Essay: A window onto New York

Essay: A window onto New York
Immigrant taxi drivers with MBAs making their way through 24-hour peak traffic; Occupy marchers beating their drums to the tune of "What do we want? Healthcare! When do we want it? Now!"; processions of consumers marching on towards Times Square in pursuit of presents; weather-beaten homeless men and women brandishing cardboard messages, their trolleys of possessions lining the streets; Ernst & Young's red building signage lit up like a Christmas tree; puppies in a store window advertised at 20% off...

When it comes to shining a light on the great dichotomy of the human condition, the uneasy disparity between rich and poor, the aspirations of the Western world and the crippling reality that all is not as it was before, New York is hard to compete with. The city is a vastly different beast to the one I first visited in 1997, the tentacles of consumerism beckoning from the HMV shop floor.

Back then, before the dotcom bubble burst, iTunes forced HMV (and Virgin) to close its once-thriving music stores and Carrie Bradshaw made the illustrious city come to life on our TV screens, New York was bold but cold. This despite it being high summer when I flew in over the city that never sleeps and looked on in awe at its bright lights and took a deep breath in. An attractive woman who passed me – lowly, tubby, sensitive, 16-year-old me – as she and her partner approached their seats at a Broadway showing of Chicago was terribly rude; inhospitable; unkind. And that tainted New York for me.

Besieged by beauty, vanity, the dollar – which at the time showed us Aussies up by 50 cents (ha! look at us now!) – and the anticipation of a fledgling industry called the Internet (still capital 'I'), Gap cargo pants and dress-down Fridays were all the rage as Silicon Valley's online enterprises energised stockmarkets and America's entrepreneurial spirit was given new energy and grist. Friends was on the air, Jennifer had not yet met Brad and Brandy and Monica's "The Boy Is Mine" was getting major airplay.

Today, while the face of Steve Jobs haunts from book stands throughout the city and tourists gather at Ground Zero to pay their respects, New York is somewhat humbler, less glitzy and show-offy, than she used to be. I like her more this way. Though she still promises to dazzle with her curbs lined with Christmas trees, apartments decked out in seasonal theme, Central Park lit up at night, immaculately groomed residents and children wide-eyed as they enter FAO Schwarz in tribute to Home Alone 2, New York is bruised and the better for it. She takes nothing for granted.

On the subway, I watch a couple in their 60s discuss and laugh at an article in The New Yorker, its cover an angel taking the subway. On another trip, I accidentally fall into a young man's lap, and he's good humoured as I dust myself off and blush ("Nice way to start the morning," he says, before his head starts to hang in despair. Life for him seems unfair). Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge into the city, protestors gather to air their frustrations over the paltry status of American healthcare; I'm reminded of Little Jimmy from A Christmas Carol.

Downtown at SoHo, where I have lunch with my fellow travellers one day, over which we listen to a painter talk about his extraordinary, incomparable talent (many New Yorkers still display an unashamed egotism – perhaps it is fight or flight?), the atmosphere is demure. Hipsters enter Ground Support on Spring Street, an urban enclave that serves hearty sandwiches and ordinary coffee, with most bashing away at their laptops in coveted corners with powerpoints. An Aussie lass walks in and we get to talking. Her partner is working here for a bank and she's biding time enjoying the scenery.

Returning to SoHo the next day to meet a dear old friend who has lived here on and off since the mid-90s for breakfast at the swishy Balthazar (he tells me about a parenting blog by a friend of his called Don't Drop the Baby On Her Head and of the necessity of having digital work on one's reel to secure freelance advertising work), I run into an Aussie girl making her career dreams come true at Chanel. She looks windswept and stressed but well-dressed; just like a "real" New Yorker.

So smart, so gifted, so cultured, a metropolis where the world's crop of top talent gather to compete and wilt or thrive (the line is fine). The conversations I overhear are deep; it seems everyone is engaged in what John Mayer calls "Heartbreak Warfare" or a wintry epiphany.

Momentary reprieve for the child at heart awaits at the Rockefeller Centre where you pay for an hour on the ice amongst skating novices dressed to the nines who've come from afar to partake in the cultural ritual. The Christmas tree made famous by the movies is there (smaller than one would think) and festive music can be heard as you make your way around (and around and around), avoiding the fallen soldiers and revelling in the experience. Nearby is the Empire State building from which you peer between barbed fencing down onto a hazy city scene spotted with yellow taxi cabs and think of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle.

"There's a new king on Broadway" says one big sign, heralding the return of our own Hugh Jackman, while in The New York Times the stage adaptation of the indie film Once is being heralded as the next big thing ("Some Broadway executives are already betting on Once as the contender for the Tony Award for best musical," writes Patrick Healy). Opposite the theatres lie tourist shops that sell snow globes and key rings and 'I Love New York' tees for a healthy premium.

Midtown, Times Square, mecca for high-street materialism and one-time red-light district, is a hectic, frazzled experience for any weary traveller; much more so for those all-too-aware of the whims of consumerism. Here – where the retail rents are a bellwether for the economy – lie enormous flagship stores for Toys R Us, H&M, Forever 21, Sephora, Disney and American Eagle Outfitters, amongst others, most which operate well into the night to cater to every schedule; New York is nothing if not flexible. Pre-Christmas sale signs and streetside hustlers tempt with offers, which makes one wonder how all this retail commerce is sustained; not only in finance but in the preservation of sanity.

The Macy's Christmas theme this year is "Believe", a word that stares down from on high in sparkling, golden script from the Herald Square store. Inside the store, you can buy a specially crafted edition of a book rendition of Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus along with the animated DVD. Self-belief is something New Yorkers have traditionally not been shy of; Frank Sinatra sang of "doing it my way" in this very city, where revelling in one's misery a la Woody Allen, whose intellectual masochism has been rendered romantic in New Yorker folklore, but something bigger is at play.

An article in The New Yorker edition featuring a disenchanted bookstore lover on its cover speaks of a man who personifies Occupy Wall Street. His name is Ray Kachel and he's 53 and out on his ear. Back in the day, the jack-of-all-trades of the computer industry made a decent living transferring print material into digital records, writes George Packer. Representing disenfranchised former members of the information economy, he joined the Occupiers who gathered at Zuccotti Park before being dispersed by Mayor Bloomberg and the police. To think just 10 years before Rudy Giuliani, he who cleaned up the mean streets, had helped to forge a community spirit in the chaotic aftermath of the terrorist attacks.

There remains a wonder about New York City, if you're prepared to take off the goggles of cynicism. Here, like Disneyland, people from all nations (who can afford it) gather at a global intersection in the shared belief that this place will enrich life. It's true that the cerebral (arts, culture, literature, history, education, politics) meets commerce in this place, where the thirst for excitement and self betterment and material comfort can be quenched if you're capable of sustaining the pace.

But in New York, more than anywhere, perhaps, on earth, it becomes clear that love for a city and all its promises can all-too easily, unwittingly, usurp God's rightful place. That said, if you look for it hard enough, there are reminders everywhere – from vibrant flower stands to the smiling face of the Salvation Army man, to the Christmas hymns that chime from loud speakers, the doors decked out with wreaths, the smell of pine trees on the streets, the Macy's "Believe" message and a glimpse of Jesus in a box on a street – that here, too, God is looking out for his people and quietly nurturing their humanity.

Girl With a Satchel