I lived just across the Hudson from New York for several years, and have always found Manhattan a uniquely exciting place. I have a particular fondness for the Big Apple too, because my son was born here and my wife and I spent many happy days here. We plotted our marriage on the back of napkins in a cafe in the East Village.
One of the places we frequented was the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Met. We used to drive through the Lincoln Tunnel from Weehawken on a Sunday morning, and in less than a quarter of an hour would be parked up on Central Park. We would have breakfast, hit the Met before the crowds arrived and then spend some time wandering around Central Park.
The Met is one of my favourite museums in the world, maybe my most favourite. The scale and range of the work there is fabulous, and the special exhibitions are always delightfully curated. When I visited they had exhibitions of the work of George Caleb Bingham and John Singer Sargent.
One of the things I really noticed in the Met was the sheer volume of photographs visitors take - and I was no exception. The Internet age has rendered it possible to capture every thing we see, hear or even think in a digital format. In fact it is one of the defining features of New York for me, and noticeably more so than when I lived here. People are continually photographing everything, frequently selfies of themselves. In one store where I purchased something for which there were no instructions, the staff recommended I photograph the display ad which contained a summary of the instructions. It is an eveyday assumption that people have something on their person to take pictures with. Normally, these days it is a smartphone.
I did some work for Canon a while ago, and one of the issues they face is that, despite the ever-increasing number of photos being taken, fewer cameras are being bought. Just as a whole industry associated with film cameras has all but disappeared, so too is the market for dedicated cameras shrinking. The barriers to entering the smartphone market are huge since it is all tied in with telecom providers, as Microsoft found when it tried to muscle in.
Talking of photography, I managed to catch up with an old friend, Rob Hann, who makes a living as a photographer. He uses an old Mamiya and traditional film to take some amazing photos of an America I will be visiting on my travels. Check out his incredible pictures here. He runs a stall when the weather permits in Greenwich Village and we had a good long chat until I realised I was distracting him from his clientele.
Apart from taking photographs, native New Yorkers spend an inordinate amount of time on the phone. This makes navigating the pavements perilous - particularly if they are using an umbrella as the speak. Americans also have a particular skill in projecting their voices, so it is impossible not to catch snippets of conversation. "When you shut out those... [pause] voices", "The apartment is crawling with cockroaches", "I mean, yea, really, like, well - yea", "So your daughter is a lesbian". All heard in one day out on the sidewalks of Manhattan.
New York is a fabulous place to be a dog. There are dog pens everywhere, and dogs get to meet their pals there on at least a twice daily basis. They also have the option of going to a dog spa and dog manicurist and a whole bunch of other services available for the beloved pooches.
Dogs are not as common amongst the homeless as they are in France, but many do have them - one homeless couple I saw near Grand Central Station even had a cat on a lead. However the sheer volume of homeless and destitute people on the streets of new York is horrendous. The worst of it is how many are clearly infirm, vulnerable or mentally damaged.
Not that the first foot on the housing ladder is easy to get on. I read in the papers that invitations were available for a lottery for affordable housing in Midtown Manhattan. I guess thousands will apply for the handful of homes, with strict income limits intended to make sure only relatively low paid get these apartments in what is maybe the most desirable neighbourhood in the world to live. A two bedroom apartment would require you to earn around $40-$50,000 a year, which works out several times more than the minimum wage so many New Yorkers survive on.
But interestingly, I came to the USA on this visit expecting to be wowed by how cheap things are, but the reverse has been the case - at least in Manhattan. As a resident I am sure you can do things more inexpensively, but on the whole the prices seem much higher than in say, the Netherlands, where we lived most recently - typically drug store prices are double or more what the same items would cost in a Dutch mall. I would even go so far as to say more expensive than Switzerland. The Met cost $25 with limited concessions and I never saw a glass of wine for sale for less than around $10 once you add tax and the tip. And tipping is NOT discretionary anywhere that it is expected, with checks helpfully suggesting the amount a tip of 20% or more would represent.
It is always hard leaving New York. But I have a huge adventure ahead of me. First stop: New Jersey.