Back again in the USSA
… or ‘New York, New York’. ‘New York, New York’…
Nineteen years ago, almost to the day, I was on my way to America, to New York to be exact, to visit a good friend of mine who was working for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. It was a job that involved ‘seeing dead people’ on a daily basis, although in his case, he didn’t have a sixth sense, they were all just lying there in the mortuary. He’s since gone on to become a renowned forensic consultant and is also a well-known forensic entomologist in his spare time. In case you don’t know what that is, it’s someone who looks at bugs* on dead bodies in order to work out how they died (the people that is, not the bugs).
Anyway, I’d never been to the States before, let alone one of the most famous cities on the planet and wasn’t sure what to expect, but I did know one thing. Although London and New York are roughly on the same latitude, New York doesn’t benefit from the Gulf Stream, a warm body of oceanic water that flows up from the Gulf of Mexico, past Florida and into the eastern side of the Atlantic. What this means is that while London in January is usually just cold, wet and miserable, New York on the other hand, is absolutely bloody freezing, with lots of snow and a sub-zero chill that will not only steal your toes and run off down a subway tunnel with them, but also rob you of the ability to call out for help.
So, before departing the UK, I made sure that I had packed all of my best winter woollies and upon arriving in New York, discovered that they were completely inadequate. Cue a quick trip to an ‘Old Navy’ department store, where I picked up a bright orange, duck-down bodywarmer for, believe it or not $2.50, which helped keep me snug and toasty during the daylight hours and also ensured that I wouldn’t get lost on my travels, because I stood out like a lighthouse beacon on acid.
I have to say at this point, that I had an absolutely wonderful time in the ‘city that never sleeps’. During the day, when my friend was working, I would plod around Manhattan, exploring the various neighbourhoods in a typically British fashion, i.e. not having a clue where I was going and assuming that everything would be fine, which, of course, it was. As a result, I skirted the edges of Stuyvesant Town and the East Village, drifted through Wall Street without really knowing it, popped over to Staten Island, waved to the Statue of Liberty and walked more of Park Avenue that I thought was humanly possible. But to be honest, the city was so vast that I ended up spending most of my time on the east side and midtown areas, venturing as far west as Times Square and as far north as Columbus Circle.
During the evenings, we’d either head across to Queens on the subway, where my friend had a very small apartment and find somewhere to eat, or stick around Manhattan, taking in the nightlife and bar scene, i.e. getting drunk and not realising it until we had to settle the bill at the end of the night. I do recall going to one place that had a frontage made out of a school bus, with patrons sitting on stools, staring out of the bus windows, looking for all the world like grown-up children going home. I wonder if it’s still there? I also realised, alas too late, that despite talking and writing very similar languages, it is still possible to very easily cause confusion when you are an Englishman in New York …
We were at a well-known diner in Queens one night, famed for its desserts. I ordered a double cheeseburger because I was hungry, expecting the British variant, i.e. one bun with two burger patties and a small side serving of salad and French fries. So, you can imagine my surprise, when the double cheeseburger turned out to be two of the biggest burger buns I had ever seen, each with two enormous patties stuffed inside them. There must have been well over a pound of meat between them. And the salad and fries’ combination that they arrived with was so large that it must have decimated America’s annual lettuce and potato harvest for that year. I did my best, honestly, I did, but I there was no way that I could finish it all and to add insult to injury, I never got to try their delicious looking cheesecakes!
Looking back on the trip, I know that I missed a lot, but then you have to remember that, at the time, for me at least, the whole experience was an adventure and an amazing one at that. Being asked if I knew the Queen by a fellow in an Army Surplus/Gun shop (not something you get very often in the UK), nearly getting myself shot by a police officer on the subway because I was looking at his sidearm too intently, sleeping next to my friend’s pet Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches and seeing a blind man, standing in the snow outside Radio City, trying to make a living by selling pencils, of all things, to passers-by. Just having had the privilege of experiencing the whole, crazy melting pot of humanity that exists in New York, for a few days, was reward enough for me.
And the fact that my return flight had to make an emergency landing at JFK airport just after take-off, was the icing on the cake, but we’ll save that story for another day, I think!
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* Strictly speaking, the word ‘bugs’ should only be used when talking about the class of insects known as ‘Hemiptera’, which possess piercing, rather than biting mouthparts. They include aphids, shieldbugs and cicadas. Sorry, but I used to study entomology and it’s just one of those things that I feel people should pay more attention to.
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