Manhattan nocturne

Jet lag is something to be exploited, not endured

The Oxford English Dictionary defines jet lag as the ‘extreme tiredness and other physical effects felt by a person after a long flight across different time zones’. All well and good, but it lacks detail. After my last flight from London to New York, I’d like to add: ‘reading Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma by the cool light of an iPhone, under a duvet at 3am on a chilly autumnal morning, in the darkness of a midtown Manhattan hotel room.’

Two previous trips to New York had taught me that these bouts of jet lag were something to be exploited, not endured. No staring at the ceiling of my hotel room for me. Chapter finished, I quietly slipped into the previous day’s clothes and slid silently out of the room, while my wife slept on, oblivious.

The hotel lobby, all wood panels, wingback armchairs and plush carpets, slumbered as I softly padded through, and only the night porter, with the faintest hint of a knowing nod, bore witness to my egress. I stepped out into the cool air of an early November morning. East 31st Street; 5th Avenue to my left, Madison to my right. Suddenly I was alert and awake to the infinitesimal permutations that a walk around Manhattan’s street grid offered. Manhattan has nearly 3,000 street intersections, and the choice at each is to turn left, turn right, or walk straight ahead. Is it possible that no one has even walked the same route twice around New York?

The junction at 5th Avenue was bathed in streetlight hues of black and white. The streets were silent and empty, the only noise and movement coming from yellow taxis streaking past through green traffic signals. Straight ahead, turn right, straight ahead, turn left. At Times Square, the blazing lights and looping animated billboards turned night into day, and the few people that lingered here were silhouetted by shop window displays and illuminated advertisements.

Up Sixth Avenue now, unsure and uncaring of where I’d end up, until I reached Bryant Park, its winter village deserted, its ice rink in darkness. Then turn right, past the New York Public Library and onwards to Grand Central. Here there were more signs of life, of groups of youngsters, lurching and laughing back from wherever they’d spent the previous evening, on their quest for the first trains of the morning.

Just inside the station entrance, the first bakery deliveries of the day were filling the air with a heady aroma of freshly-baked bread, sugar and cinnamon. Inside the station, partygoers lay slumped against ATM machines in alcoves and corners, perhaps already dreaming of Sunday afternoon sobriety, of generous brunches sprawling outwards into lazy suburban afternoons. I stood in the middle of the empty station concourse, gazing up in awe at celestial ceiling, while a floor-polishing machine slowly zigzagged around me.

It was nearly 6am when I began threading my way back to the hotel, now on the lookout for coffee shops showing any sign of rousing themselves from their slumber, their early morning shift workers silhouetted against emergency lighting as they mopped floors and unpacked stacks of paper cups.

Thoughts abound as I walked. This city, this crazy city, ingrained in my consciousness through a thousand films and television series. Its yellow taxis, traffic lights, and fire hydrants hardwired into a visual language familiar to half of the world’s population. Its architecture—soaring, geometric, straight—the benchmark against which, for good or for bad, all our towns and cities are measured. I marvelled at how effortlessly I was navigating a city I had such scant knowledge of, concluding that, though I barely knew New York, New York evidently knew me.

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