Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Urban exploration in New York

When this guy realised I was from Scotland he started singing the praises of George Galloway, who is now something of a celebrity in the US 

Last week I had the opportunity to travel to the US with work.  My itinerary took me to New Jersey, just outside the great city of New York. This was my first trip to the east coast.  While off duty I sought opportunities to interview the Americans whose paths I crossed, hence this week's post will be the first example of straight travel writing that this blog has seen for a while.


When the president of the US publicly states that the rich should pay more tax than the poor it can mean one of two things. Either we are poised on the cusp of great change, or Obama's days are numbered. Indeed both may be true. In any case it is unprecedented, particularly when on our side of the Atlantic Cameron and Osborne are taking the opposite position, keen to scrap the 50 p top rate of tax. Hundreds of protesters are occupying Wall Street, demanding that the rights of the many take precedence over those of business and the very wealthy. Now these ideas are out they will be difficult to contain. If the much feared double-dip recession materialises, I would not be surprised to see civil unrest. All in all these are interesting times.

Some people love to travel on business. I'm not one of them. Living in hotels makes me feel a bit like Alan Partridge and I generally find the experience at least mildly disagreeable. You may ask yourself what is so disagreeable about staying in fancy hotels and eating out on expenses. Well for a start there are the hotels themselves. The hotel I visited on my arrival in the Philadelphia area was a classic of the genre. On walking through the doors I felt immediately oppressed by my surroundings. The high ceilinged lobby was decorated with murals of paintings of hunting and agricultural scenes. A discordant muzak, slightly too loud, lent an edge of menace, jangling my nerves. From behind the doors of the Fox and Hounds Pub (advertised as 'genial' on a poster in the lift) came a most unfamiliar noise, the nasal braying of corporate Americans, loaded on alcohol after a meeting or conference of some sort. 

You don't see wallpaper like that every day. Unless you live in a hotel.
 My room was located down a seemingly endless corridor with wallpaper so vile I photographed it. Even in my drowsy state I knew that I would never be able to recall it in its true, horrifying detail. The bed was a four poster, overfilling the room. I groped for light switches, eventually realised that I had to reach inside the shades of half a dozen lamps in order to locate fiddly, rotating switches. Eventually the room was bathed in sufficient light for me to establish that there was no minibar. There was nothing for it but to brave the wallpaper and head downstairs to the bar. The noise was such that I expected to find the place packed but there were only around ten people, all roaring at one another across the tables t the tops of their voices. I caught snippets.

"...up by 25 %, broke all records again this year."

"This account is gonna explode."

"Those guys love Larry, they love him!"

I soon managed to filter it out, quickly drank a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, then retired for a restless night, wrapped against the chill of the aircon while outside the cicadas' chorus filled the sultry night air.

After a day's work I travelled north to New Jersey. My driver was a London-born Arab who celebrated his roots through the consumption of Walkers ginger biscuits and Cadbury's Dairy Milk. We crawled through rain and dense traffic, through unremittingly built-up but leafy country.  He told me his story, how he had three daughters and a Mercedes that he couldn't really afford but couldn't bring himself to release, so loaded was it with boyhood memories of his father's Merc. He had relocated from New Jersey to Pennsylvania to improve his children's schooling, but the pharmacy in which he worked had renaged on their promise to transfer his role. After fifteen years they asked him to start at the bottom, forcing him to quit and leaving him without redundancy or welfare entitlement. He was philosophical, reasoning that plenty people were worse off than him. My driver earlier in the day had touched upon similar themes.  Since the downturn he had reined in his spending and had found the experience revelationary. Both resented the eastwards shift in the balance of world power, of jobs and manufacturing, to China. Perhaps it was all part of their pitch for a tip.

My next hotel was reassuringly bland, with accessible light switches and none of the distinctive but disconcerting touches of my previous lodgings. It amused me that the room contained a catalogue through which all the furnishings of the room were offered for sale, allowing those so inclined to furnish their homes like a Marriot hotel. I read in the guest information that a map of a jogging route was available from the front desk. The description was very American, clearly setting out the conditions of use and guarding against litigation. The menu on the TV contained a similar warning prior to the adult film selection, cautioning the viewer that the acts depicted were not necessarily safe and that the hotel was not in any way responsible for any injuries sustained while trying to emulate them.

'This course has proved to be a favourite of past guests. Although we provide a map for your convenience, we assume no responsibility for injury or damage which may occur while using this route.' 

The rain had stopped and I was in the mood for exercise so I decided to head out. The desk guy advised that I run part of the route then retrace my steps but I set out intending to complete the route. Where possible I ran on the thick, leafy grass that adjoined the pavement, sweating in the humid air. I passed floodlit softball diamonds where teenage girls were practicing. The thump of the ball in the catcher's mitt took me back to my childhood, when I had played Little League baseball with the Bute Buccaneers. We travelled to the nearby US naval base in Dunoon to play with the offspring of the servicemen. The base had a Baskin Robbins ice cream shop where we paid in pounds and got change in cents. This was back in the 1980s when such delights were unknown in the UK. There was always vomiting on the return journey. My baseball career was short-lived. The first year we were beaten in every game. The second we practised hard and won the league. We weren't invited back to defend our title.

The route became harder to run, with the pavement petering out unexpectedly. It became unclear what was verge and what was unfenced garden. The wooden houses felt sinister, set back from the road amid trees. Streetlighting was minimal or non-existant. I was forced to run on the shoulder, nervously eyeing the oncoming traffic. I had read of joggers and cyclists being harassed and even assaulted - pushed over or scalded with hot coffee - by suspicious, uncomprehending motorists. Upon reaching the suggested turnaround point I was confronted by a pavementless, unlit road. I heeded the desk guy's advice and turned round, glad to have explored my surroundings. If that route was a favourite I wouldn't bother to try any other. I can only assume that the past guests for which it had proved a favourite weren't quite right in the head.

Many of the people I spoke to drew my attention to the difference between the laid-back west coast and the stressed, joyless east. People in California look after themselves, eat well and exercise regularly, they told me. Not so in the east where everyone wears dark clothes and splits their time between working themselves into the ground and being pre-occupied with traffic. A ninety minute commute is standard and the New Jersey drivers are reputed to be among the worst in the US. 

I was amused by how unaware the typical American is of the extent to which their culture dominates the rest of the English-speaking world. One guy who lived in Philadelphia drove past the Rocky Steps on his way to work each day. He checked that I was aware of the Rocky movies before telling me that any time of the day or night you can guarantee that someone will be running up those steps, acting out the scene from the film. It is little wonder that Americans find so little time to travel, it being pretty standard to have only ten days leave and five public holidays for the first few years of employment. Their allocation only rises to twenty days total after five years of service. An Indian guy I met in a bar joked that lack of time off is never really an issue because they get fired so frequently that they can always count on some time off between jobs.

After my work obligations were over I had some free time to head into the Big Apple. The cab driver that took me to the train station was a fat barrel of a man. Not fat in the wobbly way, he looked pneumatic, as if he had just been freshly inflated with a bicycle pump.   We were driving down a street in which a large proportion of the houses had flags mounted on the front. It was raining heavily and the flags hung limp. I mentioned them to the driver and set him off on a rich rant.

“Fucking Americans.” He noticed that I was looking at him oddly and clarified, “I’m Irish.”

He gestured to a house with a flag. “White trash. In Europe you would call these people Nazis.”

He spoke positively about life in the US, claiming that he and his wife received free healthcare and three thousand dollars state pension per month.

“You get state welfare and local welfare too. Nobody tells you that shit, they think we’re all dying on the streets. It’s not like that at all.”

His mention of welfare reminded him of the Republican Presidential hopeful Rick Perry and his comments about welfare.  “Rick Perry said that welfare is a Ponzi scheme. It’s not a Ponzi scheme – that’s a criminal activity. Man’s a fucking lunatic. Michelle Bachmann said that the hurricane and the earthquake were God’s punishment for spending too much on welfare. They’re all fucking lunatics.”

I asked if he thought the new Tea Party brand of Republican was worse than George W Bush. He felt that Bush was so near the bottom of the barrel he would be hard to surpass. We marveled at how poor people on both sides of the Atlantic continue to vote for parties that will only ever look after the interests of the very wealthy. The cabbie summed it up elegantly, his wise words rang in my ear as I shouldered my bag and walked into the train station.

“People are fucking stupid, they’ll always be fucking stupid. Ain’t nothing anyone can do about that.”

I changed trains at Newark and the final approach into New York reminded me of taking the train from Weymss Bay to Glasgow Central in the height of the early 1990s gloom: vacant yards; derelict red brock warehouses; industrial wasteland interspersed with the river and its reed beds.

The weather had been unusually wet in the east while drought hit the west. The drought meant a lack of food for bears and there had been a number of attacks in recent weeks as hungry bears sought food in populated areas. Upon exiting Penn Station I found pouring rain, a real monsoon downpour, the likes of which is rarely seen in Scotland. Umbrella salesmen touted their wares. Their time had come, up to four inches of rain were forecast over the weekend.

“Buy an umbrella, stay dry!”

I suddenly remembered a story about someone taking advantage of a downpour to offload a dodgy batch of umbrellas with runny black dye that left the unsuspecting customers looking like wet coal miners.  Anyhow I wasn’t convinced that an umbrella would do much good with the rain bouncing off the pavement. Everyone else had one and once the water started to run down the inside of the arm of my Paramo jacket I began to question the wisdom of my decision. I certainly wasn’t going to buy an umbrella after I was soaked.

An open topped sightseeing bus drove past. At the corners of the top deck were holes designed to let water drain out. It was as if a fireman’s hose had been pointed out each one. The top of the Empire State building was in cloud. I made for Times Square in the hope of finding a suitable window through which to watch the rain and the wet people. Blue Fin, a sushi bar, provided just such a window. Outside I saw a parade of improvised raingear. Umbrellas of all sizes. Ponchos, clear, blue, pink and camouflaged queued for tickets to Broadway shows. Each group of tourists had purchased simultaneously so they looked like teams in uniform. Bedraggled toddlers were pushed past, swaddled in polythene. Despite the rain it was very warm, indeed the impression was tropical, accentuated by a tented village in which an Asian cooking festival was taking place.  Live footage of the cooking was beamed onto huge plasma screens. The stallholders used sticks to drain the accumulated water from the roofs of their tents. This combination of ponchos and sizzling woks brought to mind a tropical downpour I experienced many years ago in Bangkok. For a moment I was caught in a reverie, looking back into the mind of the person that occupied my body thirteen years previously.

Times Square 
Times Square is an appalling and engrossing magnet for humanity, people are drawn there from all over the world. Some are there to see Broadway shows, others, myself included, were there only to see the others. Such an accumulation of life is a spectacle in itself, like the zebra herds in the Masai Mara, like the elver migration in the Sandaig burn, so elegantly captured by Gavin Maxwell, whose biography had filled my empty evenings in faceless hotels. On the plasma screen the chicken was drained from the wok. Surrounding them was a sea of flashing neon Americana; the golden arches, TGI Friday, the Roxy Deli, movie and show billboards. Above the buildings reached higher than I could see. If the fauna of Times Square was engrossing so was the landscape. If the skyscrapers were rock towers they would be genuinely awesome. 



It was still raining and I knew I hadn’t the heart to trudge round Central Park, or to take the subway down to the recently opened memorial at Ground Zero. In any case I had only a couple of hours until my train. Near Penn Station I found a marvelously shabby Irish bar called Blaggards. Some of the letters had fallen off the name and the toilets were in a terrible state of repair. I took a seat at the long bar and ordered a pale ale. A gigantic man with a red and white pinstriped shirt and matching bow tie took the seat beside me. He twisted his waxed moustache as he ordered a beer. He revealed himself to be a banker. Commercial lending, he hadn't touched any sub-prime mortgages. As the plasma screen in the bar dispensed financial tips explaining how to make money in a falling market the banker told me that he was only a year from retirement and had cashed in all his investments, fully expecting that we would be in full-blown recession a year from now.

The owner of the bar was, unusually for an Irish bar, actually Irish with a broad Dublin accent undiluted by 20 years in the US. I only just managed to decline his offer of a fourth beer before he started pouring it and made my way into Penn Station, aiming to catch the 1809 Dover train. Due to the rain the trains were delayed and I found myself packed into a humid subterranean holding chamber along with hundreds of other commuters. We watched the screen as train after train went from ‘On Time’ to ‘Delayed’. Some went all the way to ‘Cancelled’. I struck up a conversation with a trio of Indians from Chennai and a bespectacled, sallow-faced youth who stood beside me. 


Our banter was interrupted by a loud altercation between a tall, bearded thug of a man in his twenties and a middle-aged Asian. The thug had knocked the Asian as he barged through the densely packed crowd. Afterwards he turned and, instead of apologizing, shouted a torrent of abuse and then stared menacingly, at the poor man, who, clearly mortified that several hundred people were witnessing his silent face-off with the thug, stared at his shoes, hoping the floor would swallow him up. The thug moved on and a babble of chatter filled the silence. I was delighted, for angry people shouting at one another in the street was a New York stereotype that I had been hoping to encounter. It could only have been improved if one of the participants had been carrying groceries home from the deli in a handle-less paper bag which had split open during the collision. Or if one of them had pulled a gun.



A train arrived and part of the crowd, including the Indians, exited left. They were immediately replaced. I interrogated the sallow-faced youth; after a few beers I fancied myself as something of a Louis Theroux. He was a film student who wanted to direct horror films. He had spent the day doing unpaid work at his church, which owned video equipment that he hoped to make use of in future. He was dismayed that they had made him spend the whole day coiling cables then testing their integrity. His church was St Andrew’s but he was unaware that Andrew was the patron saint of Scotland. I tried in vain to recall what connected this middle eastern apostle to my homeland. Clearly something of an innovator, Andrew had eschewed the standard cross and insisted on being crucified on an X shaped cross.  At some point after this I believe his remains were transported to Scotland and the shape of his cross was incorporated in the national flag.

On the train I sat beside an attractive female student who unsettled me slightly by taking a well-thumbed illustrated bible from her bag and starting to read. On questioning she revealed that she was studying business and theology at a catholic college. She wasn’t religious herself, but she tolerated the theology which was compulsory. Her only interest was in the business part of the course, which she saw as a passport to travel in Europe after graduation. She clearly didn’t want to talk to me and soon managed to get her headphones on.

When I was younger and more naive I made the mistake of thinking that the bond of a common language meant that the UK was more closely aligned with the US than with Europe. I realise now that our values are European, and nothing makes me feel more European than a trip to the US.  It was a relief to get down from the train and retreat into a Scottish enclave, where I spent the rest of the evening and the next day catching up with friends who now live in the US. It is invariably a great pleasure to meet up after a lengthy separation, especially when you find friends apparently unchanged by the passing of a decade. 

Groundhog (or woodchuck) on the golf course. 

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6 Comments:

Blogger Douglas Griffin said...

An absolutely fascinating read, Gavin!

Cheers. :-)
Doug.

5 October 2011 at 21:44  
Blogger Alan Sloman said...

In my experience, America does ugly and brash with massive aplomb. They also do small kindnesses and politeness so much better than the rude Europeans I have met in my travels.

I always arrive in America slightly hesitant at what I will find. But my time there is always spent in wonderment at what that nation could actually achieve if it *really* put it's mind to it. But it never will.

The American Empire will be the shortest lived empire the world will ever have seen.

5 October 2011 at 22:32  
Blogger Nunen MacAlpine said...

"If the skyscrapers were rock towers they would be genuinely awesome." I love that ! If the New York skyscrapers were rock towers then I would be very happy to visit the Big Apple. If one day, I have an opportunity to visit the United States, I think I will head towards the Rockies. Gavin, thank you very much for your report. And welcome back to Bonnie Scotland.

6 October 2011 at 09:13  
Blogger blueskyscotland said...

Very Informative account Gavin.I take it the hotel had the usual modern plastic card instead of a key used for getting lifts to work and open,opening front doors,room doors,tv,s etc.
Not being used to staying in hotels for many years this was a baffling learning curve for me the first time I used one recently late at night.
Good system but they just hand it to you at the desk thinking you already know what it does.
Took me fifteen minutes to reach my room.

6 October 2011 at 17:19  
Blogger Gavin Macfie said...

Thanks for your feedback on this post. I thought twice about posting it, unsure whether or not it would be of interest to anyone other than myself.

The US really is an incredible land, with people as diverse as its landscapes. There are still a lot of places I want to visit over there.

6 October 2011 at 21:15  
Blogger Robert Craig said...

A good read, thanks for sharing! Yankeestan really is a different country. The deep south, the desert, the north west, California, are all different again...

10 October 2011 at 14:47  

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