The first place I ever went to in America was New York and it was a bit of a disappointment. They’re far too fussy about immigration for one thing. I was asked several times what my business was in America. This cloud of suspicion that seemed to surround my travel motives initially manifested itself on the immigration card that you have to fill in on the aeroplane. It also asked a series of bizarre questions including; Are you in possession of any fresh fruit or vegetables? Do you intend to involve yourself in any criminal activity whilst in the USA? Are you in possession of any illegal narcotics?
I wonder if any drug mule, serial killer or grapefruit smuggler ever answers ‘yes’ to any of the above? On the fruit front I felt obliged to tell them about the packet of Opal Fruits that’s been kicking around in my suitcase since 1981. I wish I hadn’t. There’s a certain something lacking in the sense of humour of US Customs officials.
I took a taxi from the airport into Manhattan. This was a real yellow one, just like on the telly. As taxi drivers tend to be fairly easy targets for robbery they have a thick Perspex partition between you and the driver. Unfortunately the taxis are nothing more than normal cars that are painted yellow, so the partition takes up half of the leg-space in the back. Consequently you find yourself with your knees around your ears and longing for the relatively luxuriant three inches of legroom they granted you in United Airlines Pauper Class.
I’d been warned that very few New York taxi drivers speak any English. Therefore I’d prepared myself by having the words ‘Please take me to The Royalton Hotel, 44 West 44th Street, Manhattan’ translated into fifty-six of the World’s most popular languages. Just to be on the safe side I’d also gone for Seychellois, Tobagan and Armenian. The latter also involves a great deal of arm waving and complex finger pointing, which had required my attendance at night classes.
My driver turned out to be an Afghan, which I hadn’t been expecting. It transpired that my driver didn’t bark but he spoke fluent American, which was a language I hadn’t considered. His fluency came about because he’d spent two years in Southampton welding pipes together. He was a bit of an authority on pipe welding and, by the end of the journey, so was I. Every time I caught a glimpse of some famous New York landmark I’d be brought hurtling back to the fascinating world of pipe interconnectivity.
The Royalton Hotel in Manhattan is an Ian Schrager hotel. To those of you in the know about such things you’ll be rubbing your chin sagely and saying; “Ah yes Ian Schrager hotels, very trendy, designer look, very hip, well done Johnny, how did you wrangle that one on expenses?”
It’s the sort of hotel that you hate with a vengeance as soon as you enter through the magnificently designed doors. You remember when hotels used to be those red, plastic, house shaped, things in the Monopoly box? The ones that you used to impale themselves into your bare feet after a night’s frenzied Monopoly playing? Well they’ve come a long way since then, especially The Royalton. It has been designed to the point where it has lost any functionality at all, other than being a meeting place for New York’s largest expense accounts.
For instance, the lighting in the Royalton is very discreet and subdued. So much so that I’d fallen over two bell-boys before I’d managed to find the reception. And then when I did find the reception I could have sworn that the room-rate on my check-in card said 475 dollars per night. I asked the receptionist to clarify this matter for me. Surely there was a decimal point somewhere that was hiding under the cover of darkness, maybe between the seven and the five? It appeared not to be the case. Even the prices in this tribute to the design skills of Mr Schrager were designed to be eye-catching rather than functional. When the manager was called it also appeared that this extortionate price didn’t include a free round-the world flight nor any number of prostitutes.
After half an hour of stumbling around in the darkness I managed to find the elevator, mostly by a combination of the light from my cigarette and the Braille signs thoughtfully provided by Mr Schrager. In terms of Uber-Design the room was no different. It was a room that shouted at you; “Don’t just sleep here, phone your friends and invite them round to come and look at it.”
There were some radical design elements in the suite. One of which was a totally conical washbasin. Every time you switched the tap on, water would bounce all over the walls, the floor and me. The bathroom was also covered in mirrors. The last thing you need to see at seven in the morning, after a hard night’s drunkenness, is multiple reflections of yourself. Still, that particular reflected image did go some way to buggering up the perfect design of it all.
On my first evening in New York I got chatting to a British bloke in a bar. He told me that most Americans don’t regard New York as being typically America. I had to take issue with him. Us little Brits have been spoon-fed American TV since we were weaned, and it is exactly what we expect America to be. All it lacked was the car from Starsky and Hutch ploughing through a big pile of boxes.
He also went on to tell me some other interesting things about Americans. His particular hang-up was their inability to eat with a knife and fork. They’ve mastered the fork side of it, but using the knife at the same time seems to confound them. It’s probably a little like trying to pat your head and rub your stomach simultaneously. Indeed waiters usually take the knife away after the first course to avoid any embarrassment caused by its continued presence on the table. So the bloke I was talking to hides his knife under the table, or carries a spare around in his pocket. Thus equipped with this new-found nugget of important information I went out to find a restaurant.
I eventually came across an interesting little French place on Broadway and ordered a goat’s cheese salad followed by a steak. After the goat’s cheese starter had been delivered and consumed I kept my friend’s advice in mind.
I could see the waiter approaching to remove my plate, so I surreptitiously slid the knife into my pocket. The waiter arrived, took away my plate and fork, and then wandered off with a strange look in his eye. As I waited expectantly for my steak I could see that there seemed to be some conversation between him and his colleagues. The next thing I knew I was being tapped on the shoulder by a rather large and heavily armed policeman. There then followed a rather heated debate as to why I was stealing the restaurant’s cutlery, what was my business in America and, furthermore, was I concealing any soft-fruit filled condoms in my rectum.
As for sightseeing in New York, there’s plenty of it. One of the most impressive sights was pointed out to me by a taxi-driver as we waited at some lights. Much to his amusement there was a small poodle on the end of a leash that was desperately trying to work out a particularly troublesome log. The aforementioned dog’s egg was far too big for such a small hound and we missed three green lights watching it do battle with the irksome turd.
Eventually, to our amazement, the dog laid a length of cable that could probably be used for transatlantic communications. We felt compelled to applaud.
That was New York then. If you ever go there, do try to find the corner of 44th and 7th as this now legendary dog-poo may still be there. It’s worth seeing.