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Day 7 – “I think I left it in the ladies’ toilet”

21st May 2003 • Dave

We woke on Wednesday morning feeling thoroughly dejected with ourselves; OK, we’d wasted not a second of what had been a belting trip, but the granddaddy of all good things was about to come to an end. We took things at a leisurely pace, a final breakfast in Lindy’s filling the time before checkout. We then threw our bags in with the friendly left-luggage service. Although we were supposed to have obtained some forms from the reception desk for the use of this service, our English politeness must have paid off, as the guy in charge just said “Ah, leave them with me” and in doing so saved us sixteen dollars. This done, I found myself inexorably pulled back towards the DVD shop opposite Macy’s for another splurge, and then to the Internet café to alleviate my IM addiction. As the machines were not equipped with access software Dave had little to do while I pottered around my contact list, so I kept it short and within minutes we were on our way back up towards Times Square. The weather had turned humid and rainy that morning for the first time in the trip, and the added room required by umbrellas had turned busy crowds into melees filled with eye-gouging prongs. Navigating ten blocks was a stressful and lengthy chore, and we were thoroughly irritated and dampened by the time we once again visited Virgin Megastore. After lunch at Pizza Hut we realised time had once again got the better of us: we had under an hour to get back to the hotel, which would have been plenty but for the maniac crowds and umbrella ninjas. Taking a route which kept us off main thoroughfares, we were back inside our hotel lobby with at least thirty minutes to spare, and before recovering our bags Dave once again answered the call of nature. As we grabbed our suitcases, Dave suddenly patted his pockets, turned to me and said in a panicked voice “Rob, I think I’ve lost my passport”.

As the man Williams is not (usually) given to practical jokes or panic I knew we had a serious problem. If the passport had been left in the pizzeria or worse, dropped in Times Square, we had around twenty minutes to get up there, find it, and get back to catch our connecting bus. Considering a taxi round-trip with limited remaining funds, Dave suddenly said he thought it might possibly have been left in the toilets. It was at this stage it transpired the concierge had been unable to unlock the gents’ toilet, and had instead allowed Dave in to use the ladies. This meant we had to run up to the toilets, mindful that a trip to Times Square might still have been necessary, and demand to be let in to the ladies toilets on some laughable pretence of a passport being in there. Luck was on our side however, and some fellow Britishers nearby had heard our plight. A Yorkshire lass, equipped with a room key which would open the door, ran up to the toilet with me and, thankfully, there was the buff envelope containing all Dave’s travel documentation. Disaster had been averted, and Dave was happy enough to be assaulted by another female, spontaneously hugged by the Yorkshire lass’s mother.

The crisis averted, all that remained was to wait for our connecting bus, which arrived on time at a quarter past three. We climbed aboard, only to pile out a short while later at Grand Central Station, and we then waited for the bus which would take us to the airport. This showed up in good time and we climbed aboard to settle down for the hour-long trip. Yet more earthy characters were aboard with us, a loud lady behind Dave and I proclaiming recent terror alerts to be “just an excuse to bomb Syria”. Once we set off, we anticipated a ride lasting maybe an hour, but in the event we did not make it to JFK until half past six in the evening. We later learned a severe chemical spill had engulfed the city in traffic chaos, and we were lucky to have made it to the airport when we did. We checked in at a fair old pace and then headed for the security gate. The security at JFK is unimaginably tight, as you might expect, but the scrutiny we received was over the top. Laptop out of bag, coats off, belts off, shoes off, skin off. It took a good ten minutes to make it through the magnetometer, not helped by Dave’s irrational but now perfectly understandable refusal to let go of his buff envelope.

After we reassembled ourselves and our luggage, Dave took the opportunity to mangle his own card in the duty free, purchasing perfume for his sister and cigarettes for himself, and resisting the impulse to buy any 1.75 litre bottles of Bushmills or Maker’s Mark. We queued and boarded the plane, waving goodbye to the city for the final time, but agreeing that nothing short of Dave actually losing his passport completely could have spoiled the trip. The flight was as expected, dragging, and not helped by the passenger in front of me who insisted on reclining his seat all the way back, to the point where it was inches from my nose. Even if I reclined my own seat, it left me virtually no room to eat, and I had to ask several times before I ended up with enough room. Conspicuous by its absence too was the ‘multimedia’ entertainment system we’d enjoyed on our way across. The films on offer started and finished at static times, and the one genuinely redeeming feature was the presence of bona fide games from the Super Nintendo library. The Legend of Zelda at 38,000 feet is an experience to treasure. On touchdown we were once again picked up by the finest human being alive and shuttled away from Heathrow, stopping only to demolish a full English breakfast as our first meal back on English soil. The first visit for Dave and second visit for myself to the greatest city on the planet was well and truly over, done and dusted, finished, completed, but it had been everything we’d expected and more. Instead of trying to reproduce that first awed trip we’d just hit the city with everything we had, and we’d given a very respectable account of ourselves. I can’t help but wonder what the trip will be like when I return in another seven years’ time, although I have a feeling it will be sooner.

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Day 6 – “The Hottest Fuckin’ Sauce”

20th May 2003 • Dave

I had paced myself the previous evening, and taken the opportunity to down a pint or two of water before turning in, and so the morning after Dave was feeling the pinch of Sam Adams’s finest while I was raring to go. We decided, for the sheer randomness of it, to seek adventure whilst finishing the last of the items on our checklist – Brooklyn Bridge, the financial district proper, Pier 17 and Times Square at least one more time. We managed another reasonably priced and enjoyable breakfast at Charlestons, even though our order was hopelessly wrong as we ordered in English. Who was it made the remark about two peoples divided by a common language? We then caught the subway down to Battery Park and jumped on the free Staten Island ferry for another trip across the harbour. This turned out to be an excellent hangover cure for Dave, as he spent most of the trip clutching at the bar and letting the refreshing wind blow in his face. I was jumping around the ferry like a child, conscious of the fact that this was our last full day and wanting to fill it with as much variety as I could. After half an hour or so the ferry docked on Staten Island, which I had thought to be a tiny island like Ellis or Liberty, although Staten Island is nothing like this – it is a thriving community all of its own, and more than half as big as Manhattan. Apparently it briefly considered seceding from the city for some trifling issue in the last century (possibly “the sake of it”), but in the end decided to remain linked. We were turfed off the ferry onto a bus terminal which rapidly emptied of people, leaving us without a clear idea of where we wanted to go. The Rough Guide detailed an attraction: the Jacques Marchais Museum of Tibetan Art located in the centre of the island and apparently a real hidden gem, so we decided to strike out in this direction. I tried to ring ahead, only to be informed I was ringing a Chinese takeaway. Seeds of doubt blossomed when I checked the guide again – the museum was closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and apparently farmed out its facilities to a takeaway company in the meantime. A little bemused, we decided to jump on the first bus which came our way and ride it until somewhere interesting appeared on the horizon. For thirty gently worrying minutes, nothing much did. Staten Island is all wood frontages and overhangs, under which it’s easy to imagine shotgun-toting Republicans rocking gently in their chairs and discussing the relative merits of passing tumbleweeds. In short, it’s a terrifying slice of smalltown America, far too close to Manhattan for my liking.

We remained on the bus until it reached the Yukon Terminal, and as the engine switched off we realised we had no choice but to get out. We ended up standing in yet more blistering sunshine, a good fifteen miles from Manhattan, unable to see the familiar city skyline, and the only sign of civilisation a small hot dog stand. We had prided ourselves on our ability to find good in every situation, and anyway Dave couldn’t resist the temptation of yet more hot dogs, and so we got ourselves some snacks while waiting for the bus back across the island. The hot dog stand man was a model of friendliness, immediately identifying us as British (is it the nose?) and demanding that we try his secret weapon on our hot dogs – a small but dangerously coloured bottle labelled, simply, “The Hottest Fuckin’ Sauce”. Braver, or perhaps more stupid than the man Williams, I sallied forth and allowed the grinning hot dog stand man to place a tiny quantity of this lethal-looking concoction on my hot dog. Swallowing was only the *start* of my problems. A full litre of water later, I could still taste the damn stuff, and my tongue felt like I’d been gargling bleach. Perhaps gratified to have found some victims so early in the day, Mr. Hot Dog Stand With Nuclear Capability told us hilarious stories about this sauce; he’d made two Mexicans cry with it, a huge black trucker refused to admit it was blowing his face off and manfully finished a dog drenched in it, his freely sweating forehead the only indicator of the turmoil within. Dave and I have never once made any pretensions toward common sense, and we immediately purchased two bottles from Mr. Hot Dog Arms Dealer before jumping back on the bus. We’d travelled fifteen miles for free and for no reason, but we’d gotten The Hottest Fuckin’ Sauce, and that provided the village idiots with more than enough gratification.

Travelling back through more strangely quiet residential neighbourhoods towards the ferry terminal, we decided to properly visit and photograph Wall Street once we returned to the mainland. The free ferry quickly appeared and whisked us off the most bizarrely un-New Yorkish section of New York. Once back on the mainland we set off for the financial district, and realised we were there when we saw the New York Stock Exchange. This building has an ever-so-tiny flag draped across the expanse of its frontage, but we were disappointed to find heavy security preventing us from viewing the trading floor. We contented ourselves with visiting the Federal Reserve building, which fans of Die Hard with a Vengeance will remember is the building Jeremy Irons’ comedy German character empties of its gold reserves. A quiet building with an extensive collection of art, this is a great distraction for half an hour, and additionally features the famous George Washington statue outside.

Upon leaving the Federal Reserve building, we spent a good few minutes considering an issue both of us had thought about long and hard: whether to pay a visit to the site of the September 11th attack on the World Trade Centre. The idea of turning a site where so many people lost their lives into a tourist attraction struck both myself and Dave as in the worst possible taste, and not something we wanted to be a party to. However places like the Somme and Ypres are now sites of education, and in Hiroshima and Nagasaki there are monuments to guarantee “rest in peace, for it will never happen again”. People visit these sites to pay their respects, and so our decision was to go briefly and do this, and leave after a decent period of time. When we arrived there, I was shocked by the site itself – where the towers once were there is a massive crater six stories deep and over a hundred metres square, with some isolated girders and struts too deeply embedded for construction crews to extract. A fence separates the crowds from the site, and while Dave and I took as little time as possible, I was a little annoyed to see many taxis pulling up and people piling out, and the likes of mobile phones and personal stereos disturbing the calm. Both more than a little uncomfortable, we left and headed across to Pier 17, and the conversation was stilted and almost silent for a good while afterwards – which, as anybody who knows either of us will realise, is very unusual.

Pier 17 is (naturally) a pier, but it is also a decent shopping centre and collection of eateries. Various ornamental galleon and schooner-type vessels are moored beside it, and it remained as busy and well-outfitted as I remembered from the previous visit. Sighting the “Cyber Cigar” internet café and cigar emporium, we took time out to have a drink and lie back in the sun. Dave spent a relaxing half hour outside Cyber Cigar supping away at the beer and taking in the ambience while I went present shopping; taking some photographs of the Brooklyn Bridge and the impressive ships while I had the opportunity. I also bought a Romeo y Julieta cigar which has not been smoked just yet, but with my sister’s wedding on the horizon, it will not remain so for long. We left Pier 17 after I’d seen all I wanted to, and wandered back through the financial district to a tube station. By now it was coming up to six o’clock in the evening, and the subway was full to bursting. As bad luck would have it we’d managed to catch a slower tube which stopped at every station, and so we were feeling a little bedraggled when we made it back to Penn Station. We had planned to fill the time between check-out and our airport connection on the last day with another Matrix Reloaded viewing, we were both feeling quite shattered after the pace of the last few days. The Red Hot Chili Peppers guy had not been in touch, so we made the decision to spend our last evening with another viewing of the Wachowski brothers’ finest, before drinking our last in Niles. The film stood up very well to a second viewing, and the barman in Niles by this time was on first name terms with us, asking us how we’d got on that day. Some Bushmills whiskey rounded the trip off in fine style, although around 1am or so I had the urge to take a wander up to Times Square to see the mesmerising lights one last time.

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Day 5 “Did all of Newton, huh”

19th May 2003 • Dave

Yet another early start greeted us on Monday morning, as we took the opportunity to visit the Lindy’s on Times Square. It was this restaurant where I had breakfasted with my parents almost every day on the previous trip, so it was nostalgic to return there. Once again pancakes, maple syrup and coffee were the order of the day, and after a quick look in the Rough Guide we decided to visit the American Museum of Natural History. This is one of the largest museums in the world, and features the recently refurbished Hayden Planetarium, a suspended 30-metre sphere inside a lattice of steel and glass. As an architectural achievement it’s extremely impressive, and to have factored practical purpose into such a striking design makes it all the more so. Once at the museum we bought a multi-event ticket for 27 dollars all-in; this gained us access to both planetarium shows, a light show which promised to re-enact the Big Bang, two Imax showings, and a special exhibit which the museum was currently providing dedicated to the life and work of Albert Einstein. All in it promised to be an interesting and varied day, and the by-now-compulsory audio tour was available. After obtaining this and once again providing credit card information as collateral, we set off around the base of the main exhibit, dedicated to space exploration and astrophysics. The Scales of the Universe section was particularly interesting, orbiting the 30 metre sphere and using the massive centrepiece to give an idea of scale – the idea being, at the beginning we were supermassive and the sphere constituted the cosmic horizon, and upon progressing around the exhibit we gradually grew smaller. At each stage a point of comparison was made; for example a small mass in front of us constituting the Oort Cloud if the sphere was the diameter of the galaxy. The most memorable of these was the earth represented as a sphere the size of a football, and the 30-metre sphere the sun. Gradually moving further and further around until the sphere was a hydrogen atom and we were the size of a subatomic particle, we made our way into the Big Bang video, a sort of inverted planetarium with a concave display in front of us. This turned out to be short and more noise and show than information, but it was still an impressive preview of the planetarium itself.

Upon leaving the Big Bang film section a circling walkway took us down to the museum again. This walkway had a novel feature: from the beginning, time gradually advanced from fifteen billion years in the past to the present day at the base of the walkway. The walkway itself circled the planetarium and was studded with information, until at the base the entirety of human history was contained within the width of a single human hair – a great way of getting some perspective, and well in keeping with the theme established by the Scales of the Universe section. Afterwards we made our way to the queue for the planetarium. This constituted two short films, one explaining our place in the cosmos (narrated by Tom Hanks) and one considering the search for extra-terrestrial life (narrated by Harrison Ford). To use big-gun Hollywood actors to lend credence to what could otherwise have been quite a dour affair worked extremely well, and the films themselves were expertly produced. The star projector itself rose out of the centre of the planetarium once the audience was seated; the walkway retracted, and a hulking black lump of plastic and metal machinery gradually rose into view – all very Star Trek. The Zeiss projector itself was capable of accurately projecting more than nine thousand stars, and also reproducing the twinkling effect produced by the Earth’s atmosphere. To a habitual stargazer, the accuracy doubtless adds goosebumps to what is already a very impressive setup. The two films, meanwhile, did not stop at projecting the stars; added in was a host of information and visual aids to the commentary. The latter was certainly lost on one American girl sat behind us – upon hearing Tom Hanks comment “It gets me every time” at seeing the Earth in amongst its galactic environs, she responded “Oh shut up, Tom”.

These remarkable planetarium films completed, we went in search of lunch, and found it in the well-equipped museum restaurant. We realised we didn’t have long before our Imax films would start, so we quickly demolished some strange salad combination (mozzarella and cherry tomatoes?) and failed to notice the burger bar until we were leaving. The lack of beef on at least one occasion probably did Dave some good. So it happened that we left the museum café in a fair hurry to locate the Imax cinema in time for our film, a presentation about coral reefs which promised some outstanding underwater photography. I noticed as we took our seats that the projector was shining a series of information slides at a tiny central portion of the massive Imax screen, and sure enough, when the main event was showing large areas of uniform colour, that central portion had been discoloured by the uneven light exposure. One of the biggest movie screens in the world was a victim of screen burn! Get a screen saver lads! This aside, the coral film’s photography was everything promised and provided an informative account of receding corals. One of the participants in the film even allowed a tiny “scrubber” fish which normally would deal with the teeth of larger fish, to swim into her mouth and clean her teeth – amusing and mildly repulsive in equal measures.

Once the film was completed, Dave suddenly twigged he’d misplaced his audio guide unit, and we searched our seating area to no avail. We retraced our steps back to the restaurant, only to be informed that it had been found and returned to the kiosk. Double checking, Dave sweated slightly when he realised, had it been stolen or lost altogether, the full cost of seven hundred and fifty dollars would have been debited to his card. Promises of marriage to the kiosk girl were met with a deer-in-headlights expression, and I dragged the man Williams away before he could vault the desk and assault her. We realised after this that, as usual, time was marching onward and we had yet to cover the Einstein exhibit, so we found ourselves wandering through this comprehensive account of the man himself and his work. Relativistic physics is explained via a host of visual exhibits, including a series of clocks set to run from the time of Einstein’s birth, and running at relative fractions of the speed of light. As any fule knows, the more rapidly you travel, the greater the time dilation between you and any objects whose speed you’re exceeding. So an imaginary clock travelling at 99.9% of the speed of light relative to our stationary position (besides having the mass of a respectable number of galaxies) was frozen around six seconds after the birth of the man himself – Einstein himself would have been proud. The exhibit was navigated through a guided tour by a small elderly lady with a terrifying command of the theory of relativity and quantum physics. The crowd was a mixture of Joe Anybodies from the street and some men and women who were clearly academics or scientists, and in the midst of this company it was easy to get intimidated. However when she began asking questions of the audience and few people responded, I wondered about the real nature of the supposed scientists. I couldn’t resist piping up when she quizzed the crowd: “Who can tell me something about gravity?”, as Dave is my witness, I responded with “Every object in the universe attracts every other object with a force governed by their mass and the distance between them”. I actually managed to parrot out that line, although it’s not strictly accurate (I neglected to mention the whole inverse-square bit). She turned on me a gaze lit with Einsteinian zeal and said “Did all of Newton, huh”. I felt extremely small. Here I was quoting seventeenth-century physics in the midst of an exhibit dedicated to a man who had debunked portions of classic Newtonian theory. After the knowledgeable little lady explained at great length why I was not *quite* right, the tour rapidly and mercifully progressed to an interesting study of Einstein’s attitude towards nuclear weapons – to quote, this can be summed up as “The Allies have to build one before the Germans do”. As it happened, Nazi anti-semitism had ironically robbed them of a huge proportion of Jewish academics and scientists who might, under duress, have allowed them to obtain such a weapon in time to deploy it on the battlefields of Europe, and tip the balance in favour of the Axis. It seems evil does always contain the seeds of its own destruction.

The Einstein exhibit completed, we left the closing museum and took a gentle stroll along Central Park west. By now it was early evening and those familiar pangs of hunger had returned, and after quick showers back at the Pennsylvania, we made our way to a branch of TGI Fridays visible from our hotel; it was here that we had our first encounter with the wondrous 23oz beer glasses – for those who don’t have their metric/imperial calculators handy, this is more than a litre of beer squashed into a single glass. Over burgers, we had a great view of the Manhattan evening, eventually leaving and taking the opportunity to visit the Empire State Building by night, this time with well-charged camera batteries. Many, many snaps were taken, and Dave’s filthy weed habit meant that when I returned to where he was smoking a crafty cigarette he had befriended some dazed-looking types. These lads informed us they were from Orange County, and staying in dodgy hostel accommodation for which they were paying more per night than the ultra-bargain deal at our beloved Pennsylvania. Upon leaving the building we informed the guys where they could find us if they fancied a drink (Niles, naturally) and headed back to our favourite watering hole by around 11pm. Gently sampling the Maker’s Mark once again, we somehow lost a good few hours in this bar chewing the fat and exchanging thoughts on the trip, and it wasn’t until we were on our way out that we encountered the formidable Janice and Den. Both New York natives, these were a hilarious and charismatic double act, the calm and erudite Janice, and the Brooklyn native Den, who spoke more rapidly than anyone we have ever met. Somehow we ended up chatting with these fascinating folk for well over an hour, as they were interested in a British perspective on everything from the war in Iraq to comic and anime culture. It was during this time that Dave demolished the remainder of his whisky whilst standing in the street, which we later realised was an arrestable offence. But I suppose everyone breaks the law at least once a day, Dave just found the novelty of ostentatiously doing it in a foreign country. When Janice and Den and we finally parted company Niles had closed behind us, and it was around three thirty in the morning. Dave was forced to leave the whisky glass by the door, and we made our unsteady way past a now-blasé concierge.

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Day 4 – “Prepare for a moon spanking”

18th May 2003 • Dave

Despite our late finish the previous day, Dave and I were up bright and early again on the Sunday morning. By 10am Dave was out and heading across to Steve’s to partake a pancake and bagel breakfast, while I decided to take the opportunity to hit the shops again. After a breakfast at Lindy’s I walked over to Fifth Avenue, taking the opportunity to stop off at an Internet café and sign into Messenger, as well as check my email – who says I’m an addict!? This done, after boring various friends with accounts of the holiday so far, I found a shop named Colony Collectibles. This shop was filled with every kind of memorabilia, from the Beatles to Star Trek, and yet the most exciting thing I could find to buy was a book of blues piano music. This turned out to be a sterling choice from the practical point of view, and held some real insights into improvisational piano playing. I held off buying a Mamma Mia CD album for my parents, as I was sure (correctly as it turned out) that they would already have everything to do with that musical. This done it was time to hit the Virgin Megastore again, where I spent a good hour wandering the book department, unable to resist reading a few chapters of Michael Moore’s “Stupid White Men” and a themed display with some amazing pictures from an astronomy book. I left the store with the MasterCard smoking marginally less than on Friday, and made my way further up to yet more music stores, including a branch of HMV in which I splashed out on more DVDs and music. After a time I found myself in Bloomingdales, which as it turned out was the department store I had in mind when we had been to Macy’s. It may be a smaller store, but I preferred it, and also took the opportunity to grab a selection of the Brown Bags ™ made famous by Friends ™, which I had promised to the same Sarah who warned me not to stare up at the buildings. In this store I also bought a coat, since the leather jacket I had brought with me was growing impossible to wear in the heat.

I left Bloomingdales happy that I had found the store I had remembered, as I had been very disappointed with Macy’s. I realised at this point that I was very close to Grand Central Station, and I took the opportunity to photograph another of New York’s famous landmarks. The entire day rapidly became a fairly lazy mixture of shopping for bits and pieces and visiting minor attractions like this, and by the time I made it back to the hotel in the late afternoon I was feeling thoroughly contented with the world. Soon after I arrived back a phone call from Dave came through, with him informing me that he would meet me in the hotel bar as he had some “good news”. There was only one small problem with this – our hotel didn’t have a bar, only various function rooms, shops and umpteen reception and sightseeing information desks. So, bemused, I telephoned the Williams, whereupon he admitted to me he was in the wrong hotel. It was at this point that I suspected he might have been sniffing the barmaid’s apron, and sure enough when I eventually found him in Niles he admitted to having drunk several stouts and lunching with the other Dave, while Anna and Marilyn went shopping. Realising I had some catching up to do, we sat and drank one or two quiet ales while Dave informed me that he had met a gentleman the sound engineer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were playing Madison Square Garden on the Tuesday evening. This would have been interesting enough, but Dave seemed to hit it off with the guy to the point that he had promised to try and get us free tickets for the performance. We were a little sceptical as to whether the guy would come through, but left him a message and number with the hotel staff anyway in case he turned out to be as good as his word.

In the meantime we decided to take the opportunity to see the top of the Empire State Building during the daytime, this time with a full set of camera batteries and spares. Once again through some serious security we quickly made our way to the top, and on this occasion managed to acquire another Acoustiguide-style audio tour. This one was narrated by a Noo Yawk native, an ex-cab driver who described at great length the major points of interest visible in all directions. As the sun was setting over the city, it proved to be a great opportunity for photographs, and I took hundreds. My insane scheme for almost infinite photographs deserves a mention here. As I revealed earlier, I had brought with me my laptop, and additionally the USB adaptor for my digital camera. With a 60gig hard disk and CD-RW drive, I had potential storage for countless numbers of images, as even if the hard drive became full I could just keep buying blank CDs to which I could burn pictures. In the event I took around six hundred snaps over the entire holiday, which after paring out all blurred/downright awful shots came to around 300 good images. Digital technology is the way forward, folks, but then you knew that anyway.

The potential for Chili Peppers tickets was still 2 days away, so we decided that we would try and make it to a comedy club that Sunday evening, as this had been another activity on our “list of things to do” from the outset. While Dave watched Enterprise on UPN, I leafed through the Rough Guide and found a recommendation for Carolyns, a comedy venue on Times Square. A quick phone call told us the club was showcasing an American comedian by the name of Darryl Hughley that evening; apparently well-known in America with his own show on Comedy Central. Dave and I had never heard of him, but decided stand-up in New York couldn’t fail to be at least passable, and headed down there via a quickly-hailed cab. Once inside we bought tickets and propped up the bar, meeting yet more friendly New Yorkers, one of whom had a picture of a dog on his jacket, and baseball cap with his name printed on it: Captain Scott Shields. He informed us that a comedian had ridiculed this picture until he pointed out that it had been a rescue dog and was now dead of cancer. He informed us he’d never seen the wind so completely taken out of a comedian’s sails. Once inside, Dave and I ordered yet more steak and ale and took our seats to enjoy the warm-up acts, who were pretty entertaining – even if we did get a little lost with some of the local current affairs observational material. At the time, we had no clue who Jayson Blair was. The main event was very funny, and also lasted for a good hour and a half. Between ripping on his minder and coming up with more witty observational stuff there were many hilariously entertaining jokes – he proclaimed he’d never allow a child of his to learn the flute because “listen to the sound a flute makes. A flute is the soundtrack to an ass-whupping”.

Thus fed, watered and amused, we made it back to the hotel in the early hours, taking some snaps of Times Square and 42nd Street by night. For once, we decided against Niles. Instead we retired to the hotel room and decided to catch a little bit of American TV before sleeping. Whilst we were watching, Dave in his bed and me at the desk offloading yet more photographs onto the laptop, a cartoon came on neither of had ever seen before but which we’ve seen plenty of since; the Aqua Teen Hunger Force. A completely demented show whose closest cousin is South Park, this cartoon defies explanation, but the episode we saw – Mayhem of the Mooninites – turned out to be generally lauded as one of the best so far. Dave began chortling when one of the characters proclaimed “Your roommate is a nerd. On the moon nerds have their pants pulled down and they are spanked with moon rocks”. When the last line of the show turned out to be “Prepare for a moon spanking” Dave was slayed to the point where he couldn’t stop laughing off and on for the remainder of the night.

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Day 3 – “Show me your war face!!”

17th May 2003 • Dave

We declined to visit Lindy’s as we upped and left the hotel for 9am on Saturday morning, choosing instead to walk and see if there was a more reasonable bistro or diner at which we could breakfast. Barely two blocks from the hotel, at the intersection of 6th and 31st Street, we found Charlestons. This small bistro offered a decent selection of bagels, omelettes, toasties, coffee and smoothies to start the day, and weighed in at around seven or eight dollars for a decent spread. We immediately decided to make this location our regular haunt for breakfast, leaving Lindy’s for a treat perhaps on the final day. While we were eating in the comfortable upstairs seating area, Dave’s phone rang. Our plan for this day had been for Dave to go and see Steve’s impressive computer setup and have a proper chat with him, while I would again hit the plastic in various shops. However Steve wanted to postpone, as he had other plans for the day, so we shuffled our own plans around. We decided to visit an attraction that had been on our list since the first day, the Intrepid Sea/Air/Space Museum. This amazing attraction is the Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Intrepid decommissioned in 1974 and now moored permanently in the Hudson River, along with the Forest Sherman class destroyer Edson and the guided missile submarine Growler, the name of which unaccountably amused Dave and I for around five minutes. We finished our food and jumped on the subway up to 46th Street. However the museum is located west of 12th Avenue, and native New Yorkers will know a block across the city is far further than one up or down. Dave and I set off on a good thirty minutes’ walk from the 46th Street station over to our destination through some more blisteringly hot sunshine. Like so many other attractions which would make effective terrorist targets, the Intrepid installation is surrounded by some extensive security. Searches and magnetometers ensuring nobody can enter the exhibit with the intention of doing any damage. Dave was gratified to see the provision of an audio tour system called Acoustiguide; this clever setup worked via a sequence of numbers pasted up on the walls beside each exhibit, and the small telephone-alike hand unit (which you temporarily exchanged for a credit card) would then tell you about what you were looking at. I couldn’t resist breaking the system by dialing numbers at random, and at one stage accidentally getting an escort service.

Our first port of call was refuge from the sun in the submarine. The opportunity to wander around a formerly nuclear-equipped submarine is probably one few people get, at least people who don’t get to visit the Intrepid museum, and it was a fascinating experience. Like the Edson and the Intrepid, the submarine is a ship of the World War Two era, which lends an eerily anachronistic feel to the exhibit. Not for the claustrophobic, the guided tour allows groups to walk all the way through the submarine, and see torpedo rooms, bridge and periscopes, officers and enlisted mens’ quarters, mess hall and engine rooms, and it’s truly amazing to see the cramped quarters the crew occupied for weeks at a time. If you’ve seen the film U-571 you’ll appreciate the opportunity to (briefly) be inside similarly confined spaces as those of the U-boat submarine in that film. After the tour, we emerged back out into the sunlight and made our way across to the main part of the museum, the USS Intrepid herself. We climbed straight to the deck of the carrier, and parked on the deck were a huge variety of planes and helicopters. Along with more modern planes such as the AV-8C Harrier, the F-16 Falcon and the F-14 Tomcat made famous by the film Top Gun were any number of fifties and sixties-era aircraft. Additionally there was an A-12 Blackbird spy plane, a jet whose true function was disguised with a fictional fighter/interceptor role, close enough to reach out and touch. Dave rapidly realised the military hardware anorak side of me emerging, and dragged me away from the planes up to the carrier’s bridge. The carrier itself is staffed by veterans, some of whom actually served on it during its service, and it feels almost sacrilegious to be asking them where the toilets were. They were far more prepared to answer questions about the ship itself, and I learned an interesting little bit of military protocol: apparently, on the bridge, only the helmsman’s orders are ever shouted using the terms left and right, whereas everybody else is ordered using the more nautical port and starboard. The veteran informed me this is in order that no matter how intense the battle gets, if the helmsman hears “left” or “right”, he knows these orders are for him, and the critical matter of the ship’s position and attitude will be addressed.

After leaving the immaculately maintained bridge area, we took the lift down to the bottom floor of the carrier, and found to our faint disgust that it had been colonised by McDonalds. However we were both fairly hungry by this point and made a brief pit stop to refuel. Afterwards, we found ourselves walking up to the main area of the carrier’s interior, the museum proper. This is filled with older World War 2 era aircraft, including those which flew from the USS Intrepid during her service, and some amazing replicas of the Mercury and Gemini capsules from the early days of the US space program. On the very day we were there the US Marine Corps had decided to set up a mock “boot camp” towards the rear of the carrier – yet more school trips and unsuspecting youngsters having a teenage drill sergeant yell instructions in their faces and then being forced to do pull-ups, the slogan “Pain is weakness leaving the body!!” yelled at the less capable attempts. Etched in my memory for eternity will be the sight of a very young child, not more than six or seven years of age, having the order “Show me your war face!” bawled at him. His response was even funnier, or more disturbing depending on your viewpoint; a half-hearted gurgle and a grimace which only drove the drill sergeant further into apoplexy. “THAT’s a war face!” he bellowed, demonstrating his own, perfectly refined attempt. Chillingly, by the time he left, the six-year old was practising his new war face on passers-by. Give me a child until seven, etc.

At the rear of the carrier was something we both immediately jumped at the chance to sample, a fully articulated top-quality flight simulator. Featuring dual cockpits and the ability to move through a full 360 degree in all axes, these looked like being a highly entertaining way to squander ten minutes. Two teenage girls had climbed in as we arrived, and screams were coming from their seemingly jammed-upside-down cockpit. After a brief training session, during which we were shown the basics of 1) changing direction, 2) changing speed and 3) blowing the crap out of stuff, we climbed in amongst roller-coaster type overhead restraints. There then followed a hilarious four-minute Dambusters re-enactment as we missed mountain peaks by millimetres and, worryingly, managed to blow up a hotel. The ability to whirl yourself around upside down in a machine under your own control is far more novel than it may seem, and we climbed off keen to have another go, but vetoed on the grounds that we already felt too old to be doing this.

Going forward we happened upon a movie theatre screening a 20 minute documentary charting the history of the aircraft carrier, and more military hardware alongside a memorial to the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001. This was quite a jarring sight, with actual papers people posted on walls soon after the tragedy, asking if anybody had seen lost loved ones. Equally shocking were two fragments from the debris, a twisted World Trade Centre sign which I recalled seeing intact when I visited the towers in 1996, and a piece of aircraft fuselage, the remains of a window clearly visible along one edge. Considering how familiar the footage of the event is, it was amazing how tangible reminders of the atrocity still had the potential to shock deeply.

After we had finished inside the carrier, we made our way over to the third and final exhibit, the destroyer Edson. On our way across I laughed long and loud at the sight of one of the “war face” marines striking up a cigarette as he talked on his mobile phone – so much for being at the peak of fitness when serving your country. The smaller Edson, meanwhile was just as open to the public as the Intrepid, and we were able to wander all the way across the decks and inside, ducking under 20mm cannons and aiming anti-aircraft guns at passing boats on the Hudson River. This done, we visited the museum shop in order that Dave could buy an enormous metal F-14 Tomcat model for his uncle, who is as much of an military anorak as me. I contented myself with a smaller version of the same plane, in order that I could re-enact Top Gun with the air of some piano wire and MiG models when I got home.

Upon leaving the museum at mid-afternoon we asked yet another friendly and helpful New Yorker how best to get across the island to 4th Avenue, as I had been asked to take some photos of certain buildings by a friend on an architecture course. These were the Seagram building, formerly the Pan Am building, and the Guggenheim museum which drew controversy upon its construction, looking as it does like an inverted beehive. On our way across the city on the seemingly punctual and convenient M50 bus we passed the Radio City Music Hall, and disembarked at the intersection with Fifth Avenue to have a look inside St Patrick’s Cathedral, an enormous and ornate building. Inside there was a wedding going on, the bride, groom and guests seemingly unfazed by the crowds of tourists at the back, and the vows clearly audible through a microphone close to the rector and newlyweds. This was especially poignant for Dave, who was missing out on his auntie’s wedding which was about to start some 3500 miles away. It was once again quite strange to find an oasis of peace and calm in amongst the bustling city outside. Once we’d finished goggling at the wholly un-British spectacle of a public wedding, we left and walked towards where my Rough Guide assured me the Seagram Building was located. This found, I took many snaps, and we then struck out north to locate the Guggenheim Museum. It was another long walk for us up to 89th Street, and eventually we capitulated to complaining legs and feet and jumped on the subway. We located this unusual building and I was disappointed to see it was in quite a state of disrepair, but remained an unusual enough spectacle for me to take yet more pictures.

While I was snapping away, Dave received a phone call from Steve who extended an invitation to join him an some friends for dinner at La Gioconda’s an Italian restraunt on Long Island. We both enjoy Italian food, and so it was that we jumped in a taxi to take us the fifty or so blocks back to our hotel, and prepare to meet Marilyn and Steve at the Long Island Rail Road terminal. We had around an hour to kill during which I found it easy to get myself amused by the name Great Neck (what about the rest of her?), and we met up with Steve and his wife around 7pm. We were told there was a possibility that a new type of double-decker train would take us to Long Island, but in the event it was a boring old single-decker, although like every other public transport we’d taken it was punctual. Within the hour we’d met another Dave and his wife Anna, friends of Steve and Marilyn, and disembarked one station early (Great Neck and Little Neck sound quite similar when announced by someone with acute sinusitis ). As it turned out this wasn’t the last transporting mishap we experienced that evening, but I digress. Hopping extortionately priced cabs across to Great Neck we quickly found the restaurant, and consumed large quantities of beer, wine and filet mignon, and by the time we left the restaurant was a good few dollars richer. We calculated we would have to wait at least an hour before the 11:40pm train would arrive, and I think Dave and I did it by mostly muttering Withnail and I quotes at one another as we all sat on the platform. Much to our mutual dismay non of the other members of the party had seen this cult comedy classic.

Once the train arrived and we were on our way, I noticed a good number of people, mostly attractive, under-dressed girls, who were clearly on their way to clubs. I resisted the temptation to look like a stalker by asking them where the party was, and instead Dave and I decided to go for a drink in Queens with the other Dave and Anna before returning to Manhattan to find a club. We left the train at Flushing after arranging to have breakfast at Steve’s place the following morning, and made our way to yet another Irish bar through the Chinatown portion of Queens. Here the rapid provision of free Guinness held us like a vice, after it became apparent Dave and Anna were regulars and the barman wasn’t shy about doling out the free stout. At this point we realised a club was growing more and more unlikely, but we remained in the bar until around 2am, before leaving to try and get out of Queens and back to Manhattan. Unfortunately this proved to be even more troublesome as we first had to catch a connecting bus – which we almost missed while Dave disappeared off to answer the call of nature – and even once at Flushing station we had absolutely no idea where to go. We were both much the worse for wear, it was almost three in the morning, and we had little idea how to get back to Manhattan. We jumped on what turned out to be the right train, but accidentally disembarked at 40th street in Queens rather than 40th street in Manhattan. I make no excuses. The lesson to be learned here is: never try and navigate the public transport system in one of the outer boroughs of a city like New York, in the early hours of a Sunday morning, while the worse for wear. it’s asking for trouble. Needless to say, when we made it back to the hotel at stupid o’clock, the idea of a club was abandoned. We like to stay out late, but trying to get into the club as the sky is lightening just seems like showing off. While I headed up to bed, Dave wondered up a block to a diner for a much needed coffee and cigarette.

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Day 2 – “Ah, but it’s OK, cos he’s not dead”

16th May 2003 • Dave

The above quote could – at a push – have been applied to me as I stirred in my pit on the Friday morning. Dave sprang from his bed like a jack-in-the-box and inquired as to whether I’d be joining him for breakfast. I’d forgotten that to drink whisky with the Williams is to swing for Cassius Clay, to try and tackle Pele, to wrestle a nuclear explosion… in short, to be completely and ridiculously outmatched. Dave’s cyborg liver had rapidly demolished the mere dribbles of whiskey he’d thrown at it, while I felt like I’d been kicked in the head by several horses. I languished in my bed while Dave toddled off to indulge in another Lindy’s breakfast, and it took repeated visits from the Dominican housekeeper to rouse me. Dave returned in time to charm yet another female (he’d busily been making up to the Mexican waitress in Lindy’s) as he generously tipped the lady bustling around our room warbling in Spanish. After showering and dressing I felt nominally better, but a brave effort to strike out towards the lobby sent me spinning back to our freshly-cleaned en-suite to take care of a little business. This was almost like a magic charm, as it did the job of Alka-Seltzer, strong coffee and dip in the sea all in one go. I was once again ready to get out there. My rapid transformation led to some wry head-shaking from Mr. Williams, and I believe mutterings in the vein of “Amateur”. Back on the street, I was badly in need of some food, so we broke our ban on chain restaurants and purchased a stack of donuts from a certain well-known shop. We devoured these on the street, feeling like vagrants, and then wandered into a small DVD store directly opposite Macy’s. This place had a massive selection of obscure and mainstream music and film at very reasonable prices, and I earmarked a decent number of DVDs I planned to return and buy later in the holiday. We then headed to Macy’s department store to have a look at the self-proclaimed “largest store in the world”. I had very fond memories of this shop from my previous visit, but it proved to be quite a disappointment. Undergoing an extensive refit, a large portion of the store was closed off, and there seemed to be floor upon floor of stuff which held no interest for us, such as frocks and housewares. While I wasn’t interested in the frocks, I can’t speak for Dave. Even a store guide didn’t do much to help us, and we left feeling a little disappointed. Dave had expressed an interest in the Museum of Television and Radio on 48th Street, while I was more interested in wandering into the Times Square Virgin Megastore. Initially keen, Dave’s enthusiasm waned when it dawned on him that he would be negotiating extensive stretches of the subway and road network on his own. He and I parted company at the 34th Street subway station, and I was left feeling a little nervous, like I’d just finished assembling the monster and was now watching it lurch around the Transylvanian countryside. I walked back up to street level and set at a slow pace up to Times Square, taking the opportunity to snap many photographs along the way. The New York street crowds are characterised by a strange mixture of native and tourist, and people-watching you rapidly learn to discern which you belong in, and which you should avoid at all costs. On Times Square proper (which, I feel it’s important to add, is not a square) the crowds are almost exclusively tourist, and the neon/display screen visual cacophony is as pronounced in the daylight as it is at night. I wandered with some satisfaction into the Virgin Megastore, a record store in which my dad and I had spent a good three or four hours last time I’d been in the city. The selection of music, film, literature and latte is enormous, and since there are a great many items unavailable or available in vastly inferior form in the UK, I set about hurting my plastic in a big way. Entire racks dedicated to Japanese animation, a genre barely acknowledged in the UK? Check. Two racks dedicated to Criterion DVD editions of films, an exclusively Region 1 phenomenon? Check. New York Monopoly? Check (that’s the board game, rather than the economic principle). Two hours of my life are lost in that store. All I remember is wandering out feeling slightly dazed, a couple of hundred dollars’ worth of switch receipts and some very heavy carrier bags in my hands. I had managed to notice that Tiesto, a Dutch DJ and producer whose stuff I’ve liked for a while, was to be playing a set in the store at 6pm that evening to promote his new mix album Nyana. I bought the album, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to see a European DJ in the midst of an American crowd, to see if it was as different as watching a movie amongst the natives. Meanwhile I struck out towards 48th Street to meet up once again with Dave, and it didn’t take me very long to find the Museum of Television and Radio. It was recessed quite a way from the street, and I was concerned that Dave would inadvertently (or perhaps advertently) have ended up in the Museum of Sadomasochism and Pornography two blocks down. When I enquired at the desk if anybody had seen someone matching Dave’s unique description, the girl on duty – barely my age – erupted in a barrage of giggling and grinning. “Oh yeah, he was here, he was great!”. After some searching of my carrier bag swarm and some raised eyebrows at my Rump Shaker 3 DVD, I took the lift up the fourth floor and the multimedia library. Dave was merrily sampling a selection of classic broadcasts, such as TV’s establishment in the UK and Orson Welles’ broadcast of War of the Worlds, which famously duped a lot of Americans into believing an invasion really was under way. By the time we left the museum it was late afternoon, my shopping trip and Dave’s broadcasting fetish having devoured a fair portion of the day. We chose to walk further up Manhattan towards the distantly visible Central Park. For the one remaining person on the planet who may not know, Central Park is an oasis of greenery and calm in the centre of the city, constituting the space of twenty or so adjacent blocks. It has quite rightly been called “the lungs of the city”, and were its administrators ever to sell the land up for development, billions of dollars would be made right before the city choked entirely. Dave and I grabbed hot dog and pretzel respectively and walked around this incongruent slice of peaceful parkland, flanked as it is by the most extensive urban development in the world. After walking through Columbus Circle and past the Trump Tower, we realised we were not a great distance from the Dakota Building, where John Lennon was killed by a deranged fan in 1980. Across the way is the Strawberry Fields memorial and mosaic, and we were both interested enough to take a wander along on a minor pilgrimage. This location is on 72nd Street, so it was a fair distance, but we arrived in good time for around 6pm – I later realised with dismay I’d missed the Tiesto set, but it seems for a fitting reason; to pay my respects to one of the founding fathers of modern popular music. Spotting an inattentive-looking doorman barring the entrance, we ascertained that Strawberry Fields was directly opposite, and we had indeed found the apartment building Yoko Ono still occupies. The Strawberry Fields memorial itself is strangely silent after the noise of the city, and the mosaic itself a simple circle around seven or eight feet in diameter, with the word “Imagine” in the centre. Many tourists were filtering through, but Dave and I took time to sit and contemplate this sobering sight. I took a walk and found the statue to one Daniel Webster, responsible for Webster’s Dictionary, and purchased another much-needed bottle of water. By the time I got back the mosaic had attracted an unwelcome guest; an American woman in her early thirties. This character was running around, loudly informing the assembled company of her woes, her five-times-changed degree course, and proclaiming that it was “OK, cos he’s not really dead”. Not content with shattering the calm of the evening, she then began to sing, and with passing tourists and a transient variously shouting encouragement and abuse we decided to take our leave. Hopping the subway back to 33rd Street we returned to the hotel room to plan our evening. One of the things we had agreed we should definitely do was visit a New York jazz club, as we are both fans enough of the genre to spend a calm evening sampling some live performance. Consulting my Rough Guide we identified two possible venues, the Savoy Lounge and Birdland. The latter was famously opened and headlined by Charlie Parker – otherwise known as “Bird”. However the cover charge alone for Birdland was forty dollars, and we were aware of rapidly shrinking wallets and four more full days to fund. We decided the best strategy was to head over to the Savoy Lounge, and if it proved disappointing, to push the boat out and hit Birdland. Wandering the New York streets on the Friday evening still felt safe, even behind the Penn bus terminal, where the Rough Guide informed us the Savoy Lounge was located. After much searching and increasing frustration on my part we found a promising looking candidate, only to be informed by the bouncer that it hadn’t been the Savoy for three years. My Rough Guide, it seemed, was woefully out of date. The bouncer did inform us that Birdland was a decent venue, and not far from where we were, so we bit the bullet and headed towards the more expensive choice. Upon arrival we realised that Birdland valued its exclusivity; with no reservation, our chances for a table looked slim. However after some theatrical consideration they managed to seat us, and we quickly ordered drinks and food; steak for Dave, calamari for me. Dave later pronounced this was the finest steak he’d ever had, which coming from a connoisseur of the bovine is praise indeed. The act entertaining a rapt audience was the twelve-member Cuban combo Orquesta Aragon, a selection of three saxophonists, three violinists, three percussionists/vocalists, a flautist, a pianist and a gentleman whose sole purpose, it seemed, was to grin at the audience, bash his tambourine and generally be the Bez of the outfit. The resultant music from the twenty-year old troupe was definitely not what we were expecting. Jazz by definition has no stereotype, but this was a highly unusual and entertaining performance. Variously the band pushed members to the fore, with pianist, flautist and finally violinist managing insane chromatic runs which blended and refused to stop until dogs outside were going insane. The audience – clearly big fans of the combo – were dancing and applauding like idiots, and Dave and I were initially bemused before vastly enjoying the lengthy performance and excellent food. Orquesta Aragon retired at around 10:30pm before being dragged back on for an encore. Another set to was due to start around thirty minutes after the finish, and we were condescendingly informed “my manager may invite you to stay for the second half”. We decided we’d seen enough, and headed out onto the street to find yet more places to down some alcohol. Our choice this time was yet another of the ubiquitous Irish bars dotting New York. In here we sat and drank for a while, literally propping up the bar and enjoying the atmosphere before walking back over towards Penn Station after midnight. At no time did I feel threatened, even as we were in quieter streets in the small hours. I feel that the reputation of New York as a dangerous city (prior to the emergence of the zero-tolerance policy on crime) must have been exaggerated.

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Day 1 – “Get up, you lazy brits!”

15th May 2003 • Dave

‘On the ground, doing some damage’ became a catchphrase for whole trip, as we had both firmly decided there was no way we were going to waste any days lounging around the hotel or idly doing things we could do at home (cinema visits notwithstanding ;). We awoke to a phone call from Steve “Get up, you lazy brits!” at 7am EDT, but since this was 12pm BST it wasn’t so bad. We organised ourselves as quickly as possible and splurged on pancakes and syrup at Lindy’s, which was perfect from the Americana point of view. However accounting for coffee, drinks, state tax and tips, the whole deal was more than twenty dollars each. We decided that we would have to find somewhere else to breakfast at least some of the days, as neither of us could afford to blow over 100 dollars purely on pancakes.

We left the hotel and headed across to Penn Station, a labyrinthine honeycomb of platforms taking you to other places on Manhattan, off the island to the rest of New York State and even interstate to the likes of Washington D.C. and Boston. I was shocked to see a good number of soldiers on guard toting M16 assault rifles, but as a security precaution and deterrent I suppose there are few more effective things than a soldier with a loaded gun. We quickly bought the 20 dollar Metrocard we had decided upon previously, as we knew this would save us a lot of money in the long run and also be more convenient. Our destination was the most iconic American tourist attraction of them all, the Statue of Liberty, although Dave wanted to take the opportunity to cross Wall Street first. Wandering through the financial district we were in the shade, but as we meandered out onto Battery Park and the harbour, it became apparent that the leather jackets maybe weren’t such a good idea. The sky was a uniform Mediterranean blue and the sun was beating down as though we were a good few lines of latitude further south. We quickly bought tickets for the ferry ride out to the statue and onto Ellis Island, and after getting through airport-grade security we boarded the small but comfortable Circle Line ferry.

The weather made the ferry trip all the more pleasant, and allowed for unrivalled panoramic views of the south of the city. Catching sight of the Empire State Building – only a block from our hotel – in the distance, I was amazed to see how far we’d already travelled. Also on view during our trip across were the Verrazano and Brooklyn Bridges as well as Ellis Island, before arriving at Liberty Island proper around twenty minutes later. We declined to purchase one of the top ten tackiest items I think I’ve ever seen: an green foam crown you can put on your head so ostensibly, you can think you look like the Statue of Liberty, when in actual fact, you look like an idiot. We realised to our horror that there were a goodly proportion of school trips dogging our footsteps, and many small American children ended up running about in these green foam crowns. It made them a lot happier than it made me. (It’s an evil man who cannot abide small children having innocent fun).

The statue itself and the grassland surrounding it were surprisingly peaceful, and the statue itself majestic if a little understated after the dizzy heights of the Manhattan skyscrapers. Interestingly enough, the distinctive green colour of the statue is not paint, but rather intentional oxidation of the metal; the statue is constructed and treated in a way to encourage this rapid oxidation, which turned it from its original metallic grey and gold. In this way rust is prevented from ever taking hold, as the coating of the statue has already oxidised as far as it is going to. Once again I was struck by the level of security – watching the crowds keenly from the base of the monument was yet another soldier, this time armed with a long-range rifle, and the interior of the statue was closed to visitors. As before I was initially shocked, then dimly gratified, and I realised that the precautions would act as a significant and highly visible deterrent against any terrorist threat.

After taking a decent amount of snaps we got ourselves a badly needed cold drink and headed on over to Ellis Island. What was once a centre for immigration is now a restored national heritage centre and museum, and makes for a fascinating attraction. There are a lot of exhibits detailing the processes potential immigrants had to go through, and some statistical information detailing the influx of immigrants during America’s “Open Door Policy” years. There are some fairly chilling sights to see, including the dormitory around ten feet by twelve – smaller than our hotel room – occupied by twelve people for months at a time while their applications were processed. We continued to wander around the Ellis Island museum until the realisation dawned that we should really be heading back to the mainland for lunch, and more importantly to make our Matrix Reloaded screening at Loews. Once again the transport proved to be superbly well timed, and it was on this ferry ride that I successfully folded my subway map until it showed the most important section, Manhattan proper. We jumped off the ferry and with my new found mastery of the subway system rapidly made it back to our hotel, grabbing the first of many snacks from street vendors en route. Dave was partial to hot dogs with mustard, while I was a fan of the pretzels. It tasted like the worst kind of junk food, but also felt not only encouraged but downright compulsory.

As it turned out, we were a little early for the film by about forty-five minutes, but it gave us an opportunity to catch our breath in the cinema foyer and call home, since it was early evening in the UK. After an interminable wait Matrix Hour finally rolled around and we got perfect seats, slap bang in the centre, two thirds of the way up. The film itself blew me away, being as its predecessor was an “intelligent blockbuster”. We also had the novelty of an American audience, far more responsive and less inhibited than its British counterpart. These boys and girls laughed out loud, cheered, clapped, yelled advice at screen characters, and generally made the experience a lot more enjoyable.

The Matrix Reloaded done and dusted, we took Steve up on a late-breaking offer to come across to the East Village and have a curry at a place he recommended, Haveli’s Indian Restaurant. We were given the choice of having “the best curry money can buy but no beer” in Queens, or “a damn good curry and beer” in the East Village. We decided on the latter after considering the choices for a second or two. On Steve’s advice, we took two buses across to Haveli’s, since it was a good six blocks east and another 30 blocks south. The buses were prompt and clean, and our subway passes worked here as well – a boon since we were in a fair hurry and didn’t have time to be fiddling with small change. Although we got off a little further south than intended, it made for a nice unintentional walk through Lower Manhattan as dusk fell, and by the time we arrived at the restaurant we were ready for lots of high quality food and drink. Haveli’s did not disappoint, being a curry house to duke it out with the best of the UK’s Midlands or north-west, and it was interesting to meet the friendly couple of Steve and Marilyn Matzura. While Steve is Dave’s friend rather than mine, both Steve and Marilyn made us both very welcome from the outset, and beer and conversation were soon flowing easily and rapidly. In the end the restaurant was cleaning up around us by the time we finally upped and left. Steve and Marilyn were heading off home to bed, but Dave and I were ready to see some more of the bar scene. As we were down in the East Village we decided to wander into an inviting-looking student-packed Irish bar, where we once again drank the double act of stout and lager. Conspicuous here was the recently-implemented smoking ban, as the bar felt like it should have been smoky as hell, but the air was as clean as that outside. OK, the air in Central Park.

While Dave was being propositioned by attractive student type lasses before I’d even gotten to the bar, at the back of our minds was our favourite little watering hole, the place with the wondrous spirit rack, Niles. We tried a couple of other places but our wanderings eventually took us back to the bar we’d gratefully patronised on the first night. More, much more beer was consumed, followed by tumblers full of Maker’s Mark whisky. These were New York measures and, by god, they had teeth. We gamely did our best to keep on doing the damage, but eventually we left at some ridiculous hour feeling damaged ourselves. Our hotel was a block north, and it took us a good ten minutes to make it there, whereupon we stumbled past the concierge who was beginning to look like he was wondering who his glorious hotel had admitted, and spent the second night on the 17th floor in our respective beds, feeling like we’d given a good account of ourselves on our first full day.

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Day 0 – “Are you here to cause civil unrest?”

14th May 2003 • Dave

Accommodation, flights, currency and tri-band mobile phones organised, Dave took the train down from Preston the night before we were to head off on the trip. The morning of our flight a strangely unreal sense descended. My dad, being the finest human being alive, offered to take a day off work and give us a lift down to Heathrow. This made things a great deal easier simply because it meant there would be no need to struggle across the bus, train and Tube networks with heavy suitcases and rucksacks. As it was, the service was door to door, and my dad deserves a mention purely for making this stage of the journey infinitely easier. At Heathrow Dave exchanged a final wedge of currency to fill his travel funds to bursting point, and after a full English breakfast, we were checked in by a pretty Japanese lady who assured me I would be able to use my laptop to watch Family Guy once the aircraft was in flight. Following check-in, I had to get to a post office to send some items I had managed to flog on eBay to boost the travel fund, and then we sat and filled out the immigration forms. Characteristically the Americans want to know everything about you, but some of the questions are verging on the ridiculous. “Are you”, the form shrilly demands, “intending to cause civil unrest whilst in the United States?”. Equally absurd is the question “Between 1935 and 1945 were you involved in the activities of Nazi Germany or the Nazi Party?”. The urge to tick “Yes” to the more ridiculous questions was suppressed by thoughts of spending our week avoiding body cavity searches in a joyless immigration holding centre.

As we sat in the bar outside the security checkpoint, we realised our time of departure was close at hand with just under an hour before we were due to board our transatlantic flight. There was absolutely no need to panic, but this became a trend for the holiday as a whole – most lengthy travel was tremendously well timed. After a fairly rigorous security check, but nothing as insanely over-the-top as we had anticipated, we headed over to our gate. I’d seen transatlantic jets previously, the huge Boeing four-engine behemoths, but the ridiculously enormous aircraft sat on the tarmac still knocked my socks off. In another emerging trend for the holiday, I couldn’t resist a few quick snaps with the digital camera. Security remained tight – random searches were being conducted at the boarding gate, although we ourselves were not searched, despite gormless facial expressions.

Our flight departed from the UK at 14:00 BST and landed approximately seven and a half hours later, slightly ahead of schedule, shortly after 16:30 EDT. The flight itself was fairly run-of-the-mill, but deserving of a mention is the sterling service provided by the Virgin Atlantic cabin crew. The helpful staff certainly came in handy when removing a gentleman who was mistakenly occupying Dave’s seat. Upon boarding we were greeted by a smiling, fresh-faced Lancashire lass, but by the time the jet landed she appeared decidedly frazzled. The quarters were cramped, but then this is what you sign up for when you travel economy class, and since this whole trip had been thrown together on the slimmest of shoestrings we couldn’t really complain about just a tiny bit of deep vein thrombosis. The jet was newly refitted with amazing individual entertainment systems: gone are the days of films starting and ending at allotted times, instead you can request the film, show or radio programme of your choice, start it when you want, and pause, fast forward and rewind at your leisure. The scores of offerings are controlled from an in-seat handset which also doubles as a game pad, credit card reader and telephone handset, although at $9 a minute we were not tempted in the slightest to give anyone even a quick call. The video on-demand system is marvellous when it works; Dave’s failed about halfway across the Atlantic and since I had the laptop we swapped places in order that he could finish his film. It seemed also that we were not the only ones having trouble, as an announcement was made apologising for the problems soon after we noticed the glitch. These did seem like teething problems however, and in the face of the awesome flexibility of the system it seems churlish to moan.

Flying from East to West seems less ruling in terms of jet lag, and we arrived on American soil in the late afternoon without it feeling too wrong. We both were far too hyped up about being where we were to worry about such trivialities as fatigue. “Pain is weakness leaving the body” – more of that later. Our rapid progress through immigration was assured when a security official noticed Dave was brandishing a white cane, and seeing the enormous queue I assured him that this was no time to be proud. After a very serious man glowered at our documentation and demanded to know why we were visiting his country “Robert”, we salvaged our baggage with a little trouble (labels next time Robert, labels) and wandered out onto the concourse at JFK. We’d made it, and my ridiculous grin was back.

We managed to arrange our trip from the airport to Manhattan with minimal difficulty, paying $27 for a return ticket on the New York Airport Transit service. This proved to be pretty hassle-free in the main, although after an hour’s transit through heavy traffic we were deposited on the ground at Grand Central to await a connecting bus which would deliver us to Penn Station and our hotel. I’d been warned by my friend Sarah not to stare up at the huge buildings, as this advertises you as a tourist and therefore easy meat for con artists and muggers, but I couldn’t resist. The moment I stepped off the bus and smelled that mixture of pretzels and pollution that characterises the Manhattan air I was back in 1996, seeing the whole amazing place for the first time. To Dave’s mild amusement, I stared (and snapped) like a lunatic.

Our transport arrived fairly promptly, and once again we were weaving through the dangerously fast-moving traffic. After a few minutes we pulled up just before the intersection of 33rd and 7th. Penn Station and Madison Square are both part of the same building, and it’s pretty amazing to look at. What amazed me even more was the grandiose frontage oposite. The Hotel Pennsylvania built in 1919 boasts 1700 rooms and is supposed to be a 2 star location, they were charging us less per night than I’d spend on a big night out, and yet it looked every bit as impressive as the four-star Millennium Broadway entrance ten blocks north. I was even more excited when we walked into the lobby – a quiet flute sonata lending a dignified air; it was enormous and outfitted with a beautiful marble and mirror scheme throughout. I began to realise how much we had landed on our feet when we had chosen New York’s fourth largest hotel.

We joined the small line for check-in and within seconds, for the second time in as many hours, we were pulled away from a queue. The concierge randomly decided that we should go through the “Penn 5000 Club” executive check-in. His explanation was that he wanted to “give the guy something to do”. Whether this was true or not we didn’t care, it meant more time to check out the city. We opted for the highest room available which turned out to be on the 17th floor, and got up there to get organised and see what was what.

Our room was a good fifteen feet square with windows on two of the walls. Unfortunately one of them only showed an office block, but the other provided a great view of the Madison Square frontage. The spacious twin room was equipped with a large colour TV which provided web access, a telephone with free voice mail, a walk-in wardrobe (!), en-suite shower and toilet, an ornate marble desk and a comfortable sofa. Way over and above what we were expecting, and exactly the base of operations we required. Dave immediately called his friend Steve Matzura, a local who, it seemed, couldn’t quite believe we’d made it over. We didn’t want to jump on Steve to entertain us right away so we contented ourselves with sorting out the numbers he would have to dial to contact us. Besides, we wanted to get out into the city and soak up some of the atmosphere. We unpacked, cleaned ourselves up and got down to street level to hit New York good and proper, to get on the ground and do some damage.

Out amongst the hustle and bustle, we headed north towards Times Square, the distant neon attracting me as more and more memories began to reawaken. Weaving in and out of the human traffic was fairly easy, but it was only when we reached the gob-smacking orgy of light and noise that it really hit home: we were now truly at the pulsating core of the Big Apple. The city has such a resonance for most people, and being at the centre of the action so soon after arriving is definitely the best course of action to avoid feeling like you’re missing out. It was the middle of a Wednesday evening, and yet the place was as insanely busy as the densest corners of any city in the world at prime time on a Saturday night. Beginning to feel a little drained, as we’d both been on our feet for almost twenty hours, we wandered back towards the hotel to eat and consider an insane trip one hundred and sixty blocks north.

For dinner, we made the first of one of many visits to a Lindy’s restaurant. These places have a uniquely American menu (pancakes, bagels, breakfasts, cheesecake) and quotes in the following vein on the walls:

Drunk (leaving Lindy’s): Hey doorman, call me a cab, willya?

Admiral Nimitz (who was standing nearby): My good man, I’m not a doorman, I’m an Admiral!

Drunk: Alrighty, call me a boat, I gotta get home.”

We both indulged in a sizable meal to fuel up after so long travelling and nibbling at snacks. Dave indulged his perennial pleasure of steak washed down with a couple of beers.

As luck would have it, the movie The Matrix Reloaded was released in the States the day we arrived. We were both fans of the first film, and so while still in the UK we had decided, somewhat stupidly in retrospect, to book tickets online to see it as soon as we got over there. Unsurprisingly, the film was sold out almost everywhere, and I decided to plump for tickets at a cinema on 189th Street. Had I realised that this would have involved us returning via the subway through The Bronx and Harlem at two in the morning, I wouldn’t have done it, but hindsight is 20/20. As it happened, we decided it was going to be ridiculous to try and get up there in time, and so we wrote off the $20 or so the tickets had cost us. Feeling loath to abandon the idea altogether, we asked the hotel doorman for the location of the nearest cinema – sorry, “movie theatre”. Infuriatingly, there was one barely a block away – Loews Cineplex on 34th and 8th. We took a walk over there to see what was happening, and the first thing we saw was a queue almost a block long. It seemed we had little chance of securing tickets, but we chose to saunter in regardless. Inquiring nonchalantly at the desk, we were bowled over when it turned out there were apparently seats available at an 11pm showing! The time was only around 10pm, so we immediately asked for tickets only for the attendant to inform us in a dull New York drawl “Oh sorry, it just sold out”. To have been tantalised thus and cruelly denied I’m sure has some parallel with Greek tragedy. We had to content ourselves with booking tickets to see the film the following afternoon at four o’clock. Still unwilling to call it a night with the whole of Manhattan at our disposal, we wandered across to the Empire State Building.

New York by night and from a height is a mind-bending experience. The Empire State boasts a variety of attractions including a motorised ride-cum-cinema affair with James Doohan (Scotty from Star Trek) pontificating at you, but we went for the vanilla 11-dollar observatory ticket. Once we’d received our ticket and concessionary pass and gotten through more security checks, including a ticket machine which barked “Next!” at us in the same New York twang, we took a series of two lifts “elevators” to the observation platform on the 88th floor. Once there the only part of the building higher than us was the nine-storey TV mast and sometime airship-mooring platform, and spread out beneath us like a postcard was the entire island of Manhattan. This was undoubtedly the highlight of our first evening. With the loss of the World Trade Centre, at 381 metres (1250 feet) the Empire State is now the tallest building in New York, and while eleven dollars might seem a little steep (no pun intended), it’s not something you should miss. In the event, the camera batteries died before I could take too many shots of the mesmerising light show from the top of the building, and we vowed to return at least twice more for a good selection of day and night shots. Dave had previously visited the top of the Eiffel Tower, but at 320 metres (1052 feet.) the famous Parisian landmark is nearly 200 feet smaller then the Empire State. If you’re wondering in the midst of all these statistics which is the tallest building in the world:

By now it was close to midnight local time, and that meant we’d been going for twenty-two hours and travelled three and a half thousand miles. It was time to get back to the hotel room and get some sleep in before we spent the whole trip feeling exhausted. We couldn’t resist, however, checking out some of the bars in the locality of the hotel before retiring, and we discovered what turned out to be one of our favourite watering holes for the duration of the holiday – an Irish bar called Niles. This bar, it later turned out, was the hotel bar of the Sheraton Tower Hotel, and had the most impressive spirit rack I think I’ve ever seen in a place so small. We promptly slapped our money down on the bar to try the local poison. Ironically enough Dave had an Irish stout and I had a German lager, but it remains the first sampling of alcohol either of us ever had on American soil. The paranoia I’d been led to expect on ID checking when alcohol is ordered did not materialise, although I suppose since I’m now 23 the barman thought I might take offence at being carded. We stayed in Niles for a good hour or so, before calling it a night and heading up for some seriously needed shut-eye.

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Day -1 – “Hey, you fancy a trip to New York?”

13th May 2003 • Dave

This whole crazy enterprise began, as do so many great things, with two friends shouting the odds across a table in a pub. In September of 2000 Dave Williams and I decided to go for some quiet drinks, and over many rounds, we concocted a scheme. In 1996 I had been lucky enough for my parents to offer the penniless student I was a trip to America, and to not just any old place in America either – to New York, the unofficial capital of the free world. Fried by the stress of A-levels I jumped at the chance for (justified cliche) the holiday of a lifetime, and so it came to be that a 16-year old with zero capital ended up in a room on the 43rd floor of a four-star hotel, staring down at the neon madness of Times Square and unable to wipe an enormous grin from his face.

It was unrealistic to expect to recreate the sheer awe and wonder I felt during that first amazing visit, but the desire to go back and spend another week feeling like I was on a film set had been sitting at the back of my mind for a long while. Dave, too, had the urge to get out there and see what the fuss was about. Dave seems to have a great many friends spread across the planet, (name a country, chances are he knows someone there) and New York was no exception. So we thumped the table and slurred a proclamation: we would one day get it organised and go there. The whole thing then, predictably, got put on the back burner while we got on with our lives. I finished off various university commitments and moved back home to crack on with some more. While Dave and I kept in regular contact, the subject rarely came up until it came to my attention in April of 2003 that I could get some flights from Heathrow to JFK at absolutely rock-bottom prices. The only cost would be the airport tax of approximately sixty pounds per ticket. So I picked up the phone, and threw the very real and imminent possibility of making good on that three-year old alcohol-soaked proclamation at Dave’s face, where it exploded and left him feeling somewhat surprised, but he still responded with a resounding “Bring it on!”.

As we got on with organising the trip, minor problems began to rear their delaying little heads. The US will not accept a passport which has fewer than six months left before it expires; this poorly publicised fact became a very relevant issue. My passport was valid until 2005; Dave’s on the other hand was due to expire in June of 2003. So, feeling slightly deflated, we postponed our plans while Dave renewed his passport. He did briefly consider a same-day renewal which would have entailed a trip to Liverpool and a cost of almost a hundred pounds, but ultimately the boy Williams opted for a regular renewal in 14 working days. We decided to use the extra time to thoroughly research possible hotels and also the various activities we would want to do while we were over there. While I hate holidays that are planned down to the hour, or worse involve relentlessly cheery reps bashing on the door at 7am, it would be essential for us to look lively and not squander the time once we got over there.

Having considered unused university accommodation off Manhattan, decidedly dodgy-looking hostels, and (briefly) the luxurious 4-star Millennium Broadway I had been lucky enough to stay in on my previous visit, our final choice was the Hotel Pennsylvania. This hotel is located on 7th Avenue between 32nd and 33rd Streets, a nigh-perfect location directly opposite Madison Square Garden and the colossal transport hub that is Penn Station. At that time the hotel was still undergoing some refurbishment, which left us feeling a little uncertain, but location-wise it couldn’t have been better. Additionally, it was well within the accommodation budget. For seven nights in a twin room, on a room-only basis, we would have to find 267 pounds each. A comfortable and spacious Midtown Manhattan location for less than forty pounds a night may seem too good to be true, but in the event, this was exactly what we got.

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Day -2 – Foreword

12th May 2003 • Dave

To be fore warned is fore armed right? Well maybe. What follows was a collabourative effort in more ways than I am capable of expressing in mere words. However, my acquaintance, nay good friend, Mr Robert young is a man of many words, 15000 of them you will find here.

Rob challenged me to rewrite this text from my perspective, however I feel to do so would take something away from what genuinely is the definitive account of when he and I made good on a 2-year-old commitment to go to New York and have a f**king good time!

So Rob, I have failed on your challenge to redraft this tome. However, I have succeeded where you have not. I.e. bringing this tale of: entertainment, enthusiasm and excess to the widest possible audience.

Before I run out of alliterations, any reader who has curious or crazy enough to embark on this epic, will hopefully be amused, astounded and but certainly not ambivalent about Rob and I. Either we are, a pair of mindless jerks who will be the first against the wall when the revolution arrives, or we are two witty discerning erudite gentlemen of the highest calliper the like of which you are unlikely ever to meet.

Now you know why I did not write this story. Rob sir, it is over to you.

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