USA: In a New York state of mind
Peta Scop takes a head full of books, movies and songs to America's most imagined city
Say something, growls the immigration officer, after he has photographed my eyes and paged curiously through my passport. Say something? I hear him, he looks like Jeff Bridges moonlighting, but I don't comprehend, I hadn't heard that US customs was now recording visitors' voices. Is it an instant lie-detector test?
Say something, anything, he urges, but my mind has veered off into the little room where they take you; Sean Penn is seated behind a metal table; slouching against the wall is Viggo Mortensen, or is it Mark Strong? The movie plays on .
Ah, please say something, I hear him repeat from inside his grey beard. I just love a South African accent.
Hulla, howzit? I chirp. If you come to Jo'burg, I'll invite you to a braaivleis at my place. His eyes twinkle, and he guffaws (as Americans do).
The moment is over, Sean and Mark fade out. And I'm safely through customs at JFK.
Gridlock. We inch forward an inch at a time. Yellow city cabs, Lincoln estate cars, limousines, trucks, the odd sedan. My fascination with this city began in childhood through books and songs and movies, imprinted still. A thousand images of a few small things. A horizon, its buildings stacked to the sky. A statue carrying the light of liberty and a book of wisdom.
I flew to New York as if to meet a lover. Excited as a child, I look up at some of the tallest structures in the world, packed so closely that to blink and squint brings them together and makes them sway, as if they will fall into each other. It is the beginning of a love affair.
I am small but this city, where bridges and buildings and beauty collide, makes me feel big. Not tall, that would take too much imagining, but no longer small. Here people look at you, catch your eye, return your smile. In Hong Kong, where I am an ordinary height, I feel invisible. In New York, surrounded by Amazons, I levitate.
And once again the movies roll on in my imagination. Gridlocked on the Brooklyn Bridge, a honeymoon couple kiss in the back seat of a taxi; hooters add to the chaos; a tattooed truck driver rages at the crisscrossed vehicles in his path; a kid on rollerblades whips through the traffic, GPS dangling from the peak of his cap, all enigma. Come back to reality, I tell myself in my finest East Side accent.
And then I'm off the bus and on the street. The sun is shining as I walk through Central Park and jump over puddles of rainwater and kick the piles of autumn leaves so that they fly back up into the trees and it's summer again, and sparks come out of the gardener's eyes - he's fed up with whirling leaves and fattened squirrels eating discarded donuts and turning ferocious from all the sugar when it's only acorns they should be stuffing into their cheeks. But I just laugh, I'm a tourist in the beautiful orange day.
I stop laughing later as I watch people at the 9/11 Memorial placing their flowers and saying their prayers for the lives shattered here a decade ago. I switch off the movies in my head; the images of broken buildings, people falling, black smoke billowing. A mother is tracing the outline of her lost child's name, with a soft cloth lovingly rubbing the letters. Private moments shared by strangers. The memorial pools, set within the footprints of the fallen towers, are described as a site of renewal, but it is hard not to feel them as watery graveyards too.
I am drawn to a young man standing guard next to a tree. He tells me it is the only one that survived the wreckage; burnt and branchless, it was taken to a Bronx nursery where it was replanted and nurtured and returned eight years later. The Survivor Tree, a callery pear, now stands its ground with more than 400 other trees planted in the memorial park. Under my breath, I sing Leonard Cohen's The Future lyrics: "Take the only tree that's left ...". Above us, an aircraft flies between the new towers.
"Call me Jim," says Jim, or Bob, or Dan, "no one gets my name." Bronx Jim is one of many tour guides by day, entertainers, magicians, stand-up comics by night. BJ is a ventriloquist and comedian but right now he's guiding a group of wayward tourists around the inner city. On the bus, off the bus, on the boat, off the boat. Manhattan skyline; Statue of Liberty, Hell's Kitchen .
He gives us each a number so he will know if someone gets lost. It is hard being lassoed and guided in New York. Everywhere I look there's something I want to see. I want to gaze up every gridded block to find the tallest building; I want to look in every deli to find the perfect pickle; I want to stop and smell the roses.
"Number 29!" I fall back in line. Jimbobdan whispers that he'll show me the city's "secret" places later. I laugh.
I slip away to fly over the Brooklyn Bridge; the wind seems to be sweeping small people off their feet and depositing them on the other side. Underneath is the East River, where cement-shod double-crossers sleep with the fishes. The Godfather, Tony Soprano, Rikers Island. I've spent too much time with books and movies in my head.
I look around for those roses to smell and find myself on the High Line, an elevated railway converted into an urban park with sudden views of the Hudson River, and a random collection of art and graffiti. Wooden loungers roll up and down the old train tracks, while the wild, waving grasses reclaim the spaces in between. Small birds feed among the trees and flowers.
I feed myself wherever I see food: salted pretzels from pavement vendors; cream-cheese bagels from corner cafés; spicy minestrone on a bench under Grand Central Station. And once, I sit in a real diner, The Original Viand Coffee Shop on Madison Avenue, and eat a vegetarian burger. It is sublime.
I love everything about this city. I love the old Chinese man bowing and saying you're welcome when I thank him for a meal of lemon-grass and noodles. I love the soprano-singing Italian who seduced me into eating a lemon sorbet my mouth will remember forever. I love the cops on the streets and the laughter of people running in the rain on Lexington Avenue. I love being swept along by the crowds and the solitude found in that.
- Peta Scop was a guest of Flight Centre and Qatar Airways
For R5100 ($639) a person sharing, enjoy a three-night stay at the Affinia Manhattan Hotel in New York, plus a seat in a coach return transfer from the airport and an All Loops hop-on hop-off tour and travel bag. Package excludes flights on Qatar Airways, which start from R8690 ($1088) return. This offer is available from June to August on selected dates.
Flight Centre has more than 140 side trips and tours in New York:
- Central Park Movie Sites Tour - R200 ($25) a person
- Hell's Kitchen Pub Crawl - R685 ($86) a person
- Liberty Cruise - R215 ($27) a person
- Television and movie sites tour - R320 ($40) a person.
CONTACT: Call 0860 400 747 or visit www.flightcentre.co.za.
VISAS: Passport holders need a valid passport with six months validity on the return date of travel and a visa to enter the US.