by Zoë Sharp
I make no apologies for this post. It’s something I wrote back in June 2005 after our first visit to New York since 9/11. It was just some jumbled-up impressions, made because the place hit me hard, and I wanted to remember it afterwards. It’s never been published anywhere before. It wasn’t my turn to post last Thursday, on September 11th, but I wanted to mark the date anyway. And when I rediscovered this file on my computer and read what I wrote, three years ago, I thought this seemed fitting.
It’s June 2005 and we’re going to New York. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Sounds better than good. Use up all those useless Air Miles on seven hours crated like a veal calf in a BA 767 with the romantic name of the Chatham Naval Dockyard. Over-fly Central Park and Manhattan on the way in with my nose pressed against the glass, abandoning all attempts at playing it cool.
Rice paper-thin upholstery on worn-out seats on the bus from the airport. When the hell did they put in sleeping policemen on the freeways? Oh … are the roads always this bad? The bus drops us in front of Grand Central Terminal – not Station, if you don’t mind. What happened to door-to-door service to our hotel? "It’s only three blocks down and one over. You walk." Here we go. Big city rip-off starting early. The last time we came here was ’89 and we got stung hard enough to put us off coming back. Same again?
No. The hotel is, indeed, only three blocks in the soggy heat. Judy Bobalik’s there waiting for us on the corner. Big smiles. Big hugs. Maybe this trip’s not going to be a repeat performance, after all. The temperature has a mass all of its own. Why did I bring so many black clothes?
Hotel’s Italian-owned and run. Even I, a professional photographer for seventeen years at this point, can’t work out what kind of lens they used to make the rooms look so much bigger on the website. Damn Photoshop. Still, most of the lights work and, more importantly, so does the air con, even if you can’t hear the TV over the top of it. And who needs that promised view? We’re only going to be sleeping in there, after all.
And it’s central, got to give it that. Midtown Manhattan, squeezed between Lexington and Fifth. Every street sign cues a song. Sometimes literally. We mostly talk Judy out of bursting into chorus. What do we have that’s equal to this? ‘A Foggy Day in London Town’ and ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’? Give me a break.
Sunday morning out in the heat to the Empire State Building just a little way south on Fifth. Even first thing the lines are so long they hand out fans to stop us keeling over. Have your photo taken before you go up? "Next!" snarls the grim-faced woman behind the camera. Er, no thanks, I think we’ll pass.
Express elevator to the 86th floor, funnelled through the gift shop and out onto the viewing balcony. So why do they sell golf balls up here? The fence is big enough to get your head through, big enough for unobstructed pictures. Top of the world, ma. We look south towards the financial district and the hole in the skyscrapers where the Twin Towers used to be.
Greenwich Village. Woody Allen films. A walk through a street market, drenched in heat, past food that you just know smells so much better than it’s going to taste. Call in at Partners & Crime and find they have a first edition of my first book, KILLER INSTINCT, that I can sign for them. Still feels like I’m defacing the title page, not enhancing the value. Watch a street magician entertain the crowd, including us, in Washington Park, all sleight of hand and slick patter. Put a twenty in the hat and don’t feel cheated. Leave before the breakdancers start. Eat in a Tex-Mex and take a yellow cab back to Midtown. The driver’s name is such I can’t tell from the ID card which way round it’s supposed to be. The traffic all seems to communicate by Morse horn.
Monday we get out early to beat the heat. Judy’s organising so we’re in the best hands. Grab a vanilla cappuccino and have breakfast at Tiffany’s. Walk north through the spray of the sidewalks outside the big stores being hosed down for another day.
The Guggenheim Museum, Frank Lloyd-Wright architecture, faded like it’s taken to drink. Central Park’s immense tranquillity, listening to the trees breathe for the city. We stop to study a map and a guy on a bicycle offers instant assistance, demanding only that we take one of his poems in payment. Dog walkers and power walkers and people on powered scooters. Past the Dakota Building by horse-drawn carriage ride, remembering where I was the day John Lennon was shot. ‘Imagine’ in mosaic in Strawberry Fields with a lone candle. Gone but not forgotten.
South to Ground Zero. Don’t know what I was expecting but a raw naked construction site wasn’t it. For a while I’m nonplussed, then a single paper crane tied to the fence sets me off and I can’t even read the heartbreaking graffiti without filling up. Cross the street to Century 21. We’re told it’s the best place to shop for cut-price designer names. Maybe if you like shopping in a scrum, fighting over crumpled clothes that still seem way too expensive. Normally I love to shop in the States, but this time my heart isn’t in it.
Back out on the baking street again. A woman sees us looking at the map and stops to offer advice. Statue of Liberty? Ride the Staten Island ferry. It passes close enough and it’s free. She’s right and we get a stunning view of the skyline from New Jersey, across Manhattan to Brooklyn while we’re at it. "I went to Staten Island, Sharon," sings Joni Mitchell inside my head, "to buy myself a mandolin." All we see of the place is the inside of the ferry terminal building. Maybe next time.
A lift with Reed Farrel Coleman to an Irish bar somewhere on the Upper East Side as the light starts to fade and the neon turns stunning. That twenty-minute window when the light’s perfect. I should have brought a tripod. Another maybe next time. There will be one, I know that now. Sit and drink and talk, watching baseball on the screens until midnight. Even then the streets are crowded. "I want to wake up, in a city that never sleeps …" Way to go, Frank.
Z-shaped fire escapes on brownstones, steaming vents from the street, an eccentric guy in a fur coat and – we initially fear – not much else. The tackiness of Times Square where my father sat eating dinner a lifetime ago when the billboards flashed the news of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
Macy’s. The biggest department store in the world. For the first time I get attitude, a sneer. Maybe that’s just department store staff the world over. Maybe I just look too poor to shop here. We hurry south, unable to find a cab that isn’t taken, for our appointment with SJ Rozan’s ‘If We Don’t Know We Make It Up’ tour of Chinatown. Damn, I hate being late – even if it is only a few minutes.
Cooler now. Winding through fascinating streets looking at the paper goods you can take with you to the other side and unidentifiable food stacked up on sidewalk stalls. Get your shoes mended as you go. Eat dim sum and learn to salute an emperor pouring tea, walk the streets of Lydia Chin and Bill Smith, looking at the spaces where their buildings ought to be. A melting pot of religion and culture, a part-restored synagogue and a Buddhist temple. Eat green tea and wasabi ice cream in Columbus Park.
Every area seems exotic. TriBeCa, Little Italy, East Village, the Lower East Side, Broadway and 42nd Street. Don’t call Sixth the Avenue of the Americas or everyone will know you’re a tourist. Yeah, like the accent doesn’t give it away.
The next day Reed picks us up for his promised tour of Brooklyn and now we’re driving the haunts of Moe Prager. We cross the Brooklyn Bridge and into a beautifully artistic run-down area filled with writers’ bars and Mafiosi pizzerias. Even shabby looks chic.
Who would have thought egg cream would taste so good? And why aren’t there eggs in it? One slice of New York cheesecake shared between four of us and still more than we can handle. Sheepshead Bay and Coney Island. Hot dogs at Nathan’s. "You ever hit a baseball, Andy?" No, he hasn’t. But he does, nine times out of ten. He and Reed ride the elderly Cyclone, gleeful like kids, laughing in the back seat. The Boardwalk in the drizzle, the ghost of the parachute drop in the mist, memories of someone else’s childhood, a dead teddy bear in the street. Cops changing a wheel in the street outside Moe’s old precinct. Stuff of legends. We were there.
Back to Manhattan through one of the tunnels, cruise through the trendy areas. "De Niro has a restaurant here." Eat in the Second Avenue Kosher Deli, served by black-haired Diane, who must be eighty if she’s a day, food I’ve never heard of before and couldn’t have ordered without an expert guide. A whole new experience. Rain, then that light again. I could spend a lifetime photographing this place and never repeat a shot. Better people have already tried.
A last breakfast, trying not to be sad about it, sitting drinking coffee on the steps to the Public Library, watching people trying to snapshoot themselves in front of the lions, then it’s all tight goodbyes on the sidewalk, the bus, the airport, charmless service from the BA staff, a cramped flight with too little water. Home. "Hey, we just got back from New York …"
And yes, it really is as good as it sounds.
I’m travelling this week, so may not be able to reply to comments as quickly as I’d like, but I hope you’ll bear with me.