America at Last – Part 3
By Parson Thru
I awoke from a deep sleep with the sheets wrapped around me. I was lying on the lower of two bunks. Shit, we were in New York. It was a Sunday morning – our first full day in the US. I felt like a citizen. I couldn’t resist a look out of the window. New Yorkers were doing what Londoners, Berliners and city-dwellers everywhere would be doing on a Sunday morning: walking the dog, wandering back from the shop with a newspaper, heading down to the café for breakfast.
I woke Natasha. “Happy holidays! We’re in New York.” Within half an hour we were showered and heading down to the street to try out Ray’s Pizza & Bagel Café, which we'd found on the corner of the block during our midnight ramble. Ray’s didn’t disappoint. The myths began to fall like trees in the Great North Woods. The staff and customers in the café, were kind, helpful and patient, to a point – after all, they had a business to run or places to go. The whole city seemed so open and friendly.
We breakfasted on coffee, huge salmon and cream cheese bagels and a blueberry croissant that was really a huge pain au blueberry. I was surprised when the coffee came white and sweet as standard. We sat outside under the canopy as NYPD blue & white patrol cars drew up for breakfast and trucks rumbled through the junction. All against a backdrop of suspended yellow traffic-lights and huge hoardings made less huge by the scale of the buildings around them. And the sun shone on the whole scene – it was 1 May.
No matter what country or city we find ourselves in, we get around for the most part on foot. Over the next couple of days, we found out how walkable Manhattan is. From Ray’s, we headed down to the Lower East Side and Brooklyn Bridge. It was almost a straight road all the way, with the bridge itself guiding us from a good way out. The scale catches you out, and we ended up wandering around unfamiliar busy roads until we found the pedestrian walkway. We walked the upper deck of the bridge, looking across the East River and out towards Pier 17 and the Financial District. Out in the distance on Liberty Island stood the Statue of Liberty. The symbols were introducing themselves.
We were surrounded by some of the world’s great iconic buildings, with one notable absentee. We strolled about halfway towards Brooklyn, catching our first glimpse of the Empire State Building, and posed for the obligatory photos. Reluctantly, we wandered back off the bridge, with the consolation that this was just the beginning. Having got our bearings from Brooklyn Bridge, it was a short walk down to Pier 17 to take in the harbour-side atmosphere and a beer. We stumbled on an open market selling everything from fresh fish to hippie jewellery, then on through Battery Park and between steel and glass towers to the site of the World Trade Center – Ground Zero.
I was struck by the size of the site – mainly shuttered behind wooden screens – and how close the NYFD Firehouse is to where the buildings stood. Yards away across a narrow street sits the local firefighters’ drinking hole, O’Hara’s Bar. Those places must have been buried. It must have been like Pompei. We walked around the whole site – a mass of reconstruction on a huge scale – and stumbled on memorials, official and unofficial, to the rescue-workers and all who lost their lives that bright September morning. A dusty pair of firefighter’s boots and a bottle of Irish Whiskey brought a hard to swallow lump to the throat.
Back in 2001, I had been at work in Stanmore, London when I took a call from home. It was Natasha telling me that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I assumed a light aircraft had accidentally hit one of the towers. We wandered into the Director’s office to switch on the TV. A small group soon assembled, including Rod, who was on a two year exchange visit from the States. The south tower was already billowing smoke and flames into the clear sky and it became apparent that this was no light aircraft accident.
As we stood and watched in silence, the second passenger jet flew into the north tower right before our eyes. We gazed stunned, like everyone, as the buildings collapsed in a lethal storm of glass, steel and dust, then we turned off the TV. I didn’t know what to say to Rod. I just put my hand on his shoulder and told him I was sorry. We had just witnessed a callous and deadly attack on his home.
Natasha and I decided to head up-town on the Subway. I’d heard some bad things about the New York Subway but, like anywhere, once you get the hang of tickets and get your head around the map, it’s not so bad. We resurfaced at Central Park, where I wanted to find the Dakota Building, scene of Lennon’s shooting – paying my respects, I suppose. It wasn’t as I remembered from all the images, but I took a leap of faith and said a few words for him outside what I thought might be the entrance.
We sat for a while in the peace and space of Central Park watching the joggers, now ubiquitous around the world’s cities and towns. Finally we wandered over to Fifth Avenue, gorging ourselves on one iconic scene after another, great divisions of yellow cabs doing battle between the canyons of Trump Tower and The Rockefeller Center. In the evening we walked all the way back to Greenwich Village and ate in a Puerto Rican café a block away from the hostel. I was beginning to feel at home.