Wednesday 17 February 2010

Serendipity City

At a Travcom meeting last night, someone caused a bit of a stir by mentioning that I had once found a corpse under Brooklyn Bridge. It's true - and there was shooting, too. Here's the story:

>>> 'Probably not many people stand under Brooklyn Bridge gazing across the East River at that most famous of skylines and are put in mind of the Taj Mahal, but that’s how it worked for me. So often famous places you eventually get to visit turn out to be a disappointment: smaller than you expected, or dirtier – but not the Taj, which was glorious, and now not New York either.' Always a hopeful traveller, that was how, weeks before leaving home, I imagined I might be able to start this story; but when I got to the jetty below the bridge where I intended to make my judgement, I found it coned off and crowded with police, cameras and a body sprawled on the boards. In New York there’s a delightful surprise around every corner.

Delightful, of course, because this was not a real body: this was a bit-part actress making an Emmy-worthy effort to play dead dressed in nothing but a strapless sequinned mermaid gown, draped in seaweed and between takes enthusiastically sprayed with water (this in early spring with the temperature hovering around 11 degrees) while Gary Sinise and the rest of the CSI-NY team studied her dispassionately. It was only a 90-second scene, but they did it over and over, and eventually I had to leave them to it without having had a chance to get near Gary (though I did briefly perch on his chair) or to have a proper look at the view – but my mind was made up anyway. I would stick with the opening.

New York is Serendipity City: you may not fetch up rubbing elbows with TV stars, but wherever you go you will come across something unexpected, fascinating and entertaining. I was amazed and stimulated: just standing in Times Square I could have filled a memory card without moving from the spot, and I thought, there is nothing more exciting than this.

It was my first trip to New York, I was on my own and, to be honest, I was a bit nervous. A bit? I had actually considered wearing my second-best watch and spent wakeful small hours wondering how I could conceal my camera. I fully expected to be mugged. So no-one was more surprised than me to find myself wandering around Grand Central Terminal’s splendid interior at nearly midnight on a Saturday perfectly at my ease before walking back along the dark streets to my hotel. I had got off to a good start the previous night, venturing into Times Square, once a haven for underworld crims, and finding it filled with other tourists waving cameras, helpful security guards scattered about and even a mounted cop with a gun in battered leather holster writing his notes while his horse stood quite unmoved by the tooting yellow taxis skimming past. Even better, turning my back on the neon and digital dazzle, I came across the theatre where the Monty Python musical ‘Spamalot’ was running, starring David Hyde Pierce from ‘Frasier’. It was particularly satisfying to apply knowledge I had acquired from watching that show to look for the cancellations queue, stand in line and, a mere 15 minutes later, find myself in possession of a centre front circle seat for a sell-out Broadway spectacular that still has me laughing. See what I mean? Serendipity.

Also preparation. But the great thing about New York is that the research is painless, because you have been doing it all your life without even realising: at night in front of the box or the big screen, you have been swotting it up. You know the names already, you’ve seen the pictures, so when you finally get there, it’s just a matter of fitting it all together. And that’s easy too, because of the numbered grid system of the streets, the simplicity of the subway system and, above all, because of the supreme friendliness and helpfulness of the natives. Stand on a corner and unfold a map and they come running. "I never get asked for help," one fellow beamed happily at me on the subway when I needed confirmation. "I want you to enjoy my city," said Justin, taking me four blocks out of his way to show me where to go. "Have fun," said the old man in the hat by the Flatiron Building.

And I did have fun. Expected fun, like marvelling at the 40 kilometre view from the top of the Empire State Building, now again New York’s highest; or negotiating the hanging dragons and lanterns outside the shops in Chinatown; or standing dwarfed under the 220 million year-old dinosaur skeletons in the Natural History Museum. But also unexpected fun: eating a hot dog in Central Park while a beanied guy did Tai Chi under the trees and squirrels scampered past; emerging from the subway into a snow shower that rubbed out the tops of the skyscrapers; and shrugging into a FDNY jacket and helmet for a photo with the bored crew of Engine 14.

[Pub. Press 22/5/06]

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