Monday, 22 June 2015

All that is solid melts into the air: New York City

Imagine, the joy of traveling reduced to the stress and agony of finding a place to park your camel legally. Did Ibn Battuta suffer this senselessness during his great travels? 

For quite a number of years, I have been fantasising about New York. I have dreamed about visiting it as a lover tourist, visiting places, landmarks and moods made famous by songs, films and fellow New York lovers. Having studied in London, the other great Western metropolis and center of the world, I always felt New York would be a grander and less depressing experience. 

I have always found myself depressed by London's greyness, its vast sea of loneliness, which despite best efforts never gets dissipated. 

I was able to finally visit New York in 2012, pregnant, on a Baby Moon witHaresh. I was there only for a day and what a wonderful day it was. Haresh and I had sojourned at a hotel on the outskirts of the city the night before. We drove into the city the next day. As we crossed the bridge, I felt exhilarated. The bridge was massive, steel beams, with lower and upper levels. I saw the famed yellow cabs, and felt enormously excited.

We drove straight to Time Square to meet my American Community Schools (ACS) Athens high school friend, who along with her husband, has an office close by. I was going to meet Evie Zambetakis after more than a decade. We had stayed in touch all these years via letters, post cards, e-mails and a common love of pretty stationery. Our reunion was really sweet and I felt nothing had changed. She's one of my friends with whom I have not shared a common physical space since school but have stayed in touch with her as a childhood companion, dutifully updated each other with news in our lives. I also got to try red velvet cake with her for the first time at a Dean & DeLuca cafe!

Later that evening, Haresh and I had dinner with a former UNDP Liberia colleague, Paavani, who took us to a Korean barbecue restaurant. From South India, this friend was the first to educate me about how different North and South India was. I'll never forget how she declared that South Indians drink coffee when I offered her tea.

Later that evening, Haresh and I enjoyed a comedy stand up night, where he and I inadvertently became the butt of many jokes. 

The first visit to New York back in 2012 was a completely different experience. 

This year's one has left me exhausted, drained and confused. Where was the New York of my dreams? I am not even sure whether I love New York even more. 

Granted this time around, there were two additional people with us: Kavita and my mother. Granted, we did not plan our trip. But still…

We arrived in New York late afternoon from DC. We had not planned our itinerary and were going to go with the flow as we had all this time. We were going to find a hotel on arrival, go with our moods and instincts. It had suited us so far, why not in New York, city of infinite possibilities?

But we suffered! We did not find a hotel in our price range (Haresh found a very expensive one and I put my foot down). We put the hotel search off and decided to catch some sight seeing instead. (We later learned that calculating how to spend time against speeding time became the way of doing things as a tourist in New York) The day was coming to an end and we had to figure out opportunity costs and trade offs. We decided to park our car and walk around. But no, that was another parallel universe of stress. Haresh drove round and round until it was pointed out to us that parking was free after 7 PM in certain designated spots. There were 20 minutes to kill, so we drove round and round some more. That and my previous spat with Haresh was really killing my New York buzz.

Imagine, the joy of traveling reduced to the stress and agony of finding a place to park your camel legally. Did Ibn Battuta suffer this senselessness during his great travels?

Despite slightly agitated temperaments, our excitement was still alive. We found a place, took out Kavita's stroller and decide to walk about, and enjoy New York. We were in Manhattan, not too far from Time Square. My mother was also in good spirits, and up to walking around. "Ami, dekhain, kitnee oonchee building hai!" We started walking around, marveling at the tall buildings, and enjoying the mood. We were quite hungry and I was hoping to spot a pizzeria for a famous slice of New York-style pizza or a stylish deli, all these hopes fed by TV programmes of course. We settled for Metro Cafe for a simple, tasty early dinner. We took a photo using my mother's iPad and I posted the picture on my mother's Facebook. My sister immediately commented and wondered what we were doing in a McDonalds.

Foolishly, we decided to browse the Internet on my mother's iPad to look for hotels. We thought we were being smart. I had seen a Trivago ad on TV a few times and, was inspired to use a seemingly fool proof service. We reserved a mildly priced place in Brooklyn (instead of driving out to New Jersey) to 'check out' later. We felt proud of ourselves. Of course, we could trust the Internet!

We kept on walking to Times Square and met a huge crowd of  tourists and New Yorkers, enjoying the neon lights, giant TV screens, in the warm June air. We saw New Yorkers calmly watching a basketball game, sitting on barriers, their faces transfixed on the screen, necks arched, suited types, legs crossed over, staring intently, retired types, sitting on Starbucks outdoor seating, enjoying the game. It was a moment of pause, in a madding crowd. How are you meant to enjoy this madness, I wonder? I felt like I was on a concrete beach, kind of out of place. We spotted Batman and Robin, mingling in the crowd. We spotted nude types, bodies painted in the American flag. Nice.

Kavita of course enjoyed herself, running amok, while the three of us worried. She had a really lousy portrait taken of her by an idiotic so-called artist. It was rendered in charcoal black and white. It had no resemblance to Kavita nor artistic integrity. And, he charged us $ 15 and wanted another $ 5 for a lousy frame. Kavita of course did not sit through the painting and Haresh took a picture of her using Ami's iPad and actually sat for it himself, holding up the contraption.

The $ 15 portrait of Kavita, now hanging up in our kitchen
Ami, Kavita and I ate some warm peanuts from a nearby vendor, watching group after group, couple after couple, loner after loner take selfie shots using those selfie sticks while Haresh posed for Kavita's portrait holding up an iPad with a close up photo of Kavita. What a nice New York moment.

One forgets this is all a first for Kavita: running on New York side walks, running through crowds, eating warm peanuts on a June summer evening in New York, sitting for a portrait. I wish I would remember this often and, try to see the world as she does. In fact, I am going to tell myself in my head: 'Behold, there is a child in this room, in this house, who is pure and discovering this universe.'

After this, we decided to get back to our parked camel and try to find our hotel. If it had just been us adults, we would have caught a movie or another rude comedy stand up but we had to lodge ourselves. Too far too walk back, we hailed another camel to take us back to our camel for a mere $ 20.00. We piled in and drove to Brooklyn to our hotel.

My mother had dozed off and, we left her in the car while we went to check out the hotel. Even before we entered, we did not like it. There was no reception to talk of. There were two make shift counters and, behind, a messy looking office with overflowing carton boxes and Huggies diapers. This is a Sheraton! We wanted to see the rooms but the hotel staff wanted to see our ID first. When Haresh presented his ID, the hotel said it didn't match the VISA card (this is our NATC company card). So, we said, OK, please cancel the reservation. Stunningly, the same genius tells us, our card has been charged already. "What!" we asked! "But the website clearly says the card will not be charged." The hotel blamed the website and, vice versa. The genius asked us to call the website. We got stuck for a good hour or so, on the phone while the Sheraton folks couldn't give a damn.

Kavita enjoyed herself, running around, mingling with other kids with toy iPads and mommies swiping their smart phone screens. An Austria Air crew also arrived, overwhelming the tiny lobby, in their red uniforms. The ladies were literally in all red: stockings, heels, bags, all of it. They reminded me of red lady bugs for some reason. I curiously stared at them while Haresh kept sharing snide remarks with them: "Most awful Sheraton."

The manager finally emerged, apologetic, and made significant amends. She apologised profusely, said she had refunded our card but we would not get the payment back until 5 working days, promised a discount, upgraded us to a suite with two double beds, and promised us breakfast vouchers for the 3 nights.

We trudged up to our rooms while Haresh went to park our camel for $ 25 a day (later it was mysteriously changed to $ 35 a day). The manager offered to push our trolley for us herself.

We did not get much time with my mother and already had to put her on a train back to DC next afternoon but I suppose it was good enough. Most of our time was eaten up by traveling, climbing steps, catching a train and trying to slow down time. All we managed to do with my mother the next day was Colombus Circle, and it was a bad decision. We should have seen a more interesting landmark or place.

Haresh, Kavita and I had two more nights in New York City. After we dropped my mother at Penn Station, we met a SOAS friend of mine, who was also at the wedding, and is now part of the British delegation to the UN. He was sweet to give us a personal tour of the UN building which we thoroughly enjoyed. We bid good bye to Phil and, immediately found a Turkish restaurant. We had a great dinner there and, I got to try Ali Nazik, which was most delicious. We walked on and, found ourselves close to Grand Central. Kavita loved its big halls and, ran amok. Some Army officers posted in a corner kept telling her to come back to me.

I met with Evie the next day for lunch and got to meet her baby boy Andreas. It was another wonderful reunion but we got lost trying to find the restaurant. After meeting her, we walked to the 9-11 memorial which I must say, was beautiful and very meaningful. A security officer told us that one of the floors of the new Freedom Tower was rented for $ 2 million for a Barmitzvah party.

Haresh threw a tantrum that evening and, his tantrum's black hole sucked out at least 8 hours of our valuable time. By the time he was done, all we could manage was a Staten Island ferry back and forth which allowed us to glimpse the Statue of Liberty from a far. That same day we had to catch our flight back to Monrovia.

Despite a limited amount of time, we did see a few of the landmarks but I must say my imagined New York visit was nothing like the New York I experienced. This New York was over priced, dirty, too angry, too big, too overwhelming, and a bit of a scam. I really do not know why people spend so much money to stay at a lousy Sheraton in the wrong part of Brooklyn, travel up and down dirty subway trains, trudge through crowds of tourists to take photos of famous landmarks, sweating in the summer heat, and bear the rude faces of restaurant waiters who can't stand your child.

I kept hoping to find a wonderful New York moment that I could treasure but the whole experience was a mad rush against time. We did see some bits of New York which make it famous, landmarks which one must pay homage to but it was still only a glimpse. I didn't see a few other boroughs. I suppose one needs a lot more time and, one feels dissatisfied instead.

It seems like New York has to be consumed, all of it: its landmarks, its food, streets, signs, sidewalks, taxis, restaurants, corners, images of New York. Does any other city sell itself like it does? Even its dirtiness is celebrated. You can consume everything, grand or not. And, there's still more. But what are you really left with, I wonder?

I mostly felt alienated. How do I admire or relate to its angry, impatient people who are annoyed with a child of all things? You are bombarded with adverts for clothes and perfumes all over the place. Does this city just worship the body?

I saw fashionable people strut the streets of Manhattan, shopping, lunch, meeting people, off to meetings I suppose. Is this the ultimate sign of success? That you made it to Manhattan, can dress really stylishly, afford a very expensive lifestyle?

I had an interesting moment of puzzlement when asking for directions. The person asked us whether we were going down town or up town. I honestly had no clue. It made me think of how geographically concerned Americans are. Even when I was in Chicago, people were always talking about the north, south, east or west. I am simply not used to that sense of a direction, and always felt rather dumb. I mean, am I supposed to carry a compass around? So, even in New York, it is all about the literal geography: Upper East Side, Lower Manhattan, Down Town and Up Town.

We ended our New York trip rushing of course: from sight seeing back to the hotel, buying a new bag quick quick to fit in new shopping, retrieving our camel from the car park, stuffing it with our bags, paying the hotel from another VISA card, and rushing to the airport. We barely made it.

I kind of felt sad that I hardly got to see all I wanted to see (museums, cafes, bakeries, Central Park, Coney Island) and the futility of trying to see it all by emptying your pockets. New York is like a mirage, it felt. I also felt sad that we were leaving a city without actually saying good bye to anyone in person, like a relative or friend. We had bid good bye to my mother a couple of days earlier and she was teary eyed, as she usually is. Farewells are supposed to be personal and tearful. When I think of farewells, I think of hugs, sleepy and anxious parents huddled in doorways praying for their children's safety, and "Khudahafiz" muttered over and over again.

The phrase that kept coming to me was 'all that is solid melts into air.'

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