Guys in America really do wear Air Jordan’s don’t they. And they talk about God out loud in a non nutcase, deeply sincere way, ‘have you ever seen Lucifer himself’ asks a Hispanic dude in a suit to his mate, an African American in yet another pair of Jordans and a vote the Spanish candidate Charles B Rangel t-shirt. ‘Yeah that’s wat I’m sayin’, he answers, ‘he came to me twice in one night.’ Welcome to the land of the free to say anything.
The subway is full of public health campaigns. One from the mayor, one about condoms, one a peanut butter commercial moonlighting as health advice for your heart, and one for MCDonald. But this is America after all.
Some rangey street kids do a blokes version of a pole dance on the handrails on the E train. One hangs upside down, his Nike t-shirt slipping over a skinny stomach, as his mate beatboxes and someone watches their rucksacks. No one pays up a dime. Later three big black dudes get on. ‘What’s the time?’ Silence. ‘Whats the time?’ ‘Its four twenty’ a woman pipes up. ‘No it’s not. It’s duwop time!’ And out comes the harmonies and we all laugh and cough up some quarters.
Everyone’s husseling something here. Girls in bars fight to get your order, shop assistants follow you about to help, ‘hi I’m Bailey, did you get everything you needed?’, people offering make up, iced coffee, Popsicles in exchange for the chance to sell.
Each street is a mini village. Up early thanks to jet lag, you see morning joggers, juice carriers, dog walkers, nursery kids being taken for a walk like ducklings in a row, mail men, door men, work men. Naked people in apartment windows, air con units dripping and wrought iron staircases making you hear in your head the saxophone swoon of Rhapsody in Blue.
New York women walk to work like an army of Sheryl Sandbergs, these women wear flats and march, the grip frozen coffees or green juices, they all shield their glares with shades, they pout at red lights. They’re well cared for specimens of womaninty. On every street there is a nail emporium, one I saw as big as a church hall and buzzing with gossip, there’s ads for ‘blow outs’ everywhere, drug stores full of things to make you gleam and shine. On the rooftop of The Standard hotel at sunset, even the grungier girls are impeccable. And I think they know I’m watching. In the course of one night one girl buys me a beer and the other gives me her card, ‘call me if you want to come party.’ Ok ladies, thanks.
Men like to look good too. Admittedly this is Chelsea, we are in the capital of gay, in the capital of gay America, so there’s a lot of buff bros. My favourite was a dude on a bike, topless, sweat covered and pulled over at the curb taking selfies. Or the men in the old fashioned barber shops who sit like a row of talking heads in those old wooden swivel chairs, bodies covered up to their chins in barber blankets.
I see some of this upkeep in action when I go to a Soul Cycle class of 19th street. You check in at a hotel -style desk and take your cycle shoes before heading into a super spin studio. The instructor Izabelle was little and lithe bouncing around like a dancer, calling us to follow the ‘choreography’. This is a spin class. It’s not a barre class. But she was right. It’s rhythmic in a serious way - lots of dramatic pauses and changes in tempo, leaning left, right, back and constant bending and switches of arm shapes.
Everyone wippett thin and it’s true, there’s something quite motivating to be doing push ups off a bicycle in perfect unison with a room full of skinny sweating people, cheering and whooping. If we flag, the spiritual Izabelle, who stands on a candlelit stage, is on hand ’ what ever happens, I believe in you all. There comes a point in every class when you don’t think you can make it. That point is now. You can do this. Breathe in inspiration. Breathe out expectation.’ Yeah Izabelle! I got this!
Many street signs and posters are in Spanish as well as English. In the whole of the US 11% of the population are Hispanic. Here it feels more. The whole of the workforce that keep this great city moving are from a Spanish speaking nation - every maid, builder, waitress - seems to be Mexican or Dominican. The New York population pleases me for its diversity. While neighbourhoods themselves may frequently be ghettoised black, white, Hispanic in Central Park on the water walkway (sort of like a liquid version of The High Line for kids) children of every background play together. A gorgeous Japanese tot in edgy urbanwear, a beautiful Honduran girl with big gold hoops, a tiny African American babe with tight curly puffs tied up all over her head, a gangly ghetto boy bombing about splashing everyone, lily white Upper East siders getting their frilly dresses soaked.
But to them. It’s us who are exotic. They love the English voice. It’s like a passport for conversation. Everyone’s got a sister or a cousin in London. A nurse, a doctor, a student. A quick word and they’ve locked you in conversation. My favourite is Gordon, the maître de at a bar on Spring Street who majored in quantum physics some place upstate and explains to me the physical compounds of a biro and how my eye can’t keep up with the movement of electrons. ‘I hope I’m not boring you but it’s so great to speak to people who don’t just ask where their food is or for the cheque. New Yorkers don’t want to chat’.
Like a real New Yorker on a day trip my friend Alex (who is lucky enough to live here) and I head over to Governors Island. It’s a small man-made park built, it seems, for happiness. Everyone here is having a great day. They’re cycling, making being communal picnics or feasting on the good trucks, looking in the old military mansions at art exhibits or playing a strange game of quiddich with a pink inflatable sheep. A lot of the island was damaged during Hurricane Sandy but it’s meant an investment in building a new play area and hammock park in a yellow flower festooned space. The happiness prevails with groups of people swinging in a red hammocks looking at the Statue of Liberty feeling free of cares, free of responsibility, free to play a game of quiddich without judgement.
And then to Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill, NY’s nappy valley so it seems, with its silent streets with great big steps up to red stone houses that have shutters in the windows and look as though they’d be cool and quiet inside and those metal ladders you’d pull down and run up of you were in a movie. I loved it. Saving up starts now. I’m buying one.
We are in search of a soda bar. It’s a quaint new take on an old American favourite, the neighbourhood soda fountain. I pick drinks for the names, a Tootsie Pop which is cherry soda with a seltzer fizz and a float of chocolate ice cream and an egg cream which has no egg but with milk and soda and chocolate sauce whipped up into a meringue frenzy. Alex chooses a sundae of extreme proportions and confections. Complete with cherry on top.
We fight the sugar crash and walk the Brooklyn Bridge which is quite simply one if the most stupendous 30 minutes of pleasure I’ve ever had the delight to enjoy. The light is a steely blue as we hit the wooden walk way and the glow of the skyscrapers is turning the sky deep violet as it moves into an almost black. As it gets darker the rope girders of the bridge are silhouetted and the sights of downtown start to sparkle like a thousand postcards or intros to a movie. This is it. The New York you see when you close your eyes. Or hear one of those crooner songs.
And then we see her again. The Freedom Tower.
The Freedom Tower lacks the bombast of the twins it replaced, but there’s something magical about it. It stands quite apart in height from those around it, thin and elegantly proportioned - a proper New York lady. In the changing light of day it’s one time silver, one time pink, at sunset peach, one time blue - like scales on a fish leaping out the Hudson. One building that keeps shifting in appearance and outlook like the city itself.
I’m delighted with my ‘live like a New Yorker’ weekend. Workout classes, bouncing down 6th in my gym kit, proper Sunday brunch, metro hopping, drug store buying, sitting at the bar, green juicing, day tripping, cab hollering. When can I move over New York?! Let me stay!