My first two weeks in New York were spent sleeping on a friend’s couch in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. From there I took my first faltering steps out into the city, frequenting the Polish bakeries and chasing down vanishing rooms for rent.
These two weeks were a time of crisis in New York. In my first days I inadvertently survived the earthquake by sitting in a bank and trying (failing) to open an account; stepping out onto the street I was caught up in the piecemeal evacuations of a few buildings. I’ve still never felt an earthquake, even though I’ve been around a few of them (OK California, we all know you’ve been through more).
From the same couch in Greenpoint I watched the approach of “hurricane” Irene, and the shutdown of the whole city. I spent a housebound weekend speculating on whether the eye of the hurricane had arrived yet, and a euphoric evening on the rooftop watching the sky sweeping itself clear and the sunset splintering and refracting over Manhattan.
And while these crises rippled under and over the city, I was sinking into another of my own. Watching the desperation with which the city’s aspiring writers scrambled to write the best ‘How to Survive a Hurricane’ article, photograph the most ironic juxtaposition (frazzled locals stockpiling bagels, whisky and organic pickles) or tweet the wittiest hurricane pun, I wondered what there could possibly be left to write about in the world’s most over-exposed city.
I had to write something though (and not just for the usual compulsive reasons): in the narrow space between returning from Cuba and arriving in the US, I had my first piece published on the Matador network, and was accepted to their Glimpse Correspondents Program.
While this was really, really great news, it was also somewhat problematic. The Glimpse program has tended to feature ‘Western’ voices and perspectives on travelling abroad. Wherever The Abroad is considered to be, it is definitely not within the contiguous 48. So whereas in Bolivia or Mexico I would have had little hesitation in getting down and dirty with local culture, there was just no call – or no further call – for that sort of thing in New York. It showed a good bit of faith on the part of Sarah, the editor of the program, to admit me at all.
Dragging notebook and camera around the city, I spent those first two weeks completely lost, with no idea how I’d be able to put two Glimpse-worthy articles together. The usual ways of experiencing a new place just didn’t work here. Whatever beauty, whatever mystery and savagery that existed had already been overturned and thoroughly documented. Packs of budding writers stalked the streets, looking for novel scraps.
This crisis is an ongoing one; I’m already closer to the end than the beginning of the Glimpse program and terrified by the looming deadlines. With what time is left, I’ll be using The Philiad as a place to thrash out a few of the ideas and issues that I’ve decided to write about. Expect the American Dream to be referred to frequently. Stay tuned; let’s see if I can pull this off…