Tuesday 30 June 2015

A Human of New York

An invasive plume of humid city air swirled into the cab as I yanked open the creaky door, stepping out from my air conditioned cocoon and onto the unfamiliar Brooklyn street. For 30 minutes and 15 miles I had sat against the black leather, twiddling my thumbs in attempt to ignore the blossom of nervous adrenaline orbiting my heart, watching the sunlit city whizz past in a silver blur.

Part of me was annoyed at how meek I'd apparently become – I'd always been so brave and confident around strangers, especially when seizing those chance, stolen moments which manipulate the laws of fate and destiny, where two people's storyline interrupt for the briefest of moments.

And here I was, about to meet a complete stranger, under the agreement we'd go out for a drink, he'd tell me his best life story, and we'd leave and never see one another again.

But let me backtrack a little.

As I've mentioned exclusively and promise not to bore you with ever again, moving to New York was hard and lonely and frustrating. But after moping around for a couple of weeks, and some wise words from a friend, I decided it was time to snap out of it and find a way to discover what fascinating stories the strangers of New York had to offer.

And so I decided to do a little experiment.

For the first time in my life, I did something I never thought I'd ever find myself doing, and I signed up for Tinder. I picked some photos, selected 'Seeking males & females' and entered my bio, my little idea to find the fascinating folk -

'London writer girl seeking inspiration in the Big Apple. Let's meet for a coffee, tell me the greatest story of your life, and then never see each other again.'

Perhaps a little blunt, but I reasoned this would be enough to entice the curious and bore the single-pursuit suitors.

It was his bio that had captured me. It read simply: 

'Be excellent to each other.'

And that was how I found myself standing on a residential street in Williamsburg, awaiting a stranger whom I would barely be able to recognise, whilst nervously eyeing up a balding man at the bus stop who seemed to be just as eagerly gazing at his phone as I was.

When suddenly a noise interrupted my thoughts as the door to the apartment block in front of me opened, and out stepped a man.

My instant thought?


I knew roughly what he looked like from his photos, but he was instantly a lot more attractive than I'd ever expected. He was tall and wiry, impeccably dressed with olive skin and a shock of thick dark hair ever-so-imperceptibly streaked with silver, that lead me to the assumption he was Italian, maybe Greek. His blazer and light blue shirt were rolled up to the sleeves to reveal a tattoo on his right forearm, and over his shoulder he held a light tan leather satchel. I didn't even know it until that moment, but a man carrying a handbag earned all kinds of brownie points with me. He was almost annoyingly handsome and I suddenly felt incredibly out of my depth.

But that wasn't what had lead me to my one-word first impression.

Bizarrely, it was his walk.

I stood on the very edge of the sidewalk and watched and he sauntered the few paces toward me from the step of the apartment block he'd just left. His gait was elongated and his strides had the swagger that wouldn't look out of place on a salsa dancer. I deduced he must either be gay, or a painfully arrogant, notorious womaniser, and our entire date to follow was about to be one carefully-rehearsed and purposefully-curated performance that had earned him an impressive tally to date, with I to be the latest conquest.

Was it too unfair to instantly deduce all that from a person, just from the way they walked?

When he greeted me, his mouth curved into a smile to reveal the most perfectly white teeth, and I instantly noticed that he spoke from one side of his mouth first as if rolling the taste of my name across his lips, just the way someone I like to pretend I don't still think about used to do.

I smiled and greeted him too, wondering if he was being as meticulous in his assessment of me also. After our brief introduction, he lead us to a small door next to the apartment block he'd left. A waitress ushered us through, and I tried to hide my instant awe as we entered the most beautiful New Orleans-themed oyster bar, Maison Premiere. Soft devilish jazz floated upon the air like a fragrance, the staff were dressed like 1920's bartenders and everywhere I looked there were antiques and adornments that filled me with wonder. But we continued to walk through restaurant and through the ornate doors at the rear.

It opened out into the most beautiful garden terrace I have ever seen. Giant, towering ferns cloaked us in their sun-dappled glow as we were lead across to a small ivory-coloured wrought iron table beneath a canopy of climbing plants. Small lanterns hung beneath the leaves above our heads and brass fans rattled lazily to counter the heat of the New York City summer. I did everything I could to try and suppress my giddy excitement and retain composure, ready to deflect the wooing I was sure was about to get laid upon me.

“Have you ever had oysters before?” He smirked over the top of his sunglasses, and I replied that I hadn't, wondering if he was breaking some cardinal Sex and the City-gleaned dating rule by hiding behind sunglasses on a first date. He ordered a selection and some cocktails, and the waiter seemed impressed with the confidence in which he made his choices.

“I'll tell you a secret,” he leant over the table when the waiter had departed, “Neither have I, but sssh.”

I smiled and delicately ran my finger around the rim of my water glass. A waiter, taking this as some kind of cue, instantly leapt toward me, topping up the mere 2cm of water I must've sipped. My date and I exchanged a smirk, and I took another tentative sip, only for the waiter to spring back again, water jug primed.

“You know you don't have to-”

“It's my job ma'am.” He interrupted as a small bead of sweat trickled down his temple, and he shot me his most convincing yet pained smile. I couldn't help but laugh, and wondered if they'd be just as eager to top up our cocktails.


It wasn't long before I found myself completely lost, deeply embroiled in a conversational dance of dares. 

To my surprise, our exchanges were not constant double-entendre and the thinly-disguised pick up lines that I'd been expecting, it was rapid and fluid yet effortless, and soon the whole idea of 'meeting a stranger to tell a story then leave' went completely out the window. I began to feel bad about judging him so harshly initially – perhaps he wasn't performing this deliberately extravagant act to try and impress, perhaps he truly was just an eccentric. The glacial guard that had sprung up when I'd first met him began to slowly melt away, and the more I learned about him, the more he grew to fascinate me.

I discovered he was a writer of screenplays, and I couldn't help but admire how he spoke with genuine enthusiasm and passion about his craft. We discussed our mutual love for excavating our souls with the power of the word, and I was both surprised and charmed by the attention and interest he dedicated to everything I said. We laughed a lot.

Our cocktails arrived, and we raised our glasses to being strangers. Our waiter then appeared with a fairly intricate three-tiered display of ice and seaweed presenting our selection of oysters. I shot him a bemused look and we grinned like conspirational schoolchildren.

“I'm not sure I'm ready for this.” I said, gazing into a pulpy, opalescent shell.

“Well today's a first time for everything,” he said in his soft New Yorker accent, gingerly picking up a shell and holding it aloft. I raised mine to his, and we clinked them together like we had our cocktails, but with such slow delicacy it made us both laugh.

Then in one swift movement, we threw our heads back and they were gone. With a grimace we replaced the shells in a moment silent contemplation of what we'd just experienced.

“They're so... wet.” I said eventually, still desperately trying to enjoy what I'd just tasted. “And just... salty.”

“Darling, I can see why you're a writer.” He quipped instantly with a smirk, raising his cocktail once more.

The afternoon swirled by in melodic symphony of laughter, smiles at my hands, and intense conversation that fired back and forth like a game of ping pong. Every now and then, he would stop me mid-sentence to get me to repeat a particular word, which was followed by a small shake of the head, a smirk and an incredibly satisfying sigh of: “That accent.”

He asked me how I ended up in Brooklyn and I told him the whole story.

“Wait, what do you mean you 'finished' college, you graduated?”

“You're the only person who has picked up on that.” I laughed. “I say finished because... I kinda decided I was finished with going.”

“So you're a dropout!”

I nodded and his face broke into an excited grin.

“Well I can tell you something toots, dropouts are the best kinds of people.” 

The way he spoke was unlike anyone I'd heard in real life. He had the flair and manner of Schmidt from New Girl, the charm of a golden age Hollywood movie star and the tone of a 1940's Italian American gangster. His vocabulary was antiquated and I began to suspect his character was a museum, a careful collection of curated influences from things he loved. Everything he was, he was on purpose, but not contrived or forced. And I had a lot of respect for that. 

“You're a dropout too?” I asked.

“Of course! And hey, all the people who go on to achieve incredible things usually are.”

I leaned back in my chair with a smile, toying with the edge of my napkin and gazing up at the dancing leaves before returning my gaze to him.

“Tell me one thing about yourself you don't want to tell me.” I dared.

He mirrored my action, leaning back in his chair, and reaching for his pack of smokes from the front pocket of his blazer. 

“Alright,” he said after a while, accepting my challenge. He held a cigarette between the very edges of his lips as he spoke. “Wanna know why I dropped out?”

I nodded, sipping my cocktail.

“Well when I was a kid, I got caught up in some stuff. I'd left home and was sleeping rough in Prospect Park where I made friends with a bunch of guys who'd help me out. They'd look after me if I did some of their errands for them, you know. Deliver stuff for them. Well, it was going great, until I got caught. I was young and a troublemaker, so they didn't lock me up... they sent me to an institution.”

“It was hell. There I was with a bunch of nutjobs, just a kid who'd got caught up in some trouble. They wouldn't even let you so much as smile there, and there were like five books in the whole place. All I ever read over and over again was Oscar Wilde.” He tapped his tattoo which I then noticed was two words. “De Profundis, the novel he wrote whilst incarcerated for indecency.”

“When I finally got out of there, I knew all I wanted to do was write. But I could only ever get into the worst schools in the area. So I worked my way up, doing one semester and one school, the next semester at a better one, until I finally graduated. I then enrolled at Columbia – lasted a week.”

We both laughed.

“I was like 'just let me write my story, man!' while they were trying to get me to go to class and y'know, pay my tuition and stuff.”

“So I dropped out, finally wrote my screenplay, and pitched it to a studio in LA. And...” He held out his hands in a grand gesture. “I'm actually meeting with one of the directors after this at the Plaza Hotel. They offered me a fellowship, and an advance – at the end of July I'm moving to Los Angeles.”

I was stunned.

“And what did you end up writing about?” I asked, incredulous and he smiled.

“My time locked up, of course.”

As if waiting on queue, a waiter suddenly approached our table and asked in a nervous tone if he would be as kind as to 'extinguish' his cigarette, and we both smirked.

“Of course, good sir.” he obliged. “Now let's extinguish the rest of these damned oysters.” He said in an undertone, when our waiter was out of shot.


“Want to know something fun?” I asked as we walked side by side. He gestured to the steps of the apartment block I'd seen him emerge from hours and universes earlier, and we both sat.

“Go on?”

“This is my first ever Tinder date.”

“Aaah, well you're lucky number four.”

“It's pretty weird isn't it?”


“I'm really glad I met you.”

“Me too.”

We sat in contemplative silence, before I glanced at the time and decided to chose my dignified moment of exit.

“Listen,” He began, “Later after I've met with this director... I know this is crazy but do you want to join me for drinks at the Plaza?”

“You mean... First date part two?”

He laughed. “Exactly! Just think of between now and then as... an intermission. You know, go get some refreshments, go to the bathroom and such.”

“Well this certainly is a day of firsts, huh?”

“Sure is, darlin'.”

We bade our goodbyes, and I left without turning back, the breeze pushing the hair from the smile I was trying in earnest to conceal. I'd came in search of a stranger, and was left struck with the uncanny feeling that I wanted to know this bizarre man for the rest of my life.

After blindly skipping down a couple of blocks replaying the past few hours in my mind, my train of thought was interrupted by a sudden rip of thunder which tore through the air. I froze in my step, eyes cast skyward. Just then, the heavens opened, and an almighty torrent of rain unleashed itself upon downtown Brooklyn.

I wailed aloud in a mixture of horror and glee, and sprinted through the downpour to the towering overpass by Marcy Avenue. I jumped beneath the metal structure as the storm intensified – great sheets of tepid water smothering the scolding embers of the summer city. I bent double to catch my breath and locked eyes with a small Mexican man sat on the steps of a nearby minimart, protected by the awning. He smiled at me, shrugged and gestured to the sky, and for some reason, that small gesture of acknowledgement meant the world to me.

I waited a few moments further with a small gaggle of other bedraggled and water-logged strangers, but nothing could kill my mood. Instead, I turned back to the man, smiled and shrugged back, took off my shoes and held them in my right hand, walking directly out into the rain.

I could feel the glares of disapproval from the other storm-huddling strangers, but I genuinely had not a care in the world. Thunder and lightning tore up the sky above me, people ran from building to building to minimise their chance of getting wet, and all the while I strolled slowly and carelessly, soaked through within seconds.

And with downtown Brooklyn beneath my bare feet, the tepid New York City rain clinging my clothes to my skin, and a smile on my face which lasted the rest of the day, in that one little moment the likes of which I'd scarcely experienced, I felt so truly, wonderfully, alive.