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New York state of mind

New York state of mind
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First Published: Thu, Jul 08 2010. 10 04 PM IST
Updated: Thu, Jul 08 2010. 10 04 PM IST
You can tell it is summer in New York by the bright light that invades your hotel room early in the morning. In other cities, you want to hide beneath the blanket and sleep longer. But New York does not allow indulgence; each moment is precious, and you have none to lose. You look down the street from your 25th-floor window, and there is already a line of cars crawling along those linear streets. The day began long before you woke up, because the night had never ended. The city is on the move—you want to get down and join the crowd, otherwise it will race ahead of you.
The early joggers are already pounding the street. The man selling bagels has set up his stall. The newsvendor is ready with his supply of newspapers, chilled bottles of water, and granola bars for sale. The African man in dreadlocks has spread the carpet on which he has arranged the masks and beads and necklaces that he hopes to sell. Women in business suits walk briskly, carrying coffee from Starbucks, the waft of caffeine from its stores never more than a block away. These are formidable women—you don’t want to get in their way. I remember emerging from a subway station some years ago, and saw a man hesitantly asking one such woman directions to the Empire State Building, and without looking at him, and continuing to march, she said: “Do I look like an information booth?” But today is a languid summer day, and women off from work or on holiday are in frilly dresses showing bare shoulders, some in tank tops and tiny shorts fraying at the edges, competing for attention with the row of flowers that divide Park Avenue. New Yorkers don’t give either a second look; everyone is in a rush, so what if it is summer and half the offices are empty. But outsiders ogle: You can tell that tourist is from the land where women are rarely seen in public, by his protruding zoom lens, settling on the scantily attired young women in Central Park.
I walk past the lake, the Dakota Building where Lennon was shot, towering over us. The city is blasé about its landmarks; too self-absorbed to notice what matters elsewhere. As Saul Steinberg commemorated in the famous cover of The New Yorker in 1976, the view from the 9th Avenue is clear: The dense city gets sparse beyond the Hudson, turning less detailed beyond Jersey, with China, Russia, and Japan looking like tiny salt pans.
Not just landmarks, even world spectacles. The previous evening I was at a beer garden moments after Ghana ended the American dream. There was a giant screen, now gone blank. In a city such as London, Paris or Rome, the mood would have been angry, the conversation fixed on the opportunities missed. But here, people had already moved on, enjoying those tall glasses of beer, only the odd fan casually draping his body with the US flag.
In his 1949 essay, Here is New York, E.B. White divided the city into three categories: the city of the one born here, the one who commutes (whom the island’s natives now call the “B&T” crowd, for bridge-and-tunnel, the vestibules that connect this incredible powerhouse of energy with the rest of the continent), and the city for the person who came here in quest of something.
And it is the energy of the third that keeps pulling the city along.
That’s why New York does not tire, and nor do you tire of the city, and New York rejuvenates itself constantly. An elevated railway line becomes a pedestrian garden. A door without signs is a new speakeasy. A meat-packing district becomes the home of art galleries. Grand Central station reclaims its glory, with the ceiling of its concourse filled with astronomical signs, as if making sure you know your place in the universe—at its centre, never alone, never lost. If you’ve forgotten your date, right there is the clock, where people wait anxiously, at the stroke of 12, hoping to keep the appointment they’ve made.
New York can be brash, like those malls around Broadway, and sometimes it ceases to look like a neighbourhood, as with Times Square, now a permanent chewing gum for the eyes. But come winter, and the city turns sublime. No matter how often you pass by the Rockefeller Center, it is impossible not to pause and look at the large Christmas tree, and see dozens of people skating in that ice rink, your face showered by a flurry of light snow, strong winds slicing you as you walk between skyscrapers. New York becomes part of your DNA—its relentless pace, your heartbeat, those skyscrapers the city’s cardiogram. The city becomes a part of your being, and as you walk along the Brooklyn waterfront and look at Manhattan, if you close your eyes briefly, you can imagine the grey silhouette of the scene from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, George Gershwin’s rousing Rhapsody in Blue playing in your mind. New York is also the city of grand gestures. In 2005, the artist Christo draped the Central Park with saffron flags. This time, it is Luke Jerram, a British artist, who has randomly left 60 grand pianos in the city, giving your fingers something other than a keyboard to press. It might be noisy, but it is music for this city’s cacophony, and for your loved ones, a moment of pure epiphany.
Write to Salil at detours@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Jul 08 2010. 10 04 PM IST