The sounds coming from the girl next to me were stupid and irritating. “Uuughhhherrrr.” And “Ahhheeuughhherr.” Which are both written phonetically perfect before you dare doubt me. The noises were coming from aboard a plane heading from London Heathrow to New York’s JFK. They were coming from a petite young blonde girl named Lorna. I’d only met her at the airport before I boarded along with a few other single travelers, and foolishly thought she was delightful. Scared of flying, Lorna placed her fingers inside her ears, scrunched herself into a tight ball, rested her head on the seat cushion in front and continued to make loud and intolerable squawks every time the plane jolted slightly with the tiniest bit of turbulence. I shifted myself in my seat turning away from her, fearing I may lose an eye in a sudden outburst, a little disappointed as I realized that today wasn’t the day that sitting next to a cute blonde could mean joining the mile high club.
Having never been to America’s east coast, I was eager to see the iconic skyline of one of the world’s great cities. I craned my neck out of the window as we began to descend hoping to see a glimpse of Lady Liberty, The Empire State building, The Chrysler, whatever. I just wanted to see New York. It turns out however, that I was on the shit side of the plane, and through my oval porthole to America I was able to see New Jersey instead, much to the wide-eyed delight of the faces across from me.
The plane touched down in a warm and sunlit JFK late in the afternoon. With Lorna by my side we met up at the baggage claim with Chris, who we had met in London. Chris was a well-built guy with a short crop of ginger hair who suggested that we share a ride together in a soft Northern Irish accent. So we headed outside to hail a cab.
The hailing didn’t quite go as planned. Instead of John Travolta turning up In New York’s finest we got a tall bean pole of a man, with glazed eyes sporting a tired and grubby Ghanaian soccer jersey, promising us a cheap price to Manhattan. Perhaps a little jet lagged, we followed the stoned African to his car and climbed into his mini-van. He threw a toolkit and some infant diapers into the trunk and squashed his large gangly frame into the driver’s seat. The car was old and dirty. Numerous air scented trees did nothing to mask the stale smell of cigarette smoke that swarmed the nostrils almost immediately. “How much did you say?’ I asked him.
“Cheap” He said to me, with a smile I didn’t trust. “Thirty five dollars. Okay?”
“Okay.” I said to him. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and it’s with moments like this when you really need to listen to your mother when she says, “Don’t take lifts from strangers.” Especially illegal stoned nutcases.
The guy rolled out of the parking lot and into city traffic. Moving was slow. However it did allow us all a glimpse of the New York they forgot to show you in Miracle on 34th Street. Narrow potholed streets sat in the middle of cramped low-level houses that continued one after another. Groups of men patrolled the streets, wearing knee high white socks, shorts and sleeveless shirts eyeballing every vehicle that passed. More guys sat on the stoops outside houses, the theme of the same attire still very apparent. “Maybe Gap’s got a sale on.” I said turning in my seat to face Chris. We slowed as we came to the end of the street and I honestly thought that our friend was going to drop us off and charge us an extortionate sum for him to do otherwise. I felt nauseating movement in my stomach realized I didn’t know where we were in relation to the hostel. I knew its name and I knew it was in Manhattan, but I suddenly felt we were a long way from both.
Thankfully our driver batted away a few people that began to approach our car, street sellers and window washers and pulled onto the main highway, across the JFK bridge into the Bronx on and towards Manhattan.
As traffic began to ease our driver built up into a cruise and we settled into the ride. That lasted for all of three minutes, when apparently he’d received a mission from Grand Theft Auto and began flying in and out of traffic, honking at everyone he passed, shouting obscenities that were lost in the wind. I looked back from the front passenger seat to see Lorna in a similar position that she’d perfected on the plane, and saw Chris sitting tense staring straight ahead expressionless. I gave him a blank stare with a halfhearted smile and faced forwards.
We followed the Grand Central Parkway towards Manhattan, our driver pointed out Flushing Meadows as we sped past, “I’ll show you,” he shouted, jerking the car across three lanes of traffic. My neck snapped sideways, taken unawares, making a stupid involuntary yelp as I did so. “It’s fine.” I said. “I’ll Google it; we don’t have to get that close.”
“I show you the sights, my friend no?”
I pressed myself into the itchy seat fabric and let Manhattan piece itself together as we began to draw closer. Still eager to see something I recognized, I watched the outside stream into view. Instead a maze of high-rise concrete slabs that I couldn’t place was all I saw for the next fifteen minutes. Finally, we stopped opposite a large, imposing red brick building on the corner of 104thand Amsterdam Avenue on New York’s Upper West Side. I peeled my sweat covered back from the cushion and stepped outside into the early evening heat, relieved. I looked up at the hostel, a little daunted as if I was instead about to enter a boarding school for naughty children.
With our rooms settled, Lorna climbed onto her bunk bed and told Chris and I that she was going to stay put for the evening. “Thank you guys, but there is only so much I can take for one day.” We smiled and said goodnight. Undeterred, Chris and I took a shower, separately, and walked outside into the city that never sleeps and went looking for some dinner and a beer.
Chris and I stopped at a small pizza place on corner of an innocuous street. Feeling hungry, having not eaten since the plane, I asked the cheerful looking Italian man for two of those slices, pointing to a chicken and cheese slice at the back of the window.
We sat down in the small tacky dining area situated at the back. Ripped and torn plastic seat covers cut into my thighs and I squirmed to get comfortable. A small, thick dumpy lady came over with two paper plates and placed the largest slices of pizza in front of us I’d ever seen. Even Donatello and Co. would have been shocked. Disappointed that my slice contained a coating of cauliflower underneath the cheese I pushed my plate away from me with mild disappointment and waited for Chris to finish.
From behind me came an elderly man, his shoulders were hunched his neck craning to keep his head above them. He had tired clothes and smelt similar to our taxi cab. “You gonna eat that?” He said, not making eye contact with either of us.
“No mate.” I said to him. “Here, have it.” I reached for the plate with both hands. He snatched at it quickly and nodded his head in appreciation. I watched him hobble away. He was slow and awkward. The conversation from the few in the restaurant had settled to a whisper, if not stopped completely, as if not wanting to continue until the man had left. The man reached the door and turned around, looking the full length of the place back towards us, and took a large bite from his newly acquired slice. His eyes shifted back and forth. His mouth worked over the food as he chewed, processing the subtle flavors of Italy’s finest, and then he spat it on the floor. A throaty and croaked voice coughed harshly with a tongue full of food, “Euughh, cauliflower.”
I laughed and smiled at Chris, who had paused mid-bite, looking as if he was about to throw up. “Come on James, let’s go, that was sick man.”
Entering the first bar we came across, we walked inside feeling a refreshing cool breeze from the air conditioning giving us much needed relief from the humidity that still sat in the evening air. Loud 80’s music played on a brightly lit jukebox in the back corner of the room. We took a seat at the long wooden bar that ran the length of the room parallel to our right, an endless offering of beers on tap. Whoops and cheers came from a crowd behind us, whilst Chris and I toasted our first pint in the Big Apple.
Happily chatting about something fascinating and putting the world to rights, a young brunette girl who flicked her hair towards Chris came between us as she ordered at the bar. Chris raised his eyebrows at me, and gave a coy smile and continued talking. Immediately the girl turned and faced him. She spoke with a high pitched Australian accent, slightly slurring as she began. “Ww-ow I really like your voice, like your accent I mean. You’re like from Ireland or Scotland right?’
“Northern Ireland,” Chris said smiling at her. He bit his lip not to laugh, as his eyes flicked to meet mine as I made faces behind her back, trying to gage his reaction to her.
“Fuck, I love that accent; say something in it for me,” she said.
Ha, she laughed. “Aww that’s the best that is.” This girl, as lovely as I’m sure her mum thinks she is, was already beginning to get on my tits. She turned and looked at me, “So, are you two like, both from Ireland or Scotland or wherever you said?”
“Northern Ireland,” Chris said.
“No, I’m from England.” I told her. “You’re Aus….tralian is that right?” A slight hesitancy in my voice, not wanting to confuse her for a Kiwi.
“Yeah, well whatever.” She said, turning her attention back towards Chris. “I don’t like the English accent, I much prefer yours. So what’s your name then?”
“Chris. And this is Ja…” He began. But she cut him off short. Off on a loud rant to her friends sitting behind us. She began shouting across the bar about how she’d found herself a sexy talking Scottish man. “Northern Ireland,” Chris said in a whisper, taking a sip of his pint.
The girl grabbed Chris’s hand and led him over to a table full of other drunken people, most of which were already coupled up, and those of which weren’t paired, it was obvious to see why. Slack jaws, glazed eyes and several empty bottles of red wine painted a pretty enough picture to see how their night had transpired.
Chris, and lets call her Sheila, began engaging in a one-on-one chat, like the majority at the table, whilst I sipped at my pint and zoned out, trying to focus my attention on a sports game being shown on a wall-mounted TV.
Lost in thought, I felt a light tap on my shoulder. “Hey buddy…. Buddy.” I looked around to see a large man I took to be in his mid-fifties, wearing jeans and a jean jacket combo with a grey ponytail smiling at me. I focused on him hard, hoping he wasn’t my Shelia for the evening. “Yes mate?” I said.
“Hey, do you mind if I put something on the jukebox?”
I looked around confused. The rest of the table hadn’t taken notice of his presence. “No mate, go ahead.”
“Cheers bud. I like to listen to Bruce Springsteen ya see. He reminds me of my father.”
“Nice.” I said, turning my head back towards him and away from the TV.
“Hey, let me buy you a beer he said, you look like you need it.”
I looked at Chris and Sheila, who had moved away from our table grabbing coats, seemingly about ready to leave. I made eye contact with Chris and raise my hand to him to signal a goodbye, knowing that I probably wouldn’t see either of them again. I drained the last of my beer and walked to the bar and took a seat on a stool.
“I’m Jim.” The man said, offering me a large thick hand. It was rough, and felt used, like a laborers that had weathered years of hard graft and labor.
“James. Nice to meet you mate.” I said, offering him my supple soft hand that was full of soapy goodness. He smiled giving me an avuncular head nod.
Jim and I began taking it in turns for rounds of drinks, and spoke in depth about my journey across to the States. He told me that he was a retired war veteran and was now making his way around the country, seeing parts of it he never had growing up. “You see.” He said to me. “My Father died of cancer a few years back and…” He paused. Swiveled in his stool to face the jukebox that was playing Bruce’s, Streets of Philadelphia. He turned back, his eye closed, mouthing the words along with the music. “Aint no angel gonna great me, it’s just you and me…” “Sorry. I love this song. So anyways, to raise money for Dad’s foundation I decided to walk right the way across America, point to point.”
“The whole way?” I said, stopping myself from taking a sip of my beer. “Its three thousand miles or something isn’t it?”
“Yeah, thereabouts.” He said, rubbing his eyes with a thick hand. “I got as far as Texas a couple of years back, but I got injured. Fucking injuries,” he said loudly. “They just bring you down. I tore my leg up something crazy so I had to stop, and came back here to heal.” I didn’t know what to say. He looked like he’d wanted to get things off his chest for a long time and finally he was opening up. Why now, why me? I still didn’t know what to say, and yet all I could think of was, Quit? What do you mean couldn’t finish? You’re a Marine god dammit and Marine’s don’t quit. Instead I made a silly noise that sounded like, “Ahhh shit”.
Jim regained his composure, and we talked a little more about sports and my plans for the summer until I could stifle my yawns no longer. I finished the last of my beer and rose from my stool. “Hey Jim, it was really good talking to you mate, I wish you the best with everything, but I’d best be walking back to my hostel, early start and all that.”
“You take it easy, James.”
I walked outside the bar onto empty streets. I began retracing the steps that Chris and I had walked earlier that night. Although, it soon became apparent, that now drunk and alone, I was lost. I couldn’t even remember which block my hostel sat on. I began going over it in my mind. 109th no? 108th ..7th 6th?. Fuck!
Walking south on Broadway from 108th I turned left into another quiet street. Large stone buildings sat on either side of the street. Hundreds, perhaps thousands inside lay sleeping, as the nighttime street stayed silent. As I approached Amsterdam Avenue, I felt a glimmer of hope build, knowing I was at least on the right tracks. A group of guys sat on a stoop 30 yards ahead of me, I stumbled on. “Hey, do any of you guys know where The HI hostel is?”
They all looked at me. I looked at them, or maybe just one of them, my vision was blurry. “You’re a long way from home white boy.” One of them said. I didn’t even know what that meant. Was I a long way from England or a long way from my hostel? Why can’t late night stoop sitters be more constructive with their feedback?
I stumbled on…
Forging a guess, I made a right on Amsterdam Avenue and began walking south towards 107th… As I approached 106th I saw a man rummaging through a trash can. “Excuse me.” I called out to him. He turned swiftly, startled. “Who are you?”
“I just wondered if you knew where the HI Hostel was by any chance?”
“Sure, I do. Come on I’ll show ya.”
“Ahh, great.” I said thankfully relieved.
Continuing on straight I walked next to a giant black man with a huge bushy beard. Jesus? …
We spoke in sporadic bursts; he asked me where I was from, and my reasons for being in New York, and why I was out so late? He was beginning to sound a little bit like my mother, but overall he was nice enough and like so many others, I followed him. Then like a mirage in a concrete desert, on the corner of 104th I saw the large red brick building that I’d been waiting for.
The man continued to walk with me as I fished for my keys, I didn’t know if he wanted a night cap, or a cheeky kiss under a moonlit sky, but before I could come to any further conclusions he said, “Can I have some money?”
A prostitute he surely wasn’t. “Money?” I said to him confused. The day’s journey and a nights drinking had taken its toll, and I could no longer think straight. “Yeah, I’m homeless man, I got no food, or place to go.”
“Oh fuck, err. Yeah sure, hang on.” I said to him feeling a little foolish. I sifted through my wallet and handed the man a few notes, thanked him for his help and said goodnight. I made my way to into my bedroom and crawled under the covers exhausted after my first day in New York, eager for tomorrow. Summer Camp, USA.