Taxi and bus drivers in New York manage the remarkable feat of combining inch-perfect accuracy and complete insanity – it’s something to behold the bravado of these guys as they edge in front of enormous trucks and buses, squeezing past each other to get in the best position for the next green light. You can almost feel the wing mirrors kissing.
When the lights change, it’s like six bullfights happening simultaneously – the instant that you think you’re headed for impact, someone steps aside in a split second decision and the yellow cabs go snorting and charging like bulls down the concrete canyons.
My friend Bob Welch told me years ago: ‘Walking in the streets of New York is exactly like the movies... It’s not like noticing something that looks like a movie. It’s EXACTLY like a movie.’ I had that impression this morning – stepping out of the Port Authority bus terminal with my guitar case and walking across 8th Avenue. Right across the street is the New York Times office, and when you step across the crosswalk, you walk past five lanes of waiting yellow cabs, trucks and buses while the buildings tower over your head and the seething mass of the city spreads out to either side, honking, wailing and steaming. The sky above is a narrow jagged band of blue between the buildings.
I’m here for a week, to play three shows a day on stage at Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Station, as guest of Tourism Ireland. The promotion is aimed at giving commuters and visitors a real feel for Northern Ireland – so there are a variety of very impressive stands around the hall, along with speciality stands covering crafts, accommodation, food and drink and so on. And every now and then, I take to the stage with Ben Glover and we play a half hour set, talking a little about the music scene in Northern Ireland.
The hall is a massive, golden, marbled space, filled with glorious antique chandeliers and vaulted ceilings. A few steps away is the famous main Grand Central Terminal Building, which is just cinematic in its majesty. Throughout the day THOUSANDS of people pass through this space, and many of them stop for a look around, speak to exhibitors and take away leaflets and business cards. The hope is that we convince them to book a flight and actually come over.
Our first couple of performances are a little ropey as we try to settle on sound levels and approach – this is an enormously tall marble room, and the acoustics are drenched in echo. Right in front of the stage, though, there are four rows of chairs, and from close range, the sound is pretty good.
Away from the shows, we’re staying in a lovely hotel in Weehawken, New Jersey – it’s a 20 minute bus ride through the Lincoln Tunnel from Manhattan, and its windows look across the Hudson River at the most spectacular skyline in the world – the lights of downtown New York. There are a couple of nice places to eat in the neighbourhood, and even after one day, we’re all pretty assured of our methodology for getting to and from our destination.
Having made a trip on Friday night out to Larchmont to visit Andrea’s brother and his family, I arrive back in Grand Central and start walking down 42nd street towards the Port Authority terminal – and I discover Bryant Park.
Every town planner in the world should be brought to somewhere like Bryant Park, to see what can be achieved with green spaces in city centres. By night, the park (adjacent to the New York Public Library) is illuminated from on high by a bank of powerful spotlights on top of the MetLife building that shine down through the gently swaying canopy of trees. The central green is dotted with tables and chairs, where people sit and drink coffee or chat. In the dim cloisters around the edge, lovers smooch among the leaf shadows. There are a couple of ping pong tables, a beautiful fountain and a poster for Tai Chi classes. All around, the skyscrapers form a surrounding palisade studded with lights, and on the margins, the cabs and the trucks thunder past. It’s a remarkable space, made up of light, shadow, water, space and stillness in the midst of frantic motion. One that radiates tranquillity and civic pleasure.
And from there to the bus station and onward to Weehawken, where the boats in the Lincoln Harbor Marina tinkle and rock together gently. More in the next few days.