In Africa I met a Lebanese woman who had spent her life traveling. “You become everywhere you have been,” she told me. Walking around the City, I am a little bit African.
I step out of the underworld of the subway onto 34th and 6th. Some guys with neon shirts yell, “Empire State! Empire State! Book ya tickets, book ’em now!” and a blonde family stands with a guidebook and blank faces.
I walk among tourists
(they travel in packs, wear “I heart New York” shirts, don’t pronounce the word “coffee” like they’re swallowing a grapefruit, walk at a normal pace and look up at buildings)
and I walk among Real New Yorkers
(they carry at least two bags, talk on their cellphones/iphones/blackberries/cameras/watches, drink coffee, and walk quickly enough that you’d never stop them, but slowly enough that they’d never miss a good sale).
I walk past hot-dog stands that conjure a whiff that blends in with sewers and parking garages, out of which crazy drivers come out to run over even crazier pedestrians.
I pass a homeless woman. She is blond and wearing a flowery skirt and a thick layer of mascara. I think about the boys I saw in Africa with tattered tops and shower shoes.
I wander into a cafe. I gape at the counter behind the glass, at glazed cinnamon raisin buns and at a coffee crumble cake. Suits and ties and high heels form an orderly, impatient line. Lipstick mouths talk fast, order faster, eat faster and run back out to work.
I walk along towers soaring up to the sky – sleek, glass, reflective.
And along old buildings, ornate. Behind their decaying walls I can almost hear the polite aristocratic chatter of men in top hats and women in gowns. I walk up broad, sun-stained stairs onto a pillared facade – The New York Public Library.
I stroll through an exhibit depicting the lunch scene in New York in the past century. You should check it out if you’re around. Did you know Jello was introduced to the world as a diet food? And that people used to get hot, gourmet meals by pushing a quarter into a machine called an Automat?
New York is not Africa. It’s a madness that makes perfect sense, itineraries crashing, personalities clashing, like the jazz musician’s wail jamming into the delicate notes from the philharmonic, stilettos stepping on flip flops, double-cappuccino-frappe-latte-with-diet-organic-local-soy-milk clinking with a beer glass.
People wear deodorant.
They say excuse me.
The sidewalks are clean.
There are no 2 meter potholes in the sidewalk.
There are sidewalks.
No one points at me and yells, “mzungu.”
No one points at me at all.
Everyone has some place to go, or reason to pretend that they do. No one just sits (unless it’s in a Starbucks), no one just thinks (unless it’s through an app on the iPhone) no one just is. Or maybe they are. They do seem alive.