Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Ah, but New York...

By Fayza Hassan

Fayza HassanNever having been to New York is, in certain circles, akin to never having tasted caviar or missed out on the ministrations of ballet teachers in childhood: one does not really belong. Tales of stays in Paris, Rome, Madrid or London are met with polite indifference. "Ah, but New York," they tell you, "is something else altogether."

Until last month, I belonged to the category of the have-nots, and it is therefore with understandable trepidation that I prepared to spend a few hours in the city touted to be the centre of the world.

What did I really know about New York? Years ago, I had heard that an acquaintance who had settled there had been killed in his apartment by mistake. According to the friend who related the incident, Robert had answered the door and had been shot point blank, the victim of an unfortunate mix-up: the hit man had stopped at the wrong floor. From then on, I had decided that only danger lurked behind the name. In my mind I saw long, dark, hearse-like limousines, gliding silently through the rain, their tinted windows hiding slick and sinister men playing with guns. As an extra touch, I had added a picture of a tall young African American man (probably seen in a magazine) tearing down a sidewalk on his roller blades, wearing only extensions in his hair and a great deal of grease on his body.

The news of New York surgeon Robert Bierenbaum's impending trial for the murder of his wife, Gail Katz, allegedly committed fifteen years ago, did nothing to dispel the imagery. Gail vanished in the summer of 1985 from her Upper East side apartment and her husband is now being accused of having cut her to pieces, which he then disposed of without anyone noticing. Of course, in New York, no one is interested in their neighbours' business, I told myself as we stood outside JFK at 6.00am, trying to hail a taxi, which would take us to the area where the Bierenbaums had lived once. We had not chosen Upper Manhattan as our destination for the purpose of gawking at the poor woman's windows -- although I must say that I would have been thrilled to have the place pointed out to me -- but only because my daughter had a friend who lived near Lincoln Square.

Emil spotted us on the footpath. "Where do you want to go?" he asked in heavily accented middle European NewYorkese. We told him, and he ushered us briskly towards his car, insisting that we did not need to put out our cigarettes. His taxi, he said proudly, was not smoke-free. A young Asian girl was already sitting in the back of the vehicle. Emil was a talkative man and conversation was easy, since he both asked the questions and provided the answers. We learned that the young woman riding with us was getting off on Broadway and the silent young man sitting up front was heading in the same direction. Emil wanted us to notice that a good taxi driver would know better than to take the bridge (the Triborough) at this hour of heavy traffic (it was only 6.30am, for heaven's sake), and would definitely go through the tunnel instead. "Don't forget to tell your driver to take the tunnel on the way back, if you really want to catch your plane," he advised.

I was looking around, amazed at the greenery that lined the way, the cleanliness and the utter silence and order in which the cars proceeded. It was eerily different from Cairo. Emil was telling all and sundry about how the present mayor had cleaned up New York and made it a safe place. With his kind of job, he ought to know, he said. I suddenly envied him his intimate knowledge of the city and the fact that he could rattle off names of streets with such ease. He was from New York; I was an outsider. When he stopped to let the Asian girl out, I caught a glimpse of a large avenue bathed in a strange light, that of the morning sun coming out from behind the clouds. "Broadway," I told myself, mentally repeating a word that I had had more occasions to read than to mouth. "Look," said my daughter, pointing; "look at Bebe." She was referring to her favourite clothes shop of the moment and as I turned around to admire the windows of several exclusive boutiques, I spotted a Barnes and Nobles on the left. Had it not been closed at that early hour, I would certainly have asked Emil to stop there and then.

As we drove on, I felt a strange attraction to the mixture of impressive Art Nouveau and Art Deco buildings lining the avenues, with their beautifully incongruous statues, their wrought-iron balconies, the elegant canopies over their entrances and the uniformed janitors standing at their doors. No less striking were the intricately decorated churches. It was, I thought, the ultimate celebration of architectural splendour and daring. All the while, I was trying to work out in my mind how I could settle here. I had fallen in love with the city at first sight. This, I thought, would be really living. How right people had been to tell me that New York was something else...

Suddenly the taxi came to a halt, wrenching me out of my reverie. We had arrived. Emil was obviously happy with us. Not only had he charged the other passengers for their share, he was receiving more than the full fare from us, too. He pushed a visiting card into my hand. "Call me when you are ready to go," he said with a large smile. "He likes us," I told my daughter, happy to have been appreciated by my first New Yorker. "He ripped us off," she answered coldly. New York, somehow, had failed to restore her trust in human integrity.

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