I didn't fall in love with New York immediately, as many seem to do. I first visited as a tourist and accustomed as I was to big cities, it seemed plebeian, if slightly taller and brighter. I took to sightseeing - the Rockefeller center, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. It was exciting in the same way Las Vegas is for an under-aged kid until an overweight security guard tells you to back off the slot machines. I knew an alluring layer of life was lurking beneath the surface somewhere but I just could not point to it. It felt like the neon signs and busy streets brought the buzz of life but none of its girth - a façade to cover for something. Three days later I was on my way to the British Isles from whence I came, returning to my studies not satiated with the Big Apple. I did not want it to become another check-mark in the bucket list. I had to go back and explore.
I managed to get an internship in New York one summer later so I returned. It was not the same.
This time, I did not live in Manhattan. My apartment was on Bedford Avenue, the final frontier of Bed-Stuy in Brooklyn and of an era long-passed. Here I could still hear the echo of the once-inspiring melody of Fight the Power emanating from a debilitated housing project; old men still sat on the streets in their plastic foldaway chairs, harkening back to better days.
Here the fire hydrants were still broken; here children still relished in the coolness of its steady stream. Here the rent was still low. Here Hispanics, students, Orthodox Jews and Blacks lived together and yet - not together at all. But once in a while an old Puerto Rican lady would shyly step into the kosher supermarket muttering something under her breath. Or the path of an Orthodox Jew would cross that of a tattooed Russian ex-communist whose frown is always filled with breadcrumbs and disapproval but where else would you get children's bikes for so cheap? Once in a while would a group of retired African-Americans invite a phalanx of young passers-by to remember the musical heroes of days yonder - the Al Greens, the Nat King Coles; to revel in the medley of human histories.
I was one of those youngsters and as I stood there on that warm evening with my friends amidst a sea of elderly strangers I realised that we share nothing in common. We've heard the songs in some diner, sure, but we didn't know these people, their hopes, their shattered dreams, their achievements. And yet as soon as they pulled us into the courtyard where the large 90s stereo wept of nostalgia - it didn't matter. It no longer mattered what I thought of Mitt Romney or that the girl I liked was seeing somebody else. It no longer mattered that I was raised in a different world and that my friends wanted to sculpt for a living. I guess no one really belonged here, but perhaps that is what united us. The whole was made up of distinguishable pieces, each contributing its own story.
This was an entirely new experience. In Leamington Spa, where I live, unity is created through exclusion, not inclusion. It is certainly a very diverse town - on the Leamington high street the faces are almost typecast for a politically-correct thriller: the beggar selling Big Issues, the hurried white-collar worker, the pregnant mother, the Asian taxi driver, the underdressed student. But absent is the feeling of careless association with the other, of surrendering to the sights and smells of a different history, a different people. Exploration of other cultures is limited to chicken tikka masala at the local curry house. Perhaps assimilation is here considered an ideal. Perhaps the British are just too polite to butt in on the traditions of others.
On that night across the pond, meanwhile, it felt as if we were all on a common journey to discover the tunnels dug beneath the superficiality of life - the quiet jazz club off of Fifth Avenue, not the Cartier store; the Brooklyn rooftop, not the terrace of the Peninsula Hotel, the quiet song of the Dominican girl at the corner Laundromat, not the blasting speakers of Madison Square Garden. For what sight could be more inspiring than your true self laid bare in careless rejoice? That's how one minute I am just a kid dancing to old music with a bunch of strangers and the next minute, I am in love.
I was warned by friends from the mid-west that people in New York aren't as nice as elsewhere. That they are impersonal, hurried, aggressive. And they absolutely are. They are also kind, friendly, welcoming, inquisitive, calm, careless, peaceful, black, white, Muslim, Christian, egotistical, rap-loving, rap-hating, careful, Hispanic. No one belongs. Yet everyone does. And we are all gathered here to discover those tunnels. For the first time ever, I felt at home.