Would you believe? In New York City! Yes, that happened a couple of months ago while the world was preparing to cross over to 2016. I had been travelling to more places ever since, hence the frigid months-long-blog-posting-hibernation. But I’ve emerged now and not empty handed. Prepare to wallow in the big stack of stories and drawings I gathered on this journey.
Now, we’ve been to New York before and seen everything a wide eyed first time visitor could in a week or so. If Lonely Planet authors saw our stained, battered, frayed, dog eared, page marked (with coloured stickers) copy of the guidebook, they would’ve have teared up a little with pride.
‘But did we really ‘see’ New York?’, a question we asked ourselves 6 years hence. We speed dated her for sure and then hopped on a return flight smug and reassured. But did we listen to it, smell it, taste it and feel its beating heart? In a bid to see more and newer places, we don’t always get to connect on a deeper level. It was time for a revisit and the plan was to slow down and get to know our date for real.
In about 23 hours Cathay Pacific dropped me at Newark and without paying the slightest heed to jet lag, I dropped my bags at the hotel on West 36th Street, locked arms with my man and marched straight to Times Square. Unless your eyes have been blinded by the countless neon lit billboards and elbows have nudged a hundred others to make way up those ruby red glass stairs on top of Broadway’s ticket booth, you don’t feel you’ve arrived in New York.
“Guys, if you really crane your neck, and if the weather is good, you may (enunciated just enough to not raise the slightest expectation)….see the Empire State Building“, said the guy at the hotel concierge, while handing us the keys. Our windows framed the archetypal New York image – the back of a dated Raw Umber coloured brick building topped with distinctive cylindrical water tanks with conical hats and in the background, rising above the humdrum was exactly what the concierge guy hesitantly suggested we may find.
I sketched the scene first thing in the morning, over a few sittings. The building housed several offices and I started off on an awkward eye contact basis with the employees sitting by the windows and then graduated to short occasional nods. Over the course of few days, I inadvertently spied on a bunch of New Yorkers going about the business of making a living. I watched them switch on computers, hang their coats, water plants, pour coffee, shuffle papers, answer phones or lean on their neighbour to crack a joke. It was as if someone laid open a swiss watch for me to admire the mechanism inside. It was intimate and voyeuristic and I found myself wondering what it would be like to live in this city, maybe work at one of these places.
And the feeling grew stronger when I stood in front of the triumphal arch in Washington State Park the next day. It was a crisp winter morning and the air was moist and the shadows long. We exhaled white puffy clouds through our nose and mouths. The brown, barren trees poked their gnarly fingers into the blue sky and I couldn’t find a spot of green anywhere until my eyes rested on the giant Christmas tree behind the arch. A musician was playing a piano about 100 meters away and what enchanting music he made. It slowed the joggers down, distracted the dog walkers, hooked the cyclists, stopped the morning walkers, passersby and me on our tracks. With sun on our faces we stilled our souls and listened.
We’d started the day at Joe, at Waverly Place with hot chocolate and buttery croissant, sitting by the window listening to a real life Carrie Bradshaw and gang spill personal details about their lives over coffee and watching people walk by in deer antler headbands, lugging Christmas trees. One of the apartments opposite the broad sidewalk had a “To Rent” sign hanging outside its balcony. ‘I’m really interested’. Wait, did I say that out loud?
West Village was winning me over. Inside its quaint, historic, low-key exterior, I was uncovering a very contemporary and classy interior. On a walk on Bleecker Street, clusters of boutique shops housing designer clothes, shoes, bags, hats, accessories, upscale restaurants, decades old patisseries, record stores and cafes waved at us from their unassuming casings. We had lunch at a gastropub that didn’t look like much from outside but had a michelin star and 2 hour wait for a table unless we ate at the bar. Propped on a bar stool, I sketched Spotted Pig’s vintage beer tap handles while waiting for our Haddock Chowder and Burger. Later we watched the Hudson River swallow the sun in one bug gulp from High Line and then sneaked into Chelsea Market for Peppermint tea at Amy’s Bread.
Some events make such impact on the mind that you remember even the date and time of their occurrence for a long time. The grandness of the Grand Central is bewitching, sure, but for someone who’s been watching her diet, falling for a greasy Shake Shack burger dripping with molten cheese for breakfast was a bigger deal, momentous actually. This lapse in judgement occurred at the basement of this station and I drew the evidence to remind myself of the guilt and also the extreme exultation that can only be derived from such indulgences.
From Grand Central, we walked to the New York Public Library and since you cannot conveniently sweep through its doors looking cool with a mug of Starbucks coffee, I got the time to sit outside, sketch Fortitude – one of the marble lions gazing despondently at 5th Avenue traffic and finish my beverage before trying my luck again and this time was checked in with an approving nod from the hawk eyed guard manning the door. The Rose Room, I saw a picture of in an inflight magazine accompanying an article (“Shelter from the Storm”) written by Pico Iyer on why visiting libraries make unique travel experiences was closed for restoration. I soothed my disappointment inside the map division. If they let me, this map lover could live there shuffling through the entire 433,000 sheet maps and 20,000 books and atlases until her hairs turned grey.
The afternoon was spent sitting on a wrought iron bench in Bryant Park, soaking the feeble sun and sketching a vintage looking carousel spinning around with shrieking children holding lurid pink cotton candies. And then, fortified by few minutes of meditative silence inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral, we dived into the sea of humans gathered at Rockefeller Centre to watch skaters glide over ice.
For a long time I had this dream of sitting on a bench at Madison Square Park under a bright blue sky, amid dog walking ice cream licking New Yorkers and sketch the Flatiron Building, while yellow taxis would swish by. When that day came, rain was falling in sheets. And even though I stood under a green scaffolding tarpaulin by the road side for cover and tried to draw, every line on my sketchbook got smudged. The part about yellow taxis did come true though.
We walked around Gramercy and Union Square both wet and dripping, and then I discreetly dried my socks under the table while eating naan and butter chicken at Dhaba, an Indian restaurant on Lexington Avenue. By evening the rain had stopped and a stroll on 5th Avenue watching Christmas decorations while munching on hot (and obnoxiously expensive) chestnuts bought from the sidewalk seemed like sweet redemption.
It is hard to believe that a single blueberry muffin from Le Pain Quotidien got me through an entire day at MOMA but it shouldn’t be surprising because if you set an artist and an art lover free inside an institution that houses the works of every big name in the art world she can pretty much scrap the entire range of physiological needs in Maslow’s hierarchy and still look alive and jubilant. Since there was so much see and absorb, I could only draw a few of my favourites which include a Picasso sculpture called ‘Baboon and Young’ made from found objects like toy cars of the artist’s son, a jug and a spring from a car and a doll Picasso made for his daughter Maya out of wood, screws, paintbrush handle and rope. My absolute fav painter Henri Matisse’s Dance also remains captured in my sketchbook forever.
The day that started on such a high note shouldn’t have ended with crappy noodles from a stall at Grand Central Station but that’s what’s special about travelling – unpredictability and the more you travel, the better become at dealing with it. I drank Moroccan Mint Tea from Irving Farm to mask the distaste.
There was a food cart standing 5 feet behind me while I was sketching the Grand Army Plaza. The guy was grilling pieces of chicken on skewers and basting them with spices and selling them in between toasty buns. Unless you are a vegetarian, it is highly improbable that the smell of charred meat hasn’t sent your belly rumbling and tongue salivating. It’s reflex. While the prominent bronze-gilded equestrian statue of William Tecumseh Sherman should be the first image to pop in my head when I recall this scene, the only signal my brain sends me is the peppery, slightly burnt taste of kebab in my mouth. I can’t help feel a bit like Pavlov’s dog but the mind works in mysterious ways, is all am saying.
We moved on to Central Park which was soggy and brown, so I used my artistic licence to make the scenery seem more cheerful to the viewer just as a group of carollers near Bethesda Fountain did the same for me with their lilting voices.
We bought a pack of trail mix and simply walked. The trishaw and horse carriage drivers wondered if we’d like a ride but there wasn’t any rush to be somewhere or do something. We could wander around, sit on benches, read, draw and pretend for a little while that we lived just round the corner and came out for fresh air. Two amorous teenagers were greatly disturbed when I walked over to their spot to sketch the Bow Bridge and I could feel their eyes boring into my skull the entire time. I had to be really quick.
Remember Will Smith’s character in ‘I am Legend’, sole survivor of a man made plague wandering alone on the abandoned streets of New York looking exasperated and helpless? That was me after I emerged from the tube-lit subway station into the morning light of Brooklyn on Christmas day. Not a soul in sight, near or far. Part of me wanted to ride a train all the way to Times Square. The other, intrepid part said, “Go a little further, see what happens”.
What happened was, we saw a jaw-dropping sight from Brooklyn Heights promenade, a 557 m pedestrian walkway – the mist shrouded Lower Manhattan skyline. A grey fleece blanket rising up from East River was slowly eating up the line of high-rises. The sky was hanging low and closing in from above. I sat on a bench, zipped up my coat and started drawing urgently before everything was devoured and suddenly there were people around , at first kids zoomed in riding spotless bicycles right out of the wrapping paper and then their grandparents hobbled behind. A newly engaged couple leaned against the railing to get pictures clicked, a couple of joggers, (late) morning walkers and dogs followed. It was all right.
A German scientist I met recently at a cooking school in Bangkok told me that he liked Singapore’s Chinatown more because the architecture matched the branding. In New York’s Chinatown ‘the businesses are housed in the same kind of tenement houses with fire escapes that you see all over the city’, he said. “Save for the signages with mandarin letters and the smell of dried fish and mushrooms, the sight of souvenir cats waving their paws and the sound of patrons gathered around round tables devouring dumplings, you wouldn’t even know that you walked into an ethnic neighbourhood”, he added.
Neighbouring Mulberry Street told the same story. From the outside it seemed that if you stripped Little Italy off its restaurant and shop signages selling Gelato, Cannoli and Mozzarella cheese and replaced them with Taj Mahal cutouts, fairy lights and pictures of women in saree holding a plate of butter chicken it could become Little India in no time. Nevertheless, I enjoyed these little pockets of ethnicity that tried so hard to stick out in a world that’s becoming increasingly homogenous. As a tribute I tasted my very first Cannoli not in Italy but at Alleva (see the sketch of the shop above ) in New York’s Little Italy and it was everything the lady at the counter promised.
In the evening we descended upon East Village which pre-gentrification was the historical home of many artistic movements and a haven for artists and bohemians and took a walk along St. Mark’s Place. The historic tenement houses lining the street and the immense diversity reflected in the businesses housed in them and the people walking by can get your pulse racing! There is so much see and absorb that to make sense of it all in one evening, I drew the signages that caught my eye, some of them being venerable names. The juxtaposition of multiple colours, unique fonts and design of these labels on the pages of my sketchbook selling an incredible variety of products or services expresses the vibe from that place.
Exploring the financial district on a weekend wouldn’t be such a good idea if not for the tourists, who fill in for the wolves of Wall Street therefore saving everybody from living the dreaded I am Legend scene I had to face earlier. There was even a pretzel and hotdog cart in front of NYSE doing a decent business of relieving people of their copper. We started off with coffee and croissant at La Colombe and since you rarely come across cafes serving food and beverage in such exquisitely designed china, I documented that. Later we walked to St. Paul’s Chapel which became a spiritual and volunteer center after the WTC destruction and drew it before my fingers went numb in the cold.
After sniggering at the crowd circling the Wall Street Bull (only cuz we’d been there, done that), we watched pigeons fight over pieces of pretzels at Battery Park. A silver haired one with a puffy chest went over to a puddle to drink some water after it snagged a morsel. Only a Seinfeld fan could get a chuckle out of that so I was pretty amused!
We watched The Nutcracker at Lincoln Centre from the 4th Ring seats which the Lonely Planet author was quite ambivalent about but that didn’t mar our anticipation or enjoyment. It was amusing to watch children accompanying their parents to the performance dressed in crisp white shirts, tiny black suits, ties and flowing dresses with matching shoes, trying to look as composed as their attire expected of them but invariably one or two would break free and run around the fountain or dance with flaying arms. On the way to dinner at Kefi, I came across this (see the poem above) pithy subway wisdom framed inside the train compartment.
We went back to Bleecker street in West Village for one last walk, but not without a quick peek at Time Square to catch the prep work for the Ball Drop event on New Year’s Eve. The stage was halfway there, we could see the ball at its station and 2016 written on top of the building. This befuddling jungle of flashing billboards and gleaming high-rises and streams of cars and people continued to function timelessly and dazzle. I wanted a fistful of that to take home, so I drew.
Before catching the return flight we had time to explore a fraction of the treasures displayed at the MET. My favourite was the statue of Hatshepsut, the most successful female ruler of Egypt, c.a 1479 – 1458 B.C. It is interesting to note that she’s wearing the traditional attire of a Pharaoh, which was traditionally a man’s job, hence is made to look like a male king wearing false beard, kilt and such. For ancient Egyptians, the ideal king was a young man in the prime of his life. Depicting physical reality wasn’t important. Whoever held the title of Pharaoh, whether an old man, baby or a woman, would be represented in this ideal form.
For dinner we had Shake Shack burgers with fries because that’s what the heart wanted and then we rode a train to the airport fully contented.
So there you have it – 10 days in New York City captured in 72 pages of this accordion sketchbook. Thank you for coming along and those who read the text till the end, sorry I didn’t put a ‘very long post ahead’ kind of alert at the top. Let me try again – Be warned, the photos ahead contain visual gloating.
Somali, you are welcome.
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