Filed under: twitchhiker project | Tags: chelsea grill, immigration, manhattan, new york city, rudy's, the rum house
This blog post is brought to you courtesy of wifi stolen from The San Carlos, the hotel over the road, Manhattan.
Thanks to @clocsen, I was been catapulted over the Atlantic towards New York City, in a pressurised steel cylinder travelling at 500 miles an hour, six miles above the planet. I’m usually good with flying – my only anxiety is with the landing, and planes have hardly excelled at that bit recently.
This flight was different. Somebody had put both their faith and money in my journey, but there was a nagging doubt as to whether I’d be allowed through US Immigration. I was hoping to travel on from New York by unknown means, I had no idea where I was going or how long I’d remain in the country. I did have a return trip booked for May, so at least I could prove I intended to return home, even if I appeared to have neither an answer or a clue. Any permutation of questions could catch me in a lie and they’d hardly look kindly on a fibbing Englishman; US Immigrations is surely one of the few jobs where taking your problems to work with you only enhances your performance.
It was a distressing situation, not helped by the in-flight entertainment screening Four Christmases.
The fuck-witted ignorance of other passengers colluded to make my flight all the more unbearable. Lardarse in the the seat ahead reclined his seat at knee-shattering speed, oblivious to my 6′ 4″ frame. As the row of seats behind me was hard-pressed against a bulkhead, I graciously refrained from reclining my chair, for which I was rewarded with having my headrest punched and pulled for eight hours straight.
Airlines, hear my plea: stop selling your seats with additional legroom at a premium. You’ve already fitted your economy seats based on average height; by doing so you’re admitting that anyone above average height will suffer an uncomfortable flight. Shorter people than I can sit in such seats and be comfortable; I can’t. There’s nothing more galling than seeing somebody who could still enjoy the toddler’s rides at Disneyland sitting in a seat with an acre of legroom before them, while I’m folded in a space no bigger than a badger’s fist.
To summarise then, I didn’t enjoy the flight. What dragged the experience further into the doldrums was the flight map displayed on the video screens. For the UK, just four city names were displayed; Cardiff, Glasgow, Birmingham and… Newcastle. I was flying straight over my home. And I cried, just a little; I was already tired of travelling and I was missing my home, my mattress, my pillow, my bathroom, I was missing a lot of very good television and I was missing my wife of barely a month.
And then, after those eight hours of stomach-scrunching anxiety, I waltzed through immigration without a problem. I had the German couple ahead of me to thank for the smooth ride; their poor grasp of English meant they’d made a sow’s ear of their visa forms and were banished to the rear of the immigrations hall. When I stepped forward in their place, the pretty Spanish officer already had her opening line:
Well, you don’t seem to have a problem with filling in the paperwork.
Thank you! I was here in January to get married, and this is my tenth visit and I’m back here in May, so I’ve had plenty of practise!
You got married here? Is your wife American?
No, she’s English but I wanted to bring her to your city to get married, because I love your city sooooo much!
Wow, that’s so romantic! Did you bring your family over with you?
No! We didn’t tell a soul until we went home! It was all a secret!*
That’s how I want my marriage to be! No fuss, no hassle. Have a great time in New York!
* not strictly true, I got very pissed one night before we went and told anyone who would listen
Perfect! The carefree exchange with Little Miss Sunshine brightened my mood immediately; I was in my favourite place in the world, the place that felt like a second home to me, and it was time to relax. I arrived in the terminal beaming a few minutes ahead of my host @M4RKM, who greeted me with a hand-scrawled sign reading @twitchhiker.
I didn’t know anything about Mark until he’d confirmed his offer to help me in New York; he was a Yorkshireman from Wakefield, in the city to celebrate his 30th birthday. He’d attended university at Sunderland, where I lectured in radio for a short time, and we shared mutual friends too. Physically he was a big bloke, which immediately calmed my nerves; when you find yourself sprouting to 6′ 2″ before you’re 14 years-old, you grow up very self-conscious about your presence. Not being the only giant in a room is oddly comforting, because the attention is never squarely on you.
As we took the Airtrain to Jamaica Station and disappeared underground onto the subway into Manhattan, exchanging introductions and tales of our adventures in New York. Mark dealt in Xerox installation by day, and website design and development by night, which provided him with the pocket money to fund his eleventh visit to the Big Apple.
A quick shower at Mark’s hotel in Midtown East (two Queen sized beds in the room, before you ask) and we stepped out in the city. First stop – Rudy’s, a dive bar in Hell’s Kitchen at 9th and 44th and my favourite bar in the city. It doesn’t look like a place you’d pry inside during daylight, or while sober for that matter. A man-sized statue of a happy pig eyes you up outside, while inside Christmas lights and red sodium bulbs fizz above the clientele. Beards and piercings crowd in the tight booths, clocked-out office kids giggle over vanilla stolis and off-duty taxi drivers put the world to rights at the far end of the bar.
The jukebox is full of scuzzy rawk anthems appropriate for the setting, but nobody minds if you’re in the mood for a little Dancing Queen. The washrooms, while not the worst example of the genre, look like they’ve been burgled and set on fire. It’s perfect because of the lively neighbourhood vibe, the $7 pitchers of Bud, the free hot dogs, and the fact that last night, Gary the Irish barman remembered the last time we’d met, a year ago. Welcome home, Smith.
We stopped by Chelsea Grill further up 9th Avenue, and then turned a right at 47th St and called into the bar that time forgot – The Rum House at the Edison Hotel. As dear as Rudy’s was to me, the Rum House was equally close to Mark’s heart. He first visited the city in November 2001 with his father, and befriended Jose the elderly barman and Karen the lounge singer. Mark’s father died in 2004 and every time Mark’s called by since, Jose and Karen ask after his mother and sister, serve up free drinks, and rarely accept anything close to the price of his bar tab.
This spirit of goodwill is tangible throughout New York, a fine thread that runs through every neighbourhood of every borough; if you touch this city, even in a small way, it always finds a way to reward you – just one of the million reasons I heart it so much.
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