What I did on my holidays (part 5)

Thursday 6th November
We woke early to catch a 7am bus to Philadelphia. This was especially difficult for Neil, Mini Matt and Andy who had been in a bar basement until 4am listening to a jazz band who claimed to have a member of the Fugees (although this was debatable).

The Bolt Bus left from a stop a few blocks north of our hostel to make the hardly-scenic journey through industrial New Jersey into Pennsylvania. Interestingly, the bus somehow managed to conjure up a wifi connection for the whole two hour journey, even when we were underneath the Hudson River in a tunnel.

We stepped off the bus on the outskirts of the city centre. Actually, it was the outskirts of ‘centre city’, which is how Philadelphians describe the bit that other Americans call ‘downtown’. Looking along the Delaware River we could see the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the distance, better known as the Rocky Steps. I’ve never seen Rocky or any of the sequels, but apparently Sylvester Stallone’s boxer character used the front steps of the museum in lieu of gym equipment in montage scenes in five of the six movies.

After vaguely reassuring Andy that we may have time to visit the steps later in the day (we didn’t), we walked from 30th Street into the heart of the city. Philadelphia felt a world away from Manhattan. The streets reminded me of the small towns of America that we had spent the majority of our 2007 trip visiting: quiet, low-rise brick buildings lining two-way avenues and streets on which real people went about their daily business.

Philadelphia plays a pivotal role in any history of the USA. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were both signed in the city and it was temporarily the nation’s capital in the late 18th century. The old part of Centre City contains several museums on these themes, particularly paying homage to local heroes Benjamin Franklin and the Liberty Bell.

The Liberty Bell museum begins with a series of display boards and videos, emphasising the importance of the bell to all Americans. It allegedly rang out to announce the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (although historians politely advise that this is probably bollocks as the bell tower wouldn’t have supported the weight). Since then, it has travelled the country, representing the principles of American freedom.

In 1846, while chiming for the anniversary of George Washington’s birth, a small crack in the bell turned into a much larger one. The bell hasn’t rung since, although it makes the occasional ‘dunk’ on special occasions.

We paid homage to the bell itself, cordoned off as it was and protected by a Ranger from the National Park Service, then wandered down to the riverside for a visit to the Independence Seaport Museum. This consisted of two dry-docked boats of the US Navy: the USS Becuna and the USS Olympia.

The Becuna is a submarine from World War II which was built in Philadelphia and launched in 1944. More than 70 submariners would somehow live in the tiny, cramped conditions as it patrolled the Pacific looking for Japanese ships. In the final room of the self-guided tour we met an ancient old man who had been one of those submariners.

The veteran told us that he was responsible for the problems currently facing America. He went onto explain that this was because his boat had rescued George HW Bush during WW2; if they hadn’t, then Dubya would never have been born. The old man even produced a signed photograph of the former President that was sent to the rescuers upon Bush taking office in 1989.

After touring the Olympia, a 19th century cruiser, we played on the interactive exhibits in the nearby museum before getting a cab to the railway station. From there we boarded a train to Atlantic City, New Jersey for an evening of James Bond-style glamour among cocktail-sipping high rollers. Except, of course, real life casinos are nothing like 007 would have you believe.

Atlantic City used to be a thriving seaside resort (still immortalised as the setting of the US version of Monopoly), but by the 1960s it had sunk into the kind of decline familiar to Blackpool and other English resorts. In 1976, voters agreed to legalise casinos in an effort to revitalise their city by creating an east coast Las Vegas.

Economically this worked, but at the cost of removing the soul of the city and replacing it with a sink hole of seedy despair. We visited Caesar’s Palace, an enormous casino beside the beach which stank of stale cigar smoke (despite a smoking ban). It consisted of several levels of almost identical floors, filled with slot machines and card tables as far as the eye could see.

The cheapest blackjack and poker tables had a minimum stake of $10 per hand, so instead we took to the more budget option of 25¢ fruit machines and video poker screens. Several hours later we left the casino; I was the only one of our group to leave without a small hole in my pocket, having found a knack for video poker which turned my $20 bet into $42.

We took the Greyhound back to NYC from a bus station full of the kind of shouty weirdos that normally frequent Camden Town in London. The bus was much less comfortable than the Bolt Bus we had taken to Philadelphia and it was almost impossible to find a sleeping position that didn’t lead to a very sore neck. Occasionally, we awoke to find the bus attempting a three-point turn across the highway; it turned out to be the driver’s first day and he was somehow struggling to find New York City. At around 2am, we finally arrived back at the Port Authority Bus Station.

What I did on my holidays (part 4)

Wednesday 5th November

Despite Fox’s kind offer of a free breakfast, a 7.30am start at the filming of their Morning Show did not appeal after the late night in Times Square. Instead, we got out of bed an hour or so later and I headed out to the local store to pick up a copy of the New York Times. To my dismay, the news stand was empty of everything but the New York Post (the local equivalent of the Sun, a copy of which I purchased in 2007 when their headline described the Manhattan steam pipe explosion as a “Midtown Volcano!”).

I tried another store, but to no avail. It soon became apparent that we weren’t the only people who thought that a copy of the New York Times on the morning after America elected its first black President might be a nice keepsake. Fortunately, we had noticed the day before that the New York Times had its headquarters just a few blocks to the north on 8th Avenue, so we headed there in the hope that there would be some copies lying around.

We were greeted with the sight of scores of people snaking around the corner of the block, waiting in line to buy a newspaper. In Britain we seem to have an instinct that drives us toward cynicism on occasions when Americans would react with optimism. It’s what makes us good at satire and Americans good at inventing stuff. We have Ian Hislop, they have Google.

Obama’s victory, at least here on the liberal streets of New York, had awakened an optimism that Bush, Cheney and co had worked hard to suppress. This was embodied by the multicoloured queue forming along 40th Street to buy a $1.50 copy of the New York Times on this historic morning. We joined the back of the queue, which moved remarkably quickly, and bought several copies each.

The Matts and I headed north towards the Ed Sullivan Theatre on 53rd and Broadway, where we were to spend a good chunk of the afternoon as audience members for a filming of the Late Show with David Letterman. As we queued outside in the torrential rain, a man came outside and made us practice laughing. He also ran through the rules, which included no high pitched noises and that we should always err on the side of laughter if we’re unsure about whether a joke is funny or not.

This was a useful policy for them, as Letterman is not very funny. Actually, that’s not fair; David Letterman himself is occasionally funny in the kind of way that might ordinariliy make you smile but probably wouldn’t make you laugh out loud. His guests, on the other hand, were both poor for very different reasons. The first, Tom Brokaw, is a highly-respected journalist who chaired the second Presidential debate and was the interviewer when Colin Powell endorsed Obama. However, these facts are not enough to make the man interesting in himself.

The second guest was Vera Farmiga who had recently starred in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. She was heavily pregnant and, by her own admission, a little hormonal.  She was absolutely bonkers and I think they may have cut her interview short, such was her instability,

The rest of the show was made up of the kind of humorous clips that Jon Stewart’s Daily Show does much better, and a bizarre sketch involving planted audience members, during which we were briefly caught on camera.

I think it’s fair to say the British and American senses of humour are quite different. Cutting edge late night satire shouldn’t need a drum roll every time a joke is told; nor should it need an audience indoctrinated to laugh regardless of whether they even got the joke.

I gathered back in Times Square with Neil, John, LJ and Andy. The plan for the evening was to pick up some Broadway tickets from the half price ticket booth built into the back of the tiered seating we had sat on the previous evening. Matt and Matt, meanwhile, would be watching ‘Christmas on Mars’, a film by psychedelic alt rock band The Flaming Lips.

Rather than going to a traditional Broadway show, John had recommended a piece of postmodern theatre he’d seen in Edinburgh called Fuerza Bruta.  It was about as far removed from Les Mis as is possible; for a start, the theatre had no seats and no stage.

We gathered in a dark room with black walls, floor and ceiling alongside perhaps a hundred other people. Loud trance music kicked in and the crowd was parted by stage hands as a giant treadmill rolled into the middle of us. A man in a white jump suit and a ceiling harness swung onto the treadmill and began sprinting. Walls would swing into him and shatter, and at least twice he got shot by an unseen gunman.

That’s how it started. It’s almost impossible to adequately describe the experience, other than to say that about an hour later it had caused scores of sober theatre-goers to rave fully-clothed under a heavy shower of water. At the time, this felt like the absolutely sensible thing to be doing, but only a few minutes later we found ourselves sitting in the bar dripping and shivering. Fortunately, the theatre was on hand to cash-in on our stupidity, selling us promotional tee shirts to delay the onset of our hyperthermia.

What I did on my holidays (part 3 – election night special)

Tuesday 4th November

Since our arrival in New York there had been a low frequency buzz on the streets about the election. It seemed like every conversation we tuned into on the crowded sidewalks contained snippets of “Obama”, “McCain” or “Palin” (poor Biden). It’s difficult to imagine an election in the UK creating such a level of interest, although I suspect this is no ordinary US election.

Despite this level of public interest, there was actually very little in the way of election publicity in the city. New York is one of the most reliably Democratic states on the electoral map, so neither candidate saw the need to waste money on posters or adverts. A good number of people , though, were walking about with Obama-Biden badges on their lapels (almost nobody had McCain-Palin badges).

One source of these badges revealed itself on our way to Macy’s (the world’s largest department store). A middle-aged black woman had set up a table on a 7th Avenue corner with an enormous selection of pro-Obama merchandise. She was so excited about the prospect of an Obama victory that she told us how she had voted at 6.30am; the Democratic campaign’s message of hope and change had genuinely become ingrained in the desires of people like her.

We bought some badges and headed to Macy’s. It’s basically just a big John Lewis, but it’s worth a visit just to ride the ancient wooden escalators on the upper floors. OK, it’s maybe not worth a visit just for that, but if you happen to be there you should at least take a look.

Realising that we didn’t really have any shopping to do, the Matts and I parted company with Neil, Andy, John and LJ. We headed towards the Rockefeller Center to check out the planned NBC election night party taking place around the ice rink. We’d been tipped off about the party by a news bulletin on one of the LCD screens that have been fitted into the back of apparently every taxi cab in the city.

A map of the country had been drawn onto the ice, which they would somehow illuminate state-by-state in either red or blue as the election results rolled in. NBC had set up a temporary studio next to where we were standing that appeared to be broadcasting live on the big screens above us. On our way out of the plaza, a man with a Blackberry stopped us and said he was looking for good looking young people to sit on the front rows of the following morning’s Fox Morning Show. Clearly, there was a shortage of good looking young people, so he handed the tickets to us; we’d have to be there at 7.30am, but breakfast would be free.

Another option for election night festivities was in Times Square where CNN had set up a big screen in front of the tiered seating that forms the roof of the half-price ticket booth. It was still mid-afternoon, but we took some seats and watched some CNN. They were showing off an artist’s impression that they had commissioned of what the candidates would look like if McCain were black and Obama white. McCain looked a bit like Bill Crosby, whereas Obama looked like a used car salesman.

While sitting in Times Square, a young man approached us with a clipboard and asked if we wanted to watch the Late Show with David Letterman being filmed the following afternoon. We said yes, and he said they were ours if we could answer two “simple” trivia questions. I cracked my Itbox-playing fingers, only to realise seconds later that the trivia was Letterman-related. Despite none of us having ever really watched it, the Matts were able to answer a question each to win us the tickets (for future reference, the bald band leader plays the keyboards and Letterman likes to throw his pen).

Later that afternoon we returned to our vantage point in Times Square and settled down for election night. As the clock ticked towards the first polling stations closing, the steps and the square below filled and the atmosphere began to crackle with anticipation. At 7pm, America reached the beginning of the end of this epic two-year long election when Vermont and Kentucky were called for Obama and McCain respectively. Not a single vote had been counted in either state (the polls had been closed for just a few seconds), but CNN used exit polls and common sense to put the first electoral college votes on the boards: McCain leads by eight votes to three.

Despite McCain’s early advantage, things were looking good for Obama who was neck-and-neck with McCain in Indiana (where votes had started being counted at 6pm), which had not voted for a Democrat in decades. At 8pm, ten more states were called without bothering to count any votes, eight of them for Obama, but it was the Pennsylvania result about half an hour later that reassured the crowd that they’d be going home happy.

McCain’s chance of victory was dealt a huge blow by Pennsylvania staying Democratic, but the celebrations couldn’t formally begin for some time yet. Times Square went wild when New York was called, and indeed every time the CNN coverage switched to our crowd. Ohio also fell to the Obama surge, meaning that it was now just a matter of the world politely waiting for the solidly-Democratic west coast states to close their polling stations so that the networks could push Obama over the magic 270.

That moment came at 11pm EST. The giant CNN screen moved from one of its many commercial breaks to one of their now-hourly countdowns to the closure of the next polls. The crowd in Times Square counted the last ten seconds out loud and, instead of calling any individual states, CNN immediately projected that Barack Obama had been elected the next President of the United States.

To say that the crowd went a bit wild would be like saying that Sarah Palin is a bit thick. All around us was cheering, crying and hugging; if there were any Republicans in the crowd at the start of the evening, they’d either slipped off or converted to Obamania by eleven o’clock. It was beyond anything I’ve ever seen at a football match or a rock concert, this was absolute elation among people who genuinely believed that things would now be different.

Cars around Times Square began honking their horns even more than usual, with Obama-Biden signs held out through their sunroofs. Eventually, the big screen cut to Arizona and John McCain’s concession speech. McCain’s audience looked uniformly unpleasant, a bunch of handlebar moustachioed rednecks and not a single non-white face to be seen.  The speech itself was gracious and humble, reminding the world of the McCain that used to command cross-party respect before he lowered himself to the level of the very worst elements of the GOP. These elements, however, were alive and well in his bigoted crowd who booed every mention of President-elect Obama.

Other than a few initial boos, McCain’s speech was well received in Times Square, receiving the applause it deserved. We did not show the same respect to his running mate: when Sarah Palin’s face filled the big screen, the boos echoed off the skyscrapers. We can only hope that she fades back into the obscurity that she emerged from in August, but I fear we haven’t seen the last of Palin and her brand of anti-intellectualism.

 After what felt like forever, the CNN coverage switched to the massive gathering in Grant Park, Chicago where Barack Obama and Joe Biden walked onto the stage accompanied by the new first and second families of the United States. 800 miles away in New York, our crowd was again going wild, anticipating a fine speech by a great orator. Sadly someone had alternative plans for our evening and as Obama opened his mouth to speak the CNN screen went dead. Thousands of people strained their eyes towards the Fox screen at the far end of the Square, but the subtitles were too small to read.

After several minutes, police began clearing our tiered seating, telling us to go home as the party was over. We followed the deflated crowds down the steps, but as we reached the bottom the screen flashed back into life and we were treated to the final five minutes of a great speech. When the 44th President left his Chicago stage the applause continued in Times Square for several minutes, as much of the crowd blinked tears from their eyes.

Our walk back towards our hostel was slow as we moved through the dense crowds. People were literally dancing in the streets; we saw spontaneous hip hop dancing on a street corner and a man moonwalk across a pedestrian crossing. It remains to be seen whether the world changed on 4th November 2008, but it was certainly a night we’ll never forget.

What I did on my holidays (part 2)

Monday 3rd November

After an overdue lie-in, we headed out into Manhattan in search of a hearty bagel and John’s friend LJ. LJ had survived the marathon on Sunday and would be transferring to our hostel for her last few days in New York.

Filled up with eggy, cheesy, Canadian hammy, bagely goodness, we once again made the long walk to the southern tip of Manhattan, this time to Castle Clinton in Battery Park. The fort was built in the early 19thcentury to defend New York from the British during the war of 1812, although now it is a ticket booth for the Ellis Island Ferry.

The ferry takes a bizarre route into the Hudson river between Battery Park, Liberty Island and Ellis Island, spiralling about in the process to allow the passengers a spectacular view of the Statue of Liberty and the New York skylines.

We had arrived too late in the day to be able to take the ferry to both Liberty and Ellis Islands, but through experience in 2007 I was aware that there is little to do on Liberty Island except pose for photographs in the stance of Lady Liberty. Had we been really early birds and got to Battery Park by 8am we could’ve booked tickets to actually climb the statue, a novelty that until recent months had been forbidden as an anti-terror precaution.

While the majority of the tourists disembarked on Liberty, we stayed aboard for a few minutes more as the boat spiralled into the dock at Ellis Island. Last year, we visited the immigration museum here, but I somehow entirely failed to find the upper levels of the museum, thus limiting my experience to essentially just the entrance lobby. This time I was determined to actually see some exhibits.

First things first, though; five hungry boys needed a snack. We headed into the cafeteria and the smarter kids bought punnets of fries. The fools among us, myself included, ordered cheesey fries. Americans don’t do cheese. We were reminded of this fact as we saw the caterer use a ladle to scoop his liquefied yellow gloop from a vat and onto the unfortunate flesh of our innocent fries.

They were inedible and the foul taste lingered in our mouths right through the hurried visit to the immigration museum. On this occasion I successfully visited the second floor exhibits too, which is certainly an improvement on the last time, but it seems I’ll have to return once more if I ever want to visit the third and final level.

As we queued for the last ferry back to Manhattan the sun dropped below the horizon, allowing the glittering skyscrapers of Manhattan, Brooklyn and New Jersey to cycle through our field of vision as the boat drunkenly looped back to Battery Park.

Legs still swaying, we walked up the east coast of lower Manhattan towards the Brooklyn Bridge. When it was completed in 1883 it was the longest suspension bridge in the world at 1.825km long. It may not hold that record any more, but a night-time walk across it remains a must-do for visitors to New York. Looking at that glittery cityscape never gets boring and, alongside the Empire State Building and the Ellis Island ferry, the Brooklyn Bridge is just about the best place to see it from.

We took the subway back from Brooklyn to what we hoped was Little Italy. Unfortunately, we were thwarted by the New York underground’s system of Express and Local trains, ending up about ten blocks north of where we planned. Never mind, a good walk would drum up some hunger, we thought.

Little Italy is a Little Disappointing. If there was one thing you’d expect it would be some Italian restaurants, but they appeared few and far between. Eventually we found one in the blurry area between Little Italy and Chinatown, where Chinese banners hang across pizza restaurants. The food was OK, perhaps a little too rich, but certainly not what we’d hoped for in the most Italian city outside of Italy (don’t quote me on that fact, I just made it up).

What I did on my holidays (part 1)

Saturday 1st November 2008

At an eyeball-achingly early time, Andy, John, Matt, Matt and I dragged ourselves to Heathrow Airport via seemingly half the tube network. We’d checked in for our flight online the previous evening and only had hand luggage, so were afforded the luxury of minimal queues to board Virgin Atlantic flight V003, bound for New York JFK.

The flight was actually the most comfortable I’ve ever experienced; the food was more than edible (starter, main, bread roll, dessert, wine and even a cheese course), there was actually leg-room and the back of the seat in front contained a wonderful media player. On demand, we could watch movies, TV shows, play battleships with our neighbours and even send abusive messages to John.

We took the impatiently long subway train from JFK right into the heart of Manhattan at Times Square. I had arranged for us to meet Neil outside the neon-signed NYPD station at 4pm. After a journey of 3500 miles, we arrived just 10 minutes late. Neil, however, had given up waiting and gone back to the suite in the Hilton that he’d rented for the previous night. Two phone calls and 15 minutes later we were all reunited under the dazzling lights of Times Square.

We walked a dozen blocks south to find our hostel on 8th Avenue and 30th Street. It appeared to be a little seedy outside, situated as it was above a Subway (the sandwich chain store, not the NYC underground system) and an apparently 24-hour florists. Regardless, the hostel was clean, secure, delightfully cheap and, importantly, very central.

After dropping our bags, we headed directly along 33rd Street towards the Rockefeller Center. Or rather that’s what I thought it was, instead of the Empire State Building which it actually was.  The fact that I (a buildings engineer) had failed to correctly identify perhaps the most famous skyscraper in the world proved to be an endless well of ridicule for my travel companions over the next week. In my defence, it does look a lot different from the photographs when you’re standing at the bottom of it looking east (although I have been up it before, so really should have known better).

We ate in a restaurant at the bottom that Andy, Neil and I had remembered to be very tasty from our previous visit to New York. Unfortunately it appeared that more than two weeks of American food in 2007 had done something to our taste buds that couldn’t be replicated after 8 hours of Virgin Atlantic in 2008; on this occasion the food wasn’t all that great. Never mind.

Up we went in the great elevators of the Empire State Building. I recommend that any visitors to New York save this particular rite until the sun has set; the Big Apple is as beautiful by night as it is loud and grubby by day. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but in my view there are many more attractive cities in the world than New York, but at night it turns into a magnificent array of lights that simply refuse to be ignored. There’s only one downside to looking at this metropolis from the top of the Empire State Building, and that is that you can’t see the Empire State Building.


Sunday 2nd November 2008

After a night of jet-lag recovery, we decided to walk from our hostel down to the financial district. Although we were staying on 30th Street, it turns out the numbering doesn’t begin from the sourthernmost tip of Manhattan, so we were barely halfway there after covering the 30 blocks to 1st Street.

We walked passed a terrifying Orwellian skyscraper with no windows; in fact, the only break in the smooth concrete surface was for a row of enormous ventilation grills about halfway up. Later research established that this was the AT&T Switching Center, filled with equipment that would prefer not to receive daylight and workers who presumably wished that they did.

We visited Ground Zero, the former site of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. It is now a bustling building site for the Freedom Tower which is due to rise from the ashes by 2013. We called into the nearby St Paul’s Church which became a refuge for recovery workers in the days and months after the terrorist attacks of 11th September 2001. It is now treated as a memorial site to those who died.

From here we headed down Wall Street and to the stock exchange. The turmoil that this area had both caused and suffered over the last few months was absent on this quiet Sunday morning. The area was silent but for the chattering of tourists and the clicking of their cameras. After making appropriately abusive gestures towards these cathedrals of greed, we stepped down into the subway and headed north to Times Square to watch some F1.

We settled down in the enormous ESPN bar and took a table close to screen number two of the twelve on the video wall. Our table had a small LCD screen on it too, so we turned off the American football and tuned it into the Brazilian Grand Prix. Perfect.

Unfortunately, the waiting staff weren’t quite so happy with our seating arrangements. It turned out we were meant to have been seated by one of them, so we had therefore jumped a queue by just sitting down. This was rubbish, as there was no queue and several empty tables. Nevertheless, they actively ignored us until we almost literally waved in their faces. Eventually we were served, on the condition that we spend at least $10 per person per hour; this wasn’t a problem considering the price of the beer.

We watched Lewis Hamilton win the Formula 1 World Championship on the very last corner of the final lap of the final race of the season, cheering happily in a cavern full of oblivious NFL fans. On a high and with a couple of tall beers inside us we marched up 6th Avenue towards Central Park in order to see the New York Marathon. On the way, we successfully adapted the lyrics of almost every Broadway musical to be about the 2008 Presidential election. Some examples included “Obama Mia” and “Hakuna Obama”. The album will be out in time for Christmas.

We stood at the half-mile to go marker of the marathon and were appalled by the lack of excitement being exhibited by the crowd compared to the London marathon earlier in the year. We attempted to make up for this by cheering the names emblazoned on every running vest that crawled, limped and jogged past us. It roused a few smiles just in time for the bank of press cameras a few metres further along the course.

For the evening we found a southern-style BBQ house a couple of blocks from our hostel. For $22 they offered all-you-can-eat ribs and all-you-can-drink Bud Lite, with a time limit of two hours. It turns out this is made profitable due to an apparent allergy of the waiting staff to serving customers their ribs and their beer. Their incompetency, however, was ultimately to our advantage, as they failed to notice that only three of our party had ordered the all-you-can-drink, yet none of us ever seemed to have an empty glass…