New York: behind the steel and glass

marilyn stowe new yorkNew York is buzzing. The recession is over, the streets are thronged with people, the tills in the shops are ringing and the restaurants are packed. When I was there last week, the city that never sleeps certainly lived up to its reputation.

Although I had some work to do, I still made time for my favourite pastime: people-watching. Manhattan is, after all, one of the most fabulous islands on the planet – and the rich and powerful cluster there. I doubt there is anywhere else on Earth that comes close to the wow factor of Central Park, and I like to walk around the reservoir and gaze in awe at the skyscrapers dominating the skyline from every angle.

But New York’s underbelly is a hard, tough place. You don’t always realise it as a tourist. The people are moving at such a fast pace, you get caught up in it. You forget that you are striding block after block at a frantic pace, just to keep up with everyone. Yesterday I was back in London, in the City and it felt like I was walking along in slow motion.

To live successfully in New York is far from easy. The impression I have is that to survive and live life exactly how you want, not giving a damn for anyone but yourself, you have to be tough and have a skin like an armadillo. Not everyone can cope with wealth and fame: look at Charlie Sheen who, following an infamous incident at New York’s Plaza Hotel last year, is now living his fast life firmly in the public eye.

Power comes with having money, because money rules everything in New York. It buys you friends in high places, no matter how low you may have fallen. Money will excuse you. If you are rich there is nothing – or no-one – you cannot have. In New York, there is everything you could ever want and all of it is within reach, within a block or two. Be rich, or allow people to think you are rich, and you can’t lose. And if you have no money? There are plenty of people in the city who pretend to be happy and successful, who are desperate to achieve the American Dream and to gain riches beyond their wildest dreams. Much attention is focused upon the small island of Manhattan, where some of the richest people in the world live life in the fast lane and don’t give a damn who sees.

I noticed a large number of sharp-suited businessmen, who seemed to do deals around power lunches or early dinners. The New Yorkers eat early dinners, presumably because they then go home, out of the city. Businessmen in grey suits were plentiful in the New York restaurants I visited. At Milos on W 55th Street, they crowded by the door. The restaurant was so full, it was hard to get inside. Once there, it was easy to see why it is currently “the” place to be. The design emulates a Greek island and works perfectly: painted white walls, a splash of blue for the sea and yellow for the sun and beach. There is even a fish bar, like the harbour, where all the seafood and fish have been flown in daily from the real Greek isles and laid out on ice for diners to choose what they wish to eat.

It was an exceptional restaurant, with fabulous food, wine and atmosphere. It was exceptional for people-watching too. “That’s Mr Bono and Mr Edge”, said the waiter as they were leaving, waving to Paloma Picasso who sat at another table.

I amused myself by imagining some of the lives of those who frequented the swanky chi chi restaurants in Manhattan. Had you been there, you too would have observed that the grey-suited men weren’t the only ones doing business deals. Younger girls, pretty and vacant, were apparently besides themselves with interest in their much older dining companions. I saw many tables of such couples: very young women being shown off by men in their seventies. They were brandishing their trophy acquisitions, as well as doing their business deals. To me, it didn’t look nice. For them, it was all about show and there was no embarrassment at all. They were there to see and be seen.

In one smart restaurant on the Upper East Side, an overweight businessman in his sixties stood talking to a very stunning but very young girl. She can’t have been any more than 18 and she wore a barely-there dress that left little to the imagination.

“Let me introduce you to my mother” she said to the businessman. Up came a cool, elegant blonde in her forties, wearing a cashmere coat with a fur collar.

“That’s no mother!” laughed my lunch companion, my savvy friend Edith. A remarkable woman who is in her late seventies, Edith had, despite her arthritis, driven herself into Manhattan in her Cadillac. She had simply left the car parked akimbo on the corner of Madison Avenue and 57th, by the traffic lights and six lanes of mad traffic. That’s New York style!

The businessman and the blonde shook hands, then the blonde woman left. Deal done, the businessman and the girl sat down together. The last I saw of them, the girl was ordering a glass of expensive champagne.

So is that how rich men of New York live? I am sure that most don’t – but some clearly do. Age doesn’t seem to stop them. And what of their wives? Why were those women so conspicuously and mysteriously absent from all those power dinners and lunches?

On Friday, my last day in New York, I went into my favourite store: Bergdorf Goodman on 5th Avenue. A glamorous woman in her sixties, wearing a long mink coat and sunglasses, walked up to a counter close to where I stood admiring the handbags.

“I’m going to Palm Beach on Tuesday to play golf in a golf tournament”, she said loudly to no-one in particular. “I need a gift for the girl friend I’m staying with.”

She stood by the counter, waiting to be inspired. A store assistant said nothing, but produced two credit card holders in crocodile skin. One was red, the other black. “Whichever”, said the customer.

“Take the red”, said the assistant, neither of them looking at the items. It took no more than a couple of minutes. The customer couldn’t have cared less about a perfect gift for her hostess. Then the assistant said, “Would you like it gift wrapped? I can have it delivered to the door for you to collect”.

The customer looked at her incredulously.

“I can’t wait that long”, she thundered. “I’m going to Palm Beach on Tuesday!”

At that point I could see why, perhaps, a few of those older men in grey suits weren’t in such a hurry to get home…

On the flight home I thought about what I’d seen. I wondered how some of the people I had observed had been changed by life, and how they had started out. Some of the plastic-looking people I watched and listened to could have been straight out of a book. In fact hundreds of books have been inspired by these same New Yorkers.

No-one lives without being touched by joy and tragedy – that’s the nature of life. But at what point does a tough skin become impervious to life itself?

New Yorkers have a reputation for being cold and abrasive. Like the city itself, however, what you find when you peel back the outermost layer is often very different. After the tragedy of 9/11 the city – and its people – showed the world a different side. They showed great fortitude but also spirit and vulnerability.

Last week I went to Ground Zero and saw the first results of the relentless work of hundreds of builders. They are transforming Ground Zero, with a memorial park and a distinctive tower that is slowly rising out of the ashes.

As the steel and glass tower grows, Ground Zero is being reborn as One World Trade Center. And perhaps New Yorkers’ tough self-confidence and inviolability is being reborn with it.

This post was selected for the 29th Carnival of Wealth – March 13 2011 Edition, hosted by Personal Dividends.

2 comments

Andarin - March 12, 2011 at 7:49pm

I first visited last year and avoided the expensive restaurants (which is probably part of the reason why I didn’t see any famous people), but I enjoyed very much too. Central Park is enormous.

I enjoyed your perspective into New York. Congratulations, you’re going to be included in the upcoming Byteful Travel blog carnival! Remember to retweet and stumble when it comes out. 🙂

Andarin - May 31, 2011 at 10:33pm

Hello again!

Just wanted to say thanks again for submitting this article to the 6th Byteful Travel Blog Carnival. Be sure to spread the word in any way that appeals to you (retweeting is one of the easiest ways). And I hope to see your submissions again next time!

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