So, right. To Uncle Sam.
After junketing through Europe, I flitted across the Atlantic to Gotham. The first city on my US jaunt.
Few cities are as iconic as New York. When you think of America, you might actually be thinking about New York. Yellow taxis. Lady Liberty. NYPD. Manhattan. Hustle. The American Dream. But New York is more than iconic places. New York is an attitude.
“Most cities are nouns. New York is a verb” – John F Kennedy
You see, New York makes you feel little. And I’m not talking about skyscrapers. Your sense of belittlement comes from the realization that only you knows you are in New York. No one notices you. Sure, if you owe an NY loan shark, someone will know you are in New York. But other than for that lack of gumption, you’ll be just one in the 60 million that visit the city every year. An indistinguishable bee in a mammoth hive. But don’t take it personal. New York doesn’t hate or think little of you. It’s just too busy racking up $840bn in GDP. After all, it is the seat of American capitalism and that beast must be fed.
And New Yorkers? The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it? Everybody’s got things to do and places to be and if you get in their way, well, you’re gonna know about it. One time, my wife’s cousin, a Brooklynite, had visited us in Maryland. She couldn’t wait to get out of Maryland. She said everyone was too slow and she was losing her mind.
This was not my first visit to New York. I’d been here a couple of times. But I can never get enough of the city. In New York, interesting encounters can happen to you without warning. Once at Times Square, my wife and I ran into Beyonce a few years back. She’d stopped to watch same street performers we were watching. Some guys who were doing a Michael Jackson routine. We were no more than ten meters from her. I tried to record a video of her but one of her bodyguards was on to me like a broke cousin.
Slow down, Thanos!
I’d flown in through JFK. I’m ambivalent about JFK. It’s neither a great nor poor airport. It processes you out without a human touch. Very few smiles. Look, I’m not asking for hugs or kisses. Just some human touch. At least at Murtala Muhammed International Airport, the airport personnel smile at you and cajole you for money. That’s human touch. Personal interaction. Even if your wallet is going to be a few notes lighter afterwards.
With some of my country folks, approaching a US Custom and Border Patrol officer calls for spiritual back up. Since a visa merely allows you to travel to a port of entry and then seek admittance from a border officer, and CBP officers known to deny entry to travelers (ATL, I’m looking at you ), many Naija travellers approach these officers with meekness. At that moment, we realise we do not wrestle against flesh and blood and must summon angelic assistance. So don’t be alarmed when you see us muttering under our breath or talking to ourselves. We are engaged in spiritual warfare you best stay out of.
The CBP officials who attended to me liked my camera backpack and National Geographic carry-on. I suppose they made me look like a serious and celebrated NatGeo photographer. When I later traveled to Atlanta, A TSA officer had also complimented me on the backpack and carry-on and thanked me for all the good stuff we bring to their screen on NatGeo. I smiled demurely.
There, all you haters! I’m a National Geographic photographer!
A few mundane questions and the CBP chaps welcomed me to the US.
Ah, New York City! It’s always good to be back!
I hailed a Uber to Brooklyn. My AirBnB was in Brooklyn.
Oh, I love it in Brooklyn!
You see, Brooklyn is kind and real and can be anything you want it to be. It can be upscale. It can be “hood”. It can be homely or it can be distant. Brooklyn doesn’t take sides. Everyone is right in Brooklyn and everyone is wrong in Brooklyn.
And Brooklyn is not a black borough. It is over 44% white and about 34% black. But you find most racial colorations in the borough. Arab Americans enclave, Jewish American enclave, Latin American enclave. Even Russian Americans. Little Russia and Little Odessa around Brighton Beach.
Fancy that. “Russian American.” I suppose there would be American Russians too.
Hey, anyone knows the number of American-North Koreans in the world?
But back to Brooklyn. Brooklyn is getting gentrified however. Richer folks and more middle-class people are moving into the borough making the prices of houses soar. Often beyond the reach of most Brooklynites, especially African Americans. It’s a source of constant angst and anger. But mostly, Brooklyn loves. I feel safe in Brooklyn.
A Brooklyn encounter from many years ago.
It was my first trip to the US. I’d traveled with the missus to New York. We’d just been married and I wanted to meet some of her cousins and other family members. There were only eighteen people at our wedding and not a few family members on either side were upset at the non-invitation. So the trip was a peace-making mission. We would stay with the uncle and cousins in Brooklyn.
On our way from the airport, I had espied a Dunkin’ Donut a few blocks from the house. The next morning, I woke up early and like a good in-law proclaimed I was going out to get some breakfast for everyone at Dunkin.’ After all, America runs on Dunkin.’
Truth was I was aching sorely for a cigarette. I hadn’t smoked in over twenty four hours and was dying slowly. I could feel my spirit bidding farewell to my mortal body. I needed nicotine and tar quickly.
Those days I chain-smoked. I was that guy that woke up at 2 am to smoke and jumped into the car to go buy a cigarette when he realised he was out of smokes. And that guy who opts for a stop-over flight instead of a direct one so he could stop over and smoke. I was that hopeless. Kicked the habit now. Nine years since I last lit a cigarette. Surprise, surprise, I haven’t died yet.
So I was saying…
I hurried out of the house with my pack of cigarette in pocket. I walked about three blocks to an intersection and lit a cigarette. I took deep joyful drags and exhaled slowly. It was like air after being waterboarded.
Then this black dude bounced up to me. Unkempt afro, dirty gold teeth, jeans hanging from his butt and fake bling around his neck.
“Hey man, can I have a cigarette?”
I was a little afraid. This was my first time in America and I had preconceived notions of Brooklyn and crime. I hesitated and processed what my action should be. But the dude didn’t sound or look threatening in any way.
“Just a stick, bruh. Help a brother out. You know I’m sayin?”
Yea, dawg. I know what you is sayin’.
I offered him my pack of Rothmans. He took out one stick. I encouraged him to take more.
He took two more. He asked for a light. I gave him my lighter. He lit the cigarette and took rapid puffs. Happy, he gave me a vigorous bro hug that nearly dislocated my shoulders.
“You ain’t from around here, is you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Where you from?”
“Yea, Africa. I ain’t ever been to Africa. Adon’t like it in Africa.”
Of course, you don’t, you bonehead.
He gave me another bro hug and bounced off.
My first friend in Brooklyn. I’m really going to like it here.
And there is so much creative energy!
Whereas my jaunt through Europe had been about history – an ignominious history at that- I was coming to America to eat, sleep and take pictures. It’s been nine months since I was bitten by a radioactive photo bug and I’ve been honing my photography powers. I’m seeing improvements. A lot of my compositions are still rushed and I’m still way behind with post processing/editing. But I’ll get there. You will hear of me!
Oh, wait. You already heard of me!
My US jaunt encompassed New York, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas and the “Big Easy” – New Orleans. With the exception of New York, I was visiting the other cities for the first time. I was particularly looking forward to going to NOLA – New Orleans, Louisiana. The food! Lord, keep me safe till I get to NOLA!
So, what was there to eat in New York?
Let me tell you about people I have serious beef with.
I don’t care much for anyone who maligns food like pizza, burgers and hot dogs and label them junk food. How can food that gives joy be junk? How can two large lemonades be evil? I’ll tell you what is junk. It’s broccoli, cucumber, cauliflower, lettuce and brussel sprouts. Those are the food responsible for most of the unhappiness in the world. Dig very deep and you’ll find those veggies caused WWII. No one who eats bacon, cheese and pepperoni wakes up to bomb another human being. Companies like Shake Shack and Joe’s Pizza are spreading as much joy around the world as the Salvation Army.
Needless to say my meals in New York were mostly those poor maligned food. They didn’t do my waistline any favours. But be reminded that calories don’t count in heaven.
I had not eaten ‘pepper’ since I left Nigeria two weeks earlier. So I sought to reacquaint my palate with the taste of home. Off I went to Festac Grill off Atlantic Avenue. White rice, ofada sauce with boiled eggs and dodo. Stiffed out of $20. But no point quarreling with food you already paid for. I enjoyed it grudgingly.
Let’s talk about the New York subway for a minute.
Let’s get this out of the way. No other subway in the Milky Way come close to the New York subway in entertainment and pleasant surprises. I haven’t been to Neptune yet, but I’m betting they won’t have Maroon 5 performing in their stations.
I recorded the young hustlers below myself.
I’ve been on a couple of trains and trams in Europe. Boring affair. On the London Tube, everyone might as well be studying for an exam. In France, commuters are too polite to look you in the eye. Not in NY. Those trains may rattle along and be anachronistic, but there’s no knowing who might be sitting next to you. Captain America. Houdini. Keanu Reeves.
Ah yes, my pictures. What have I got to show for the camera slinging across the city? A few decent photographs. But a few people ooh and ahhed over a few of the pictures, though I suspect it was more to encourage me than appreciation. It’s a journey. I’ll get there.
DUMBO here is a must-have in the portfolio of any photographer who visits New York. It is always teeming with photographers. On this day, I had to wake up early to hopefully have DUMBO to myself. I got there at 6 am. I met three photographers! We were considerate to one another.
What I really enjoyed about my trip to New York this time was the fact that I was alone. Didn’t come with the family. No friends. So I was pretty much left to my own devices. Ate what I shouldn’t. Walked distances family wouldn’t and didn’t visit Saks Fifth Avenue. Freedom.
After four days, it was time to bid farewell to NY. Time to head to Atlanta to see friends. Nothing special about my visit to Atlanta though. Same with Houston and Dallas. Staying with friends. Visiting other friends. Shopping for the family. In essence, not blog-worthy visits. I did discover a wicked milk shake shop in Houston though. Right under my nose! I punished myself appropriately for not discovering it sooner by visiting it daily.
So on to New Orleans then.