An Alien in New York
They're so ingrained in our psyche that if I said 'yellow cab' you'd almost certainly know that I was in New York. And they were a familiar sight as I hopped into one at JFK, having arrived without too much of an idea of where I was going.
It was the start of a new adventure - except this bit wasn't particularly new. Taking six months off work to travel IS a new experience, but New York isn't. I lived here for a year in 2008-09, and have only visited the city once since I left.
The yellow cabs are a no brainer, but realising they have TVs and credit card facilities in them was a pleasant reminder of a past life. Walking down the street and seeing Duane Reade, Au Bon Pain and a million delis brought a warm fuzzy feeling back. Delis in NYC are essentially corner shops - except that alongside the groceries, they sell an array of food from salads to grilled cheese sandwiches. How they fit it all into such a small place I'll never know, and how they pass food standards is another matter. In bars, it's still essential to tip $1 a drink - $2 if you're feeling particularly generous. It's also nice to see that it's still free-pour on spirits in most bars...
One of the major differences I've found upon my return has been how much of a tourist I feel. As a local I would avoid Times Square like the plague; it's always crowded, noisy and slow to navigate through and as a resident there's nothing more frustrating than being held up by people stopping to look up at the neon and take pictures. On this visit I've become my own worst enemy. The neon lights fill me with joy. I like looking at the actor playing the Statue of Liberty or the guy dressed as Elmo hoping you'll throw a few dollars his way in return for a photograph.
It's odd to be in a place that's so familiar, when so much has changed. I lived here when there was a Ground Zero where the 9/11 Memorial now stands. It was a huge hole in the ground and you only got a glimpse of what was behind the barricades if you got the PATH train into the financial district. My favourite bars remain in Greenwich Village, but South Street Seaport is undergoing a facelift. Brooklyn has changed enormously since I was last there; Williamsburg was the place to be in the late 00s - now it's full of rich bankers and college kids.
There's a strange imbalance going to a place you used to know instinctively, and returning as a tourist. The good thing is that you have a sense of direction; you know how things work and you don't always need a map. The downside is that you always feel like an outsider; it's like seeing an old lover and knowing everything about them and yet nothing at all.
What's certain is that New York remains the city that never sleeps. It's exciting to be in a place where there's a constant buzz, with a continuous sense of FOMO (although that's not necessarily a good thing). Four days hasn't been enough time, and I'm already wondering when I can come back and see what's changed next amongst some of my favourite, familiar old neighbourhoods.
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