The Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame in Paris, Tower Bridge and Big Ben in London, Christ the Redeemer and Copacabana Beach in Rio: all famous cities have images and landmarks synonymous with their name, elements to be crossed off your “to-do” list, for sure. And yet I always feel that it is only when the burden of these heavyweights has been eased, that you can get to know the real heart and soul of a city; find out what makes it tick; creep under the veneer that clings so stubbornly to the tourist traps. As while yellow taxi cabs careering down Madison Avenue, the blinding lights of Broadway and that majestic Green Lady jutting out from New York harbour are elements of NYC, they are merely a speck of the substance making up this city. When I arrived they were on my list but my real aim was to immerse myself in the legend that has inspired our most revered artists to turn up there with nothing but a suitcase and a dream, and then follow in their footsteps to get a handle on that particular ingredient that has set this place apart from its counterparts the world over.
Frank Sinatra crooned that he was “going to make a brand new start of it in old New York”, Alicia Keys’s hit Empire State of Mind epitomised the draw that NYC holds for so many with the line: “New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made”, and film, TV and literature have perpetuated this folklore. One afternoon stroll down Fifth Avenue will shed some light on the reasons why, as glamour confronts you every which way you turn. Shop windows gleam and as you weave your way through the pedestrian traffic your senses are assailed with the perfume scented air; but did I have the shiny boutiques to thank for this glorious aroma or the models as they glided past, hair swishing in the breeze? If glamour is what you’re looking for, you are never far away in NYC. But if glamour is not your thing I bet music is. Or art. Or literature. Or theatre. Or sport. Or career. Or if all else fails you must at least love fine dining and a good cocktail? New York is overflowing with life and there is truly something for everyone.
I remember when arrived that my first glimpse of Times Square was a sensory overload. It seemed that every square millimetre of this space was occupied with enticing billboards and flashing neon, jostling with each other, vying for attention. And the people. There were people everywhere, from hotdog sellers to half-naked cowgirls, Emo to Mickey Mouse, tourists to New Yorkers themselves, striding along to meet their destiny – or so it seemed. For someone who doesn’t like crowds, it was certainly not my favourite place in NYC and yet as I crossed the hullabaloo daily en route to my hotel, I began to see Times Square as a microcosm of the wider city: a relatively small space that never sleeps, sparkling as brightly at midnight as at midday, simmering with endless possibilities.
From Times Square I did my best to explore the rest of the city, failing in my bid to unmask the real New York - it was simply too full, too busy, too much for four short days. I do console myself, however, with the thought that when I return, it will be without baggage so to speak. Checked off are the Empire State Building, Statue of Liberty and Central Park, leaving me free to roam and explore the other, likely, darker facets of the city. As it’s easy to agree that it’s the stuff of dreams when you’re dropped, suddenly, in the middle of the mayhem – that perfume in the air is magic and it’s almost tangible, making it seem that to be a New Yorker is to really be somebody – but, as always, adjustment is necessary to penetrate reality.
Times Square and Manhattan cast a mighty spell but does the magic wane or deepen when your New York cab drifts into the Bronx or Queens? The legend draws you in but scratch the surface and does the illusion remain? I fear another trip may be in order to delve into these most compelling of mysteries! In the meantime, I shall do my best to emerge from the cosmopolitan haze brought down by this captivating city.