PONY – People Of New York

New York. The physical differences to Sydney are clear. It’s harsh. Solid. Cold. Unforgiving. No city has had more written about it. You can churn out a million adjectives. It oozes frantic energy. In a contrary universe I find calm in the chaos. It’s exactly that atmosphere that inspires. Sydney’s kick-back vibe helps soothe my 24/7 mind. New York’s noise and activity has the same effect. With a twist. It ignites the internal ideas factory. For writing and for business. It causes frantic and spontaneous note taking on my iPhone. In a taxi. A restaurant. Walking in Central Park. On the Subway. New York author, screenwriter and playwright Delia Ephron recalls some perfectly apt wisdom from her mother: “All life is copy….take notes”. This copy comes from the sometimes outrageous, raw and real food, drink, people, places and entertainment that are the mechanics of the machine. I have written about these topics in a series of blogs that can be viewed here. But I saved my favourite till last – PONY or the People Of New York. I hate to stereotype. I really do. But ultimately most people are a product of their environment. And is seems no more evident than New York City. Generally, irrespective of race, nationality or status they are unashamedly brash. And loud. And when I say loud I mean LOUD. They wear their heart, and multiple mouths, on their sleeve. It can be mesmerizing. These people are subject to abject poverty and riches beyond belief in equal measure. I have seen nowhere on earth with quite the same contrast. The taxi from JFK Airport to Manhattan threw us slap-bang back in New York mode. The driver of Indian descent was a joker. “Where you going?” he shouts. “First and First please mate”, translated in New Yorkian (Yes, I made that word up) as the crossover of 1st Avenue and East 1st Street. “Ah, First and First!”, he excitedly replies. “And I drive very FAST!” he chuckles demonically. I know too well the textbook NY taxi experience. It can be as tumultuous as the NASA space launch. “Where you from?” he shouts again. “Born in London, but live in Sydney, my wife is Australian”, came my trademark auto-response. “Ah, Sydney, great sun, great beaches”. I smile on cue having rehearsed this scenario well. Why will he not just let me quietly watch the TV that New York taxis conveniently provide. When we reach our destination I hand over the $60 in three $20 notes. Having just arrived we have no small change. The fare is $58.50, the fixed JFK to Manhattan fee plus toll. I’m almost out of the door and bold as brass he protests, “Hey, are you not going to give me tip?” Playing dumb I say I didn’t realise there was a toll. I give him another $80 and ask for change. Eager to exit I take back a note. His cheek prevails. On the sidewalk I realise it’s $10, pocketing him a nice 20%, $12 tip. Originally from the UK we tend to tip well, over 10%. Being a naturalised Australian, we don’t tip well, below 10%. This country however is militant in the art of demanding tips exceeding $20. New York, One. Terry, Zero. Our first night was spent devouring artichoke dip at Freemans. It’s a favourite establishment of ours that you can read about here at my 2014 Eat New York: Top Tips blog. A row of coupled tables sits under a wall of deer taxidermy. Each is a laptop’s width apart so it’s cozy to say the least. Jet-lagged and it that uncomfortable timeless state, our table neighbours started fairly conservatively. She was American, dark hair, attractive. He was English, also with dark hair and handsome. As Carolina pointed out later, “He sounded so English! Like he was from Cambridge or Oxford.” I disagreed, I had heard posher, but you could imagine his Daddy was a moneyed politician. We threw in the occasional, “Wow this tastes so good”, as we desperately kept our ears trained on them. Then it got interesting. And much louder. He persistently questioned her statement that a man must have “ambition”. It started to get heated. Then they drank more wine. Next they discussed their previous partners and why they finished with them. I could not quite confirm it but I got the impression their former lovers were all part of the same social group. As Carolina and I said less, the couple progressively said more: “Well, you feel asleep when you went down on me.” In response: “You did it twice to me!” I wonder how I managed not to spit my Brussel Sprouts across the table. The girl reasons: “Well you get so carried away and it’s so tiring.” The smorgasbord of characters would continue daily. One of my favourite spots to sit while Carolina shops is on those two-headed water solid pipes outside shops. Apparently they are standpipes for firefighters. In a ten minute sitting people watching can be extremely fruitful. I’m perched on the busy Broadway in Soho. A familiar and distinctive Ford van I have only seen in New York pulls up. Out jump two guys in their late twenties. Immediately one berates the other to fetch a parking ticket from the meter. He doesn’t stop bellowing. They unload the pipes and equipment from the back of the van. Simultaneously he shouts at almost every lady that walks past, irrespective of appearance: “Flaaawless. Ab-so-lutely Flawless!” Cue multiple high-fives with his colleague: “Yeah, cuz!” At breakfast or dinner people listening is hands-down the main activity. While in an edgy Italian restaurant the couple alongside us discuss their friend’s plans to open a salami store. This strangely leads seamlessly into a discussion about her being body-conscious as the guy complains she freaks out when her sees her naked. Mid-to-heavy metal plays from the sound system. Yet the couple somehow increases their volume above the music. A hot, sunny Saturday in Central Park spawned every type of New Yorker and tourist possible. We kicked back on a picnic rug and listened to the hum of noise. Birds tweeting, dogs barking, a busker’s violin and cyclists’ bells. As I strolled to the toilet past a baseball game on one of the lawns, this symphony was broken. A pale, shirtless man appeared in front of me. Most likely of Jewish origin his loud, long checked shorts bounced aggressively. “Fucking $2 for a map”, in response to asking directions from a vendor, “Fucking nut-job”. His oblivious partner meekly explains she needs the bathroom. “Did you see that queue? Do you know what that is? That’s a fucking half-hour queue!” Away he bounced the sun shining off him. The ladies sat next to us in the park provided a different aspect. Without taking a breath for at least half an hour a larger twenty-something-year-old attempted a Gold medal for whining. The motor mouth was in fifth gear: “You know, I like, I’m so over drinking. And I’m so over bars. You know, it’s like, when did you last clean these dirty glasses? And when did you last clean these dirty bar stools? And when did you last clean these dirty tables? And I’m just so over drinking IPA (Imperial Pale Ale)”. There were tens more characters that were worthy of writing about, but that’s for a future project. My favourite and most comedic character of the trip is a guy that I swear was Biggie Small’s doppelganger, aka the rapper Notorious B.I.G., born Christopher Wallace. “Biggie” as I shall call him, sat right in front of us at a New York Knicks NBA game at Madison Square Garden. For $80 we sat up in the clouds. Biggie however was the king of this joint. It was the last game of the regular season and the Knicks were bottom of the ladder. The atmosphere was tepid. Biggie did not care as he played on his iPhone. Thankfully my lasered eyes could read every word of his texts. Multiple conversations were being had with “The Boss”; we assume his wife and Vanessa, a lady that was sending him selfies. Worryingly she explained she was still in the office and “Coming right now at her desk”. I can only assume she meant the more graphic meaning of coming. His reply sparked an hour of the “Biggie” selfie photo-shoot. In some he held the phone at angles. Diagonal. Up high. Others straight on. In every one he squinted and pouted. This was the only rightful definition of “Thug Life”. This intense selfie fest was punctuated only by a break for refreshments. His friend reminded him all items were free today due to a promotion. His eyes grew as big as his stomach. Away he marched to the vendors. Five minutes later he returned. Barely able to contain his excitement he reveals the two huge burgers, chips, iced tea and pockets full of bags of M&Ms. The makers of That Sugar Film I recently watched would be livid. A light meal later and it’s back to the narcissism show. Not content with the badass look he now gripped the ticket round his neck holding. The funny thing being his victim would have no idea he was way up in the stands. Even funnier was the rightful season-ticket owners that up for their seats after half-time and kicked him out. “Thank you soooo much for keeping these seats warm for us”, said the lady sarcastically. Braving the shopping scene in the city is an Olympic sport in it’s own right. And Carolina is a multi-Gold medal-winning veteran. Once I hit my two-hour shopping threshold it’s time for me to get out of there. While buying some perfume for my mum on day when I am particularly tired, I am hounded by three separate in the space of ten minutes. In America, Retail is serous business and shop assistants are machines. By the third approach I am out of patience. For a second I thought Barbara Streisand had hit hard times as a lady appeared from nowhere just an inch from my nose clutching a product, “Now Honey, tell me what do you do for eye-care?” Equally intriguing is the competition between the sales assistants. Everyone wants to help you. Carolina noted in some shops there is a clear pathway and script rooted in psychology: (1) How is your day today? (2) Give the shopper a compliment (3) Where are you from? When at the cash register you are finally asked, “Who helped you today?” I rarely remember and point in the far direction saying, “That guy over there”. I assume this affects their sales targets or some form of commission. Assistants in coffee shops are far more sedate and real. One timid lady served me and as I walked away with my change blurted out, “Americans should really say “Cheers” a lot more.” I laughed and agreed but said it sounded a little unnatural when they attempted it. By no means does this ramble cover all of New York’s people, it scratches the surface, but my final thought goes to those that live and “work” on the streets. The countless men and women that hustle, selling CD’s, counterfeit accessories or just beg for a few dollars to see them through the night. On our last day sat eating breakfast on the Lower East Side and on the corner of the street a small, frail Asian lady dragged a garbage bag beside her. People searching in bins is not an abnormal sight here but it took me a few minutes until it dawned on me that this familiar occurrence was a lady collecting recyclable bottles and materials that she could eventually exchange for a few dollars. Just a day before I had helped out at the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen and met many more of the marginalised and the people we pretend not to see. You can read more about the soup kitchen experience here. I was left with a sobering yet realistic conclusion; New York truly is a fantasy land for the few with means and a daily battleground for the majority of aspiring to be survivors.

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