Last stop: the city of salvation


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Category: Travel Date: 26 Aug 99

‘The city’s skyline winks, whirls and twirls, and mingles with 100 images in your head accumulated over the years from cartoons and films, magazines and comics, music and famous faces’.


New York, the last stop in this travel series on America, the world’s Big Brother, the all-powerful, the all-knowing. We won’t spoil it by remembering that it is the largest supplier of arms in the world, and that its nuclear arsenal is so powerful that it can reduce any country - no matter how far - to cinders with submarine-launched missiles. We won’t remember its self-righteous hypocrisy as it condemned the nuclear testing by India and Pakistan. We won’t say that although its troops intervened in Bosnia, it also keeps wars going elsewhere from Afghanistan to Nicaragua.


That a dangerous, right-wing element is growing here, and race attacks continue and that the police are part of the problem. We won’t use the word hypocritical to describe its foreign policy. We’ll forget that immigration is easier if you’re white but if you’re black, take a lottery, or the next boat out. We won’t recall incidences of such arrogance and ignorance that people in some remote parts of this country don’t see the need to know the name of the next town, and they think Iceland is a type of theme park, and Trinidad, somebody’s name. A holiday is not a time to pick faults.


The energy in New York is palpable; far more charged than anywhere else we’ve been so far. It washes over us, makes our hearts race in this late hour. Even the children feel it, unable to tear their tired eyes from the jagged peaks of skyscrapers as we race into Manhattan listening to Hindi film music in a cab driven by yet another immigrant.


America’s influence in the media is so powerful that everyone, from the mountains of Tibet to cold rooms of Russia, has heard of New York. It is the city of salvation for immigrants who escaped from gas chambers, wars, famine and poverty, who braved seas, and scraped together money for travel and visas to gain that ultimate prize- the Green Card.


The city’s skyline winks, whirls and twirls, and mingles with 100 images in your head accumulated over the years from cartoons and films, magazines and comics, music and famous faces.


It is the quintessence of America. There are different types of excitement here. The rollercoaster type, the shop-till-I-drop-type, the oh-God-what-a-great-film, gallery, bookshop, coffee place, club, park, museum, concert, or play type, and the dark underworld type where men and boys are so angry they shoot dead strangers and children for no reason at all.


At night, it raises your pulse with hidden dark undercurrents. By day, it’s suffused with light and a million details worth examining. The root of that adrenaline is that, like London, it is a city where the world’s citizens congregate.


Here, African robes and saris, turbans and veils, Jewish and Rasta locks, kimonos, suits and jeans swish past one another, each with its suggestion of strange places, of adventure and immigration. And they’ve got New York in common. We did New York. We raced around on every corner, on top of the Empire State Building at night. In this high circular place with the wind whipping around us, New York is a lit-up fairyland of stretched, neon towers, and areas of darkness where the parks and water around it lie.


In the week we were there, JFK Junior’s plane went down. For seven days and nights there was nothing but JFK, JFK, and JFK. His beautiful wife and sister-in-law were the sideshow. Here was this ordinary man who failed his law examinations twice getting so much airtime simply because he had extraordinary parents. He became the Prince of America, compared to Diana.


It was sad, as any tragedy where a young person dies in an accident, but it was not monumental as the Americans made it out to be. Not only did they talk about him around the clock, but they also talked about whether they talked about him too much and then showed more footage of him. It was obscene. Like eating a banquet in front of a world full of war-torn, hungry and poor people. Showing off.


I sit here raging about America’s news values at a time when up to 40,000 people may be dead in Turkey, trapped under the debris of one of the worst earthquakes ever. I had on my television for four hours the last two evenings, and got for that discomfort of hearing jarring American twangs maybe two or three minutes of this huge tragedy.


There are thousands of stories there of mothers who have lost four children, of one surviving child or grandmother in an entire family, of the stench of corpses and mass graves, of unimaginable horror. We acknowledge that the Americans own the stations. Their power and our choice enable cable to be beamed worldwide. Where is the Big Brother now? What use is power without responsibility?


We also “did” the Statue of Liberty, taking a ferry to the island which stood there as a reminder of the way this country has taken so many refugees into its arms. There is great heart here too. As we rumbled around Central Park on a Victorian horse and buggy on our last night, I looked in the lamplight at the inscription on my keychain on which was etched the sonnet created for the Statue of Liberty which read “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift up my lamp beside the golden door.”


How glad those suffocating under the rubble in Turkey would have been for more help, for more recognition of their pain and loss which America can assuage with its coverage and, more importantly, rescue efforts.


The Germans, Japanese, Austrians and Israelis all sent their people. Not Big Brother though. Still, even America doesn’t always live up to its ideals; it has them, which is half the battle.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur