Taking a short trip from Manhattan on subway number 7 is like the ‘Small World’ ride at Disneyland. You sit, watch and listen as nationalities, languages and accents swirl around you in a dizzying cacophony.
It reminds me of my visit to the Anaheim theme park as a six-year-old. (Expect without the fairy floss… and the tantrums when I wasn’t allowed any.)
I’ve been taking the 7 train a couple of times a days since I arrived in New York a week ago. That’s because the 7 (the only purple train line on the subway map, incidentally) takes me from the madness of Manhattan to the apartment in Queens that a friend has very generously lent me.
Although to describe it as Queens is an injustice.
I’ve been staying at Jackson Heights, officially one of the most culturally diverse neighbourhoods in the USA, and one of those areas that the proud locals don’t like to talk about too much in case everyone then decides to move in.
Along one border of Jackson Heights, the melodious trill of Spanish fills the streets, because of the large Colombian community.
On another boundary, turbans and saris outnumber jeans and sneakers in the large Indian area.
In the middle, the population is a mix of South Asian and Latino that blur together each block.
Popping out to grab some food feels like an expedition into a strange country as I negotiate the language barrier and menus with dishes of unrecognisable names.
In general, Jackson Heights is a relatively affluent area. It was established in the early part of the last century and is made up of large “garden apartment buildings”.
Essentially that means that there are private gardens between each building, only accessible by the residents. The idea was that this would be an area for wealthier families to raise their kids, with just a short commute by train into the city.
The effect of a community planned in such a way a hundred years ago means that in 2011 there is now a quiet, leafy, suburban escape from crowded Manhattan with its skyscrapers, wind-blown avenues and steam rising from the grates like ghouls from the subway.
If the internet is anything to go by (and I’m certainly one who believes everything I read), then I’ve been sharing the neighbourhood with celebrities like Gene Simmons, Susan Sarandon, Howard Stern and Lucy Liu.
Oh, and with Ugly Betty (let’s not let the fact she’s fictional get in the way).
Not that you’d know there were famous residents from walking the streets. The local Starbucks brings on involuntary comparisons with the waiting room of an unemployment office – but I suppose that’s the kind of crowd it attracts anywhere.
I met a woman called Patricia on a bench one day and have seen her every day since.
Patricia, to paint a picture for you, looks like a giant peach. She has red hair, a face just a red, and was wearing a large orange jumper the day she introduced herself.
When I say she ‘introduced herself’, I mean she laughed at me and imitated the way I was standing at the bus stop with my arms crossed.
She then told me and the friend I was with that “you’ve got to have a sense of humour”.
Moments later she was crying and pointing out the funeral home where she had said goodbye to her mother.
Patricia, if you haven’t gathered already, has a mental illness… but I mention her because she, along with a dozen or so other strangers, has been a nice reassuring constant during my time in Jackson Heights.
You often hear the complaints that New York is impersonal, a concrete jungle where everyone is rude and in rush.
Well, staying in Jackson Heights has shown me a new side to the city.
You can have a sense of community just a short ride from the madness we’re so used to seeing in the media.
The Indians who live here know that, so do the Colombians, and even Patricia knows it.