My friend and I watched The Bonfire of the Vanities at El Museo del Barrio on 104th Street. We were up on the balcony, and as the theater darkened, I saw a frail man in a white suit holding a cane with wolf’s head on it take his seat. Tom Wolfe was here for the premiere.
This was my first live opera and I have to admit, I didn’t much care for it. I thought the story would have worked better as a musical instead of an opera, and I found it odd to see an African American lawyer belting out the high notes of an aria. Her voice was deep and pure and demanded the mellow tones of blues, not the sustained pitch of an operatic song. It didn’t help that the words seemed like dialogue set to music, making the opera clunky and amateurish as a result. It certainly wasn’t as poetic as I expected.
It was nevertheless exhilarating. I don’t know if El Museo del Barrio counts as off-Broadway, but I’m going to let myself believe that it is, and that I was at the premiere of a play, however little I enjoyed that play. My friend and I even started up a conversation with some of the audience—not something that you can do so easily in Pakistan.
By the time the show ended, it was close to ten and hunger drove the two of us outside. The street was quiet, the only cars those of the audience as they gradually left the theater. Across from the museum was a bus stop and we crossed the street to wait for a bus. Behind us, Central Park was a dark chasm of trees blocking out the stars in the night sky. The air was chilly—it was October in New York, but the trees weren’t shedding yet, so the streets were pretty clean. We were heading towards Times Square. A prominent Pakistani artist’s work, Shazia Sikander’s art, was going to be flashed on the screens around Times Square at midnight.
Even at eleven at night, Times Square was bustling with people. We missed the vendors who were wrapping up their stalls by the time we got there, so we got sandwiches from the Hard Rock Cafe and sat down to watch people as they walked by. New York is truly a melting pot. Times Square was a better play than The Bonfire of the Vanities. People from all over the world were walking by, often dressed in their indigenous clothes. I saw saris, sarongs, exquisitely embroidered and printed fabrics, shawls and capes and funny headdresses. Families were milling around, walking slowly in the night air. If there were any native New Yorkers among the crowd, they were also relaxed and unhurried.
When Shazia’s art flashed across the screens, there was a moment when everyone looked up. She had created digitally animated drawings, in an exhibition called Gopi-Contagion. It looked like giant swarms of insects crawling across the buildings, and lasted only three minutes. I felt myself swell with pride at the thought of a Pakistani artist’s achievements. She had crossed an ocean and three continents to have her drawings exhibited in one of the most crowded squares in the world (the exhibition ran for the entire month of October).
If we had gone home right then, I would have been satisfied with the day. But we had one more stop to make. My friend had struck up a conversation with a neighbour at El Museo, who directed us to Grand Central Station. On the first floor of the station was a small club, a dark, dingy space reminiscent of a nightclub from the twenties. There was a live band playing jazz softly in the background and lush, comfortable sofas placed randomly around a bar—this was Campbell’s Apartment.
At one in the morning, I shared an exquisite cheesecake and a bottle of wine with my friend; we were seated on a sectional next to three men and another woman. They were Argentinians, visiting a friend in the city. They were curious about us. Both my friend and I were from Pakistan, we were Muslims (all of which came out in polite conversation), and we were drinking. In the two months the I spent in the States, I’ve realised that people know almost nothing about Muslims, even less about Pakistan. The impression is that all Muslims were faithful to the tenets, all the tenets, of Islam. That’s not really the case. I suppose, for the most part, Muslims are diligent in following their faith, but we struggle with religious doctrines as they exist today, just like anyone else. Some of us drink, leave our heads uncovered, don’t pray five times a day and don’t fast during Ramzan. I even know some people who don’t pay zakat (a charitable donation required to be made to anyone deserving of it, usually in the first week of Ramzan, though you’re free to pay it as you can. Zakat is mandatory for anyone who has the funds). Take it from me, we’re not aliens!
It was a lovely end to a full day. I fully expected, the next morning, to be aching and groaning from the distances I had walked. As it turned out, I was riding on a sustained wave of adrenalin, because the next morning, my friend and I walked down to Penn Station. She had a wedding to attend in New Jersey and was leaving me to my own devices for the day. We didn’t know that Penn Station was underground and had a bitch of a time trying to find it. My GPS reliably informed me, on several street corners, that we were at Penn Station, but we needed directions from a couple of NYPD cops (ironically, not caucasians, and not very fluent in English) to actually find the station. I have to say, everything about Penn Station confused me. There were so many gates, so many counters, and so many exits that I was bewildered. Once my friend had finally found the right counter and the right gate, it took me a while to navigate my way out.
I came out on 34th Street and started walking, almost randomly. I wanted to get to Central Park, and almost boarded a bus several times, but in the end, I walked all the way to 59th Street. I was on the Avenue of the Americas, and along the way, I saw people in costume heading towards Comic Con—I hadn’t managed to get tickets, or I would have been there myself. It was a treat to see Klingons walking through the throngs of New York’s streets, but they disappeared as I got closer to Central Park. I noticed that the people there were more formally dressed, perhaps because, all around me were the headquarters of the nation’s TV channels—Fox, NBC and CBS (from what I could tell. There might have been more).
As I walked past the CBS building, the most heavenly fragrances of grilled meat wafted through the air. The boundary around the building was dotted with people carrying styrofoam plates and boxes filled with rice and meat—I had stumbled onto the Halal Guys, purely by accident.
And there I was, lounging in Central Park with great food and a drink, back to people-watching, on a gorgeous fall afternoon. And I called my ex-husband and told him all about my day in New York.
Central Park was relaxing, a stark contrast to the frenetic pace of the day before, and I maintained the slower pace as I headed towards the Metropolitan Museum. This time, I wasn’t going to rush. I had the whole afternoon, and I was going to spend it in the midst of beauty. My only regret at the Met was that I had to dump the remainder of my lunch in the trash—no food allowed in the Museum.
I am not going to describe my walk through the Met. I leave you instead with a gallery of some of the finest art in the world.
On my way home, I stopped to have a cigarette under a bridge (I think on FDR, though I can’t be sure), and to warm up a little. A homeless man was sleeping there, and when he saw me standing there, he asked me for a cigarette. I crouched down next to him, and we watched the passing traffic in companionable silence, only the glow of our cigarettes interrupting the dark corner that sheltered us from the biting wind of the night. I never asked his name, he didn’t ask for mine. He had been sleeping on a thick mattress, covered in a quilt that looked soft, if a little dirty. The area under the bridge was relatively clean—compared to a similar ‘under the bridge’ area in Karachi, it looked spotless. The moon was out and we were by the water. I was half a block away from home.
As a final memory of New York, it was peaceful. Not a word normally equated with that city, but that’s what I left with, long walks among diverse crowds, inspiring art, families in the park, a buzzing energy during the day, and twinkling lights across the water at night.
Good old New York.
(Part II of my trip to New York; Part I here.)