Thursday, 31 May 2018

New York - A Cultural Experience in Manhattan

New York! New York!
 A Cultural Experience in Manhattan 

Part Two of  Kitchen Table Writers' look at contemporary art

Start spreading the news, 
We’re leaving today
We’re popping a cork,

These vagabond shoes
Are walking the grid
We’re popping a cork

When my daughter surprised me with a holiday in New York all I could say was 'you're being ridiculous'! I don't think I actually believed I was going until I got there.  We spent five marvellous days soaking up the history, literature, music, art and culture of Manhattan, with the added bonus of almond, pear and magnoilia blossom scenting the air and falling like confetti.

Sammy the Limo driver, who brought us from JFK, was a lively introduction to New York. He’d lived here all his life, but had been born in the Dominican Republic. ‘I love the DR,’ my daughter calls from the back seat.’ When I’m there with my work mates, we dance in the clubs to bachata music.’ ‘Bachata!’ Sammy yelled in delight. He had loads of this on his phone and we left Queens and saw the Big Apple skyline for the first time in our lives to the sounds of Bachata.  A sight of the Empire State gets us squealing. The skyline is unique; no two scrapers are the same, and older buildings fit between them as if they’d always been there…because they always have.

Even 2 hours after arriving in JFK, I still can’t quite believe it. I don’t know what I deserved to be granted such a special a wish; a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to see New York. I wanted to prove to myself it really is the city of culture it says it is. I want to see the Art Deco of the thirties, when a lot of Manhattan was being built in the depression. I want to see the famous Radio City, the art galleries and experience the world-famous sights. And, if possible, I want to meet some of NY’s people.

So now we’re sitting on the 35th floor of the Mandarin Hotel in the Asiate restaurant, overlooking Central Park. Becky describes the view as ‘zen’; the skyscrapers suddenly judder to a halt at the edge of the huge park, lime-green with spring growth, as if someone held up an invisible hand to stop the onrush. Directly below us, in Columbus Circle, a statue of Columbus looks down on two dancers as the pirouette as they did in La La Land. The circle is the only roundabout in NYC; heaven knows what New Yorkers think of it, they are so used to the grid system, which we are going to learn to love, and the traffic light intersections, which seem kinder to pedestrians than it does to the stop-start traffic. We’re eating fabulous food and drinking champagne, and for pudding, I get an individual chocolate birthday cake with a candle and fruity sorbets to share. 

To get back to our hotel, we decide to risk the subway, imagining it’s even more maze-like than the Tube. Turns out it’s not a bit difficult because of the finger-shape of Manhattan  –simples! There are four north-to-south lines that take you from the top to the bottom of the island, while getting from side to side is actually easier on foot.

This evening we’re getting the Baton New York, a glass-sided river cruiser that takes us down the Hudson River as the sun goes down and the lights of NY start winking and twinkling. There’s a sort of romance in the air (perhaps it’s all the couples who have booked tables for two) and as we pass the little wharfs that hold boats of all description ready to travel this very wide river, I’m thinking that one of the things that makes New York such a place of romance is its story.
It’s a narrative that started in 1609 when an English captain called Henry Hudson navigated his clipper the Half Moon into New York Harbour. He had been sent by the Dutch East India Company to find an Artic passage to the Far East, but he went no further. Did he think…why not stay here, build a town, let it grow, make it a city? The first Dutch settlers first had to bargain with the native Lenape, who sold the island of Manhatta for what seemed a bargain $24 worth of beads, worth about $1000 today, but actually the Lenape might have been cannier that this suggests, as they only used the land to hunt and probably only sold the camping rights. Generations of settlers fought the aboriginal people to keep the land they thought they owned…and as we know, they won. The Dutch called Manhattan New Amsterdam, but in 1664 the British gained it and changed the name…and the rest really is history. 

I’m starting to ask, can Champagne become an addiction? I hope not, we’re ordering like it will be out of fashion tomorrow. We go out on deck to watch the wharfs dissolve into evening mists. The live band starts up, a little trio all of whom can sing. Every so often, one breaks off from the song and begins to tell us something new about what we are seeing, and we all dash outside to the helm of the boat to catch a proper glimpse, and maybe a photo or two. We order our evening meal, which we’ll eat as we cruise. Suddenly, two of the staff arrive to present me with a birthday bouquet of flowers. They seem delighted to do it and asked to have their photos taken with me. This lovely gift lasted all week in our hotel room.

 As the night deepens to navy blue, Wall Street and the Financial District is redolent with light; I’m betting you can see it from the moon. We pass under Brooklyn (described, the tour guide suggested, as the ‘prettiest bridge in the world’, but only, I would say, by those who have never seen the Clifton Suspension Bridge). 

We slide under Manhattan bridge, steadily turn round in the East River and head back towards the great lady herself; the Statute of Liberty. She is lit from below, illuminating herself solely with her torch and coronet. We are told that she is a colossal neoclassical design, built in France and given to the people of New York after their revolution. To me, she’s divine, literally, like a goddess, gigantic and sea-green, her face exuding peace and warmth. Her figure, though, is strong, powerful, she reaches up as if calling out, ‘there is justice here…’ I can imagine those ‘huddled masses’ as they stood at the prow of so many ships watching her grow close, and it occurs to me that the sensations they would have felt if the statue had been in the form of a man, would have been very different. She is a mother, and a goddess, offering and protection liberty, and a new start. Hopefully, very soon, she’ll be back in business, welcoming desperate emigrees hoping for a better chance in life into the US.

More Manhattan Adventures on KITCHENTABLEWRITERS soon...