Overheard by a tourist in New York

In a queer feminist book store, evening time. I’m browsing books about gender identity and marvelling at everything I need and want to know. To my right, a young person dressed like they’re in the 90s, my era, says mid-conversation to another member of staff:

‘I don’t really care about a lot of what Sid Vicious did.’

I raise an eyebrow. You and me both. Not sure how often people talk about Sid Vicious these days – is he still considered a cool hard man of punk, or did his bad behaviour mark him out as more troubling than we were willing to acknowledge? – but it seems appropriate in this space not to care about his actions. I keep browsing but leave without a book. I presume I’ll make it back there and then never do.

In a huge sports apparel store, I’m sitting down looking at my phone, even though I have no wifi. I’m surrounded by a forest of towering trees of ski pants, thick winter jackets and snowboarding gear. I’m not a snowboarder or a skiier – I’ve done the latter, but find both quite scary – which is why I don’t bother to look at anything and just sit there while my friend browses.

I am not an adventure sports person. I am not an adventure person, at least not when combined with sports. A woman behind me is on FaceTime to another woman but is not wearing headphones, so this very animated conversation is taking place in front of an audience: Me. The person on the phone says:

‘I will murder Jason and cut his dick off!’

What sexual crime did Jason commit? Should I call the police? Later in the dressing room, I see the woman who was on the phone asking the sales staff what they think of the all-in-one ski suit she’s trying on. It is fire-engine red and is what I never thought a ski suit could be: glamorous. She’s asking what they think but the look on her face shows she doesn’t need their opinion.

At the Whitney Museum, I think about how much I didn’t realise I didn’t know about Andy Warhol, at an Andy Warhol retrospective. Lots of people, lots of colour, lots of moments to pause and think about the nature of celebrity versus talent. Wondering about the truth in the idea of 15 minutes of fame, and how Andy got famous; whether we all could get famous; how much talent you need to be famous. Maybe you don’t need any talent. Maybe I presume if you’re rich you didn’t need talent. Maybe Andy was right about everything.

A woman on crutches passes me by. She turns to her companion:

‘He said I had to specifically get the asparagus or the broccoli.’

Upstairs in the Whitney, out on one of the balconies overlooking a city that is so impossibly full of beauty and grime and adventure. The sun is setting on the Hudson river, and a young guy is taking a photo of his male companion with the glittering light behind him.

The guy taking the photo is getting frustrated with how the other guy is posing and says to him:

‘Can you stop looking like you weren’t vaccinated?’

His friend says nothing in response to the taunt.

Below us, the High Line snakes proudly around old buildings and construction sites that will soon become looming light-and-view-blockers. I had been disappointed – and felt silly – to realise that as it was the start of spring, or rather the tail end of winter, there was no greenery on the High Line. It was sparse and brown and a bit crunchy. But I got a thrill thinking of how that old train track was loved into a new existence. To think it was crying out for visitors, and now it is no longer ignored.

In a subway station on the way to the Guggenheim – a big, clean, echoey and bright new building. It’s gleaming and futuristic, but I do miss the grit of the usual subway stations; the layers of dirt and dust, that peculiar smell. The stations always carry in them a hint of danger. In this new clean stop, a woman on the phone with earphones in steps onto the escalator ahead of us. She’s probably my age, and is blonde and athletic looking:

‘He was yelling at me for not being engaged… and he’s gonna talk to Josh.’

People giving her unsolicited and angry advice about her love life? Absolutely in her 30s.

At the Guggenheim, there is a Hilma af Klint exhibition. I love the Swedish artist’s work Altarpieces Group X: No. 1, with its steps of colour, its sense of reverence – it is curiously futuristic in its religiosity. I haven’t seen all of Klint’s abstract work until then, and I am a little crushed to find that I don’t adore some of the larger prints, which have huge swoops of pastel coloured flowers on slightly crumpled large canvasses. But that is what I love about art: that it’s not always about instant connection. That it’s about wondering what it is that attracts you to or repels you from a particular image. That seeing Hilma af Klint’s work leaves me with something more than just ‘I loved that painting’.

The large canvasses look like they were crinkled after being held in storage for years. Which they were, as Hilma af Klint was a far-seeing badass when it came to her career. She realised people wouldn’t understand her unusual spiritual work, those visionary curves and uncategorisable shapes. She was ahead of her time and she knew it. Looking at her work I think about career trajectory and whether I’ll get everything I want to do done before I die. Hilma didn’t mind that she wouldn’t be there to see her beloved art, which came from inside and beyond her, being embraced. I’d love to have her confidence, I think. To believe that strongly in my work.

She made them keep her art in storage for 20 years after her death. Clever woman, but she missed out on this: hundreds of people walking around the spiral Frank Lloyd Wright staircase absorbing her work on a Friday night. It was pay what you want night, so we joined a queue a block long. At the till, I realise people around me are clutching dollars in their sweaty fists while I pay by card, marking myself out as a tourist.

In one section, Hilma’s watercolours are on display. Simple, with just a few colours gently washed over the paper. Wet-on-wet. Very little shape to them, all feel. Two women stand looking at the paintings. One leans over to the other:

‘I got an F in watercolour painting, and I’m pretty sure it looked like that.’

They walk away.

In one of the gallery’s two shops, a chirpy salesperson is having a very loud conversation with a customer. The shop sells books of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs but, disappointingly, no postcards (the non-rich person’s way of collecting art). One of the photos of Mapplethorpe’s on display shows a man urinating into another man’s mouth. A beautiful arc of bodily fluid. The description next to the photo says it is “both classical and contemplative”. Mapplethorpe just went where he wanted to go, and I love him for that. I contemplate what exactly went into the making of that photo: the trajectory, the timing.

In the gallery shop, the salesperson says to the customer:

‘I’m not your average Taurus. Tauruses tend to be more arrogant.’

On my last day in New York I’m walking in the East Village. I have Google Maps showing me the way to the Strand bookstore, like a good tourist. I’m walking from Tompkin’s Square Park, where Russian Doll was set and where I’ve taken photos on my phone of where I think the show was filmed. Later, I find out that Patti Smith, a hero of mine and Robert Mapplethorpe’s former girlfriend and longtime friend, was also wandering through the East Village that morning taking photos of green things as it was St Patrick’s Day. I’ve rejected the idea of properly celebrating St Patrick’s Day in New York, but she’s out there doing it for me. I wonder if I look at the background of my photos later will I see a flash of her silver hair among the buildings and strangers.

As I’m pretending I live in New York on that short walk, I keep my iPhone secreted in my pocket and only glance at the map occasionally. I pretend I know these streets intimately, that I breathe this city air every day, that I don’t think yellow cabs are exciting. A family passes me by – mum, dad and daughter who is on a scooter. The mother is leading the conversation:

‘Guess,’ she says and the other two stay silent.

‘The creepy baby!’

I think – how creepy can a baby be? Probably very creepy.

In an Irish-owned wine bar a few hours later, as we make our way in – me, my friend I am visiting with, and our two friends and guides who we will miss so much when we leave – there are two women sitting at a table deep in conversation. As we squeeze past them, the dark-haired woman facing the door says to the other woman:

‘He’s just a typical college frat boy – very uncomfortable in elegant spaces.’

The four of us settle into the wine bar to listen to a Corkman sing thoughtful songs about being an emigrant in Trump’s era. For a moment, Ireland and New York feel to me like the same place. I am both there and here, here and there. I think Hilma af Klint would understand the strange mental leap I’ve made.

But then, just a few hours in, we have to leave the bar behind for a journey to the plane that will take us home.

The two locations become so separate, so distant, that I vow I won’t wait so long to return.

All pics by me on 35mm

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