Be our guest

Fayes T Kantawala learns to love home through the eyes of others - or does he?

Be our guest
Houseguest season has arrived here in New York. For the next several weekends, I’ll be playing host to a rotation of friends – a prospect that thrills me because I can a) show off the plush contours of my new couch that will be their bed and prison and b) see the city through the eyes of people who don’t live here, thereby renewing my own excitement. Learning to actively enjoy your surroundings is not something we are programmed to do, especially in a place we’ve been in for a while. In a way it’s like a marriage – one where you’ve been with someone for so long that, over time, you begin to take them for granted, perhaps forgetting the many wonderful things that made you think them extraordinary in the first place. Then someone flirts with them at a party, their hand lingering for a second too long, and Bam! You see them through this stranger’s eyes: desirable and wonderful. Once you’ve lived in a city long enough, a houseguest becomes that stranger that’s flirting with your spouse. In a good way.

This weekend, for instance, I had two different sets of houseguests. The first is from Pakistan but lives in America, and she wanted to come to New York to go to the Lahore Literary Festival here. No shade, but I haven’t been away from Lahore long enough to want to go and hear about it again, so I let her go on without me. We met afterwards and, despite the fact that it was a raining and cold, we decided to live life to its fullest and go and see the fashion exhibition at the Met, which was nearby. You’re probably all familiar with the Met Gala by this point: that parade of couture fashion that confirms that you are definitely not one of the cool people in the world because you are not dressed like a pine cone on a red carpet smiling casually next to Cate Blanchette.

But the fun thing about the Met Gala is that it’s not simply a fashion show-off party that floods your Instagram feed, but also heralds an actual exhibition inside the museum – one which anyone can go and see. This year the theme was “Heavenly Bodies” and documented the influence of the Catholic Church on fashion. Given that Italians make up a disproportionate percentage of the world’s famous designers, you can be sure the Pope’s robes have inspired a dress or two. And so they have. The show is remarkable, and unlike most fashion exhibitions, this one doesn’t simply show pieces from contemporary designers but also items that have been loaned out from the Vatican itself – which are all spectacular. Sadly I went on a rainy Saturday and so had to deal with the teeming moist throng of tourists that converged there. In a way it felt Muharram: undulating waves of pressing bodies trying to get as close as possible to a religious relic.

My second houseguest came mere minutes after the first departed and, despite the fact that she lived in New York many years ago, had come with a to-do list of things that I wouldn’t dream of doing again. So off we went to the rooftop of the Empire State, standing in long wet lines to get to the observation deck, from which you couldn’t see anything because it was cloudy. From there we went to Saks Fifth Avenue, from where we didn’t buy anything because it was too expensive. From there we went to a famous bakery that she saw in a movie once, where we couldn’t eat anything because it was too fattening. She wanted to go to Tiffany’s the jewelry store, which ordinarily I would have been happy to do, except that the store is in Trump Towers, and something about that sad fact makes me not want to foray there until the next Presidential election is over. In any case, the magic of recreating a Breakfast at Tiffany’s moment is somewhat ruined by the four marines clad in all-black riot gear right next to the diamond window displays. I should have gone, though, because after using my one veto for the day, I was forced to go to Times Square.
I hate Times Square. I hate it on a violent, cellular level. It's probably the image most associated with street-level New York, though no one who lives in the city has any cause to actually go there (other than for Broadway shows)

I hate Times Square. I hate it on a violent, cellular level. It’s probably the image most associated with street-level New York, though no one who lives in the city has any cause to actually go there (other than for Broadway shows). It’s filled with tourist trap ice cream parlours, American chain restaurants, street hawkers, tour groups and pitiable adult actors made to dress up like life-sized pickles without irony. I’ve often read of the seedy, sex-crazed past of Times Square, when it used to be home to the underbelly of underground New York, but those days are gone. The smell of urine has been forced into the subways now, while above ground people dressed as Iron Man and Superman harass you into posing for a picture with them. The skyline is a crammed Mondrian of bright LCD Coca Cola ads and TGIF adverts; H & M models smile at you from giant billboards above and as you make your way through this steaming mass of mass culture, you hope to God you don’t have a fit of epilepsy.

But as I saw the wonder in my guest’s eyes and she took in the bright lights of the big city, I asked myself whether my bitter, cynical old self was perhaps being too harsh. After all, isn’t it a wonderful place? Just then a child dropped their giant ice cream on my blue suede shoe as it began to pelt with rain. No, my soul replied as the ice cream left permanent marks, there are some placed you shouldn’t have to revisit. Not even for a houseguest.

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