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.