While I was in San Francisco for a week in January, I was offered a 4 week job in New York, travel and accommodation included, to facilitate some fundraising events. It was an opportunity too good to miss, so I spent between February and April teaching English “intensives” in my house to make ends meet, then off I went to New York, jokingly warning my boyfriend: “Maybe it will be so great I won’t come back!”
As I sat on the train from the airport into Manhattan, I listened to people around me talking, and it suddenly hit me: I was in New York, surrounded by New Yorkers. It was a surreal moment!
I arrived in the East Village, where I was staying. I loved the winding streets, the dark red bricks of the buildings, the crisp air, the people and their dogs, the hipsters and their cool clothes. I loved the quiet diner where the waitress called everyone “baby” in a loud, sing song, nasal voice.
During my month of work I had plenty of time to see various parts of the city. My first general impressions was of the crowds, and of a strong sense of order and things running like clockwork. For example, any medium sized supermarket you went into would be FULL of people, but the line ended with a screen that had a number on it, telling you which cashier to go to (“39, blue”), and this process moved really quickly. Coffee shops were full of people in their own little bubble worlds, staring at their phone/tablet/laptop. Manhattan had a real, urban feel to it, and any green space, big or small, was densely populated with people trying to take a restful moment.
I suppose people love New York for two reasons. Firstly, the city itself feels generally familiar, as so many series and films are set there. Secondly, if you like the “new, hottest” trends in fashion, theatre, film, and art in general, it’s a place you might love to visit or call home. Casually walking down the street, you might see properly famous people. But for me, there was one major problem.
In some ways I love the states. America has always seemed to me to have this “get up and go” quality about it. People seem to be more positive, to reach for the sky, to start their own businesses… An American doesn’t have a sporting hobby. They regard themselves as proper athletes. Look into their eyes, and you’ll see that the sky is the limit.
However, what happens to the people who don’t get a good start in life? The children whose families don’t have the means to send them to private school?
A friend of mine mentioned how they almost never took the subway. I started to see why. Putting aside the alien feel of the maps and signs, the clammy humidity of the dank tunnels was pretty off putting. Then you have the dirty trains themselves. But worst of all is the homelessness. I realised that I had never been in a city before where the contrast between rich and poor was so incredibly stark to me. One night I went to a party at a 5 story town house near 5th Avenue that had an original Toulouse-Latrec on the wall, rooms that had appeared in interior design magazines, and a Philipino family that lived and worked there as permanent domestic assistants. Then I walked home, streets full of piled rubbish, trash encased in black bags, vulnerable members of society under blankets to keep warm.
Just as people were everywhere, so the homeless were to me, seemingly everywhere. Some were clearly suffering from mental illness, others were just suffering. It was a constant reminder to me of a by product of capitalism; this idea that we have what we have because we “worked” for it, implying that *they* somehow didn’t, are in some way undeserving. I think back to my own childhood, where we couldn’t afford to heat our house in winter, where money was an ever present stress and worry, where I started to clean hotel rooms at the age of 13 years old, and I think: “What would have happened to a child like me, growing up in the states, where education and healthcare are businesses to be bought? Would I have slipped through the cracks and become homeless?”.
I was reminded of the Mommas and the Poppas song “I used to live in New York City. Everything there was dark and dirty”. Those lyrics suddenly slid into focus for me. Here was a city that was the capital of capitalism, where the rich lived in the city during the week and then drove to their second house in the country at the weekend to relax. I realised that I would never earn the kind of money to be happy in New York, and I didn’t want to.
One thing that surprised me was how polite and friendly people were. They see you doubting which way to go coming out of the subway, and they ask if you need directions. My friend who grew up there told me that that was a “post 9/11” thing, as if that event had rocked the collective consciousness of that city.
I missed Bilbao. I missed the trees. I missed the hills. I missed the slower pace of life. I missed walking to where I needed to go in the city. I missed the cultural centres. I missed the free bike system. I missed the kind Basque people, gracious and welcoming and quietly proud that a foreigner might come to their city. I missed wearing my hiking boots to go out for a drink and no one batting an eyelid.