"Officer! She just pushed her way to the front," hollers an insistent pink-haired, sweatpants-clad woman glaring daggers at the back of another woman's black parka. "I would like you to ask her to move."
A small group of very excited people (mostly women) are waiting on the sidewalk outside New York's ritzy Carlyle hotel. It's cold, but some have been waiting on the barricade for more than an hour, hoping to catch a glimpse of Will and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. We've got a nice view over here on 76th—the crowd is bigger on Madison Avenue, presumably because the out-of-towners don't know to assume they'll bring the VIPs in via the side street.
The crowd is only two or three people deep, but that doesn't mean they're gonna let somebody push her way to the front. "She says she's press, that doesn't give her any right," cries the woman with the pink hair, who has immediately emerged as the voice of her fellow spectators. When the cherub-cheeked NYPD officer nearby ignores the scuffle, the woman with the pink hair takes matters into her own hands, marching right up to the offender and leaning into her back, a deliberate intrusion into the intruder's personal space. The intruder fights back.
"Officer, I'm being pushed," she cries in an accent that is so classically upper-crust Upper East Side, it must be fake. "She's pushing me. What can I do, officer?" She maintains this litany ("Get your elbow out of my body!" "Attack! I was attacked." "Officer? This woman is threatening me.") for several minutes. She also lights up a cigarette, to stagey, outraged coughs from the disapproving crowd.
Finally, the nearby cop feels compelled to intervene: "No more elbowing. No more pushing. All right, girls?" They grudgingly subside, lest they both lose their chance to see some real-deal royals.
At long last, we heard the distinctive whomp whomp of those special police escort sirens, up pulled a brigade of NYPD motorcycle cops, and Will and Kate climbed out of their SUV and posed before blinding camera flashes. I didn't see so much as a strand of Kate's hair, so I waited another half an hour to catch them coming out of their hotel and was #blessed with a faint glimpse, as the pair climbed back into their SUV and made for dinner. At least one girl dashed down the street to get a closer look as the car pulled away; she caught a glimpse of William and had to wipe away literal tears from her eyes, she was so excited.
As I made my way to the subway, navigating off the skeletal outline of emerging supertower One57, the royals headed to their dinner at the home of Sir Martin Sorrell, a fundraiser for their catch-all charity the Royal Foundation. According to the Daily Beast, invites went only to the wealthiest of the wealthy, with 30 guests including Blackstone's John Studzinski and Universal Music Group Lucian Grainge. It would've been positively tacky to leave without writing a check, so the event likely pulled as much as $2 million.
Will and Kate picked a strange moment for their first visit to New York City. Their choice of the Carlyle and an itinerary packed with charitable visits inspired comparisons to Princess Diana's 1989 solo visit, including her landmark visit to Harlem Hospital at the height of the AIDS panic. "There are some extraordinary parallels between this visit and that visit 25 years ago," former chief of staff Patrick Jephson, told ABC News. "This is New York's chance to get a fresh look at a new princess. When Diana came, she wasn't very well-known."
And why wouldn't we want a closer look? Then again, New Yorkers just elected a mayor who took the stage on election night to the sound of Lorde's "Royals." The city is safer and cleaner than during Diana's day, but luxury high-rises are popping up like mushrooms to serve the world's megarich looking to stash their money somewhere safe—while rents rise so fast it'll give you vertigo. Could these two charm the city? What's it even mean being a royal anymore?
Day two dawned cold as hell. Willie Windsor popped down to D.C. (flying commercial, but first class) to meet Barack Obama and talk the illegal wildlife trade at the World Bank. Meanwhile, Kate ventured uptown to Harlem, meeting New York First Lady Chirlane McCray at the Northside Center for Child Development in what seems like a pretty deliberate nod to Diana's visit.
Those of us without Buckingham Palace-approved press passes gathered across the street. There must've been a 50/50 press/rubbernecker split, and most of the spectators were curious locals, like the young woman doing homework while waiting. One man lived in the building Kate was visiting; as we stood chatting, the conversation of course wound around to changes to the neighborhood. But there were a few truly hardcore fans.
"I'm just here for the ride!" said a very, very chilly woman from Ohio, who'd brought her granddaughters (16 and 14). The older of the two was the real enthusiast: "Oh God, she loves Kate. She made the sign and she got everything so I had to bring her." They planned to attend the Nets/Cavs game later that evening; "tomorrow, I don't know what's on the agenda. She'll let me know."
Another attendee had driven two and a half days from Wisconsin, but it wasn't out of pure Kate Middleton madness. "I'm a royal junkie," she explained. "When Charles and Diana came to America in '85 we went. And everyone was like, oh you might not see them. Well, we met them. And ever since, for 30 years, my girlfriend and I have taken royal trips." Her gloved hands tucked into a muffler decorated with commemorative pins, she said, "We came prepared. This is not our first rodeo."
The same age as Princess Di, she dates her fandom to the 1981 wedding. "I feel a little bit like I'm representing grandma, in a way." Mostly, though, she just enjoys the hell out of it: "Last night [at the Carlyle] took me right back, the screaming and the buzz of it and that's what makes me happy—it's not going to fade away."
Royal-chasing has changed over the years, though. Specifically, the security. This video from Diana's 1989 visit to the Henry Street Settlement—pre-9/11, but when New York City was a damn sight rougher town—makes a pretty telling comparison:
For Will and Kate there was no pressing the flesh, no shaking hands with the adoring public. Sure, if you shouted one of their names they'd turn around, give a wave and a smile. But mostly they floated from place to place in a bubble like Glenda the Good Witch (if she'd been accompanied by a platoon of NYPD officers everywhere, that is).
The moment Kate swooped inside I dashed down to the Upper East Side and her next stop, the British General Consul's Residence, hoping to get a glimpse close enough to see her actual facial features. Waiting across the street, sitting on a bench outside a laundromat, were two deeply unimpressed New Yorkers from the block (one of them wearing a fur coat, the other wearing a coat with fur trim). "We're all used to this, because Prince Harry stays here all the time," explained one as she lit a cigarette. Nevertheless they did bother sticking around to see the duchess, I pointed out. "Why not?" shrugged the other.
The couple reunited at another high-profile reception, this one specifically devoted to conservation and once again at the British General Consul's Residence. This one featured both Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. You figure even if Hillary doesn't make it back into the White House, the royals want to remain on good terms with the Clinton Foundation. And then they departed for the public centerpiece of their visit: the Nets vs. the Cavaliers at Barclay's Center. By the time they arrived protestors were already gathered outside, launching a demonstration dubbed the #royalshutdown.
You could hear them before you saw them, chanting "I can't breathe!" and "Hands up, don't shoot!" Bobbing among the crowd I spotted several young women wearing cheap tiaras and handing more out to their friends, but these weren't confused royalists. "Well, you know, the royal family is here to see the best of America, so we came to dress up in our finest threads, to show that whether or not you wear a crown, white, black, brown, your life is worth something. Right now, America isn't showing that," explained Cherelle Brown.
"That's something that's international," she added. "We're here today to say this isn't just an American problem. Prince, this is an international problem of international scope and it needs an international solution."
The area was crawling with NYPD, like someone had kicked a blue anthill. I looped around the back of the stadium, hoping to spot Will and Kate on their way inside, but quickly realized their SUVs were going to pull straight into some sort of parking deck (thereby avoiding the hoi polloi entirely, protestors and fans alike). Back out front, the atmosphere was growing tense as cops stationed themselves behind the barriers, stubbornly refusing to make eye contact. I watched several cops haul somebody out of the crowd, force him to the ground and cuff him. Meanwhile, Will and Kate sat inside a stadium that is perhaps the ultimate souvenir from Bloomberg-era New York City, cheering on a team owned primarily by a Russian oligarch. (Well, cheering is a stretch. Kate looked bored out of her mind; Will gamely attempted to follow along, with the help of Dikembe Mutombo.)
The royal visit reached its climax as the the King and Queen of New Brooklyn Jay-Z and Beyonce strolled across the basketball court to greet the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. The stadium, sources say, lost its shit. "It was INSANE," reports Jezebel editor Emma Carmichael, who was in attendance. "It was like a boy band—screaming girls."
"I sat next to people who'd never been to a game before and brought binoculars and stared at Will & Kate through them the entire time," she added. Also, the royal couple seemed befuddled by the crowd's reaction to their appearance on the Jumbotron.
By day three, Tuesday morning, the weather had gone from bad to worse and, frankly, the novelty was wearing thin. (They were still drive-time fodder, though: Hot 97 was taking calls with messages for the couple. "I wanna be royalty, just for a day. Just for one day," pleaded one caller. "Can I be a princess for a day?")
Few braved the pouring rain to wait outside The Door, an organization dedicated to assisting at-risk youth. Besides the photographers, it was just a kid who attended school nearby and a man in the neighborhood anyway. When she and Will arrived, Kate Middleton wore suede pumps. Despite the pouring rain! Forget the jewels and the palaces and the racehorses—there's perhaps never been such a perfect illustration of the privileges of rank as someone wearing suede pumps in a goddamn Nor'easter. (Word is they looked untouched. Maybe the bubble is literal.)
During their visit to another reception at "membership work collective" NeueHouse, one photographer turned to another and asked, "Is there something else going on?" A sad pile of debris (including a couple of folding chairs) had been left in the street, right across from where Will and Kate would exit. Attendees ranged from Harvey Weinstein to Patrick Stewart; I spotted J. Crew creative director Jenna Lyons ducking out early.
The turnout at the Empire State Building was much better—but 34th Street is never not crowded. Several sidewalk ticket sellers for Skyride stood around, debating how the royals would arrive. Tahoes and Bentleys were both suggested. "Excuse me, miss?" one tried getting a cop's attention. "They're going to land their G5 right in the street, aren't they?" (Whenever someone would slow down and ask what was happening, he'd tell them "Tupac's coming back," without missing a beat.) When Prince William finally arrived—alone—he was greeted with a chorus asking, "Where's Kate?"
"It was great to talk to him about our U.K. office," Jon Oringer, CEO of Shutterstock, said of their five minutes together at the "Innovation is GREAT" reception hosted by his company, which brought the prince to the Empire State Building. "We're both helicopter pilots, actually, and he flies the same helicopter as me, so we talked about the EC135."
Finally came the grand finale, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art: the gala celebrating the 600th anniversary of Saint Andrews, where the duke and duchess met. Approaching from north, you could see the cavernous room containing the Temple of Dendur lit up red, with tiny figures scrambling over finishing touches.
This was another fundraiser, with monies going to support "support student scholarships and bursaries, new student sports facilities in St Andrews, investment in the university's medical and scientific faculties and a lectureship in American Literature at St Andrews," according to a press release from the school. (So not purely scholarships.) The Guardian says attendees included Tom Hanks, Seth Meyers, Anna Wintour, Mary-Kate Olson and Olivier Sarkozy; Business Insider notes that Wall Street was well represented by folks like the CEO of Citigroup and the head of global commercial banking for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Tickets cost as much as $10,000; there was a charitable auction, as well.
For all the hoopla about their public appearances, it's pretty clear these meet-and-greets with the elite were the true purpose of this visit. I wonder if it's lowering, knowing one of your primary responsibilities as heir to the throne of England is collecting donations from the global megarich for your pet causes. That, and waving.
A crowd had gathered for this last hurrah, and there was a frisson of excitement as we heard that whomp whomp—though nothing compared to the frenzy of the first day. The caravan arrived and Prince William emerged, bald spot and all, from our side of the SUV. He waved. The crowd cheered. Everyone watched as Kate climbed the stairs in a long gown that, from our distance, might as well be basic black. We were suspended a moment, staring. Then the moment was broken and other than a few enthusiasts comparing photos ("Oh look! They're waving!!!"), everyone scattered. "That was fun. It was nice chatting with you," one woman told her barricade companions before striding off purposefully into the night.
Lead image photo via AP; other photos via Getty.