We approach each other cautiously at first.
There are no hugs or kisses when we eventually find each other at the airport and I feel slightly disorientated, unsure about actually being here or what is going to happen over the next 10 days.
“You look dazed.”
“I just had the weirdest dream on the plane and I can’t really hear right because my ears haven’t popped yet. Can we get a coffee somewhere here?”
“We’ll get one in the city. I don’t think anything here is open. Come on, let’s go.”
The outside of the airport is dark and expansive, filled with anonymous looking buildings. I had expected to see New York in front of me or at least somewhere in the distance but Oz isn’t about to reveal itself that easily.
“I told you to bring a winter coat.” Jade says on the bus ride to the train station.
I look down at my grey woollen overcoat underneath which I am wearing only a black jumper.
“This is a winter coat.”
She shakes her head, laughs and then holds onto my arm, seemingly happy that I am here and we proceed onwards, closer.
My apprehension and anxiety has all but left me now.
We’re in a bar somewhere in Manhattan having drinks after dropping off my bags in Jade’s apartment in Brooklyn and then grabbing something to eat in a small diner themed as a fifties restaurant. It’s now an hour before midnight, which means that with the time difference it’s now 5am UK time, at least I think so. It’s too confusing so I decide not to follow the time difference guidelines and just stick to U.S. time. I never wear a watch and I’m on holiday, so time really shouldn’t make any difference anymore.
The night continues with a few more bars, talking to strangers who all seem friendly enough. In one bar we end up sitting with a group of people and when I try to buy a round of drinks Jade tells me that people don’t do that here. One guy tells me about being laid off from his financial job and how his only desire now is to become a chef but he has no qualifications and I drunkenly tell him just to go for his dream and use the severance money he received to fund it, and he tells Jade that I am nicest person he has met in New York. And the night continues in this vein for a while, drinks, drinks, talking non-stop, Jade wanting to play pool, more drinks kissing Jade by the pool table and then…..
I’m on a subway on my own. The train is packed with early morning commuters, some of whom are staring at me. I try and remember what happened last night and where Jade went to but I can’t, it’s a blank even though it was only hours ago. I look at the man sitting opposite me who looks back and I take a chance.
“Is this,” I start to speak through a very dry mouth, “does this train go to Brooklyn?”
“Yeah,” He nods his head, “Where you going to?”
I rake through my pocket to find the piece of paper that has Jade’s address written down and tell him.
“Ah okay, yeah I’ll tell you when we get there.” He smiles.
You see, people in New York aren’t rude. They’re friendly and helpful, even at this hour.
“First night of my holiday. Think I overdid it.”
“That’ll happen.” He gives me a conciliatory laugh.
Okay, I can get to Brooklyn then phone Jade and then I’ll get some sleep. The train immediately slows down and comes to a stop, I’m guessing, before my stop. An announcement comes over that everyone must disembark and wait for the next train.
The kind stranger stands up, “Just get the next train and get off at Bedford Avenue. No problems.”
Screw this, I need coffee.
“What can I get ya?”
The old man, who could have passed as a double for Albert Einstein, stands beside a gleaming gargantuan steel coffee machine in a shop already, at this early hour, filling up with customers.
“Just a black coffee.”
“What?” he says with surprise, his accent straight out of the New York movies I had seen all my life, “You want foam on the top?”
“No, just a black coffee.”
“Aw come on kid. I can make ya a cappuccino.”
“No really, I just want a black coffee.”
“I can make you the best latte in New York with this thing, they’re the best.”
Another old man walks over to him behind the counter.
“Give the guy his coffee. He only wants a black coffee.”
“You know how much I paid for this thing and he only wants a black coffee.” The black coffee at the end of his sentence was said as a question and definitely with much exasperation.
“Just give him his coffee and let him sit down for Christ sake.” He barks this as though he has been through this routine a thousand times.
“Black coffee, okay. I don’t know. What was the point in me shelling out all this cash for a machine and he only wants a black coffee?”
“Just give him the coffee will ya.”
“Here ya go kid, one black coffee.” Much of which he manages to spill into the saucer, “Enjoy.”
It’s 7am in the morning, I’m hung over to shit on the first morning of my holiday after being up for 29 hours straight and I feel at home in this city already.
A couple of hours later, after a phone call in which I give Jade directions to where I am and she tells me in no uncertain terms not to move, I’m back in her apartment.
I can tell what she is thinking. She’s thinking, is it going to be like this for the rest of the holiday? And yet at the same time I get the feeling she’s not laying down any rules or restrictions but has more of a, ‘what happens happens’ outlook.
“So,” she says as we lie on the bed, I just want to go sleep but I don’t mind talking as long as I can close my eyes, just for a short while, “I have to work days so you are going to be pretty much left on your own to your own devices. We have the nights and the weekends free and as it’s Thanksgiving this week I have a few extra days free. Are you okay with that?”
“Absolutely, no problem.”
Although I want to spend time with Jade I’m also thinking that it could also be kind of exciting exploring the city on my own and then spending the nights together.
“I’m going to give you my cell phone for during the day and it has my work number in it so you can get in touch if you need to.”
“Do you think I’ll need to? I have been abroad on my own before.”
“I think you will need to judging by last night. Plus it means I can keep in touch with you.”
The electronic tagging device disguised as a phone.
I don’t blame her.
And so for the rest of that week I wander the city on my own during the days. Every day I take the train into Manhattan and explore the famous places I have only seen in films. Times Square is a sensory overload of lights and noise, and I use it as my base; if I get lost I always head back to Times Square and can easily find my way from there, whether it’s back to Brooklyn or to meet up with Jade in the city. I spend hours in coffee shops and bars and bookstores and record stores just browsing until I realise I am really just killing time until I can meet up with Jade when she finishes work.
One day I get on board the Staten Island Ferry and this is the day I realise how cold the weather here actually is. I take my place outside at the front of the ferry as the trip begins. Looking behind me I notice a lot of people staring through the glass and realise at the same time that I am the only person outside on the deck. Within a few minutes, as the ferry picks up speed, I begin to freeze, I can’t move. My face becomes numb with the cold as the ferry moves quickly across the water. The pain to my face is intense, the cold seems to be ripping right through my skin like shards of glass but I don’t want to go back inside. To the people staring at me through the glass I must seem like a typical tourist idiot, either that or some sort of below zero temperature masochist.
Jade’s cell phone begins to ring in my pocket but I can’t answer it. As soon as I take my hands from my pockets they freeze and I can no longer move them to answer the phone. But at least I witness the view of New York from the river. I probably would have had a better view if my eyes were not streaming with water. But all the same, this was a view I had waited years to witness and in front of me, as the Statue of Liberty passed and the skyscrapers that seem to stand guard on the city’s life I now knew, by this view alone, why they call New York the capital of the world.
Each day the city opened up to me a little more, not the places I wandered through but the people, the characters who lived here, the daily street theatre, which also existed in London but which seemed to be in widescreen high definition here. People watching is one my favourite past times, observing everything, listening to the accents, looking out for the mad ones, and the mad ones did appear.
The man wrapped up in an enormous jacket who stood beside me while waiting for a subway and looked me up and down and shook his head and simply said, “Oh boy.” The old woman with the long grey hair who got off the train and screamed straight into my face for no reason at all except that I was standing in front of the door she was coming through. The young man outside of the guitar shop who stood peering in through the window as I browsed inside and who had the darkest, most haunted eyes I had ever seen on someone so young. The four drag queens who sat at the diner counter drinking coffee and laughing amongst themselves as if this were most normal thing in the world. Everyone I spoke to always commenting on my accent, asking where I came from, why I was here, taking an interest. I would regularly get lost for hours on my daytime wanderings but I didn’t care, it was part of the adventure.
Apart from the daily phone call from Jade to arrange where to meet at the start of the evening, time really didn’t matter here. I was in another world, far from London, and that city, with all its problems seemed, in only the space of few days, like a lifetime ago. There was nothing about New York that I didn’t like and right here, London ceased to exist.
By night, Jade and I would meet and tour the bars, restaurants, comedy clubs and off Broadway plays. One play we went to, based on some Bukowski short stories, was performed in a theatre so tiny you could reach out and almost touch the actors while another play, which starred an Oscar winning actress performing in a Pinter production and to which we gained admittance after buying tickets on the street from a scalper, was set in an immense, majestic looking Broadway theatre.
We would explore the bars of the East Village and Greenwich Village and Brooklyn – dive bars, jazz bars, bars where they were showing pornographic films on huge television sets. Jade would stick a credit card behind the bar and open a tab and we would then drink and talk for hours, and much to my happiness the bars, as I had heard, really did open until the very early hours, it wasn’t a myth, there was no, ‘finish your drinks please’ at 11pm as there would be in London.
Eventually we would leave the bars in the small hours and wander the streets of Manhattan, not caring that the temperature was probably somewhere near or below zero. We missed the Thanksgiving Day Parade due to a severe hangover, mine of course, and even missed dinner that evening with some of Jade’s friends but again, it didn’t really matter to me. Right now I was in a city where every day was better than the last and the next day held something new and even exciting and I didn’t think once about having to leave this city, until….
It’s almost closing time or at least people are beginning to leave the bar. The band has finished playing except for one old guy sitting playing the piano as the drunk and not so drunk begin to drift out of the door. It’s late, actually it’s early, actually I’m not sure what time it is, past midnight at least. Only 10 minutes ago this place was so full you were crushed against everyone else. People were dancing and shouting and it was hard to get a drink at the bar and now, now it’s empty.
We are sitting at the bar next to where the band were playing, watching the old guy play some sort of slow jazz tune.
Jade doesn’t look at me and I don’t look at her, and I don’t answer her one word request but continue to look at the old guy, who must be around 70, playing the piano.
I have to answer but I don’t know what to say. My plane back to London leaves tomorrow night. This is an impossibility. I cannot stay here no matter how much I want to. I try to make light of it, say something because really a request to stay demands some sort of answer.
“If you get the barman to play My Funny Valentine, which is about the only jazz song I know, then I’ll stay.”
Jade goes over to the old man and leans over and says something and I hear the old man reply, “I know it.”
He begins playing and singing the words as Jade returns to her seat.
But this isn’t a real deal, it’s a drunken deal, a very drunken deal made in a bar in Manhattan during the early hours so it doesn’t count, especially not now that the bar lights have come up and the old man stops playing and softly shuts the lid to the keys of the piano.
I don’t know when or where I lost Jade.
I try calling her from the payphone in the bar but she doesn’t answer. It’s daylight outside but the bar I’m sitting in is almost empty. Two women are standing at the bar laughing, speaking to the barman and occasionally glancing over at me.
I hear the barman say loudly enough for me to hear, “You girls can do better than that.”
I must look like shit because a torrential downpour had woken me from my slumber on the bench I was lying on a few hours earlier and after sheltering in a doorway for a while and smoking cigarettes and watching the rain I had made my way to my home point of Times Square where I had found a side street bar that apparently doesn’t close.
I wander the bars around this area for hours until it gets dark. I am drunk enough not to bother about how I look or to be careful of any dangers that could come my way. But it’s not like that here, everyone is friendly, everyone wants to talk, to make conversation. Even at this hour in the morning there are people sitting alone at the bar. I make conversation with one guy who has come into the city from New Jersey to meet his girlfriend and we talk about the feasibility of me simply staying in New York. This guy tells me it’s easy and he could get me a job in his uncle’s garage in New Jersey and then he is gone and I just sit on my own and think about staying.
I think about staying until I ask myself why I would be staying and I have no answer. I love this city, I love it more than London that’s for sure so why don’t I just stay, why don’t I just stay with Jade in her apartment? And my mind keeps saying ‘because’ because what?
At one point I buy postcards to send home but I leave them in a bar because really, I have no one to send them to.
It’s dark again by the time I get back to Brooklyn. Jade is standing outside her apartment. almost in tears and with every right to be angry.”
“I’ve called the cops. Where have you been?”
“I don’t know, just wandering.”
“You’ve been gone all night, all day. You’ve missed your plane.”
“I just need to go to sleep. I can get the plane tomorrow. I just need some sleep.”
We lie on the bed. It’s only early evening but we lie there in the darkness and I try to sleep. I should be on the plane back to London right now. Did I do this on purpose? I know I’m going back. Maybe I just wanted one more day but I didn’t spend that one more day with Jade although I could have and there’s my answer.
The only truthful and honest answer to the question of why I should stay has to be Jade, but it’s not.
*Excerpted from the book Leaving London available at Amazon.
About the Author: Garry Crystal
Garry Crystal is a freelance writer living in the UK. His short stories and articles have appeared in print and online including Expats Post, The Andirondack Review, Turnrow Journal, Roadside Fiction and Orato. br> His first book Leaving London is available on Amazon and other retailers now. br> View My Profile