25th August, 2010
At JFK, taxis are pulling up quick and fast. A teak-skinned shaved-headed taxi marshal with an African accent wearing a black baseball cap and an odd long black Bat Man raincoat that reads Marshal works his way up and down the incomings, demanding taxi receipts; spiking them with a pen, he hands them to the passengers as a receipt. Three black girls from London with 70s frizzed-out hair and huge sun glasses have too much luggage. There’s a rock band air about them; or, simply, three girls on a hard core shopping spree to the Apple. A Sikh driver gets out, a wonderful contrast between his turban, his pinstriped shirt hanging out, and his black skateboarding Vans. I like the way he rolls. A young Indian driver in rolled up jeans and brown leather sandals gets out, rubbing his eyes; another marshal, white dude with a uniform like a prison officer and a military haircut, hustles us along. I look to my left, and there’s a dude like Samuel L. Jackson; to the right, an Orthodox Jewish family, all little boys with side-locks; fathers with huge beards and massive hats and robe-like black coats, and dumpy mothers in sensible shoes. A rogue driver is whispering “taxi?…” to us from an oblique angle, and then speaking in Latin American Spanish on his ear piece. It’s all here.
The first view of Manhattan comes as we barrel down the highway, the tyres pocking and sending a small, repetitive boom juddering through the car. The first view of Manhattan doesn’t happen to the mind. It happens to the body. We are barrelling down the highway as if the Indian taxi driver wants to send us off a cliff; just then, the skyline rises up, and I see the Empires State, its tip in cloud, like an elegant conductor to the sky; a gritty grey mass of cloud covering the island. The smell of humidity from my childhood in Connecticut is there, though three days’ rain has freshened it. The skyline, with the overcast sky, is immense. Although of course indicative of human endeavour, under the overcast, gritty sky, it seems more like a monument to some stupendous geological event. There’s a blow to the body, to the breath, and tears start happening, approaching this, a wordless “OH, shit.” rising up, hollowing out the body’s interior, that is the closest thing to approaching the Iguazu Falls’ endless roaring.
Before the Midtown tunnel are the beautiful, red metal under-struts of the Triborough Bridge, people strolling under them. There’s the smell of shirts being ironed, a laundry smell. Then I realise it’s the tunnel’s air circulation system. Out the other side are the canyon-like, red-bricked lanes that, if you took the wrong one, could put you in traffic hell for hours. I remember them from the 1980s, when we would be in what seemed like 5 lanes of traffic, a sense of war and warriorhood to the kind of driving that was demanded. We take Downtown, and suddenly Manhattan opens up, not monumental, but intimate, almost small scale. We head down 2nd Avenue as far as 18th Street, Gramercy, and a young blonde woman like a model is strutting with the street as her catwalk; everyone is. A young Italian woman in a black dress holds out her arm for a taxi (a dramatic gesture); there’s hundreds of them. A Chinese delivery man from some local restaurant is riding his delivery bike the wrong way up the Avenue, not even nonchalantly, just not giving a shit.
Later, I leave Martin’s peaceful, Buddhist-tinged basement apartment to buy a six pack of Pacifico at the Japanese-owned grocery shop on 3rd Avenue. People are eating at the thin-crust Pizzeria on the corner; a woman eyes me and smiles from the terrace. Trees, darkness, elegant 19th century brick buildings; Manhattan brownstones. Three sleek young white women in short silk party skirts with pressed, straightened hair leave a house and say, with Californian uplift, “is it, raining?” And, in fact, some drops start to fall through the street lights. It’s peaceful in the side streets of Gramercy as the rain starts to fall.