New York City Travel Impression #1

Travel – A disease called “Wanderlust”

A disease called “Wanderlust”

It took me a few days to get off stress adrenaline from my life (which I’m always trying to escape), travel (24 hours in economy is not easy when you get into your forties) and then this city, New York.

How can I describe my impression of it?

At first I was taken by the sheer size of it, the skyscrapers span a few horizons doesn’t it.  Not one, but several… this I’ve never seen before, and I’ve travelled.

The next thing that glued me to the window is the architecture. I’m reminded of something and I don’t know why bits of New York reminds me of the back streets of Redfern, near Waterloo housing commission buildings.  It’s the dirt and scum I think.  We never lived in Redfern, but we had family friends who lived in the housing commission buildings in Waterloo, in the 1980’s and we used to spend all our weekends and school holidays with them.

We stayed at an Airbnb in Hells Kitchen. The first night we walked up to 7th Avenue, Times Square,  my Laylay was gob smacked… so was I.  But then there’s this voice – this teacher hippie, leftie voice –  that is shocked that I would think a city square, such as this NYC square is mesmerizing and awesome. Don’t get me wrong, I love city squares. I’ve been left speechless, mouth ajar – which is very rare – in modern and old town squares.  Places like Paris France, London UK, Prague Czechoslovaki , Colon Germany, Sydney, Australia (of course) Christ Church NZ, Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi Vietnam, Venice and Milano Italy and certainly any city center in China.

But this city square, filled with LED screens, that are used for multinational advertising. ‘OMG’, signage, after signage, for advertising. This is it! This is the glamour of this nation, its ability to sell us shit we don’t want, at prices we can’t afford.

I did the rant to Mr Dickson and Laylay, but they were busy, googly eyed at the sheer number of these flashing things. It’s like we’ve never seen screens before… Now note how I’ve used the word awesome previously, not beautiful… beautiful, I believe, should be reserved for things like nature, Sydney’s shore line, a city filled with history and culture, like Paris, Venice, London, Prague, Hanoi…

There’s nothing natural in this concrete jungle.  Not even the people, not even us.

It took a while to adjust not only to the sheer number of signage, but people, in their thousands, all googly eyed as well, at the bright reflection of these signs onto their expectant faces. Their eyes shiny, all adoring, jumping and scanning these signs, from one end of Seventh Avenue to the other. These adoring tourists, were dazed and tripping. Tourists who’ve fallen in love with American culture at the early age on naught! We, including myself, were all in a stupor, drug induced, but here the drug was consumerism, triggered by light and flashing images, promising everlasting ageless beauty and wealth.

The signs, about 55 million of them, went through a looped number of advert, some where:

An M&M animation advert doing some Red and Yellow M&M gaff,

Followed in quick succession by a Gucci flashing image of four post teen white women, eyes half lidded in some mock sexy look scantly adorned in items we can’t afford and maybe some of us shouldn’t wear.

Followed by a silently screaming, flashing, jumping, running, falling Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible.

Followed by another advert for another clothes store, with now five women, one African American (not obvious tokenism at all) walking, laughing and again eyes half lidded in some mock sexy look scantly adorned in items that we again can’t afford and maybe most of us shouldn’t be allowed to wear…

Oh and so many adverts of designer perfume, designer watches, designer jewelry, modeled by famous men and women, with eyes half lidded in mock sexy…

You get the idea…

I neglected to note if there was an advert promoting a non for profit, or an ideal or a charity.

Of course, some signage was dedicated to NY based TV shows, channels, news, panels, comedies, Wall Street trading, news tags and headlines. I doubt many of us noted these and in my horror realization, I myself, leftie teacher, was now watching myself hooked on consumer advertising. My face, was bathed in LED light, and I was finally in NYC, a place Mr Dickson had been trying to take me to, for a very long time and I was still not impressed, but for a few seconds in Times Square, sensibility left me and I was riveted. Dazed in an LED light stupor, we reluctantly decided to stumble back to our share apartment in Hells Kitchen.

The next morning, we woke up early at 5 am, it was natural because it’s 3 pm back home. Mr Dickson had to go to work, which meant Laylay and I had hours to fill. By that day, Wednesday morning, I had not slept for four nights in a row.  Packed with water and sunscreen for me, we started our walk looking for a coffee and breakfast. I’ve been warned coffee in New York city was going to be disappointing.  Having said that, I fluked it and found a 2dollar coffee, 2dollar sandwich, 2dollar everything.

Cheapo me loved the idea.  Bought the coffee, eggs and cheese bagels, that was a hit, with me, of course.

Laylay didn’t like that idea, she was chomping at the bit for a Starbucks frappe… the conversation went something like:

Mum this is what you do when you go to NYC.

Is that it, Starbucks, really bub?

Yes mum, you really don’t know and don’t understand.

You just want to take a photo and put it on Instagram my instababy.

Nooooo… (followed by a sheepish laugh).

But you will take a photo of the frappe in Starbucks.

Yeaaah.

At that, I might have rolled my eyes. Apparently I really don’t know, because in NYC you have to buy a Canadian franchised coffee  and take a photo of it to send to besties via Instagram chat, not on the public Instagram profile.

Sigh, teens are not predictable at all… I didn’t listen to Laylay. Starbucks will have to wait another day.

As we walked, I’m amazed by this city,  the planning of it, how accessible it is.  I’m impressed, I think I might start to like it.  We get to Madison avenue,  now I’m not sure if you ever watched Madmen,  it’s a must watch.  I’ve binge watched it twice.  It’s about advertising agencies in the 60s. The hypocrisy of white rich men,  the struggle of women to climb any career ladder.  Set against real historical events.  I watched it most recently with Laylay,  heavily censored of course. It gives a good insight into human motivations and sometimes can be gritty and real about modern society. Anyhow, we walked down the avenue,  hoping to glimpse a bit of our flawed protagonist, Don Draper walking past us… in our dreams that is. Bored by the number of store fronts, that look familiar to any Sydney store fronts, we decide to take a break at Madison square park. We both ran eagerly into the park, and it was that we suddenly discovered that it was the first bit of green since we arrived on Manhattan Island.

After a while of silly banter Laylay went quiet. Laylay has a turn of voice when she’s being somber. She had it then when she gave me an observation:

Mum, did you notice something in New York? All the workers, they’re not white, but they are either African American or speak Spanish…

I was floored and proud at the same time.  Floored at the fact she recognised inequity and how it’s somehow to do with skin colour. Proud that she recognised it without me pointing it out.  Was I like that? Or did I recognise something different? That I had the skin colour that always gave me an easy passport into middle class Western world.  I was also gawked at as a child living in Saudi Arabia.  I had girlfriends cut stands of my bleach blond highlights, courtesy of the hours spent swimming in our Saudi pool under the desert sun. I knew white privilege, and always stepped in and out of it as I wished.  Until the headscarf, but that’s another story all together.

Unlike Laylay ‘s empathy as a child, I was not empathetic.  In Arabia, places where I’ve grown up or visited like Saudi and Jordan, they had the same divide.  To be black meant you were a slave, the word for black is Abed. The a is the sound that comes from the back of the throat and looks like a turned 3, 3abed, for slave.  The word Abed is attached within religious names like Abdallah, or Abdelrahman, meaning slave of god, or slave of the merciful (again god). However, the Arabic language did not remove the association of the word slave and black.

I’m ashamed because I’ve always felt lucky growing up, lucky that my family, who was an Arabic extraction were considered Westerners on the account that we had an Australian passport. I also felt lucky, no, relieved, that I looked white, not olive skinned like some of my siblings or cousins, not darker than olive skin and certainly not brown nor black. Because at a very young age, I understood that skin colour somehow managed to create a social and socioeconomic divide.

How do children know this? Are we breasted this knowledge? How is it that we created this social inequity, all to do with skin colour!

I didn’t tell Laylay all of that.  Laylay is a different generation to mine.  She goes to a school in Sydney’s inner-city, that is so multicultural that you can play “spot the white kid”. A school where her best friends are Pacifica and African girls.  Layalay, unlike me, recognized the inequity without much prompting by her parent.

Thank you NSW Public Education!

Laylay thinks skin colour should be dark, not white.  Laylay refuses to wear sunscreen, until we have a fight.  She criticises me over my skin colour. I laugh…

Laylay saw this inequity, this colour divide, that meant the men in NYC council or city worker shirts taking out the garden chairs for people, white and tourist and thought it sad and unfair. She took notice of the men and women at the serving counters, or on the streets selling NYC cruise deals under the sun. I had to explain why, I did a history lesson then, about slavery, and its impact on African Americans until today.  How after the civil war, they were free, but segregation was enforced. I have been remiss in my daughter’s education, I’ve neglected to teach her American history, and purposely.  I wanted her to learn Australian, Arabic, European, Asian history.  I grew up knowing American history (through their films, music, popular culture) and I was really embarrassed as a teen, when I had no idea about Australian history. I also had to draw a link between American history of slavery and Australia’s history of white colonization of Aborigines… the mood changed to serious and reflective.

At this point, I’m still not sure about this city.  The sirens go off every few minutes, the people are a lot and the streets are wet and dirty and the only bit of green so far is in parks and gardens.  Not sure at all.

I think I might have been missing the greenery and I might have been missing home. I’ve never travelled and missed home so early on in a trip. This was strange.

Enough pontificating. I’m so sorry, but I’m a teacher and I can’t help it.

More on the next post.