Recently though, my partner conjured up a few wild horses and dragged me off that couch, across a threshold or two and into the wider world. To America, in fact – a long overdue visit to catch up with friends in Pennsylvania and to experience a slice of the world as they lived it. However, I dug my heels down at the prospect of visiting New York.
Thanks to its status as the prime-time, crime capital of the world, the place was too familiar. I may not have grown up in New York, but I grew up in its shadow; either plonked in front of Cagney & Lacey or Kojak, or with West Side Story playing on my parents’ radiogram. Almost every night of the week, I’m led down its long streets and narrow alleys with derivatives of Law & Order.
As if this isn’t enough, each Spider-Man sequel catapults me back to a web of familiar territory. I’ve seen the Empire State Building from every viewpoint, including that of an oversized chimp, who refuses to use the elevator to reach the top. On more dignified occasions, I’ve joined Cary Grant (An Affair to Remember) and Tom Hanks (Sleepless in Seattle) on its Observation Deck, and, courtesy of Andy Warhol, have stared at it for sleepless hours at night (Empire). Times Square? I know its hours and moods from Phone Booth, Vanilla Sky and I Am Legend, to name but a few. The Chrysler Building? Think Godzilla, Fantastic Four, Armageddon. I’m no stranger to Grand Central (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, K-Pax, Men in Black) and could even find my way round the public library on Fifth Avenue, thanks particularly to The Day After Tomorrow, where I’ve empathetically spent days burning books to survive. As for the Statue of Liberty – well, it’s been threatened with every apocalyptic scenario imaginable and succumbed to many. Hollywood’s directors can’t resist having a shot or two of the torch poking above floodwaters or smashed to the ground, it seems. The bigger the icon, the more frequent it falls. Yep, the likes of Independence Day and X-Men have been my Lonely Planet guides for many years.
If travelling is about seeing new places and trying new flavours, I argued, then why waste time with the Big Apple? All the same, common sense and those wild horses prevailed. We were flying into Newark and from JFK, and somewhere either side of exploring Pennsylvania we had a couple of days to spare. Besides, I was told, it might be a different experience visiting the place off-screen.
Stepping from Penn Station, the act of hailing a cab to our hotel was second nature. And the drive brought with it a sense of déjà vu. How many films had placed me in the back of a yellow cab with a monosyllabic driver? It was tempting to tap on the plexiglass partition and shout: “Follow that cab.” But there were a million cabs – as I knew there’d be – and it wasn’t a matter of following anything as nosing slowly forward one moment and accelerating swiftly the next. Slow-slow-quick-quick-slow. Manhattan was a tango of taxi cabs, from one block to the next, and a cacophony of horns, but at least I didn’t feel lost: the streets were eerily familiar. Momentarily gridlocked, I took heart from the bold message carved in stone across the magnificent General Post Office on Eighth Avenue: “Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Although cinema and television images may affect how we perceive the world, they don’t necessarily make it appear smaller or more accessible, but larger and imposingly dysfunctional. Enough to make us turn the couch into a cocoon at times. While this may be a consequence of the stories we’re presented with – the extremities of crime, romance, terror and fortune – and their tendency to polarise our view of people and places, it’s also because the camera rarely takes us on complete journeys from A—Z. The camera pops up in key locations at critical moments, allowing us to glean only a superficial appreciation of what appear to be separate dots in a puzzle or a picture: Brooklyn Bridge, City Hall, Times Square. We see them as iconic representations of an American city, without understanding where they stand in relation to one another or the lines that join them together, or how they’d be if there was no dramatic crisis.
Similarly, we rarely learn how ordinary people act when it’s not an act and when there’s no credits trailing a performance, or how it’d be to walk alongside them from one set of traffic lights to the next as they head home after work, or to the cinema, or to see a show on Broadway. We never learn how it’d be to sit beside them on the subway or in a bus, when, instead of being cast as extras in some grisly drama, they’re smiling or helpful or willing to share a joke.
If I’d formed the impression that the streets would be a crush, where no one would have time for a smile and a courtesy, and that the subway would be a seedy environment where muggings were commonplace, then I soon discovered how wrong I was. As for the notion that this most-filmed location in the world was, at core, a vast grid of anonymous, modern, concrete monoliths, stretching from one cinematic horizon to the next – forget it. Not true.
As the hub of New York, Manhattan is compact, but has many facets to its character. It may be renowned for its skyscrapers, but, in this respect alone, is a stunning celebration of classical Beaux-Arts, Art Deco magnificence and breath-taking Modernism. Whether interested in architecture or not, it’s difficult not to stop at every corner to marvel at the sculptural qualities of buildings and how the features of one are reflected in the glass of another. It’s difficult not to be impressed by the sheer, ballroom grandeur of Grand Central, or the gleaming dynamism of the Chrysler Building, with its spire of tiered arches reminiscent of radiator grills and its eagle-head gargoyles stretching forward like bonnet badges for sleek and stately automobiles.
Details such as these – or their absence – refine a visitor’s impressions, but, in Manhattan, it’s possible to discover an abundance of such details quickly and without too many blisters. In little more than an hour, as we headed to a performance of West Side Story (of course) at Palace Theater, we strolled from the Chrysler Building to Grand Central, to the spectacular Rockefeller Plaza and Radio City, to Broadway and the glitziness of Times Square, with stunning views of the Empire State Building on the way. We could’ve visited these places on one of many open-top bus tours, but there’s something about treading the pavements and congregating at intersections to wait for the lights to change, being amongst the accents and interactions of people, that makes you part of the human theatre of the everyday rather than remote observers behind a windscreen... or a television screen. A matter of joining the dots.
Not only did New York reveal itself as a cultured city, with its fine restaurants, excellent galleries and heritage of architectural design, but the streets felt safe enough to walk several blocks back to our hotel after the show. There were no drive-by shootings, no robberies-gone-bad spilling from 7-11s, no vigilantes patrolling the streets – just a few homeless individuals sleeping in doorways, minding their own business. Maybe this is something a few film and TV producers should know.
While there’s a limit to how much city can be discovered in 48 hours, it’s a fair gauge of how much you’ve enjoyed a place if you leave wishing you’d been dragged there sooner and for longer. While we found time to explore its subway, streets and avenues, to catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park and the Empire State Building up-close, to eat lunch in Central Park and enjoy a slice of the Museum of Modern Art, I left with the sense that there was considerably more I wanted to discover than when I’d arrived, and that I’d like to return before long. Next time, though, I might exchange those wild horses for reindeer and a Christmas schedule, so I can address a whole swag of festive films (especially my childhood favourite, Miracle on 34th Street) and see snow banked along the sidewalk, hot air venting from the subway through pavement grills, illuminated Christmas trees and open air ice rinks – New York garlanded for the romance of winter.
Until then, I’ll recall a few words that one of New York’s sons, Henry Miller (Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn), offered to travellers of all sorts: “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.” They’re words that could be carved in granite across the entrance to a railway station or an airport. They’re words to appreciate when ensconced on a couch, watching an episode of Law & Order or Spider-Man 4, or while waiting for the reindeer to arrive.