New York would never dream of building a wall
5:30 PM No2 Train to Flatbush is leaving Clark's Station.
I can’t move. Someone is breathing on my ear. Each waft is thick with the stagnant stench of cigarettes and old plaque. I look up. It’s a girl. She’s wearing a nose ring and a shaved head with a faded pink quiff. Her sweat stained grey tracksuit top just covers the fold of her belly which sticks out underneath her like a hanging watermelon. I turn my face in the opposite direction and cover my nose with my mitten.
The subway hurtles to a stop. I collide face first into the NY logo on the chest of a large black man. “Hey, what you doin’? Watch it,” he mutters, moves away and crosses his arms. People are tough in New York; notoriously.
“Sorry,” I push against a few people, grab the handle and find myself at the girl's armpit.
When people talk about New York they talk about broadway shows, slices of pizza so gooey the cheese oil drips onto your plate, toasted cinnamon bagels wrapped in brown bags and lights flickering across the billboards of Time Square. What captured me in New York wasn’t this, it was the people. New York will take you: poor, tired, ambitious, artsy, queer, shunned, illegal, forgotten, a misfits, or a millionaire. The city, for me, represented humanity. The tangled, confused, jaded, lost, seeking, hurting mass which is…US.
August 14th 5:30PM, Cape Town South Africa
The only time I’ve ever found anything similar to this sense of unashamed acceptance and diversity in South Africa is in my church. Life in South Africa, like many places, is drawn along lines of segregation. Most people usually keep to their race, language and income bracket- too intimidated, afraid and uninterested to break away from what they know.
I remember one particularly impactful Sunday at church: I was walking across the room and caught the eyes of a lady seated in a chair. She waved at me, I waved back and her beaming grin and crinkling eyes made me laugh. I stopped where I was going and sat down next to her,
“Hi, I’m Fran.”
We started talking. I asked her about her life, her work and her family. “My children aren’t here,” she told me. “They are in the Eastern Cape with their Grandparents.”
“Oh,” I answered, surprised. “Don’t you miss them?”
“Yes, I see them once a year. But what can you do,” she said. “there isn’t space in my shack for two children.”
Then I met Caroline. I had seen her at church a few times. Always, she sat on the left hand corner of the table in our teeming coffee shop. And knits. She is a grey haired monument in a multitude of weaving voices, limbs and too cool University students in denim and Converse. Someone should talk to that lady, I thought as I spotted her across the room. You should talk to that lady, Fran.
I shuffled in next to her on the bench, “Hi…” For the next 30 minutes I heard all about how much Caroline loves knitting. What she was knitting for (I can’t quite remember). And her cats; she owns 12 and keeps rescuing more.
I remember how I felt when I left church that day: I felt as I had been given something; something I already had. And that’s the thing with people, if you let them, they will teach you things about your own life, you would never know without them.
Late one night on the subway, after rush hour was over, I picked up a free publication. “We’re proud to be New Yorkers”, it said. On the cover was a picture of a beautiful Indonesian child with the caption, “New York would never dream of building a wall.” The magazine featured stories of some of its inhabitants; this one touched me the most: “My family escaped Syria in 2014. We went to Turkey, where I worked as a waitress. The first time I heard a plane fly over the restaurant, I went under the table because I was scared it would drop bombs. I don’t do that here.” Fayza Gareb, 22- on why she likes living in New York.
1:30 Am Train to Manhattan
The more of life I experience the more I forced to realise beauty in life isn’t found in comfort. It comes from the messy collision of one human with another. A collision which leaves you different. An ugly collision, which causes bits of you to break off and stick to each other as though we are all made of fragile velcro suits.
It’s the late call to your girl friend when all day you tried to pretend everything was ok. It’s the call to your Dad when you can’t change a tire, and he walks you through it over the phone. It’s the “hello, how are you?” you ask your cleaner everyday until one day you and find out that she’s upset because she can’t afford the school fees for her children which cost less than half the price of your pair of shoes.
It's knocking down walls and building bridges.
For all of New York’s tough exterior, glitzy fast paced life and folded arms- I think perhaps in some ways the city’s arms are more welcoming than most. For me, I’m not interested in stale suburbs and anaemic churches with rows of people all the same. I’m not motivated by a bubble life, getting to the end of the day and making more money. I’m motivated by the mess.
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