Ah, finally in New York, the city of superlatives, as they say, the most diverse metropolis ever. I suppose no one has ever said it better than Jan Morris in her luminous Manhattan ’45, a title the author chose because it sounds ‘partly like a kind of gun, and partly like champagne’. Here she is right off the bat, in her prologue: ‘Untouched by the war the men had left behind them, they stood there metal-clad, steel-ribbed, glass-shrouded, colossal and romantic — everything that America seemed to represent in a world of loss and ruin.’
Morris is writing about the returning Yankee soldiers encountering the Manhattan skyline from their ships steaming into New York harbour. The same Manhattan an 11-year-old me came face to face with as I got off a TWA super constellation and was driven to the magic isle. Gone was the austere and dilapidated traffic of old European cities — my mother and I had stopped in Rome, Paris and London on the way — here were gleaming, bright-painted cars, Packards, Cadillacs, Buicks and De Sotos, and I remember calling them out by name until I was told to cool it for a while. What was hard to fathom were the outdoor advertisements, emblazoned across every building on the way in from the airport, signs that didn’t evoke death, as political posters did back in Athens, but signalling the boom times coming. Buy and you’ll be happy forever, and although I outgrew the ads rather quickly, it seems not many of the natives have.
Mind you, the natives sure have changed. Not only in the colour of their skin and their clothes, but in the manner in which they interact. For example: New York today is full of self-involved bloggers, solipsistic texters, mobile-phone fanatics, all narrowly missing each other as they make their way to work, back from work, to an assignation, or even after an assignation.