New York

 

Night becomes day while I slip in and out of a truly uncomfortable sleep despite Greyhound’s claims of extra legroom and comfort, for which they congratulate themselves heartily whenever possible. Outside is a bland cityscape – a hinterland-scape – of turnpikes, roadside diners and McDonalds, nondescript housing and brown inbetween-land somewhere in New Jersey. But my heart skips a beat when I turn to see, stretched across a window of bright skyline carved out against the barely lit foreground, the crests of Manhattan’s spike-topped tower blocks and domes.

A sharp turn flings the bus into the Lincoln Tunnel, an entrance that shares the great square brownstones and muscular turn-of-the-century style as the city’s tenements, while inside its honeycomb white-tiled surface feels barely high enough to hold a modern supersized bus. The yellow sodium lights flicker flicker hypnotizing orange as we advance through the tunnel, and I awake with a start only minutes later at the base of a giant tower block at the Port Authority Bus station in the heart of Manhattan island and the middle of the madness of the city.

“Welcome to New York City”, says our driver Jarrold, a south Asian Montrealaise. “Sorry for the delays. Because of those officers at the border, we’ve been together almost 11 hours,” he chirps irrepressibly. “If they do that again, we will fire the lot of them.”

“Goodbye, have fun, enjoy Detroit”, says one of the group from Montreal who has come down for New Year’s Eve, as I have. She laughs at her own words, thinking on my travel plans to the motor city. “You know when you just can’t believe what came out of your mouth?”

One bag, two bags, three bags, coat. I struggle out of the surreal underground car park that is the bus terminal, built over several floors with road exits emerging at several different heights above ground level. I have no idea how that plugs into the rest of the city. New York City planners have clearly been hitting the meth pretty hard. I see a sign that says 8th Street and head towards it, only to be faced with turnstiles. An automatic gate opens from the other side and I walk through it. “Excuse me sir,” comes a firm voice, and I turn to see a sturdy female member of NYPD’s finest beckoning me. “You have to pay to come in here.” “Where’s here?” I ask, wide-eyed. Her eyes smile even if she doesn’t as she redirects me out of the subway and up to street level, another first timer inhaled into the city and sneezed out onto the streets.

The first thing I see at street level is the New York Post building, a modern skyscraper wrapped in fine steel gauze thrusting up with journalistic integrity from among lesser buildings. Modern towers and stone and brick buildings from two centuries ago jostle for space along the streets, where the height of adjacent buildings careens wildly up and down depending on, apparently, nothing.

I am heading to 6th and 31st Street. I am at 8th and 46th. I stride off. Wearing one bag and carrying two others I am a wide vehicle from whose bow-wave pedestrians have to move. In combat jacket and bags as far removed from Louis Vuitton as can be imagined, I feel like a human White Van – battered and in the way, but would you argue with it when moving aside is easier? I eye up street stands selling pastries and coffee, but the weight on my back demands to be dealt with first.

Cars are everywhere, but go nowhere. Having a horn is a sufficient reason to use it. At 8 degrees it is a full 15 or even 20 degrees warmer than the snowy Montreal I left behind almost 12 hours ago. Snatched conversation slips past my hood, American, Spanish, city speak. “An’ did your driver give you directions? Nawh, he did nawht”, someone behind me says rhetorically, loudly. A middle-aged businessman in a suit strides past in earmuffs. Three streets later I see a young, pale, wiry latino with gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes rocking a very different look but wearing the same utilitarian black ear muffs. For two so completely different styles, either one of them must be doing it wrong or earmuffs have a broader appeal in this city than I’d imagined.

40th, 38th. The streets tick down. But which way is 6th from 8th? I stop and ask. “6th Street? Well this is 36th Street. Do you mean 6th Avenue?” My first lesson: Streets run east/west, Avenues run north/south. Off I lurch, a greenhorn again, with a pocket full of Canadian funny money and too many bags.

I cross streets at traffic lights, walking in front of hordes of yellow cabs that are corralled behind the zebra stripes like a Red Sea held temporarily in check. I fight the urge to turn to complete strangers and say: “Hi there! I’m Mick Dundee, noice to meetchya.”

Where 6th Street should be instead I find Broadway, which feels strange to see that actual signage of such a remote and yet familiar name. But it doesn’t look like Theatreland at this end. I turn into a crowd of people and find myself next to a bold brass plaque and imposing doors bearing the name Macey’s, the department store. Shoppers are looking at fantastical mechanical window displays, steam-punk creations of ice blue and white and glitter, with pale, huge-eyed marionettes playing instruments, riding rockets, dancing on strange clockwork devices. On the other side of the street, Giselle’s already preternaturally long and slender legs are elongated to biblical proportions across the length of a 50ft advertising hoarding around the Victoria’s Secret store. All bee-stung lips and smokey eyes, propped on her shoulders her legs stretch up like a ladder to Babylon; or perhaps Babel, effortlessly compressing the distance between different spoken languages into an unspoken one.

I can see the apartment building now, as a siren screams the passing of a NY fire department tender. Only a few minutes wrestling with the door locks stands between me and whatever I feel like doing after 11 hours on a bus. But the view pretty much just brings me to a halt.

Nothing says New York like the Empire State Building, and it stands close enough from this apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows for me to see the texture of the marble fascia and the art-deco fan motifs on the window casements, close enough to see the flash guns going off from the black specks looking down from the observation deck, far above me. Just beyond that is the instantly recognisable sunburst arches of the Chrysler building peeking above its nieghbours, and to my right a tower capped with a golden spire as if it were a cathedral, but the effect makes it look like something from Ghostbusters and I suddenly think of angry Sumerian gods and marshmallows. Beyond that, resembling two giant oil well pump heads on some super-sized oil field, are the supports for one end of the Brooklyn Bridge. And in the distance, an impossibly long way away visible only because I am 35 floors up already, is more and more and more New York disappearing into smoke and haze.

Everyone in New York was once in New York for the first time. And now me.

Goodbye Montreal

 

Three months has gone by quickly, quick enough to remind me how quickly time passes even when you’re not having fun, and actually doing really mundane things.

Just walking around this city makes me realise how much I like it, even while realising how little I’ve scratched the surface of Montreal, or the huge expanse of Quebec – Canada’s largest state – outside the city limits. The broad streets lined with bare-branched winter trees, improbably wide North American cars, and the brick triplexes that are unique to this city (a housebuilding split into three flats with a presumably lethal-when-iced stairway to each); the alleyways between streets one can look down that keep going for miles through block after block; the cafes and bars whose names I don’t know and never visited, and all those I did; the 1960s metro, filled with modern art and stained glass, with trains running inexplicably on rubber tyres instead of rails; the easy beauty of your womenfolk, and they way they can veer from restrained European chic to dancing drunkenly on tables and bars in the blink of an eye, the tip of a cocktail.

Histoire de la Musqiue à Montréal, by Frédèric Back, 1967
Downtown Montréal as seen from the mountain.

I’ve loved the view from your mountain, la montagne, paths of crunchy russet leaves opening onto views of the steel towers of Montreal’s once important but now eclipsed business district, and behind it Buckminster Fuller’s dome for Expo ’67, the Habitat 67 housing blocks beyond the port, like a jumble of Lego blocks fallen mismatched, overlapping each other, and beyond that the vast expanse of the St Lawrence valley.

Habitat 67, designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie for the Montréal's Expo '67.

I was startled by the Olympic Stadium from 1976 – a year before I was born, it’s scandalous sweeping concrete curves and towers still conjuring the optimism of a future that was imagined decades before, still hoped for despite wars in Vietnam, the oil crisis, hyperinflation, economic and environmental decay.

Le stade olympique never got its opening roof to work properly, and took the city 30 years to pay back the $1.47bn it cost lending "the Big O" the new nickname "The Big Owe".

I loved your powdery snow, snow so fine it clung to everything yet still failed to infiltrate my shoddy footwear, and I loved your crisp, wintry days – such a change from overcast Britain – where a cold winter’s day could still bring sun and blue skies and send the ladies who lunch from Outrement scuttling out to bask around coffee at café tables. I loved speaking your names in your language, like “Mo’rey’el” and “Aray-anne”, and just speaking your language in general, or hearing it percolated through a slew of different dialects and regions; Lebanon, Algeria, Morocco, Haiti, Côte d’Ivoire.

He wasn't busking. He just comes to impersonate Hendrix for fun.

I met local lunatics dressed as Jimmy Hendrix, dancing jerkily like they were plugged into the mains; Frenchmen by the score looking for work; Anglophone students from Alberta exhausted from defending themselves just because they hailed from the oil-rich west; and endless folk espousing the excellence of the Montréal bagel over the New York bagel, or viande fumée over pastrami.

But in the final analysis you wouldn’t give me a job, you bastards, and if I can’t work I can’t stay. I feel I can blame the government in part – Canada is the world’s second largest country, but has a population of 30 million. There are more people in London than in Quebec and all the Maritime provinces put together, so it seems to me there’s room to spare. Schoolboy French, a glass ceiling and a culture of jobs-through-contacts didn’t help either.

(The “working holiday” visa that would have made this process much easier is only available up until age 30 – unless you’re French or, curiously, Irish. Perhaps it’s because they’re Catholic.)

Montréal bagels: more bready, less cakey and dense as those from NYC

And so I shall see in 2012 in New York City, returning only to Toronto for a couple of weeks before heading west to Detroit and Chicago. I won’t “see the real winter” as Montrealais keep reminding me, although I’m sure that continental Illinois and Michigan are not going to be exactly tropical by comparison.

Now that's some snow.

My French has improved, for sure, but not enough, and not well enough to cope with the local dialect spoken at speed and against the backdrop of pub noise. I bought some dresses for my niece and chatted to the shopkeeper for some minutes before the question of where I was from came up, and she explained she’d only been in Montreal for about as long as I – she was Parisienne. This made perfect sense as I could actually understand her, instead of just looking increasingly baffled until the inevitable switch to English, as with the locals.

I never found my groove, my niche, my social security number nor job to get up for in the morning. Which made for a funny sort of visit, neither touristy nor living and working. The most I had to show was a morning spent doing psychological clinical trials for $100 and three days of painting and decorating.

So I leave not a penny, nary a sous, richer. But richer for the experience.