New York: so good I went there twice - Sikamikanico in America, Part IV

I should have realised sooner that I wouldn’t gasp when I first saw New York. 

New York was the real goal of my trip and in the day dreams that took the place of proper planning, I’d imagined flying into the city at night, staring out the window, gasping and squeaking with awed delight. But there was none of that, and not just because by the time I first saw New York I was tired from a day of travel from New Orleans via Dulles International Airport in D.C., packed as it was on a Friday evening with government staffers heading home for the weekend, and with my connecting flight delayed for three hours. It was because at moments of intense emotion, I tend to draw into myself, needing time to process what’s happening in my head before I react to it. I’m a lot more expressive than in the days when I averaged eight words and two facial expressions a week, but if anyone’s planning to propose, you probably shouldn’t expect much of a reaction straight off. And flying into New York was a moment of high emotion, starting with amazement that the place was a lot bigger than I thought. For some reason I thought Manhattan would be like Tokyo; lots of people stacked on top of each other in high density housing. But it was a lot more low rise and sprawling than I was anticipating.  

Landing in La Guardia, I heard INXS playing in a bar. This was very odd. When I was a kid in the 80s, living on the Northern Beaches of Sydney where INXS themselves hail from, we went on lots of family drives on the weekend, and it seems like INXS, then at the height of their popularity, were always playing on the car stereo (it was that or talkback radio). But despite their success, it's like they've been forgotten; few bands seem to cite them as an influence and you rarely hear of them today. So it was a little odd but rather nice to be reminded of some of the happier moments of my childhood (certainly compared to having to listen to John Laws), out of the blue on the other side of the world.

I should have seen if the bar sold peanuts. All the other food outlets in La Guardia were closed. Can someone please tell airport food purveyors that passengers are flying at all hours of the day and night, many of whom have body clocks on different time zones, and there is no good reason to shut at 8pm?  By the time I'd caught an airport shuttle, a subway, and another bus to the far flung Queens neighbourhood I was staying in that night, I was mindless of any concern on this planet other "get something to eat". There was a McDonald's near the bus stop, if I wanted to go for the familiar and slightly disappointing, which is a bad habit of mine (that's why I stayed married for several years after I should have left) but more promisingly, there was a bodega right there on the corner. I'd read all about bodega sandwiches, with the received wisdom being that the dodgier the bodega, the better the sandwich. This was definitely a dodgy looking neighbourhood, so I dove in. I ordered a roast beef melt, any feelings of apprehension at the unknown quantity of a bodega in a dodgy neighbourhood with the attendant behind bulletproof glass tamped down by thoughts of "mmm...sandwich" as I waited for it. Then I got outside, ripped the foil off and bit in, and oh my fucking God.

I've tried my share of chemical enhancements, although if my child ever reads this, not for very many years and you should never do this. I have had a reasonable share of intimate moments. I'm not unfamiliar with ecstatic experiences. But this fucking sandwich? The warm bread, the vegetables, the layers and layers of the softest roast beef. The world split open. Angels landed on my shoulders. The New York Philharmonic floated just above me, doing that loud bit from The Messiah as I was elevated to a higher plane of existence. My eyes filled with tears, and I wept in gratitude to any messiah or deity who might be guiding me for keeping me alive and in the world long enough to make it to New York and discover bodega sandwiches.

I had lost quite a bit of weight on this trip already, what with all the walking and dragging my bags and prepacked salads, but thanks to bodega sandwiches and pizza by the slice, in New York I put it all back on again, with some to grow on.

Let me tell you, I earned them. You should have seen the place I stayed in when I shifted to Manhattan, up three flights of narrow, steep stairs (there was no lift) above some unprepossessing shops on Canal Street on the Lower East Side. I'm used to living on the very cheap and making do, but this was just ridiculous. The room was completely filled by a double bed of questionable lumpy mattress, fitted with an unzipped sleeping bag and two limp pillows, with a thin strip of floor barely large enough to set down my suitcase. That was it. There was no window. The floor was slanted. Having seen many episodes of Seconds From Disaster, I made careful note of the fire escapes. All of this I could have coped with, until the air conditioning stopped working, which it did regularly. In that tiny room it wasn’t long before things got first stuffy, then suffocating. And whilst I’d idly imagined scenarios where I died in a New York hotel room, they all involved my ultimately fatal participation in a scenario of drugs, several large bottles of cocoa butter body lotion, and nubile people having lots of sex, in a hotel room WITH A WINDOW.

Worst of all, rather than each room having its own individual ceiling like every other room I've ever been in, the rooms were topped off with a kind of grate, leading to a common ceiling several feet above. I heard more couples talking about feeling too overheard to have sex than couples having sex. (although the last one might have been more than a couple of people. Noises make it hard to tell when you're trying to have sex in a tiny concrete box, but good on them for giving it a go, however many of them there were. I could barely fit in the room by myself). But sex was the least of what I heard from my fellow hostel victims. I would lie awake at night analysing all the different noises. What kind of hotel is this? Who is around me? Is the fight in the next room going too far and if so what do I do? I cannot possibly call the NYPD on anything less serious than someone being beaten to death in front of me. Calling the front desk seems like washing my hands of calling the police myself with the same result. In the end, I didn't call anyone about anything, relying on a quick check of local crime reports to make sure nothing terrible happened that I hadn't reported. Everything seemed in order, unless something so terrible happened the victims haven't been discovered yet. 

After my silent meltdown upon seeing the Vegas strip at street level, I feared I would feel the same about New York. That it was too much, too intense, I don’t like this and I want to go home. Lord knows, I’ve been feeling like that about Sydney lately, so I was gratified to take to NY like a duck to a cliché. I figured I’d be used to the beat of the city, having worked up the big end of town in Sydney for many years (and it’s kind of adorable that what in any other city would be called the financial district, in Australia is referred to as the big end of town). Sometimes, being in Manhattan didn't feel like getting to know a new city as much as discovering what I'd known all along.  

I got the hang of the subway on the first day and wasn't even smug about it; I simply wouldn’t expect less from myself. But on the surface it was another matter. I had one problem in New York. I was continuously getting lost, because no matter how carefully I checked maps on my phone, how diligently I tried to orient myself to the buildings at any given intersection, I was forever walking in the wrong direction. The natural sense of NESW I've relied upon all my life completely failed me in Manhattan - my internal compass was so skewed, when I saw a landmark that let me know what direction I was facing, my mind struggled to catch up with the reality in front of me. That's the Empire State Building on the horizon, therefore that way must be north? That can't be right.

As a travel writer, it’s hard to know how much to say about getting lost. Readers will tolerate you getting lost once, but if it's every day, they'll be like "get it together you fool" and you'll be like I'm trying! but you're still trying readers' patience. If people wanted to read about getting lost, they’d be reading think pieces on the current situation in the United Kingdom. But there I was - wait, where am I? As well as losing my sense of direction, there were multiple times a day when I was a little lost. You can get a little lost easily in Manhattan. It's a lot bigger than you think, with lots of little laneways and tiny streets. I'd go in a shop and go out again, and everything would look different. Is this the way I came in? Where the hell am I?

So I did lots and lots of walking in New York, even without all the times I'd have to backtrack after walking 800 metres in the wrong direction. New York is sadly lacking in public benches (water fountains, too). I would sit wherever I could, including on the benches in subway stations. The hygienic qualities of said benches leaves a lot to be desired, but I was too tired to care. One woman actually said to me, “Do you know how many New Yorkers have urinated on that bench?” and I thought, wow, I'm part of New York history!

On my to do list was the Staten Island Ferry, which does, as Colin Jost wrote in his memoir A Very Punchable Face, have excellent views of the Statue of Liberty. I did not see any of the more exotic sights described by Mr Jost, not even racoons eating passengers’ leftover meth, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I had, because that illustrates everything that’s wrong with modern consumer culture. People buy too much meth on impulse and don’t stop to consider the environmental impact of their discarded meth on ferry-dwelling racoons, or the lives of the underpaid workers who toil in arduous conditions under harsh and uncaring owners in meth shop factories to bring consumers the most fleeting of thrills in their dull and empty lives. (Wait, what was I talking about again?)

Disappointingly not the floating hell I was led to expect.

As an Authentic Traveller, I make sure to be avoid tourist traps – after two trips to Los Angeles, I still haven’t seen the "Hollywood" part of Hollywood Boulevard despite that I stayed in Hollywood for a week on my first time in the city, which if you're using public transit to get around LA is actually a fairly convenient place to base oneself. But I decided to go have a look at Times Square, telling myself I was going as an amateur sociologist and observer of human interaction, but in truth just so I could turn my nose up at it. And yes, it was awful. It was ringed with the neon lights I'd been so glad to escape in Las Vegas, thronged with weirdos in Elmo costumes last laundered during the Bush administration (41st or 43rd - it doesn't make much difference at this juncture) hassling tourists for selfies in the hope of earning tips, and at street level grey and unprepossessing with little effort by the city at beautification. It was lined with major retailers I don't shop at, Broadway shows I have neither the money nor attention span to watch, and shops full of tourist tat where I admit I added to my set of keyrings from every place I visited in America. So Time Square wasn't all bad, at least because the Naked Cowboy wasn't there the day I went.  

But to experience the real New York, I knew I would have to actually talk to real New Yorkers, beyond saying “one non resident ticket please” or “I’m so sorry to be interrupting the conversation you seem to be having with several invisible people, one of whom, after observing you for several moments, is apparently the ghost of Salvador Dali, but as the subway I wish to catch is now pulling in to the station, could you kindly get your extremely heavy trolley off my foot?” How, though? I’d already struck out in New Orleans, when the friendly ladies in the park turned out to be Jehovah’s Witnesses and my fellow backpackers seemed to regard me as some piece of large, lumpy furniture. And coming from a big city myself, I knew that New Yorkers were even less likely to strike up conversations with random strangers, unless they believed you were trying to steal Salvador Dali from their loving embrace. So how to get to know any actual New Yorkers? Fuck them. Literally. 

But I only did this for the sake of a fully rounded travel experience, you understand. Can I humbly suggest that if any of my family - particularly family members older than myself - are reading this, you might want to skip the next paragraph?

I put a modest post on one of the websites grown ups use for the sake of connecting with each other. This is not the sort of thing I normally do at home – I’m too tired for a start – but travel is when one does crazy things and hey, fat forty something women like sex too, you know. I soon connected with a very nice man who I met in Greenwich Village for a drink, whereupon he suggested we adjourn to a little place he knew next to the Hudson River. I didn’t realise at the time I was getting a double dose of authentic New York – we went to the Liberty Inn, a so called “love hotel” which had been in business since 1969, when the neighbourhood was a mecca of LGBTQ+ culture (the ground floor of the building was the site of the Anvil, a gay sex club, until 1986). Reflecting the stalking virus of gentrification, where wealthy types move into neighbourhoods built by interesting people then drive up prices so the interesting people can’t afford to live there anymore, the Liberty Inn cited the changed vibe of the area when it shut down in February 2023, so I was happy to be part of that part of New York history, although I have gloomily contemplated how many people contracted HIV in the place in the nightmare days of shame, silence and lack of treatments. I had never been in one of these places before (as far as I know, there aren’t any such establishments in Sydney), and if my out of character* risky behaviour had resulted in my being murdered by a stranger, at least I would have died in a room with decent air conditioning. Nothing of the sort happened, and another amazing bodega sandwich after just capped off the evening.

Okay, if you cooed over how adorable I was as a baby, it’s safe to read this again now.  

It was The Strokes who were the catalyst for this trip, sending my mind into dreams of New York as I sat in the local park reading Meet Me In The Bathroom whilst my kid played on the flying fox during our daily allotted hour of exercise during the second, very long 2021 Covid lockdown. So I wasn’t just looking for an authentic NY experience when I was there, but an authentic Strokes experience, even though I’d had a pretty good Strokes experience seeing them play in Sydney a few months before. This was a dive into history; a recently created map I found online of key Strokes locations in New York mostly featured places they'd frequented twenty years before and only two of the five members of the band live there now. I didn’t go to see any band members' home addresses, since going to look at someone’s house seems kinda creepy even if they haven’t lived there for a decade, and there’s not much you can tell from the outside of one apartment building in a row of similar buildings anyway. But I did head to Avenue A, admiring the outside of venues where the band played early shows and trying to look like I might have belonged in a bar there in 2001. All I experienced in the way of being part of the rock scene had to offer in that era was a lot of time spent at Newcastle’s long demolished home of metal, the Hunter on Hunter, where even the crustiest metal head would not have wanted to have a sexual assignation in the bathroom unless they found being swarmed by cockroaches enhanced the erotic experience. I don’t want to kink shame, but that’s not for me. (Not that some of the share houses everyone ended up back at after gigs were a heck of a lot cleaner). 

As my map suggested some of the Strokes favourite shops and eateries, I did go to take a look at some of the band members' favourite vintage clothing stores in the hope I would find an affordable vintage racing team shirt which fit (I didn’t) and used bookstores, which I could have made modest purchases from but didn’t since I’ve learned my lesson about stocking up on books whilst travelling when you have to carry your own bags before. It was great fun poking around the little stores in the East Village, although seeing Goth shops reminded me of what a depressing experience shopping back home can be these days. But there was one shop above all that made me want to weep in envy and move to NY. I wandered in to a little beauty supplies shop, and was instantly overcome with bitter jealousy over just what a frustrating experience shopping for cosmetics from Australia is. This place was tightly stocked floor to ceiling not only with brands I've never heard of, but also greatly expanded ranges of brands I know. Australia is a small market and it's expensive to ship stuff here, but it doesn't stop one being annoyed, seeing a recommendation say for a NYX lipstick, looking up colour charts to find your perfect shade, then learning that of the 24 colours in the range, only 8 are available in Australia. Fans of higher end products were thrilled when Sephora launched in Australia, but that was a disappointment too. A greatly reduced range of the product you wanted is listed on their website, but only 3 of the 7 shades are in stock. Sephora's local rival, Mecca, is even worse. And you can't buy directly from American sites because Sephora and Mecca have signed exclusivity contracts and you're geoblocked. I discovered my perfect hair dye in New York, Garnier Nutrisse Pure Indigo. When I later emailed Garnier in Australia to ask if they could add it to the Nutrisse range here, they told me no. At least I can buy Pure Indigo directly on eBay, as I've been doing since.

Not all the shopping was this much fun. You can skip this bit if you don’t want to read about periods, but somewhere across America I had lost my menstrual cup. I am always doing this; forking out $50 for a menstrual cup thinking “well, this should last me until menopause” (which I would welcome by now, believe me) and losing it a month later.  So I headed to the pharmacy to discover to my chagrin that American pharmacies only sell applicator tampons. What a weird serve – are American women so squeamish about sticking their fingers up their hoo hahs, they need little plastic doo hickeys to stick up there instead? You can buy guns, but you’re not allowed to swear or penetrate your own anatomy. I’m reasonably familiar with my own anatomy given the several decades I’ve had to become so, but I couldn’t make the stupid applicator things work and ended up throwing them away. What a waste of plastic.

I took a brief break from New York to visit upstate Connecticut, and although I had booked to stay in another shit hole windowless flop house when I got back, after relishing the small town autumn New England vibe I decided I couldn’t take it any more and found a decent deal on a proper hotel on the Upper West Side, which wasn’t the Plaza but did offer such bourgeois amenities as my own bathroom and a window. 

Not that my issues with my fellow hotel guests were completely abated. As I crossed the lobby returning from a small beer purchase, I passed an impossibily fit, groomed couple with a sure sense of their own superiority charging bottled water to their room on the 3rd floor. They passed me waiting for the elevator, and said smugly "we'll take the stairs" even as I wanted to yell "I'm on the 9th floor. Do you know how many steps I've been doing this fortnight (if American, will look blankly at fortnight) show me your count for today you bitch!"

This would not do. I enacted a personal revenge by casting each as imaginary Bad People. She's an attorney who gets medical device manufacturing off if they sell shonky products. He's a cross dresser, which is nothing to be ashamed of, but he is due to his southern Baptist upbringing and that his, wife has gotten way into New Calvinism lately, maybe to give a religious perspective to the time where she got a favourable result in the lawsuit when the company knowingly shipped, faulty aortic catheters.

My new hotel was right near the Dakota, home of the famous and infamously, the place where John Lennon was killed in 1980. I thought I was probably supposed to feel some sort of way about this, but I can't reconcile the image of Lennon the peace loving hippy with the man who beat his kid and of his several partners. (People who feel cancel culture is destroying everything we cherish might reflect that Lennon has not been cancelled, nor has for example Jimmy Page, who had a two year long clandestine relationship with a 14 year old. Or...well there's loads of other examples. The whole debate around separating the art from the artist is one I don't really want to get into now; I suppose I've got loads of music by questionable people on my play lists and lots of works by questionable writers on my bookshelves, and I haven't done much about it except deleting all the saved Marilyn Manson music I had cause there's no grey areas I can see: he's a disgusting monster. And I have been to a Manson concert; it didn't feel subversive, it felt like a desperate grab for attention**. Also, whilst a couple of his songs are kind of catchy, overall the music is not very good). For now, I just grimly acknowledged where I was and trudged on.

I paid the obligatory visit to the 9/11 memorial, surprisingly packed with people despite it being a drizzly mid week day with school in session. Maybe it’s a good thing that people are still so willing to visit. I spend a lot of time on meme pages searching for posts I can add to my Instagram stories, having started the habit of posting a daily batch of funny stuff during the early days of Covid and keeping it up ever since. And I’ve observed 9/11 jokes starting to filter in to the discourse, presumably by members of Generation Z who weren’t even born until after 2001. I was already an adult by the numbers on 9/11, so it’s very odd to see, not just “jet fuel can’t melt steel beams”, but the entire event itself become joke fodder; first as yet another how old am I, but also because having vivid memories of the time, the “never forget” mood that swept the world in the years after the attack and the subsequent War on Terror, it was hard to imagine 9/11 ever being the subject of jokes, but somehow here we are. I skipped the 9/11 museum and the enormous Westfield on the twin towers site, Australia’s contribution to America in the wake of the terror attacks amounting to breathless participation in the coalition of the willing and a giant shopping centre. 

Whilst in the area I walked around to the Irish hunger memorial. It was very moving, although nothing can compare to the visceral experience of visiting the small graveyard near my grandmother’s home in western Meath and seeing the dozens and dozens of graves simply commemorated with rough, unmarked rocks and stones, the only Earthly traces of entire Irish families who starved to death and were buried there whilst ships laden with produce departed Ireland for the UK. 

My accommodation upgrade perhaps wasn’t the wisest decision. Just as I was overcoming my woes getting lost, I was starting to run out of money. My budgeting skills hadn’t been too crash hot in the “just do it” phase of planning, where I’d been clinging to the trip as a lifeline to avoid the darkness of depression from dragging me down, and by now I had the unshakeable sense that I was trying to do too much. And everything I wanted to do cost too much. But there was one thing I knew I absolutely had to visit, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Museums in America are expensive. Entry to most major art galleries in Australia is free, but the Met cost $30 for out of state residents. It was the same in Los Angeles. I’m not sure why this is – lack of government support for the arts? – but this post is long enough without yet another of my rants on the perils of neoliberalism.   

It was so amazing that after only a couple of hours, I was hitting sensory overload. This is often a problem for us neurodivergent types - the brain, overwhelmed by stimuli and at the end of reduced attention spans, starts to shut down. I began looking at the artworks, but not really seeing them, and wished I had a 2 day pass so I could go back and appreciate all the stuff I was too mind-blown to appreciate the first time around. That would be a great accessibilitiy measure, multi day passes for when there's just too much art for one day, although it would be tricky to implement, as I don't know how institutions could prove you are the same person you were yesterday (I'm not sure myself sometimes).

Always nice to see one's body type represented in the arts.

Seeking out free stuff to do, I thoroughly explored Central Park, which also provided welcome respite from the pace of Manhattan. Living in the inner city feels like you're permanently caught in the rush for the bar when a band on a reunion tour says "and here's a song from our new album". Central Park contains amazing biodiversity even with its many monuments and amusements, and the pounding footsteps and discarded coffee cups of 40 million visitors a year. I loved being able to get one more look at the changing colours of autumn which I'd so enjoyed in Conneticut, though I'd been in America so long I was also starting to think of the season as Fall (we should employ the same etymological language in Australia and start referring to Spring as Swoop). If you read of my apathy upon seeing the Grand Canyon and wondered "bloody hell woman, what do you like?", I've another post planned soon on my newfound adoration of Fall in New England, even if such aficionados are referred to by the rather creepy term "leaf peepers", which brings to mind not admiring trees in blazing shades of orange and yellow, but of hiding out in bushes with binoculars. Still, I suppose the logical conclusion of the fall season is that the trees end up naked, so maybe it's apposite. 

Because too many modes of public transit are never enough, I rounded off my time in New York with a ride on the Roosevelt Island tram, which wasn't the charming little gondola for tourists I had envisioned, but a large modern transit system. This proved to beneficial as the views from the top are amazing, and all for the price of a $2.75 ticket. Viewing the city from a distance, I reflected how much there still was I wanted to do here. I had wanted to go to Hart Island but public visitation was suspended due to Covid (and still is). I wanted to visit more museums; the Museum of Mathematics has to be worth a look in (I bet their Christmas parties are really wild) and my kid is still furious I didn't get to the Museum of Ice Cream, even though it's not like I could have bought any to bring back to him. I didn't even get to see any live shows, having bought a ticket to see James Austin Johnson and other comedians, but missing the show when delayed returning from Connecticut. But that's the thing with New York, there will always be something more to see. And I can't wait. Only this time I will plan more carefully and bring more money. 

* Stop sniggering.

** Is three-piece suit of human noses not the funniest expression you've ever heard?