It’s often been said that when it’s three o’clock in New York, it’s still 1938 in London. I think Bette Midler said it first. It wasn’t always the case. In Thomas Jefferson’s day, both cities were “cloacinas of all the depravities of human nature.” Temporal disparity aside, the two sayings dovetail in a common truth: there’s always something heady going on in New York City. On an August afternoon eight years ago, I found out all about it.
I’d flown in from San Francisco and took a cab at JFK. I figured that’s what you do when you go to New York the first time: grip a gritty windowsill and watch the city unfurl like one of those sweet silver screen montages. There it all was: steel iron bridges, the prodigious sprawl. The cabbie cranked Tom Petty’s ‘American Girl, and everything felt good.
AJ and J-Smooth were waiting for me in Brooklyn, brothers and colleagues from a hostel I used to work at in Melbourne. They were in town for a tourism junket. Old faces in a new city on the boss’s account was always a good recipe for an enthusiastic jaunt.
We dined in Little Italy, after which we attempted to knock a wise-talking clown into a plunge pool of freezing water at an alley carnival, before settling in for pints in Greenwich Village. Café Wha’s purple neon floodlit the pavement across the road, and I imagined David Lee Roth’s uncle running the door, the flowing freaks of the sixties watching Fred Neil and Karen Dalton inside, and a young Bob Dylan croaking that timeworn voice for the first time outside his Minnesotan home.
At the next karaoke bar, a bubbly, coercive redhead served PBRs and blew real fire from her mouth from one end of the bench to the next. We added J-Smooth’s name to the karaoke waiting list while he used the bathroom. I joined him for rousing choruses of ‘New York, New York,’ and backed it up with Dirty Dancing: J-Smooth working the female falsetto, me holding down Swayze. AJ hurled abuse from the bar, dodging third degree burns from the fire-throwing waitress. The place was, for all intents and purposes, a dive, empty but for us, a couple of gals from California, and a trio of old college pals, overweight and drunk, of whom one stumbled up to belt out a fathomless rendition of ‘American Pie’.
Afterwards, we wandered across to the West Village, to another watering hole where the last legs of a buck’s party were moments away from buckling. The buck was legless; the groomsman, head plunged into a booth table. They were Australians, of course, and we chatted with the groom’s uncle, last man standing, a cattledriver from the back of Bourke:
“City’s a mad place,” he croaked, clawing a cigarette. “Lookin’ forward to the weddin’…then gettin’ the hell outta here.”
The two Californians back at the karaoke bar had left at the same time as us, and came along for another drink. The bucks party imploded, but we five kept the candle flickering until halfway to sunrise, before taking Bleeker St and Lafayette back to Brooklyn.
With red-eyed regret, AJ spruiked tourism shop with international vendors the whole next day, while J and I lumped out at the crack of noon to investigate the Big City.
There was a lot to pack in. Grand Central dwarved us with its marble columns and enormous stars and stripes. Strolls down 5th avenue led through bustling Midtown, five-lane one-way streets rammed with honking cabs. A van blared past with ‘Ahmadinejad is a Terrorist’ scrawled over it. ‘One Way’ street signs were vandalized to read ‘No War.’ Hot air plumed through subway grills, and fresh, hot pepperoni was smelt in ubiquity.
Scraper-lined boulevards formed colossal corridors, and I knew then what Capote meant when he said:
“New York is the only real city-city.”
Later, Manhattan sun hugged us as we sipped drip-feed coffee bigger than yer head on the rocks by the southeast corner of Central Park. Waves of euphoria sailed in on the caffeine rush. Anything and everything felt possible here.
J and I got lunch at Rupert’s Deli next to NBC Studios. The sandwiches were stacked high in the New York way. J ordered a ‘Letterman.’ I had the ‘Schaffer’ (more or less the same as the Letterman, but with extra ham). Large crowds were milling outside for a Letterman taping. A black Lincoln pulled up. Out swaggered Bill Clinton, and a meaty detail of bodyguards in black.
We ventured south to walk lunch off. The World Trade Center was still a gaping hole in the ground. On Wall St, much more than the sun was about to fall. News crews screeched onto to the scene. Reporters smoothed their coats for live evening crosses.
“Something must be up,” said J.
“Guess we’ll see it on TV.”
Wasn’t much in the end. Just the collapse of the financial system, and the onset of the GFC. Evening dawning, we ventured out to meet AJ in Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue.
Word of advice in New York: don’t take the bus. J and I did, and got incredibly lost somewhere in the jungle grids of Brooklyn. The streets darkened, and the bus’s interior fluorescence made us feel we were on a hell ride to nowhere. We disembarked at the next decent looking stop, and searched for the subway.
We’d landed in the middle of a Hasidic Jewish neighbourhood. Every man was in a black tie and shtreimel, every woman in plain navy, the young girls in blue, the boys in stripes. We interrupted two men mid-conversation and asked for directions. They ogled at us through bottle cap lenses, like we’d arrived from another dimension. Their calm chat turned into energetic debate about which way we should head, despite the fact that both seemed like they’d never ventured past this block before. ‘Thatta way,’ said one, the other insisting on the opposite. Setting off an argument, we left the two to hash it out, and trod further east none the wiser, past spooky warehouses and lonesome parks with eerie dead playgrounds. Hasidic town transformed into tumbleweed silence, uniformed families replaced with shady crews on street corners. With relief, the L-line station was just another block. A quick correction led us at last to a knackered AJ in Williamsburg for a sophomore night of camaraderie and frothy American delight.
In another night’s worth of bars full of neon and faux timber, TV screens were lit up with Wall St’s latest collapse. And if not that, relentless election coverage, now just three months away. Prodding locals on their political opinions revealed a loose split – half gave a shit, the other half didn’t. Obama? McCain? Fahgeddaboutit. One spark plug entertained us out on the street. He looked somewhere between Stallone and Joe Pesci, the kind of guy that could slur aahhhhmwalkin’ere with the best of them. He had to run – New Yorkers all seemed to have to run – but he left some steely advice:
“Be good –
And if you can’t be good…
Feeling dangerous on watery beer in 40oz polystyrene, we lapped up endless jukebox tunes in red leather booths, until another threshold of wee hours stole the night away. A 24-hour bakery provided sweet treat salvation on the home leg: the baker, a neurotic Argentinian with steam to let off. He wouldn’t shut up. We ate his pastries and sat there for at least a half hour, taking in his rants about how the modern world was shot and how New York sucked. He suggested we stay on our side of the world, where things were surely much nicer. A reasonable ringer for Al Pacino, J requested the baker do his best impression of Scarface, which he nailed:
“Here is your Danish, pal…and say hello to my little friend.”
We laughed, and the baker smiled, maybe for the first time in a long time. We walked home in the cool Brooklyn night.