A Tale of Two Other Cities
Sometimes people need years to say “I love you.” Other times, they know it from the very beginning. This was the case for me. It didn’t take me long to know that I was in love with New York City.
It happens that when you are absorbed in something, you tend to see or hear things concerning it now and then, even when you are not looking for it. As for me, I often bump into people who are also fond of New York. It happens coincidentally, when I’m watching another totally unrelated interview or reading an article. That’s how I learned the most fascinating observations about New York.
For instance, a Russian director, Boris Khlebnikov, when asked to choose between Moscow and New York during an interview, chose New York, saying: “When you find yourself there, you get a strong feeling that it’s the capital of the world. Not of the USA, but of the whole world. There is an incredible number of completely different people, and it makes you feel perfect happiness.” A Russian journalist, Sergey Dorenko, when asked about a city every person should visit in his or her life, named New York “because there is no other place in the world where you can feel that energy.” A friend of mine, as he returned to New York after a long journey around the world, wrote me: “New York painfully pleasant reminds me that any minute spent in another place is spent in vain.” I totally share this feeling. The final chord in this ode to New York is a phrase once uttered by John Updike: “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
A memory I brought back from New York is one of a slightly surreal morning in Harlem. Though I like Lower Manhattan the most, during that visit I stayed at the northeast corner of Central Park, right where Harlem starts. It was a graceless 6-floor building, with a signboard that said “Kennedy Fried Chicken”, and a corresponding eatery on the first floor. There were two of us in a small kitchen. I was washing the dishes, and he was reading the New York Post at the wooden dining table. The newspaper was grabbed from a counter several minutes ago only because of a super scandalous, funny, and very “yellow” front page dedicated to the infamous story of Jeff Bezos caught cheating. A farcical headline made the impression complete, it said: “Bezos Exposes Pecker.” For a couple of minutes we avidly leafed through dull, rough pages, and it felt like a bizarre relic. Right afterwards, we switched back to Twitter. But it was absolutely amazing to feel like a whole different person for that brief moment. It felt like we were some immigrants in the wild Harlem of the 1980s, when men read newspapers in the morning over a cup of coffee before they headed to work, and women were yet to make a huge leap to defend their rights, while lots of them still had to build their lives around washing the dishes, raising kids, cooking, and welcoming their husbands back from work.
I love San Francisco as well — to some extent. Back in 2018, I spent two weeks in the Bay Area, somewhere in between Fremont Street, Financial District, and the piers. I left totally unacquainted with all other parts of San Francisco, but that northeast corner of the city I explored inside and out.
Since then, whenever I hear the word “Embarcadero”, it rolls over my ears like a thundering train. Or, more precisely, like a petite, yet loud streetcar plying the San Francisco waterfront, which I had been waiting for, with my fingers and lips freezing from the iced coffee. It hadn’t come because — as I learned later — it doesn’t operate on that route after 6 p.m. So I went to the next station.
I threw out the unfinished coffee, wrapping myself up in a thin coat, and waited for the angina and pneumonia. Having reached the station near the Ferry Building, I looked at the fire on the opposite side of the street, black smoke billowing out the windows, and inhaled the burning smell that reached the station. I later found out from the news that it was a fire in a residential building at Davis Court. The sound of fire engines flashing past you several times a day is another sound strongly associated with San Francisco.
Finally, I took the right streetcar and rode across the entire waterfront, past Pier 39, to the mysterious and inviting Cannery Shopping Center. I was hoping to find my evening paradise there, among the glittering shops illuminated by the lights. But I didn’t find the place. I paced around that dusky and unfamiliar part of San Francisco, somewhere in between a public toilet, the Sheraton’s parking, and McDonald’s that always looks homely and friendly in a foreign country.
I rushed to the station through the streets, some of which were empty while others were crowded with people, cafes and salesmen of curiosity shops. I only hoped that I would find the right station, catch the right streetcar and reach the familiar part of San Francisco where the customary and thus comforting neighbourhood was measured with steps and coffee houses.
All the way in a crowded streetcar, an obviously unwell woman was coughing into my hair. We turned onto Market Street, I jumped out at the second station and rushed up First Street, diving under Salesforce Transit Center that was under repair because of a crack and that, I hoped, wouldn’t fall on me this time, like it hadn’t fallen many times before.