Last year I visited New York for the first time.
“So what? You’re not the first person to visit New York.”
But for me, New York City was almost a pilgrimage of sorts.
I grew up in front of a TV screen. My mum told me recently that when we moved into our home of eleven years, above a pub she would manage in the centre of a village, that the most important thing to pack when we left was a TV. Back then, you didn’t just throw your flat screen in the car and take it on the journey with you, and so she had ordered one from the local electronics shop in the village. She had specifically told them that it MUST be there when we arrived. It was more important than our beds.
Of course, it was a day late.
She knew that if the TV was there, three-year-old me would be happy. I would have a twenty four hour box of entertainment. She wouldn’t have to worry about me.
The TV screen became the most important thing in my life from that age. I had friends on that screen, I had adventures and I had constant company.
My mum worked an eighteen hour day (minimum) in the pub as manager, but she would disappear for an hour or so to sit and watchEastenders, Casualty or Delia Smith (one of my absolute favourites) with me. It was something we could share, and still is over twenty years later.
And so, over these twenty something years, I’ve seen the most incredible things happen in New York City. People falling in love in Central Park, buildings exploding, cop cars chasing the bad guys, and always travelling by yellow taxi cab.
I knew what to expect, but I also had no idea.
Arriving at JFK, it was so… ordinary. Like any other airport across the world. We did, however, take a yellow cab to our hotel — The Waldorf Astoria, the same hotel Frank Sinatra had once called home.
The drive up to Manhattan was the most exciting part of the trip for me. We saw the outskirts of the city, with wooden slatted homes, old cars and neglected roads — just like the many portrayals of New York I had seen on TV shows and movies.
Our approach to the island was unforgettable. Seeing the bridge and the cluster of buildings behind it, the muted colours, distorted structures and clouds above it were instantly recognisable. My heart flooded with so many emotions, but mostly I felt the pressure and anticipation that anything could happen.
Once my feet hit the Manhattan pavements, I felt like a lost child in an ominous steel, concrete and glass playground. Every building was reaching up to the sky, steam rose from the floor, police meandered around streets to the soundtrack of voices, cars, cabs, businessmen and women, the homeless . It was mesmerising while also being entirely alien to me.
During the sunlight hours of the day, passing by huge structure after huge structure brought to mind the threat of movies of the past and present. Garbage decorated every street, and laid path to abandoned buildings which were the backdrop for the homeless as they begged for change. All of which certified the dark collection of images I had absorbed from disaster movies and action flicks, permeating a haze of menace which on the surface appeared entirely unjustified.
My days walking the streets and sightseeing felt more akin to Midnight Cowboy than Sex and The City — not that I’m complaining.
The night time, on the other hand, felt different. The glittering, flashing and whirring lights of Manhattan were inviting and this is when New York City made sense to me. This was the epitome of dreams coming true, of opportunity, drama and music.
It was when we ventured into Brooklyn with a New York native that I felt I’d found a place I could understand. Williamsburg, Brooklyn was the perfect ‘New York’ experience form me. The community vibe blended with true American life, but still harnessing a toned-down glitz and tingling possibility of Manhattan. Brooklyn felt like a place where stories happen organically, whereas Manhattan island remained a movie set in my mind, a canvas for the most creative minds, whether it’s Woody Allen crafting comedy, Martin Scorsese telling the story of a sociopath, or Gene Kelly dancing across the streets to fall in love.
Queens was home to The Museum of Moving Image, where we visited the Mad Men exhibition and I got to stand on the set of Don Draper’s office. This will forever remain a highlight of my life and yet in that moment standing there I felt entirely insignificant.
Ultimately, this says a lot more about me than it does about the state of New York.
The most bizarre part of the trip was in fact my reaction to the Statue of Liberty. One evening we took a boat ride around Staten Island to see the Statue of Liberty lit up and up close. Maybe it was the wine with dinner, but I felt profoundly moved to see her with my own eyes. There’s no reason that should be the case, I’m not American, but the moment felt momentous. Most likely, it’s simply the iconography of her and what she stands for, something I have had drilled into my skull via millions of images since birth, that brought such a reaction from me.
My pilgrimage to New York was such an incredible experience. To see the ‘character’ of New York City in the flesh was a privilege but also a little intimidating. The image I have returned to over, and over again is Gotham City. Whether it’s the comic book, movie, animation, TV show or game — Gotham is the hyperreality my mind felt most comfortable with and seems to capture my struggle between the foreboding and neglect, opportunity and success. There’s a place for Bruce Wayne in his expensive suits on Park Ave. but there’s also a dystopian sense in the scale of such a city that surely only a hero like Batman can remedy.
New York had everything I could hope for, except perhaps, reality, which is something I am never prepared for.