'I want to do something New Yorky," a friend said the other day when I asked him how he wanted to spend his Saturday. He moved to New York all the way from sunny California to attend university, but it has been almost six months and he's barely ventured outside the campus.There are many things to do in the city that are supposedly "typical" New York, half of which most natives haven't done and have no interest in doing. I know very few true New Yorkers who have been to the Empire State Building, or taken the ferry to the Statue of Liberty, or gone to see a Broadway play or spent any more time than necessary in Times Square.
Yet, every time anyone visits and wants to get a quick New York fix, the destination is Times Square. I absolutely loathe Times Square. I've spent most of my nine years here trying to avoid it. First, no one knows how to walk properly. There are too many people crammed together in a 10-block area, moving as a giant mass of confused bodies, distracted by the flashing lights. Second, you won't find anything in Times Square that isn't purely commercial: it has no soul. One thing you definitely will find is confused tourists - either foreign, or more often from Middle America - gawking at anything they recognise from a movie or music video.
I do like the lights and the fact that it's brighter on 42nd Street at 11pm than it would be at noon on a summer's day anywhere else, but the crowds make me uncomfortable. I only remember two occasions when Times Square was somewhere I wanted to be: when Obama won the election (now an obsolete celebration, I feel) and when it's snowing. For some reason when it snows, despite all the people, Times Square suddenly seems quieter; all movements happen in slow motion. Perhaps it's the white flakes glimmering in the overwhelming neon lights, but for a short period, Times Square is bearable, even beautiful.
I find it interesting how a stranger's conception of a city is usually based on some stereotype that natives either ignore or don't consider important: Londoners don't go to the Tower of London; Parisians don't climb the Eiffel Tower; and you don't find many Emiratis in the Burj al Arab. Many things that visitors to the UAE consider to be Emirati aren't Emirati at all. First of all, it's rare to find a local who would risk heat stroke by going on to the beach during the summer. Secondly, the belly dancing you see on the Arabian Nights-themed events sold by tourist agencies and hotels capitalise on old Orientalist fictions of "Arabia", not on Emirati culture.
Of course New Yorkers do do a lot of things you'll see in movies, like buying hot dogs from a street vendor, eating bagels and walking along the streets at breakneck speed. The equivalent in Abu Dhabi would be shawarma from Seashell, chai karak from the dodgiest hole-in-the-wall establishment and creeping through the malls at a snail's pace.Secretly the natives like it that way: they like to know that you aren't a real New Yorker if you are walking through the brightest part of town with a camera slung around your neck, and you're not an Emirati if you're sand-boarding in Dubai. So when people do come to visit, I probably will still take them to 42nd Street right at the heart of Times Square.