Friday, September 5th 2014
In Travelling west, I said we were going on a trip but not where we were going (other than in a westerly direction). From the title of this post you can discover our destination – New York. Yes, the one in the USA. This is our first visit to the nation of Mark Twain and Walt Disney, apart from a few minutes spent changing planes on a trip to Canada in 2006, and our first experience of New York. Whereas Tigger wanted to come here, I was not keen on the idea. Nothing I had ever heard or seen about New York appealed to me. Quite the contrary, in fact. So, the question was always going to be whether my prejudices be overturned by encountering the reality or whether they would be confirmed.
I usually recount our journeys chronologically and express my conclusions at the end. This time I am going to give the game away from the start. There is a reason for this, as I shall explain. The fact is that I disliked New York intensely and continually wished it was time to get on the plane for the ride home. As a result, I often found myself inhibited in taking photos and this means that a continuous photographic narrative is not possible. This account will be episodic and I will not always be able to set the pictures in a narrative context.
However, there were two things I liked. The first was that staple of films set in America, the diner. On our second day we chanced upon the New Apollo Diner in Downtown Brooklyn and, seated in one of its booths, I felt calm and at ease for the first time. We went there for breakfast on the following two mornings. The second thing I liked was another well known feature of New York, Yellow Cabs. The city is so big and sprawling and the transport network so complex for the newcomer that we were virtually obliged to use cabs on several occasions. The experience was a good one, both from the point of view of fares, which seemed quite moderate to me, and the level of service. London black cab drivers could usefully take tutorials from their New York counterparts.
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We left Heathrow on the 9:55 British Airways flight to New York. We had bought our tickets online and, as far as we knew, only needed to type the reservation number into one of the ticket machines in order to obtain our boarding passes. For such a short trip, we had only hand baggage and therefore did not need to register our luggage. We were puzzled when the machine, having read Tigger’s password, informed us that it was unable to process our reservation. There was nothing for it but to join the queue at check-in.
We presented our reservation and passports to the clerk, explaining the problem with the machine. The clerk checked our passports and asked whether we had obtained a visa waiver. I replied that we qualified for this as I had checked online. The clerk then told us that these days you actually have to register and pay a fee of $14. For a moment I saw our trip vanishing and wondered whether we could claim the the fares and hotel fees off the insurance… The clerk rescued us by saying that we could register online and that she would lend us her iPad Mini in order to do so. It took a few minutes for us each to register and entered our credit details for the fee. Having does this,we presented our passports and reservation to the clerk once more and she issued boarding passes, declaring us “Good to go”.
I won’t bore you with all the tedious nonsense involved in going through security. I did notice that despite all the publicity about needing to have your electronic devices charged up or risk having them confiscated, no one gave our mobiles, iPads and cameras a second look. There were free recharging stations at various points in the airport and some were being used but the much reported checks did not happen.
Aboard the plane, the seating accommodation was tight but just about bearable for the 7-hour flight. I had discovered from our trip to Canada that jet lag is not too much of a problem if you fly west. You just add to time difference to the length of the day and thus, in the case of New York, live a 29-hour day. Keep busy and the body is fooled into thinking it’s just a normal day.
We arrived at “JFK” – John F. Kennedy Airport. All airports look much the same and as we negotiated the corridors and concourses, we could have been at Heathrow or any other air terminal. It was only when we left and began to make our way to Brooklyn that I began to feel I was in a new country.
Tigger had the route planned and I just followed her in my usual dreamy way. We had our first experience of the Subway on the first stage of our journey to our hotel in Brooklyn.
We later took to the Subway, which brought us within striking distance of the hotel, though still with some walking to do.
We had checked the weather in New York before coming and I had not really believed the stated temperatures. They turned out to be correct, however, and throughout our stay, remained in the high 20s Centigrade. It was like turning the clock back and finding ourselves in the midst of the recent heat wave in the UK. Because of the heat, everywhere but everywhere has air conditioning. In the UK, air conditioning usually takes the temperature down to a comfortable level. Not in New York. In New York, everything is done to excess and that includes the air conditioning which makes indoor spaces icy cold.
Despite American film sequences suggesting the contrary, I imagined that the Subway would be something wonderful and better than the London Underground. It isn’t. The tube knocks spots off the Subway. Subway trains are longer than tube trains and can carry more people (we could do with that in London in the rush hour) but the trains are noisy and there are often long gaps between trains, so much so than on several occasions I wondered whether we were too late and the system had closed down for the night. (It hadn’t.) Sitting – or more frequently standing – on a Subway train, I felt as though I had been whisked back to the 1930s…
We started to walk and took a couple of wrong turns as Tigger’s Inner Pigeon had not yet entirely adjusted to the new longitude. (I am not in any sense criticising Tigger. I am hopeless at navigation and rely absolutely on her to find the way. I have nothing but praise for the way she usually leads us unerringly to our destination.)
After a cool Britain and a cold aircraft (it had been so cold on the plane that I spent the flight wrapped in the supplied blanket), the heat seemed oppressive and our bags, though comparatively light, seemed to become heavier as we walked… I am not blaming New York for this, of course. We could have taken a cab at any moment, had we so wished.
Our slow progress did at least give us a chance to gain first impressions of our surroundings and to take a few photos. In the above pictures, as you can see, I tended to seek out the quieter city environments but too often the scenery was more like this:
However elegant the form of a building and however tasteful its scheme of decoration, once you magnify it to the size of the typical buildings of New York it cannot but be overwhelming and ugly. How people can bear to live in streets that are windy canyons, rat runs between rows of obscenely huge buildings, is beyond me.
We eventually reached our hotel, the Sheraton Brooklyn. It was of course icy cold inside but I cannot fault the staff for courtesy and helpfulness. The room was not palatial but was good enough and because of the air conditioning, I could cover myself warmly at night and sleep snugly as at home.
We had bought adaptors so as to be able to plug our various pieces of electronic equipment into American electric sockets. The current in America is at 110 volts as opposed to 240 volts in the UK. I had read various and contradictory statements about compatibility issues on the Web but an assistant at Maplin had put us right: check your chargers are see whether they specify a voltage range of 110 to 240. If they do, you are fine; if not, you need a voltage converter. All our equipment was rated 110-240 so we had no problems.
We set out again and I took a photo of this church in passing, as it seemed dwarfed by the surrounding buildings. Tigger, with a twinkle in her eye, said we were going somewhere special, and I heard the words “Brighton beach”, which seemed counterintuitive. Perhaps I had misheard.
Anyway, we took rattly, clangy, noisy subway again (after waiting ages for a train) and found ourselves at Stillwell Avenue. Litter stops here, apparently, and so did we.
While you are looking at this picture of the subway station and…
…this panoramic view of the street in front of the station (click to see a larger version), I will explain that we had come to Coney Island, at the southern end of Brooklyn, a section of which really is called Brighton Beach (see map).
A large part of Brighton Beach is devoted to the Amusement Park. All the usual fun fair entertainments are there and various sorts of rides – the scarier, the more popular – were in evidence, their surprisingly slender metal work tracing patterns against the sky like writing in some exotic script. It was now evening and the daylight was beginning to weaken, as you can see in the following photos.
We progressed down to the water’s edge and walked along what I would call a promenade but which is actually known as the Boardwalk. Despite the fading light, it was still warm, though not as oppressive as earlier in the day, and there were plenty of people strolling and sitting and enjoying the peaceful atmosphere.
The beach is quite broad and composed of sand (unlike the pebble beach of its Sussex namesake). I was struck by the number of birds gathered on the beach and flying overhead.
People and birds shared the beach peaceably enough and the different species of birds mingled without any friction. There were species I recognized and some that were not familiar to me, one type in particular.
The birds in question looked somewhat like black headed gulls in their winter plumage (when black no longer covers the head but is reduced to a patch behind the eye) but with black legs instead of red. My best guess is that these are American laughing gulls.
Among the adults with their smart black, white and blue-grey plumage, were juveniles still dressed in brown. As with other species of gulls, some of these were pestering the adults for food even though mature enough to feed themselves.
As the sun set, bringing darkness to the scene, we terminated our visit and took to the subway again. This carried us across Brooklyn and under the East River to the southern end of Manhattan. Our purpose was to find a meal but we had to wander a very long time before finally choosing a not-really-Italian restaurant where we were served a rather indifferent meal.
We wandered around a bit and Tigger was happily taking photos but I was now in a thoroughly bad mood, wishing only to go back to the hotel and lose myself in sleep. When we reached the water’s edge, though, even I could see that the scene was worth capturing, with night cloaking the awfulness of the place and the lights and the moon shining so prettily.
Night covers a multitude of sins, though not entirely. I also took the following photo of a cliff-like building looming claustrophobically over us.
We also got a first glimpse of the tallest building in the western hemisphere, the One World Trade Center, with its illuminated mast, though at the time when I took the photo I did not know that that is what it was.
We turned for the hotel and went down into the Broadway/Nassau subway station where a surprise awaited us in the form of a set of murals made of tiles on a maritime theme.
These tiled murals were created in 1913 by Fred Dana Marsh (1872-1961) for the restaurant of the McAlpin Hotel. In 1989, the hotel was converted into a residential complex and the murals were on the point of being junked. Happily, they have been saved and are now on permanent display, albeit in less than optimum conditions. Because of their location in the station with the coming and going of people, it is quite difficult to photograph them satisfactorily. I managed to capture three of them and have arranged the pictures as a short slide show. You can find out more about the murals and see more pictures here. Curiously enough, the plaque installed by the murals in the station spells the artist’s surname wrongly (calling him “March”) and provides an incorrect date of birth (“1852”) which would have made him an improbably109 years old at death.
My last photo of the day was taken from the window of our hotel room. The view was not at all prepossessing so I took the picture looking down at the street below. Our room was on the 9th floor (given that this was New York perhaps I should say “only on the 9th floor”) but that’s impressive enough for someone with a phobia for heights.