Mary Kenny: New York, new you
Springtime in the Big Apple is a rejuvenating experience
Published 17/04/2016 | 02:30
The writer Nuala O'Faolain used to say that as soon as any woman stepped onto New York soil, she immediately dropped 10 years in age. Was this because, in New York, older women don't feel as invisible as they sometimes feel on this side of the Atlantic? Or because there's an energy about New York that is in itself rejuvenating? Either way, it's a great place to be in the spring.
You do feel younger in New York because everyone seems so active, and it has such an easy sociability. It must be the easiest city in the world to get into a conversation with a stranger. It must be one of the best cities in the world in which to walk everywhere. New York may be ageless, but it is not classless. Observe the upscale ladies around the designer boutiques in Madison Avenue, or entering the opulent Frick Museum at Fifth Avenue: the upper caste has always looked the same, with their expensive hair and well-preserved faces. Not that they're idle: they often serve as volunteers to the rich deposition of New York culture.
When I first came to New York in the late 1960s, you got taken to Sardi's for a three-martini lunch. Nobody does that any more, though Sardi's is still there. So are the Irish bars, often on Third Avenue, but also all over Manhattan. They're jolly, but the leaders of Easter 1916, who were all fervent teetotallers, might not have approved of this element of Irish identity.
"I suppose you'll hit the shops in New York," somebody said on the plane. New York has always been famous for shopping, and the great department stores - Saks Fifth Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdales - still stand sentinel to Manhattan's shopping glamour. But has globalisation taken some of the thrill out of tourist shopping, when stores everywhere seem more or less the same? Is there anything much I could buy in Fifth Avenue that I couldn't purchase at Brown Thomas? The big designer labels are replicated everywhere - Chanel, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors. And when you look more closely at some garments, globalisation is confirmed with the same tag: Made in China. To be fair, Greenwich Village has some exquisite small dress shops with chic and unusual fashion. And Macy's is still something special - such a huge emporium, with an enormous stock, endless choice, miles of shoes and bags, a buzzy air and any amount of offers and discounts. But the more interesting New York shops, for me, are the museum shops. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has one of the most fabulous, and most extensive, boutiques I've seen, with jewellery, designer scarves and accessories, books, bags and toys. The New York Public Library, also on Fifth Avenue, has a beautiful shop. There, I notice a series of celebrity colouring books for children, some featuring pop-up dolls a child can illustrate and dress. There are five special personalities featured for edification and inspiration: Barack Obama, Michelle and her pretty designer wardrobe, Hillary Clinton, Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, and Pope Francis.
I got taken to a delightful string quartet concert near Broadway, priced at accessible ticket costs, and attended by about 500 people. They play Mozart and Debussy to much enthusiasm but I see only one black person in the audience. About 10pc of the audience might be Asian or Chinese; perhaps 30pc would be Jewish New Yorkers. Despite Mr Obama's symbolic achievement as the first black President, African-Americans have not especially thrived under his tenure. When Obama first came to office, black poverty was rated at 25.8pc. By 2014, it had risen to 26.2pc. Overall, wealth among whites increased by 2.4pc under his presidency; among blacks, it declined by a disconcerting 34pc.
Arianna Huffington, a fashionable New York personality once called "the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus" has written a new book stating the blindingly obvious - and launched it with a party for "6,000 of her closest friends". It's called The Sleep Revolution and it tells us that we should all have more sleep. This is a very old nostrum: the Victorians recommended "bed rest" and "more sleep" as a remedy for all ills. There's no idea so old it can't be rebranded and presented as the latest social trend. La Huff is of course the inventor of the online journal the Huffington Post. Some writers I know associated with the Society of Authors boycott it because it doesn't pay contributors. Arianna once stole a boyfriend from me - one Bernard Levin - so I'm probably still bitter and twisted about this astoundingly successful multi-millionairess, who migrated from Athens to London to New York and prospered through sheer motivation. And, as she has admitted, by cultivating other powerful women.
Every city should have wayside street seats for the city walker's repose, as New York, like Paris, does. New York also has plentiful churches and some offer uplifting thoughts from their "wayside pulpits". At 37th Street and Park Avenue, the Unitarian Community Church tells us: "We grow neither better nor worse as we get old, but more like ourselves." And maybe, in New York, more like our younger selves.