Sunday 18 October 2015

The Kindness of One in the City of Strangers

Truly, New York City is home for the strange. I could have never anticipated just how many strangers would end up looking out for me during my time there, and providing me with the most wonderful stories, too. This is the story of perhaps my favourite encounter with a stranger. And it all began with an idea.

About halfway through my trip, I realised a metamorphosis had occurred. I was no longer that same girl who'd stepped out onto the tarmac at JFK wearing - very erroneously - black tights and a jumper. A familiar flower was beginning to unfurl in my chest and lingered on the edge of my every experience. 

There's a book in this, it said.

It took less than a few hours to draw it out of my soul, and soon I had a plot, characters and one heck of a story, all based on the experiences I'd had so far. All that was missing was more knowledge of the city - I still didn't feel like I'd experienced enough of it to be able to write it accurately.

The main focus of my story was an apartment building in Lower Manhattan where my protagonist would live. It was mostly based around where Chloe lived in the East Village, but although her apartment was perfect in location, it didn't have roof access, and she only lived on the first floor. The aesthetic glutton in me wanted a VIEW.

So, I turned to craigslist.

I posted an ad in the property section, and I told my story. I explained I was a British writer who'd fallen in love with the city, and wanted to do as much research as I possibly could whilst I was still here. It was a long shot, but hey. You never know unless you try, right?

I waited for days, checking my emails excitedly every hour. But nothing.

Until later in the week, I got an email from someone named Courtney.

Does this rooftop suffice? I'm an artist too. More visual than the written word but I have a roof top that deserves some love. Let me know when you are available. I'm on the lower west side.

And attached... was a photo of the most beautiful photo roof terrace I had ever seen. My heart absolutely jumped for joy, but the pessimist in me soon bought me back down to earth. No way. This was way to good to be true. Why would a person with a place like this be on craigslist?

But like hell was I going to miss an opportunity. Anxious thoughts of the 'craigslist killer' swirled in my brain but I pushed them away purposefully. I'd just take a friend. (At least then I wouldn't die alone, right.)

I shot an email back and asked if they were free this weekend and they could show me around. A response came through quickly.

I'm not free this weekend, but you're welcome to use it when I'm not there. The doormen shouldn't question you unless you look out of place. Here are the codes you'll need...

And I genuinely exclaimed OHMYGOD aloud as beneath, this person had provided me with all the access codes to their building, and details of how to get to the roof terrace, including a secret code you had to put into the elevator.

Could... could this actually be genuine? I couldn't contain my excitement at the prospect. It was a little less daunting knowing they wouldn't be there too, but simultaneously I remained wary and a little stunned that they would give out this information to a stranger off of craigslist...

So, that weekend, armed with a notebook and my 35mm camera, I hopped on the subway to the Lower West Side, unable to control my shaking hands with the excited nerves. The doorman comment unnerved me, so I spent the journey endlessly rehearsing what I was going to say if I got stopped.

'I spoke to you this morning, sir, you don't remember? I'm staying with my Aunt on the 14th floor! Courtney. Yes, Courtney Mason. Why yes I am British! Thank you for noticing. Now if you don't mind, she's waiting for me upstairs - we're off to see an American in Paris on Broadway tonight - I know, I'm a lucky girl! Cheerio'

When I finally arrived, I gazed up in awe at my destination. This mysterious person who'd found me on Craigslist lived in a building named 'Ocean Luxury Apartments', a beautiful old building in the Financial District, built in 1902. For some reference, this is what the outside of the building looked like, and this is the website. I KNOW RIGHT.

I quickly dashed round the corner to breathe deeply and collect myself, before straightening up and assuming the persona of spoilt British niece. With my head held high, I sauntered up the steps of the great building, and concealed my internal squealing with the impeccable acting A-Level Theatre Studies could afford me. The doormen on either side of the door were distracted with flustered map-wielding tourists, so I breezed past, heading purposefully down the centre of the marble foyer toward the lift, stealing a glance at the elaborately-painted Renaissance ceilings above. My heart was beating faster than it had ever done in it's little life.

As the lifts grew nearer I panicked, as there were several buttons, and I had no idea at what point I had to input the code. Just as a small bead of sweat began to threaten to reveal my disguise, an old tanned gentleman appeared from behind me and pressed a button. I smiled at him sweetly, and with a ding, the doors slid open to reveal a glorious and unnecessarily luxurious lift.

I followed him and sent a silent exclamation of joy into the universe as he tapped his code on a keypad and pressed the button for the 35th floor - the floor Courtney had informed me was the roof terrace. The ride was brisk but awkward, soft melodic elevator music the only thing invading the silence, before I caught his gaze and we exchanged grins and he nodded at my camera asking in a deep Southern accent 'You a photographer or su'um?'

To which I panicked, then replied in my best American accent, "Yes I am. Here for that view of course!" and he smiled, satisfied. I still don't know why I put on that accent.

We exited the lift heading opposite ways down the thankfully well-marked hall, and I followed the sign declaring the 'ROOF' was thataway. There were a few people ahead of me, and they held open the door as we reached the entrance to the terrace, and I thanked them, internally musing that so far I hadn't needed a single code.

But when I stepped out onto that roof terrace... I could have cried.

Because THIS was what a complete stranger off the internet had given to me:

I could not believe my eyes and my hands were shaking uncontrollably (although that may have been to the 35th floor height too.) The roof had a little terrace where people were eating, drinking and chatting, and then two of the four corners opened out onto the beautiful, panoramic view across the open sea. The two corners behind were concealed by the other 20-odd floors of the building, but this view was more than I could have ever bargained for. To the left, the view looked upon the lush greenery of Battery Park - the very southernmost tip of the Manhattan Isle - where the ferries departed from an adorable little colonial clocktower building, and took passengers to Ellis Island, Governors Island, and to see Lady Liberty herself. 

To the right, a few taller skyscapers dotted the view with tantalising peeks of the Hudson river and New Jersey in between. The late afternoon sun reflected golden from the buildings, and little sailboats glided gracefully along the waterway. Across the entire panaroma I could see for miles and miles into the distance, all across Brooklyn, Staten Island and New Jersey and beyond. I suppose when I'd posted the listing I'd been in search of a view of the cityscape, but instead, I'd been given something far greater which summed up the unexpectedness of  New York City to me - it's glorious and encapsulating ode to nature that is so easy to overlook. 

I must've remained up there for approximately an hour and a half, frantically scribbling notes in wobbly handwriting and filling up rolls of film with photos. I could feel my face flushing and part of me just wanted to cry, and I don't think I've ever felt such a moment of hyper-presence as I did standing on that rooftop.

I timed my departure with the sunset and reluctantly left the rooftop, dancing through the streets of Lower Manhattan in glee. This time, I didn't get the subway. I walked all the way back through to Wall Street from memory, and felt a little giddy that I could actually remember. At Wall Street, I hopped on the ferry that would take me back to Brooklyn, and as we soared across the waves of the East River, I gazed back at twilight Manhattan and my heart soared greater that it ever has done before.

The moment I got in, I sent over these photos and an email bursting with gratitude and joy to Courtney - someone who had allowed me this most incredible gift for no reason other than pure kindness and blind trust.

This person had stumbled across an honest stranger just looking to seek greater in life, and instead of ignoring it as none of their business, they'd decided to take an unfounded risk and just say okay. Through just this one word, this complete stranger had allowed me to experience one of the most incredible, treasured moments of my time in New York and indeed my life, and taught me a powerful lesson in bravery, kindness and the curious and beautiful union of strangerhood that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  

I told her I'll most definitely featured her in my book, and later, I received the simple, incredible reply;

Your photos are beautiful :-) I'm glad you enjoyed the view as much as I do. I
go up there a lot and it is very inspiring. I like to help out other creatives in the city where I can, because I know a little help goes a long way. I hope you found everything you needed.


And if that doesn't restore your faith in humanity, I don't know what will.