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: http://www.xs4all.nl/~hnetten/tallest.html
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.