Sunday, 18 April 2010

A New York Postscript

Some travelers, Japanese, it appears to me, in particular, seem to be recording their journey, rather than experiencing it; not a trap I want to fall into. So I'm writing this, as a postscript because New York, the "Big Apple", didn't leave any time for tidying up my notes. My memory has never been much good, so this postscript will be even more suspect than usual.

I never really know my own motives, but it is at least possible that this delightful year wandering around rural America was just a very heavy disguise for the final frenetic week in New York, my favourite place to visit in all the world. This is the place I visited most in my life, and is a rich tapestry of memories, some so strong I can still even smell them.

But, in the spirit of adventure which characterized this last year, I decided to stay in a part of the city I've never been to before. I didn't quite have the nerve to choose Harlem, so I settled for Brooklyn, in part as a tribute to Tom Wolfe's delightful short story, "Only the Dead Know Brooklyn", which I had just read.

So when I descended out of Pennsylvania and the Alleghennies, pausing only to notice that as we came down to lower altitudes the trees were beginning to blossom, it was to blast straight onto Manhattan and off the other side; pausing only to misunderstand Dulcie one last time and make a brief detour through Chinatown.

I was staying at the Broadway Junction end of Atlantic Avenue, where there is ready access to the subway and buses. I had, of course, forgotten that quaint American custom of putting the subway over the top of everything, on a gantry of steel. So, briefly, on a strict schedule, throughout the day and night, my room may have been the noisiest place on earth. It's a good job that doesn't bother me very much. This part of Brooklyn is clearly very poor: everybody, except the policemen, is black

For my first outing, I got to take the 'A' train. Not quite as far as Billy Strayhorn took it, up to Harlem, only to the other end of Manhattan, to 4th Street in the Village. To go 'off-Broadway' for an interesting production of Thornton Wilder's "Our Town". I couldn't resist this, having just visited twenty such places around the country. I wonder if the people I met saw their town like this (allowing for the changing times). They certainly didn't seem like that to me. But it did say what those people on American Family Radio clearly believe, but so spectacularly fail to say.

The setting, a community hall, was exactly like the fringe productions I go to so much in London. The only difference was that it cost $75. Miraculously, everyone had turned white.

Waiting for the 'A' train back to Brooklyn, the station was filled with the sounds of a Brahms Piano concerto. I guess that would be by popular demand in this neighbourhood.

Downtown Brooklyn was a bus ride away, and boasted a number of Irish bars. In one, the Irish barmaid explained her rather unusual name by telling me it was after the founder of the Legion of Mary. It was a curious complement to me to think (rightly, as it happens) that I knew what that was. She drew me a map of how to get to the 'A' train. After a long session, it took me a little time to work out that she was on the other side of the bar, so the map was upside-down, if you see what I mean.

I moved to a hotel on the west side of Brooklyn, nearer where the QM2 docks. I turned Silver into his livery stable en route. Before I could get my luggage into the car they were going to take me to the hotel in, he was washed and scrubbed, and away with another rider. He never really took Rozzie's place anyway.

It was a lovely sunny day, so I went out for a walk to find the nearest subway station. This was on the Broadway Express, so I could get up to Time Square and see if there were cheaper theatre tickets. But the other way it went to Coney Island, which is how I found myself, still in New York City, on the beach, in a bar which made its own beer, with a Polish barmaid who loved to play Abba, which I love to listen to. She wanted to borrow my newspaper to read about the Polish air crash. (I should point out that when I say "Irish" and "Polish", in these cases I actually mean it: they were not Americans claiming another nationality, as Americans do.)

I went up the Bronx to get a ticket for the opening Yankee game of the season. I had assumed it would be in the evening, but it was more than halfway through when I got there. I bought a ticket for the game the following afternoon (baseball players play nearly every day). The man at the ticket booth looked me up-and-down, then asked me if I would like to go into the end of the first game, and gave me a free ticket. The new Yankee stadium is a really fine place. I was bemoaning how expensive everything (that's code for "beer") was when I had to remind myself that I got in for nothing.

On the way back, I stopped off to visit my favourite bar from way back. I'm pretty sure I remember exactly where it is, but, sadly, it is gone, replaced by a pub called "Baker Street". The inside seems to be much the same, so that has to do for memory lane.

In the Irish bar in Brooklyn, I had got into a conversation with a African American, about the same age as me, who had recommended "Race", David Mamet's new Broadway play, so I stopped off at the Time Square ticket bureau to get a ticket, and made the startling discovery that on-Broadway is cheaper than off-Broadway.

After years of avoiding big theatres, it took me a minute to get used to the actors shouting at each other so we could hear them. But this is a really good play, very verbal, with lots of belly-laughs about racial attitudes. And, of course, famous faces from the TV screen.

I had organized the emptying of my American bank account almost perfectly, leaving less than two dollars behind. Unfortunately, I got fingered by a Brooklyn gas pump. It, as some of them do, asked me for my zip code when I used my credit card. Without thinking, I put it in as I would for the American debit card. Of course, a zip code means nothing for a British credit card, so I got declined and had to pay cash. I didn't think any more about it, but, unfortunately, I got shopped, and they stopped the credit card. Which meant the final car rental payment got declined. Which meant they used the American debit card. Which meant it went horrendously negative. Which meant the bank shoveled on overdraft charges like I was their only source of income. Which meant a lot of phone calls, including one to Britain. But it all got straightened out. And I got a pleasurable reminder of the delightful southern Kentucky accent of the car rental lady.

From my hotel window, I can see the Queen has arrived. The hotel is owned and operated by Indians: Indian Indians, that is. I shouldn't have to tell you this, because all hotels in the United States are owned and operated by Indian Indians. But it is in an Hispanic neighbourhood, so the cab driver who takes me to the QM2 is Hispanic. He is playing Mozart on his radio. It is the first time I have enjoyed music in a cab: and a fitting end to my stay in New York.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Thursday 8th April 2010 - Old Haunts and New Friends

          Today was a short hop across the Alleghenny River and into the Pennsylvania Wilds.  Where I lost Public Radio for a while.  I got to listen to American Family Radio.  They specialise in being peeved that the "Liberal media" (their words) ignore things they think (apparently sincerely) to be important.  Since what they believe in, being traditional values like "Country" and "Flag" and "Family", are almost inexplicable, and certainly beyond your average media jock, they are simultaneously right and unfair.  Not only are the "Liberal media" (their words) incapable of explaining these concepts, so, it appears, are they themselves.  Anyway, it made a a change.
          When I got back to Public Radio, it was Clarion University running what was obviously a news-reading exam.  As the young lady approached what was going to be the Russian President's name (it was about this nuclear treaty thing), you could tell from her voice that she knew she wasn't going to be able to pronounce it.  And when she got there, indeed she couldn't.  I wonder if she learned anything from that, like, for example, practicing beforehand.  Come to think of it, I wonder if this was the first time she'd done it.
           About 50 mile before Bellefonte (my destination for tonight) there was one of the most specific local attraction signs I've seen:  it said "(at 2280 ft) the highest point on I-80 east of the Mississippi".  I bet none of you can match that!  It is a beautiful day, and I'm in lovely rolling (still bare) wooded hills.
          Bellefonte is where the American Philatelic Society keeps its library, so I know my way around here.
          Later that night, I went out for some beer.  I started in the poshest bar, where they keep  their beer and their grown-up ladies in good condition, but there were not only no grown-up ladies on duty, they were selling Sierra Nevada Pale Ale on draft.  Since I was staying out-of-town, and therefore driving, I decided not to trust myself, so I didn't stop.  The next choice was my favourite redneck bar outside of town, but since it would require a difficult drive back along back roads, I wasn't too keen.  As I was dithering, a new pub leapt to my eyes.  As I got in, they not only had Troegg's, the local brew, and Yeungling's, a fairly moderate ale, they had a duty grown-up lady waiting at the bar to greet me.  She hung on my every word; wanted my opinion on everything.  I gave a long expose (now, now!) on the various beers I had encountered on my trip.  She was captivated.  Turned out the place had recently opened, and she was la patronne.  Grown-up ladies are so much more fun than truck drivers.  She didn't want to listen to any Gilbert and Sullivan, she wanted to listen to me.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Wednesday 7th April 2010 - Keep on Trucking

          As a result of my late night research on racehorse breathing, I was pretty late out of Chicago.  So I got caught in the rush hour. Actually, I expect, like most big cities, it's a pretty long rush hour, so I probably couldn't have avoided it anyway.  I thought it might be a bit of luck, and allow me to do a bit of sight-seeing, but Chicago was only visible from about floor 20 downwards, which was a little eerie.  But I did get up onto the Skyway, and see down to Lake Michigan.  I must be getting good at interstate travel, 'cos I got a lengthy honking from someone I had to cut up to get to my exit.
          Today's Public Radio delight was a phone-in about Scrabble: yes, a phone-in.  They had an expert to interview, and, no doubt ask penetrating questions of, but they all just prattled on about how much fun it was.  One man phoned in to say that he cheated on his wife, but only at Scrabble.  He confessed that whenever she left the room, he rummaged around the tile bag for letters he wanted.  He then told us that she still beat him, and never knew he cheated.  She is obviously just charitable about his inadequacy as a cheat.
          Later that night, I fell into the company of truck drivers.  I had stopped at Youngstown, and the motel was right beside one of those giant truck stops.  These places allow truckers overnight parking, with restaurants and shower facilities.  The bar was across the road, so I knew it was going to be hard to get back.  It served Great Lakes ale, from Cleveland.
          The drivers swapped notes about how far they travelled, how much time they got off, how to make good money without getting caught breaking the regulations.  There seemed to be a clear payoff between how far they could run in a day and how much time they spent at home.  In that context, I wanted to raise the subject of Scrabble, and cheating on their wives, but before I could, they decided they were going off to the "Titty Bar", which I supposed to be some Gilbert and Sullivan themed pub. 
          I myself took to heart that bit from The Sorcerer, and, despite not being a baronet or a KCB, or a Doctor of Divinity, I went home to bed respectably. The magic drink having manifested its power.  It obviously, at least, got me back across the road safely.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Tuesday 6th April 2010 - Talk Radio

          I'm up and off at eight.  New York is 1200 miles away, and I'm planning 3 or 4 days to get there.  I have to get to Chicago for tonight.  It's boring old interstate all the way, 94 down to Madison, Wisconsin, then 90 (or is it 39?) into Chicago.
          Although there's nothing much to see on the interstates, Public Radio provides good company.  It hardly ever goes out of range east of the Mississippi, so it's usually only a question of twiddling the dial to pick up the next transmitter.
          Today's memorable programme was something like Women's Hour.  They were plotting, as usual, to take over the world.  I enjoyed myself with bits of ribaldry they couldn't hear.  They weren't even approaching grown-up.
          Later that night, I met a man who gives breathing exercises to racehorses.  I didn't ask him how he did it, 'cos I was sure I wouldn't understand the answer.  He not only claimed to have won the Kentucky Derby (not personally, you understand), he even offered me a hot tip for this year, which is only a month away.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Monday 5th April 2010 - Transportation Matters

         The local Rotary Club turned out to cheer me and offer a free lunch.  It seems Minnesota is a hotbed of free lunches.  A young lady from the Agricultural college gave us a talk about local farming.  Garrison Keiller is constantly on the radio telling us that people around here are all mad.  It's obviously because they farm in a climate like this.
         I also, finally, plucked up the courage to stand my transportation people down, and broke the sad news to them about Rozzie's demise.  They had been waiting to take him off my hands.  They were pretty blase about it; and thought he was probably already back on the road in pirate colours.  Somehow, that cheered me up.  But there was a serious point:  the write-off price the insurance company came up with proved quite conclusively what a good deal they had made for me in the first place.  It's not often you get solid evidence of that.
          Later that night, there was an Irish barmaid to take my leave of.  She remembered I liked my glasses warmed.  That gets her honorary grown-up status.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Easter Sunday 2010 - Multidimensional Miracles

          I was up early to get the final washing done.  Those of you who like to keep abreast of the frontiers of science will be interested to hear that in the Maytag Small Collider at Eagan, Minnesota, the infamous blacksox particle has re-emerged into this universe.  This was undoubtedly connected to the event horizon of the Chinese bamboo copy forcibly introduced last week. 
         My hosts concocted a thin and implausible tale about a fortieth wedding anniversary so that they might throw a party for me.  It went on for most of the day.  I restricted myself to regular American beer, so I (just about) managed to stay the course.
         We played catchball (a segment of baseball) in the yard.  I discovered that you wear a baseball mitt on the less dominant hand, so you can throw better.  Catching, apparently, is easier than throwing.  You could have fooled me.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Holy Saturday, 2010 - Rituals and Adoration

          Today is the ceremonial day for defiling my person with alcohol.  I have to rise late for the ritual cleansing and dressing.  Which has to finish just as the sun crosses the yardarm.  (Do you get the feeling I've spent too much time on my own?)
          The choice this year for the defiling, you will be unsurprised to discover, is the divine Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, out of Chico ,CA, although I do decide to drink it out of a Sam Adams glass.  SNPA was really a "no brainer", because, at this crucial moment when my taste buds are fully rested and pointing like a doberman, SNPA allows two distinct tastings.  It is bottle-conditioned, so I can pour half of it carefully and drink it bright, a l'anglais, then swirl the rest around and drink it, American-style, cloudy.  They both have their merits, American being, as you would expect, a much stronger, drier taste.  But I prefer the delicacy of the English style.
          The only problem is that American real beer ("micro brews" they like to call it here) is fiercely strong, so, in no time at all, my taste buds are suitably anesthetised and tucked away for another year.
          For the second-to-last part of the ritual, the traditional Cadbury's Creme Eggs are readily available.  And you don't need to be told what the last part is.
          Later that night a group of grown-up ladies was assembled to listen adoringly to my stories.