The experience of getting from JFK to Manhattan is incredibly shocking to someone who's been in Europe for a while. You'd expect some kind of fast, convenient rail service. Instead, it can feel like playing Resident Evil. On Saturday evening I arrived at the Delta terminal -- a place so devoid of basic services it doesn't even have an ATM -- and followed the signs up a grim concrete ramp to another Delta terminal, which did have an ATM, then followed directions to the Air Train. Getting there involved walking along some crumbling semblance of a sidewalk next to a battered crash ramp. Surely this isn't how an airport in "the capital of the world" should be?
The elevated Air Train would be great if it ran right into central Manhattan. Instead, all it does is circle the terminals and connect them to the parking lots and the subway. At Howard Beach I can't find the main entrance, and am ushered onto the system free by some burly men guarding a side door. There's a constant procession of people passing along the platform. I don't know where they're coming from or going to, and all I can imagine is "hell", so Hieronymous Bosch-ishly deformed do they look. Some are stunted, many wear skulls and skeleton bones on their jackets, most are talking to themselves.
It takes ages for a train to come, and when one does, it's labelled "NOT IN SERVICE". The humans on the platform ignore this, and some of the train's doors are forced open. We all rush into the carriages to escape the chilly night. Inside a toothless woman is talking into a cellphone which is obviously fake, the mere objective correlative of her mental illness. "I'm at the airport. Wait for me! I love ya, Mike!" she says. When I change at Broadway Junction she's still having this conversation with "Mike". I can't help imagining that Mike is someone who died some time ago.
A European forgets just how extreme the gap between the rich and the poor -- or between Brooklyn and Manhattan -- is. The first thing I think, experiencing the subway (and I do still prefer taking it than bouncing over potholed roads in a spongy service car or yellow cab, and experiencing the aggression of road traffic) is: "The recession is hitting the poor in America particularly hard. The poor are poorer than ever."
There's a noticeable change in mood when the L train gets to the Jefferson stop. Previously the passengers have been glum, wary, crazy, slightly menacing. Now young white "chattering class" types get on. They're in couples or groups, and they won't stop talking. For them life is clearly much easier. They're going out on a Saturday night, spending money, enjoying themselves. As the L train approaches Manhattan, more and more of these effervescent young white people get on, and the volume levels increase.
Finally we're in Manhattan itself, and the subway starts to feel like an elevator, shuttling up and down the thin "skyscraper" of the island. Now it's a world city. There are rich people in camelhair coats, elderly Jews who look like New Yorker cartoons, rotund Mexicans, slim black career women, Japanese with faces of utter neutrality, avoiding all contact, red-faced Bridge and Tunnel people. The adverts are about learning English, or getting plastic surgery, or getting arrested and calling a lawyer (1-800-INNOCENT).
At this point another New York begins, the New York where I am an incredibly spoilt performance artist with people being nice to me, where my British accent sounds exotic and charming, where I feel famous just walking past the famous buildings. Now I can make trivial, incremental observations. There are almost no record stores left in this New York: the Virgin Megastore on Union Square is having its final sale before closing down, Kim's on St Mark's Place has vanished, Tower of course is long gone, Other Music soldiers on but looks a bit faded.
Vanessa Weng has expanded her original dumpling place on Eldridge (I'm a bit sad the old zinc hot sauce hole-in-the-wall has gone) and given it a semi-chic interior. Now yuppies sit beside her original Chinatown clientele. The Kinokuniya at the Rockerfeller Center has closed down, but has relocated to a three-storey store at nearby Bryant Park, expanding to include books about the whole of Asia. UNIQLO does roaring trade on Broadway, and Kiosk gives Spring Street a touch of the third world design chic Berliners know from OK Versand. Cheap is obviously the thing to be right now.
The New Museum is fantastic but completely anomalous, a luminous bubble of Tokyo in New York. More typical of the new face of New York are the opalesque mini-towers cropping up all over: Moby's hotel and the blue building in the Lower East Side, a yellow one going up nearby, some Gehry apartment buildings in Chelsea, a new Cooper Union building opposite the Village Voice office. These modestly-scaled lapidary bevelled mirror-clad buildings appear to be the current face of affluent New York; there are few new buildings on the scale -- or with the personality -- of the 20th century titans. For Manhattan, the 21st century so far is slightly bathetic; it isn't even trying to rival the 20th. Leave that to Shanghai, I guess.
At street level, though, the city hasn't lost its edge of affable craziness, nor its capacity to quicken your pace and charge you up with some of its energy. New York is the only city I know that moves as fast as the internet. I love walking around it -- even in the rain (which, this week, has never let up). There's something incredibly exciting about seeing clouds engulf the tops of the Kafkaesque skyscrapers of midtown.