Sunday 6 September 2015

We stayed in an Air BnB in a Brooklyn Brownstone, up a narrow flight of stairs and through a living room crowded with rugs and couches.

Our room was at the front of the building, overlooking the street, and maybe the nicest in the apartment. It was clearly lived in by someone. She had decorated the space above her desk with vintage eyeglasses, and left a To Do In 2015 list prominently displayed. We didn't open the wardrobes or chest of drawers, but it still felt oddly intimate, and oddly sterile, like staying in a historic home, done up as the inhabitants may have left it, with a mishmash of artefacts typical for the time. 

We went to a restaurant called Pies 'n Thighs. "Pies, for my thighs," said Sylvia happily. 
"We never would have found this place without a local," said Jesse. Sylvia has lived in New York for over a year, but we had known each other well in New Zealand. 
"Look at that crocheted chicken leg," I said.

Raymond was visiting too. It was his first time out of New Zealand, and he said it was exhilarating to be around so much theatre, that he had fallen out of the scene at home, that he didn't like his day job. 

We were sitting around tiny sidewalk tables outside another cafe, drinking boozy milkshakes. Mine was bourbon-bacon flavoured. It had wide lardons of bacon at the bottom, and I fished them out with the straw and ate them. 

Raymond was saying a director had emailed, but he wasn't sure if he should audition or not. I scolded him until he said, "Fine!" and emailed the director, saying yes please, he would like to audition for the role. 

It was tremendously hot. We went for a nap. 

Later, we went out to a place called Barcade. It is a bar filled with arcade machines. I won the fourth-highest recorded score in Tetris, then played a racing car game and lost absurdly. 

Jesse played shooting games. "Do you remember this?" he prompted. 
"I mostly only played Tetris," I said. 

We were in a yellow cab, riding across town, to someone's favourite bar. It had pool tables, but the bathrooms were surprisingly clean. 

We did picklebacks: a shot of whiskey, followed by a shot of pickle juice. The pickle juice erases the whiskey, so the effect is like a drink of cool water on a hot day. 

I made friends with the bartender, and then the bartender's fiance, who plomped down on the stool next to me, to be friendly. I made him watch New Zealand memes on his phone. "Always blow on the pie!" he crowed. "That is just - that is just something."

He told me about the circus scene, that government regulations were killing it. "If a man with lobster hands wants to walk over broken glass, then play the piano, then let him!"
I tried to say something about accessible and well paid jobs, but muddled it, and gave up. We watched a video of him swallowing fire instead. 

Sylvia was ready to go. Her date had forgotten my name. "It was SO nice to meet you," he was saying to Jesse. "And you - it was nice to meet you too - Jesse's girlfriend." 
They stumbled out. I tried to hail an Uber, but all the Uber drivers had gone to bed. 

"I might go to New Zealand," said the barkeeper's fiance. "My brother did."
"You should - the beaches," I said. "And the mountains."
"And the haka!" he said. "It's awesome. We should do it!"
I said no, that it was cultural misappropriation, and we shouldn't, but he was standing up, and a bottle of whiskey slipped from beneath his jacket and smashed on the floor. Raymond, Jesse, and I stood outside and shivered, until the cab arrived. 

The next day, we took two buses to Prospect Park. Our Air BnB claimed it was central, but it didn't seem to be close to anything at all. 

It did have a cat (noted under amenities), but it was resisting my attempts to befriend it. 

Prospect Park seemed a world away from the city. A hundred steps in, and New York disappeared, leaving only trees behind. 

I was entranced by the squirrels and gophers, feeding them the cashew nuts I'd bought as a snack in Auckland Airport, a world away. 

One afternoon, we walked over Brooklyn Bridge. 

New York has been a dream of mine for too long, a place so filtered by movies and novels and TV screens that when it came true, it hardly seemed real. The Brooklyn Bridge represented the signifiers - skylines and movies and a hundred songs. The city seemed to flicker in and out of focus, from the signifier to the signified, the real city, hot and dirty.

The Brooklyn Bridge became an epicentre for this leg of our trip. We set distances by it, and orbited around it, visiting the park at its base for a sit-down, for a wine. I rode the carousel. How wonderful, to have a carousel in the middle of a city. 

Another evening, we sat and watched a show in the Brooklyn Bridge park. I don't remember who was playing, but I remember watching the locals sit and picnic and dance, and seeing the sun set over the Hudson. 

But this afternoon, we walked over the Brooklyn Bridge with Sylvia and Raymond. 

The wind was blowing, and they were cold. I pulled a cardigan, and then a shawl out of my purse, but no one else was so prepared. We stopped in at the Gap, and they all bought jumpers. It seemed absurd, to be worrying about material things like bodily comfort on holiday, but what would I know: I was warm. 

The financial district was deserted, but waist-high piles of rubbish lined the streets. "Now that's worth a picture," said Raymond. He was using a purchased-just-for-the-trip iPad mini to take photos, and I loved him for it. So practical! 

"Look at that fallout shelter sign!" I said. "That's worth a picture." But no one was listening. 

We took the free ferry to Staten Island and back, to see the skyline at night. We were all exhausted by this time, from too much walking and the chill of the night, and huddled on plastic seats, assuring one another that we should go get a wine, after this, maybe, or maybe another time?

Another time, Jesse and I took the subway to meet Raymond for brunch. I was directing, and sent us wrong, but we called Raymond and headed back in the other direction, despite out delays early for our rendezvous. 

The trains were grimy, and hot, the platforms seeming breath, a sharp, damp exhalation with every train that passed.

Sylvia had said, "Don't take the M Train. The M Train will break your heart." The M Train was closet to our Air BnB. We never had a moment's issue with it. New Yorkers only saw the flaws in the subway system. They couldn't see the miracle beneath their feet. 

After brunch with Raymond, he showed us Sylvia's neighbourhood. She was at work, but he showed us her front door. I took photos. 

We walked around Sylvia's neighbourhood, taking photos of the street art. Raymond snapped pictures of Jesse and I with his iPad and posted them to Facebook at once. So practical!

Travel resists all narratives but the most mundane. I feel as though I am writing What I Did In My Holiday for my Year Five teacher, because in a way I suppose I am. Here is the story of another afternoon: 

We went to the park.

Oasis is a better word for Central Park than it is for Prospect Park. Prospect Park envelops you, and the city is forgotten entirely. In Central Park, it still threatens, always bleeding through at the edges. 

Jesse said: "When I was here with Kat, we saw a man standing there," (he pointed) "catching baby turtles in a net. Later, we went to Chinatown, and saw the same man selling them. We talked about buying them and letting them go, but we didn't."

"I think they're called terrapins," I said. He was silent, remembering. So was I, trying to recall a poem I'd memorised as a child for some class or other, about terrapins, I called them Orpheus and Eurydice. That was all I remembered, but maybe the poem wasn't really about turtles after all.

We went to the Natural History Museum, and looked at animals in dioramas. 

They were dead and stuffed, against backdrops that were not quite skilful enough. I thought about a line from The Collector, about how "a single specimen makes no difference to the fate of a species," and of how many people must have stood and looked and learned since the single animal's sacrifice, and still felt terribly sad. 

We went up buildings, to look at the view. 

We weren't sure exactly where we were. Sure - we knew where we were, in New York city, at the Top of the Rock, or up the Empire State building, and we could pick out Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge, but all the other buildings, and the million lives within them were a mystery. We wandered and took photos instead.

I wanted a photo by the 30 Rock sign, because of the TV show. 

Jesse wanted a photo by the lego sign, to make fun of me. 

I thought I might cry in Moma, the sight of all the paintings I'd only ever seen reproduced. 
"It's the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction," I said. Jesse looked blank. "Walter Benjamin. Two first names, I always think that's so funny. Something about an aura. Never mind."

What was amazing about paintings is the colour and scale. My high school art history teacher used to show us slides, yellowed and greened with age, so we viewed the Renaissance from underwater. She saw them differently than we did, urging: "You have to imagine! The colours are beautiful!"

Jesse wanted to go to a sports game, and I was agreeable. "It's expensive, though," he said. 
"Can we afford it?" I hesitated.
"Yes - but." he said.
"Then we should go, but don't tell me how much it costs." I tried not to translate everything into New Zealand dollars, and then into material goods. A week's groceries; a week's rent. How many times will you visit New York in a lifetime? Twice? Ten times, but only with the best of luck? I didn't want to miss out on anything. But I didn't want to worry about it either. 

We went to the hockey game. 

Someone handed us each a tea towel as we entered Madison Square Gardens.  "What is it?" said Jesse to me.
"I thought it was a tea towel, but it's the wrong size and material," I said. "Did I ever tell you that I read online somewhere - some stupid blog - about Tea Towels are the Perfect Holiday Gift, and the comments section was full of Americans saying 'Cute! But what is a tea towel?' And the author didn't really know either. They said things like, 'You can line a tea tray with it, or use it to wrap a loaf of fresh-baked bread.' And I thought, how wonderful, a country where everyone has a dishwasher! And has never seen a teatowel in their life!"
"Our Air BnB doesn't have a dishwasher," offered Jesse.

The tea towels were sweat towels, intended to mop a sportsplayer's dewy brow. It was cold in the hockey rink, the chill emanating from the ice below. I shrugged into the free t shirt draped over the back of my chair. Jesse pointed out that it insinuated the Rangers, but was careful not to show the logo. "No wonder the tickets cost so much," I said. 

The men around us - they were all men - waved their tea towels around their heads when excited. When the whole stadium did it, it looked like the ocean - flecks of white against a field of blue. The men swore in heavy Jersey accents, and yelled advice to the players: "Skate! Skate!" The man next to me turned to his friend and said: "What they need to do is play defensively." The friend agreed. 

My favourite evening was a quiet one. We went to the West Village and ate gourmet hot dogs, then walked the streets, stumbling into a dance party. 

Later, we sat nursing craft beers, a different one every round, watching people go by. 

The bar was tiny and crowded. People younger than us were playing with the jukebox, putting on 90s hits, and the whole bar was singing along to Oasis. 

"This is exactly what I thought New York would be like," I said. 


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