Empire State of Mind
They were sitting cross-legged on the ground, palms pressed against a mosaic of black and white tiles set into the concrete. The design was circular, littered with wilting rose petals. Pennies arranged along the inner ring. At its heart, a single word. Imagine. I wanted to get my camera out. Photograph them. But I desperately needed to sit down. I’d seen Soho, the Flatiron Building and half of Central Park before arriving here at John Lennon’s monument, but I’d made a huge mistake. I’d walked all over Manhattan…in espadrilles.
If that means nothing, you probably have a Y chromosome. Espadrilles are summer shoes with a sole made from coiled rope. Real ones use Mediterranean grass, which I’m sure feels wonderful on your foot, but North American knockoffs are jute. They’d worn the bottom of my feet raw. It was as if I’d been sliding across sandpaper for ten hours straight. Each step was agony, leaving me three choices. Walk barefoot, crawl to the subway or join this Beatles cult and live in Strawberry Fields forever.
Wear good shoes. One painful lesson in amongst the many great things New York taught me over the years. I booked my first trip after a friend moved there for work. From the vantage point of her Times Square (adjacent) apartment, we explored the city. There was no need to hit the tourist trail, rushing the experience or standing in lines. I knew I’d be back. There would always be a next time. Spread over several years, I saw the Manhattan that exists beneath an I❤️NY veneer.
On any given day, I’d leave the building and walk. There was brownstones and green spaces, musicians on street corners, and the odd celebrity sighting. When the seasons changed, I’d go below ground and take the subway from one end of the city to the other.
Dean & Deluca was my jumping off point, sitting in the window with a cup of steaming earl grey and watching the city wake up. An endless parade of yellow taxi cabs, smart suit people talking on their phones, nannies with strollers heading to the park. The doors would open and in they’d stream, shopping for shallots and fresh flowers, cast iron pans and suede potholders. It was an oasis of ivory tiles surrounded by vintage green glass, smelling of cinnamon donuts and sage.
Then it was cupcakes at Magnolia, fashion exhibitions at the MET, dusty New York Public Library shelves, scouting boutiques in Greenwich and taking a perfectly timed ride to the top of the Empire State Building. We got there during a lull. Walked right through the lobby and into the elevator.
The guidebooks will tell you to see New York at Christmas. Twinkling lights. Toy stores. Rockefeller. I went in February. The snow was falling sideways. We found ways to stay indoors. Cozy coffee stops. A mostly puzzling trip through MoMA. And after a freak boot accident, one impromptu shopping trip for a pair of Ugg’s. In the mornings, we’d brunch in hip spaces with bushy green plants. At night, wedge ourselves into tiny bars for live Cuban music and cocktails.
Summer was different. After lounging in the park until the humidity got unbearable, I’d leapfrog down fifth avenue, stepping, semi-wilted, into Ralph Lauren, Burberry and the like to take advantage of their air conditioning. I doubt they appreciated my presence, but they were too polite to ask me to leave.
It was on one of these warm weather days that I learned there’s a hidden side to Manhattan. One that exists ‘within’. We’d arrived at Palma. It’s Italian. The kind of Italian that will make you think you were kidnapped, loaded onto a plane and flown halfway around the world. It’s cozy inside. Long tables with a low ceiling. Dark wood beams running the width. But if you’re lucky, they’ll walk you all the way through and out the back door. Palma has a patio. A secret garden set between the buildings. Ivy covered walls rise around bistro tables with string lights to add a warm glow. We sat for hours, enjoying white wine and pappardelle allo spezzatino d’agnello – pasta with slow-roasted lamb, olives, rosemary and pecorino sardo. It became our ritual. Every time. Every trip.
I began to understand why those who live in Manhattan rarely leave. There was so much to discover. Trust me, getting them off the island is a task.
We’d spent the night drinking South African reds. Asking the other patrons of this particular wine bar if they’d ever been to Manhasset. It’s in Long Island, about an hour by train. So, the end of the earth by New York standards. As the train emerged from it’s tunnel, city streets were replaced with sprawling lawns and pastel blue bungalows. We were headed to a tasting at Serendipitea, an importer of fine teas from around the world. We sipped greens, whites and a range of red and blacks. Heading back with bags full of exotic smelling leaves, seemingly drunk on the suburbs.
And then there’s Grimaldi’s. I mean there are other reasons to cross the Brooklyn Bridge and check out DUMBO, but I honestly hadn’t done it until someone suggested pizza. People bring their own chairs for the line-up. It’s that long. Thankfully, we had an in. A friend with ties to the owner. They were holding down a giant corner table when we arrived – heads down, avoiding eye contact. The crowd whistled with disgust as we ducked inside. I’ll admit I felt a bit guilty, but after pulling up a seat and resting my elbows on their red-checkered tablecloth, it dissolved into cheesy, saucy bites.
New York got under my skin. It’s one of the few places in the world that I can navigate without a map. And I’m shit with directions, so that’s saying something. An airport taxi driver once welcomed me home as I slid into the backseat. The ultimate compliment. I’ll always feel that pull to go back, checking layover options to see if I can fit in a few days. Sure, it’s a concrete jungle, but Jay-Z knows what he’s talking about. There’s nothing you can’t do in New York.