A slower pace in the city that never sleeps
After joining a rambling tour of New York, Johann Hari sees the city in a new light
When it was first suggested that I go on a Ramblers holiday in New York City, I assumed it was a joke. I had only one mental picture of ramblers. They are eccentric English people who gather in herds to walk very slowly across the English countryside. They look at grass and birds and hills, and then go home to Tunbridge Wells and complain about swearing on television. Why would they go to the most bustling metropolis on earth to do the same? It is only when I arrive at Heathrow Terminal 5 and see them actually standing there that I am finally convinced I am not taking part in a revival of Beadle's About.
Or am I? There are 19 of them, and they look like they have rambled out of the cast of an early 1970s Mike Leigh film. They are wearing brightly coloured woollen hats and brightly striped woollen jumpers and speak in awkward generalities. "Hope it's good weather," one says. "Yes. I like good weather," another replies.
You can go on a Ramblers holiday in 70 countries around the world – and the city tours, like this nine-day New York itinerary, cover as much as possible by foot, taking in the offbeat and the unusual, as well as the must-sees. As we stumble out at JFK, I feel a sliver of genuine concern. What happens when the gentle cast of a Mike Leigh film wanders into an episode of CSI: New York? What happens when pure innocence meets pure cynicism?
The ramblers seem to apply the same principles everywhere they go. You walk wherever possible. You walk a lot. And you walk slowly.
When they see the New York skyline appearing in the distance, one of them gasps: "So it really exists!" Our leader is Nigel, a warm Northern former headmaster – and he should be described as a Leader with a capital L. From the moment we arrive, the group looks to him for guidance on everything. "If you order coffee, they'll bring you coffee," he explains at our first breakfast in a New York diner. "Will they bring juice?" asks one woman. "I won't eat eggs. I never eat eggs!" cries another.
And so we begin to walk. We begin softly, in Brooklyn. We wander along sleepy avenues, through the blossom and the birdsong. The ramblers smile at a scene where the perspective seems to have surreally slipped – there are massive gay men with tiny dogs, massive black women with tiny shorts, and tiny Chinese women with massive umbrellas.
The ramblers are delighted with everything they see. They clap at the architecture. They marvel at the size of the sandwiches. They stand over the grates and feel the steam rising up all around them and gurgle with pleasure. The Statue of
Liberty stares away from it all, as if to say, "Ah, I have to let them all in, it's in my contract."
The ramblers accept every surreal turn with an intrigued grin. In Chinatown, an elderly woman is standing on the corner yelling: "Pouches! Pouches!" One of the ramblers approaches her. "Pouches?" he asks. "Pouches," she replies. "Pouches!" And they smile at each other.
The group are almost all New York virgins, and they keep experiencing that inevitable déjà vu that comes from recognising a scene from the movies. An older man called Bill deals with this by screaming out the name of the film, very loudly. When he sees the snaking fire escapes on the sides of the Brooklyn buildings, he yells: "Breakfast at Tiffany's!" On the subway, he yells: "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3!" In Chinatown, he yells: "Gremlins!"
We walk through every neighbourhood in New York. One afternoon, we collapse in Katz's Deli, where they filmed the fake orgasm scene in When Harry Met Sally. It's a huge crammed diner that feels like an explosion of stress hormones, undercooked beef, and lard. The waiters walk past you for hours, and if you catch their attention, they display the worst customer service this side of Guantanamo Bay. Eventually, they slap in front of me what is essentially an entire dead cow on a piece of bread. I suggest to the older women I am sitting with that we leaven the woe by re-enacting Meg Ryan's performance. One of them smiles gently and says: "It's been that long, I'm not sure I'd remember how. If I ever could, dear."
And as we traipse from sweaty street to swanky street, I realise something. These ramblers are so unjaded, so generous, so kind, that I am falling a little bit in love with them. When the cyclists on the Brooklyn Bridge scream at them "Outta the way! Outta the way!" they apologise politely. When they can't get their MetroCards to work on the subway, they ask gently for help. When a screaming maniac on the street announces the world will end on 17 May 2011, one of them stops and explains patiently why this is quite unlikely.
They take joy in the simple, and see through pretence in a second. On Wall Street, we stop outside Tiffany's, and stare at the sparkling rocks. I suggest we go in, and three little English ladies enter with me. The over-surgeried sales staff utter a condescending "hello", as if they were doing us a favour by letting us in.
One of the women – Pam, a retired Job Centre worker in her seventies – gives the goods a once-over and says: "Eeeee, what a lot of tat. You can buy stuff just as good in Salford Market for a tenth of the price. Who can tell the difference?" The look of condescension on the American shop assistant's face – and the unimpressed confidence on Pam's – made me want to spontaneously sing the British national anthem.
At its best, New York City feels like a party for seven million people with no bouncers. I never thought I'd want to crash the party with this group of people – but now, I can't think of anyone better. They have rambled around New York – and into myheart.
The original version of this article appears in the June 2011 issue of High Life, which is available on all British Airways flights and at bahighlife.com
Travel essentials: New York City
* Ramblers Worldwide Holidays (01707 331133; ramblersholidays.co.uk) offers a nine-day Big Apple tour, from £ 1,369 per person (based on two sharing) including BA flights from Heathrow, transfers, two-star accommodation at the Hotel Newton, breakfast and five dinners. The next trip departs on 15 October.
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