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8 January 2020

In my Queens apartment, the steam pipes hiss and you still put your trash down a chute

Ah, New York, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

By Nicholas Lezard

A seagull crapped on my head in Brighton, and I thought, “that’s it, I’m outta here”. My friend D— had invited me to stay with her in New York, a possibility that had struck me as an unrealisable fantasy until she said that she’d pay for my plane ticket and put me up for free. I felt the seagull shit running down the back of my head – even when you wash your hair, the sensation never really leaves you – and said “yes”.

Also, I was getting very sick of seeing Boris Johnson’s ugly gurning mug all over the place.

I haven’t been to New York for – oh, I don’t know, five or six years. The last time I’d gone I had managed to wangle a free ticket by accompanying my mother and helping her with her luggage. She would then stay with her friend in her fancy apartment in Riverside Drive and I would go to Chelsea and stay with Razors. We plucked the gowans fine and heard the chimes at 4am as I pounded on the doors of a bar, shouting, “You can’t be shut! This is meant to be the city that never sleeps!” I don’t think I’d have got away with that kind of behaviour if I’d been staying with my mother.

Nowadays I am much more restrained, and instead find myself loafing round in bed until all hours. My host is most accommodating and brings me gin and tonics at three in the afternoon. Well, my liver thinks it’s 8 o’clock in the evening, so why not? And there is a cat to play with.

Ah, New York, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Let’s start with the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. Actually, let’s not, because it was shut – at lunchtime on a Sunday – when we went there. So we’ll start with Grand Central itself, with its ceiling celestial and old-timey ticket booths. We were going upstate and had to use one of these as the ticket machines were acting up – well, to be strictly accurate, I insisted we used the ticket booths so I could pretend to be Cary Grant pretending to be Roger Thornhill pretending not to be George Kaplan in North by Northwest.

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Who knows? I might get to meet Eva Marie Saint on the train to Peekskill, NY. And when we got on the train the conductor had a fine white beard and one of those also old-timey US conductor’s hats. I could hardly believe my eyes: he was perfect, straight out of central casting. I nearly swooned with pleasure.

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I suppose that’s the thing about New York, and much of America: its small-c conservatism. For all that it presents itself as modern and dynamic, you can’t get away from the fact that there is something eternal and unchanging about the place.

I first came here in 1966 when I was three and I can still remember the impression it made on me, and the view of the river of traffic at the bottom of the skyscrapers’ canyons. The gentle music of car horns (used, as ever, continuously, but without anger, more as an extension of the turn signal) drifting upwards is the same as it has been for decades. The design of the infrastructure remains the same, or is remarkably consistent with its predecessors; the exterior of the Metro-North train to Peekskill may have looked modern, but inside, the seats, the laminate wood-effect panelling and the very spaces between the carriages appear as though they have been beamed from the 1950s.

In the apartment building where I’m staying – in Queens, my first time in this neck of the woods (I’ve been fortunate, or spoiled, to have only stayed in Manhattan all the previous times I’ve been here) – the lift-call button panel looks like it’s from the 1920s, the steam pipes still hiss, and you still put your trash in a chute, although I gather it doesn’t go down to a furnace any more. (The idea that each building in the city was somehow powered by its own rubbish was one I used to find immensely appealing.)

As for New York City itself, there are some strange survivals. I had never been to McSorley’s bar before, having considered that if I’d heard of it, it must be something of a tourist trap. But D— insisted we went. There are two choices of drink there: porter or ale. I suppose you could get a glass of water if you asked nicely but eyebrows would be raised. We were shoved on to a table already occupied by a group from upstate and we made four new friends, just like that. Anyone who says that New York is an unfriendly city is either being silly or has been extremely unfortunate in their encounters.

Meanwhile, for those of you wondering what the hell a column called “Down and Out” is doing in New York City, let me assure you that I have just checked my bank balance. Unless I have some kind of New Year Miracle, my time here is going to be spent sitting on the sofa, not going anywhere, and surviving on Cheetos dipped in cat food. 

This article appears in the 08 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Trump vs Iran