A tale of two cities

Mental health

Ten years ago, I spent a month in New York with my sister, who lives there. It was Spring. The city was fizzy and infused with life – times a gazillion. I was in an exploratory mood and opened myself up. I studied everything and everyone around me; tiny things like how an older lady with very black hair stuffed into a red knitted hat was sitting on a bench, gesticulating to her male friend, who was nodding vehemently while clutching an over-flowing carpet bag. Or how, in one glossy neighborhood, all the women, heck all the men too, were so groomed that they seemed to shine, as if someone had painted them on to the street. I nearly bumped into Yoko Ono on the corner of a block and it was just one of those New York things – yep, there’s the iconic Yoko, just sauntering down the street. Horns honked with a special New York dialect that sounded like music to me, people yelled across the street, laughed, fought like lovers, carted bags of large, doughy freshly baked bread as they hightailed it down the street.

Everything was amazing. All of it. The people, the noise, the dirt, the guts, the glamour. It sounds corny, but I felt like New York opened its arms, drew me in, then gave me gift, after gift – wonderfully weird conversations, belly laughs, random, quicksilver friendships, beautiful vistas (even if it was rubbish over-flowing in a trashcan, I found beauty in it), things that made me cry with joy or want to punch the air. I was riding on a kinetic, almost tangible, vital energy I’d immediately tapped into on arrival and I didn’t want to ever stop skidding about on it. The city has a humongous personality, and if you get on the right side of it, it’s all-consuming, utterly intoxicating, enough is never enough; you want to keep piling more on.

A couple of years later, I went again. My mood was different, though I didn’t realise it at the time. I was closed off, sad. Worried about things. New York folded its arms, shrugged. It turned away. People were rude, relentlessly so. Its streets really were mean, just like the Scorsese film. People shoved and pushed, rolled their eyes. They had no time to talk. They didn’t want to know. I felt stifled, bewildered, wondering where ‘my’ city had gone.

Some time later I stumbled upon a quote by Ana├»s Nin: We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are, and with a visceral jolt back to the snapshots in my head, I thought of New York. Each time I was there, I had polar opposite lenses on. The later trip, I somehow became entangled with a grim underbelly of the city and its bleak undertow of negativity. And that first, explosively exquisite time – well. I’d risen up like freshly bloomed flower, delicate face turning eagerly up to the rain, sure of the nourishment that was to come.

I think about these two city trips sometimes. Why is it that when you are cranky as hell you come into contact with more of the same? Why, when you are as happy as a clam, do you get showered with an ocean of joy? It’s unfair, isn’t it? Perhaps the first time, New York should have been more unkind, made me wobble on its giddy merry-go-round. Later, it might have had the decency to cheer me up, throw me a few tidbits to haul me out of my grump. There’s a lot of awfully woo-woo stuff I could reference here but I won’t. If you think about it, it’s pretty obvious that this is how life works.

City story


I’ve been in London for the last few days. I went to learn more about meditation. I had forgotten about the vast, exciting dusty crazy beauty of the city and all the people who live there.

I learned some cool things, like if you flatten yourself really hard against the teeniest corner of the Tube that can still not be enough for the person standing in front of you with a rucksack on their back, and that if you try to force an automatically sliding cab door shut the driver will lose his shit with you. I saw the Christian Dior exhibition at the V&A, which made me remember that loving clothes isn’t frivolous as they are works of art, ate unidentifiable but divine food at Ottolenghi, drank wine, watched the majestic Emma Thompson and the gorgeous Mindy Kaling in Late Night at an adorably tiny cinema in Crouch End, caught up with my sister (whose ability to make me laugh further revealed the urgency of fixing my postnatal pelvic floor problem) and got the chance to cuddle my sassy little nieces, aged 7 and 4. I was there for just over 24 hours but came back with enough nuggets of newness to make me feel like a plant that’s just been watered.

On the way back to Heathrow, feeling like a Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoon, I watched a stand-off, as a man tried to get on the Tube with a big suitcase. There was another man blocking the door, also with a giant suitcase, and he only had about a centimetre of space in which to move further in to the train. The man trying to get on was like Arnold Shwarzenegger in The Terminator, opting for a monosyllabic and threatening ‘Move’ command. The other man did not move, then Arnie repeated: ‘Move’. This went on for a good two minutes. ‘Move,’ Arnie kept saying and the other man kept not moving. I was sandwiched right there, observing the immovability of each one with wonder and interest. I resisted the urge to step in and negotiate, because my anxious brain is pretty melodramatic and it flash-forwarded to newspaper headlines like ‘Mum stabbed to death on Tube’ or ‘Innocent mum dies in Tube terror stand-off’ and I thought, I’d better not, I’ve got three kids and this Arnie guy seems unhinged.

Arnie was persistent and eventually the whole train carriage rearranged themselves so the man blocking him at the door was able to shift a few centimeters, letting the Terminator and his unwieldy baggage on. Life carried on and I caught the eye of the girl next to me. I made a thumbs down sign and we both started to giggle. God it was hot. The next stop, Arnie was blocking the door while a young woman with absolute comedy luggage tried to get on. Arnie stepped forward and patiently helped her load on suitcase after suitcase, then meekly squeezed himself further in to the weary crowd.

Nobody is a tit all of the time. We are all only tits some of the time. The rest of the time we’re ok. That’s just how it is.