It's still New York

THE Museum of Modern Art, New York, now in a bright blue building at Queens (next to a check-cashing centre and a deli, while its Manhattan home is under renovation) is showing a Max Beckmann retrospective. An urban, night-time, dream-like display filled with brooding colours. "Self-Portrait in Tuxedo", the 1927 oil where Beckmann paints himself, dandyish, one hand on his hip and a cigarette in the other, his face in half-shadow, a grim, resigned, half-irritated and half-amused look on his face, is somewhat like this city: intense, anxious, and yet dressed for a party. Evoking anxiety and delight in equal measure, like this paradoxical city, what Joan Didion once called this "shining and perishable dream", with these spiky skyscrapers wrapped inside fleecy clouds, streets and avenues filled with parks, music, cranes and underground trains, all surrounded by grey water.

But it is possible to sentimentalise the dream and ignore the reality of this city. Think of Woody Allen's "Manhattan", where, as we hear the long wailing notes of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", we see the New York skyline, the Empire State, the Brooklyn Bridge, parking lots and lamp-lit streets, and the voice-over: "He adored New York City. He idolised it all out of proportion". To him, no matter what the season was, this was still a town that existed in black and white.

It is possible to see the city only in black and white, seeing only the lovely brownstones and ignoring the trash bags lying piled up on every street, seeing the parked Mercedes, the driver sipping his coffee and unfolding his newspaper, and not seeing the man asleep on the park bench. To forget, as Bob Dylan sang: "If you got a lot of money you can make yourself merry/If you only got a nickel, it's the Staten Island Ferry". And I remember these lines as I get down from the Greyhound bus that has brought me from elegant Washington D.C. to noisy New York City, from the political capital to the people's capital. I step out of the Port Authority Bus Terminal and enter the subway, an underground world of more than 450 stations, and 800 miles of tracks, all uptown or downtown. Already hearing the rush of a train.

I have been travelling across America for several weeks now, and everywhere it has been the usual wide-open spaces, fast Interstates, empty pavements (called sidewalks, while hardly anyone walks on them), and polite adherence to all sorts of unwritten rules: preferably no cellphones, no loud laughter, no smoking, no driving through "Walk" signs.

New York, of course, breaks all these rules. The air around me is practically filled with smoke; the pavements are filled with people; the roads are full of cars. Every second person has a cellphone pressed to his ear and is shouting at someone at the other end in an Italian accent, straight out of The Godfather. There are cars, and lots of New York's legendary yellow taxis, driving straight through "Walk" signs and creating traffic jams all over the place — but most people just walk. In fact, people jaywalk. Usually with a cup of coffee in one hand and that cellphone in the other. Unless they're holding a dog leash in the other hand.

Nowhere have I seen as many dogs as in Manhattan. New Yorkers love dogs, even if they have to keep them in small, expensive apartments. Young men in baseball caps and sneakers walk seven to eight dogs at a time: Boxers, Collies, German shepherds, Afghan hounds, and laughing Labrador retrievers. I have never before seen so many Chihuahuas.

If it's not a leash, it's a book. New York, amazingly, reads. "Libraries are the memory of humankind", announces the venerable New York Public Library, with its "lions without and learning within", its 85 branches and four research libraries, including a Braille and Talking Book Library. Even if budget reductions have closed the research libraries on Mondays (and this year the Library has had to launch an Emergency Campaign, seeking to raise $18 million), it still has a tens-of-millions-strong collection, including the Gutenberg Bible and Jefferson's manuscript of the Declaration of Independence. And I see New Yorkers go on reading, and even immigrants learning to read English, in this city where The Village Voice is distributed free, and The Strand, with its huge collection of used books, is as much a landmark as the Empire State Building.

It is close to two years after the September 11 attacks, and days before the power blackout — in short, an ordinary warm day in early August — when I arrive in New York. It is filled with summer tourists. Ground Zero is still on everyone's itinerary, but so is everything else — the Metropolitan roof garden and the Bronx Zoo, shish kebabs and chicken pita in downtown Manhattan, and an afternoon in Central Park. Tourists are photographing the skyline, climbing Liberty, taking the Staten Island ferry, and getting their caricatures drawn at Battery Park. As for the New Yorkers themselves, as I have already mentioned, they are smoking, jaywalking, shouting into cellphones, shrugging and kvetching as only New Yorkers can do. The Rockefeller Center is filled with red, blue and white flags; but elsewhere, in people's houses, I see few. And so New York, the city, seems to thrive just by doing the opposite of what the rest of America is doing at any point in time. It smokes, it honks, it jaywalks, and best of all it reads; it grabs coffee and a bagel for a dollar, it presses cellphones to its ear, it drives straight through "Walk" signs — and it survives 9/11 by being even more loud, brash, intelligent, funloving and multicultural than ever before. Life, grey and gritty, goes on.

And surely it is for all these reasons that everyone, from everywhere in the world, goes to New York, and stays in Manhattan. Even if one has to sleep in bunk beds in tiny hostel rooms in this slowly gentrifying island. In the tiny green garden of the Chelsea hostel where I am staying, Mieko, a Japanese tour leader from Osaka, tells me why she's holidaying in this city. She's just back from leading a Japanese tour to Las Vegas; the next tour is to Egypt. "I don't go inside the Pyramids any more", she tells me, shuddering. "Too hot! I send them all inside, I stay outside." And so, every year, she comes to take a break from all this hectic holidaying and comes to New York City.

Heidi, who runs this tiny hostel, is telling a Parisian couple, in fluent French, where to buy affordable luggage: Fourteenth Street. As I'm also looking for a bag, I walk down Fifth Avenue, past the glittering windows of Cartier and Gucci, stopping to admire the Tiffany Diamond and I arrive at Fourteenth. It is full of immigrant's shops: cheap luggage, two-dollar tee-shirts, two pairs of dark glasses for $10.

"Come on, ladies! Get your man a tie!" urges one hawker. I desist. A man shouts into his cellphone: "That means we don't really make any money, right? Tell me again why we should do it?" I buy a black expandable bag from Paul, a Lebanese immigrant, for $9.99. I hope it will last me the Greyhound ride back to Washington D.C.

Seven a.m., Upper East Side. Third Avenue and East 95th Street. A Chinese bagel van parked alongside: bagel/butter, 50 cents; bagel/cream cheese, 75 cents; coffee, small, 50 cents, and so on. I buy a small coffee and a sesame bagel, and walk back to my precious bench. A thin, unexpected rain. Officegoers push on, regardless. Some shops are open; some haven't shut down for the night at all. At the Zesty Pizza and Deli, the lights are already on. "Pizza, Pasta, Hero", three options announced in red, mauve and green neon lighting. At Amy's Grocery, Amy sells ice cream, candy, soda, coffee, cigarettes. Yang's Laundry and Cleaners, Custom Tailors, offer free pickup and delivery. Jewellery shops, Chinese laundries, tailors, little grocery shops, a line of cars, a huge overhang of branches: the city is all of these.

All these, and some quiet moments too. I walk beyond Third Avenue and past Lexington, Park and Madison — there is no Fourth Avenue, which is one of the mysteries of this island, and the next avenue, alongside the sweeping green of Central Park, is Fifth. Here are the old brownstones, the wet grey of the road, the spreading, leafy trees, and tidy bushes packed tight with colourful flowers. Never mind the trash bags: hear the thin hiss of rain, the fall of raindrops dripping from the branches, the cars whining softly as they pass, tyres crunching on the wet roads, and above all the birdsong. And the brown, grey and green, the water on the road, the sad notes of a trumpet in Central Park, the sky, a narrow strip of blue above midtown — all these remain in my mind, in spite of myself, in black and white, romanticised out of all proportion.

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