Thursday, June 29

Roll Bus Roll | New York, NY

Back in your arms, New York, and it feels so good.

We depart from Montreal at quarter to midnight. It's snowing again. Bus sleep is interrupted twice: at the US border, and then in Albany, where we're kicked off our Greyhound to wait for half an hour in a terrible concrete bus station devoid of benches, everybody stale and blurry with tiredness. I think of The Dharma Bums:
'The bus came at four o'clock and we were at Birmingham Alabama in the middle of the night, where I waited on a bench for my next bus trying to sleep on my arms on my rucksack but kept waking up to see the pale ghosts of American bus stations wandering around: in fact one woman streamed by like a wisp of smoke, I was definitely certain she didn't exist for sure. On her face the phantasmal belief in what she was doing... On my face, for that matter, too.'

Lights out all the way through Vermont. I wake to a New Jersey sunrise, my eyes opening precisely as the state line flashes past the window. Everybody else on the bus is asleep but I'm wide-eyed and over-excited to be in Bruce Springsteen's home state, winding towards New York.

Port Authority is hot and loud, full of screeching announcements and too many people. We brush our teeth in the bathrooms, re-layer jumpers, drink Stumptown coffee in the dim-lit, fancy-pants Ace Hotel lobby, then ride the subway to our Brooklyn Airbnb. In the afternoon we carry our snow-sodden clothes to a nearby laundromat where the air is warm and soapy.

The following morning I put my fleece on and we run eight miles round Prospect Park in the freezing rain, first heading up the long straight Brooklyn streets and getting lost around the botanic gardens. The park is empty save for clumps of brown leaves left over by autumn, like bran flakes left too long in milk, the trees now spiky with December cold. We splash round the running loop, and we see scarcely another soul. Rosy-cheeks rewarded with Dun-well's vegan doughnuts, a little later we find ourselves in East Village, where a sunset glows fierce pink-purple-orange behind tenements and tall buildings, outlining fire-escapes and falling heavy on the sidewalk, like all good New York City sunsets do. We finger old leather jackets in thrift stores and then meet a friend for drinks, bar-hopping numerous fairy-lit watering holes. Each street is prettier than the last, the bars themselves havens of light and warmth looping along the neighbourhood. But no snow like in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch: 
'Tiny table. My knee to her knee-was she aware of it? Quite as aware as I was? Bloom of the candle flame on her face, flame glinting metallic in her hair, hair so bright it looked about to catch fire. Everything blazing, everything sweet. They were playing old Bob Dylan, more than perfect for narrow Village streets close to Christmas and the snow whirling down in big feathery flakes, the kind of winter where you want to be walking down a city street with your arms around a girl like on the old record cover-because Pippa was exactly that girl, not the prettiest, but the no-makeup and kind of ordinary-looking girl he'd chosen to be happy with, and in fact that picture was an ideal of happiness in its way, the hike of his shoulders and the slightly embarrassed quality of her smile, that open-ended look like they might just wander off anywhere they wanted together, and-there she was! her!'
I make two mental notes: to visit Greenwich Village's Jones Street, the location of that record cover, and to see it in the snow one day.

That Greenwich Village pilgrimage happens the very next afternoon. I am alone in the sunshine, and then my phone dies. Annoyed, I think about how this is the first time in years I'll traverse a city without a smartphone. But it turns out to be fun, roaming the cold sunny streets with no direction, thinking about all the people who started up their dreams here. The early twentieth-century bohemians; the Cafe Society lot a hundred years later, Paul Robeson and Ella, and Billie singing Strange Fruit; the fifties Beats adopting the Village as their east coast home,;Dylan Thomas collapsing at the Chelsea Hotel, Patti Smith living in the Chelsea Hotel, Leonard Cohen singing about it; other stars flickering into life: Hendrix, Dave Van Ronk, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, The Lovin' Spoonful, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed. Bob Dylan, of course. A teenage Springsteen playing with his band The Castiles at Cafe Wha?. It's one of the few clubs still shaking its ass - the Gaslight's long gone - and late every night a queue weaves round the side of the building.

Today the neighbourhood is jammed with cars, tourists, students, high rents. But after hours, the streets fizz. It's too early to tell whether this is just me being an excited music-nerd, or the after-effects of a great slice of pizza from Joe's. Or there's still magic here, tucked inside tiny candlelit bars and feathery snowflakes and the remnants of previous decades, of iconic record covers and ideals of happiness.

Because we did get Joe's pizza that night, after five minutes navigating the Strand bookstore crowds, and stand-up tickets to a Broadway show (Matilda), which was really good, but it's the Village food afterwards I'll remember most. Hot cheap falafel next door to the Wha?, then Joe's - the place is crowded with coloured lights and midnight eaters shaking chili flakes onto steaming slices - and then nutella crepes, and now it is very late and we run through the dark chilly streets to the subway station.

New Year's Eve starts smug: we rattle to Upper West Side for a yoga class followed by a 10k run around Central Park. Being bagel fiends, we trek to Williamsburg in our sweaty gear to eat three of the best filled bagels you'll ever find: pumpernickel with hummus and grilled aubergine, cinnamon with walnut cream cheese, french toast with butter. After all of this it seems to be evening again and there's a party in our apartment. Balloons and banners await guests in the living room and on the kitchen table sits a big container of cheese balls, the sink filled with beer and ice cubes. Suddenly there are a lot of drunk Australians, and the room is full, and I am not quite drunk enough, but drunk enough to hit balloons about and dance. On the rooftop a moustached artist tells me about our mutual connection to music and how there's a secret second rooftop. At midnight we see the fireworks glitter silently over Manhattan, and suddenly everybody knows about the second rooftop and we're there, balancing beer up a wooden ladder. This being America, the party wraps up by 3am, and a few of us sit on the rooftop playing Springsteen's Streets of Philadelphia as somebody collects bottles and sweeps around our feet.

2017: it begins with a Brooklyn rooftop, a long sleep, and a free coffee from a Manhattan Pret - 'this one's on the house, ma'am!' - followed by Bryant Park in the sunshine, ice skaters, giant pretzels, chimney stack cake. The following day, our last in the city, we go out with a bang. Levain cookies from Upper West side: the girl raises an eyebrow when we order a second, and it does nearly overwhelm us: the subway ride downtown is not pleasant. East Village's Crif Dogs (corndogs and tater tots) for dinner, as people queue for the speakeasy next door, and Big Gay Ice Cream for dessert. My cone is lined with peanut butter, I repeat, my cone is lined with peanut butter. Last of all, pints at Swift, warming the bar stools for a long while, the Christmas lights glowing through our beer. And it's midnight in Manhattan, and we're on our way.

Roll bus roll, take me off
A rolled sweatshirt makes the window soft
If I fall asleep, don't wake me up
Roll bus roll, take me up

Old bodegas and old streetlights
Harlem looks so warm tonight
All those cheap desserts, memory hurts, I could die
I gotta take two Tylenols and close my eyes

Stumptown/Ace Hotel lobby | 18 W 29th Street, Manhattan
Dun-well Doughnuts | 222 Montrose Avenue, Brooklyn
Cafe Wha? | 115 Macdougal Street, Manhattan
Strand bookstore | 828 Broadway, Manhattan
Joe's Pizza | 7 Carmine Street, Manhattan
Yoga to the People | 2710 Broadway, Manhattan
Bread Brothers Bagel Cafe | 220 Bushwick Avenue, Brooklyn
Levain bakery | 167 W 74th Street, Manhattan
Crif Dogs | 113 St Marks Place, Manhattan
Big Gay Ice Cream | 125 E 7th Street, Manhattan
Swift Hibernian Lounge | 34 E 4th Street, Manhattan