It's almost midnight as I lug a suitcase along Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn, looking for my brother's flat. The door of a rusted-out Monte Carlo slams as I walk past, and I can't help looking for a long second at its dreadlocked owner. Too long, in New York terms, to escape a challenge.
- How ya doin'?
- Good. You?
- Arright. Take ke-ah.
- Yeah. You too.
If it's not the usual response you get for staring at someone after dark in Brooklyn ('Wachoo lookin' at, foo?' used to be the standard), that's because New York is not its usual self these days.
Three times last weekend, during a New York trip to meet The Slovak Spectator's owners, I was greeted by people on the street for no apparent reason. Nothing extravagant, just a nod and a quiet 'how you' or 'wassup'. Every time I asked for directions, for each pedestrian that reacted as if I was peddling pornography, another would stop and point the right way.
If a weekend is long enough to take a city's temperature, then New York has become a warmer place in human terms since the September 11 attacks, as if people are suddenly alive to the fact that they share the city with other people. Some of this warmth comes across as calculating, feigned or just plain irritating, from the jingoistic 'let's go get 'em' attitude to the pop stars' musical tribute. But a lot of it shows real thought and consideration, such as the suggestion that people patronise pubs and restaurants around the site of the World Trade Center, where smoke and a general air of desolation have made a ghost town of the foot of Canal St.
A glimpse of the downed Trade Center towers helps you understand the enormity of this cultural event that is being reflected in New Yorkers' changed behaviour. I walked down there with my brother late one night, and the smell of ash - of burning garbage - was almost choking. The only pubs and restaurants open to be patronised were a Burger King and a McDonald's outlet; the rest were boarded or chained up, and my brother said many residents were trying to move out of the neighbourhood. Huge cranes and gouts of water were the only things visible above the smoke at ground zero, save a crushed multi-storey parking garage where the shells of cars were still visible on the roof. It was after midnight, but knots of people were still standing and watching from the barricades on Broadway down the narrow streets affording a view of the cleanup. Later that night, realising we had both been walking around with open but untouched cans of Guinness, I asked my brother why none of the police we had spoken to had fined us. "They've got better things to do," he replied.
Whether New Yorkers continue to find better things to do than act tough, spend money and ignore pedestrian traffic signals cannot be foreseen, but even the new leaf that has been turned has a familiar underside.
One of the Slovaks in our party, for example, had nothing but admiration for the Americans he had met on the trip - so polite, he felt, so calm and unflappable. When we went to buy him a camera at a store on West 35th, however, his impression took a blow. "Lissen," said the store owner, after a 30-minute debate over whether the cameras bearing the logo Olympus were in fact made by Minolta, "Whyn't ya learn some gah-dahm English be-foah ya come back an tell me how to run my stoah."
Our cab driver, Jose Mendes from Ecuador, restored the good name New Yorkers had won by claiming to need no explanation on being told his charges were from Slovakia. "Ya don't gotta tell me where dat's at, I know Czechoslovakia, dat's where dey make Skoda." The smiles lasted until he demanded $87 for a ride to Newark airport that had cost $37 on the way in.
Before I left, I took a run with my brother through Manhattan and back over the Brooklyn Bridge. As we were passing down Fourth Avenue, in the same place I had exchanged pleasantries with the Monte Carlo owner, we came upon two drivers in the middle of a screaming match. Someone had cut someone else off, it seemed.
A man unloading a delivery van looked at us as we ran by and grinned. "Oh well," he said. "Looks like we're back to normal."
29. Oct 2001 at 0:00