Wednesday 15 July 2015

The 4th of July in New York City

Have you ever had one of those moments, 

A moment that interrupts your perception of the pace of reality quite suddenly -

Perhaps you witness an accident, bump into a familiar friend in an unexpected place, or hear announcement of some shocking news which all of a sudden makes you forget what you were doing and why - and you suddenly achieve this deep-rooted awareness to a molecular level about exactly who you are, what you're doing and what is happening?

I'm not sure if there's a proper name for it, but I like to call it 'Hyper Presence' - a moment in which you are suddenly torn from your familiar pace and comfortable, consistent method of processing the world and pasted into a completely new context of awareness, which finds you stunned, disorientated, and more than a little bit dazed.

Maybe it was the beer, perhaps it was the company, or even the place in which we stood, but gazing up into the indigo sky on the 4th July, it suddenly hit me hard, and gazing over at my best friend I realised the hyperpresence had suddenly gripped him too.

The day had began surprisingly and frustratingly bleak. 

I'd picked Greg up from Penn Station the day before, me in my monochrome Brooklyn basics and him stepping straight off the train from Virginia looking like Huckleberry Finn, with his denim dungarees, sunblushed skin and messy straw-coloured hair bleached by the country sun. 

"You look ridiculous." I'd said. "I've missed you." 

He proceeded to do a terrible job for the rest of the day pretending he wasn't hurt by my dismissal of his get-up.

The sun had shone so optimistically then, but we awoke bleary-eyed and hungover in our apartment the next morning to overcast skies that drizzled and complained more than I (which is saying something) and it was safe to say we were concerned. After a frustratingly fruitless trip to the obviously holiday-closed Vintage Store in Gowanus, we stopped by Red Hook to pick up some clothes (and a hastily grabbed American flag), and I finally got to the opportunity to show my best friend the bizarre little place I'd been living for exactly one month. 

To my delight, he was just as awestruck as I'd been when I first saw the boat, and from then on, his enthusiasm seemed to ignite both of our moods and begin to chase away the rainclouds. 

As the sun rose shyly we took the ferry into Manhattan, stopping for coffee on Wall St and a late lunch in the East Village, before taking the L train back into Williamsburg to prepare for the evening. Manhattan was bizarrely peaceful and quiet, a calm-before-the-storm of the evenings festivities, we reasoned.

But stepping out of the subway station in Williamsburg and heading over to our apartment, we saw something that filled me with such powerful joy and excitement for what lay ahead, that I shall never ever forget. 

Turning off Bedford Ave and onto our street, a sudden commotion captures our attention, and we turn to see an old silver 1950's convertible roaring down the asphalt toward us. The car pauses at the stop sign and a burst of music, cheering and laughter erupts from the guys and dolls within, the clamour echoing off the great Brownstones which line the sidewalks. In one swift movement, a guy with slicked black hair, bottle of liquor in hand and cigarette dangling precariously out of his mouth stands up in the backseat of the droptop as the car tears away from the stop sign, and his whoops of carefree ecstasy mingle with the squealing of the tires as the car bolts down Whythe Avenue and into the haze of New York City on the 4th of July.

"Happy Independence day, kid." I smirk at Greg and we laugh in giddy joy.

Our place was on S 2nd street - just two blocks from the venue of our celebrations - the 8th floor roof terrace of a luxury apartment block overlooking the Williamsburg bridge and the East River. 

Heather and Alex were their names, friends of Hywel's - a guy who was work friends with a still very amicable former boyfriend of mine back in the UK, and we'd hung out a handful of times when he still lived in London. A guy that had no need to help me when I moved here alone, (especially since the boyfriend, our only mutual friend, and I had broken up long, long before) but out of the kindness of his newly-American heart, reached out and offered any advice he could give - which ended up being the start of a wonderful re-friendship, and he becoming one of my closest friends out here. 

One evening he'd invited me along to a gig with his friends, which was the night I'd met Heather and Alex, a married couple comprised of a sweet British guy and a beautiful Southern girl with a penchant for saying y'all and a manner of always making sure we had a drink in our hands and were happy that genuinely melted my heart into a hearty puddle of grits.

And now Hywel wasn't even there - he'd decided his first ever 4th of July as an official resident was better spent at Nascar in Florida (I know right, NASCAR? Someone have a word.) - but still, in the spirit of the American kindness which had been so overwhelming and surprising for we apparently cold-hearted Brits, Heather & Alex had made sure to extend an invite to their 4th July party with open arms and copious plates of most-welcome food shoved in our general direction.

And now here I stood with Greg - my best friend, bandmate and partner in vibe I'd met an entire world away at University in Hatfield, Hertfordshire two years ago - who was getting on like an absolute house on fire with these as-good-as-strangers who'd adopted me into their transatlantic friendship group over the past few weeks, and my heart did a weird little hoppidy-skip thing as a beaming smile broke across my expression, a mirror of the setting sun peeking ardently through the slowly dissipating clouds. 

Talk about THAT for an obscure but wonderful series of connections.

The sprawling roof terrace was packed with hundreds of excited Brooklynites, dancing, playing beer pong or laughing with friends. Beers were imbibed, hotdogs were consumed, and gradually the amber sun made its curtain call, and the milky sky turned a delightful shade of lilac, the twinkling lights of Manhattan popping into existence one by one until the whole skyline was alight.

It was positively breathtaking.

By nightfall the excitement was palpable as everyone waited in anticipation for the main event - the famed Macy's 4th July firework display. 

At 9.30pm, our wait was finally rewarded, as the first signal flare soared soundlessly into the sky, exploding in a shower of golden sparks.

To try and explain what we witnessed is almost as futile as the photos we so desperately attempted to take before realising it was never going to do justice to what is like to stand there on that rooftop.

That was when I turned to Greg.

That was when I realised that less then two months ago I was a depressed Uni-dropout living in a house with strangers in a town I hated, working in a coffee shop inside a cinema to try and pay my bills and afford my pills. 

And as that wave of hyperpresence hit me, I realised exactly where I was right then. And I'll be damned if I didn't feel a little lump rise in my throat. 

I grabbed the hand of my best friend and squeezed tight as the drunken strangers and friends around us began to sing the Star-Spangled Banner - their blissful faces periodically illuminated pink, green, orange - and the cars on the Williamsburg bridge honked their horns in salute, and I turned back to the Manhattan skyline, beer in hand, and in that moment, I glimpsed perfection. 

It was as though gravity had been put on pause, and the tiny little lights in all the silhouetted buildings and the tiny little stars in the ebony sky began to drift hypnotically toward one another, magnetised by the pull of the grace and togetherness the people in this city had conjured, and the point in which they met, the very night air that surrounded them acted as a catalyst, and they exploded into beautiful multicoloured  showers of shimmering light, mirrored by the river which lit up in a spectrum of colour, holding the little boats afloat of a canvas of rainbow light.

Right then and there, I held on to that fleeting moment of perfection with every fibre of my biological being, and allowed myself to transcend these planes of awareness to fully acknowledge that this, right now, was not fiction.

This was real life, and not just anyone's. This was my life. 

And that night, the fireworks finally ceased, a live band appeared on the rooftop and we danced until dawn, even as the hypocritically-celebrating Brits we were, because there is nothing more powerful, more profound and more necessary, than a sudden and soul-wrenching reminder that you really are fucking alive.