New York, New York
There are some things only tourists can see in New York City.
To outsiders, the entirety of New York City feels like a movie set. It embodies every metropolitan cliché – bright yellow cabs streak through bustling streets, over steaming manholes and past fast food vendors on every corner. On the Upper East Side, old Jewish women scuttle from café to gallery to shopping precinct, bundled in furs. In Chinatown, first generation Asian-American students sit sullenly next to precious radiators behind countertops spilling over with the requisite New York memorabilia. These are designed for fairly well to do tourists can take home to their friends and families as trophies to prove how cultured they are. I wonder about the factory-workers who assemble these gaudy knick-knacks somewhere in Bangladesh or the Philippines. They’ve probably only ever seen New York on a television screen.
But for most of the Big Apple’s visitors, they might as well have saved the limb they auctioned off for a return economy ticket with Tiger Airways and stayed at home. It’s become a cultural pilgrimage to a place they had only seen reproduced in print and on the screen since infancy, just to make sure it’s real. And they get great satisfaction from claiming these icons as their own.
After all, isn’t it nice to say:
“So when we went to Time Square…”
And have my poor partner (or captive) in conversation reply:
“Oh, I know that! Wasn’t that where they filmed [*insert romantic comedy here*]?”
To which I can counter:
“Yeah it’s just like the movies.”
Or, if I’m feeling particularly cruel:
“It was pretty unimpressive actually. Much smaller up close.”
And thus, I prop up my delusions of grandeur with the knowledge that I have done something or gone somewhere “famous”.
There are three tiers to the travel industry in NYC. First, the basic, bare-bones, naked-and-famous bits – “postcard” tourism. This is the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, FAO Schwartz, Central Park, Macy’s. Second, the slightly more interesting (but just as commercialised) aspects of the city – the so-called “local hotspots” that real New Yorkers don’t engage with any more. See Katz’ Delicatessen, Harlem, Little Italy, every Subway-Surfing Mariachi Christmas tribute band. Third, the precious treasures yet to be swathed by tourists – the “off-the-beaten-track” recommendations I got from a friend with three degrees’ separation. (Please see the bottom of this article for a few humble suggestions eligible for this final category.)
Funnily enough, when I found myself in New York City, I never played the protagonist. Only a fraction of a critical mass. Here’s my script:
“Where can I find…?”
“Excuse me, could you take this picture?”
“Sorry, I’m not interested.”
“No hablo español.”
“But I saw it down the road for cheaper…”
This comes complete with tics – the incessant checking of maps, the trigger-happy finger that rests on an SLR – a gait – which ranges from amble to awkward jog when trying to get somewhere on time for a guided tour – and a costume – invariably slick parkas, many-pocketed backpacks, a coin purse hidden beneath thermal underwear, neck-warmed and sensible socks. So come winter 2012, I’m on the world’s biggest film set, dressed as if I’m about to ascend Kilimanjaro and dutifully playing my part as The Tourist Extra No. 682.
When I was on the Subway from Brooklyn to the Meatpacking district, a middle-aged, obese African American woman shuffled onto our carriage. She held a coffee cup with a few nickels in one gnarled paw. With her other hand, she dragged a bulging, fraying Costco bag along the linoleum behind her. She spoke in a surprisingly high-pitched voice, almost like a door squeaking on its hinges. I could count her corn-kernel teeth, which held back a slack, grey tongue like you see in aging cattle. Her wrinkled, pockmarked skin was studded with two eyes: one a fearsome black bead, the other milky white. Her wiry hair was knotted and matter around a clothes peg.
As I took all of this in, she began talking softly:
She repeated this drawl over and over, like an incantation. A few people gave her some small notes, but most of us tried to avoid eye contact. As the Subway trundled along, she raised her voice. A whisper became a craw became a shout became a scream. She was flailing about, trying to shake some stubborn New Yorkers out of their practiced silence. No one reacted. For some time, I wondered if I was the only one who could see her. It was a strange Banquo moment, as when Macbeth sees the man he murdered resurrected for his eyes alone. How could they hear that curdling scream and not react? My hand was inching towards my purse in my backpack, if only to silence her cries.
The white businessman next to me muttered through the corner of his mouth:
“Don’t give her anything. It’ll only encourage her.” He spoke as if it was like dealing with a misbehaving dog or a wayward toddler – starve them of attention, and they’ll leave you alone.
The woman must have heard us. She rounded on me, shouting a few inches from my face. I felt her spittle congeal at the creases in my forehead. I might as well have been the only person in that carriage, for all the help I felt my fellow passengers would offer if she attacked me. I was sweating, my hands were shaking and my toes were curled over tightly in my shoes in anxiety, but I managed to look away. A few seconds later, she lost interest in me and moved on to another victim. I realised what this scene reminded me of: in a documentary about San Antonio prison I’d watched on Foxtel a few nights before the guards would bellow and spit at the inmates, who were required to remain at attention, resolute and unresponsive. It was supposed to be a lesson in discipline.
But this felt more like a social experiment because in a minute or so, we’d pulled up to a station. The beggar woman did a strange curtsey and scampered off onto the platform, shouting “God bless!” over her shoulder. We’d all become the perfect bystanders, shaking off any compassion we might have had in order to survive. And now it was all over. The man next to me hadn’t flinched.
When travelling on the Subway, particularly in tourist bottlenecks, it is not uncommon for a vagrant to start accosting people for money. Where tourists will startle and offer up a bit of small change, true New Yorkers will fix their eyes on a scratch on the window opposite and stand their ground. These are the everyday conveniences and miseries that its locals have learned to live with. There are thousands of people employed in menial, archaic positions; shoe-shiners, doormen, waitresses hired specifically to top-up bitter plunger coffee in diners. For them, a homeless woman is just the cost of doing business in the world’s most famous city. For those of us unaccustomed to such privation, it’s nothing short of horrific.
The whole situation seems unreal to me as I recount it. Surely this didn’t happen in real life. It was like I was in a film or something…
In spite of this story, there’s a lot of hidden beauty in the world’s most famous city. Here’s a little list of things “off the beaten track”.
- Chelsea/Flatiron: on an early morning, be it rain, hail or shine, the city’s florists go to the wholesale flower markets to pluck out the day’s wares. If you’re there around five in the morning, expects to see hordes of locals buying luscious bunches of roses for four dollars a pop. It’s a strange natural oasis in the middle of a concrete jungle. The smell is like a tonic in itself. In the rows of storerooms wedged between Flatiron building and the Chelsea district, where you can find anything from civil war memorabilia to organic garlic, depending on the day of the week.
- Brooklyn: newly gentrified and now imbued with a wealthy upper-middle-class hipster clientele, Brooklyn is where the cool kids work and play. For some new duds, check out Beacon’s Closet – a prolific warehouse full of quality second-hand wares. Stay fresh with a visit to the Brooklyn Farmacy and Soda Fountain, where you can pull up a varnished wooden stool to a counter and chug down a homemade traditional Egg Cream for US$2.50.
- Central Park: half the fun about New York City is going places you know you probably shouldn’t be in, but doing it for the hell of it anyway. Just across the road from Central Park is Bauman’s Rare Books store – a compendium of all things parchment, leather and gold-embossed. It’s like a museum with free entry. Put on your best posh accent and a rented fur coat and pretend you’re shopping for your wealthy cousin’s bah-mitzvah. They’ll open up tomes from the seventeenth century, a first edition fabric-bound copy of Jane Austen’s Sense And Sensibility and even – my personal favourite – an original illustrated version of Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, which Disney’s Alice in Wonderland was based on. Then leave a fake number and say you’ll get back to them, or they’ll get antsy if you don’t buy anything.
- Upper East Side: while you’re in a whimsical mood, stop by the tea and scone house Alice’s Tea Cup. Its menu consists entirely of pastries and brews. They’ve since expanded to have three “chapters” in New York – a nice way of saying “franchise” or “chain”, don’t you think? The walls are painted with lurid mushrooms, caterpillars coughing smoke rings, lunatic hatters and dainty Alice figures. The terrace is furnished with old sewing tables and plenty of lace cosies. Their “Alice Special-tea” is exquisite. The pumpkin and caramel scone is substantial enough to be its own meal. AND it’s not too pricy, either. Note: they don’t take bookings over the phone.
- West Village: if you really want a celebrity fix, then head to the little-known Joe’s Pizza. This is literally a contender for best pizzeria in the world. Slices start at US$2.75. The walls are adorned with pictures of the rich and famous indulging in a cheese pie. Not just B-grade starlets, but people you’ve actually heard of: Brad Pitt, Matt Damon (with more than a few photos), Johnny Depp, Kobe Bryant, Britney Spears (in her good days), Lebron James, Lindsay Lohan, Michael Jackson (just after his surgery to correct vitiligo), Mayor Michael Bloomberg…