Tuesday, September 16, 2008


I went to New York at the beginning of the month, I should probably write something about that, seeing as it’s pretty damn rare that anything that interesting happens to me. I seem to be oddly reluctant to do so though. One of the reasons is that the part of the holiday that is most vividly embedded in my memory is well, personal, but the rest of my reluctance comes from fear of writing about something so big. I’ve tried to do this before – when I returned from the US in 2006 I attempted to write a sort of record of what I did, what I saw, and how this made me feel. I seem to remember that it ran to about 5000 words before I’d even started to talk about things that happened on the second day I was there. University work then took over, and by the time I had the time to resume the story I’d become unsure of the memories I had of events – not that I’d forgotten anything, I don’t think -- just that I wasn’t entirely sure if I’d be able to give the right emphasis to what I’d seen.

Anyway. Yes. New York. I wouldn’t go as far as saying that I loved New York, but I certainly liked it a lot – unfortunately you can’t get t-shirts with ‘I really quite like NY’ written on them, so I had to go without. I got one for my little sister though, because she’s a kid, and therefore loves New York even though she’s never been there. Nonetheless, it has joined London and Berkeley, CA as places that I’d be happy to live in (London has the lead at the moment on account of the convenience factor, as I already live there). The things that put me off the place were the subtle feeling that you’re standing at the bottom of a very deep valley (which comes from all those massive buildings), and the really icky state of the Subway system.

I could probably write a whole post about the New York subway. The first reaction was “wow this is so much cheaper than the tube, and it runs all night!” but after a while of moving about in the sweaty-balls-hot, rusting-oozing, and generally disgusting stations, I realised what happens if you don’t allow much money, or time, for maintenance and cleaning. The trains were spacious, air conditioned (often to the point of being really cold), and much, much cleaner than the stations they passed through, but their pleasantness was pissed on by their infrequentness* (the tube runs about three trains for every one that arrives on the subway), and the fact that their air-conditioning vents hot air into the already sweaty stations. The other thing that seems odd for such an ordered and sensibly laid out city is that the subway is utterly baffling, with a unhelpful map, confusing routes, and a color coding system that seems largely meaningless. I find it odd that the New York City subway map is geographic rather than diagrammatic like the tube map. I suppose that the regular logical layout that the tube map pretends London has is a sort of antidote to the complete lack of any form of coherence above ground.

The city above the pavements though, is just lovely. Take a structural engineer there, or an architect, and watch them walk awkwardly, trying to hide their serious geek boner over the prettiness and towering ambition of all the buildings there. The Guggenheim museum is probably my favourite thing. It’s a museum built to celebrate pure expression of art, -- not representational or functional in the conventional sense -- and that’s just what the building is. It’s a swirly-curly masterpiece of a building, all the more elegant for being explained by my engineer brother, who was impressed by the way that the architect had made all the important structural and functional parts of the building blend seamlessly into his vision. Very cool, and it’s rare for Ed to speak of architects in a complimentary way. There was some art in it too, but other than the Kandinsky and the precisionist stuff, I wasn’t hugely impressed by that.

We went to a baseball game on our second (I think) night, which was a very odd experience. Baseball is, as I had expected, a very dull game – although seeing as I’m not really a big fan of sports in general this view is hardly surprising. The thing that impressed me about it was the whole experience of a baseball game – the sport itself feels incidental at best. There is loud music, constant crowd participation, mascot-based activities after each inning, as well as lots of booze. I drank some light beer, for the same reason that visitors to the outback sometimes eat bugs – pure anthropological curiosity. It’s definitely not something I’d subject myself to deliberately again.

There is something that I wasn’t prepared for in my trip to the city, which was how welcoming and friendly the locals were. We were staying in Staten Island, which felt familiar to me, like the south east London of New York – the big difference being that no American would ever be given as friendly a welcome as we got there. On the first night we found a bar just a few minutes walk from our house, and close to the Staten Island ferry called Jimmie Steiny’s** which had an atmosphere unlike any bar I’ve been to before. In the UK (or in London at least) pubs are either places where people come and drink with their friends, interacting with no-one else, or they are places where a small group of locals drink and hang out, but subject any newcomers to the most intimidating silence and hostility until they leave. The idea of a pub where everyone knew everyone else, and was friendly and welcoming to new people was a strange discovery.

The one very odd thing that one of my friends noticed about the citizens of New York City was the strange number of people with amputated or otherwise missing limbs. I’m not suggesting that amputation is a fashion thing over there, but it certainly seems to be a much more common occurrence than it is over here. Possible causes I was given included wars and military service, and poor healthcare (if you can’t afford health insurance it’s quite possible that diabetes could get to the leg-amputation stage pretty quickly.)

Well, I’ve rambled long enough for now. I’ll write more about this when it occurs to me – there’s still the Empire state Building, Central Park, the food (oh the food!) and many other things that I can’t think of right now to talk about


*probably not a word, but you get the idea.

**Their comments about having the best Jukebox may well be true; it was certainly very well stocked. Also their beer selection rocks, lots of good American beer, and a couple of very unusual European beers as well.