Sunday, July 8, a slightly more civilised time

New York Travel Blog

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I could not have sat further toward the back of the plane. It was the last row, worse still, it was the window seat. No leg room, no space next to me – I thought it would be painful. I had no idea.

My legs were the first to go.

With no free TV to entertain (Virgin is good; films, tv programmes, even games against fellow flyers) I was happy to try and sleep. With the complimentary signature Virgin eye covers and my new canal-closing ear phones wedged firmly in place, I fell asleep. Every-so-often I was disturbed by the Oriental girl next to me who, deep in sleep, would let her head drop on to my shoulder. Dutifully, I would jerk my shoulder to get her off. It was, kind of, amusing and yet sweet as both both the girl and her male compagnion slept, heads bobbing sometimes in unison as the effect of sleep relaxed them till their sub-conscience kicked in.

Strangely, when I woke up for good, it was her boyfriend sat there. I had been oblivious to that, but not the pains; the feeling in my legs had not returned, and now my neck and shoulders had lost movement, or at least, when I did it hurt.

After waking up, the stewards, who seemed permanently stressed, walked along the plane offering coffee to passengers. Except me. Although it is a no-frills airline, I expect some service. I don’t think that is classed as a frill.

I noticed how curious America is from the air. Despite its immense size, looking down it is divided so precisely and consistently. For three hours, or at least those that I was awake for, the view down was of squares of many shades of green or farmed-brown, separated by roads checkered across the nation and no trees. Most curious was the regular pattern across Mid-America of circles tesalted as neatly as circles could be of many different sizes. My guess is that this is something to do with farming – though I have no idea what or why. Perhaps it is a code visable from space; but that would be an entirely different blog.

But what struck me was the difference between the UK and the USA; UK has masses of green areas broken only by hedges and the occasional motorway and loads of trees. The US is vast with so much space but with so many roads. However, the correctness of the longitudes and latitudes make it, perhaps, attractive in a strange way. I couldn't help feel disappointed, though, at the lack of land that has not been scarred by roads.

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Arriving out of the cab with one third of my dollars gone, I was greeted by an empty terminal. A cleaner walked a trolley across the familiar looking floor. It was clean; there was no one around to stain it. No one except me; a lone English figure clutching a rucksack which contained all the belongings that I had - a laptop, a phone, my passport, an unimaginative book by a TV writer who, with such pedigree, could have done better, and some cash. What wasn’t in the bag that I had was time and plenty of it.

I had arrived in NY at 4am English time, 11pm Eastern Time. Not having slept. Arriving in the terminal at about 1am, it should not have been such a surprise to be so empty, but it was. I can not imagine Heathrow empty, even with the events of the last few days (terrorist attacks, car bombings and threats) I can’t imagine there not being throngs of people officiating something or other. I had the run of the place. Which was just as well as there was no one to watch as I idly searched up and down for some sense or order to the procedure that I had to under go to get on to the next plane. Eventually I found a poster that hinted that I should be at Ticketing B. But not until 6am which would be in five hours time. Five hours to kill with little to do. I continued my quest, this time searching for coffee; if I hadn’t slept by now, I might as well wait until the next flight. I would hate to end up sleeping in a strange place on the outskirts of New York only to wake with the belongings that I had retained from the first flight gone.

No coffee but I find a lost soul. Perhaps my age, give or take. He appeared tired and was unshaven, a large rucksack draped across his back with hardly anything in it, but at least it was something. A glance confirmed that he was lost too and was searching. As you would do on seeing the first soul in a strange place, without a word we carried on our separate journeys. Mine led me down an escalator (that can’t be correct?) and up the other side having surveyed an empty cafeteria, although, being New York, it was probably a Deli. Chairs lay untouched, tables clean, and service counters closed. A body lay strewn across a table, in spite of his apparent unconsciousness the man clasped his case. My journey continued. Up an escalator to opposite where I had started and to where the unshaven traveller had now decamped.

I didn’t understand what he said two, maybe three times. This being New York I was expecting any one of many different languages. At the security desk on the way in to Newark a lady fluently and that means quickly, rambled something at me. I got enough to make out that she was German. But nothing else. I apologised, feeling and sounding like that English character Hugh Grant keeps playing in any film he is in. A little later, she had probably tried and failed to get help from other people, but her strong German was quite aggressive, she was still in need. Speaking slowly, clearly and at times loudly I did my best to help. I think it worked. I realised she needed a pen. Luckily Virgin gave me a pen for use on the plane. I say luckily ‘cos she didn’t give it back. In her desperate hands she clutched an unfilled green Visa Waiver form and another form that boasted the emblem of the United States of America, both formed her ticket into the country, but not in their current states. Taking pity I helped.

Quickly I ascertained that she had no English. Or French. Matt does German at school, but I really haven’t helped him with his homework as much as I should have. The form clearly says ‘Birth date’; I tried every variant – anniversaire, anniversary, B-I-R-T-H-D-A-Y. And failed. At some point it clicked and she wrote today’s date. I showed her my form and, pointing to my year of birth said as clearly as I could ‘my birthday’. I think that was when clarity struck her. Although it didn’t continue. I tried hard to explain about gender. I thought it would be really easy, if Jane could teach a man who had no previous contact with human kind, surely I could converse with an educated fellow European? Well, apparently not.

I left her with my pen as I leapt toward the slightly stern and authority-and-gun wielding immigration officer; I hope she made it through.

He was asking about Continental it turned out. The decamped traveller had given up on his journey to find check in. Now he was reclined against a glass window, bags laid near him, phone charging in a borrowed plug socket in the wall. Conversation started around our travel woes. He had missed a plane and then had to get from Newark to La Guardia. A journey that I had undertaken with ease, but at a price, he had endured the adventurous way; a train link from Newark to… somewhere, another train probably through Manhattan before getting a bus finishing at the airport. An achievement, given that this meant taking on the challenges of Brooklyn, Queens and Harlem, throughout the midnight hours. I shared my woes – the lack of sleep, the lost luggage. He, unnecessarily, apologised. Ahh. He worked for an airline and felt the responsibility of lost luggage. Apart from getting to the check in desk, this recent quest was to get home – Utah. He had visited New York, it would appear, on a whim. No real reason. He left a wife and their three children at home to experience travelling. Across his lap lay a folder, papers covered the distinctive colours of a comic. I let it go. If he were a comic fan, it may be best to avoid conversation while I could.

Conversation flowed. I eventually took off the burden of my rucksack and sat a bloke distance from him, slightly opposite, but not facing him. Enough distance that if he turned out to be a homicidal maniac I would have at least a sporting chance of making a get away. But that was not to be necessary. It was probably thirty minutes, may be longer, when we did the official introduction. Kenneth, a Doctor Who fan is married to Anne, a, wait for it, a ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ fan. I hope she realises that it is a parody. At some point he mentioned that, while courting, Anne had told him that she wanted eight children. Eight!?! Alarm bells started to ring; Utah; many children; missionary partner. Ergo, Mormon.

The main topic of conversation was economics. Apparently, now is a really good time to buy property in Utah for cash. One in three houses is for sale. This will drive the value of properties right down. Kenneth even quoted the use of the ‘D’-word. The depression being the era back in the 1920s when Bugsy Malone ruled the east end of London, over this side of the pond, people were struggling with everything. Now those in the know are suggesting that the economy is in such a state that another depression is inevitable. It was a varied conversation and one that lasted long enough to avoid the frustration of being alone in a strange place. We moved on to talk about work. What I do and what he does. He has a good business idea. I’ll certainly keep an eye out for it in the future. I could recite it as one of the moments where I helped inspire a global sensation. Well, I will if it works. We left on the stoke of 3am as his Ticketing desk was to open. I sought refuge in the cafeteria. Unconscious bloke was still strewn, tables and chairs untouched and coffee shops still closed. A table welcomed me, a place where I could sit and read a disappointing book; I am frustrated with it. The author is blatant in basing characters on real people, but worse, as if to post-modernistically mock the nature of satirical deconstruction of socio-reflecting celebrity-ism, he then mentions the character he is imitating, suggesting that his character is there because of them and is not them. Get real.

How else could a character called ‘Calvin Simms’ be based on; Calvin, a ruthless and unpopular judge on a format show that was tired several seasons back? And a show based on the ‘Blenheim’ family? Blenheim a palace, Osbourne, its mockee an equal residence of importance in the aristocracy of England, is an obvious stab at the aged rocker’s launch into limelight as another ‘at home with…’ show.

I want to read the book; there are no new John Grisham’s and it is the only one that I have. A dilemma: do I read a dire and cheaply plotted book to find out if a story emerges after page 28 or do I give in and spend the time thrashing numbers over a soduko grid?

As I looked up from what had captivated me for quite some time, it occurred to me that people had emerged, the sun was starting to rise and the smell of coffee was not just wishful thinking. A family sat near, woofing bagels and coffee (or kwor-fee, as it is pronounced here). Movement was picking up apace, people getting their breakfast fill, and the clean up had begun; chairs had been carelessly left apart from the spoilt tables that they had nestled before. Rising up the escalator I was met by more people than I had not seen since Heathrow, security, flight staff, shop’s attendees, cleaners and passengers. The contrast of the hours was staggering. Where I had strolled leisurely before was now combusting with masses. Queues had begun and in places there were queues for queues. But through the security I was filed to a waiting area with a window over looking the rising sun emerging out of the long Island horizon, gold dancing across the (Hudson) river (I think). Morning was here, but as far as I could see, the plane wasn’t.
New York
photo by: herman_munster