From Harlem and Manhattan, ending with breakfast in Brooklyn – a ride on the A train is the best way to get to the the core of the Big Apple
New York feels familiar even if you've never been before, yet at the same time, truly isolating. So with 24 hours to kill in the Big Apple, I was after a different take.
Then I had an idea: I'd ride the A train, the subway line that runs north to south through Manhattan before veering east into Brooklyn and on to Queens. And it runs all night.
Up top, New York was all well-to-do neighbourhoods. I'd felt tranquil in leafy Inwood; getting off at 190th St, I’d wandered around the echoing medieval stone corridors of the Cloisters museum, with its gothic arches and baroque altarpieces exported wholesale from Europe.
But now I was filled with anticipation – mine was the only white face clambering up the Harlem subway steps at 125th. Ghettoes and gangsters filled my imagination. I wandered past the boarded-up brown-brick townhouses, graffiti and greasy shopfronts towards the legendary Apollo Theater, where I nervously pulled out my camera. Ella Fitzgerald, The Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye all made their names here. James Brown's body was displayed on the stage after his death in an open coffin, visited by lines of soul devotees. I flicked to Brown's Mind Power on my iPod and dismissed worries about muggings. Then came a tap on my shoulder.
I expected a gun. But I got a friendly smile. "Where you from?" she asked, holding out a warm hand; suddenly Harlem didn't feel so frightening. My new-found friend and I ducked into a diner, ordered weak American coffee and a slab of cheesecake and chatted busily.
Dolores was a university professor by day and a drummer in an African-American feminist drum troupe by night. She was sharp, witty and she put me straight on Harlem.
"Actually it's pretty gentrified nowadays," she told me. "Sure, race is still an issue but it's more about poverty now. New York is the only city in the USA where you can be homeless and be refused a shelter bed for the night. Many of the poor still congregate in Harlem and the Bronx."
Dolores rode with me to the plush end of town. Within ten minutes we’d reached 81st St and were strolling across Central Park. I could see the Dakota Building where Lennon had lived; all around were neo-Gothic and art deco towers. “I’m taking you to the Upper East Side,” said Dolores, “where the uptown money lives.”
Madison Avenue was all fur coats, poodles and designer labels. A fiddled-with version of Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A Train’ drifted out of a patisserie and the road was thick with yellow cabs and Cadillacs. Dolores took me into the Carlyle Hotel, braving the snooty staff in the gleaming lobby. We were interested in the Empire Suite, she said – where Prince Charles likes to stay. For five minutes we enjoyed sweeping sunset views out over Central Park from a suite decked out like a stately home.
“Thanks, but I think we’ll stay at the Four Seasons,” we said, handing the keys back to the concierge.
Back on the A I said goodbye to Dolores and headed to 42nd Street and Times Square to meet my friend Jonathan.
Jonathan had promised me a typical New York experience and was all hush-hush as we rode the A south to SoHo – a cluster of streets packed with arty boutiques and quirky bars. But I was disappointed. The Corner was just a down-at-heel diner serving warm beer, oily pastrami and burritos over a stainless-steel counter.
Then Jonathan walked right through the shop to a curtain at the rear and pulled it back to reveal a huge bouncer. He frisked us and pointed us down a set of rickety stairs and winding corridors, which led to a funky little dive swaying to funked-up Latino beats. It was the beginning of a long, crazy SoHo night, involving some raucous Brazilians, many cocktails and a club called the Pink Elephant.
It was dawn by the time I rejoined the A train on my way to Brooklyn. The Brazilians had told me to breakfast here, at Bubby’s restaurant, in the shadow of the bridge. It's known as the best place to work off a New York hangover.
As I sipped my chocolate malt, downed my eggs easy over and marvelled at the jagged Manhattan skyline over the water, I reflected that New York defies all its clichés; it has time and a welcome for everyone.