Warhol, yellow cabs, Times Square—a love letter to New York City

·7-min read
 (Corbis via Getty Images)
(Corbis via Getty Images)

In the early Nineties, the dwindling British home appliances giant Hoover executed a fun, if slightly insane, marketing initiative. In a cut-throat attempt to stave off the incumbent competition brewing over at Dyson, the company made an irresistible offer on the back of Sunday newspaper supplements. Any £100 spent on Hoover products would be redeemable by customers for a limited period with one pair of flights to America. Word spread, fast.

In the days before budget airlines, Airbnb and price-compare travel websites, journeying to the States for most of British suburbia carried about it the rarefied exotica of travelling to the Moon. The USA meant New York and New York was somewhere other people visited. Rock stars, runway models, screen actors, a spy on a government mission, men with massive cigars, women in cashmere. Tickets on the all-new Virgin Atlantic charter flights clocked in around the 600 quid mark, making those Hoover flight ads zing off the page, promising something like the trip of a lifetime. Glamour travel had democratised, with an extendable nozzle thrown in for good measure.

A previously untouched national nerve was awoken. Everybody wanted to go to New York as a matter of some urgency. Now everybody could. Britons being Britons, a scally contingent quickly did the maths, working out that if you bought a £99 Hoover with a spare pack of vacuum bags, kept it in its packaging until after your holiday and then returned it to a lenient department store assistant, this was effectively a free trip.

The clamour for tickets shouldn’t have come as a surprise. However exotic the idea of travelling to the US might have felt, the vernacular of NYC had been injected directly into our cultural bloodstream. Its streets were somewhere we already knew, intimately, without ever having walked down them.

We knew the stoops of the West Village from The Cosby Show, Coney Island because of Lou Reed. De Niro and Scorsese had immortalised the yellow cab. We’d been vicariously privy to Woody Allen’s haphazard dinner parties, the shape of Spike Lee’s racial politics, Ian Schrager’s hotels and Diane Von Furstenberg’s wrap dresses. We knew the rags-to-riches tale of Madonna arriving in Times Square from Michigan with $10 in her pocket. We understood the division of boroughs through the clever rhymes of hip hop, graffiti from the art Esperanto of Keith Haring, fashion through tales passed down from the shop floor of Fiorucci to the world beyond.

Because there is no language barrier, New York exoticism felt touchable and within reach. New York pop culture, sport, art, politics, media and entertainment were ever the global pacesetters, however much we might like to kid our national pride otherwise. So going to New York became more than a trip abroad. It was a symbolic badge of personal sophistication. In seven hours’ flight time you could meet the new, amplified, unleashed version of you: a little bigger, bolder, more confident, less uptight. The tentacles of the American Dream have always stretched further than its population. Self-improvement is an infectious advertising tag for a city.

When Hoover-flight mania hit, the nightlife of New York was still floating beatifically on the first glorious wave of house music and all its magical, myriad offshoots. Manhattan was Susanne Bartsch inviting you on to a guest list, Larry Levan playing one of his own extended mixes. It was Act Up protests in Catholic cathedrals and Warhol holding court over appetisers at Indochine. Amanda Lapore wandering from her personal rooms at the dilapidating Hotel 17 to a Downtown party in a converted laundromat. Mark Wahlberg in real life, not a billboard in Calvin Kleins, girls skateboarding in Union Square, boys voguing on Chelsea Piers. When it was a faraway dream, everything in New York seemed to glisten that little bit harder, faster and brighter than everywhere else. It was fabulously criminal in all the sexiest ways.

“Everything in New York seemed to glisten that little bit harder”

For the past two years, it has almost been as if we’ve moved back into those desolate, distant days when the thought of visiting Manhattan had to remain just that. Progressive pandemic travel restrictions have meant that journeying into the promised land has, once more, been only for the extremely resourceful or stupidly rich. Work trips to the US have been replaced with the arduous rigmarole of two-dimensional Zoom interactions, magnifying the distance of a five-hour time lapse with none of the hazy, drunken displacement of jetlag to show for it.

To add insult to longing, when world travel started reopening last summer, Joe Biden placed Britons top of the list of those who couldn’t travel to his land, such was the disastrous UK political handling of Covid infection rates, the alarming death toll and the continued half-belief in herd immunity. Fingers crossed, on November 8 that will come tumbling to an end. The gates are being flung back once more. Absence has only made the heart grow fonder and more resilient.

Despite living on a barman’s budget and in a flat with flooring that certainly could have handled a light once over at the time, I never did bag a Hoover flight to New York. Watching friends trip over to a place I’d dreamt about since childhood — so near yet so far — was just about as torturous as the past two years of enforced separation from the only other city on earth where I really feel at home. Not that I’m claiming to be in any way special. Everyone feels at home in New York. It’s still the bus stop of the world.

It was at the end of 1994 when I finally made it to JFK airport, in a story that feels no less heroically chancy in retrospect than those magic carpet rides everyone else got to go on. One wasted Saturday night at a Manchester nightclub I’d picked up a handsome stranger who turned out to be a short-haul pilot for a Virgin affiliate airline. By the third date of the kind of maniacally whirlwind romance you can only ever really give yourself over to in your early 20s, he turned up with two cheap tickets to take us to New York the next day, instructing me to pack a bag promptly.

I felt like I was acting scenes from the script of the film of my own life

Despite the scores of times I’ve travelled to the city since, for work, fun or friends, nothing quite prepares you for that first visit to New York. The scale, pace, style and wit of the city. The quickfire humour. The scent of opportunity. The mischief around each corner. On our first weekend, we were given a bump of a drug neither of us had heard of by a muscled barman at a Chelsea lounge called Barracuda. We danced into the following day at The Tunnel, where Junior Vasquez played a rambunctious pots-and-pans remix of ‘Get Your Hands Off My Man’, a record that seemed to last for somewhere between five minutes and five hours. We were staying at The Sugar Hill Guest House, Harlem. Even the name of it conjured something instantly iconic yet totally unknowable. At the preposterously hot, beautiful-people favourite Beige night at the B bar on the Tuesday, I’d resolved to move to the city some day. I felt like I was acting scenes from the script of the film of my own life. That fantasia, New York’s special gift to its interlopers, never really disappeared with each progressive visit.

These past two years of enforced separation from London’s naughtiest cousin have been a peculiar form of travel purgatory. So you can keep your staycations from here on in. The visa waiver is prepped and vaccines boosted. After some reflective downtime to harbour the pangs, I fully expect the next time in New York to feel like something very close to the first.

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