Here’s looking at you, New York
You couldn’t entirely blame me for running behind on my first day at the summer analyst training program of the investment bank, arriving breathless and massively, massively late. I had recently survived a spectacular fight, the move-to-the-same-city-as-your-best friend-but-have-a-huge-disagreement-with-her-the-first-week kind.
Dishevelled, and messy-haired, I stepped out of the subway on 45th and 7th onto the scorching cement of that humid morning, and having no faith on my geographical intelligence, asked the bagel cart guy – “Um hi. I am looking for S Bank?” The guy gave me the lookover, smirked and said “Right there miss,” pointing behind me. I turned. And there it was protruding from the sky. Piercing through my punctuality, mocking my plight of a fight, questioning my life as I had known it.
This silver cruise ship of a building gleaming and glittering like a mirage that hot summer day, its neon blue stock exchange ticker flashing brightly to re-affirm its grandiose, the August sun hitting the building and reflecting back to me dreams like gold, dreams that I was too small to yet imagine.
That was New York for you. A city you are never quite ready for, a city that has definitely not gotten ready for you (it’s too busy sleeping in, being fabulous and could really care less), and a city that, like a mirage plays with your mind, shifting between the visible and the invisible. A city that pulls you in and shows you scenes you would not have otherwise believed. Things you would never have mustered the courage to see yourself. And that’s exactly what I did for the next ten years living in Manhattan. I saw:
Steel silver skyscrapers and black plastic garbage bags. Times Square and the West Village. Yellow cabs and red police sirens. One night I saw the Brooklyn Bridge from the back of a cab on FDR. I had seen her countless times before but this night for the first time I really saw her and she took my breath away. Dressed to the nines as if she were attending some exclusive charity fundraiser ball she was glowing from the sunset; her lights twinkling like stars from head to toe to head again. On those early days, I wondered if I would ever be invited to this exclusive party. But eventually, I saw the party. Did I see a party?
A party for the blackout when the whole city turned dark for a night but the spirit of New Yorkers didn’t, a party for the financial crisis, for the elections of ‘08 when Obama could and Americans did, for New Year’s Eve and also New Year’s Day, for breakups and makeups, for I-just-failed-the-CFA to Let’s-party-because-it’s-Wednesday. I saw the Blue party and the Red party though the latter was mostly too embarrassed to make themselves public in a city like New York. I saw a woman trying to kill herself by jumping in front of a bus and the same night I was hit on by an A-list actor who took my hand to pull me into whatever misadventures awaited us.
On quieter nights spent in the fifth floor walk-up of my pre-war brownstone studio apartment, I would peek into my neighbour’s window across the courtyard. A singer who had recently moved from Barcelona, rumour was that he was a real charmer. I mean talker. Many a weeknight he would spend hosting his friends late into the night. Nights that were visions of silhouettes as I peered through the curtains– swaying flirtatious women, handsome big-haired men, the clickety-clack staccato of stiletto heels and wine glasses blending with excited voices to form a lullaby that would help me drift off to dream. In my dreams, I saw hands. Those of a homeless man reaching for me under the bridge at Port Authority Bus Terminal sitting on a pile of garbage and piss and attempting to be as visible as he could. Those of a dealer unzipping his backpack and pulling out bundles of cash attempting to be as invisible as he could. The hands of a hedge fund manager taking whisky shot after shot at his company party, attempting to be both visible and invisible. I saw friendly bagel cart guys who, on cold Monday mornings on my way to the office, offered me sunny humour– “Would you like your coffee for here or go miss?” I saw big beautiful buildings and bigger, more beautiful buildings. Even more beautiful than the buildings were the people. Tall, slim, Giselle haired, buzz cut, wrapped in the latest Dolce & Gabbana, their oversized Gucci purses nesting the smallest of dogs. Holding on to the last bit of their cigar while making plans on their iPads while crossing the sidewalk while looking left looking right while bumping into you and not even knowing while being a complete knockout while being just about perfect. I saw men. I saw women.
Then I saw me. In a city of have and have-mores, intelligent and genius, the beautiful and the Vogue models, type As and type A+s, what was my place, I wondered. So I invoked memories that were close to me. The train that snakes from Kolkata to Darjeeling, in which, at precisely 5:07 am a mishti little Bengali girl had once awakened to the love song of fishermen gliding in canoes on shimmering golden crescent below, “Oh Majhi Re…” I recalled the poems of Tagore, and the sacred feeling of falling asleep to the familiar voices of your mom and aunts discussing the latest family gossip. I recalled the sound of a monsoon drizzle in the city of my birth as we feasted on telebhaja and khichuri with kuler achar. I recalled the child in Kolkata to whom on a humid jasmine night, wiseass owl moon had whispered “live, live, live.”
And so, in this brand new gift-wrapped city with the fragrance of lilacs and freedom, I lived. Because while I was too busy over-analyzing, the city had dropped a Xanax into my cosmopolitan, taken my hand and taken me in. It pushed me to walk into my first poetry reading, read on an open mic, and become part of a vibrant writers community that encourages me to develop my literary voice because, as they often quipped quoting Audre Lorde – your silence will not save you. It did not but poetry did. It is in New York that I first started writing for publications. Some of these were translated to Bengali and published in Kolkata, a sweet full circle nod to my Bengali roots. A few years later when I realized I missed dancing (I had learned classical dance growing up) I walked into an Indian dance workshop and soon became part of an Indian contemporary dance company, which eventually led me to start my own dance company with my closest friends in the city.
Although I was also pursuing an MBA at New York University and working full-time in finance, I somehow made time to socialize. Some of my favourite memories of the city are over a bottle of Malbec debating Marx vs. Sartre or Derrida and deconstruction or the potential of Chaos Theory to whoever was willing and able to listen. On a particular night with friends at a dive bar, one too many had led to me getting rather upset about my friend’s father being very sick. Outside the bar, in the wee hours of morning, as I was bawling my eyes out, my friends asked what they could do to help. Between my ugly crying and inaudible choking and gasping for air I whimpered “Roobaroo.” As the blue screen of dawn painted the New York skyline a cool technicolor, the corners of bodegas and sidewalks turning violet from the muted morning light, “Aye saala. Abhi abhi huaa yaqeen ki aag hai mujh mein kahi. Hui subaah main jal gaya. Suraj ko main nigal gaya. Roo-ba-roo roshni. . .” the song reverberated around Lower East Side sung by five expats from Mumbai huddled in a circle belting and crooning uninhibited and utterly inebriated. We would have gone on forever if the homeless guy around the corner hadn’t told us to shut the hell up as he was “trying to sleep, goddamit!” Roobaroo would eventually become our anthem for life and strife in the city.
New York gave me friends with whom I truly belonged. Though some nights I would wake up at 3:00 am from screams of some drunk couple on the street belligerently fighting and wonder – where the hell am I? Other nights on my way to a last-minute party in Chelsea I would overhear the conversation between two flamboyantly gay men; one dressed in a baby blue suit and baby pink shirt with a white daisy in his lapel while the other sported a multi-colour polka dotted shirt with chinos and scarf and a beret; “I mean,” the first exclaimed rolling his eyes with animated arms “I might be an alcoholic but he has an attitude problem, and that’s waaaay worse!”
New York made me chuckle. It also broke me. Utter, soul-crushing, body-crushing physical pain kind of breaking. One that only happens when you see your ex-best friend, the one you had moved to this city for with her new passé, some who happened to once be your friend. Those nights I would spend lying on the floor, ignoring messages to attend the latest art gallery opening or rooftop party. Or I would say eff it, pick myself up, get dressed and channel Frida Kahlo as the life of the night, making it a point to flirt with all men and women present. But even those nights I would come home to cry on the floor. Losing a best friend is way worse than losing any boyfriend. Ever.
With time the city healed my heartbreak or at least taught me how to wear Ray-Bans larger than my face to prevent eye contact in case you run into your ex-Bff or the need to cover your tears arises. You see, New York was all about practicality with a dash of fabulousness.
The city gave me confidence. Years from now, I would finally stop and reflect. Can you believe it? The young and wide-eyed me would think: Working in the corporate world, attending my dream grad school, writing for literary journals, and directing a dance company with my best friends. Can you believe this is my life! “That’s all great but,” New York would respond bored and apathetic, “What’s next hon?” tossing out the last bit of her cigarette and looking around wryly. That was the thing about this city. No matter how hard you tried, you were just never enough. But in the back of my mind the filmy me, the Indian me, was Geet in Jab we Met thinking—Still. Main apni favourite hu.
But let’s return to the present. It was still my first year living in this city and fall had finally surrendered to winter. The season’s first snow was falling, as white as the orchid by my window that I had acquired at the summer street fair. From across the courtyard, I could hear my Spanish neighbour strumming his guitar and singing. I peeped through my window and could faintly make out his shadow behind white cotton curtains. “These little town blues are melting away. I’ll make a brand new start of it,” he hummed. Outside the snow fell faster and ceremoniously infinite, the white noise contributing to this impromptu concert. “In old New York,” he hummed “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”
I smiled, turned off the light and drifted off to dream. About a life that was slowly becoming real. Comforted by a voice that was becoming familiar in this craziness of a city I was starting to call home.
To be continued
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
via TOI Blog
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