'Step down, Sir!' said the girl for the third time, annoyed at my confused, pasty face, resentful that another customer was going to put salt on the wound of her already difficult 6th Avenue day. 'Step down, Sir!' she said again sharply, though managing to slip in the obligatory smile that so many people here seem to be trained in. Was I supposed to get down on my knees? Spread-eagle, ready to be frisked? Go down to a lower level and pay for the goods that I held guiltily in my hand? Was she agreeing with the newspapers in front of her, that Donald Rumsfeld should resign? A kind woman with a broad grin - and accent to match - appeared like an angel to act as translator, waving me up to the cashier. 'That means next customer, honey.' She laughed heartily, bemused by my unease, which she must have found so obviously foreign. No one warned me that I would need to learn the New York lingo before going there. After only a week, however, I was well and truly integrated into the club of mean operators who know the streets.
My literary blood was pumping when I arrived in the Big Apple, but unfortunately there was nothing to satisfy that longing. I did visit the famous Strand bookshop near Union Square - what a treat to get lost in between such cheap books - and I spotted the odd birthplace of great writers such as James Baldwin. However, my hopes of actually meeting in person some formidable writers at literary events evaporated, for one reason or another, and I had to be content with the usual touristy things that easily fill up a week. Seeing a show on Broadway - Chicago - and then dinner at the Union Square Café also made my birthday on Saturday memorable.
I put aside all the expectations, all the famous quotes, all the exercised anecdotes, to really try to see New York for what it was. My first impressions were mixed: there was a lot of grubbiness, with many surfaces crying out for a scrub and a coat of paint, and the traffic and sound pollution could be unbearable; on the other hand, however, instead of the rush and roar that I had imagined, there were relaxed, hearty people who had plenty of time to talk, help, laugh. At the end of the day, I bathed in a great sense of freedom - the streets felt safe, for example, and photography was permitted in museums. There is nothing but choice.
Being in New York felt like being at the centre of things, a chance to connect with a list of mankind's reference points, the things that symbolise so much about our civilisation. The attraction of this city, which makes it a place I want to explore to its core, is the atmosphere created by its superb mix of people, ideas, backgrounds, history. I have fallen in love, like millions of others before me.
All of these photos were taken by me. Don't forget you can click on them to enlarge them.