New York City is not a city to be contained in the cage of words. I barely landed at JFK when I was thrown into the reality that, actually, there is no New York. There are many New Yorks.
The first New York you see when you get out of the airport looks dirty, poor, and ugly. I didn’t expect that of all places, it will happen to me here, in the US: a major culture shock. It started with having to accept the reality of lots of trash on the streets. I accept.
Then it was the people talking to themselves. At first I wondered if they had wireless earphones. But no, they don’t talk on the phone. The first self-talking man passes, I accept. And there is a second one. A third. A fourth. A fifth. In fact, in almost every metro car I ride on, I see them. Mumbling. Pointing fingers. Fighting fights with invisible ghosts. I accept.
After that comes the girl beaten by her uncle at the local pizza store. The pizza slice is 2,50$. It’s not a famous pizzeria. Nobody ever recommended me to go there, I discovered it by chance. But damn, that’s the best margarita I’ve had. I wonder if I’ll ever be able to eat margarita in my life again after I leave Brooklyn. It’s that good. Back to the girl. She holds two dollars in her hand. Not enough for a slice. She looks at me and tells me she doesn’t have 50 cents for a slice and she has problems at the moment. I gave her a dollar. Meanwhile, the margarita I am waiting for is warming up. Her uncle comes to the store. He is fat, sweating and mumbles something. My slice is warmed up and ready for me to take away. The uncle approaches. I leave the pizzeria and I hear her voice vaguely as I step outside “she just gave me a dollar”. I accept. By the way, the pizzeria is called Broadway Pizza, 1142 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY 11221, USA.
Next is the guy trying to sell me cocaine in plain sight in the middle of Times Square. “You want some cocaine miss ?” Part of me was curious to see what would happen if I reply “yes”. The “is this for real” prankster in my head. But my survival instinct took me 180 degrees in the other direction and I left saying “no thanks”. It took me a few seconds to realise what had just happened to me. I was slightly shocked, amazed, a bit amused, a bit sad but… I accept.
As if nothing can surprise me anymore, in the early morning hours I see a person doing heroin in yet another metro car. At this point, all my life outside the underground is virtual reality. The metro is my anchor. It is my grounding point. It is the place where I feel New York is not the city of dreams. It is the city of nightmares. I can’t forget these watery red eyes. I can’t forget the tension on that face, that sweat drop sliding on his temple and hiding in his beard. My heart won’t let me do this, but I’m forced to accept by the circumstances that this was real.
Then is the Orthodox New York in the Jewish neighbourhood. Where time is frozen as if 200 years ago. Where people have kosher content filters on their smartphones. Where people hire Mexicans to push the elevator button because they can’t use technology on Saturdays. No outsider mixes with them, they want no-one to convert. They are between themselves only, about 300K of them. Largest Jewish community outside Israel.
In Upper Manhattan things couldn’t be further from this reality. The art deco buildings. The sculptures. The limousines. The sequin heels with pink feathers. The stores where mortals can only afford window shopping. The luxuriously perfumed wind coming from the neck of a man crossing my way to get in his black Chevrolet. The drops of Moet & Chandon flying from the rooftop parties… Boy if only I was rich…
Go to Lower East Side where the entire spirit of the neighbourhood is synthesised in the Katz’ restaurant atmosphere. These streets are a photographer’s dream. The tenements. The once-upon-a-time nest of mafia, criminals and bohemian life. The end of Chinatown and beginning of immigrant dreams…
Then comes the superficial Instagramness of SOHO. The nail & beauty salons. The neon signs. The street art sponsored by Gucci and Chanel. The shops for drinks as expensive as a meal, a meal as expensive as your daily food allowance and people as cheap as a fake Louis Vuitton bag sold outside Canal Street market.
On Wall Street people in suits talk and walk fast. Lincoln overlooks the New York Stork Exchange building. The Fearless Girl faces angrily the same. Three large American flags hang from the wall and sway with the direction of the air currents. Dunkin’ Doughnuts and 1$ hot dogs are sold a few blocs far from the Federal Reserve Bank’s building where the largest amount of the world’s gold is physically kept. I couldn’t get a shot of The Charging Bull because of the tourist crowds taking selfies with his behind and holding his balls in their hands. I wish this bull was alive and give them what they deserved. I came back next day at 7:00am in the rain to get a crappy picture and have my umbrella broken by the strong wind and raindrops.
No. No. There is no New York. These are many realities entwined in this city.
Of all these realities the hardest to accept was Ground Zero. Reliving 9/11 left me in tears and admiration for the strength of New Yorkers. It was heartbreaking to see people still coming to say goodbye to their loved ones. One girl from a coffee shop told me she hasn’t been there yet. I didn’t dare to ask more.
Not far from Manhattan, Lady Liberty stands in the middle of the Hudson River. Her undaunted face stays locked in timeless strength and beauty. Stay forever there because this city must never lose its values. This city must never bow to those who try to destroy its integrity through violence, hate and divisiveness. And to all of you New Yorkers – you were the most open and easy to talk to people I’ve met. Anything goes in New York – from talking in the metro, while waiting in lines, in cafés, shops… to getting a seat for Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon in the same week. USA has L.A., but I tell you there are angels in New York too. And these are the hustlers. The people that shared a few moments of their lives with me there. I feel it is it the beginning of a life long love for USA because of you. Because you showed me hospitality, acceptance, curiosity and generosity.
Now let me fly you to Times Square for a little. It is precisely in Times Square, in the middle of all the flashing lights around Broadway that I realized this city can easily take the best out of you. That you can fall in deep. And that the bottom of the well is cold, dark, lonely. NYC can squeeze you and throw you in the trash bin. It can make you dream big. But the moment you extend your hand to catch God and go to heaven you feel the icy grip of the Devil. If you’ve ever done sparring you know that there comes a point where you don’t care about how many more punches you take in. All that matters to you is to get through the end of the fight alive. There is something about this city that makes you feel like you’re about to die any minute now. And I don’t mean getting shot. I mean your heart stopping. That sensation keeps you alert. It keeps you wanting to get through New York alive.
New York scared me, captured me, then liberated me, inspired me, tricked me, saddened me, made me spend all my money without feeling guilty for it. It made me want to share all these stories with you. Because in all it’s absurdity, in all it’s ugliness there is something in this city. There is something that makes me want to play it big. Something that makes me want to leave all my life behind and start anew there. Something that makes me want to hustle anonymously until I make a name for myself. There is something that makes me forgive it all. And I want to be back. Again… And again… And again…
I stayed in New York for exactly 15 days from 19th Jan 2019 to 2nd Feb 2019 including. This was my first visit ever to the US. All described here happened in NYC in this timeframe. All street art rights belong to the authors of the respective works. All pictures © Alex Kovacheva. Pictures taken with Sony Alpha + E 3.5-5.6/PZ 16-50 OSS. Missed my Nikon D810 so much. Next time, baby.