Thursday, 14 November 2013

New York

The journey from JFK airport is made aboard a bus, wrapped in plastic, in order that it could then have advertising printed on all sides. Sitting inside the bus it's dark, light comes in from the windscreen, bright against a line of shoulders. That you can't see America, because you're wrapped inside an advert seems like a metaphor for so much more.

I arrive on October 29th, before evening’s through I’ve been told by three people that it’s the one year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, the storm that claimed the lives of 53 New Yorkers (and some 70 Caribbean people who suffered with the irrelevance of not being American). Of the three who draw my attention to the Sandy anniversary, two spell out exactly what this means in terms of time. “One year... three-hundred and sixty five days!” Americans are obsessed with history... mostly their own, and especially where they can quantify it. 

Ordinarily I live in London. The city mayor, Boris Johnson, claims it to be the best job in the world, in the greatest city in the world. I find this a particularly American style of accolade, the impulse to quantify the subjective in terms of the absolute. If we are to enter into this contest, I fear New York probably beats us. I write that sentence and remember an old conversation, an American who laughed at that British tic of language, our excessive politeness. “‘I’m afraid’, or ‘I fear’... you British are afraid of a lot of things.” Americans fear nothing. Only germs and allergies.

This afternoon I’ve a meeting in an office on the junction of Eleventh and Forty-Fourth. Just the location is American, direct, to-the-point and reinforced by that same style of dialogue I’ve learned in a thousand films that fifty years from now will all be called movies. I’m aware that, back in London, this meeting would be at the corner of Fenchurch Street and Philpot Lane, which can’t help but sound impossibly quaint, mild-mannered by comparison. I know Americans who would find the same difference remarkably civilised, even refined. For liberals of the world, other cultures always seem more impressive than our own.

I’ve decided to walk to this meeting, taking the most indirect of routes because – truth be told – no matter how smug you are about being from the Old World... everyone goes a bit weak-kneed where looking around New York is concerned. Beginning at the Empire State Building, I walk up Fifth Avenue, make my way west through Central Park, my route a tour of names and places that define the cultural epicentre of the human universe. I become splendid by association, improved by proxy. This article is not an examination of whether London or New York is the capital of the world, for if such a thing does exist, you find the verdict on walking a single block of Fifth Avenue. Your head has to tilt a long way back on your neck before eyes hit sky. The bonnet of the delivery truck sits above the height of my ears, the post boxes could fit people inside of them, lend an appearance of industry to the mere act of human communication. Five lanes of traffic. Pavements twenty people deep. I’m dwarfed. Later this afternoon, in the meeting at Eleventh and Forty-Fourth, I’ll ask a Frenchman and a Swede what they think is the capital of the world. Neither seem to have an opinion, nor sense the need for one. Obviously the concept is more of a thing for English-speakers. I wonder, what’s the French for “pissing contest”?

I make my way up Fifth, up Fifth, up Fifth. The advertising takes me, sinks in, ever the best and loudest examination of the psyche of a nation. In New York and you find the exceptional on every corner, Merit up in lights, system-works, that transcendental ideology that remains the only unifying feature in America’s entrenched and polarised modern politics. One by one, the billboards make their case. “Have an idea. Make it happen” is the contribution of Spanish bank, Santander, quickly learning how to speak American, so that a bank bailed out by the collective EU taxpayer has set to peddling the myths of the individual. “Let your next project be the one you’re remembered for” is another offering, a reminder of that Big Time everyone’s heading for in this country defined by an optimism for its future. An adult college hawks its wares on the side of bus stops, I pass by three of their pitches, one with a mother studying in order to earn good and set her daughter up in stage school, another aiming to improve her wages so as to support another daughter, a talented dancer. Work hard and see your children through to stardom, the barometer of good parenting. All over the city are adverts for a website,, my favourite is the one with a black man and a book, promoting literacy. Apparently it’s a good idea.

At the top of Fifth comes Central Park, littered with boulders of granite, the bedrock onto which the skyscrapers of Manhattan were built. Autumn takes the trees, leaves falling to red or branches falling bare. I look up at a young man, sitting cross-legged on a rock beneath the dark outline of a tree, an image that could've been cut from the Alps or the savannah, were it not for the metropolis that stands over him, the park shut away inside. A line of dogs makes its way towards me, six leashes leading back towards the same walker-for-hire. He contorts, leans, fusses in pockets before emerging with his hand inside a plastic bag. He crouches to pick up a warm pile of shit, just in time for another to start sliding from out the back of another dog. If animals don't have senses of humour, I appreciate the scene on their behalf.

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