Taking A Bite Out Of The Big Apple

I suppose what I experienced that early winter’s afternoon in Manhattan was what singer-songwriter Don Henley famously described as a New York “minute.”

I’d been walking uptown looking for a particular store when I noticed a crowd being held back by police and ropes. I had learnt by then never to ignore such things as they almost always proved interesting. 

It was. 

Behind the ropes, in the backlit glow of the lights was Al Pacino, emoting. He appeared completely oblivious of the gawping crowd, seemingly in a parallel dimension of make-believe.

I suppose that’s why they pay him the big bucks. I saw the finished version back home in Kuala Lumpur. It was the quite-excellent 1989 thriller Sea of Love. 

In the fall of 1988, I was lucky enough to obtain a fellowship to Columbia.

It helped my burgeoning career no end: I’d read biochemistry in college but, here, I was exposed to economics, business and finance. It helped me become a better business reporter. 

I’d read that you would fit right in with NYC if you came equipped, that is to say, paranoid. I mean, it was said that the most popular pastime in the city in the 80s was internal bleeding.

But no, I enjoyed my year in Manhattan enormously and was treated with nothing but courtesy and kindness. 

Stewart Taggart, my colleague in B-School, loved to go jogging and he once persuaded me to go along one Sunday morning to Central Park.

Loping around near the reservoir, Stewart suddenly stopped and pointed. I couldn’t see much until the group grew nearer. Surrounded by bodyguards, Mick Jagger was jogging briskly. 

He was friendly too. He noticed us looking and he smiled and waved.

But after half an hour I got tired and thought I would head back. I took one of the exits and found myself in Harlem.

I knew Columbia was several blocks away so I didn’t panic. While walking along, what I originally took to be a bundle of rags on a side street turned out to be a homeless man.

Walter turned out to be a nice fellow who knew where Southeast Asia was: he’d served in Vietnam. More to the point, he was going my way.  

I asked him how he survived in February when temperatures could go below zero. He shrugged as if it was a stupid question: “You get by the best you can.” 

You would constantly meet interesting people there. Pamela, our program director, for example, was married to Paul Kluge, an untidy-looking novelist whose New Yorker article helped inspire the film Dog Day Afternoon.

Paul used to find me interesting and, I suppose, something of a curiosity. One evening, he asked me over dinner what our national record for the 100-metre sprint was.

I told him it was 10.3 seconds and that it was set in the 1960s by a medical student who’d trained briefly in Texas.

“Well, I’ll be damned!” breathed Paul Kluge in complete amazement. “Talk of being backward. That’s like our “white” high school times and we’re not even starting to talk black.”   

All ten Fellows were in the media and nine were American. So, when we met Donald Trump for dinner in his Trump Tower one evening, I was the only one who’d never heard of him

He stared at me: “Where are you from?”


“That’s Asia,” he said, pleased by his knowledge. 

“Bingo,” said Stewart and I thought Mr Trump might go far. 

But he bristled at their questions – about his business tactics and his recent Chapter 11 filing – and you could sense he loathed reporters.

Later, all of us including Pamela – who rarely spoke evil of anyone – agreed he was a jerk. 

If only we knew then what we know now.