“I believe in New Yorkers. Whether they’ve ever questioned the dream in which they live, I wouldn’t know, because I won’t ever dare ask that question.”
— Dylan Thomas —
Earlier this year, an old friend who recently relocated to New York City dropped me an email with a simple request: “Do you mind dogsitting for us while we are out of town?”
As far as dreams coming true go, it doesn’t get any better than this: Two weeks in NYC, living in Upper West Side with Central Park on your doorstep, walking the streets of the Big Apple like a local (well sort of), getting the oppertunity to reconnect with friends from years ago while being kept company by the two most fabulous dogs ever… To top it all: It’s the year of my 40th birthday celebrations. A perfect gift.
To simply just ‘dipping my toes in the water’ has never worked for me. I’m an all or nothing kinda guy. Even though before my arrival I thought two weeks might be too long a time to spend in one city, my virgin eyes quickly realised that a lifetime would even be too short to explore and indulge all that NYC has to offer. It was part of my lucky fortune that my first visit to the Big Apple wasn’t just a touristy short city break.
It’s a cliché but it’s true. New York City is like the movies: yellow cabs, towering mirrored skyscrapers, steaming manholes, frantic tourists on Time Square and pizza slices. It’s very familiar and we’ve all seen it before — you can stay at home on a Saturday night and watch NCIS reruns and see it all… or not. This is why I didn’t bother visiting Lady Liberty or any other of the main tourist attractions — apart from the 911 Memorial and recently opened World Trade Centre Museum and after spending a very emotional morning at the 911 Memorial, I said to my friend: “Now it’s not just something that happened on television anymore.”
It’s already been a month since my return to London, but I still dream about the Big Apple… almost every evening. There are countless moments and memories to savour. These are the ones that keep me smiling:
1. Friendly goes a long way: Rude. Aggressive. In your face. Opinionated. That’s New York, right? Not so much. Yes, the pace is fast and people are constantly rushing around to be ‘somewhere’. However, speak to a street vendor, NYPD police officer or anyone on the subway or in the streets and they will most likely respond in a friendly, polite (if not a bit upfront) way… even if it is just to say: “Sorry, I’ve gotta be somewhere”.
2. Gotta be somewhere: Seriously, people are always on a mission. If you have FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), you are going to suffer terribly — chances are that even if you’re busy with something absolutely awesome, you are definitely missing out on something equally amazing happening just around the corner.
The trick is, to be absorbed in the moment. Enjoy it, because soon you’ll be rushing, you know, to ‘somewhere’.
3. Sleep?: If you find yourself in a city that really NEVER sleeps, 24 hour sleep-wake cycles cease to exist. Mine certainly did. FOMO? Perhaps. NYC is the only city in the world where I have woken up at 4am, knowing I will find homemade ice cream in a tiny parlour, bursting at the seams with punters, on a street corner in the East Village. Since the East Village stole my heart and since Odd Fellows’ ice cream was so darn irresistible, waking up at 4am was a joy… if not something to look forward to.
4. Get lost: The NYC subway works on a system of local and express trains. Local trains stop at all the stations. Express trains only stop at certain stations… Handy to know. A potential frustration (or blessing) if you don’t. Before I figured this out, I jumped on every train stopping at the platform. After being trapped in a hamster-wheel of express trains for about an hour, travelling back and forth between Houston Street and 103rd on the 1 line, I abandoned ship. Once above ground, I wandered around for a while, feeling a bit lost, until I found Christopher Street where the Stonewall Inn is — the birthplace of the Gay Rights Movement — where a few days later a friend and I danced and sang with a fierce drag queen, called Jaqui DuPrez.
A homecoming? I don’t know, but it certainly was a blessing.
Get lost, it’s great.
(Note: If you happen to drop in at the Stonewall Inn — and you should, if you wanna call yourself a proud gay man — don’t miss the upstairs area. It offers a bar mitzvah vibe, complete with multi-coloured flashing lights, a disco ball, velour curtains, leopard-print seating and, of course, a stage — though you’ll probably see more nudity than at your average Jewish coming-of-age ritual.)
5. It’s a local thing: In London, when you travel from Zone 2 to Zone 3 it’s considered a day trip. In NYC, people travel the distance… no problem. If you wanna jump on the subway from 59th in Manhattan to find fresh organic tomatoes just off 125th in Harlem, then that’s what you do. Or if you want ice cream at 4am in the East Village, but you wake up in Upper West-side… no problem.
If you know what you want and know where to find, you go get it. No matter how ‘far’ it might be… After all, you gotta be somewhere. It’s a local thing.
6. The burden of ‘social class’ died a slow and painful death a long time ago: “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, It’s up to you, New York, New York”… Those lyrics state a fact not a romantic ideal. The American Dream paves the streets of NYC. It’s in the air and it’s contagious. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you come from (the Bronx or Bumblefuck), or how big or small your dream is, it’s possible to achieve… as long as you own it and make the effort, it can happen. People respect that.
7. Speak your mind: One particular hot and humid evening, a handsome young man came up to me while I was taking photographs: ‘Hi, my name is Taylor.’ ‘Hi Taylor, how are you?’ ‘All good, dude. You don’t happen to be hairy?’ ‘No, actually I’m not.’ ‘That’s cool, dude. You still have a lot working in your favour’… a compliment very well received.
If you don’t like something, say so. If you like what you see, declare it. Compromise is rarely an option.
8. Rules are rules (stake your claim): The first time I entered Central Park I noticed a big sign telling people not to smoke in the park, to pick up their dogs’ pooh, clean up after themselves and not to make fires.
Lo and behold, nobody smoked in the park, dog owners all carried blue pooh bags and they used them (unlike Paris where dog shit is a serious public health hazard), and there was no litter in sight or any barbecue fires… The same applies for rules anywhere else. New Yorkers like to know where the boundaries are.
9. If there is a law that will help you to break the law, use it: The First Amendment in the American Constitution prohibits the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion, impeding the free exercise of religion, abridging the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peacefully assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances. It’s a tricky one and probably one of the most argued laws in the world…
However, when booksellers on the sidewalks of NYC were told that by law they could not sell their books on the pavements anymore, The American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) used the First Amendment to keep the booksellers on the streets. The ABFFE argued that removing the booksellers would be a form of censorship by imposing restrictions on promoting the free exchange of ideas (interpreted as freedom of speech), particularly those contained in books. The result: The booksellers are there to stay.
10. It has a big heart: Central Park is deceptively large. So it should be. It’s the heart of the city.
In the summer, there are baseball games between neighbourhood and borough leagues almost every day on all 26 baseball pitches — on Wednesdays you can catch the Broadway show cast members in the Broadway Show League at Heckscher Ballfields and the Great Lawn.
Runners, cyclists, yoga enthusiasts, buskers, artists, basketball and tennis players, and dog walkers all flock to the park any time of the day… and they don’t keep to themselves, they socialise and interact, even if you are a stranger.
I went for a run, twice around the Jackie Onassis Reservoir (5 km), every second day. On one of my runs — I must’ve slowed down a bit or looked like I have lost my will to continue — I heard a man behind me clapping his hands at a steady rhythm, encouraging me to pick up the pace: ‘Come on dude, you can do it.’ He joined my side and asked: ‘Wanna run with me for a stretch?’
Random strangers connecting briefly in the heart of a magical city for a run around a pond named after one of the most iconic women of the past century. Who wouldn’t embrace a moment like that?
11. It’s a dog’s life: You’d be hard pressed not to find at least one dog within 5 yards from you, in Central Park… Almost everybody has a dog. Dog owners are a clan and are almost as well-behaved as their pets when they stop for a brief ‘how are you’ until the dogs have finished sniffing each other out… and then on to the next canine friend and neighbour. It’s a polite but necessary ritual for both animals and humans.
If there is one thing true about NYC: The dogs have it good… and they know it.
12. Dog walking is a profession… and it pays well: Professional dog walkers are almost as iconic as New York’s yellow cabs and pizza slices (which, by the way, are delicious and an affordable way of eating out if you’re traveling on a shoestring).
There’s that one episode in Sex in The City, where Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) tries dog-walking to substitute her income… As expected, the aspiring author fails miserably.
Dan Fields (a dog walker I regularly bumped into), now he is a man you want to walk your dog. He has walked dogs his entire adult life… and at $25-$35 per dog, per walk, I can see why.
New York’s dogs live in apartments and need their walks at least twice a day. Walk 6 dogs at a time, twice daily… add a few regular clients to your list… You do the math. (Like I said, if you have a dream, New York will provide a way for you to achieve it.)
13. ‘Broadway’ is a religion and ‘Musical’ a second language: On the eve of the Tony Awards, I had lunch with friends at a fabulous French restaurant, Nice Matin, on the corner of Amsterdam and 79th.
It was a beautiful early-summer’s day and we sat outside to catch the sun and admire the talent on the streets. My friends gave me an enthusiastic breakdown of who they expected to dominate the Tony Awards ceremony… no doubt, Neil Patrick Harris and the cast and production team of ‘Hedwig’ were the main contenders. (They were right, of course.)
During a quiet moment in our conversation I eavesdropped on what the people around us in the restaurant and on the sidewalks were talking about: Broadway, musicals, theatre.
If you don’t follow this ‘religion’ or speak the language, you’re gonna feel left out.
14. On a different level: Waiting on the platform at West 4th, a man took position close me. He was what Londoner’s would a call a rough sleeper — a vagabond. Next thing, his deep, trembling Southern Baptist-style voice filled the subway station with a moving rendition of ‘Stand By Me’.
The buskers and street artists, each and every one I saw and heard, are on a different level. They provide the most beautiful and extraordinary soundtrack to the streets, parks, subways and sidewalks of NYC… take a moment, stand silent and listen to these angels, because they are indeed among us.
15. Time Square is impressive but forgettable: I’m not saying you shouldn’t go… but the typical tourist spots — Time Square, Lady Liberty and 5th Avenue etc. are forgettable… and like I said, you can always see these sites in HD at the movies.
Watching the boys from the ‘hood roughing it out on the basketball courts at West 4 Street Courts, walking along the Hudson River from 96th to 66th, drinking a locally brewed ale in a bar dating back to 1854 in the East Village, running in the rain with the morning joggers through Central Park, eating oysters and drinking wine for the bargain price of $9 in a quint restaurant in the West Village, or finding the perfect pizza slice in Brooklyn, sunbathing with the pretty boys on Christopher Pier overlooking the Hudson River and chatting to the locals in Christopher Park… that’s where you’ll find the magic of New York City.
16. You gotta have friends: The evening before I flew to NYC, I read an article about how the city is a tough place for singletons. The author of the article argued that even though everybody is outgoing, social and friendly, people tend to connect on a very platonic level. This means that for those wanting to build long-term relationships, things can get a bit tricky… ‘Gotta be somewhere’ seems to prevent people from making lasting connections.
This may or may not be true, I can’t say because I didn’t visit the Big Apple with the intention to find love. However, I did connect with people and I was well-aware that my interaction with almost everyone was platonic. After all, I was just traveling through… and they had to be ‘somehwere’. One thing is true though: In the Big Apple, where money literally makes the world go round, friends are the most precious commodity.
I was fortunate enough to know a few people in and around New York with whom I could share my experience. My best friend specially flew in from Denver to spend a few days with me… and when she left, the city just wasn’t the same — it had lost a tiny bit of its shimmer and charm. I can see how the city can be a very lonely place.
As is true in Life, without someone by your side in NYC who can share that awesome moment when something amazing happens, to who you can say: ‘Damn, look at the heels on that girl’, or who you can show a secret spot you believe nobody else has ever discovered, or who can devour a few plates of Oysters with you and still crave seafood afterwards… on your own, the memories are worth nothing — we need people in our lives to share our journey and to remind us that we are loved.
Friends are the ones who invite you to dogsit for them (secretly knowing you will cherish the experience forever), they’re the ones who weep and shake when they see you for the first time in 15 years on a station platform in a place both of you never imagined you would meet, they’re the ones who are part of the fabric woven into your dreams and aspirations. They are the ones who know you and who see you.
Days before I flew to NYC, a friend in London said to me: “Whenever I am in new York, I feel as if I can achieve anything.”
It’s true. If you’ve never been (or even if you have) go take a bite from the Big Apple. Make it personal. Dare to taste the sweet satisfaction of a tiny bit of your dream coming true.
…Concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do when you’re in New York…
Images: © Francois Lubbe/ Little Red shoes
Text: FR Lubbe, Little Red Shoes