‘New York, New York – so good they named it twice and, despite that, I do have fears.
I’m told, ‘The Big Apple is full of crime; they won’t help you if you fall over; don’t travel by the subway,’ warnings, often given by American people who have never been there, fueled the fear
I have to find my way to the youth hostel on Amsterdam and 108th Street – travelling on the subway that I’ve been warned to stay away from. I often feel vulnerable when arriving in a new place – a pack on my back and not knowing where I’m going – each new city raises minor fears.
Adrenalin running and money tucked out of sight, I find my way downtown, to Manhattan, the spiritual and geographical epicentre of New York. Following my guidebook I arrive at the correct station, buy a ticket in the graffiti-festooned underground then get off at the right station. Back up at ground level it’s only a short block to the large old hostel and mentally tick off another obstacle. ‘Welcome to Noo Yawk’ says the young man on reception.
I’m sure my eyeballs will freeze as I walk into the fierce wind towards the Hudson, my eyelashes have ice on them and my eyeballs are cold, achingly sore. The wind blows me down the canyon-like streets with their cliff-like buildings and I’m sure my tourist status is obvious with my upward gaze and open mouth. I’m excited to be walking down Broadway: a place that seems so glamorous, so seedy, so awfully wonderful and dangerous when seen in movies or TV.
It’s snowed and after breakfast, with five others, I walk around Central Park with a guide from the youth hostel – a local who loves his city and gives these free mini-tours every week. I feel concerned for the homeless man sleeping under a bridge: it’s not weather for sleeping out. The pond is frozen and the trees beautiful: hung with hoarfrost they look like they have crystals hanging from the branches and we leave the park via Strawberry Fields, the garden commemorating John Lennon who lived and died across the road.
I spend the day rubbernecking: at the Empire State Building, the art deco Chrysler Building, the World Trade Centre and talk to locals. The people are not the churlish big city bores I was told to expect, yet another fallacy gone and I’m invited to join two out-of-work actors and a teacher in their favourite Italian restaurant. They combine their knowledge and tell me their special places that I ‘must not miss.’
The Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museums on 5th Avenue are on the top of their list as well as Little Italy, Soho and Lower East Side. They draw a map on the tablecloth – plain white newsprint – using three large crayons provided for the grown-up kids who eat here and I rip the map off the tablecloth for future reference.
More snow has fallen overnight and snowplows, the first I’ve ever seen, are busy on the streets and, while writing my journal, realise it’s impossible to be indifferent to this city. The ethnic stew, or salad, makes it a vibrant place and not once have I experienced the emotional coldness I was told to expect.
An intriguing notice on the board in the lobby catches my eye. Help needed at the University Soup Kitchen. Meet Saturday 9 am – here in foyer, if you can give us some time. Thinking of the man under the bridge I offer my labour and next morning join two Australians and we’re taken by underground to the venue.
‘Welcome to the University Soup Kitchen,’ a conservatively dressed woman addresses us: we can hear capital letters stressed in her speech. ‘We are commonly called the Meat-Loaf Kitchen because that is what we Cook Every Week.
She looks around the room of helpers, eyeballing us, daring us to show any prejudice against her customers. I’m to set tables, then serve coffee. The boss-lady adds a postscript, ‘People are allowed Second Helpings Only after All have been Served. They can have as much Coffee as they want. We Pour coffee for people At the Tables. You would Expect that if You were in a Restaurant and They are to Get the Same Good Service.’ Her voice fills the large hall at the back of the church and the Aussies and I exchange raised eyebrows.
I carry two coffee-pots to the first table. ‘Hi guys, coffee anyone?’ Silently they all indicate yes and I pour out six mugs, before going to the next table. ‘Hi everyone, coffee all around?’ This table is more vocal and we talk about the weather.
‘It’s going to snow some more,’ a man tells me and for two hours I’m in and out of the kitchen refilling the coffee-pots as well as responding to cries for more sugar or another plate of bread. While stragglers remain over the last of their meal I help sweep the floor and tidy up. As we find our way back to the hostel even more light snow falls – the forecasters in the soup kitchen were right.
Next morning, from my third floor window, the scene’s been transformed, it’s snowed heavily and cars parked on the roadside are nearly covered. I’m excited and bundle myself up to go out – I’ve never seen so much whiteness except on a ski field. There are few vehicles around, with the exception of snowploughs and the pavements are slippery. I fall and as I’m clambering to my feet, two men help me up: another fallacy gone – New Yorkers do help if you fall.
All day the snow continues, the TV tells of power cuts in Quebec and other places around New York City and state. We have power but the transport system, except for the subway, has stopped. Airports are closed and the foyer is full of people who can’t get to their next destination. The hostel is full and staff are busy with requests for beds and to explain, ‘No I don’t know when the airport will be open.’
A news flash tells us that the 24-hour post office has closed, the first time in its history. A state of emergency is declared: the all-day-all-night-city has ground to a halt and I think of the people I poured coffee for yesterday; the TV is already reporting deaths of homeless people.
Outside the hostel, cars are stranded and I photograph taxis in the middle of the street – snow up to their roof. An enterprising person is hiring out skis and Broadway has become a ski field. ‘The blizzard of 96’ the storm has been named, the worst snowstorm in 50 years.
Days later I leave for Europe: New York New York, absolutely well worth naming twice.’
Re-posted this extract from Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad. Available on Amazon