I wrote this blog post weeks ago in the darkest hour of a sleepless night and left it, unsure whether it would ever see the light of day. Publishing it today is a reminder to myself of my love for America, at a time when many are feeling shaken and confused about the country’s future.
A lot has changed since I first stood, wide-eyed, outside Port Authority at 19 years old. I had just stepped off my first flight and until that point, only ever experienced the bustle of Manhattan’s streets through cinema’s lens. Though that initial visit was only long enough for me to buy a Schnapple and gawp at Times Square before heading upstate for the summer, it set in motion a decade-long love of the city that never sleeps.
Since clapping eyes on that famous skyline in 2004, I’ve returned a further three times – an homage to how fond I’ve become of the Big Apple and how lucky I’ve been to have natives who have been generous enough to blow up the air mattress whenever I’ve been in town.
My second visit in 2005 ticked off the typical tourist haunts – the Empire State, the Chrysler Building and the Rockerfeller Center. I walked up and down Fifth Avenue, wishing I had more dollars in my pocket. I took the Staten Island ferry and said hello to Lady Liberty as we sailed past. I snapped a picture of the former Domino sugar factory – sadly no more.
During the freak heatwave of 2012, I sat in Central Park and melted like a true English Rose. I walked along the High Line, sharing it with just a handful of people because the secret wasn’t yet out. I lingered over coffee in Williamsburg’s cafes, half expecting to bump into the cast of Girls. I went to flea markets, used the toilet in Katz’s and went to a record launch attended by some of the coolest kids in the LGBTQ scene. I was very uncool by comparison.
Four years later and I was back again. Having been fortunate enough to have seen so many of New York’s popular attractions already, my trip in September gave me the chance to explore even more corners of the city, punctuated at timely intervals with eating and drinking in places the guidebooks try to keep quiet.
Day one saw us take in an unobstructed view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers at Brooklyn Heights before hopping on a ferry and taking a waterside tour of the island’s neighbourhoods. At Greenpoint we took a punt on lunch at an unassuming taqueria, where I rediscovered frozen magaritas for the first time since the tequila-riddled Spring Break of 2007.
Stuffed with black beans and avocado, we ambled into Williamsburg where we bought thyme and olive oil chocolate from Mast Bros, made like magpies in Catbird and ran our hands through racks of $100 shirts in high-end boutiques. Later, our 90-minute commitment to the line at Pies and Thighs was rewarded with juicy chicken pieces and smoky pulled pork served with a side of creamy, cheesy grits.
Day two began with breakfast cocktails at brunch spot Rose Water in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighbourhood, which were the perfect accompaniment to our poached eggs and sweet potato falafel combo. We then headed into the city, passing through Grand Central station and its whispering walls, before embarking on some much required retail therapy.
Laden with bags and giddy after spotting Kim Sears and Baby Murray in Bryant Park, we headed to La Esquina, where I had made reservations the required month in advance. The darkened bodega basement stole our hearts with its tapas-style plates and Mezcal drinks in a variety of sweet and sour flavours, but it was the rich and sticky heap of rib meat which left us raving.
With room for dessert, we found ourselves at Morgenstern’s indulging in salted chocolate ice cream garnished with shards of sesame honeycomb. We leisurely ate as we walked towards the Woolworth Building, where we had secret access not only to one of the sets of Ugly Betty, but views of the city’s countless flickering lights.
The evening’s finale came in the form of a wildcard trip to the night courts, where the wheels of justice creaked into the early hours. We watched as a trickle of defendants were casually dealt with by a judge who waved them away with court dates and fines – a far cry from the stuffy tradition and procedure of England’s magistrates’ courts.
A final day wandering the streets of the Lower East Side saw us lazily pinball between cafes, bars and shops. In need of culture, we took in a tour of the Tenement Museum to learn about some of the neighbourhood’s former residents, before heading back to Williamsburg. A goodbye dinner at The Four Horseman – brainchild of LCD Soundsytem frontman, James Murphy – left us all crossing forks over the last mouthful of a sublime sugarsnap and cashew salad.
On the way home, the remenants of Hurricane Hermine – which had threaten to rain down the whole weekend – finally rattled through the night, as if it had politely waited for my trip to end. I dozed off, wondering how soon I could impinge upon my friend’s kindness again and whether it was possible to every really be ‘done’ with New York. I decided not and went about plotting my return.