Like Loco, Pola and Schatze I was drawn to New York City to find a millionaire playboy. Wait, that’s not right. But in my nine days in NYC I did sometimes feel that I was acting a part in a movie. The island of Manhattan itself feels elevated somehow, surreal. In my photographs taken from the Brooklyn Bridge the city has a certain cardboard cut-out effect. I ran into the cultural ghosts of Ninja Turtles in Chinatown, Dana Barrett on Central Park West, King Kong on top of the Empire State Building, and Joe Buck next to a neon sign.
But the city is not elevated, isolated, a movie set. While I was there, very real events were occurring, and had occurred. People were affected by these, not just in New York, but around the world. So the city to me was both a hyperreal version of itself (and a trip often glosses over like a dream afterwards, too) and a place where, of course, people breathe and bleed.
I arrived just after flights resumed post Sandy. At JFK airport, there were sandbags. The cab was expensive due to gas shortages and the roads were quiet. The electricity was still out in many places and had only just come on in the Lower East Side, where I was staying. Coming over the Williamsburg Bridge into Manhattan, the score from Christopher Nolan’s Batman films entered my head. But the abstract idea of those skyscrapers and the reality of their imposing (and majestic) grandeur were separate to me until that moment. To Fritz Lang in 1924, Manhattan’s skyline was synonymous with the city of tomorrow, and it is still a dramatic sight to the first-time visitor.
I spent my first day over in Brooklyn with one of my hosts, Lyndsy, bleaching and washing artworks and equipment after the devastating flooding of her friend’s studio. In the week to come I would overhear many conversations between locals; catching up, discussing the people they knew who were most affected. In the Mexican restaurant later that night, Lyndsy and I were surrounded by tired and dirty volunteers. So many people helped out, and are still helping out, and I witnessed an amazing shift in the city in the week I was there. The first few nights were so quiet, and I knew that wasn’t normal (is it in Annie Hall where Alvy needs to play the city noise to get to sleep in the country?). On the last two nights I was almost comforted by the fact I could only sleep with the aid of ear plugs.
The other weather event was a blizzard, which was a novelty for this Australian who has only ever seen snow twice, and even then it was light or already fallen. This time I got to trudge through a blizzard, and even slip down a stoop after a literary event. I was fascinated the next day by the blend of snow and Autumn leaves peppering the streets.
And then there was the election. I’d spent the first few days of my trip at a conference in the South, and had seen the Republican posters stabbing lawns, and watched sensationalist Fox news coverage over my breakfast of grits. But on election day in New York I saw window-washers in Obama jumpers, hot dog sellers in Obama hats, and I saw NBC setting up their ‘democracy plaza’ for the live coverage of the results, near Times Square. I’d had a long day out walking around so I went back to my accommodation and watched some of the coverage (surreal again, coming from where I’d just been) on the TV. I switched it off and said goodnight to my hosts and had just laid my head down when I heard a tremendous cheer arise from the street. Shivers ran down my spine. People shouted ‘Yeah!’ ‘Obama!’ and whistled and cheered. There was a general, happy, low buzz that continued as I fell asleep.
The city I experienced was alive, and came alive, while I was there. It went from a saddened and quiet presence with its hat drawn down over its eyes, to a whooping, well-lit animal; boozing in hope and solidarity, and to numb the pain a little. New Yorkers began to rush and press again but always stopped to help and be curious and tell little stories about their slice of the city. And all the while there remained, from behind my eyes, a layering to the city, of fictional characters and of people from the past, which only made the place seem richer. I know I was fortunate, though, to be in NYC at such an eventful time, because it meant that those cultural associations didn’t come at me like snow and blind me to the now; to the life of a truly great city.
Angela Meyer is a Melbourne-based writer. She has published short stories, reviews and articles and has blogged for 5.5 years on literature at LiteraryMinded. She is a former acting editor of Bookseller+Publisher magazine and will be finishing up her Doctor of Creative Arts through the University of Western Sydney in 2013. She regularly chairs panels at writers’ festivals, and you can catch her at the Perth Writers Festival in February 2013.