Letters From America Stay Or Leave

From: Natasha McGill

Sent : Monday, 18 October 2004 5:08:14 a.m.

To : tashmcgill@maxnet.co.nz

Subject : Letters From America Stay Or Leave

Stay or Leave, I want you not to go, but you must.

Leaving Nashville was a traumatic experience! Dani and I went to Demos’ the steak and spaghetti house for dinner. It was delicious, although Americans look at me funny when I order my steak medium-rare. Weirdos. I had the most divine pepper steak in a sherry and pepper reduction, served smothered in chargrilled peppers, onions and chili. Served with a side of spaghetti alfredo.. mmm. Yummy. Although I must admit that I am hankering to get back into the kitchen myself. There is a certain sense of humility that I need to regain by preparing my own food I think.

So .. like I said leaving was traumatic. Firstly, I was scheduled to leave at 7am. That got rescheduled, and then delayed. Then I missed the connection in Washington DC because of the delay and ended up there for another few hours. Having been up at 5am to get to the airport, I was tired and sore and homesick by the time I finally arrived at my seedy little hotel on the West Side by 9pm. So I’ll be honest. Arriving in New York tired, hungry, with no idea really of where you are going, in the dark, rainy remnants of some tropical storm.. is just not a good way to start.

So I had a good cry and called Mum, who told me to buck up my courage, have a good sleep and then get out there. I called Danielle too, and said .. ‘why did I leave?’. I decided I didn’t like travelling by myself, and even the excitement of getting out into the Big Apple was not going to cut it for me. There was this weight like concrete bricks in my stomach, and the smokey, dirty, dusky smell of the joint I’m staying in was not helping. Honest to truth.. I had such a good time with my uncle and Valarie in Indianapolis, I seriously thought about just getting on a plane back there until my flight left on Monday.

I felt pretty miserable yesterday morning too, but finally decided that I just needed to get over it. So I did. A couple of phonecalls to spur me on into the day and there I was. So my seedy little dive doesn’t seem so bad in daylight.. in fact it feels super New York now. And I’m only three blocks west of Central Park, two blocks south of the subway to Midtown and Downtown, and that suits me fine.

So yesterday I fell in love with New York, uncovering her delights and treasures! Walking through the Strangers Gate off Duke Ellington Blvd I started to find my feet. There were trees and grass and birds. Hundreds of kids playing soccer and baseball, dads and kids bike riding and playing all over the place. The little hidden lakes and bridges are just as picturesque as they seem in the movies. I met a wonderful woman who walked through the park and to the Guggenheim Museum with me, and then showed me all the bus and subway routes I could be taking for the rest of my travels. She really was a bit of an angel. And now I totally understand why Central Park is regarded as the thing that makes the city livable for so many.

The Guggenheim is just stunning, as a piece of architecture alone. I happened to stumble into the opening weekend of the Aztec Empire exhibit. Which is kinda torturous, really. Because all you want to do with really really old things, is place your hands and fingertips where the centuries-gone Aztecs would have held these objects, where they would have crafted them from primitive chisel.. at least, that’s how I longed to connect. Same way with Pablo Picasso paintings. I longed to feel the rise and ridge of the paint under my fingers, emulating the way it would have felt coming off the brush.. it’s an intimate kind of a thing to see how closely involved a painter is with his work. I wasn’t the only one who lost in some trance-like admiration was moved to a tear or two.

The whole Guggenheim, bar some annexes, is a curving sloping spiral. Stunning to look at, in every direction, from the tiled circles on the floor to the ambient light from the skylight atrium. But it’s remarkably hard to feel balanced on, so whilst climbing and descending, your mind is only half on the art and displays, and half on keeping your balance.

From the Guggenheim, I caught a bus that took me all the way downtown to the South Ferry. This is the best kind of tour bus, because it only costs $2 and you brush through just about every little neighbourhood and village.. SoHo, Chinatown, Little Italy, The Financial District, just about all of Fifth Avenue, the library, more of the museums.

On just about every corner there are street vendors and newsstands, and all the I ‘heart’ NY tshirts you could dream of. Groups of people gathered on museum steps listening to beat poetry, and breakdancers in Bryant Park. The sight and colour is just amazing. So onto the Staten Island ferry I went. Staten Island you say? Well, here’s the deal.. In a city that is so full of tourists as well as actual city dwellers… I felt the need to not be one of those weirdos wearing a bumbag with a New York tshirt and a big-as camera. As with many things.. blending is the key. So I took the free Staten Island ferry that goes right past the Statue of Liberty, rather than the expensive tourist rides to Ellis Island. Sweet.

The harbour is unbelievably busy, ships, barges, ferries and cruiseships in all directions, not to mention the helicopters, going in and out from skyscraper rooftops, just like Trump Tower.

So getting back from the Island, just as the rain and dusk and dark started to set in, I jumped on the Subway, feeling like a true New Yorker as I bought my Metrocard and travelled uptown to Times Square. There I caught a movie, because I wasn’t able to get a ticket to a Broadway show. Good movie too. Then emerging after dark from the theatre.. I cruised up and down42nd street, the Broadway district, and past the broadcast homes of many tv stations etc etc.. lots of flashing lights. It’s kinda strange, because Times Square and the illustrious district around it all stops short west of 7th Avenue. There is a quad of four or five blocks west and four blocks south where there are no landmarks, or New York must-sees. It’s directly south of where I am staying, and at night you hear the sirens cutting through the smog and darkness into the distance. It’s called Hell’s Kitchen, and was kinda made notorious on a worldwide scale in a Nicolas cage movie, ‘bringing out the dead’. I imagine that it really is about as nasty as it was portrayed. All the lights and music, street performers stop, and the darkness carries on through to the Hudson.

I walked from Times Square down to Grand Central Station, which cannot be justice by my words. But it was really beautiful. The ceiling is the night sky, with constellations drawn in and lit up, the marble everywhere is stunning. Chandeliers fill the whole building with a warm, mellow light and the bars and music from the balconies make the whole experience quite enchanting. That’s something that ought to be captured in a movie.

On the way home in the subway, I came to thinking that in those moments, my world was really just as big as I could see in front of me. And that isn’t really very big at all. Maybe I was freaked out in New York, because I couldn’t see it in daylight, to understand it, or get my head around it. But I think I’ve got it now. I woke up this morning, excited and invigorated to get out into the day. And there are blue skies above me.

I walked to the Cathedral of St John the Divine, a Gothic-style building begun in the 1800’s that is still unfinished. It was glorious. The church is a vibrant part of the community, still holding worship services in the building. I like the fact that although the outside isn’t finished yet, the interior is finished just enough for them to be church, living and breathing. The gay couple who I met standing in front of the AIDS memorial were a poignant reminder of just how relevant faith and hope can be. And here I am in an internet cafe in Times Square, about to see a Broadway show. I’m going to the Lion King. Hear me Roar. But first.. I need to find a coffee.

Stay or Leave, I want not to go but I must. See you in NZ real soon.