Monday, December 24, 2007

Slice of the Big Apple

Now the rovin' gambler he was very bored
He was tryin' to create a next world war
He found a promoter who nearly fell off the floor
He said I never engaged in this kind of thing before
But yes I think it can be very easily done
We'll just put some bleachers out in the sun
And have it on Highway 61.

Either he was eerily prescient or Bob Dylan was simply marking time. Whatever, this was my favourite growing-up song.
When it was finally decided that I would trade sultry Chennai for New York's iciness, this was the song that would keep swirling in my head. It simply refused to go away, like an old-aunt's lullaby. I let it stay.

Eight years back, when I had swished past NYC in transit to Toronto and saw, in my mind's eye, the still-iconic WTC towers lost somewhere in the folds of the clouds below, I remember making myself a promise: that I would come back some day and revisit Highway 61, pardon my muddled geography.

Much has changed, much hasn't. Cogito, ergo sum. Whatever.

If at Heathrow Airport, they rubbed your nose in the brownness of your skin ("In transit to NY? Doesnt matter, maa'm. British security is not the same as American. You need to clear us if you want to get there"), JFK was kinder, gentler, not at all like what Henry Miller's black-humour-served-with-coffee, An Airconditioned Nightmare, had said it would be. I cleared immigration in five minutes flat and customs, even less. "From Chennai, maa'm? Have a good day!"

This was not a new country. Eight years back, I had wandered the East Coast like a vagabond, backpack-bound and napping on the hard benches of subway stations, to stretch my overwrought-budget.
Much has changed, much hasn't.

Eight years back, as my train entered USA from the Canadian half, they would make one of my Indian co-passengers disembark at Sarnia-on-the-border, frisk him, detain him for over half an hour and would only let him board another train two hours later.

Now, India is the big story everywhere. Your brownness is your talisman. Your accent, it ain't matter no more.

Aah, the blessed anonymity of a great city. Walking NY's pavement in the icy cold of a December night, the wind lifting your hair and the chill spreading on your cheeks with the softness of a pigeon feather.
Riding the Manhattan train, emerging out of the earth's belly, into the labyrinthine concourse of glass and steel outside 49th Street.
Feeling so at-home in NYC's chaotic traffic, and laughing delightedly when your cabbie swerves madly to avoid a Land Rover, swears "Rattlesnake!" and turns instantly to apologise to you, "Sorry, Miss Lady. This city is full of cheapstake m************!"
Digging into a bowl of Puerto Rican rice and beans and a ketchup-drenched Corn Dog at the Rockefeller Center as the skating rink erupts in a dozen graceful pirouettes.

Sights. Smells. Sounds. Life.

You are your own Lonely Planet.