We’ve just come back from a month in New York. I still can’t believe we’ve been and gone. It all happened so fast. One day I said it’s not fair that they’re taking you away from Ellie for a month when she’s so small. The next day I said yes, yes I’d like to go with you. A few days later I was boarding a plane with a three-month-old, wondering if I was a bit mad, and had I remembered to pack underwear for myself?
But once we landed, as we drove over the East River into Manhattan, and I saw that skyline, the one I had seen in films and on TV and read about in books, lit up magically against dark blue, I knew I wasn’t mad, just very very lucky.
The next day it rained. Not London rain, misty and wet but essentially manageable. It was a torrential downpour. I had not packed for torrential rain. In my head, New York in May was sunny with a slight chill in the air. Perfect for wandering through Central Park with Ellie and a coffee. In my head, New York was not awash.
But I had not travelled three thousand miles to sit in an apartment, moping. So I braved the downpour with Ellie, and it was so very wet, and loud, and everyone walked so fast. I’ve worked and lived in London for ten years, you’d think I could handle fast. But no-one cuts up a pavement like a New Yorker.
I had the pram in one hand, and was doing battle with the door to a shop in the other. Could I get it open enough to get the pram through? Could I hell. I was drenched. And tired. And fed up. Did I mention I was wet through? And then a cab stopped, and a man got out of the back, and opened the door for me, and wished me and “the little lady” a good day. He got back in the cab, and it drove off.
And just like that, New York, I love you.
One day I sat in a coffee shop for an hour or two, people watching. I saw all sorts of people in the queue: tourists; locals; people whose stories I made up; people who stopped to talk to us. In the (long) queue there was a girl, wearing three-quarter length trousers and who had perfect, swishy hair. She was looking at a map, confused, turning it around. Behind her was a nervous looking guy with glasses, who kept looking at his feet.
“I’m trying to find Greenwich Street”, she said to him. “Can you help me?”
His ears burned bright red. “Uh…yes. Sure Um…” and he looked at her map, and stumbled over the directions.
“Thank you”. She smiled at him, and he looked like a rabbit caught in headlights. “Do you live round here?”
And they talked all the way to the front of the queue, her easy, natural, him looking like he thought this was a cosmic joke, but relaxing into it, stumbling less.
Her order was called. He looked crestfallen, she was going to leave.
Fate stepped in. They’d made her the wrong coffee. He got a few more minutes with her. And when finally, they both had their coffees, they stood around, talking some more, not quite saying goodbye.
“I’d better go…I have a… thing”
“Yes, yes. Of course”.
“ASK FOR HER PHONE NUMBER” I willed him.
“It was lovely to meet you” she said.
And she walked away. He watched her leave, his coffee forgotten.
“YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO RUN AFTER HER!” I shouted in my head. Ellie gave me one of her Looks, as though to remind me that life isn’t a rom com, and that I shouldn’t eavesdrop.
And he looked at me, and I looked at the door, and he exhaled, and he walked out of the coffee shop. In the direction of Greenwich Street.
I have no idea if he caught up with her. I hope he did.
We walked, Ellie and I, up and down Manhattan, through parks, along streets, stopping to look in shop windows, eating pretzels, drinking coffee. We took the subway, with its rickety trains. We walked the High Line, that beautiful belt of green high above the industrial wasteland of Tenth Avenue. The blossom was out. We walked across the Brooklyn Bridge with Catherine (who rescued various pieces of Ellie’s clothing that flew off in the wind) and ate icecream with chocolate sauce. We saw the Statue of Liberty with Gemma, who’s quote “is that it? It’s kind of…small” was bettered only by me thinking that the lady giving out the Ellis Island audio tour headpieces with the big badge saying “ANTENNA” was actually called Antenna.
So yes, there were sights. But mostly, Ellie and I, our time was spent getting to know our neighbourhood, discovering where the best bagels were, waking and walking and walking, up and down and across, round the tip of lower Manhattan, along the harbour, through East Village and Tribeca and SoHo and Little Italy and all the places I’d read about in books and wanted to know what they looked like, how they smelled, how they felt.
It’s different, visiting a place with a baby. It takes more planning, yes, but it’s not as limiting as I’d assumed. More people talk to you. People are kinder. You walk slower, and you take more in.
We’d just strolled through Central Park and were on our way to the Peninsula Hotel, to meet some friends who’d just got married. I wanted to show Ellie the skyline from up close. My feet hurt, so we decided to get the bus.
There was a huge guy sitting two seats down from us. He was enormous – the width of two people. And looked terrifying. He had one ear entirely pierced, and had a black eye, and cornrows, and was wearing a vest. I had Ellie in my lap, and he kept looking at her. I pulled her closer, and turned away. Four more blocks, I kept thinking. Two more blocks.
He leaned over. I shrank away. He said something.
“The tag. From her hat. It’s covering her eye. She can’t see”
He smiled at me, and got up to leave. His vest said “Big Daddy”.
That taught me.
We came through security at the airport, on our way home. In America, security is a megatron faff. Running the show was a woman, I’d say in her fifties, barking at her staff, keeping the lines moving, following procedure and protocol to the letter.
We eventually got through, and the woman pulled me aside.
“It’s procedure, ma’am, for all passengers travelling with a baby. We need to dust your hands for explosives”
Ellie turned her head to face her. The woman’s face transformed.
“Oh sweet angel of mercy. That is the most beautiful baby I have ever seen!”
“I never had kids. Couldn’t. But this one, she’s beautiful”
“Thank you. Thank you so much”. I didn’t know what else to say, so I smiled, and started collecting my bags.
“It’s the luck of the draw, kids, isn’t it?”
I wanted to say no, no it’s not. But in some ways, it really, really is.