I have never been to New York before. So my 5 day trip to the Big Apple two weeks ago combined the anticipation of going to one of the world’s most iconic cities and in going to a place for the first time. For that initial 24 hours in a place, wherever it may be is, in my opinion, one of life’s great pleasures. Not blinded by familiarity, the eyes have a rich awareness of the surroundings and the brain is alive with impressions.
Of course, to know a place takes a lifetime, many lifetimes. This is not about knowing, it is about seeing. It is a purely aesthetic experience in which the sights and sounds and smells overwhelm the senses and generate a manic explosion of thoughts and reactions and judgements: love/ hate, fear/ joy, familiarity/ strangeness, all dancing, colliding, uniting, replacing.
The cinematic moment which has, in my opinion, wonderfully captured this experience is in Lost in Translation, when Scarlet Johansson walks around Tokyo for the first time. As she passes the computer game arcade, the absorbed teenagers shooting guns at CGI soldiers are at once freakish yet absorbing, a passage into a parallel universe.
And there are few places bound to have a stronger impact on the charged senses than New York. We drove from the airport into the city on the ‘Air Transporter’ bus and the bridge into Manhattan gives a spectacular view of the city’s skyline- skyscrapers rising out of the sea, owning the land, a monument to hopes realised and success achieved. My mind couldn’t help but flash back to the ships of immigrants, after weeks at sea, seeing this spectacular sight appearing over the horizon. Suddenly everything seemed possible. Journey’s end and life’s beginning.
It’s interesting how a country’s past sets its trajectory for so long into the future. I was first struck this when I visited Hong Kong for the first time. My over-riding first impression of this crazy, dystopian, almost futuristic territory was one of transience, greed, almost even pillage. On the island, people come, they work, they earn a fortune, they party, they leave. It seems like there are a lot of people there who care very little for Hong Kong as a place. I was therefore fascinated to hear how its modern history begins with Britain almost conning the Chinese out of its possession in order to use it as a vital trading port. Hong Kong has been a means to and end right from the beginning.
New York is very different, but I felt the same powerful historical resonances with how the city appears today. The New World is steeped in the history of hopeful immigrants looking for a better life, and ever since America, so strikingly symbolised by New York, has been offering the world this vision of opportunity. As I drove into this scene, so familiar from years of film- watching, I could feel this palpable buzz of possibility. Success was here, yours for the taking.
Yet the forewarning of the ‘strong tips culture’ for waiters and waitresses who don’t otherwise get paid, the note on the Airporter bus that ‘Tips are highly welcome,’ and the prominence of people searching the bins for recycling and pushing junk trollies spoke of a contrasting reality. I found myself asking about those who don’t ‘make it.’ What if I don’t tip? Has that affected their living? Will they not be able to afford health insurance and end up pushing trolleys? Here in the wealthiest nation in the world I felt not dissimilar from walking around the streets of Africa, awkward in the uncertainty of my obligations and consequences of my actions. The decision about how to divide our remaining dollars between hotel porters, bar staff and cleaners was paralysing! Coming from a welfare state, I felt acutely aware of the possible lack of safety nets available for the ‘unsuccessful,’ of the gap between rich and poor. In the land of endless opportunity, must the responsibility for those who haven’t ‘made it’ lie with the individual?
Impressions aside, of course we dived right into the galleries and avenues and diners and bars and tours. We visited the statue. We looked down from The Rock. And, of course, it was all fantastic. We had made it.