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.

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