‘We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language.’ As ever, Oscar Wilde was right. Block your ears and squint your eyes, New York City could be a supersized Sydney – tall, green and bustling, with a historic precinct at one end and building works going on everywhere else (it’s the cranes that never sleep!). Listen closely, however, and the local lingo says you’re somewhere else. Shrimps for prawns, elephant ears for palmier pastries, fanny packs for bum bags, cell phones for mobiles. Although there’s no American word for good coffee. I am in New York with my family to declare the genius of our 16-year-old daughter, who’s finishing a singing tour of the US with the Australian Girls Choir. The final concert is staged at the 9/11 Memorial – two acre-sized pools set in the footprints of the original Twin Towers, with the names of the nearly 3,000 victims inscribed in bronze parapets around the pools. It’s a simple and powerful tribute, with a solemnity matching the black stone wall etched with the names of veterans commemorating the Vietnam War in Washington.
The opening line of the choir’s first song used words everyone understands, especially resilient New Yorkers: ‘Shall we dream’. Like everything else, dreams are big here. The choir also sang Eric Bogle’s anti-war anthem And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda, which was written in the ‘70s about loss and remembrance, describing Anzacs fighting Turks. The ghosts from another war 100 years after WWI heard it loud and clear. We were all moved.
The production of words is one of New York’s primary industries. From the excellence of the New Yorker and the New York Times (‘All the news that’s fit to print’), to the grandeur of the New York Public Library, guarded by its pair of marble lions Patience and Fortitude. They were named in the 1930s by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia for the qualities he felt New Yorkers needed to survive the Great Depression. The city returned the favour by naming one of its main airports after him.
A depression seems to have struck bookshops. They’re hard to find, unless attached to one of the city’s many and magnificent museums and galleries. Those I did locate, such as Strand Books’ kiosk in Central Park, enjoyed my economic stimulus package. I also made pilgrimage to Three Lives & Company in West Village, dubbed ‘one of the greatest bookstores on the face of the earth’, by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cunningham (of The Hours fame). It’s certainly among the smallest. And a good example of less being more. I bought Ron Chernow’s 800-page biography of West Indian-born Alexander Hamilton – one of the founding fathers of the US, chief staff aide to General George Washington during the revolutionary war, and the country’s first Secretary of the Treasury. ‘Matthew’, said a friend, ‘you’re the only person I know who still buys books overseas and brings them home.’ Hamilton is worth the excess baggage fee. Chernow’s tome is the inspiration for the Broadway musical hit Hamilton. He’s an unlikely subject for song and dance. Just as unlikely as the Australian musical about a Hamiltonesque figure from our political past who helped establish the Commonwealth Bank, The Legend of King O’Malley. That was successful too. Clearly, anything goes.
The trek to Three Lives was doubly worth it. West Village and its neighbour Greenwich Village have corralled all the decent cafés. The dearth of drinkable coffee in New York is inexplicable given the city’s Italian heritage (where’s Mayor La Guardia when you need him?). I was filled with national pride to learn that Melbourne-themed cafés, such as Little Collins and Brunswick, are bedazzling New Yorkers with the barista’s art. Is it the start of an Aussie fast food fightback? But going without my long black for a while might be a good thing. Academics at Austria’s Innsbruck University have just published research claiming that drinkers of black coffee are more likely to be psychopaths. I’ll kill ‘em!
The aforementioned Hamilton, whose image adorns the US $10 note, has been my New York project. He was an extraordinary man who met an extraordinary end: mortally wounded in a shooting duel with the Vice President, Aaron Burr, in 1804. Think of the lift in public engagement if duels were still used to resolve political disputes. Ultimately, he won the PR battle: the Institute for Public Relations’ Lifetime Achievement award is named the Alexander Hamilton Medal. Hamilton is buried in the cemetery of Trinity Church, just off Broadway, in New York’s financial district.
I caught the subway up to Harlem to visit Hamilton’s summer house, Hamilton Grange. Now a National Memorial, the mansion has been moved twice, but remains on land – the edge of St Nicholas Park – that was once part of the Hamilton estate. I arrived at closing time, after the last tour of the house had already left. When the caretaker heard I was flying home the next day, he said ‘C’mon, because you’re from Australia, I’ll give you a quick tour of the house myself’. Being a member of the coalition of the willing has its advantages.
Back in Australia, there’s comfort in the sign that greets you when walking through the terminal gates at Sydney airport: ‘G’day. Welcome home.’ It’s like being handed a spoonful of Vegemite. Less tasty but just as dinkum was the encounter in the taxi ride home. We were negotiating the usual Sydney traffic when a driver in another car sped up beside us, tooted, lowered his window and shouted to our cabbie: ‘You’re an idiot mate!’ Ahhh. The language of home sweet home.