I had booked the Hotel Earle because Bob Dylan once slept in room 331. From the moment I first stepped out and into Washington Square Park, I was smitten with New York. It was a Saturday afternoon in late September, a sultry, sun-drenched day so rare in Germany even in midsummer. The sun was hotter and the sky bluer, more radiant than back home. At a time when all German cities turned into graveyards, Washington Square Park was full of manic activity. Blasting radios battled each other for dominance, senior citizens played speed chess with youthful contenders; dope peddlers, fire eaters, and aspiring folk singers all competed for the public’s attention. People of all races and ages danced to Parlament Funkadelic.
In Berlin every thinking person around me was depressed. As I watched the children on the swings shrieking with delight and hyperactive dogs engaged in rough and tumble play, my earnest, sullen self faded away and a new upbeat person emerged. I would never have to feel miserable again, not if I could experience Washington Square Park’s anarchistic exuberance any time I wanted to.
I discovered a bounce in my step and skipped the next ten blocks uptown. I walked upright, no longer with slumped shoulders. I made eye contact. I grinned when someone smiled or complimented me. Life in New York, as in a Mediterranean city, happened in the street. The street mirrored my mood. Since I was in high spirits I encountered only smiling faces. “Hey Babe, wanna come along for the ride to Florida,” a truck driver said. “Another hour unloading and I’m ready for takeoff.” “Great hair cut,” a hip black woman shouted. “Ola Mami,” a Latin-American teenager said smacking his lips.
14th Street was the Mecca of the less well-heeled New Yorkers. People were looking for bargains in the many 99 Cents and discount stores. Men sitting up high on ladders were watching out for thieves and enticing the shoppers to come inside. “Ladies and gentlemen, our prices are the best. Come on inside and see for yourself.” Many people lost their money in games of dice. The children’s clothing stores with their frilly dresses, the smell of Comida Criolla and Cuchifritos, the sounds of Salsa, the mix of English and Spanish, the entire human razzmatazz of 14th Street made me feel intoxicated with life.
At home I had been chided for my hyperactive Zappelphilipp ways. My parents always said: “Don’t walk so fast, don’t talk so fast, don’t wave your arms so much. In New York, everyone walked and talked fast. In New York, I was normal.
It was love at first sight—irrational and fatal. Could one fall head over heels –unsterblich—in love with a city just as much as with a person? Mubarez from Pakistan worked at the reception of the Hotel Earle. On my fourth day in New York he said: “You can become a New Yorker and still be yourself. You belong here. Stay.