Documentary project postponed for twelve months, London home rented, Julian Sayarer – former world record holder of circumnavigation by bike, author of Life Cycles and devout consumerism antagonist – finds himself at a loose end in New York. A some time travel writer, Sayarer decides the best decision for his career is to hitchhike some 3,000 miles across the vast republic. As you do. New York to San Francisco: welcome to another side of America…
This place, it’s big all right. The coffee cups are buckets. The pavements the size of a small, European road. I don’t need to tell you this. From Manhattan to Friends with a million Facebook selfies in between, we’ve all been well-educated in just what it feels to be on the streets of New York. How it feels when the wind barrels down an alley of skyscrapers and, from somewhere in the city’s grey winter, it finds two dozen dead, yellow leaves to throw off the subway steps and up into the air. Just like in the movies.
I sit on a stool at the bar of a diner. I’ve drank too much coffee, but only because he keeps refilling the cup, and my hand keeps lifting it back to my mouth even though I don’t want any more coffee. Whether it’s oil, coffee or crab sticks, America believes in bottomless. America doesn’t believe in things running out. I always wonder if this is some fear of death, lodged at the base of their incessant optimism. I’ve been sitting in this diner an hour and a half, writing in a notepad. I’ve done versions of the same in cities all over the world. Only in America would I be given the line about to come my way. Waiter steps up to me from across the counter, points at notepad and pen. Looks at me so solemn. “What you’re doing is really awesome.” And I have almost no idea that I’d done anything.
To be honest, in truth, right now things could be better. I walk up Fifth Avenue, though inside New York I have to call it just Fifth. A Chanel-Vuitton-Prada guard of mannequin honour stands above me, a consumer rigor mortis in a world where I don’t belong. The project I flew here for has been delayed a year, I’ve rented out my room in London, and being someone who makes most of his little money from travelling and writing, I’m finding myself sinking into the absurd position where the most sensible thing I could do for my career is to hitchhike to California. I suppose San Francisco makes most sense.
I ride the subway back to Brooklyn, bags to collect and goodbyes to say. A man with a beard watches me from the reflection in a curved window opposite. He looks familiar, familiar apart from a three-foot forehead under his hat, each inch of it full of America and question marks. Of all the things I love about New York – St Mark’s bookstore that stays open until midnight, Strand’s eighteen miles of bookshelves, the fried onions on my hotdog – of all the things I love about New York, the subway is my favourite. Through the hallways the people pass, black stockings and suits between black girders and white tiles. Not a snip of eye contact anywhere, and I’m just as guilty as the rest of them, as we all slice through one another, to the hard rhythm of a busker’s drum.
I get out by Prospect Park, I prefer it to Central, less famous and more down-to-earth, the trees here are taller than the buildings, where in Manhattan everything lives in the shadow of skyscrapers. I head for a café, for pastries and coffee. I guess Brooklyn’s not what it used to be, but I suppose you’ve got to put the middle classes somewhere, keep them comfortable on the way to extinction. I look around at the buildings, the bars and thrift stores. And I wonder, if East London is quite obviously trying to make itself look as if it were Brooklyn, then just what is Brooklyn trying to look like?