An Englishman in New York

I don’t travel enough. Never have. Find too many excuses not to go, not to adventure. So although I’d wanted to visit New York City for years, I set off with some reluctance. The day before flying was dominated by a sense of dread that something would go wrong. As we left, I was able to impose order onto my worry by thinking of Barry Gray’s music to Thunderbirds Are Go (1966). That helped get me off the ground, up to the point when I remembered the exhilarating novelty of flying. We chased a sunset into New York, and I will remember well the otherworldly feelings that came looking back from the sunset ahead to the moon behind, lower relative to me than I had ever seen it. All capped with flying over the city lit up at night, its twinkling lights reflected on the Hudson and East rivers.

Different places, even ones we consider closer to what we know, intrigue and fascinate me. Perhaps that won’t wear off even with time. To see the US on a screen at home is one thing, but to be within it, to see different typefaces and terminology on signs, to hear a different accent on public transport announcements, to hear the voices of authority changed, is something else entirely. On the air train out of the shuttle, I couldn’t shake the nagging sensation that I had stepped into somebody’s fiction. As I became used to it, it occurred how simple it had been, filling in a few forms, clicking a few buttons, to make it so that I could leave a friend’s house one morning and arrive in another world a few hours on. What a precious thing it is.

I went on ferries under bridges to Lower Manhattan, and I looked down from the Empire State over the skyscrapers in Midtown. Looking down at the inanimate buildings, I could imagine the whole city empty of life, with only the stationary buildings left, a monument to all our species has built and achieved. And all this at most a couple of centuries old. The grandeur of age, the audacity of youth. They stand as an emblem of the idea that began the country. Promise, optimism, boundless hope. The 9/11 memorial showed me that. Where the twin towers had stood, the memorial sinks into the ground, its design creating the illusion of bottomless depths. And metres away from where the towers fell now stands an even taller one, the ultimate defiance against their attackers fifteen years ago. My eye was drawn to it from afar every day.

Symbolism is one thing, but it is the ceaseless activity below that shows the real life of the city, that sees the buildings are still imbued with meaning. One enormous, all-encompassing community. The woman who worked at the Museum of Modern Art who had family in Manchester; the staff of all the best independent cinemas and bookstores I’ve ever stepped in; the orchestra of a production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde; the Hassidic Jewish families whose neighbourhood my hotel was in the heart of; the man who tried aggressively selling me a CD of his music in Times Square; the middle-aged volunteer in a museum incorporated into the synagogue on Eldridge Street, whose grandmother had fled the pogroms to work in hope at a sewing machine in a tenement building, not realising that her granddaughter might one day cast a vote for the first female President. All of them New Yorkers.

I felt as if the city itself knew this too. There was something in the unseasonably warm air, almost tangible. Not just climate change. It was as though you could feel the spirit that bound the city together. It was, admittedly, what I was looking to find there. I experienced a different New York completely to the man who walked past me slowly in Union Square, shuffling on a bad leg as he quietly swore at himself. But as an outsider looking for it, I found it. An atmosphere, one that felt impossible to tarnish, of openness, liberalism and celebration.

I watched the third presidential debate in the hotel on Wednesday night. It felt to me very different watching it over there. Unlike post-referendum Britain, I couldn’t sense recriminations here, only security. At present, I no longer believe Donald Trump will triumph. I don’t believe he will win the election, but even if he did, he would still fail in New York City. His ideals simply cannot breach the shield that protects it, the spirit that binds the city, the values woven into American mythology. It will always win there, while fear and grievance never will. Fear and grievance didn’t build and restore and honour the synagogue on Eldridge Street. They didn’t build museums or form an orchestra or put on a Broadway show or build a bigger tower. For all the warts of a metropolis it bears, and there are some ugly ones, New York’s spirit cannot be broken.

As I arrived back in England today, settling down in a pub for a few hours as two drunk men identified me as something other than an alpha-male and threw bits of fruit at me, I wondered if perhaps I had dreamt the whole thing. But I suspect it is still there, and in many other places, and here too, for those who wish to find it.


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