Christopher D. Abbott
It was October 1999. The flight from Heathrow was long but uneventful. After 8 hours or so, I arrived at JFK airport and found myself in another world. Checking into the country was painful. We were all seat-sore. 8 hours is a long time confined to one seat and after the exodus from the plane, we were herded into a large bottleneck of yellow lines and cordoned off queuing areas, making some of the distinctly agitated passenger equally more uncomfortable. Slowly we all shuffled forward towards the waiting area. When I found myself able to get up to a booth, excitement over came me. As if anticipating my eagerness, an armed officer appeared shouting at me to “get behind the line” I might add at this point that I looked down indifferently at the 2 millimetres or so I was actually over the yellow line by, but seeing that it would be a futile gesture on my part to offer some sort of sarcastic retort (which incidentally I admit I’m prone too) I shuffled back.
Once I had answered the same three questions, put in the four entirely different and exciting ways possible, by a charismatic immigration officer, I was allowed to enter the country; therein I hit my first hurdle. I was helped by a frankly over-friendly odious little man who ushered me towards his sparkling clean black taxi. He smiled at me, making pleasant conversation, and eventually I began to find his anecdotes almost humorous.
My humour however was short lived when as I was soon to discover, this man was in fact a licensed bandit in a cab! So it was that my holiday started in argument with the aforementioned bandit, over the price of my fare. Somewhat disgruntled and uttering comments about “taking food from the mouths of his children” we agreed a price, and I eventually booked into my Hotel.
It was cold. I was wrapped up in two jumpers (sweaters) and a jacket, spending the best part of my first day around the more obvious attractions the city had to offer. It was clean and fast moving. There was none of the pandering to tourists that I’d come to expect from my first stay in the United States (my recent trip to Florida – tourist city – had set my expectations, but this place was entirely different) this was a city that didn’t rely on tourism to sustain it. Once I had seen the sites, toured the colossal buildings, and spent far too much money, I began to tire of the city. So I decided to hit Central Park.
It was extremely cold when I started my walk, at around 7 in the morning. It took about an hour to reach the outskirts of the park, mainly because I stopped and looked at everything along the way (because I was a tourist). Avenues 9 through 3 led down to the park, so it didn’t really matter which one I took, however, I decided to go through 53rd Street and walk along until I reached 4th Avenue. I stopped and had a welcome coffee and bagel in the Plaza Building, continuing on my way down-town to Central Park. By 8:30 I had reached the park and almost immediately the day began to warm up.
Now, this is the day I shall remember for all time. As I entered the park, I found myself shocked at the almost sudden drop in noise levels, it was as if someone had turned down a radio so that the daily hustle and bustle of New Yorkers going about their business had now been reduced to a white noise. I was able to filter it out until it was almost background chatter. Without full understanding of why, my mood had instantly lifted. The park before me seemed a myriad swirl of colour and life. It will always be something that I shall treasure. The city stood proudly behind me, yet I was so caught up in the serenity that flowed around me, I barely noticed it. I spent the day wandering, I even forgot it was October, for the sun now shone down and bathed the day in happy, warming rays. I bought the best chilli-dog in the entire world (my purchase of such things at that time was limited you have to understand) and found myself with a new appreciation of life. I felt euphoric and still could not explain why.
I looked around in childlike wonder at the beauty and splendour around me; I would never have thought it possible to contain a little piece of paradise inside the boundaries of a concrete jungle. I spent the day chatting to interesting Americans. Some were tourists, like me, others were New Yorkers – and very proud of it. These were not the stereotypical Americans as portrayed in certain European and British films, but helpful, kind, generous people who loved life as much as I did. One particular man (whose name I never asked for) chatted to me over coffee for almost 3 hours. He was proud to be American and also hugely inquisitive of me, my country and everything that fell in between. It started with the Monarchy, branched off to aspects of my society, we even talked about the chilli-dog that I was so enthralled with. I had to wrack my brain for the information he asked for. Not for the first time I wished I’d paid more attention to history at school, also wishing I had read more of the social and economical issues that affected me in my little bubble-world, and even the embarrassment that he had a better knowledge of my country than I did, could not derail the conversation. We talked for an eternity, airing views and laughing at the absurdity of life. Many times we found common ground. On some issues we were at odds, but that didn’t matter. On some higher level we were able to communicate our innermost thoughts and feelings where cultural boundaries could never interfere. It was as if we’d known each other for a thousand years.
It was the best day of my holiday. It would also change my life. Not that my time in New York was unhappy, but my first impression of the city had been changed so radically by this one man – I really wish I had learnt his name.
Later the following year, September 11th 2001, I watched the terrible atrocities that unfolded across the United States. I unsuccessfully fought back tears as I thought back to that day in central park. My memories of that event helped to heal a broken heart. Senseless, unprincipled, grotesque actions would never take away my memories, nor would it change my appreciation for life, my appreciation for people (no matter what creed, colour, or sexual orientation) and the awareness I gained on that very special day. I often think about the man I spent half a day chatting too. I’d like to think he remembers me too.
Thank you, unnamed stranger.