Ayodeji Rotinwa recently took a bite out of the Big Apple, the world’s most famous megalopolis
My Empire State experience started from hundreds of feet in the air. On plane descent, the city mushroomed into form, a beautiful, reverential sight that locked my attention in a vice grip. She was sprawled out majestically, tattooed by a bedazzling melange of amber, silver and azure-toned lights, in such close proximity and curious file that they seemed to be trying to coalesce into a message of words and familiar shapes.
Such a magical constellation of lights, I had never before, seen. Also obvious from on high were the grand, rich greens of what I guessed was the storied Yankee Stadium, the hallowed home and ballpark of famous baseball team, the New York Yankees. Nearing touchdown, the heartbeat of the city became audible, first, faint and then building up to a ferocious tattoo. Sounds of cars, machines and metropolitan activity seared the night air, piercing the formidable shell of the aircraft. My watch read 11.45PM, Eastern Time. The city was not asleep.
But, Am I Really Here Yet?
At once glaring and fairly unnerving were the stark similarities between New York and Lagos, whence I had flown. For the entire fifty-odd minutes of my journey, from the airport to the residence I was going to stay for the duration of my trip, I did not feel like I was in another country. The semblance in physical structures was almost alarming. I could very well have been on Kingsway Road, Ikoyi, navigating a turn to head unto the new Lekki-Ikoyi Bridge!
My discomfiture did not end there. Days following my arrival, my suspicions that both cities must have been separated at birth became corporeal. Lagos and New York breathe the same air. They share the same pulse. They are sister melting pots of culture, peoples and beliefs, separated only by miles, sea and most obvious, superior management.
New York, New York
New York City (NYC) is the bustling, roaring engine of the state of New York. It consists of five boroughs, each of which is a county of New York State- The Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, and Staten Island. The city and state were named after 17th century Duke of York, future King James II of England.
The largest gateway for immigration in the United States, inhabited by 8.3 million people (as of the city’s last census count of 2012), with over 800 languages spoken, and exerting significant influence over commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and entertainment. On a global scale, it is undoubtedly the cultural capital of the world.
On arrival, I found that NYC was more than had been written about it and saw why it was elusive to capture in words. The city does not stop to catch its breath. It moves, shakes, stretches repeatedly, over and over again. Seconds after exiting the Bus Terminal, I was swallowed up into its thick grove of buildings- some short, stout, many stretched out to touch the sky- assaulted by bright lights (in the morning, mind you) music playing from different directions, larger-than-life advertisements and loud conversations in many different languages.
Just about every sidewalk, boulevard, crossing is submerged in a sea of people. An interesting scene plays out when the pedestrian traffic light holds the tide up and after a short while, signals movement via a white ‘WALK’ sign.
A deluge of people bursts forth onto the zebra crossing, frothing, fast. It can be a trancelike sight when closely watched, repeatedly. I soon learnt to move in step with the tide, a crucial skill in walking around (which one has to do, a lot!) and living to tell the tale with no mangled toes.
The city is a junk food enthusiast’s dream. Available from block to block and on the streets, in generator-powered carts, are calories/cholesterol-suffused offerings. A healthy meal is hard to find and not in the measure of variety and relatively cheap range of fast food options. After binging on fried chicken wings, pizza, pancakes, tortilla chips, burgers, hotdogs, and tacos for a few days, I teetered on the edge of a gastro-intestinal crisis.
Succour, after beating long trails, came in form of Chinese and (Hallelujah!) Nigerian food. The former, which I discovered in Bar Shabu, an upscale bar/dinner house in Queens, (an hour by train from NYC) was a one-of-a-kind culinary experience. Food was served, partially raw and had to be cooked by customers, to their liking, in a hotpot rigged into the dinner tables for the purpose.
Nigerian food, on the other hand, I found in an artsy restaurant in Brooklyn, aptly named Buka. Music from the now-defunct MoHits Group blaring overhead, not quite believing my luck, I dived, palm wine bottle in hand, into familiar dishes of akara, peppered snails and a gigantic platter of goat meat pepper soup.
Despite its reputation, I found NY to be genuinely safe. Prodded by an appetite for danger, adventure and a desire to see what the city was like when dark had fallen, accompanied by my host and friend, Mohammed, I ventured into the night severally. Sure, I was street-smart (Lagos living having taught me a few hard lessons) and a seedy character did sidle up to me in the subway, one hand, perhaps ominously, in his pocket that could have been hiding a knife, maybe, but other than that, there were no incidents of note.
“You have to tip!” Mohammed constantly reminded me throughout my stay. The cab driver, the bar tender, the waitress and just about every service provider, is entitled to a tip, sometimes, for no good reason and they would let you know this, surreptitiously via body language, lingering or a solicitous stare. The city’s service class is crawling with aspiring capitalists.
The most effulgent characteristic of the city, bar its culture, is its public transportation system. Clean, cheap, fast, efficient, reliable and very easy to find, there are trains available to take you anywhere within the five boroughs of New York.
An impulsive shopper’s wallet would be ravaged by the allures New York has on offer.
A city with a street called ‘Fashion Avenue’ obviously takes appearances seriously.
With the world’s largest store, Macy’s and other multiple-level, diverse stores catering to every manner of personal taste and style under the sun, being spoilt for choice is a foregone conclusion.
One simply does not visit New York without reaching the summit of its crown jewel of famous structures- the Empire State Building. A 102-story skyscraper, deriving its name from a nickname for New York, the Empire State, it is the one of the tallest buildings in the world. (23rd tallest) It used to be the tallest building in the world until 1970 when it was dislodged by a few more stories of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.
Countless online guides to New York had told of the building’s legend when I did some travel reconnaissance while still in Lagos. I had been sceptical. A lot of things are exaggerated on the internet. Not this time, though. On reaching the 88th floor observatory deck, I was momentarily awe-struck by the breath-taking view of the concrete jungle below. Everything seemed impeccably in place (like well-arranged Lego blocks) and a shining testament to the amazing offspring the marriage of man and technology can produce.
A steaming cauldron of flashing lights, dancing images and words, Times Square is a feast for the senses. Alongside the digital media billboards in varied, dizzying colours everywhere I turned, there were go-go dancers on one corner bedecked in burlesque finery, men painted in the rich teal colour of the Statue of Liberty, standing, immobile, torch in hand, opened duffel bag filled with dollars, at their feet, break-dancers, in motion, their backs kissing the sidewalk.
Amidst the city’s thick throng of structures, people and technological triumphs, lies an untainted oasis of nature- Central Park. A rolling, lush carpet of green tended by chirping birds and cloaked with soothing tranquility, it is an irony to the rest of New York.
Aboard the Staten Island Ferry – the John F. Kennedy, specifically – taking off from the Whitehall Terminal, Manhattan, for a bargain price of free, enrapturing views of Lower Manhattan, the Brooklyn Bridge, Wall Street’s skyscrapers and most memorable, the iconic Statue of Liberty made for a stimulating afternoon.
The New Yorker
New Yorkers are an eclectic bunch. Loquacious, hare footed, au courant, ennobled by their acceptance and absorption of different, rich, diverse cultures, I hazard they may be a superior ‘species’ of Americans, in a refined sense. New York is truly an international city.
During my short visit of 15 days, I met a Jamaican, Chinese, two Italians, and three South Africans and overheard conversations in the subway, on the street, in bars, in different boroughs, in German, Afrikaans, French, Creole, Russian, Korean, and other languages that my ears could not discern.
In my interactions, I found that it was the immigrants I met that were most enlightened not only about the society in which they live but the world, at large.
They are also a driven sect. My host and friend, Mohammed, Shannon, Tracy and Asanda (the 3 aforementioned South Africans) for instance, I discovered, are assiduously climbing the ladder of corporate America and are currently in moderate-level positions of one of the biggest multinational professional services firms in the world, PricewaterhouseCoopers. Quinnie, the Chinese, had just recently started her own risk management firm. She is 25 years old.
Conversely, most Americans I came across, bar one, a worldly film critic, seemed unconcerned with anything beyond their borders except the many wars in which their country is embroiled and whether or not they were ‘winning’.
At a dinner with Mohammed’s friends, in a dingy, garishly decorated Italian restaurant, one, an owlish dilettante (I later discovered) with the grimness of a judge, asked me if smartphone technology had come to Africa and was it true we had an indigenous telecommunications industry.
Sated with generous amounts of Pinot Grigio, I did not take offence but instead schooled her on the success story of a certain Mike Adenuga and the blistering inroads global brands like Samsung, Blackberry, and more recently, Apple, are making in the Nigerian telephony market.
New York waits for no one. It is sweet and sour. It is a never-ending slideshow of surprises. It is a conflation of contradictions.
Blink and you’ll miss everything. It is all these and yet, I felt right at home, finally understanding American novelist and art critic, John Updike’s aphorism about the city, “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much as in five minutes as in five years.”