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20 November 2014

It’s New York, it’s almost Christmas and we’re ladies: but we’re not here to shop

Tracey Thorn’s Off the Record column. 

By Tracey Thorn

I’m sentimental about New York. I’ve spent enough time here over the years to feel some connection but never enough for the magic to fade, so it’s still Wonderland to me. In my ear sings Paddy McAloon – “Strolling Fifth Avenue,/Just to think, Sinatra’s been here, too . . .” – and I share his rose-tinted specs.

So I’m almost disappointed to discover that nowadays two women visiting for a long weekend, as my sister and I are, will be assumed by everyone from the check-in people to the cabin crew to be on a shopping trip. It’s New York, it’s the run-up to Christmas and, hey! You’re ladies, you must be shopping, am I right?

No, we’re not and despite our smiles we are slightly affronted at the suggestion, for we are here not to buy but to look. To walk and wander, eat and drink, marvel at it all. To “hang”, if you like. We have restaurants booked, theatre tickets lined up, excursions planned, a four-day, non-stop itinerary to keep to, so we are ready and raring to go. Much like the man next to me on the plane who, as we prepare to land at JFK, reaches into his bag for a can of deodorant and shoves it up his shirt to give each armpit a blast. It’s New York, after all. Being prepared is the least you can do.

I first came here on tour back in the 1980s; old photos show me eager and youthful, posing reverentially outside the Brill Building, my dyed blonde spiky hair blown back by the howling gale at the top of the Empire State. In the 1990s, Ben and I tried living here for a very short while, in an apartment over a now-derelict shoe shop on Chambers Street where, a few years later, some of the rescue operation would be based after 9/11.

Our stay was long ago and the city has changed so much, but the shadow of 9/11 and all that followed still hangs over it. At least, I assume that shadow is what accounts for so much of the continued security everywhere – the bag searches at the Empire State Building, the police presence all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge, the coastguard patrol boat with a machine gun mounted on the prow escorting the Staten Island Ferry.

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The romantic in me has always seen the city as a place of vibrancy and joy but these reminders of sadness are hard to ignore. They’re brought into focus at the 9/11 Memorial, a vast water feature sited on the footprint of the twin towers. There’s something Zen-like and calming about it, a huge version of the flowing water in Japanese temple gardens, but at the same time I can’t help seeing it as a kind of giant sink, conjuring up the unwelcome thought of lives being washed away down the plughole. The idea feels disrespectful but perhaps it’s not wrong to feel the awful sense of loss and of waste. People literally vanished into the ground beneath our feet here, down where the water flows.

After this sorrow, the rest of our trip is all joy. We walk for miles and stare at all the sights and drink in little bars to a soundtrack of Feist and New Order, Spandau Ballet and Dolly Parton. We go to an evening of Peggy Lee songs performed by a varied line-up of singers, all fantastic.

Finally, for our last night, we splash out on a midtown hotel with a view. Checking in, we hear that our travel agent is one of the hotel’s “preferred partners” and from that moment we are treated like royalty, both of us upgraded to a suite on the 49th floor and handed $100 to spend in the spa. Being a cool and world-weary traveller, I spend only two hours taking photos of the room, which is the size of a decent flat.

Even this high up and through the thick double glazing, you can hear the streets below, car horns and police sirens. On it goes, noise and lights, all day and all night, a gift of sound and vision.

When I return later, a fog has descended and my room is almost lost in it. The view now is pure Gotham City. Or Blade Runner, thrilling and spooky and I have never felt further from home.

If I ever get blasé about New York, please take me out and shoot me. 

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