I am usually in a super good mood when I get on a transatlantic flight. It means I get to actually sit for over eight hours, watch movies and drink wine. Now, how often does that happen? Z was off to D.C. for Thanksgiving with C. I had the hairbrained idea that I should spend a week on my own during the most hallowed American holiday of the year. Not surprisingly, soon after I got onto the plane, I fell into a funk. Then they ran out of chicken and I had to eat overcooked macaroni and cheese. That put me in a really bad mood.
But eventually I landed in New York City. I didn't have to wait in the non-native line for over an hour because, hey, I was an American! The customs officer, who looked like Andy Garcia in The Untouchables, with slicked back hair and an Italian nose, asked me why I had come to New York.
"Uh, I'm celebrating my fiftieth birthday." not sure if 'celebration' was the right word.
Without glancing back up at me he said, "Well, you don't look anywhere near fifty. Have a good time."
And a good time I had...
You know that feeling you get when you're totally infatuated with someone new? When you're together, time flies. You lose sleep because you can't wait to see them again. You never want your nights with them to end. That's how I felt about New York. It was as though someone had given me a serotonin/dopamine cocktail that first morning in my coffee, and the effect never wore off.
I figured I'd feel rather lonely, having gone by myself. But New York doesn't let you feel lonely. Because people keep reminding you that you're part of this mass of humanity. They keep interacting with you. From the moment I dragged my suitcase up from the subway into Greenwich Village, I felt welcomed. People made eye contact with me. That's something you rarely get in London, even when you're face is painted like a cat (I know, because I tried it.). When I pulled out my map, someone came up to me and asked if I needed help finding my way. I walked into a tea shop and every person working there greeted me. I stood staring at the yogurt selection at a grocery store and someone approached to ask if I needed help with anything. Honestly, what I needed help with was understanding how yogurt had suddenly become $6.00 for a single serving container.
I was constantly asking directions. I am terribly directionally challenged, especially when I'm in a flat city full of skyscrapers and without a data plan on my phone. Just when I thought I had a handle on where I was going, I'd realize I was traveling the complete opposite direction. But everyone went out of their way to get me to my destination. They seemed genuinely proud to do so.
New Yorkers are unabashedly unreserved. They are the polar opposite of the British. Don't get me wrong - the Brits are wonderfully nice and some of the greatest people on the planet. Not to mention kick ass funny. But as one of my friends has said, 'You have to break through the membrane of Britishness' before they show you their wisecracking take on anything. Let alone give you directions.
In contrast, New Yorkers just assume you should be comfortable with them before you've even met. At least that's how it felt. Women young enough to be my daughters were calling me 'Sweetie.' Here's an example of the difference between London and New York, based on my real life experiences:
Me, on a London train - "Dang, did I just get on an express train?"
Brit, reading The Metro - First, he looks at me trying to make out if I'm actually talking to him. 'Yes.' he replies, then goes back to reading The Metro.
Me, on a New York subway - "Dang, did I just get on an express train?"
New Yorker - "Yep, you sure did, Honey. Where you trying to get to? Oh, really? Well, just get off at 125th, walk up and over the tracks and get on the southbound. Now make sure you get the express and not the local, otherwise you're never gonna make that show. Where you from? Oh yeah? I've always wanted to go to London!" And on, and on, and on...
After a day of people falling over themselves with friendliness, it put me in the mood to be outgoing myself. At the Guggenheim there were docents standing around wearing buttons that said, 'Ask me about art!' So I did.
"Say, how much would it cost to buy an Alberto Burri piece for my home?"
"Well," the twenty-something starving artist who wanders the Guggenheim with a large button on his lapel said, "Last time one sold at auction, I think it went for 3 million dollars."
"Dang. I guess I'll have to settle for the postcards." But I didn't stop there. "So what kind of art do you do?" His eyes lit up and I learned about the big show he was heading to soon, in Miami of all places, where he had twelve paintings for sale. He asked me what I thought of the photography exhibit in the other wing of the museum.
"It's alright." I said. "I prefer mobile photography. Any idea where I could find some?" That question threw him so I pulled out my iPhone and showed him the last artful image I'd created by superimposing bubbles over my face. He definitely did not know where I could find a gallery of that.
At Strand 'Eighteen Miles of Books' Book Store, I asked an employee if they had a coat check.
"No. We have a bag check." Then he looked at my sub-zero, down sleeping bag of a coat that makes me look like The Michelin Princess and said, "I have an idea. Follow me." He took me to the front desk, compressed my coat into a bookstore bag and handed me a bag check token. I spent the next two hours comfortably wandering the store and had a little spending accident as a result. Probably because that guy was so cool. And I wasn't overheating.
I asked my Airbnb host if it was my imagination that people were really nice in New York City. She told me she thought 9/11 had made people nicer. I went to the 9/11 memorial and museum and I could kind of understand why. I started crying just looking at the two big holes in the ground, water cascading down all four sides as though the space was continually falling in on itself. Then I wandered through the collection of twisted metal, images, artefacts (teddy bears that had fallen from the sky), and I experienced the whole horror of it again. I left wondering why terrorists might believe that attacks like 9/11 would weaken a country. Far from it. I've never been particularly patriotic, and I'm embarrassed with how often the U.S. gets into other people's business. But damn if I didn't feel like hugging every person I met on the way out and saying, "We can make the best of this. We're Americans!"
After I figured out the bike sharing system, I was tooling around Manhattan on a three speed cruiser listening to 'The Gorillaz' and getting lost. But I intentionally cycled right into the middle of Times Square after dark. The amount of electricity fuelling that seizure-inducing nut house of advertising is no doubt enough to power a small country for a year. Being on a bike, however, made it more tolerable since the sidewalks were heaving with people and the streets were absent of cars. There were neon-vested security people everywhere. And when I stopped for a red light, one of them simply raised his hand in a high five and I slapped it with mine as though I'd just sunk the winning basket. He smiled. I smiled. Then I peddled on.
But the biggest surprise was what I wandered into on Thanksgiving. I signed up to eat at a stranger's place. That's right. It's like Airbnb for dining. I did this with a friend in Paris, and in Rome as well. At 6:30 I rang the doorbell of a 17th floor apartment on Union Square. My hostess Michelle answered wearing a plaid mini dress and knee-high black stiletto boots. I kid you not. This woman cooked a turkey in those boots. She was awesome. And so were her friends, most of whom were recent transplants. We drank a lot and laughed a lot and talked about how insanely expensive Manhattan was and whether we liked our jobs, and how to save for a house, and who can afford to save for a house when you live in New York City anyway?
I did the usual tourist stuff. The museums are cool. The art deco buildings are gorgeous. The stores are enormous. I saw La Boheme at the Met, just like Cher and Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck. I ate a Reuben at Katz's Deli, just like Meg Ryan when she performed her fake orgasm in When Harry Met Sally. I even went into Trump tower to see if I could make myself vomit. But no such luck. I never was any good at throwing up.
But it was the people who I fell for the most. The people made me feel fabulous, and now that I'm back in England and it's raining, I still feel fabulous. My Greenwich Village loft hostess is an amazing artist and I've already booked a trip to Rome for her installation opening in April. Sure, I know, it's not all rosy and if I lived there full time I'd probably get sick of it and want to escape. The infatuation would end. I'd start to notice its faults. I'd start to see all the dirty underwear on the floor and decide that was a deal-breaker.
But for a week I fell in love with New York. And if I hadn't been fifty years old, I might not have felt so free and easy about engaging with all those people. So it was indeed a celebration. A celebration of the positive side to aging, a celebration of America, and a celebration of the good energy a lively city can generate. It was a lovely affair.