Tuesday, July 05, 2005

NEW YORK (DAY 1) I arrived in New York, on a Thursday, in one of Richard Branson's planes ... and was immediately put through my paces at Customs. I got to the back of a queue, had my fingerprints taken and my retina's scanned ... then found myself at the back of another queue! Why they can't combine fingerprinting and passport checking, I don't know; still, with a cheery 'Welcome to New York' I was admitted to The Big Apple.
Leaving the terminal, I hopped on an airport bus, which took nearly an hour to clear JFK; there were several terminals to stop and pick up passengers from, which was only to be expected; but then, just as we reached the exit, a man jumped on to check everyone's ticket. As the bus was full, this took a frustrating ten minutes, which may not sound like much, but I was getting really fed up with all that stopping and starting by then. Anyway, he finally left the bus, and we finally left the airport. By this time, we'd hit the rush hour (and if that expression is not a contradiction in terms, I don't know what is).
Lulled by the tedium of the journey (travelling through New York on a bus might sound 'almost' romantic, but after a long flight, you just want to crash out in your hotel) I started to drift off. But then I looked up, and there, through the front window of the bus, was the famous Manhatten skyline; looming ahead of us through a faint mist. Then we were racing by the Brooklyn Bridge, and I realized that I had finally arrived; that first glimpse of New York will stay with me for quite a while.
It took nearly an hour to reach Grand Central Station, where I disembarked and took a yellow cab to my Hotel. Having booked in, I went to the bar for a drink ... and bumped straight into Darren Floyd, who I'd known for a long time but hadn't seen for years, and Robert Shuster, who I'd met at my last convention in Chicago (back in 2002; more about that later).
Dumping the luggage in my room, I had a strip wash (couldn't get the bloody shower to work!) and a change of clothes. Then I left the hotel and went for a drink in a small Irish bar just across the street. Somehow, with several customers loudly cussing a baseball game on the television, I didn't get much sense of home; however, homesickness wasn't a problem.
Having paid for my drink in the American way (leaving the money, plus a one dollar tip, on the bar) I went back to the hotel and took a seat in the reception area. I felt like going to bed, but it had only just turned 8:30 (Nearly 2 in the morning back in Blighty, which was where I'd left my body clock) so sleep would have to wait.
Earlier, I'd met up with fellow scribbler Stuart Young, who was going for a meal with his girlfriend, Katy, and two American girls (one of whom - Diane - I'd briefly met in Chicago) and he asked me if I wanted to come along. So we took the ten minute walk to Times Square (which, with its theatres, flashing neon signs and billboards, looked exactly like the West End Of London) and ended up in a Sbarro Deli. Just like in Britain, we ended up tucking into a pizza. However, I did make a useful discovery. Just across the road from the convention hotel (The Park Central) was another hotel Called The Wellington, which boasted a huge neon sign that I could see halfway down Times Square. Such markers are very welcome in an unfamiliar city, and meant I wouldn't spent too much time getting lost.
On the way back we bumped into another writer, Tony Richards, and we all went back to the hotel in search of a party. By this time, I was all set to retire for the night, but was cajoled into tagging along for a few beers. (And as I have the breaking strain of a Kit-Kat in that respect, I didn't take much cajoling!)
That night, The Heavens opened up in spectacular fashion, and it was still raining the next morning. But as you will see, the weather did improve!

DAY 2: And a lesson in taking breakfast in The Big apple; don't eat in the hotel! They charge you a packet for the room (a convention discount came in handy this time) and then bill you for the breakfast; twenty five bucks, and don't expect them to bring you the change. Go out to a deli and get just as good a breakfast for a third of the cost.
However, I digress. I'd arranged to meet up with Sarah Crabtree and her family, who'd arrived the day before I did. They were more familiar with the city than I was, so I just followed them around. First up, a visit to The Empire State building, and an ear-popping ride to the observation floor. The day was clear and sunny, a big difference to the night before (and it was going to get hotter) so there was a great view from up there. A solemn moment came when I looked at the Manhatten skyline, and came across a plaque that represented it. A series of dots showed the location of The World Trade Centre, and all of a sudden the vacuum was quite noticeable. When we left, I looked back at the building. I would later remember that the twin towers were bigger than The Empire State Building. I'd seen them collapse several times on television, but it's hard to imagine such a huge structure collapsing in real life.
We made our way to Macy's and spent quite a while in there, although to be honest, it was a bit like wandering around Debenhams.
After taking dinner in a food emporium, we made our way back. One of the things that strikes you about New York is the absolute shamelessness of the place. Most shops sold t-shirts, and the slogans were pretty forthright; 'New York Fuckin' City' being one of the cleaner ones. All of these were openly displayed on the pavement (beg your pardon, sidewalk). If they did this in Britain, the police would soon be onto them - "Move this merchandise inside, sir; women and children, you know!" New Yorkers, however, don't even look.
Later that evening there was a mass book-signing, and Sarah - who was staying in another hotel a block away - came over. We bought books, and I got to meet a chap called Stephen Shrewsbury, a Chicago-based writer I'd communicated with on the old (and much missed) Terror Tales website.
Having made our purchases, and had a drink in the hotel bar, I walked Sarah back to her hotel. It was almost surreal walking through the streets; yellow cabs driving by, steam gushing up out of the drains. It was a bit like merging into a movie set.
Having seen Sarah safely back, I returned to the hotel in search of a party; but the management of Park Central didn't exactly encourage this sort of thing, so thanks to those miserable party poopers, we went off in search of a bar. I bumped into Stephen Shrewsbury again, and a group of us finally found a quiet bar, and (in between distractions from a really scatty barmaid) chatted into the early hours of the morning. Then it was back to the hotel for a few hours shut-eye before embarking on ...

DAY 3. Down to Times Square for breakfast, then a morning stroll through Central Park (the park being a five minute walk from the hotel in one direction - Times Square a ten minute walk in the other). I sat on a bench and watched a few kids playing baseball (while their parents egged them on as though they were taking part in The World Series!) for a time, then made my way to Sarah's hotel, where I'd arranged to meet up with them. On the agenda that day; a visit to The Yankee stadium to watch a baseball game between The New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles. This meant finding our way to The Bronx on the New York subway. No problem; we just looked out for a group of whooping idiots in baseball caps and followed them:-)
Back in Chicago three years earlier, a group of us had idly discussed going to a game, but of course, we never got around to it. Sarah's husband, Andrew, just went on-line and booked the tickets, and it was to make for a great afternoons entertainment. But first, we had to find our seats.
This was a lot more hair-raising than it sounds, as the Yankee stadium is a vast colliseum of a place, and the seating arrangements, in the stands, are a little unnerving. There is a two foot walkway, with no safety railings, and the back of the seat of the person in front of you is, literally, at your feet. God help anyone losing their balance there! I doubt that health and safety regulations would allow such a construction in Britain.
We found our seats and I clamped myself down and held on. No way was I moving before I had to.
Once settled ,I was able to enjoy the carnival atmosphere, for American League Baseball is pure entertainment; all over the ground, billboards pump out messages, encouraging the crowds to cheer, boo, sing, do the Mexican wave. Like cricket, there are gaps in the action; unlike cricket, the Americans know how to fill in the gaps. Yes, it was fun; I was enjoying American 'culture' in all its loud, and colourful glory. At the end of the game we made our way back to the subway, myself clutching a Yankees magazine and an autographed baseball I'd bought off a vendor outside the stadium.
Back to Manhatten and it was time for a last traipse through the shops before parting company with the Crabtree's, who were flying home the next day. New York, I have to admit, would have been a lesser experience without them.
But I had been careless in my dress-sense. After the deluge that had greeted my arrival, I had hardly been expecting a heatwave; but I had sat in The Yankee Stadium for the best part of four hours with the sun beating down on me; so not surprisingly, my face had turned a shade of crimson by the time I got back to the hotel. So explanations were in order, and I spent the rest of the convention hearing, 'What? You went to a ball game and didn't wear a baseball cap!!!' I couldn't tell whether they considered this a breach of etiquette or a very stupid thing to do - probably both. At least it showed that we Brits can still give the Americans a good laugh!
But, of course, I was asked who won.
"Er, I said I was there: I didn't say I knew what was going on!"
But I can tell you now that it was a victory for the Yankees that day.

Day 4, being a quiet day - and the day when most attendees were heading for home - I pretty much had the day to myself. So I spent the morning buying postcards and t-shirts (and a hooded sweatshirt, which you can see me wearing on my website) and then I made my way to Times Square. This was my last day and there was one trek I just had to make.
I got on a New York Tour Bus, and in this way I got to see most of the city. But it was Liberty Island I wanted to visit, and it was there I disembarked. I bought a ticket for the ferry and (as it was another scorcher) I belatedly bought a baseball cap. Then it was a short trip to the island. The ferry sailed right in front of The Statue on its way to the docking point, and everyone moved forward to look at her.
How many times have I seen this statue in films, television programmes and photographs? I couldn't say, but it was a magical moment when I looked up into her face for the first time.
It was a glorious day, and I spent over an hour on the island, alternatively looking up at the statue, and across the bay at the classic view of the New York skyline. This was the real New York experience, the one my trip wouldn't have been complete without. I was only sorry that I couldn't enter the statue Herself; they closed down at 4:30, so they'd already put a limit on the queue. But I'd made the visit and seen her, so I was content. Making my way back to the ferry, I was happy that I'd done all that I wanted to.
But I was to have one final, and totally unplanned experience.
As the bus made its way to Times Square, I looked over the side and saw Stuart Young and Katy loading their bags into a taxi. It was tempting to shout down and give them a farewell wave with my baseball cap, but decorum kicked in; I was on a bus full of Americans, and it would not have been the done thing.
In Times Square I got something to eat, and then set off back to the hotel; but I got sidetracked on the way. Just down the road from the convention hotel was 'The Cadillac Winter Garden Theatre', showing the hit musical Mamma Mia!. As I approached, the matinee audience were filing out; I hadn't realized that, in New York, there were two performances a day, even on a Sunday. I took a look at the board and saw that there was another performance at 7:00.
Stepping into the foyer, I hung around until the audience had thinned, then approached the box office. Asking about tickets, I was told that three were available; 100, 75 & 50 dollars. Why not? I thought, and handed over two crisp, fifty dollar bills that had been burning a hole in my wallet. Prices in New York are generally quite reasonable, so I could afford to be extravagant on my final night.
With an hour and three quarters to go before the performance, I went back to the hotel for a change of clothes; a hooded sweatshirt and a baseball cap were not, I felt, appropriate attire for a Broadway show.
I can say that it was fun, and as an Abba fan, I was always going to enjoy the music. A tame crowd pleaser, yes, but a stirring end to my visit. I was, however, glad that I got there a good half hour before the performance; my ticket was for seat V-15 (yes, I do still have the ticket stub; it's keeping the stub from the Yankee Stadium company!) in 'The Orchestra'. This is the place we Brits call 'The Stalls'. Then I found Row-V, and as I moved along the seats (V-2, V-4, V-6 ....) it became obvious that my seat was elsewhere.
A helpful Usherette pointed me in the right direction, and, ten minutes before curtain up, I was comfortably ensconced. 'Hey, I'm in a Broadway theatre ... and I'm going to see a Broadway show!'.
It was unplanned, spur of the moment, and a real treat for my last night.

So to my last day, and I had quite a bit of time to kill; my flight was at 19:30, and I had to be out of my room by 12:30; so I decided to take a final walk down Times Square. There, I fired off the last two shots in my camera, and later regretted it.
There was time for a final stroll through Central Park, so I headed on over, buying a copy of The New York Times on the way.
If only I'd kept those last two shots! The roads were cordoned off, the New York Police and Fire Departments were out in force - several police cars and two fire engines - and smoke was billowing up from somewhere beyond the trees. (I found out the next day - by typing 'Central Park, New York' into Google - that a ski lodge had gone up in flames; by fair means or foul, I couldn't say).
I gawked for a while, then went to check out. Five hours later, after spending the last of my dollar bills in the J.F.K. duty free shops, I was heading back to London on a Virgin Atlantic aeroplane.

So now it's a memory, but my thoughts are now of London, a place I have visited often. In years past I went to see many West End shows, and as a sightseer, I thought nothing of travelling on The Underground. At my last convention, I spent over two hours (and took four trains) looking for the street where my hotel was (one train and a short walk on the way back; a little local knowledge is a wonderful thing!) . When there was a TTA-Con, back in December of 2002, I caught the Underground train to Liverpool St Station for a connection to Norwich.
Now, the terrorists who attacked New York have struck in London. As in 2001, we have seen that there is a bond between Britain and America. I saw it in the hotel bar, where the Americans were taking more interest in the marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles than the British were (and knew a lot more about what was going on!). The big news of that week was the funeral of Pope John Paul II in Rome; but the Americans could still take a keen interest in a little country just over the pond. If they say so themselves, America is a great place. Now London, like New York, has to come to terms with the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
It will.
Until then, my sympathy goes out to the victims of the attacks on the London Transport System.


Mark said...

A good report Dave, certainly sounds like you had a lot of fun.

Rachel said...

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If you do not mind I may snag your blog and put it in my favorites. I read a ton of stuff that interested me. Keep blogging away :-)