Tale of New York

Where to begin? what to choose? Love, laughter, light. Yet now I’m exhausted, sucked dry. It’s been a full-on, often difficult, tiring, emotionally draining six weeks and I’m so glad summer’s over.

So the tale of New York is the tale of looking.

It begins in London with A who said that, being hard up, I should of course go nowhere near B&H. And what might B&H be I inquired. The biggest, best and cheapest camera shop in the USA was pretty much the answer.

No no. Definitely I absolutely should not go anywhere near B&H. Ummm. Where is it exactly, just so I can avoid it?

I was talking energetically about B&H at supper a couple of days later in Manhattan. About how I really really shouldn’t, wasn’t going to go there. (Lobster salad at I Tre Merli down on Broadway. Yummmmmy. After the fancy exhibition opening on 5th Avenue. And the Wall Street banker who leapt into my cab on the way there – “you don’t mind if I share” he announced – and discussed Measure for Measure and sub-prime mortgage lending in an animated fashion.)

The next day the previous night’s diners were part of a greater assemblage in Brooklyn. And C, clearly sensing that my resolve over not going anywhere near B&H needed strengthening, brought along the paper catalogue. Because their host was a professional photographer and had several lying around. And leafing through the catalogue and seeing what was available, and at what price, and dividing by two to get sterling because of the current insane exchange rate was clearly going to ensure that I gave the place a really wide berth.

It was whilst I was indulging in a private spot of aversion therapy, slowly stroking a page in the Olympus section while moaning and whimpering, rather discretely I thought, that J appeared. A stupendous professional photographer. And also intimately familiar with B&H. We discussed, at length, which lens I wasn’t going to get. Which was this one.

The next day the phone rang. I forget whose phone, but somebody’s. It was J. “What time are you meeting me at B&H?”

Thus it was that I found myself that hot and humid afternoon in the extraordinary combination of paradise and militarily-efficient factory-farmed consumption that is the B&H super-store on 9th avenue between 33rd and 34th streets.

Meeting J just inside the “in only” door I checked my bag through the hole in the wall and we made our way into a vast tardis-like space crammed full of people and objects of profound lustworthiness. It seemed to my no-doubt saucer-shaped and therefore distorted-lensed eyes that it was a vast circular space full of aisles of miscellaneous stuff but with the walls showcasing every conceivable make/brand/model of photographic equipment. And lined with a huge number of people sitting at regular intervals behind the desk-like counter.

I headed on some sort of wobbly auto-pilot to the man seated below an enormous Olympus banner. “Excuse me,” I quavered, “do you…” “Were you given a number?” he asked, not unkindly. The mechanics of maximum cash-extraction began to be revealed.

First you wait in a line appropriate for the category of gizmo you seek, policed by a solicitous member of staff who moves you forward with maximum swiftness. As a sales assistant becomes available (the people seated behind the hugely long counter running around the edge of the store) their numbered light flashes. The person at the head of the queue is directed towards the appropriate place. The queue was long enough to allow J to whisper “see those Nikon lenses there? the huge ones? just out on the shelf like that? thirty-five thousand dollars apiece at least” and for me to marvel at their implausible hugeness but sufficiently swift-moving to allow of no second thoughts.

Sales staff number 47 was a cheery young man whose brisk efficiency and breadth of knowledge bordered on the brusque but never quite made it that far. Yes, they had the lens in stock. A skylight filter to fit? of course. Memory cards? a myriad different varieties and sizes. Was I sure I really needed that speed of data writing (casting a practised eye over my meagre megapixels resting on the counter before him), wouldn’t I be better off with the slightly slower but much cheaper model? As he spoke a green crate appeared beside him propelled on a conveyor belt emerging seemingly through the wall and in it appeared to be… a lens, a filter and a memory card. “Take this to the payment desk” he said, printing off a piece of paper.

J’s turn next, and a series of very technical queries about a Leica tripod mount and various other bits and pieces. “I can tell you what I know, but I have to tell you that I’m not tripods, I’m digital SLRs. If you want the best advice you should really go to tripods where they can give you the fullest information” said our helpful attendant. “This is the best service I’ve ever had in this country” said J as we made our way over to tripod territory, an island near the middle of the store.

As J consulted deeply on issues such as double threads and ball heads and similar tripodenalia I watched a procession of green crates bumbling and clunking up and around the store on the rollers of the conveyor, sometimes at waist level safe behind the counters, sometimes out of reach overhead. Clicketyclacketytrundlerundle they went, an almost continuous stream of spoken-for hi-tech representing a concomitant inflow of a river of the green and folding.

Next stop on the human conveyor belt of this process was the payment area. Significantly more urgent than the sales floor, customers were herded between metal railings before a high bank of tills. “Next, NEXT!” shouted the twitchy queuemeister urging us on, on to part with our cash. Pay. Receive paper. “I promise to give the bearer their small (or implausibly huge, for that matter) object/s of desire”. Follow the narrow pathway to the collection point and the human stream meets the conveyor stream: green crates clatter to their final destination behind the counter to have their contents bagged, labelled and hung on hooks to await their newly de-cashed now-owners. The disgorging is nearly complete… quick, quick, on to retrieve your checked bag from the other end of the hole in the wall and *plop* – out the out door and a safe delivery onto the street.

Such an experience requires the prompt administration of strong coffee so J and I retired to the nearest café and I unboxed and mounted the new toy. And haven’t removed it since. The observant (or at least the observant with a fast internet connection) will have noticed a stream of recent macro pictures appearing about the place. I’m still practising. But of course it’s not my fault. Blame A and C and J.

So I’ve left out the painting of the pug with the pearl necklace and the sashay teach-in and the “local”-beer-buying and scrapple-cooking and the gentle light from the coloured glass candle-holders slanting before the Buddha; the Texan BBQ theme restaurant, the dog wearing padded bootees for its evening walk, the touch of hands, the smiles, the coffee (good and bad), the cowboy boots with the real snake head on the toe; I haven’t mentioned poetry and multi-story wedding cakes, the gentle guttural sound of an old language by candlelight, food cooked by friends, music, the lost book of pictures which gave such laughter; left out too are the lumps and bumps of the grass in Central Park, the slow deliberate folding of sleeping mats, Mexican food, Malaysian food, yellow rubber gloves, the flutter of hands in flight, the new development on the limerick form and the challenge of rhyming “Abuja”, silent cross-legged forms silhouetted against the early light. I’m sorry. You can’t have everything.

11 Replies to “Tale of New York”

  1. You can’t have everything, but somehow this is plenty. I’m a bit jealous of those of you who dared venture to B&H, not because I’m looking for camera gear, but because I’m not-so-secretly lusting after A’s nifty new monocular. How handy such a gadget would be, I think, while bird-watching/dog-walking!

    B&H’s website says the item is out of stock, so perhaps I’m safe. I mentioned B&H to my J, and he got a dreamy look in his eye. Maybe the two of us will have to go the next time we’re in NYC. In the meantime, I have the vicarious thrill of your expedition.

  2. Oh wow! The best summary of the omissions (says sheepishly the one who urged C to pack the paper catalog in that pack….)

  3. Oh, very fun. Glad I wasn’t on that particular excursion and thus not tempted to be relieved of any of my hard-earned money, but I’ll remember in the future when I’m spectacularly wealthy. 😀

  4. Fabulous story! I’ll be telling my partner about this place if we ever get to New York – he’d go crazy.
    I wouldn’t mind that lens you got that helps give you such great photos.

  5. A wonderful story!

    Though of course it’s the last paragraph of this post that makes me most wistful, and most glad.

    God. I miss you all more than is reasonable. (It’s a good thing I’m not all that concerned with reason, in the end.)

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