Notes from NYC
Everyone feels a connection with New York. We millennials are tied to the city for life with an invisible chord, whether we have been to the city or not.
I was studying at IIT Delhi when the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre towers. I remember the evening clearly, like most of us do. Sleepy and tired after a long day in the lab, I remember walking back to the hostel. There was a crowd in front of the single TV; everybody was preoccupied and intense. A cricket match was on. Watching it, I could pass some time too, and forget the growing headache.
It wasn’t the cricket match, and it took me long minutes to realise what it was. I first thought it to be my delirium taking shape, my leftover sleep penetrating the reality. On the TV, a single tower, next to another holed one, burst into debris and flames when a 767 collided. It was New York. It was being mercilessly torched.
Now, years later, I finally stand at the site of the attack. It’s my first visit to the city and though I have been wandering around for the last three days, I deliberately avoided coming to the 9-11 memorial. But there is no escaping. Despite all the vibrancy of this city, its chaos and celebration, this site — marked by two sombre waterfalls, their periphery etched with names of the people who died in the attack — stands aloof in a reserved silence. Even the boisterous tourist crowd reduces to a notion here. As if everyone has taken on a thought trail reflecting back on the day when things changed, when the rules of the world no longer applied, when the future became unsettled.
Now, standing on the edge of the waterfall, clutching on a small American flag planted next to the name of someone who’d lost his life, I wondered if the world has become any safer than that day 16 years back.
My sister-in-law, Mridu, showed me around NYC. She is into construction, and the project she has most recently worked on was completion of the first phase of the Second Avenue Subway, a project that’s been anticipated for nearly a century. At 2.25 billion USD per mile, this is perhaps the most expensive subway project in the history. Mridu made sure that I took a ride on this newly opened line, which runs between 63rd Street<x-apple-data-detectors://1> to 96th Street<x-apple-data-detectors://2>, a total of four stops. The plan however is eventually extend the line up to East Harlem, adding many more stations.
Interestingly, the main cost driver in the case of this Second Avenue subway extension is the stations and not the tunnels. Nearly half of the total budget went into the three stations. Americans seem to have a liking for big shiny stations. I wandered around one of these for few minutes, not in a hurry to chase a train but just to observe the comings and goings. While doing so, I discovered the works of Chuck Close. He is an American artist who paints abstract portraits of himself and people from his life. For instance, his self-portrait and his wife’s portrait are one of his several works that deck the 86th Street<x-apple-data-detectors://3> subway station.
While subways all over the world are great in attracting struggling artists – mostly singers and dancers – looking to make few bucks, the ones in NYC are most colourful. In the week there, I looked forward to the subway rides to listen to lone drummers beating drums with happy smiles plastered across their faces, to watch performance artists bending their bodies across subway poles, and to listen to groups of men and women rapping.
Annual ridership in NYC is estimated to be more than 1.7 billion! Where else would these struggling artists find a better performance ground than these rides, I wondered.
I had a cup of tea at the Starbucks on the first floor of the Trump Towers on Fifth Avenue few hours before boarding the flight back home. I thought visitors would not be allowed in, but I was pleasantly surprised that Trump Towers actually has visiting hours for tourists. After a relatively mild security check, I was allowed in. On the top floor of this building is 100 million USD gold and marble penthouse where Trump spends his weekends, and Melania Trump lives with their ten-year-old son Barron. Ivanka Trump has her Jewellery boutique on the ground floor.
There was a cluster of officers though moving between floors. Some were dressed in Homeland Security bulletproof vests. Outside the building New York Police Department vehicles line up along the block. All this security to protect the first family comes at a price, which by some estimates is close to a staggering 70 million USD!
On the ground floor is also a souvenir shop. I wandered in with the intention of buying a memory from this place. I found a mug with Trump’s trademark smirk painted on one half, and his slogan ‘Let’s Make America Great Again’ on the other. I found it funny and would have bought it, but for the 18 USD price tag – money that would have ended in the pocket of the man I don’t really admire.
Instead I used the glistening marbled restrooms before heading to the airport.
A version of this story appeared in The Hindu