Last Friday morning, I got the train into New York city. Exiting Penn Station I realised I had an hour to get to my appointment uptown so I started walking the forty blocks to my destination. Why? Because more than 20 years after I first set foot in Manhattan, as a wide-eyed UCC student on a J-1 visa for the summer, I still love walking around this town. I still get a kick out of just strolling along, taking in the sights, the sounds and the smells from the food trucks on every corner.
There is always so much going on, so much to enjoy and to savour about this place. Before I even left the vicinity of the station, I noticed a crowd milling around outside Madison Square Garden. I had a look and found they were filling an episode of one of the “Law and Order” shows. I didn’t loiter to find out which one because I didn’t want to look like a tourist, many of whom were gathered taking pictures. Never mind that I’m probably more of a tourist in the big smoke myself every time I go in there.
At the junction of Sixth Avenue and 37th Street, two African-American bike messengers had to swerve when a pair of Hasidic boys ignored the red light and wandered into the road. Unfortunately, one of the riders slowed down, turned around and shouted: “Motherfxxking Jews” at the teenagers wearing the distinctive black hats with thin payots of hair peeking out the sides. The sights and sounds of the city aren’t always easy to stomach.
Along Fifth Avenue, passing the retail outlets of the brand names that dominate the world, I happened into a cameo of New York life. Outside the hideously expensive De Beers jewellers, who claim to sell the finest engagement rings in the world, a shady character with a shoe box under his oxter beseeched me with the sales pitch: “Wanna buy a Rolex man?” Obviously, this street trader had been around long enough to recognise that I was just the type of fella who’d be up for buying a knock-off designer watch.
I turned right off Fifth Avenue towards Niketown on 57th, the flagship retail outlet of the swoosh. Outside the shop that stretches for five overpriced floors, a queue of several hundred people was being marshalled by bouncers and police officers. That much security was necessary to handle the mostly teen and twenty-something crowd who’d been lining up for hours for the chance to purchase the newest Air Jordan whatevers before they were sold out.
“Shoulda been here earlier,” said one of the cops when he saw how bemused I was by the whole scene. “Sitting out in the cold all night for a pair of sneakers.”
Everywhere I went, it was impossible to go more than a block without hearing Salvation Army volunteers ringing bells and soliciting contributions from passers-by. There may be no more certain sign that Christmas is imminent than the sound of those bells and the sights of the distinctive red uniforms. Of course, this being New York, some of them ask for charity with a little more flair than others.
After seeing dozens adhering to the usual routine, ding-donging and rattling their collection kettles, I came upon a pair of Salvation Army soldiers who had brought a ghetto blaster and were robot dancing to some song I am not hip enough to know the name of. Their every move was being cheered by those who had stopped to take in the show and their kettle was filling fast. New York four weeks before Christmas. A pleasure to be here.