Archive for June, 2011


Well, here we are in that horrible limbo of leaving, but not quite. It’s around 96 degrees today, so really too hot to do anything, but pack (which we’ve done) and wait (which we are doing) and try not to sweat too much.

I spent all of yesterday wracked with worry that I haven’t done enough with my time here, and panicking about what I’m going to do when I get back. I also really want to stay and live here properly, for a while anyway. But today I just want to go if we’re going – I want to be back in our house, and see the dog, and savour the cool of NI (that may not last for long!)

Looking on the positive side, Mutley and I made a list of things we won’t miss – the honking sirens on fire engines; the mosquitos which have bitten him to death; sweating so comprehensively that everything you’re wearing is damp.

But we’ve had such a great time – and met some great people. So this week we had a couple of really quite sad goodbyes, with the Russian beauty and her great friends, and with the Off The Sidewalk impressarios – who it’s been great to re-get-to-know, and everyone keeps saying, ‘you’ll be back’, so I guess we’ll see. So goodbye New York, for now….

They do love their signs in New York.

Many are telling you what, or more likely, what NOT to do; some are informing you of quite unenforceable laws; and many are issuing warnings – warning of an entirely obvious nature in some cases. There was a great one on the boardwalk at Coney Island which I should have snapped – something like “Warning! The seas here are subject to strong currents and sudden land drop-off which can contribute to drowning”.

Anyway, here are a few others I DID get pictures off.. oh yes, and the BBQ one? Well, where I come from pulling pork is something ENTIRELY different….

I hate being a tourist when I’m ‘abroad’ so I was delighted to come to New York to work, rather than just visit. But since I finished the job Mutley and I have had the most amazing time just drifting around, pleasing ourselves and looking at things! I know I’m on holiday because haven’t looked at a news bulletin or a website (although Mutley keeps having a quick online check on things at home, and then telling me smugly, ‘it’s cold and raining in Belfast’). We’ ve done so much – galleries, museums, boat trips, the Empire State Building – I think the pictures might say more…

 

Living in Harlem is a very different experience to living on the Upper East Side. While that may seem like a statement of the obvious, it’s a reminder of the ways neighbourhoods can change so quickly on this tiny island. Of course, coming from Belfast, that’s also no surprise to me – but in Northern Ireland, while the flags and kerbstones may change in an area, but the people look the same. Here, it is still a shock to suddenly find you are the only white person on the street, in the restaurant, in the carriage on the subway. We met up with the Queen of Manhattan the other night and during our conversations, she asked how it was up here. It was great, I told her, elaborating on the flat with its garden full of birdsong. ‘What about the people?’ she persisted. They’re fine too, I said. ‘But are they black?’ she asked. Yes, I told her laughing, but what’s wrong with that?

But of course, when you stand out so obviously in an area, you immediately feel more vulnerable. Our first night here we went out looking for a particular famous restaurant. When we finally found it it was closed, so we ended up walking looking for somewhere else. It was a hot busy evening and there were lots of people around. But straight away we got asked for money. And then we got approached with the ‘I’m not looking for money or anything but can you buy me a sandwich’, and this from a guy obviously on his way home from work. And that annoys me intensely – if you’re asking for money, then ask and I can make a choice whether to give you some or not, don’t dress it up. And needless to say, when Mutley did give him some money he was less than impressed with the amount.

The other big difference is I’ve found I get hassled on the street when I’ve been walking alone. Now, attracting comment from young men is something that happens so rarely at my age, that it’s hard to see it as anything but a compliment – although most of the time I’ve felt like laughing out loud. These huge young guys swagger past, look down on me and give me the once over. ‘Niiice!’ said one, who was probably young enough to be my son, and I wanted to stop him and say ‘Really??? Do you know old I am?’ Yesterday, I was bowling along, trying to get out of the intense heat, wearing a dress that my best friend would probably describe as frumpy, with my beaten up old trainers on, and sweating cobs, and a guy sauntered up and said ‘Hey beautiful, how’s YOUR day been?’ I had to smile at him, at the sheer ludicrousness of it all. But of course there’s another level to this, which is all about power, and which is a bit more sinister. If a woman, no matter what age or level or attractiveness, attracts comment on the street simply because she’s alone, that means she’s seen as fair game, just because she’s not accompanied by a man (because of course it hasn’t happened when I’m with Mutley). And that means that a woman here is pretty much defined by her relationship to a man. And that opens up a whole can of worms about respect.

But I’ve lived in enough areas that have been considered ‘dodgy’, to shy away from the stereotyping of a place. In Birmingham I lived in Balsall Health (once the red-light district) and in Sparkbrook (a mostly Asian area) and here, like there, the problems of the area are more about poverty than race. A quick search on Harlem brings up a ‘real estate’ site, which succinctly sums up the area ; “Despite radical changes in recent years, crime is still relatively high and the public schools could still use improvement.” The Harlem Tourism Now’ websitehttp://www.harlemtourismnow.com/index.html is predictably more upbeat, but even it has a report about small business is crisis. The small businesses we have used, mostly the local shops and a couple of restaurants, have been doing ok – but the restaurants have been very expensive. Last night we had some cocktails and beers at the place nearest to the flat, and then got a couple of starters, and the bill came to $77, $89 with the tip – more than £50.

So would we come back and live here? I don’t know. What will probably force the gentrification of the area is the economics of living on Manhattan. This is one of the few areas where you can buy a house for under a $1 million, the real estate website tells me. And indeed, this lovely four-story brownstone we’re currently living in was bought by our gentle giant of a landlord as an investment, he told us.  But now he’s living here because it’s such a haven from the city, and I guess, considerably cheaper than renting in mid-town. And incidentally, he’s white, and so are all his other tenants. As more and more people move here, because they can find affordable accommodation here, the neighbourhood mix will change – although will the local people like that?

 

And speaking of trains, this weekend it’s been all change as far as my life here is concerned. Mutley is finally here! And it’s changed everything – for the better, I hasten to add! I had reached the point where I had had enough of all of it – the job, the weather, the city, the rush, because I was fed up of being here on my own. Everytime something great happened I wanted to tell him, everytime I saw something amazing I wanted to show him.

So on Sunday morning, there I was at JFK, in my new dress and heels, feeling a tad over-dressed compared to all the sneakers and shorts, and after what felt like hours of anticipation, the arrivals doors slid open and out he ambled. And suddenly everything made sense again.

So now we are esconced in this lovely little basement flat in an old brownstone, way up in Harlem. And the Queen of Manhattan is in Queens (!), having rented her whole flat out to someone else temporarily. It occurred to me that if I’d known she was prepared to do that, we could have stayed there – but it’s nice to be somewhere different. This flat is so full of character, (old and slightly shabby!) unlike her modern minimalist pad, but has this amazing back garden – walled and overlooked by trees, with comfortable beaten up chairs and a table with candles. The bedroom is at the back, so you wake up to look down the garden, deafened by the song of hundreds of little birds – instead of the wail of sirens that woke me on the Upper East Side - so it’s a totally new experience. (I just have to stop Steve calling me ‘bitch’ all the time…)

Of course I think the Queen was horrified that we were moving to Harlem - but knew me better than to say so! She may be an immigrant but she is a typical Manhattanite – there is NOWHERE but Manhattan to live, and NOWHERE really suitable except her area. Despite the stresses and strains of the last couple of weeks – her with all the bad luck she’s been having – me with my exhaustion and over-arching irritation with everything – we were still friends, and we had a great night out the night before I left. We went to the French bar with the jazz – now complete with a singer – and then onto what she called the Cigar Bar. When the smokeing ban came in, certain places could apply for a licence to still allow smoking on the premises. This place, not far from us but over near the park, was a richly dark downstairs basement bar. It’s lined with books, and has deep plush seats. The waitresses are dressed in deep red tight cocktail dresses, the clientelle is old and rich. It’s about as old money as you can get. But there was a real nostalgia to stepping down into the fug of smoke, especially the scented smoke of cigars.

We sat and watched the life around the bar and I had a $15 whisky – Laphroig I think. It was beautiful, as it always is, but seemed particularly appropriate to be drinking there. But there was an additional shock when we came to settle up – a $5 ‘cigar charge’! So we know who pays for the licence! Add the tip, and the tax, and one drink ended up costing $26 – or around £20. But I enjoyed seeing the place.

And the final change – today was my last day at work. After even just five weeks I have got into my little routine, got used to my desk, and wanted more time to have got to know my colleagues. But then I remembered how I felt when I still had weeks to go… and now we have 8 days of unsullied holiday to enjoy!

 

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