I expected New York to be large and loud, busy and buzzing with energy.
New York was always one of the places where I wanted to live, and I thought that I would be swept up in its pace. What pace? When I left my hostel and walked south on Broadway in peak hour, it was quiet – there were few people and even the cars weren’t honking their horns. I continued south of Central Park, where the buildings grew shinier and the areas became more business focussed than residential, but it was the same.
New York seemed flat and grey. I missed the intimacy of Europe, the tiny alleys and renaissance buildings, the shouting market vendors and bakeries whose aromas pulled me in from the street. In contrast, New York was closed to me, completely anonymous. I walked down 53rd Street and 5th Avenue, feeling like I was just on a supersized version of William Street in Melbourne.
I continued walking, searching for the click that would make everything fall into place. It was as though there was a secret passageway to get into the life of the city, and I hadn’t found it.
By midday I was soaked in the ongoing rain. Then, as I was walking north from Chinatown, past Union Square, someone screaming snatched my attention.
“40 DAYS AND 40 NIGHTS!” a black man with elbow-length dreads in a clear poncho shouted.
“Buy an umbrella people!” I jumped back as he bellowed, “it’s cheaper than a doctor’s bill!”
“I think he’s scaring people off,” a guy said next to me, and I looked at him in surprise. Was someone actually talking to me?
“Well would you want to buy an umbrella from him?” he asked.
“Of course,” I grinned, “he’s passionate!”
I was in.
Suddenly I was talking to people . . . and (more importantly) seeing food!
Grand Central Station was a warm haven in the rain, and I started to dry off as I wandered through the market centre, looking at the fish, vegetables, fruits, chocolate and baked goods. When I headed back to my hostel that night, I was shocked by how many shops had names that included the words organic, natural, farm-fresh, healthy and gourmet, all of them with fruits and veggies arranged outside.
I prowled through shop after shop, wanting to buy everything. It was only after I’d chosen some salads and yoghurt that I realised I didn’t have any cutlery.
I stayed in the shop where I’d just bought the yoghurt, looking for spoons. There were beautiful sets of five stainless-steel teaspoons for $12, or fifty plastic spoons for $5. $12 was a bit steep for me, but I really didn’t want to buy 50 spoons . . .
I took the escalator to the basement, where two staff members leaned on the plastic cutlery display and chatted. I looked around them.
“Can I help you?” the girl asked.
“I’m just seeing what cutlery you have,” I said as my eyes scanned the numbers on the packets. The lowest seemed to be 25. “I just need one spoon.”
“Oh, go to the deli, Ricardo can give you a spoon,” the guy said.
“Really? Thank you!” I smiled and followed his gestures to the deli.
“Yo, Ricardo!” he shouted across the store. “Boss, would you get this young lady a spoon please, boss?”
Ricardo lifted his head from behind the deli as I arrived, looking suspiciously like he’d been having a nap under the counter. “What?” he looked at me groggily.
“I said would you mind getting this young lady a spoon, if it so pleases you boss sir!”
“Here you go, darling,” Ricardo handed me a spoon with a smile.
After this, New York started growing on me.
I loved ‘suggested price’ ticketing. At the Natural History museum, the ticket kiosk said $16.95 for general admission, and then said if I’d like to pay less I could go to the ticket counters.
So I went to the ticket counter and asked, “so, how does the suggested admission work?”
“You can pay whatever you want,” the girl said.
“Oh, okay. So I could pay, like, $5?” I asked tentatively, not sure if I’d get away with it.
“Sure, $5 please,” she handed me a ticket!
I visited Times Square, which was an explosion of neon lights and activity – advertising everywhere, hawkers trying to sell tickets to comedy shows, yellow taxis, tourists, and M&Ms world – exactly what I’d imagined New York would be.
But my favourite place was Chelsea. I went there to see the Chelsea Market – a warehouse of stores connected by exposed brick tunnels, selling food, coffee and wine, with a busker playing an electric cello next to a fountain/waterfall walled in brick and lit in neon purple. Afterwards I wandered around the area, and there I was enchanted by how quiet it was rather than disturbed. Rows of specialty stores lined small streets, along with ethnic restaurants and delis. Apparently art dealers migrated here from Soho in the 1990s, transforming the industrial warehouses into galleries, and now Chelsea is home to 300 galleries, mostly along 10th and 11th avenues. I liked how the factory grit met the boutique glamour – ground floor shops elegant fronts with large windows of goodies on display, while the buildings themselves were stained with smoke and had rusty fire-escapes zigzagging from the ground to the sky.
It’s strange when you consider that I was looking for the busy, glamorous city from The Devil Wears Prada and Sex and the City, that the part I really fell for was nothing like it.