Thousands are sailing
Across the Western Ocean
Where the hand of opportunity
Draws tickets in a lottery
The Pogues, 'Thousands Are Sailing'
The Big Apple keeps growing bigger sapping up people from across
its continent, from around the world. I have friends in Ireland
with relatives there, flying back and forth in hours when once
people would have sailed in days. Driven out by the great famine
to a grim Atlantic crossing, typhus and typhoid rife on board,
many were dumped on the Manhattan quayside half dead with their
But some of them made it, became Americans and infiltrated the
institutions of government and law. An Irish American politician
was once said to have remarked "I'm so corrupt I even employed
If I can make there
I'll make it anywhere
It's up to you
New York New York
John Kander, 'New York, New York' (as performed by Frank Sinatra)
A framed Norman Parkinson print hangs on our spare room wall.
Itís the 1950's, the cameras at sidewalk level. Rushing
towards it are a smartly dressed young man and woman. They are
laughing. He leaps in the air, hurling his attache case around.
She runs alongside, gripping his hand. Curiously, she is the spitting
image of my mother at the same age, which she would have been
when the picture was taken. They both wear coats and gloves, he
a hat, so it is probably cold. The sun is shining, it feels like
spring. Huge cars like juke boxes on wheels roll by. In the background
slightly out of focus rise towering cliffs of human ambition so
familiar they tell you immediately where you are. Scaffolding
enfolds a new block, another American beauty.
What does this picture tell me?
That life can be wonderful.
I know that the Cold War was in full swing, that these people
at this particular time could only have been white, that the wealth
of individuals and nations is predicated on the exploitation of
others. It doesn't matter. The people running towards me out of
this picture, whoever they are and whatever they are celebrating
(a new job? A baby on its way?) exude an innocence and exuberance
that wins me over each time I look at them.
John, why did you go to New York City?
'Well nobody came to bug us
Hustle or shove us
So we decided to make it our home.'
John Lennon, 'New York City'
Our John, killed on his doorstep at the Dakota Apartments by a
man who had just hunted his autograph. Its one of those "where
were you whenÖ" moments. I was at home when my Mum came
into my room and told me, shocked. But she could remember the
world before Lennon and McCartney songs, I couldn't. Lennon joked
they would be bigger than Jesus Christ but he died like him all
the same. A city big and crazy enough to let superstars hide will
also have worms in its wood.
Rosemary's Baby was shot at the Dakotas too. Which takes us via
Mia to Woody. The New York I see will be inescapably that of Woody
Allen's movies, at least in part. It will unravel before me in
black and white CinemaScope to the strains of Rhapsody in Blue.
I will look for glimpses of Alvy and Annie in a city of full of
romance, neuroses, intellectualism, culture and integrity. I'd
go to see him on a Monday night tootling on his clarinet at the
Cafe Carlyle, but for the fifty- dollar cover charge.
'New York City's the place
Where they said
Take a walk on the wild side'
Lou Reed, 'Walk on the Wild Side'
My friend Helen found herself in New York, alone on her twenty
third birthday in 1975. She started talking to a guy in the street
who turned out to be an off- duty cop. When she told him it was
her birthday he said "Then I must give you a present- and
my present to you is New York!" and they got onto his Harley.
He drove her all round the City, on a cop's guide showing her
the sites of famous shoot- outs. Then out to Coney Island for
the fairground and ice cream, roaring back into town on the Freeway.
"That is exactly what not to do!" she instructs her
oblivious teenage daughter.
Paulette, another friend, got held up by a guy with a gun. But
she's from Handsworth Birmingham and doesn't take that kind of
crap so she laughed at him, and he skulked away shamefacedly.
I can imagine his gun barrel wilting.
"If Paris suggests Intelligence, if London suggest Experience,
then the word for New York is Activity."
VS Pritchett, New York Proclaimed.
New York never stops building, rebuilding, reinventing itself.
The struggle and ambition of the human race personified by the
torch-bearing Statue of Liberty. That's why the end scene in Planet
of the Apes is so shocking. Time travelling astronaut Charlton
Heston looks up and sees the Statue there, crumbling in the sand
and realises that civilisation has been destroyed. "You did
it, didn't you? You maniacs!" he cries, "You blew it
up! Damn you! God damn you all to hell."
"I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of
it at night, and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of
men and women and machines gives to the restless eye."
F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
New Yorkers must travel further vertically than they do horizontally,
whizzing up and down all those miles of elevators. I don't know
how I'd cope, being someone who has a problem with heights. I'm
sure the buzz of all that ceaseless energy would distract me though.
I've never been to New York, but I must do soon. I want to stand
in Times Square at midnight, go to a jumping jazz joint, wake
up in a city that never sleeps and breakfast in a New York deli.
I want to hang out in the Village, play pinball at Coney Island
and eat hot dogs watching the Yankees. Start spreading the news,
I'm leaving today.
©JOHN PETERS 2000