It happened a little past 10 am on a Monday morning, a minute after I brushed past Hollywood star Christian Slater near the apartment I was living in. That’s when it finally sank in: I was on the mythical streets of America.
The feeling hadn’t hit during the direct flight from Mumbai to JFK. As I got ready to step off the massive aircraft that brought me to New York City, I looked around to see middle-aged women smile, young students look around in awe, and elderly Indian men scratch beards in feigned nonchalance, all in response to the pilot’s clipped ‘Welcome to the United States.’
What did hit me at once was the weather. It was like waking from a long night’s sleep and having one’s head dunked into a bucket of cold water. The air cut through what I assumed was a warm jacket, reaching under my arms and shaking me — as if laughing at what the jacket cost, knowing how ineffective its impressive price tag would be when confronting the New York elements. And then, the car jumped into traffic, the Manhattan skyline loomed, and a great many sitcoms jumped to life around me.
It was a tribute to the sheer power of American television that a whole new culture had been made so decipherable across continents. Nothing surprised me, the first-time visitor — not the NY taxicabs, not delis strewn across every street, not street signs that read ’43 W’ and ’24th St’, not the blue NYPD vehicles or hot-dog vendors, their carts smoking at every curb.
My apartment, in the heart of Manhattan, had a concierge who gave me the once-over as I stepped across his line. There was — a huge surprise, this — the pervasive smell of Indian cooking emanating from one of the studio apartments on my floor. Outside, the Empire State Building vanished into fog, twinkling lights playing hide-and-seek with the clouds.
For a first-time visitor, America can be somewhat unreal. The culprit is, more often than not, an overwhelming sense of deja vu. Everywhere you turn lies a cultural reference from your youth. Let’s say, for instance, you find yourself walking down Jones Street, in — talk about names that don’t quite fit — the Village. The friend you’re with turns to you and says, casually, ‘The cover image of Bob Dylan’s second album was photographed here.’ Or, say you fancy a stroll down 23rd Street, between Seventh and Eighth, and find the Chelsea Hotel that was home, at some point or another, to Mark Twain, Leonard Cohen, Simone de Beauvoir, Stanley Kubrick and Andy Warhol.
Again, it’s the cultural references that make this unusual. In my hometown of Mumbai, sellers of paan sit uncomfortably, and nonchalantly, close to sites that have yielded Paleolithic stone implements. In America, it’s pop culture that makes a bigger impact. Like recognizing 34th Street, where I lived at the time, from its special place in Hollywood movies about Christmas.
There were other things that seemed quintessentially American — things that reinforced one’s sense of being immersed in a culture distinctly alien from one’s own. I stepped into a comedy club one night, for instance, and shook my head in disbelief as the comic on stage proudly held on to a unique rule: Nothing was sacred. From racism to the attitudes of the English, dead celebrities to — gasp! — his country’s President! What I liked best was everyone laughed, and laughed hardest when the joke was on them.
Restaurants I visited for lunch would transform into settings from big-budget movies of the past. I would turn street corners to be reminded of iconic movie scenes. On every second street were buildings entrenched in the minds of cinemagoers worldwide. In my second week, a woman I ran into looking for directions turned out to be the actress Jessica Lange. At a restaurant in my office building, Denzel Washington nonchalantly shot for his next big release. I stepped outside for a cup of coffee, only to find a dashing Colin Firth standing a few feet away, ready for another shoot. Whenever these things happened, a neon sign in my mind would begin to flash: ‘Only in America!’
And for every high note, there were balancing moments of sobriety. Like the time I took a ride in a sleek, black limousine — that picked me up outside my apartment and carried me across the Hudson to New Jersey, stopping politely whenever I expressed a desire to click yet another photograph of the world’s most famous skyline.
“We can no longer ignore India,” said Billy, the car’s owner and my designated driver, on our trip back. He went on to tell me about people who abused the system. People who spent all their time finding loopholes through which they could spin hoops. “When one person screws up, the whole community is labeled,” he added. In that car with him, far from debates on television, his point of view suddenly made sense.
When Thanksgiving rolled up, I knew it was going to be big. A week in advance, the crowds gathered near Macy’s. Those ubiquitous four-letter words made their presence felt at every turn: SALE.
Invited to a traditional Thanksgiving dinner by an American family in Glendale, New Jersey, I accepted with trepidation. When it was over and done with, I realized Thanksgiving simply acted as a fabulous excuse for family and friends to get together. Like Diwali. Or a cousin’s birthday: Relatives pouring in, everyone helping in the kitchen, teenagers lounging before a television, men discussing football in great detail, and smiles all around. I loved every minute.
The thing about the world’s big cities is, they can be lonely places to be in. They look down upon you, glass eyes and steel arms, complacent in their bright, shiny, silence. They say nothing when you walk down their bustling streets, your heart quiet in its shell in the midst of the chaos outside. That is when you are confronted, for a period of time, with no one but yourself.
Ultimately, I left America with a sense of disquiet. I had been given a peek into something that drove millions each year to bid farewell to the lands of their birth, and venture forth anchorless in the hope of a few dollars more. It made me understand my own city a lot better, famous as it is for attracting people from across India each week, hope in their eyes.
The biggest thing that peek into the life of one of the world’s great cities gave me, was perspective. Walking down Times Square — the crossroads of the world, they call it — the faceless crowd and I looked up, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, at the wonder that man had created.
The more different we appeared to be, the more some things stayed the same.