By 5.30am I’d already spent the best part of an hour staring up at the ceiling of our hotel room, jet-lagged and wide awake, reflecting on the prospect of my first full day in New York. The unfamiliar space around me was swathed in a dark, hazy gloom; there would be at least another hour to go till daybreak. The only light in the room was a soft green glow, emanating from the smoke alarm situated above the door.
My partner, though more experienced in the temporal disorientation associated with long-haul flights, was equally restless. We lay there side by side, listening to distant police sirens whose drones were subtly different to those familiar to us back home. I heaved a sigh, borne partially out of frustration, that made me aware of the uncommon dryness at the back of my throat, doubtless a consequence of too much artificially conditioned air over the past twenty-four hours. At a quarter to six, I finally conceded defeat in my attempt to get back to sleep. “I’m going to find some coffee” I croaked.
New York was still in the grip of winter, despite it being late March. Out on the street it was a degree above freezing and still dark. I might have gained five hours in getting here, but in doing so I appeared to have slipped back a season. Beside the urgent desire for strong coffee, now I was acutely aware of the need for a wash, shave, and a thicker coat. Shivering, I stood there on the street outside the hotel lobby, looking out onto Madison Avenue between 28th and 29th, lapping up the feigned sympathy of the hotel porter standing beside me, who’d no doubt bore witness to this scene a million times before.
So I walked, with no particular direction in mind, along the streets of a city entirely new to me, each step taking me forwards into the unknown. How best to know or to understand a city? To experience it when it is at its most active, in daylight, full of the energy of the rush hour, of traffic and pedestrians and boisterous exchanges and noise? Or to strip everything away and explore nocturnal, empty streets not yet awake to the possibilities of bustle. I passed a closed Dunkin’ Donuts (isn’t this supposed to be the city that never sleeps?) and took the next corner, down a deserted and ill-lit side street. Decaying shops fronts with their shutters pulled down, apartment entrances whose green canopies extended over the pavement. Badly maintained roads and sidewalks, pockmarked with cracks and potholes. Occasional fellow pedestrians in puff jackets, their faces obscured by hoods. Yellow taxicabs racing by, steam rising from manhole covers, fire hydrants, and the rumble of subterranean trains below my feet. Above, the vertical surfaces of many-windowed office and apartment blocks, on top of which were perched shadowy water towers, their forms silhouetted against a slowly brightening sky. Everything, I realised, down to the empty parking lots on empty and unremarkable streets, took on an air of familiarity in this dawn half-light. Every fleeting glance, each lingering gaze, was framed with a cinematic sense of déja-vous, my jumbled thoughts unsure of the reality of the things around me.
I risked getting lost if I wasn’t careful. Here was 5th Avenue, 4th Avenue, I took a right up towards 30th. A dearth of coffee shops here, I remarked silently to myself, so I headed back in the direction that I’d come, becoming increasingly single-minded in my objective of coffee with every step that I took. I thought of the hapless Bud Korpenning in John Dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer: “I want to get to the centre of things.” I continued past silver-skinned fast-food wagons abandoned at street corners, hunchback mailboxes and ubiquitous one-way signs.
Eventually I found a Starbucks coffee shop. Not a franchise I’d normally frequent back home, but suddenly it felt a perfectly natural decision to arrive at. It was a small, narrow and harshly lit affair, with none of the sham cosiness usually invested in such joints. The shop had only just opened, and besides the solitary barista there was no one else inside. “Two regular Americanos … and two breakfast buns please,” I rasped, fumbling unfamiliar banknotes between numb fingers. The barista was a man of few words, and those he did utter in his native accent suggested he wasn’t a great deal more familiar with New York than I was myself. And then I was back on the street, cardboard tray with coffee and buns in one hand, and a fist full of serviettes and wooden paddles in the other. That’s it, I said to myself, as I paced back to the hotel with renewed vigour: my first commercial transaction in New York, successfully completed.
Such formal exchanges, whether or not you conduct them in your native language, are important steps in setting the bar of your expectations in a foreign, unfamiliar place. I felt a renewed sense of confidence that New York and I would get on well together; a sentiment lent further weight when, ten minutes later, after I had returned to the warmth and light of our hotel room, my parter and I supped our coffees together, and began, with rekindled animation, plotting the day ahead.