The accompanying text was written by Lucy Caldwell. It is a response to the River's Window series which blends my experiences of visiting New York for the first time with her own, and also takes in the feeling of wandering a city etched by the stories, memories and emotions of the many travellers and emigrants who came before.
The streets were somehow familiar, even though they were new to me; it’s an odd thing to say but my feet felt that they belonged. The house I was staying in had steps that went right up to it from the street, ten of them, wide enough to sit on, if you wanted to, and watch the city passing by. But I didn’t want to watch it, I wanted to be in it, part of it, lost in it, or from myself, just for a while, and so I walked.
It seemed strange that it was still early morning here, when at home a whole new day was well underway, already settled into the grooves of itself, not even with anything in particular, just solidly, already happened. I found myself wondering if that is what death feels like for the newly-died, at first, still watching, but over a sudden distorted distance, the far-nearness of everything.
I didn’t know a single person in this city, and nobody knew, or had reason to care, who I was, and that was either liberating or astonishingly lonely, or maybe both.
When I’d walked for some hours already, and had begun to feel unmoored, I remembered it was the weekend of St Patrick’s Day, and that gave me new reason for being there, for belonging, and it felt important that I honour that, and so I walked with new purpose up past Washington Square Park, past Union Square, past the Flatiron Building and the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, up and up the lattice of streets to St Patrick’s Cathedral, for the midday Mass. It was the Cardinal taking it, and as he spoke, though it had been a while since I’d been to Mass, as I slipped into the rhythms of it, the responses, I seemed to feel all the thousands of Irish people who had been there, been married there, all of their christenings, funerals, all that journey of life. Although my own grand-aunts and grand-uncles hadn’t settled in New York, although they’re all long passed away, I had the feeling they were all there too, all around me in the church. I could feel them on the benches, there all around me in their hats, their best coats sponged down and brushed, their shoes shined, just all around me.
After the Mass, I came across Ireland playing Wales in the rugby in a pub. It was a pub that felt like a memory of an Irish pub – green-and-gold Erin Go Bragh flags and the flag of Nicaragua strung up with low-hanging tangles of multicoloured fairylights, working men in their baseball caps sitting around the bar, music by the Pogues playing, so loud you couldn’t hear the game. I stayed for the length of a Guinness and a sandwich and watched Ireland get thrashed, then stepped back out into the keen unfeasible blue of the afternoon, its skyscrapers and sidewalks, as if I’d stepped once again through decades. The city was a dream of itself – how you always imagined it would be.
I felt myself falling in love with the romance of it, the harshness of it. The pops of colour and the grime. That bluest of blues of the sky and the slanting light and the sharpness of the shadows. The noise of it, the bustle, all that everyone ever says about it, the city was all that and more. The nail bars and the buses, the subway trains with their graffiti, wrought-iron lamp-posts and fire escapes, the peeling paint on tenement buildings thick in the eaves with feral scrapping pigeons. The signs in deli windows, neon signs in every living language, Walk Don’t Walk, the flare of the coming evening.
I thought of my ancestors who’d gone to Birmingham, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, Coventry – and of my cousins, my friends, who’d saved up for airfares to Australia, to Canada. The leaving drinks for those who were going, the drinks for those who returned, the new river between you that you’d try to bridge with pints. Those who went and those who stayed. Those who chose to stay, or go, and those who had no choice. The places we go, and the places we end up, and what it is we carry with us.
I walked, I walked. I crossed the Manhattan Bridge and walked down into Redhook and right to the water’s edge to see the Statue of Liberty from across the Bay. From that distance it seemed I could have cupped and held her in my hand, and on impulse I did, for a moment, squinting, the light on the water, that ceaseless moving light and shadow, and my hand was shaking, thinking of what it would have meant to so many, those grand-aunts and uncles, of what it means, to be seeing her for the first time, and for her to be the first thing you see. Night was falling now. I splayed my fingers and set her back down, gently, to resume her vigil.