New York 1991

13th September 2018

Montalivet les Bains, Aquitaine, France

I’ve now caught up with all my ‘workaway’ traffic of the last couple of days and so, finally, here is my New York retrospective travelogue:

New York 1991

It was a mostly unremarkable flight across the Atlantic, although auspicious as my first ever time on a 747, but I do vividly recall the sight of the imposing New York skyline as we approached this famous city at a relatively low altitude on a perfect spring afternoon - so familiar from countless media appearances but still singularly striking to see it ‘in the flesh’, so to speak.

After a very long queue at JFK International Airport immigration I hailed a yellow cab and asked the Hispanic driver to take me to a long establish hotel in Manhattan (I can no longer recall it’s name) right next to Central Park. Wares dat? he immediately rasped in reply! I explained politely that this was my first ever time in New York and consequently I had no idea.

He grumpily grabbed a well used New York street map book and started leafing through it until he was eventually satisfied in which direction to head. All a bit different from my experiences in the back of London black cabs whose driver’s pride themselves on their intimate knowledge of the city and, consequently, my New York cabbie took me rather by surprise.

It was a long, slow and distinctly polluted journey on a hot afternoon into Manhattan ‘island’ from JFK International in Queens, Long Island which involved negotiating slow moving congested tunnels (Ugh!) and muscular but visually unappealing bridges.

Eventually I arrived at the hotel which was directly opposite a rank of spectacularly bored horses in-harness to open carriages awaiting non-existent tourists to hire them for an excursion round Central Park. The hotel was built, I would guess, early in the 20th century and would have been a rather fine establishment when it was new but by the time I arrived there it had decidedly seen better days.

I soon learned that this could be said for nearly all of Manhattan at that time. Sometime billed as the ‘greatest city in the world’ New York nearly went bankrupt in 1975 when it couldn’t pay it’s bills. Subsequent hard line economic policies gradually pulled the city out of it’s financial abyss but it took a long time and the effect of it’s 1970s financial meltdown was still very much in evidence even in the early 1990’s.

The roads were full of potholes and some of them, taped off, were large enough to swallow an entire motor vehicle. The high rise buildings erected in the first quarter of the 20th century, for which the city is so famous, looked almost like slums. The sky-scraping architecture which must have literally overawed early 20th century European immigrants with it’s grandiose and lofty gables looked like it might all fall down into the streets below anytime soon unless some urgently needed maintenance and remedial work was carried out.

Despite all this highly visible lack of finance, I noticed the Caucasian community still seemed to be doing OK and the Hispanics mostly seemed to be employed in service industries but that many Negroes were panhandling or even mugging for a living.

I was ‘approached’ early one evening in busy Times Square by a young Negro man, calling himself ‘the New York Rapper’ and although he didn’t actually produce a weapon of any kind I distinctly felt I was being hustled for money with menaces - oh, and melody!

On another occasion I needed to park my rental car and followed a ‘Parking’ sign down a ramp - and then down another and another and another. I counted eleven stories underground of dimly lit car parking before I came to halt, impeded by a gang of muscular Negro men blocking my way.

‘O Shit!’ I thought but it turned out they were simply the facility’s employed attendants who parked up on your arrival and fetched on your return your car for you - together with several of their buddies who had nothing else to do, presumably?!

Perhaps I imagined it but I do recalling sensing most distinctly worrying racial tensions at that time. Just 25 years earlier Mississippi had been ‘burning’ with racial hatred and although New York was a long way from Mississippi and a quarter of a century had elapsed I could feel very strong ripples of racial discontent based on blatant unequal opportunity when the financial chips were down.

From New York I drove to Boston where I had a rendezvous lined up with an old friend. The drive took me out on the Bronx Expressway which looked like the dark side of the moon littered with burned out cars. ‘Holy Shit!” I thought ‘please don’t let me breakdown here!’. Luckily. I didn’t and subsequently had an ‘interesting’ drive through Connecticut - which I recall as one vast prosperous suburb - and on to downtown Boston.

From Boston I was taken to my friends weekend house on Cape Cod where, the next morning I jumped into the ocean for a swim and immediately had my right arm broken directly below the shoulder ball-joint by an incoming Atlantic wave!

This was a pain in more ways than one as my next destination was a long drive across New Hampshire and Maine to distant Quebec where I was to meet a manufacturer of a unique and ingenious frozen yogurt/frozen fruit soft ‘ice cream’ blending and vending machine.

A Boston hospital gave me an X-ray, a sling and painkillers together with a large bill to be paid before I was allowed to leave the hospital.

To add to my discomfort, my subsequent drive to Quebec was much, much further than I had realised. New Hampshire was pretty enough but seemingly full of big detached architect designed houses in sumptuous grounds and Maine was just wonderful - a true wilderness of considerable size with cautionary ‘elk crossing’ signs peppering the roads.

Canada was, well, big! I only saw a tiny, tiny bit of it but I still got a palpable sense of it’s overall vastness and particularly it’s isolation to the north, away from the USA border - which something like 90% of the country’s population live within a hundred miles of.

Quebec was, what I might now describe as, a ‘vanilla’ flavoured North American Continent city - that is to say, downtown high rise, grid street layout, bustling and affluent. Well, perhaps vanilla flavored with a hint of French élan!

My meeting with the French-Canadian frozen yogurt machine manufacturer went well and I negotiated a price for a container load of machines that would eventually end up destined to be forever abandoned in Singapore, but I had no inkling of that at that time.

I drove back to New York by a more direct route through Vermont but the only distinct recollection I have about that part of the journey was nearly collecting a speeding citation from a female traffic cop.

The US speed limit, back then, was 50mph so not hard for a European used to legally driving at much higher motorway speeds to let his speed creep up to 60mph, particularly when he was concerned about getting back to JFK International on time to catch his plane back to the UK.

She was hidden in a dip in the central reservation between the two opposing carriageways and came scooting after me with her highway patrol car red lights flashing and siren screaming out of, seemingly, nowhere.

She was distinctly not amused I was driving with a broken arm and also not using my seatbelt. What saved my skin was my Dutch driving licence which, on I handing it over to her she loudly declared what the hell is this?!

I pointed out it was a Dutch driving licence and that accounted for all the terribly long non Anglo Saxon words printed upon it. Is this thing even legal here? she asked me contemptuously? A US cop asking me about US law - interesting, I thought!

I meekly pointed out that the rental company and their insurers thought it was OK and that was all I knew about it. She thought long and hard for several moments giving me a cold-eyed stare as she came to her conclusions.

OK fella she said I’m gonna cut you a huge piece ‘o slack handing me brusquely back my drivers license. You get the hell outa here, you stick to the speed limit, you put on your goddam seatbelt and if I ever see you again I’m gonna lock you up and throw away the goddam key!

With which she summarily got back into her patrol car, did a 'U’ turn and headed back in the direction of her hidey hole in the central reservation.

After that first visit, I eventually returned to New York almost exactly a decade later and I’ll publish a travelogue about the changes to the city that I observed on that trip tomorrow.

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