Homage to America

New York Travel Blog

 › entry 9 of 10 › view all entries
Outside is America I can still picture every trembling step of my first moments in America. It was the summer of 1987 and I’d taken a train from Toronto to New York. I’d just left school and this was my first big solo adventure. I was almost giddy with excitement. The train slowly pulled into Grand Central Station very early on a crystal clear skied New York morning. I can remember tentatively dragging my little black suitcase through the breathtaking central hall of the station. It was like stepping onto the set of a thousand familiar movies. There was some completely unique about the place- a discernible energy in the air that you could almost touch. All around me an ethnic kaleidoscope of New Yorkers rushed from destination to destination as though their lives depended on it. It was the “Wall Street” movie era- greed was good and lunch was for wimps. As a visiting teenager, I felt out of place, like the only living boy in NewYork without a job. It was curious. High on excitement and disorientation my first sensations of the city were almost an out-of-body experience, floating high above the Big Apple. I drifted out of the station into the sprawling expanse of the Manhattan jungle. It was a world of huge shadows- the sun blanked out by the sheer enormity of the Manhattan skyline. I rode the Statten Island ferry, conquered the Empire State Building, roller-skated in Central Park. It was astonishing, like meeting one of your childhood heroes and finding out that, not only did they not disappoint, that they were far, far cooler than you’d ever dared hope. From that moment on I’ve been hooked. America, wherever I’ve found her, harnesses an excitement that I’ve never found anywhere else. One of the most common insults thrown at Americans of late is that they are insular, disconnected from the rest of the world, with apparently only twenty percent of the population in possession of a passport. To us this seems unthinkable. When you travel in America it all makes sense. There’s not that European need to travel “abroad” when it’ll take you a lifetime to discover your own country. Want to go skiing? Head for the Rockies. City break? You’re spoilt for choice. Beach holiday? Miami, Hawaii anyone? Fancy something exotic? Try Alaska. To begin with I, like most visitors only really flirted with the place- skirting the periphery, visiting all the oh-so cosmopolitan cities around her edges: New York, Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles, San Francisco. Every one with their own individual character, and complicated identity- enough to keep you busy for years. I first went to Miami by chance. I had to film some American Trigger Happy clips down there and wasn’t really looking forward to it. To me Florida was all about Neon tackiness, Miami Vice and hideous theme parks. In a way I was right. There is a kind of gloriously, confidant kitsch to Miami. That’s part of its appeal. This is after all, the only city in the world where a yellow Ferarri makes sense. The gorgeous combination of fabulous climate, Art Deco architecture and an uber- mellow Cuban-Hispanic influence instantly made it one of my favourite cities in the world. Nothing quite beats sitting on the terrace of the Tides Hotel, Mohito in hand, watching a perfectly toned world glide by. One breakfast I was joined by the rapper, Jah Rule and his pet lion for breakfast: only in Miami, only in America. People warned me about Los Angeles: “No-one walks anywhere, it’s not a real city, it’s all so fake, so artificial.” Once again, they were right. It is all those things and you need to embrace them to really enjoy the place. When the wheels of my plane first touched down at LAX I got the same weird feeling in my stomach that I’d had way back in 1987upon first arriving in New York. Here I was- in Los Angeles, LA, LA Woman, Sunset Strip, Ventura Boulevard, Venice Beach, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Malibu- such familiar places to me yet I’d never been before. It was like deja-vu. Of course, in a way, it was: I’d been there through TJ Hooker and CHiPs and a thousand and one other films and TV shows but the difference was that now, I’d actually stepped through the screen. It was weird. My firs time in LA, I did the place the way it should be done. I was there for meetings at Comedy Central and they really pushed the boat out. I got sent a stretch limo to the airport that whisked me in air-conditioned splendour to my suite at the legendary Chateau Marmont- the Sunset hotel that’s borne witness to the worst of Hollywood excess. Whilst unpacking I was unable to keep my eyes off the smoggy LA skyline through my French windows, it seemed so unreal. I wandered into the Chateau’s small courtyard garden to find Johnny Depp nursing a Tom Collins. It really was a celluloid fairyland. I was getting that out of body feeling again. Even the urinals, for some extraordinary reason, had crushed ice in them instead of the usual, oh so common, blue cubes. I’d never be content peeing anywhere else again. Every sharp-suited executive at every meeting promised me the earth was mine- it was a merry go round of broad smiles and green lights. Of course nothing came of any of all this but my God, they were fun at the time. I was living the cliché, the American dream. San Francisco had always seemed to be the most European, the most free-thinking of American cities. I visited it two years ago and spent a fascinating two weeks drifting from area to area- Gay, Cuban, Psychedelic, Italian, Chinese, Artistic, - it was like some credible international theme park. I stayed off Haight and Ashbury in The Red Victorian, a fantastically over-the top hippy throwback hotel with goldfish in the glass cisterns and open mike-vegetarian poetry readings in the vegan café below. Driving a classic lime green convertible over the Golden Gate Bridge and up Highway One I disappeared into a Hitchcock movie. I headed for the badlands of Northern California, I was free, free to….do whatever it is I wanted to do….I even think that I saw Bigfoot but my judgement might have been affected by an intensive, day-long, wine tasting visit to Napa Valley. All of this and nothing…I’ve only dipped my toes in some of the coastal outlets of this enormous entity. I can’t begin to describe the sinful delights of Las Vegas, musical adventures in Austin Texas, storm chasing in Kansas. The list is endless. Politically America is two countries: one, the big costal cosmopolitan cities that encircle the second, the more insular and, to our eyes, more unsophisticated heartland- The Republic of Middle America. For an upcoming TV series I recently drove from Atlanta through the Southern States to New Orleans. Growing up, America’s “Deep South” was always a slightly scary place brimming with old hatreds and prejudices and men in pointed sheets. To my delight, what I predominantly found was an exciting, emerging “New South”- multi-racial and confident of her position in twenty-first century America. It was a weird feeling crossing over the State line from Georgia into Alabama. I mean, Alabama, Jesus, the things I’d read about this place… yet the place wrong-footed me from the start. We crossed over into the North of the state and it wasn’t fields and fields of cotton but beautiful hilly country peppered with golden lakes and shady wooden homes. Driving on towards Birmingham, Alabama we passed through areas that were still not allowed to sell alcohol and where God was still very much in charge. It was exciting to travel through somewhere so alien from modern day secular Britain. We were constantly confronted with nothing but “good ole’ fashioned Southern hospitality” and groaning tables of deep fried, uber-calorific fare. In Mississippi I spent a day as a deputy sheriff with the police. To me I’d always equated them with brutal, lynch-happy, big bubbas and I was a tad nervous. They turned out to be far more enlightened than police I’ve met in the West Country. One got the feeling that things were changing for the good in the “New South” and I loved the place. Eight months after Hurricane Katrina we arrived in New Orleans. We drove through miles and miles of completely deserted American suburbia, like going through Harlow after a nuclear holocaust. It was mind-blowing. When we eventually reached the stricken city centre it was to find a population bowed but not quite broken. With most of the trappings of a modern American city still not functioning: traffic lights, air conditioning, dry-cleaning, the can-do American attitude to life was in full swing. Late at night wandering down a back street of the French Quarter the maudlin strains of a lone Blues guitarist took on a completely new meaning- a paen to a sunken city. To me America’s like a candy store and I’m the sweet toothed kid waiting at the door every day eager to sample new treats. I want to go to Hawaii and learn to surf, hang out in Minneapolis and stalk Prince, go to Texas and become a cowboy, scuba dive in Baha, burn up on chillies in New Mexico, fly to Maine for a lobster pig-out but then there’s Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde,….STOP…ENOUGH…I can’t take any more. Well I can actually. I’ve never, ever been bored for a single second in America. I’ve been there more times than to any other country and I’ve still only scratched the surface. Every time I look out of a window…outside is America.
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photo by: herman_munster