America at Last – Part 2
By Parson Thru
The flight was ok as long-haul flights go, and I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else, but you can get too much of anything. So I was pretty glad when we were done skirting the Canadian seaboard, across Maine and Massachusetts, and the New York skyline swung out to our right. Tantalisingly close, but I never count my chickens - to do so invites disappointment.
Once we were down and had gathered bags and coats, exchanged exit smiles with cabin crew (subtly different to boarding smiles), excitement began to shine through the tiredness. We tramped through the usual anonymous airport walkways into a log-jam. In front of us were hundreds – it seemed like thousands – of tired travellers like ourselves, quietly organising themselves into coiling queues that wound to the immigration booths and America.
We gripped our passports and shuffled along. I carried a whole folder of documents in case the immigration officer had been pre-warned of the orange scandal. I really believed they might just turn me around and send me back on the next flight home. As we approached the booth, I went first, wearing a neutral expression, just leaning towards a smile and keeping plenty of eye contact.
I offered my passport, opened at the photo page. The man looked from my photo to me, flicked to the visa and asked where I was staying. I told him the name of the hostel we had booked in Greenwich Village. He smiled and shouted back to Natasha, still waiting, “Are you together?” She nodded and smiled. “Are you married?” She shook her head. “You should marry him. He’s a nice guy.” He applied the entry and exit slips to my passport, wished me a nice day and I was in. I could have kissed him. A couple of minutes later, we were both through. Next, baggage reclaim and first contact with the engineered American Standard toilet, then we were emerging from Arrivals into a New York evening.
The first few hours in a new city are always confusing to me and I tend to develop a defensive posture – careful not to place too much trust in anyone. Natasha had pre-booked our connection from the airport to Manhattan. I looked for the shiny, swish coach that would swallow our cases and whisk us into the broad avenues of New York. Nothing doing. We walked over to a tired desk and showed our booking. Nothing doing. Someone in a uniform of some kind sauntered over and took the papers. Some kind of slanging match produced a phone call that, in half an hour, produced a dodgy minibus.
This was our shiny, swish coach. We piled in with four or five others – cases crammed in a kennel in back and off we shot to God-knows where with some local DJ on the radio. Outside, a mess of expressways and tunnels that maybe could have been anywhere. Welcome to New York City, man.
We were dropped outside Grand Central Station. There we stood gripping our cases. It was 10 pm. We didn’t know shit. But that was ok, as we’d been there before. Yellow cabs eased down the street. We took this in and smiled tired smiles to each other, then hailed one down. The driver popped the trunk from inside. You could have got our car in there. We threw in the cases, closed the trunk and jumped in the cab, sliding around on the great vinyl rear seat as he hauled us off into the night. “Where to?” We passed him the paper. “St Marks? Yeah, I know that street, but I don’t know no hotel.” “It’s number 14.” we told him. “There should be a number on the door.” “OK.”
The big Ford Sedan powered through the lanes of red flashing tail-lights for about a mile and swung left into a quieter street. We crawled along the kerb until the driver called out to a man smoking outside a dark wood door. This was it. Natasha pulled out some dollar bills and the trunk popped open behind us. We stood on another strange pavement. The driver pointed to the door and was gone. We dragged our cases over the sidewalk to number 14. No sign. No bell. The door was locked. We asked the smoker if this was the hostel – it was. He took out a key and let us in.
The door had one of those locks you have to keep turning and a small, high, heavily-barred window. It sure was secure. We dragged the cases up tiled steps and along a dark, narrow corridor. There was no sign of life. Well, at worst we could sit on the two wooden chairs and try to doze – it was now after ten and we had been going for twenty hours.
Presently, the cellar door opened and a man emerged. He seemed confused to see us, but his confusion didn’t last. He decided to ignore us and wander off round a corner. We called him and asked if we could check in. Nothing. We looked around the anonymous doors along the corridor labelled A, B and C, then sat down again.
The man eventually wandered back. “You want to check in?” We nodded. He disappeared again. This time he came back with a wiry man in a vest, who lifted up a hatch and produced a register and forms to a cautious lifting of the spirits. Following the formalities, he showed us up two flights of narrow stairs to our room at the front of the building, overlooking the street.
I carried both cases up, feeling close to exhaustion. I assess the state of my heart by whether it continues beating at times like that. The room wasn’t much, but when we looked out the window tiredness melted away. It was a New York medium-rise brick street, with those ugly but familiar fire escapes hanging off the front of the buildings and, right next door, a bar. “I need a drink.” “Me too, hun. Welcome to New York.”