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New York City. One of the Greatest Places of my Life.

 

New York City. One of the greatest places of my life.

Should you ever meet an alien from outer space or, failing that, a man from a small village in Yorkshire, you should take them to New York and say, “Look! This is the human race. This is the human world, all here at one place, at one time. If you seek a monument, look around you.”

All the New York clichés are true, everything you’ve seen a thousand times in a thousand movies. The cars big as bars, the eight million stories, the mighty many people all millin’ all around.

“I thought I’d seen some ups and downs ’til I come into New York town”, sang Dylan, and who am I to disagree. The whole world is here. The streets bursting with possibility, the celebratory queue to visit the Statue of Liberty long with every colour, every accent.

But there are also more homeless folk here than in any rich city I’ve visited. The streets reek of piss, and crazies everywhere rant at the world that has left them behind and failed them.

I explore new cities by running, as I do new wildernesses. I opened Spotify, searched “New York” and hit play. Opened Google Maps, and off I went. Last week I ran up a hill to watch the sun rise in Lofoten, Arctic Norway. There was such an abundance of wonder that dawn I felt my heart was going to burst with excitement, wonder, and possibility. Today, in America’s biggest city, I feel exactly the same.

Running off the jet lag down the canyons of avenues, head craned back and blinking in the sunshine and whooping at the sheer abundance of excitement, wonder, and possibility of it all once again.

Over Brooklyn Bridge as the sun rose, bouncing off skyscrapers, feeling like a movie star in my own hero training montage. A sense of smallness as I think of the millions and millions of tiny, individual lives that have inadvertently gone into making this great collective city what it is.

There’s so much to see, and I’ve too much energy to sit on the subway. So I run for the whole day, pausing for photographs, coffee, lunch, or second hand bookstores. Eventually I have to ban myself from taking pictures, for every corner here is a story, every face photogenic. I tell myself to just enjoy it, to stop trying to hoard it.

Down in the south of Manhattan I watch a 5k run. The runners seem mostly to be walkers and selfies outnumber sweaties. The race is lined with police officers in uniform, bearing flags. Cheerleader groups bounce up and down, squeaking, and chanting, “USA, USA”. Military groups yomp past in formation, following their banner, chanting their marching songs. Bagpipes and drums, the NYPD choir, I hope, stoke the atmosphere.

“Thank you for your service. God bless you,” are the cries I hear over and over from the applauding crowd.

Were this parade on a different continent, in a different language, for a different god, people would have called it alarmingly nationalistic, religiously fanatical. It gave me a different insight into the American psyche of the last 20 years to anything I have noticed on my regular visits here before. But the fervour felt understandable. For many of the runners wore firefighter uniforms, and the flag bearers lining the route wore pennants of dead firefighters round their necks. The race was the annual Tunnel to Towers run and the place I was watching the race was beside the two gaping maws of the 9/11

Memorial. Two holes in the earth, where the towers used to be. A scar at the city’s heart. The sky open and empty in a way you never see in Manhattan. I stood at the elegant memorial waterfalls that cascade down into the two holes, lined with the names of the 3000 people murdered that sunny, warm September day. A sunny, warm September day exactly like the one I’m enjoying today.

‘Dipti Patel’, I read. ‘Joshua Michael Piver, Raymond Kui Fai Kwok, Lauren Grandcolas and her Unborn Child…’

What a wound to bear, right at the heart of the city that is the heart of the nation that, like it or not, has been the heart of the world for the past 70 years.

Lord, what fools these mortals be.

I was cycling round the world on 9/11. 16 years later and the world still seems as unexplored and exciting to me as ever. The friendliness of New York surprised me, the good-humoured positivity. Perhaps that is because, in part, I become a friendlier, chattier, more inquisitive person when I’m in another country. But there are also hints of a gentle civility that I had not anticipated. The lovely High Line park, a disused, elevated freight railway converted into a garden walkway, offering a mile or two of green, traffic free strolling. Or the delightful Bryant Park Reading Room. A corner of this tree-shaded park of sunbathers and pétanque players given over to free reading, with books to browse and all the daily newspapers. Sitting in the Sunday sunshine reading the New York Times, in New York at long last, was a very pleasant pause in my 9-hour run / sightseeing / eating day.

As darkness fell, I found myself drawn, reluctantly yet irresistibly (like rubbernecking a car wreck), to take a look at Trump tower, and swiftly then on to Times Square, via Carnegie Hall. I headed that way primarily due to a poor joke with a lesson that I like:

“How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Thirty years of practicing every day.”

Times Square surprised me. Gaudy and grotesque, I had expected. But the gentle murmured pleasure that a full United Nations of tourists were getting from finding themselves in such a famous place, surprised me. So I sat for a while and soaked up the dazzling colours and warmth of the night.

A hot slice of Joe’s pizza, crisp with garlic, to finish the day. A cold glass of beer. A table for one on the dark pavement, steam billowing from subway ducts, a warm shirtsleeve sort of night, the moon a thin crescent amongst the skyscrapers, and distant sirens howling at the moon. I ate my pizza, blissfully alone and enveloped by those “8 million stories”. Tonight it is all this. Last week it was the Arctic’s Northern Lights. A different kind of magic. A different world. But the exact same sensation of wonder and gratitude that all of this is here in the same world. 

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently is “where next?” For years I have answered, truthfully, but succinctly,

“Nepal, New Zealand, Norway, New York.”

Now I’ve been to two of those ‘Ns’ in a single week. I hope I do not forget to be grateful for my good fortune.

(You can see more of my New York photographs here.)

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