliant night. We’re still awake and chewing at a rhythm on our bubble gum as we head to JFK for our flight home. In a matter of hours, I’ll come to at Heathrow, covered in drool, two bread buns and a rolled up napkin positioned upon my crotch by Joe and an over-familiar member of BA staff. Until then, as we pass bargain wristwatch sellers, yellow helmet labourers and skirts flipping over heels, over grates, over steaming sidewalks, it’s impossible to not feel coloured by New York.
For what a lark it had been.