Mean City to Big Apple I
Is it better to travel hopefully than to arrive?
JONATHAN PRYCE tells a tale of two cities—on opposite sides of the Atlantic.
Today the air is clear, but apprehension clouds my gaze into a rare bright blue sky. In just three weeks, I’ll begin my journey into the unknown: from Glasgow to New York City. Jersey City, to be specific. All part of the Big Apple, I suspect.
I pass the usual junkies and drop-outs on my way to the best public transport in the “river city”. The orange-and-brown subway seats look like 1972. It’s twelve minutes from Partick to the city centre. I emerge on Buchanan Street, ready to start my last shift in a shop I’ve called home for over two years. Along the way, I pass neds in shiny tracksuits, and pale goths wearing black. Neither group intimidates or interests me anymore. They never really did.
Along Buchanan Street, the busiest shopping street in Glasgow, the crowds are generally white and middle class. Now I’m moving to one of the most ethnically diverse cultures in the world. I’m equally excited and nervous: my thoughts play table tennis in my mind—or should I say “Ping-Pong”?
One thing that bugs me about my fellow Scots is their submissiveness, a willingness to apologise for everything and anything. Try it sometime: deliberately bang into someone on Buchanan Street—I bet they’ll say sorry first. When you work in a shop as I do, the greatest demand I get from a customer is to have their receipt placed in the bag.
So I’m critical of my fellow Glaswegians; however, on reflection, I’m becoming more and more apprehensive about life across the pond. I’m curious to see typical American behaviour. I imagine that they’re not passive the way Scots are, that I’ll have to adopt a no-bullshit New York attitude.
At long last, my final Buchanan Street shift ends. I say some emotional goodbyes to my co-workers and get ready for a final night on the razzle, if we can find some… I go to one of the few “trendy” bars available with some of my nearest and dearest. Cocktails are on special offer—not much choice from a list of three—but we get as many pitchers as we can. This is our city life: some banter with the same old people, a bit of flirting from across the room, and we’re ready to dance the night away—well, at least until 3:00 AM.
I get a text message from the new man in my life. It’s sod’s law: now that I’m on my way, I’ve just met the most amazing person, and our relationship has been developing beautifully. The irony of it all is, he moved to Scotland from New York, now I’m moving to New York from Scotland. Being a true Scot, I try to suppress my unhappiness and carry on with my fun night out. I’ll only be away for a year, at most.
I’m looking forward to seeing some of the real clubs in New York that are open all night. Two thousand people instead of 200. In contrast, Glasgow seems pretty lame, but at the moment, I truly love it. It’s home. All the regular faces are there in the club: friends, lovers, club kids and weirdos. Drinks are reasonably priced, but then again, you never do get much out of a measure. It doesn’t matter: in America I’ll be underage, and I’ll probably have more to worry about than increasing my alcohol consumption.
The walk home is a bit of a blur, but I get home safely and fall asleep talking to my man on the phone.
By the end of the week, I’m feeling a bit numb. I can’t wait to go, but I don’t feel fate has been fair to me and my new love, or my close friends. I can’t believe the final day has actually come: all my bags are packed, my room’s empty, and despite my best Scottish efforts, my emotions slowly surface—sadness, anxiety. What’s the university going to be like? Who will I possibly meet out of the 8.2 million residents in New York City?
I’m already starting to miss my Glasgow.
September: New York
My first experience on new shores isn’t what I expect. I leave one of my bags on the plane, the airport staff aren’t pleased and I get a prime example of how not to cross an American. Then I struggle to manage my luggage as I walk out of Newark Airport and into the staggering summertime heat.
I can feel the sweat on my brow increase tenfold as we drive deep into a ghetto on a whistle-stop tour of what seems to be down-and-out America, but I try to remain positive. I’m not used to seeing so many baggy trousers, rapper shirts, hi-top trainers or graffiti. I keep an open mind.
At the campus, my greeter, a fellow foreigner from Bulgaria, shows me around. The apartment is a revelation. I’m met by the smell of lingering mould, the sight of peeling wallpaper and an uncomfortable plastic mattress that certainly won’t provide an American dream.
My first night is even more of an experience. The rusty appliances don’t work and the water pressure is non-existent. The 95º heat doesn’t agree with my Scottish blood, so I go to a local grocery store to buy a desperately needed fan. The air eases my pain slightly, but after talking to my mentor, supporter, friend and lover back home, I start to have serious second thoughts.
I dearly miss him, my clean home, the smiling faces in Partick and having dry armpits. This is the pits. The staff at the university seem unwelcoming, unfriendly and—frankly—put out by my presence.
Three days later, I decide that enough is enough. As my American counterparts say, I get mad, and manage to find the head honcho, who has a far more accommodating attitude than I’ve seen previously. My message is: I get sorted or I go home. Success! A new room with air and functioning amenities.
With a good night’s sleep, running water and a shower, I’m ready to begin the real exploration of New York City. Time for some fun.
I start on 14th Street at a branch of one of my favourite, but expensive, shops back in Glasgow. To my surprise, however, prices are cheap. The merchandise is the same as in Scotland—but in place of a pound sign, there’s a dollar mark, and with the current exchange rate, it’s like walking into a 50% off sale. Plus they also have a 50% off sale on! I find shop after shop offering good-quality clothes at reasonable prices. I’m beginning to see why America has its benefits.
Over the next week, I throw myself into tourist life. I’d been advised to take the free Staten Island Ferry, which goes right past the Statue of Liberty. While waiting at the terminal, hordes of locals and tourists cram against the glass doors at the sight of the 4:30 boat. Suddenly, somewhere in the crowd, a wailing voice screeches above the chatter. Murder? I wonder.
It turns out to be a local bag lady giving us some light afternoon entertainment. As she begins her rendition of “My Heart Will Go On”, all I see is tourists from every corner of the giant room whipping out flashy cameras and camcorders.
I walk through the Manhattan financial district on another day. Far more interesting than statues, the buildings scrape the sky and the streets wind dreamily like those of an old English town. It’s all truly breathtaking.
However, it’s my walk across Brooklyn Bridge that really makes me fall in love with the city. The angular lines of the structure contrast with the perpendicular buildings covering the Lower East Side. The sun beats down on my pasty Scottish skin as I stop to take in the view and listen to a tune on my MP3 player.
I’ve developed a liking for downtown: Greenwich Village, Soho and Chinatown: backstreet shops, underground clubs, tiny bistros and vintage retailers line the streets where real New Yorkers live. Old ladies with attitude, retro-dressing artists (who must have very rich parents) and homosexuals clinging on to rent-controlled apartments for dear life. Culture.
I’m having a whale of a time, but I’m starting to really miss the people I left behind, my lover and Glasgow.
I’m drawn back to the place I was, in a way, purposely leaving behind—friendly banter with the locals, me being the king of the hill and not the new kid in town, beautiful countryside and what I see as a richer culture. I’ve never been an at home person and so I don’t necessarily miss my old flat, but I miss home.
The time comes to stock up with food. It should be simple enough—my priorities are juice, fruit and bread—but I quickly discover that cultural differences affect even something as fundamental as shopping for groceries. It seems impossible to buy quantities for a single person, and the only available bread comes with added butter, cheese or peanut butter flavouring. Who actually buys this stuff?
Although New York is supposed to be the eleventh thinnest state in the US, I can still see why a lot of Americans are overweight. On one block in Manhattan, I counted eight fast-food restaurants.
Then I notice another strange American phenomenon: mass drug company marketing. At every turn—left, right, centre, above and below—are adverts for constipation, energy levels and fitness. Pharmacy chains dominate every street corner. The American population is bombarded with unhealthy food, and then told they have to buy some pills to help them lose the weight. It doesn’t add up to me.
In an attempt to escape the world of McEverything, I went to my first yoga class, seeking inner peace. One thing I’m beginning to love about this city is its ability to surprise me. One minute I can be standing in mid-town New York with busy yellow taxis buzzing all around me, the next I’m inside a sanctuary. The class changes everything—I’m at peace. I leave the building feeling like a new person, viewing the city with new eyes.
I’ve arrived once again, but this time, the city I had dreamt of emerges. Perhaps that’s why it’s named twice: New York, New York. You have to find the one that works for you.
Jonathan Pryce is a native of Kilmacolm who moved to Glasgow two years ago where he is enrolled at Strathclyde University for Marketing and Economics. He is currently doing an exchange course at St. Peter’s College, Jersey City, NJ/NYC.