Longing for the return of the New York moment


I write in celebration of the New York moment: those exhilarating and enchanting experiences and encounters that make New York, New York.

Let me give you an example from the blackout that immobilised this city in 2003, a power outage late one lazy August afternoon that many of us feared signalled the start of another terror attack - a second 9/11.

Thankfully, the lights had gone out because of America's decrepit power grid rather than anything more sinister, and relief quickly turned to revelry. Bars spilled out onto the sidewalks. Blocks of Manhattan became the venue for twilight raves - part carnival, part catharsis.

With traffic in Manhattan brought to a standstill, many New Yorkers repurposed themselves as human traffic lights, and for some of the Big Apple's more operatic personalities the clogged avenues became a stage. At the intersection where Sixth Avenue meets Central Park, one man orchestrated the traffic with such exuberance and gusto that he resembled a maestro conducting the symphony at nearby Carnegie Hall.

"You look like you've done this before," I said, approaching him with my cameraman at my back. "Well, I play a cop on TV," he replied, as he hoisted his handkerchief high into the air. And he did: the FBI agent on the hit series, The Sopranos.

Another New York moment came a decade ago, when my wife and I were visiting the city with our baby son. Over lunch at a café in the East Village, Billy charmed and flirted with the couple at the table next door. So much so, that at the end of their meal, the man approached us holding out his business card. He was a photographer who specialised in taking portraits of infants on their first birthdays, and given that Billy was approaching that age, he offered to take his picture free of charge.

It was a generous offer, but not one that we gave that much thought to. Until, that is, I pulled his business card from my pocket in the taxi afterwards and saw on it the name "Mapplethorpe". That seemed to be more than just a coincidence; more than some cosmic fluke. And sure enough, it turned out he was the brother of one of New York's most celebrated photographers, Robert Mapplethorpe.

Edward had built his own reputation by taking portraits of one-year-olds that in New York elite society were viewed as works of high art. So quickly we arranged to meet him at his studio, where Billy sat for the most beautiful photo that has ever been taken of him, and we were given snapshots into the world of Robert Mapplethorpe, the gay Manhattan subculture of the Seventies and Eighties, the community devastated by the last pandemic to rip through this city.

I could tell you about the a capella singing group that rehearses in the stairwell of my apartment building: world-class musicians whom I have never cast my eyes on but whose close harmonies drift to the upper floors, transforming this most soulless of concrete settings into an acoustic cathedral.

I could relive the time I spent with Donald Trump in Trump Tower talking about the demise of his old casino empire in Atlantic City, a financial calamity which, needless to say, had nothing to do with him. And back then, in 2014 when we met, that really did feel like a New York moment, because he did not strike me as a figure of wider consequence. After we shook hands and parted, I walked out of the golden doors of his fiefdom on Fifth Avenue not expecting to report on him again.


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