‘I have a knife, a knife!’ shouts the
failed cop security guard grabbing my bag off the end of the conveyor. People gather and someone gasps as I remove the offending pen knife from a side pocket full of cables and memory cards. Was he being serious? Apparently so, though quite what he thought I was going to do with a 1″ folding blade at the top of the Rockefeller centre I don’t know. I do know that I’m not spending another hour queuing for a refund, so I let him confiscate my weapon of mass destruction despite my assurance that I don’t even have any oil, which is as lost on him as my observation that he’s now got two tiny tools.
The incident is soon forgotten, and minutes later I’m looking down from the Top of the Rock, 70 storeys above a city that manages to be familiar and alien without skipping a beat. Familiar because wherever you turn there’s a scene from a film or a reference from a book, alien because none of it appears to be interconnected in any way that makes sense. There are signs everywhere: walk, don’t walk, wait here, no standing, no entry, passenger cars only, no charging of vehicle tanks, no discharging of vehicle tanks, no discharging of dogs. Want to know the way to the nearest subway station? Fugeddaboudit, you won’t see a single useful sign. Which direction from Times Square to Central Park? Buy a map or ask somebody.
Maybe that’s part of The Plan, for as soon as you approach people you discover that New York is inhabited exclusively by fascinating, friendly folk (I love your accent, honey) who can’t wait to show you the best of their city. And so you stumble around, reeling from the scale of the buildings, marvelling at the smoking manhole covers and clean streets, whistling at the improbability of it all. Just as you think you’ve got it licked – of course 55th Street is next to 54th Street – the Big Apple throws you the occasional curveball; there are cops everywhere, big cops with big guns, but you can’t take a penknife into a public building 2 blocks away from the store you bought it. Fast food restaurants have to show calorie info on their menus, yet our hotel room’s windows open fully. On the 22nd floor. Everything you set eyes on is man-made, there are few green spaces, yet people own apartments full of labradors. And pay other people to take them to the park. By train.
Nowhere is the feeling of implicit familiarity stronger than in Central Park, where every threadbare grassy knoll buzzes with Seinfeld-esque characters going about their daily business. Ribbons of perfect tarmac carve the park into natural islands and allow strollers, joggers, cyclists and cars to escape the city for a couple of miles, each in his / her dedicated, clearly marked lane, all going the same direction. Everywhere’s a highway.
We rattle off a few more touristy places; Staten Island ferry for a glimpse at Liberty, Macy’s for some cheap tat with expensive labels, Chinatown and Little Italy for food the local’s wouldn’t touch. Gallagher’s for a steak to die for, and the realisation that the surly ‘Whaddayawant’ that anywhere else would just be rude is in fact New York’s signature way of saying ‘may I help you’. How refreshingly direct.