My wife and I visited New York in the fall of 2000. We were sort of poor at the time and the exchange rate was against us, so everything was expensive. We stayed in a backpackers on E 21st street, across from the 13th Precinct. It was grotty but at least we didn’t have to put up with the kind of people who stayed at the Waldorf Astoria. The police were noisy and the room was so tiny that we had to stow our suitcases on top of the bed, but it was great.
We did Manhattan. We crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, climbed the stairs of the Empire State, explored Central Park and scoffed at the showy shops on 5th Avenue. We pretended to be interested in staying at the Paramount hotel and got taken to see some of the rooms. We spent a day in Greenwich Village where we watched a chess master teach his students at the Village Chess Shop. Then we got into an argument with him about how rude New Yorkers were supposed to be.
“You aren’t,” I said when the topic came up. “Everyone we’ve met here is very friendly.”
“We’re rude,” the chess master insisted, determined to be the exception.
“You’re not,” my wife said. “We walked into a precinct yesterday and they gave us a tour of the place.”
“Sure,” the chess master agreed, “but if you did that in Chicago, you’d be a detective by now.”
Maybe he was right. The Big Apple was so big that it seemed only fair that its people be more rude. We loved it. We loved the New York accent, the tallness of everything and the constant fear that we might get mugged. We felt at home. Yet, all the while, something wasn’t right.
We were hungry. We wanted food and we wanted culture, but we couldn’t afford either. We could go without culture for a while, but food was a problem. Everything was so expensive that we ate bagels in our room or junk food on the street. We tried a hot dog billed as authentic from a vendor on World Trade Center Plaza, but it was so authentic that the sausage looked like a dog’s penis. We had New York pizza slices so big that they were scooped onto our trays with a sort of garden shovel. They tasted of flour and the pepperoni slices on them were puckered craters of garlic. I also had my first and only Big Mac. I’d never been to McDonald’s, and now was my chance.
“Are you nuts?” my wife asked.
“One Big Mac,” the guy behind the counter said and handed me a wrapped Big Mac that he took from a sort of queue of pre-made burgers behind him.
“I want my own one,” I complained. “Isn’t this someone else’s?”
He looked at me as though I’d suggested that we exchange underwear.
“That’s yours,” he said.
A few minutes later I gave up and threw the thing away.
“What did I tell you?” my wife said.
We returned to Central Park and loitered outside the Tavern on the Green. It was expensive and seemed to require that you arrive with a horse and cart. At the Algonquin hotel we had a modest tea and played with the resident cat. On our way out I stole a $5 tip from a nearby table.
“How can you do that?” my wife demanded on the street outside.
“I—don’t know,” I stammered. “I’m desperate.”
And we were. We felt like paupers, eating scraps. We wanted wine and meat and vegetables and salads with strips of ginger. We wanted to chew things that had no dough in them. Eating junk was beginning to take its toll. We felt bloated and weak and my wife was beginning to look pale.
Then we saw a small advert in the New York Times announcing a performance of the six motets of Bach on Sunday afternoon at a church in Harlem, on 125th street. Everyone was welcome, it said, admission was free and refreshments were included.
“What does included mean?” my wife wondered. “It says it’s free?”
“Look,” I said, “if everyone’s welcome, that’s us. We’re going.”
We took the bus to upper Manhattan. On our way there I got worried. What if the performance was free but the food was not, despite the word included? We’d end up full of music and nothing else.
“I’ll resent Bach for that,” I told my wife. “It wouldn’t be right.”
“It wouldn’t matter,” she said. “Bach is dead.”
“What if the food is crap?” I countered.
At the church we went up to the gallery, where the organ was. We were the only ones up there, except for the girl who played the organ, and we surveyed the crowd below. There was a choir and a motley audience. The minister addressed us. He told us how hard the choir had practiced and how much he hoped that we’d enjoy ourselves.
“Afterwards,” he said, “please join us in the refectory.”
My wife and I looked at one another. This is what we’d come for—Bach, and the refectory.
“God bless you,” the minister concluded, and took his seat.
We’d never listened to the motets in their fullness and we soon realised that they were not as zippy as the Brandenburg Concertos. To make things worse, the choirmaster was a man of un-Bachlike slowness. He had his back to us but it was clear from his gestures that he objected to most of what the choir tried to do. They plowed on haltingly. The minister, who must have witnessed rehearsals, had clearly meant it when he blessed us.
All the while we got increasingly hungry. We hadn’t eaten any lunch and things were moving at a glacial pace.
“How many more?” my wife whispered.
The choir had just finished the 5th motet.
“One,” I whispered.
“What if there’s just an urn with tea and cookies?” she hissed.
“What if there’s an encore?”
But there wasn’t. The minister got up, visibly relieved, thanked everyone and repeated his invitation to the refectory. We went downstairs and penguin-marched with the crowd. Inside the refectory, people milled about and talked in small groups. Along the one wall were tables covered in food.
We couldn’t believe it. There were pastries and cakes and other sweets, but there were also tables with fruit and meat. There were strawberries and grapes and slices of pineapple, fruit salads, cucumber sticks, carrots, wedges of red pepper, shavings of ginger and beautiful, big apples. The other people picked at this feast with passing interest but we were galvanized.
“I’m taking these,” my wife whispered and stuffed two apples into her carry bag.
“I’m taking some carrots,” I said.
We piled food onto our plates, eating as we went, and walked along to the other tables. The taste of fresh things was dizzying. We loved this church, and we loved New York. On the next table were beef strips, chicken cubes, ham rolls, sushi and sashimi, Swedish meat balls and a variety of little kebabs.
“We need meat,” my wife said under her breath and pointed at the kebabs. “For later.”
I handed her the ziplock bags in which we kept our passports and she filled them with kebabs while pretending to load things onto her plate.
“Get some peppers,” she whispered.
I slipped some peppers and two more apples into my bag. We joined a group of people standing in a circle.
“There’s a seventh motet,” the choirmaster said.
He was holding forth on the history of the motets and the Bach revival of the nineteenth century. While he talked I looked around the circle and noticed that everyone else held plates with one or two items on them while we balanced towers of food on ours. No one seemed keen on the seventh motet either, and some people nodded at me in silent greeting. Then there was an awkward silence.
“The seventh was likely from the Weimar period,” the choirmaster resumed.
“And there it can stay,” the minister cut in.
He’d wedged into the circle next to me and smiled around.
“Hungry?” he said and nodded at my plate.
I had just stuffed a ham roll into my mouth and couldn’t answer.
“You two are not from around here,” he continued. “We can tell.”
“We’re from South Africa,” I mumbled and fumbled with my plate. “How can you tell?”
“You see all these people?” he said.
He motioned at the room in general.
“They’re all from my congregation.”
My throat was so dry I couldn’t swallow.
“Including the choir,” he added.
We’d been watched all along, by everyone.
“But there was an ad in the paper—”
“We always invite the public,” the minister said, “but it’s mostly just us that attend.”
“We’ve stolen your food,” I blurted. “We’re sorry!”
The minister laid a calming hand on my arm.
“That’s OK,” he said. “That’s quite alright.”
A few minutes later he bid us farewell on the steps outside the church.
“We cannot take this,” I said.
I held up the bag of food he’d packed for us.
“Of course you can,” he said and led us gently down to the street. “This is New York.”