New York... A City on the Fast Lane

03 Apr 2013

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Adeola Akinremi visited New York city and writes about the metropolis, its culture and people.

I followed Alicia Keys (the famous American singer) to New York. She suddenly appeared in our living room one sunny afternoon.

My wife saw her before I did. She heard her voice and called out to me from our bedroom.

I joined them and the journey began. It was a quick and short journey that lasted for about 20 minutes in which there was no take-off or landing.

During that trip, she talked about her growing up in a town famous on movie scenes, where noise is always loud with sirens all around and the streets are mean. She hoped that one day she would see her face in lights or her name in marquees found down the Broadway. For Keys, New York is a concrete jungle where dreams are made and there's nothing one can't do, where mere streets will make one feel brand new and big lights will inspire another.

On the avenues, she told me there is never a curfew, where ladies work so hard on the corner selling rock, while preachers pray to God and it is easy to hail a gipsy cab, for a quick journey from Harlem to the Brooklyn Bridge where someone sleeps daily with a hunger far more than an empty fridge.

As I stepped off my flight from Lagos to New York at John F. Kennedy International Airport last Sunday, the lyrics of Alicia Keys’ ‘New York’ rushed through the tunnel of my mind. And as my yellow cab meandered through Queens Boulevard and finally arrived at my hotel on 47th Street in Midtown Manhattan, the image of New York that had formed in my mind became real and more real to me. The city of lights. Yes!

In March 2003, I was scheduled to speak at a counter-marketing meeting of the United Nations.  My accommodation was booked at the ONE UN New York, formerly Millennium UN Plaza Hotel; a quiet haven nestled on the eastern edge of Manhattan’s fashionable midtown neighbourhood and located across one of the world’s great landmarks, the headquarters of the United Nations.  This luxury hotel is just steps from Grand Central Terminal; close to the Theatre District, renowned restaurants and world-class shopping malls. But I never slept there. 

The US Embassy in Nigeria denied me that first opportunity to see the New York City, although I have seen many other cities in countries of Africa, Asia, Europe and South America prior to that time.  The embassy would not issue me the visa for flimsy excuse of a social tie, not clearly defined. In a similar way, in 2004, a friend, an American who lives in Jamestown had invited me to speak to inspire the high school students in Chautauqua County, but again that was never to be with another round of visa denial. For seven years, I was denied American visa.

So, when I eventually had my first trip to the United States, New York City had been taken away from its first position to about 10th in the number of cities I had visited in the United States.

But for New York City, something was poignant as I arrived in the city reputed to be on a fast lane. It was the way tourists thronged the city from all continents, despite it being expensive.

As expected, the busiest part of the Manhattan area is the 7th Avenue where the Broadway is the main attraction.
Broadway is the creative and emotional core of Times Square. It is there the urges, fears and dreams of America are interpreted, represented and performed for the world to see. On Broadway, there is neither day nor night; the flurry activities of the movie goers and the tour shoppers; the glittering screens that keep the eyes rolling; the struggle for one minute of fame on the large-wall-screens; and the exodus from east to west of the street. From one end to another, there is always a loud shout: “Tickets!”.

The street corridors have vendors, mostly Africans from Francophone countries dressed in green coats with big signboards strapped around their necks displaying current movies in the theatres or ones that have been scheduled to be screened.
  The vendors moved around with speed and hardly had time to point you to the right direction or help with your cameras in case you wanted a picture. They had a simple allegiance to their work.

I could easily understand why majority of the vendors were from Francophone African countries. The first sets of immigrants from Africa in New York were Malians and of course, the knowledge of a second language such as French is as important to sales either around the theatres or in the big shops.

On Broadway, with the click of a camera, one could capture a thousand images; from a naked cow girl who posed with tourists for money and cops whose eyes go to-and-fro to ensure maximum security.

  It is often difficult to separate Times Square from the Broadway. It is Times Square that connects everything on 7th Avenue.

For over a century, Times Square has been both a magnet for theatrical talent and audiences and a slingshot shooting out new elements of popular culture to the smallest towns across America. It has become a place for fusion of cultures and legends. Perhaps the reason Felabration( a musical show in celebration of the life of the late Afrobeat legend, Fela Anikulapo-Kuti)  was an instant hit when it was screened on Broadway last year. Times Square has moved from stage to screen and music hall and back again. But one constant thing is its representation of the dreams and determination of creative spirit.

Times Square equally has an annual ritual which brings millions of people together on the eve of a new year to make wishes written on a small paper and pasted on a ‘Whishing Wall’ for a memorial. I found some of the wishes so emotional which once more reveal the minds of the 'congregants' on Broadway. For instance, one person wrote: “For a happy and united family who shares laugh.” Another one was like it: “My son and his mom to come home. I still love you.”

Others wrote: “To find an amazing husband, respectful and honest.”; “A world full of love and not rubbish”; and “I wish to finally meet the love of my life; that’s all I’m missing.”

Inside one of the theatres, the story of Times Square itself is etched on a wall. It reads in part: “Ever since 1904 when Longacre was renamed Times Square after The New York Times’ new headquarters at 42nd Avenue and Broadway, this vibrant place has been a reflection of our country and our city, our creativity, our commerce and our culture. It has defined at different times what people love and hate about America, about New York and about cities themselves.

"It has been a mirror where we see ourselves: our deepest desires and dreams, our fantasies and our fears. It is where we remember and where we forget and where we discover and define a bit more about ourselves. "These elements have been constant for over a century in a place that, like New York itself, ever changing, ever elusive, and never, ever dull. This is where modern America was invented, refined, reported and recast.”

The 5th Avenue, where the iconic Rockefeller Centre dub Top of the Rock sits with some other big shops,  is a mecca of sort.
The East 42nd street, which connects Madison, Lexington and 3rd Avenues, has the Grand Central Station where people can connect to Harlem and Brooklyn Bridge.

I did not go to Harlem because I had read a lot about Harlem. I couldn’t resist the urge to visit Brooklyn and its famous bridge. On New York East River, Brooklyn bridge links Manhattan with Brooklyn. The urge to visit Brooklyn was more than the bridge; it was about the story of culture export from Africa, Mali in particular. Polygamy thrives in Brooklyn where a man lives with two wives in a house, though the American law forbids that.  A few people, who spoke to me, said they are done in secret with great understanding between the first and second wives. The New York Times reported one incident, with a screaming headline: “Polygamy follows Africans to New York.”  Often those who practise it cite Islamic precepts allowing a man to have up to four wives and African custom, not American law of marriage.

Back in my room between 2nd and 3rd avenues, I gazed at the ceiling and the image of New York drivers I had seen during the day came back on my face.

The yellow cabs in New York stop just anywhere to pick passengers and drop them off. They hardly have regard for the Zebra crossing and it is as if something is running after them or they are running after something while waiting at the red light. They just want to get going without inhibition.

As he drove me to the hotel, my cab man just suddenly opened the door in the middle of the road to pour away a liquid from a bowl. I don’t have an idea what it was, but I found that nauseating in a city like New York.

I cannot forget this too, that traffic wardens also do it manually in New York, so it’s not all about automated traffic lights. You’ll see them waving their hands signaling movement or otherwise. I enjoyed the city, but on the day I left, I laughed and I laughed. A tourist from Spain told my cab driver that she was going to Las Vegas and the driver responded, “there is nothing in Las Vegas, it’s a waste of time and resources. Casino will not give you anything. It will take from you. Stay here in New York and enjoy the Broadway.”

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