Blessed to be a witness

Wednesday, 5th October

The Perfect New York Moment

The next day we took our emergency travel money, that thankfully we had never had cause to use, and, this being the city of retail excess, blew the lot. M went off to the department stores with her cousin, while I rode the subway downtown and geeked out at the Apple computer flagship store, only just talking myself out of buying both an iPod Nano (simply amazing) and Bose speakers (ditto). All the techy excitement was too much for me, so I went outside. It was there that I had a Perfect New York Moment.

A Chinese girl was standing next to me, smoking, and an old guy came up to her. "Why are you smoking?" he demanded in that wonderful accent. She didn't reply, but I took this as my queue to light up too. I smiled at him as I did so.

"Did you know it's bad for you?" he asked me.

"Yes," I repied congenially.

"You're only fooling yaself!" he informed me.

"No I'm not, I know it's bad for me."

"You're killing yourself!" he explained.

"I know."

"Ah," he said with a classic New York dismissive downward gesture of his hand, as if I had not grasped the concept he was attempting to convey, "go to church!" and stalked off. The Chinese girl and I looked at each other and fell about laughing.

I walked a long way uptown, then took the subway again, and on board felt unaccountably nervous. It was, I suppose, due to the events in London of a few months ago, but here in a city which had already been attacked, there really didn't seem to be that much of a police presence around. Which, I suppose is laudable, in that the people won't be cowed, but it's also reassuring to know that there's someone keeping an eye on things.

For lunch I did cliché #2 and got a hotdog on the street for a mere $1.50, that was delicious. We met again at the hotel, M clutching a vast number of bags from Bloomingdale's and Macy's. That night we went out for food in Little Italy, then went to the Village for a couple of drinks. We ended up in the small hours at a gay bar with the most amazing piano player and singer, who despite his superb talent, seemed tremendously pleased that we were enjoying the music so much, and at the end of the evening pressed two of his CDs into our hands and refused to take any money for them.

Our final day was spent a trifle hungover and mooching around. We visited Ground Zero. I had been up the twin towers in 1997, and as far as I can work out, it was September 11 that year that I did it, which is odd. The scale of the disaster is so apparent there: the hole left in the ground is absolutely vast, and looking upwards at the very tall buildings around the area, one can imagine the enormity of two more, much bigger than those that remain, collapsing there. Some of the buildings around are still under repair, and the site is completely fenced off in preparation for the new project - the tallest building in the world, and possibly the tallest target too. It was very tasteful, with a few signboards around explaining the tragedy. I was particularly impressed with a globe sculpture that had survived, damaged, and will be re-mounted in the area. There was a statement from the artist saying that it now had "a new life and beauty" that was not in the original, which I found moving.

On the way back to the hotel we did cliché #3 or more and had a slice of sublime pizza, then I succumbed to the retail lure and bought the speakers. We took a limo to Newark airport with yet another insane driver - something that has been a theme of this journey - a middle-aged Venezuelan man who started taking pictures of the pollution-beautified sunset over New Jersey with his camera-phone while driving at breakneck speed in the fast lane, and then put on a CD of Japanese pop music, tremendously loud, and started dancing in the driver's seat. We sat in the back doubled up in mirth - a perfect end to our flying New York visit.

So tomorrow we will be in London, back at our friends' house from which we left back in February. Just like I experienced in Hong Kong, and the feeling that my life there was just a moment ago, I'm experiencing time slips: when I think about walking out of their front door it seems like yesterday. But then I think back to China, Tibet, Phi Phi, Australia, and all that we saw and did on the way, it feels long ago and unaccessible, and I know that the nine months in between represent a long time in experience. Even though we've come full circle, I refuse to say this is the end: the day after we get back, we're off to Italy for a wedding and a few days in Tuscany. This journey doesn't officially stop until real life, unemployment and homelessness kicks in next week, something I am currently refusing to think about. As far as I'm concerned, we're still on the road; it ain't over 'till it's over.

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