Needless to say, I had certain expectations of New York. I assumed it would feel aggressive and abrasive, the people to be irritable and offhand. I anticipated feeling intimidated and anxious, and finding the city itself soulless and alienating. If I had to summarise my predicted response in a word, it would be discomfort.
The reality was more than a little surprising. In the first place, so much is familiar that it didn’t feel like I’d never been there before. I don’t just mean the obvious landmarks (although it was somewhat comical to head out of Penn Station on arrival and say to myself right, find something recognisable to look out for, to make finding my way back easier – and literally the first building I looked at was the Empire State). I mean the whole infrastructure, the road signs, the police directing traffic, the hot dog stands… everywhere are aspects of New York life that we’ve all seen thousands of times in TV shows and films, so they seem completely natural. The way people talk seems much less odd than the New Zealand accents I encountered in April, just through so much exposure.
There’s a slightly surreal sense of fiction coming to life. I went to Grand Central Station – you know, from ‘The Fisher King’ and ‘North By Northwest’ – and there it was as a sumptuous, majestic, fully-functioning railway station. Not a film set. There’s the Chrysler Building – you know, from ‘Armageddon’ and ‘Someone To Watch Over Me’ – just languidly appearing sporadically between the more prosaic skyscrapers, nonchalant in its architectural superiority.
Talking of skyscrapers, I definitely expected to find the urban landscape cold and overbearing. In reality, there’s such a mixture of styles from differing eras, so many buildings in deep red and brown brickwork or rich limestone, that the cumulative effect is quite the reverse – the environment feels warm, almost comforting. It’s like being embraced by the city. And the greenery! There are trees down practically every street, softening any sense of being in an urban grid. And it felt safe to be out cycling. Every crossroads a traffic light, every junction controlled. I never felt as likely to be knocked off my bike as I do trying to negotiate the roundabout at The Plain.
The people took me by surprise as well. I couldn’t say whether they’re friendly or not – I was never really in a position to test that – but they were largely courteous and pleasant, in terms of basic interactions on the subway and in the street. Sunday morning I was buying a bagel and a muffin in a busy bakery, and as the woman was in the middle of working out my change I decided to get an orange juice as well. If I’d done that in London I’d have expected at best a sigh of exasperation. She just waved her hand in a gesture of “it’s fine, just have it” and carried on. And it wasn’t because it was too much hassle or she was too busy to charge me for it, she was just being nice. I’m not going to extrapolate from that one incident to form an opinion of New Yorkers, but it did fit with my experience. People hold doors open, and say please and thank you, and apologise when their dog runs over and sniffs you. Only the way that people do in normal cities. But not like I expected them to in New York, where I imagined every interaction would be like Dustin Hoffman in ‘Midnight Cowboy’.
Maybe all of those responses were just an artificial balance to the negative expectations I had. And obviously I got a limited view, having barely ventured outside Manhattan. But it felt comfortable, and natural, and almost cosy. And none of those were adjectives I expected to need.