New York City has a propensity to take a vice-like grip on your head and not let go easily. When you’ve done the touristy things the first time – walked down Brooklyn Bridge, craned your neck up at the grey/brown skyscrapers, marvelled at people’s fascination for the statue of the bull on Wall Street, and lain under a tree in Central Park – you return with a piece of the city lodged inside, so that on your second trip, it is like resuming where you left off.
The roads were stirring awake at six in the morning as our bus emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into the boxed-in confines of Manhattan’s streets. How did the sun ever reach some of these roads? The people scurrying to work wore preoccupied expressions to match the dreariness of some of the streets; there were no smiles for strangers, no time to stop and stare. In stark contrast were the wondering, relaxed tourists, strolling into Times Square to sit on the red steps and watch life flow by. Shimmering lights danced along Broadway, epitomising all the excesses of our time.
Glittering lights, manicured lawns and slick movie reinforcements of a shining Manhattan notwithstanding, step into Canal Street, into the density of Chinatown, and you clearly see what a meld of cultures and classes New York is. As I stood on the pavement, contemplating the metal fire-escapes on closely packed apartments reminiscent of Calcutta, the ubiquitous red-and-gold of most Chinese quarters abroad, and the odours of unknown food, I felt for a moment that I was back in Singapore, walking from the glass-and-concrete business districts to the more quaint, less postcard-friendly parts of town. Very different from DC’s Chinatown – which, in all honesty, seems like any other upmarket section of the city with an intricate arch and Chinese lettering thrown in – it almost breathed stories of the dreams that had gone into building a community in this foreign land. Some of the aspirants have grown up and moved out; the rest have remained to expand their new home, spilling into the streets of another immigrant community across the road that seems to be on its last legs here.
I must confess that part of my fascination for this other community – that of Little Italy – comes from the Godfather movies. The Internet tells me Little Italy is now just a façade for a much larger community from Italy that once thronged the area, though it was never the largest settlement from that country in New York. Most of these streets are home to Chinese businesses today, with a few streets fighting to carry the Italian legacy forward with eateries and gelato carts, Italian flags, and harmonica music floating out of the odd restaurant. The ‘Little Italy’ signs help keep up appearances and continue to draw tourists in with promises of showing them the Italian quarter the immigrants built so far from home (and, in our case, where Puzo’s mafia thrived). Dismal buildings abound, but on a sunny morning, it was quite hard to pick out the almost Dickensian gloom of the past century; it was much easier to buy into the hype and sail in for a peek at the flag-bearers of Italian glory.
Accordingly lured in, we stopped by a cart for pistachio ice cream and went in search of the Mietz Building on Mott Street, which was where Vito Corleone established his olive oil business in Coppola’s movie. The building as it stands now isn’t dingy, cobwebbed, or soot-blackened; it isn’t even Italian any longer (if it ever was), because we found that most of the street was occupied by Chinese stores and looked very much like neighbourhood markets back home in India. With several Italian settlements in the city, it is likely that the original settlers and their children grew richer and moved to better areas. For, to put it harshly, the streets of Chinatown and Little Italy are far removed from the sanitised pictures of New York we are fed, with soapy water from pavements running onto the streets and pieces of paper conveniently missing dustbins.
Moving on to Nolita, we dropped in at St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral on Mulberry Street, inside which Coppola shot the baptism scene in the first Godfather movie. The main entrance was blocked due to construction work and we were momentarily disappointed, when we noticed a stream of people making their exit through a side-door next to the churchyard. We went inside and sat down in one of the pews, watching a family praying at the altar, the priest guiding them. The other members of the congregation had broken off into little groups, laughing and talking in Spanish. A strong fragrance of incense pervaded the air; a sense of geniality filled the hall. Sunday service over, the congregation was probably looking forward to lunch and a well-deserved rest. We admired the interiors and the stained-glass windows, trying to note the differences in the appearance of this Catholic church from that of the Episcopal Trinity Church on Wall Street that we had visited earlier in the morning. I couldn’t really tell, though, except that there was a statue of Mary in the Catholic church, and this plaque in the Episcopal:
China and Italy done, we went to lunch at a Tibetan/Nepali restaurant, feasting on aloo khatsa and bean noodles with a variety of vegetables, accompanied by soft white rice. Instantly, it was like being back in Sikkim, eating hot home-cooked food in the modest hotel at Lachung, where the doors had no locks and even bathroom windows opened on to vistas of the snow-capped Himalayas. I felt at home in these nostalgic indulgences, in that sense of familiarity that springs forth in a strange place, from a memory that itself comes from experiences that were once new and strange.
To end the afternoon, we took the train to Washington Square – I had suddenly recollected a few hours ago that there was a Henry James novel by this name. Being a sucker for all things literary, it was only natural that I should drag poor G. to the park and to the road where James’ grandmother was supposed to have lived. I assume James must have visited often and been inspired to write the book, and even though he didn’t consider it one of his good works, I’ve started reading it and enjoyed it so far. He received a fair bit of criticism for his style, but I will reserve my judgement until I have read The Portrait of a Lady (a Reader’s Digest joke called it “unputdownable”, because it was so easy to lose track of the proceedings every time you put it down). That could have been because the entertainment in his time was different from that in the picture here.
And so did our morning come full circle in Manhattan – from Wall Street’s riches to the visible earthiness of recent immigrant settlements, and back to the neighbourhoods of the gentry. If Little Italy doesn’t exist in twenty years’ time, I will be grateful to have had a chance to take a peep at the world that might have inspired Puzo and Coppola.