Dispatches: faces and encounters in a letter from New York

Altair Brandon-Salmon reflects on finding the familiar and unexpected in a new city

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The African-American in fine brown brogues started to sing, acapella-style, ‘Stand by Me’ on the south-bound No.1 train, only his stamping feet providing a beat. I had gotten on at 116th St., heading down from Columbia towards Whitney. The fierce, chill rain had begun to flood the subway station’s floors and the carriage was quiet, as all subway carriages are. When he started to sing in fine voice, “when the night has come, and the land is dark…” I tried to suppress a smile and match everyone else’s dour expressions, people trying too hard to ignore him as he segued into ‘What a Wonderful World’. We pulled up at 42nd St. and he merrily bounced off. I returned to reading The Spectator.

‘Are you Jewish?’ A young bearded, Hasidic Jew, his black hat crumpling in the rain like papier-mâché, asked me as I left the subway station at 14th St. ‘No, sorry, I’m not,’ unsure why I was apologetic. He just looked sad and said, ‘Okay, have a nice day.’

Nice day. It’d been raining for at least ten hours, probably more and I felt a rough grip in my throat and a jagged ache down my back, some evil delayed effect of jet lag. The hem of my long wool coat was prickly with wet and an Atlantic wind swept the streets as I walked into the West Village. At least here the tower blocks didn’t have double figure stories and the tourists had been scared into their hotels and the hipsters were hiding in their closets masquerading as intimate apartments. Only New Yorkers with torn umbrellas rushed down the cracked sidewalks.

I wasn’t the only Oxonian in New York. Sam—who liked to introduce himself as a novelist although I couldn’t find any of his work in Barnes and Noble—had urged to me to come into town scarcely sixteen hours after stepping off the plane at JFK and exposed me to the dubious culinary delights of an ‘authentic’ diner just south of the Lincoln Centre. However, the greatest surprise was reserved for when I was walking too fast round a bend in the Guggenheim and stumbled into Alice. We both paused and pursed our eyes (Is it…? Surely not. But it is…!), not believing that it really was the other, but her lips, as red as a burst sack of raspberries, gave it away—it could only be her.

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‘Alice!’ ‘Altair!’

We each worked out why the other was in New York and I shook hands with her frightfully reserved father who seemed to want to go back to looking at the Kandinsky’s very much.

The next day I stood on the forty-third floor of the W.R. Grace Building looking over Bryant Park and towards the Empire State Building. Despite the glare, I could see both rivers, a thin slice of New Jersey, and shimmering in the distance beyond Long Island, a sliver of the Atlantic. If you travelled for over three thousand miles you would finally reach Britain. But for now, at least, New York City was still my home.