New York: The city where you can escape everything back home (like Malcolm Turnbull did)

When I recently saw footage of a harried Malcolm Turnbull in Manhattan, still smarting from his knifing at the hands of the right wing of his party, I immediately thought "On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy".

I dearly wish that was my line, but E. B. White wrote it in the opening of his 1948 essay Here Is New York and it's such a true and beautiful sentiment that I committed it to memory.

Alas, Malcolm was only granted the first of those gifts, as the paparazzi and the media gleefully crashed his wound-licking getaway after being unceremoniously ousted as Australian PM 10 days earlier. They breathlessly reported on the Whole Foods bag Lucy Turnbull was carrying and the baseball caps Malcolm was perusing at a street stall, as if these were matters of utmost national importance.

"Are you going to stalk us now? Why don't you leave us alone?" a clearly exasperated Turnbull finally asked the reporters and photographers who persisted in following them down the street.

"Oh come on, fair game," some would say. "You're the ex-PM, you've just been dumped, you're walking around in public and you're expecting to get away from it all in New York Freakin' City?"

Those people would be freakin' wrong. I get it, Malcolm.

OK, I admit our experiences are not exactly relatable. The Turnbulls retreated to their apartment right on Central Park in the Upper West Side. They bought it for $3.275 million back in 2012. One of their neighbours in the luxurious art deco building is Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos.

So compared to my lifestyle, they basically live on Mars. But with that said, I totally understand why someone whose life has just imploded would not slink off to a far-flung desert island for some serious me-time, but to a noisy city of 8.5 million people crammed onto an island porcupined with skyscrapers and hanging off the eastern seaboard of the United States.

E. B. White was right in 1948 and he's right now. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, loneliness and privacy are cherished gifts on this teeming island.


I'm typing this from New York. I've never lived here but I've been visiting almost every year since the early '90s. That's somewhere around 25 times, and I have travelled with someone else exactly twice. I come to New York to be alone among 8.5 million other souls. It's the entire point of the trip.

Over the years I've seen Patti Smith sitting in an East Village cafe, lost in thought; I've locked eyes with Steve Buscemi wandering in Park Slope; I've watched David Duchovny jog by me in Central Park; I've selected fruit in a West Village market alongside Willem Dafoe – we were both buying bananas.

All of them famous. All of them alone.

I nodded and smiled at each of them. They each nodded and smiled back. Then we went back to our lives, me filing away another "spotted in New York" story in my mental filing cabinet, them breathing a sigh of relief that a random stranger didn't race up to them, squeal "I'm such a big fan!" and then throw an arm around their shoulder and demand a selfie.

New York is designed to grant the famous the gift of anonymity. Or if not anonymity, at least the gift of being surrounded by people who possess that New York attitude: "You're famous. So what?"

But New York also gives we mere mortals the gift of being – or becoming – whoever the hell we want.

Last year I interviewed Jeremiah Moss, the author of the blog and book Vanishing New York. For the past decade he has been documenting the hyper-gentrification of the city and what is being lost in the process.

When he arrived in New York in 1993, he did not call himself Jeremiah Moss, which is a pseudonym. Or Griffin Hansbury, which is his real name. In fact, he was a woman. Coming to the city enabled him to become someone else – someone he dearly wanted to be.

"Being trans was certainly not widely acceptable in the mid-'90s, but New York was a place where that could happen," he told me when we met at Cafe Orlin in the East Village, which was a week away from closing after 36 years in business. "There was a support group and a small community here. You wouldn't be able to find that in smaller cities."

The writer who best encapsulated this transformative relationship between a human being and the city was Joan Didion, in her 1967 essay Goodbye to All That. For my money it's the best love story ever written about New York, especially when she investigates the feelings behind why she left the city she adores above all others.

"Some years passed, but I still did not lose that sense of wonder about New York," she wrote. "I began to cherish the loneliness of it, the sense that at any given time no one need know where I was or what I was doing."

I'm with Joan. For certain people, and I count myself as one of them, being alone in the city is something to be cherished rather than cursed. I especially love Sunday mornings in Manhattan. If you get out and about early enough, the city is still half-asleep and the streets almost empty of traffic. It's strangely exhilarating and life-affirming. New York is mine.

Being alone in New York is a totally different experience to being alone in Los Angeles. For starters, you can wander New York all day and all night. If you don't have a car in LA, you will not only find yourself alone, you will find yourself isolated, disconnected and lonely. And you will not be going anywhere too far.

On top of all this, New York is a city that exists not so much out there as inside the head. My New York is the best New York. And so is yours.

We all have our mental map on which we chart the places we instinctively gravitate towards when we revisit. It's the neighbourhoods that feel familiar. It's the place with the coffee you love and the window seat with prime people-watching real estate. It's the bar with the great jukebox and the barmaid who remembers you even if it's been 12 months since your last visit. It's the dumpling place where you can get a beer and half a dozen seared-pork for $10 and watch the stoic Chinese ladies roll each dumpling in front of you. It's browsing the Strand Bookstore at eight on a Sunday evening and walking out with weighed-down bags and a lighter bank balance, or sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park in autumn sun for half an hour to watch three old guys play stellar jazz, or stumbling home exhausted and happy from seeing a band in Williamsburg and grabbing a nightcap in the Lower East Side, then deciding a slice of pizza on St Marks Place is exactly what the doctor ordered.

It's doing whatever the hell you want for a while in the best city in the world, with most of the other 8.5 million people around you not knowing a thing about you.

I only drink on weekends at home – I drink every night in New York. I don't spend much on myself at home – I compulsively buy books, records and clothes in New York. I try to cook as much as I can at home – I eat out for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day in New York. I don't keep a journal at home – I've kept a journal every day I've spent in New York.

It's a place where I've told white lies, acted like an idiot, gone out on a limb, met amazing characters, had a mid-life crisis, written stories (good, bad and otherwise), cooked up a million grand plans (a few of which even came to fruition) and experienced epiphanies that I could never have experienced elsewhere.

New York gives you the freedom to do whatever you damn well please.

E.B. White got it. Joan Didion got it. I get it.

And that's why Malcolm Turnbull thought the paparazzi and media following him down the street on the Upper West Side last month should get it too.

Yes, Malcolm had several golden parachutes that ensured his bum was not too bruised when it crashed to earth, so we shouldn't shed too many tears for the bloke. But if there's one place he should have been given a break, it was New York Freakin' City.

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