This article was published in the September issue of GQ India.
It is June in New York. The heat is heavy, and it weighs down lazily on millions of people going about their day. On the wooden bench on the platform at York Street Station I wait for the Jamaica-bound F train that has been taking me to our midtown coworking space full of overly excited ‘changemakers’ for the past two weeks. The bench looks uncomfortable, a wooden slab attached to another at a right angle, separated into 6 seats, but I can’t even feel it. I am too busy thinking of the sweat on my thighs causing my jeans to stick to my skin and my feet to my socks.
To the left, a man who’d been standing silently with a saxophone hanging from his neck starts playing. There are four minutes until the F train, full of air-conditioned promise, arrives. I stare at him while he plays, but the music in my ears comes from cheap Sony earbuds and a Spotify playlist of Eighties shoegaze. With a tug, I yank the earphones out. They hit the bench, and I listen. The acoustics of the York Street Station are perfect. I smile stupidly. For a moment, I think the New Yorker thing to do would be to ignore him. To go about my day. I think about complying to that idea. But then I think better. I even film him, so I can send it to my girlfriend 6000 miles away later when I’ve got 4G. Send her a 7.4 megabytes of New York over WhatsApp.
As I’m on the train, I fall asleep intermittently. It’s cool, and I haven’t slept much. The room I’ve found on Airbnb is right under the Manhattan Bridge. I have heard every train rattling in and out of Brooklyn for 12 days. The place is beautiful. A shared space with a sculptor and woman who has a cool bicycle. I can see Manhattan from the toilet. It’s noisy as hell. I revel in it’s New York-ness for a few days, before it gets grating.
New York is loud. So loud I haven’t really heard myself think since I’ve been here. Everything is loud. The smoke hissing out of air vents, the construction workers talking about baseball, the harbingers of the apocalypse on Union Square, the rattling suspension of every suicidally commandeered yellow Chevrolet Crown Victoria, the fire trucks that all seem to be tending to the end of the world, the cackles of foodies waiting in line for the latest artisanal food item by a hole in the wall. New York is loud.
My first time in the city was in 2008. It was an ill-advised 48-hour trip from London. I spent the first night drunk somewhere in the Meatpacking District with men I can only assume were Russian mobsters. During the day I recovered on the Gray Line Sightseeing Tour bus, taking in the landmarks passively. Checking off tourist attractions. In the evening I got drunk again, before a friendly prostitute who was marketing ‘the best head known to man’ tried to steal my wallet while I purchased a Happy Meal at McDonalds on Times Square at 4am.
Tom Wolfe wrote that “one belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years.” I agreed. I was infatuated. I loved every heap of uncollected trash bags (does anyone ever collect garbage in New York?). I was obsessed with the place. All my thoughts, all my plans led me there. I bored friends with stories where I’d breathlessly conclude “it was such a New York moment”.
But sitting on the F train, sweating, reading an ad for a divorce lawyer placed above the heads of an idle couple, I head numbly to the office. I am surrounded by driven but glum people doing the same. Suddenly, I realize this is just a city. This might be the most inane realization ever pronounced but until that point, New York had been an idea. It had been idealized. After all, the place is a film set, and everyone insists on carrying themselves like B-movie actors in the story of their own lives. Everyone is so engrossed by the notion of being a New Yorker, that you can easily forget it is just a place with buildings, and offices, and lives, and hopelessness, and energy, and unemployment, and hardship.
On this particular trip, my father also happened to be in town for work. We both travel a lot, so our interaction recently has centered on having a drink together in hotel lobbies, like spies or arms dealers. Our meetings are infrequent, so we discuss lofty ideas. Big decisions. Getting a loan for a first house. Getting married. Middle East politics. This time I was sitting across from him in the lobby of the Ritz on Central Park South. This wasn’t the part of town I liked, it was too similar to the New York I saw in Nineties films, with doormen in silly costumes, and women with tiny dogs, and black Town Cars. But as I sat in front of my dad, who I’ve gotten very close to in recent years, I realized something else. Somewhere a couple of years ago, during a health scare, he’d stopped being my father. An idealized notion of a person. He became human. A man I respected and loved and wanted to emulate. But a real person, with weaknesses and worries. And far from make me love him less, it made me love him more. I guess he has more in common with New York than I imagined.