I TAKE a walk to the local supermarket on Second Avenue. The bookseller, as tall as he is illegal, has spread out his weird and wonderful collection on the sidewalk outside Food Emporium again. I get a glimpse of Sartre, back issues of Cosmo, 100 Great Tips to Save $$$ and the African-American Bible—all priced at a dollar. "Bob Dylan's Tarantula—see ya got taste lady, you can have that for $20." He pushes, I fall.
Two weeks later I spot it at Barnes and Noble—priced at $7.99—where an Indian salesgirl in rainbow silk is trying to convince me of the literary advantages of Shashi Tharoor and Rukun Advani at $15.99. Crank my neck to look at Rushdie's spine. "Oh Salman, he's not really one of us," she says, Kanjeevaram rustling with national pride. Days fly, I spot the bookseller, browsing through old books marked 50 cents in the New York Public Library on 42nd and Fifth. I try a pointed glare, there is not a flicker of recognition.
This is New York City: always on the make, always on the quick, always trying to grasp and cling to the upswing of opportunity. The Big Apple doesn't think much of sleep either; to slumber is to miss your chances. Chinatown serves Dim Sum at 8 am on a Sunday. Fresh beeswax and cale and cabbage, still carrying clods of earth, can also be had at the Union Square farmers' market at that time.
But I choose to begin my day by walking along the East River: a numb, icy beauty flirting with a sallow winter sun. As I turn around the august brownstones of mid-town Manhattan, I spot them. The two ladies from the Battered Women's Home on First Avenue have settled in their usual place: the steps of the Swaziland Mission, colours of a faraway land flying over their heads.
Cigarettes dangling from their lips, they reach for their nutrition: a can of Budweiser each, bought at the local deli owned by a Jordanian who looks like—and swears by—Saddam Hussein, but makes the best bacon rolls in town. "Yo," they say with toothless cheer, as they raise their cans towards me in greeting, wiping the foam from their lips.
In the evening, I take a ride down to the East Village for the archetypal New York sundowner, a Frozen Margherita—you can have it unfrozen too, in flavours ranging from kiwi to strawberry—and hang with the guy in the golf cap who seems to be growing roots at the Bar at Bandito by now.
No matter when you walk in, he's there, nursing his endless beer, just as cheerfully unemployed as the mother with the spiky hair, safety pins through her purple lips and hoop earrings, who amuses her toddler by blowing smoke-rings in his face.
It's hard, it's brutal, it's fast, it's funny, it's friendly. It's motley, it's quirky, it's unreal, it's maniacal. New York City deserves its reputation and revels in it.
During the snowstorms of January, which the American media quickly turn into a cosmic event lovingly named Blizzard '96, I wade, skate and slide through mountains of snow to get to Katz's Deli, my Sunday morning hangout where I settle down with the New York Times, lox, bagels and coffee.
As the snow beats into my eyes like a billion, frozen hypodermics, I am certain I am insane. Till, I walk into the warmth of the restaurant where the mock-orgasmic raptures in When Harry Met Sally were filmed. They're all there: the regulars in slushy snowboots and an Attitude, hunched over their Daily News, sucking pickled cucumbers.
Katz's is uncannily reminiscent of a Bombay Irani restaurant. The mirrors are there and so is the row of stainless steel washbasins. But in deference to the sheer size of their pastrami sandwich, there are doggy bags pinned up on the walls, right next to portraits of masticating former US presidents and Katz's beaming, aproned owners standing by.
In the land of plenty, getting a sandwich isn't as easy as it might seem. An African-American kid, all braids, bubble-gum and stars for good customer service, waits for my order at the counter of an uptown sandwich bar. Could I have a ham and cheese sandwich please? "Whayte breyd or ryay?" Er, rye, please. "Duuurrk rye, sernflaur seed or laait ryay?" Light, yup, that's it, light rye, please. "Leyteerse, tomato?" Yes please. "Whiych werne?" Lettuce, please. (Now take the money for chris-sakes, kid.) "Mayo or mersterd?" (One more question and I'm getting out of here.) "Ta go or ta stay?"
ROLLERBLADERS in the colours of liberty almost knock the giant meal out of my hand, as they toe-stop in Central Park, to crowd around a Chinese masseur, one of many who routinely set up shop and vie with self-styled rock virtuosos and hotdog stands for attention and bucks. He insists my posture needs improvement. I agree, but point to my bulging cheeks and half-eaten hero.
A jovial blonde in a baseball cap sits front to back on a chair, arms pushed out into a cardboard cutout, chin slumped forward. Soon, she is prodded, pushed, pummelled and kneaded into somniferous ecstasy. The crowd dissolves, too, into indifference and distraction: a soapbox orator is extolling the virtues of Pat Buchanan, with a loud voice and pumping fists.
I drift away, towards Fifth Avenue and FAO Schwartz, to wonder at the giant animated lion in the toy store window. Anxious, angst-ridden New Yorkers are buying the shop out for their kids, in a gush of guilt and love. The children, dressed in designer velvet and Aigner custom-boots, stare at a Hispanic joint family in cheap, acrylic jackets crossing the street, arms entwined and doubled up in laughter at some raucous, private joke.
Down Fifth Avenue, I feel a strong sense of deja vu: the Walk/Don't Walk signs, the bobbing heads, the business suits, the bits of sky visible every now and then from between the giant monuments to progress that man built. I skip to avoid the carts that carry clothes to shops in narrow lanes—an ingenious alternative to trucks that hold up traffic—and attribute the feeling of intruding on a film set to growing up on a steady diet of American movies.
Any minute now, a lady in a stylish pageboy, trenchcoat and rolled up copy of the Wall Street Journal will dart across, screaming, "TaxiIIIIII!" at one of those oh-so-familiar yellow cabs which drive like the devil himself. The taxi will, of course, also be stopped by a Fortune 500 executive.
Looks will lock, sparks will fly and yet another couple in mad, mad New York will fall in love. The West Indian driver will roll his eyes in the rear-view mirror and croon a Spanish serenade as they neck in the backseat.
Instead, I share one with a Cuban mama from Brooklyn, as Noor-ul-Haq from Pakistan glares at me in the mir ror for daring to be subcontinental and scantily dressed. Defiant, I ride down to Greenwich Village and take vicarious pleasure in telling Haq to stop at the White Horse Tavern. The pub is awesome—for the patina of its timber panels and for the fact that a certain alcoholic Welsh poet had his last killer-drink here. Today, it's full of West Village urban cool: blonde Banana Republicans who smoke cigars and stir their Daiquiris with expert, simultaneous balance.
Sirens wail, a man runs across Houston Street and asks if I own the BMW convertible parked in the middle of the street at a jaunty, blatantly No Parking angle. I hoot hysterically but turn to look. The car is on fire, and the flames rapidly spread towards its fuel tanks. The drinkers outside glide indoors, with their leather briefcases, glasses and half-eaten potato skins, conversations never skipping a beat.
Before you can say Dylan Thomas, fire engines arrive and so does the New York Police Department. The cops block the street, the firemen do their job. It is all over in under three minutes. I go towards the bar, shaken but not stirred, when I remember the sunglasses I left outside. They're gone. "I soaww a mayn," says a woman, conspiratorially concerned. Ah well, I have to "get real" as New Yorkers urge you to do all the time. It's just another sunset in the city that never misses an opportunity.