Monthly Archives: September 2008

Victoria And The Elusive Moose

From Seattle we took the “high-speed katamaran service”, the Clipper, into Canada to stay with friends in Victoria, British Colombia. Actually, they’re closer to being family than friends, and we had the chance to take a break from the constant whirl of hotels-driving-traveling-flying and to enjoy some relax time. It was perfect.

This was my second visit to Canada and this time, just like the last time, I failed to see either a mountie or a moose. This was quite disappointing on my first visit, but now I have come to the conclusion that maybe neither of them actually exists — it’s all just a big joke invented with Canadian humour to keep the other people in the world guessing. Check the photos — they’re both smiling… clearly they know something we don’t. Oh yes….

A non-existent mountie

A non-existent mountie

A non-existent moose

A non-existent moose

We spent some really great days there and while Victoria is very tranquil place, there were still loads of cool things to see and do. The city is strikingly British. It has British gardens, old-English style houses and Union Jacks abound: it actually feels more English than England in lots of respects. It has majestic parks, greenery flows around and mountains rise up in the distance; it’s a beautiful place. More than just being pretty, it’s also very “livable”. It has lovely shops and restaurants all enclosed in the smart downtown area.

I really appreciate cities being “human”; that is, made to human proportions with buildings and infrastructure designed for people to use. Cities needn’t necessarily be small to achieve this; often small ones aren’t so human at all. I love places that have something of a center where you can walk around of a Sunday afternoon unassailed by roaring traffic. Or perhaps go out on Saturday night and have bars and pubs in one place, so if you want to change locale you don’t need a designated driver: you can walk! And Victoria is first and foremost, human.

Then of course there are the real humans. The quickest way to upset canadians is to mistake them for their United States neighbors (though probably this is also true vice-versa). They feel that Americans are overwhelming, always in a rush, preoccupied with being a superpower. Canadians are far too chill to even want to be a superpower. They are friendly, polite, low-key, have a very particular sense of humour and are just genuinely nice people. In Victoria people even say hello in the street! How old-school is that!?

They might not want to be a superpower but they do have their military jets which gave us a cool display over the Strait of Georgia. The Canadian Snowbirds did a 45 minute show as we watched from a seaside balcony on a glorious day. This wasn’t our only airplane experience; on our way back to Seattle we went on a seaplane! It was an awesome experience, taking off and landing on the water in a plane with only eight people on board, you could smell the airplane fuel, feel the tremors as the plane changed from flying low over the sea to cruising just above the trees when we went over land. I was a little apprehensive about it but it was eye-opening and a ton of fun. And we avoided the sickness you feel after the katamaran voyage, which was even better.

The Snowbirds spread their wings

The Snowbirds spread their wings

Picture of the sea from the wind-battered deck of the Clipper going from Seattle to Victoria

Picture of the sea from the wind-battered deck of the Clipper going from Seattle to Victoria

Our seaplane from Victoria to Seattle

The seaplane that took us from Victoria back to Seattle

The pilot of our plane as seen from my seat

The pilot of our plane as seen from my seat

The view from the airplane window as we approached Seattle

The view from the airplane window as we approached Seattle

And well, I’ve already said it, but I’ll say it again, to our hosts — thank you so much for everything, it was fantastic.

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Strange But Cool

If you think of Washington, typically your mind may flip to DC and its shining white monuments, but you should also remember the state of Washington and its biggest city, Seattle.

It occupies quite a strange place in my view of the States. It’s west coast, but you don’t really visit for the beaches; it’s a huge city, but you never hear so much about it. Probably the only thing I knew about Seattle before going there was that it was Seattle that started the grunge movement and Nirvana (and a host of similar groups) all came from this city in the North West.

Now, I have a lot of pressure on me about this post. I have some good friends in Seattle, and I know that if I say one thing they disagree with then my email box will be full of complaints. That’s not because they are precious (quite the contrary; natives of Seattle are notoriously laid-back) but they don’t want to be misrepresented.

While here we learned that if we don’t have the car then we need to be real close to the town center. We stayed in an area that, while it wasn’t a ghetto, was just one huge long road full with nothing except cheap motels, fast-food dives, and hookers. Just to get to the center cost us 25 dollars in a cab. We actually thought we were close to the center when we booked online — the hotel advertised itself as being in “Midtown”…. “well, ‘Midtown’ sounds kinda like ‘downtown’, doesn’t it? They must be close.” We thought. But no.

However, this is a place with many things to recommend it. Architecture, food, the country-living lifestyle, but most of all the people are the thing you come to see. On my first trip here (about a year ago) I heard somebody say, “that’s sooo Seattle!” But what the hell does that mean? Finding the answer became my mission.

When I asked people they mostly gave me elusive answers, but I’ll try to create a picture. A strange fact to begin with: this is one of the few places around where men frequently have beards. The percentage of men with beards is probably 40% higher than in any other major US city.

The city is probably quite rich (or at least well-off), though the residents choose not to show off their wealth. Everything is very down-to-Earth, and people are also quite “of the Earth”; they are very active in sports generally and the outdoor sports particularly: riding, climbing, cycling, jogging, hiking. Probably a natural consequence of the beautiful land within the reach of a short car drive; mountains, lakes, fields, forests… they have everything.

They are green and seem very liberal; they are open minded and accepting of others: others’ religion, tastes, styles, ways of thinking (they even put up with hordes of really crazy people who roam around the streets), but there is one ingredient to add to the mix. Libertarianism. You get the feeling that people in Seattle, while willing to engage politically, just want to be left alone to get on with their thing. They have their lives and want the government to leave them alone while they get live them. This creates a very middle-ground political situation where there is very little partisanism — in a sense, it is the most open-minded city I’ve been to so far. You could say that all Americans share the “small-state; big-freedom” ethos, but in other places this is tied to one or other political ideals, Democrats in New York don’t want a war, Republicans in Mississippi want less taxes. In Seattle it’s different. They have ideals, sure, but are far more open in terms of who they’ll vote for to represent those ideals. Seeming lefties will vote for the Republicans, and gun enthusiasts will vote for Obama. A real eclectic and individual mix.

I’ve tried hard to avoid talking about politics in this blog so far: it’s not what interests me about the states. It’s strange that a state which is so, not apolitical, but “political-agnostical” should bring me to write about it.

Other items of curiosity about Seattle: the original Starbucks — small and unlike what you’re used to with the chain, but cool; and directly across from there is the Pike Place Fish Market, which is famous for fish-throwing! You order a fish, the counter-clerk calls for the fish you want, another guy throws the fish through the air, where it’s caught and wrapped and given to you to take home. Strange, but cool. That’s Seattle.

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The Bronx Bombers Say Goodbye

Our Night At The Ballpark

Either it’s our own good fortune to be around at epoch-marking moments or else history is happening everywhere and at all times. Either way, we were in New York not only for the seventh anniversary of 9/11, but also for the final games at the Yankees’ old stadium.

Ever since I saw Field of Dreams (old Kevin Costner movie where a guy builds his own baseball field after hearing voices in his head — great film) it has been a dream to go see a game and we were lucky enough to arrive in New York at just the right moment: as we understood from the film, the magic that surrounds baseball has as much to do with the ground as what goes on inside of it.

Thanks to my friend Greg (lives in Connecticut, supports Yankees) we got tickets to see the game against the Chicago White Sox. We were in the bleachers (the “stands” in UK English) which made us part of the immortal, but oft-derided grouping, the Bleacher Creatures. Membership of this group meant we had to sing all the songs, rail against the decisions, and cheer and shout louder than anybody else — and, naturally, we did our best (Bleacher Creatures are also the ones that get into fights, but luckily we didn’t see any of that.)

For me it was a wonderful night. We had a hotdog, soaked up the atmosphere of the game, I learned how baseball works (it’s simple, but complex at the same time), the Yankees won, we felt the roar and emotion of the crowds, we sang the 7th-innings song, and we drove like crazy New Yorkers through the Bronx. I couldn’t have asked for more.

In Field of Dreams, James Earl Jones’ character says at the end, “Baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again”. Magic before our eyes.

 

A Field Of Dreams

We knew it was no ordinary ball game that we were watching that night — this was something special. The reason why had to do with the stadium. Yesterday they played the final game inside so now the mourning officially begins. One doesn’t need to be a baseball fan to be sorry about the Yankee Stadium’s end; read through the following and see.

1) The Greats Were Here

The Yankee Stadium was built in 1923, and in its 85 year history its walls have held the Yankees, John Philip Sousa, Joe Louis, Muhammed Ali, Pink Floyd, Nelson Mandela and JFK to name a few.

 

2) The Babe

 

George Herman Ruth Junior has been voted the greatest ball player of all time in more surveys than anyone can remember. He played for the Yankees from 1920 til 1935, during which time he reached his lifetime total of 714 home runs, a record that was not to be broken for 39 years, and he set various batting records that still have not been broken. On the day of its inauguration the Babe declared, “I’d give a year of my life if I can hit a home run in this first game in this new ball park”. And he did just that. After he hit that home run the stadium was known ever after as “the house that Ruth built”.

On August 16th, 1948 Babe Ruth died. He was 53 years old. His body was lain in the Yankee Stadium and in two days over 200,000 people had filed by to pay him their respects.

 

3) A Catalogue Of Firsts

In October 1965, Pope Paul VI said the first mass on US soil at the Yankee Stadium; it was the first three-tier stadium in the baseball league; it was the first stadium to use an electronic scoreboard; when the New York Giants American football team borrowed it in 1958 it was the first time ever that an NFL game went into sudden-death overtime — the match became known as “the greatest game ever”; in its construction it was the first time that a special cement (invented partly by Thomas Edison) was used. It was the scene of many a groundbreaking moment.

 

4) The Sam Rice Mystery

He didn’t play for the Yankees, but he often played in their stadium. In 1925, when playing against the Pittsburgh Pirates he jumped over a wall to make a catch. He disappeared and so did the ball, and then, after a couple of moments had passed, up he popped with the ball in his hand. No one could tell if he had actually caught the ball or not, but the catch was allowed to stand and the batter was out.

For the rest of his life Sam Rice wouldn’t tell anybody, not even his family, whether or not he had actually caught the ball. All he did was put the truth in a letter, to be opened upon his death. After 49 years, Rice died and the wait for the truth was over. In his letter he explained that he had caught the ball.

 

5) Mickey Mantle

He was no good boy, but Mickey Mantle, who still holds the record for longest ever home run (575 feet) was a hero. He played all his career in a Yankees shirt and during the various World Series tournaments he played in, he set six records which still stand today. The old stadium will remember him well.

An alcoholic and local boy from Oklahoma, he was given a rough ride by the press during his initial Yankees years; he was never consistent, and at one point was the highest-paid active player in the league. However, when he died in 1995, the Yankees played the rest of the season wearing black armbands and his number (seven) embossed on their shirt-sleeves. A hell of a turnaround by the man who said, “Am I a role-model? Sure: don’t be like me.”

 

6) The Fans

They’ve seen good times and bad times, but they always came. This stadium saw over four million fans a year enter its doors. Not all of them were bleacher creatures…. Ozzy Osbourne, Jack Nicholson, Meatloaf, Henry Kissinger, Bob Dylan and Denzel Washington are among the more famous of the Yankees fans.

 

7) Thurman Munsen’s Locker

He played with the Yankees for ten years and while doing so became the only Yankees player ever to win both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. He rose to be one of the most famous captains of the club. He famously sported the handlebar moustache which is actually at the limits of what Yankees players are allowed to wear (the Yankees are one of the only clubs that still enforce the decades-old “no long hair or beards” rules that all baseball clubs once subscribed to).

He was originally from Ohio and learned to pilot his own plane so he could return home to visit his family when not playing. Then, in 1979 when he was only 32 years old, his personal plane crashed during test flights and he was killed. His locker remains in the old stadium with just his number 15 shirt hanging inside. The number will never be worn by another Yankees player.

 

8) Joltin’ Joe

Joe DiMaggio played his whole career for the Yankees and became one of the world’s most famous sportsmen. He was selected for baseball’s All-Star game every season he played, and achieved a legendary 56-game hitting streak (where a player has to make a hit in every game he plays in). The boy who only started playing baseball to get out of poverty, and only stopped when injuries meant he couldn’t take a step without pain, was voted baseballs greatest living player in 1969.

He married Marilyn Monroe in 1954, but divorce came only 274 days later. Sombody said at the time, “a man can’t be a success in two pastimes”. But DiMaggio was never to remarry, and after Marilyn’s death he had red roses delivered to her grave, three times a week for twenty years.

After he died in 1999 the Yankee Stadium had a monument dedicated to him and the team wore little number fives, Joltin’ Joe’s number, on their uniforms for the rest of the season.

 

A Word Of Thanks

I could say so many thanks to so many people on this trip, and most of them I’ll make personally. But there is one I’d like to make: we had to leave so quickly the next day that I never really got the chance to do it before now. To Greg, my buddy who took us to the game and explained how it all worked, and his family who had us stay in there house and did a thousand small things to make us feel like kings, thank you very, very much.

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A New England

North And South

We came a long way these last days. No more for us the swamps of Georgia and the country guitars of Nashville; we have come to the historic foundations of this country: New England.

It’s known as the cradle of the nation, and it is true that the first clamorings of revolution were heard here, but it is not the war of independence which first grabs your attention as you move up here from the deep south but another war; the civil war.

The soldiers of the Confederacy were known as the rebels in that war and it’s striking how much sympathy the rebels still command down south even today. The state of Mississippi staunchly bears the stars and bars on its flag and in shops and boutiques — even at attractions which had nothing to do with the civil war — still stock figurines of rebel soldiers, belt buckles of the flag, and even replica costumes of the Confederacy. They have roads and places named after Confederate generals and even at sites run by the (national) Parks Association the civil war is presented as a war of equals, with no side really right or wrong. People don’t really talk about it with outsiders, but there are common assumptions shared by the locals about who really “should’ve won that war”.

Somewhat surprisingly, happily, this doesn’t seem to have too much to do with race. We haven’t seen any prejudiced opinions or displays of bigotry; instead we’ve seen lots of open-mindedness and understanding; hell, we’ve even seen black cowboys at rodeo events getting cheered by the crowds. I’d guess the hoisting of that rebel banner has more to do with local pride than anything — anti-government rather than anti-equality.

The Stars and Bars of the Confederate rebels

The Stars and Bars of the Confederate rebels

This view, however, doesn’t hold in New England. The yankees speak with disgust about those who waved the rebel flag and have a very clear idea in their mind about what it stands for. For New Englanders, the civil war and the independence war were fought (and won) by them for freedom. The passion with which they say that word should strike anyone to the core. As long as Boston stands, so shall Liberty.

 

Give Me Liberty Or Give Me Death

Boston is a supreme mix of the old and the new. It has beautifully conceived modern architecture, renovation, and — as it is surrounded by rivers and estuaries — curvatious bridges. It boasts Georgian, Federalist, Modern and Liberty styles and they all fit gracefully into a light and spacious city which seems made to measure for its inhabitants.

The best way to get to see all the most important sites is to take the Freedom Trail. It’s a two-mile walk (painted and paved in red) which takes you on the meandering path through Boston’s giddy history and puts you right in the middle of some of the nations most important heritage.

Now, not wanting to be typical tourists, we did the tour backwards. We started off with a walk around the USS Constitution, the US Navy’s oldest commissioned vessel afloat. The ship saw heavy battles in its day and is nicknamed “old ironsides”, an affectionate moniker due to its solidity in the face of repeated cannon attack.

We then crossed over a small iron bridge into town where we were led through winding streets, through a small graveyard with headstones dating back to the 1600s — final resting place of the sons of Liberty, and upto the Old North Church. This is where Paul Revere caused the famous lantern signal “one if by land; two if by sea” to be sent.

Revere, a wealthy craftsman, was involved in revolutionary activities along with such heroes as John Hancock and Sam Adams. He was chosen as a messenger to bring the news of the British army’s movements as an attack on the towns of Concord and Lexington was anticpated. On discovering that the British were coming across the river, he rode all through the night from Charleston to Lexington to inform fellow patriots while two lanterns hung from that church steeple. It was only after his death that his role in the revolution was fully appreciated, but now his name is synonymous with the fight for freedom.

 

We went past Paul Revere’s house and then to the Fanueil Hall, where Sam Adams spoke in the upstairs meeting place and roused the temper of the Bostonian people in the days leading upto the Boston Tea Party.

You could really feel the history on your skin, and it didn’t take much effort to imagine yourself there in those days as the rallying cries of Freedom were raised and Tom Paine was publishing Common Sense.

 

How Pure?

After Boston, we continued up the coast to a town with a much darker history: Salem. It may have been home to such splendid writers as Nathanial Hawthorne, and to adventurous pirates (we actually visited the pirate museum), but it is famous for its killing of “witches”.

Despite the name being loaded with the more malign kind of fame associated with Stephen King books, the place is actually one of the most picturesque towns you could hope to find. Settled on the harbor with cosy cottages and white-picket fencing it is a wonderful place to spend a day or so. I believe that this apparent tranquility and feeling of safety is what gives an extra twist to the tales of horror associated with this place: it seems safe and friendly, but even in the midst of such idealistic beauty, terror can lurk…. It sounds like the narration at the start of a Nightmare on Elm Street flick.

But it was here that, between February 1692 and May 1693, over 150 people were tried for witchcraft, 19 of them (14 women and five men) were hung for the offense. The Puritans who founded the village (ironically, to escape persecution in their native Europe) held that the church should be the final arbiter in the administering of justice (including the death penalty) and given the hard socio-economic climate of the times, scapegoats were sought and the mystical was soon brought into the judicial realm. Rumours about certain people’s behavior soon led to hysteria and witch-hunting.

Anyone who was a little different or strange, especially old women, those who shied away from society or those who were involved in unusual activities such as practising homeopathy were immediately subject to accusations, and also anyone who had upset a more upstanding member of society could meet with suspicion. The tests used to establish someone’s guilt included the accused having to touch their accusers (and then seeing if the accusers had any strange effects, fits, tremors, etc.); and “spectral evidence” where all an accuser had to do was to claim to “see” ghostly images of the person they were accusing. If someone had a grudge against you it was very bad news indeed in those bleak times.

It was so long ago that the tragedy loses some of its power, yet memorials stand to this day in rememberance of those unfairly killed.

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Real Cowboy Style

This post belongs further back in the scheme of things, somewhere in between Nashville and Chattanooga actually, but I’ve only just got the photos developed, so it’s going here.

A phone conversation.

Woman: Hello, Juro Stables…

Me: Hi, I was wondering whether my brother and I could come on out and go riding?

Woman: Well, sure, are you country boys?

Me: Yes ma’am!

Woman: So, what level do y’all ride at?

Me: Well, y’see… it’s been a while now… I erm.. well.. let’s just say beginner?

Woman: Right. I understand.

Moral of the story? Don’t ever say you’re a “country boy” in Nashville unless you really are a country boy. Living near the countryside or having trees near your house doesn’t count. In Nashville, country boys can ride horses.

We went out there, parked, discovered we’d forgotten the camera, drove at light speed to the nearest store, bought camera, returned, got saddled up. A hectic start, but it was the start of an unforgettable experience.

Our guide was Brandon: he really is a cowboy. He trains horses for a living, has the cowboy walk, and rides rodeo: real buckaroo, bareback bull-riding rodeo. He was awesome. The guides here don’t get paid — they’re volunteers, so you are expected, as they say at Juro Stables, “to kiss your horse and tip your guide”. We did both.

It was like going back in time to when the horse was the central point of commerce and travel for the world. We were out in the forests and plains of Tennessee, not a road or a car in sight, but just pure, unadulterated nature. The air tasted different, the colors were brighter, and we were at one with horses, and there’s nothing like getting on a horse to rekindle your respect for nature’s creations. As we tromped around, Brandon told us all about what the horses were used for in working situations: there are trail horses for basic riding an’ roping; ranch horses, trained to pull uncooperative cattle onto the right paths; cutting horses which act like sheepdogs do — splitting herds of cows into groups, then making sure each group stays separate from the others — and the horses can do all this by themselves (once properly trained). It was hugely eye-opening.

After our first stage of walking along the trail we approached a clearing. “All right! Now how’s about going a little faster?!” said Brandon. Nick looked at me. I looked at Nick. We nervously assented. Brandon continued, “Just make a kissing sound and give her a good kick in the sides — don’t worry for her, she’s over 1100 pounds — you won’t hurt her.” To be honest I was more worried about me getting hurt than my horse (Stella), but I kept that to myself.

Apparently you don’t say “Giddy-up!” — a kissing sound will do it, though this may depend on who trained the horse. I always figured it would be funny to train the horse to run when someone yells “stop” and to stop when someone yells “run!”… so it’s probably lucky I’m not a horse trainer.

And they can go fast. At least it seems fast when you’re up on top. I was bouncing around like a cartoon cowboy — I couldn’t walk properly for two days afterwards. But then we learned how to ride even when the horse is going fast and not to hop around in the saddle: it’s to do with your legs. Holding on for dear life with your hands doesn’t work.

In all it was a really wonderful day. Out in wild nature, miles from modernity we felt free in every sense. We followed a rugged trail over hills, through valleys, across streams; the wind was blowing cool, but everything was brightened by a warm September sun; I’d say it was one of the best experiences in my life. Brandon was great, knowledgeable and friendly and he pointed out some local relics as we went through the wooded dales. We saw a real, 1890s moonshine keg (moonshine, for those not in the know, is illegal/homemade liquor — not so good to drink, but fine if there’s nothing else available) and the remains of an old stone fireplace built by a hermit who was trying to keep out of the civil war circa 1863. So we had history, nature, freedom and real animal contact all in the same wondrous moment. It was perfect.

Now. Being a real Nashville cowboy, Brandon also plays guitar — country music of course. He’s starting to get some success in a difficult field, and he’s on youtube with his song entitled, appropriately enough, “Rodeo Cowboy”. Check him out!

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It’s Fun To Stay At The…

Every so often I’ll “do a Steinbeck” and report back on things we have seen over the course of our journey which, while maybe not meriting an entry of their own, build up after repeated occurence to a story worth telling.

And so it is with hotels. (Well, when I say “hotel” you must read “hotel/motel/B&B”.)

Right now we are back in Asbury Park, home of Springsteen (and, as I discovered tonight, Bon Jovi… though I shan’t be writing about him) and we have have found the lovliest hotel yet. It was a dream to walk into, but more on that later. We came back here to go to a couple of concerts as we’ve only been to one or two live gigs since we’ve been on the road and I wanted to rectify that.

Here I will talk about our interesting hotel experiences.

Our first experience involved Roaches.

Oooh! Gross! yes, I know. Imagine him crawling around your room in the dead of night: not cool.

We experienced this in Washington DC. Old hotel, family owned, still used keys for the doors rather than electronic key cards. Small, but still not a bad place. We’d just got in and were sat down, relaxing a little after our flight in from Memphis. Suddenly Nick said, “hey. We’ve got company,” I looked and sure enough, a two-inch roach was crawling up the wall. I crunched him with Nick’s shoe. Nick wasn’t very happy about me using his shoe, but I had no choice: cowboy boots are difficult to use in the fight against cockroaches.

I went to reception and (very delicately) explained to them the problem and asked for a ten % discount. They acquiesed.

The next day, we found a second cockroach. He was smaller, but still disgusting enough. I killed him too (with Nick’s shoe) and went downstairs to get another discount. They weren’t very happy about giving it to me: in the end they gave me another ten % off only because I threatened to “make a scene” right there in reception in front of the other guests (but I don’t suppose I’ll be welcome there anymore — which is a pity. Apart from the roaches it wasn’t a bad place). 

This led me to the development of “Matt’s Sliding Scale For Roach Infestation”. It’s simple. For every roach I find, I want an extra ten % off the total stay at the hotel. You should remember this formula. Hotels hate it, but just say the word “ROACH!” in the lobby, and see how quick they’ll give you money off. You heard it here first.

 

Our second experience involved bedbugs.

This was in Memphis. All I can say is, never stay at the Red Roof Inn chain of motels. Luckily, Nick didn’t have many bites, but they were still pretty disgusting to have to wash off in the morning. Furthermore, the door had clearly been broken in to quite recently and the door frame showed many fresh signs of a struggle involving forced entry. Not good. It was here that the sirens didn’t stop sounding night or day. We were fine, but not happy….

 

Our third experience has to do with “non-smoking” rooms.

Now, smoking is bad. Kids, don’t do it; just say no. But in hotel rooms? No smoking? What the hell!? Already I can’t smoke in almost any bar here and we haven’t even got to California yet. But, there is a solution for the hotel rooms; inexpensive and worry-free!

Normally hotels enforce the non-smoking rule with smoke-detectors. But they are easily disabled. Take a piece of bandage tape (preferably one your mom has packed for you so you’ll be safe on the trip), put a bit of plastic in the middle, and just tape it over the hole in the smoke detector. Then, just to be safe, run the tape around the side of the detector so nothing can get in, and stick a damp towel at the bottom of your door so no smoke smells can get out into the hallway. If you get a room-deordorizer and dispose of the cigarette-butt-evidence, you’re a free person! Woohoo! 

The only problem would then be that if there is a fire (and smokers are statistically much more likely to cause one than non-indulgers) then you’re screwed. Don’t smoke in bed kids. Nobody mention “post-coital”… just remember that smoke alarms are another ruling-class tool to destroy the soul of the workers. Or something….

 

Our fourth experience involves drag queens.

This picture was taken in the bar/club belonging to our current hotel, the Empress in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Now, this hotel is quite famous for being part of the Springsteen legend. Have a look at this shot of Springsteen in 1984 with the Empress hotel in the background:

Springsteen in 1984 with the Empress hotel in the background
 
then below, see the same shot of the hotel, but from today. Not much has changed recently….

The same shot featuring the Empress, but nowadays
  
I only chose the hotel for its Springsteen fame and its proximity to the clubs where Bruce started out. We had no idea it was New Jersey’s only gay hotel. Springsteen has no gay connection so I guess it was just a concidence, but of all the hotels we could stay in….
 
It is a beautiful hotel. It has 1970s pinball machines in the lobby and velvet duvet covers on the beds. I even negotiated a special price for our three-day stay here. All great.
 
When we got here and saw the signs that “FRIDAY night is DRAG-QUEEN night!!!” I thought simply, “oh, cool. This hotel is quite liberal-minded”. Then, when we went to the hotel bar and two gay guys, Jay and Steve, started hitting on us so badly that it was a little disturbing, I understood the nature of the hotel. Luckily, they thought Nick was cuter than me…. It was a pretty funny experience and the drag show was, I am told, the best in the state. Awesome.
 
Now, I’m a liberal, so all this is cool, really. We only left the bar when Steve pulled out all his money and said, “I’m gonna get you guys drunk!” We knew then that it was time to go.
 

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A Time To Remember

The Journey Is Part Of The Destination

It didn’t take long to drive up from Asbury Park to Jersey City — one of New Jersey’s biggest towns, and just across the water from Manhattan. We were on our way to New York City. I’d only ever been to the airport before, so my imagination was wild with ideas about what NYC would be like in reality. This can be a risk of course. I actually ruined Paris for myself by going there just after I’d read Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and my expectations had been built so high by the dreams of bohemian Montemarte synergies that the reality of it just passed me by as I searched for something which no longer existed.

My idea now is to go back to Paris and live it with an open mind, but for New York, I was determined to get it right the first time. This was never going to be too difficult: as we drove into Jersey City, the Manhattan skyline was every bit as glorious as you could imagine, peering back at you over a horizon which had been just trees and marshlands before; surprising and captivating.

We planned to stay in Jersey City while we visited New York; it’s only ten minutes by PATH train to Manhattan and it was about a quarter of the price of New York hotels. Even the cheap ones cost about 400 dollars a night because our visit coincided with the seventh anniversary of 9/11. This was unintentional actually, but when we realized it we were quite happy for the chance to see the memorial services.

Now, from my experience here I’ve got a few tips for those who would visit NYC themselves.

1) Don’t call it the “Big Apple”. Nobody, apart from the marketing guys, calls NYC “the Big Apple”. The name stems from the fact that the city’s official fruit is the apple. (Why they felt the need for an official fruit, I’ll never know.) Just call it NYC, or New York City.

2) People aren’t being rude to you. Nick was a little taken aback by the brusqueness with which our waitress in our first restaurant showed us to the table. And she was quite abrupt with us, but this isn’t done out of malice. New York is so crazy and chaotic and there are so many people crammed into such a small space (just 23 square miles) that the “how are you today, sir” and “can I help you in any way” of other cities would feel like an unwarranted intrusion into one’s personal space here. The people will go out of their way to help you if you ask, but you have to ask first. And that’s fine. The anonymity and space which you are left with are actually quite refreshing.

3) Don’t dither. With so many people moving around to where they have to be in such a crowded place, directness and synthesis are at a premium. If you’re at the front of a queue and umm and ahh before making your choice, the people behind you (and those serving you) get pretty upset pretty quickly.

When I first heard this, I started to try to do everything really fast: walking, moving, deciding, speaking; but this isn’t necessary. You can walk slowly if you wish — the important thing is to know where you are moving before you start moving. You can’t hesitate. You can tell which people are tourists very easily in NYC just by the way they walk. They’ll get to the street crossing and stand in the middle of the path, looking around trying to decide where to head next. For New Yorkers, there is nothing more annoying. “If ya need time to decide where ya wanna go, get outta the sidewalk!” they’ll say….

So, following our newly garnered information, we went happily around New York City. It was fantastic. Unreal. It’s like everything you see in the movies and more. There is a constant buzz of energy, people are flying all around you, there is a strong sense of “togetherness” about this city and it feels very safe compared to others we’ve been in. The buildings rise up to black out the sky, but you never feel intimidated by them… despite their hugeness they don’t feel impersonal.

To sample the height of them, we decided to go up the Empire State Building. And though the ESB has dropped a few places in the world’s tallest building ranks, it is still impressive and the views are spectacular.

In the next one you can even make out the slight silhoette of the Statue of Liberty: it’s smaller than you think!

Just one more curiosity from New York City: the Charging Bull. It’s a huge (7000 lb) and almost cartoonlike sculpture which sits in the financial district near Wall Street. It was made by artist Arturo di Modica in 1989, and he gave it to the city as a gift — leaving it in front of the New York Stock Exchange as a Christmas present that year. Now it sits just around the corner from there where it has been for almost 20 years, becoming in that time a symbol of those bull markets NYC knows (or knew) so much about. The thing is, as the city never commisioned it, it is still designated as a “temporary installation”.

 

9/11 – Seventh Anniversary

It was just by chance that we ended up here on this day, seven years after those infamous attacks. Really, it has all been heartwrenching. We tend to become numb to these things and to consider them far away as we live in Europe, and seeing New York carry on with business, it’s easy to forget that this is a very open wound here in NYC. In every sense really; Ground Zero, where the towers once stood, is still a building site and we heard first hand from New Yorkers who were pretty angry with how slow the memorial building is taking to build. Ground Zero looks the same as it did a year ago and New York deserves more.

The scenes today were very powerful. We switched on the TV in the morning and it was playing the same schedule that it did in 2001. The programs interrupted by the breaking news, and then the ensuing confusion, chaos, and loss of life which everybody was watching the day that “time stopped”.

On the streets there was a predictably massive police presence, bolstered by soldiers wherever protests were being held. People were protesting the treatment of the survivors; the Bush government’s perceived culcability; the lack of building progress at Ground Zero — everything. Police bands played, people gathered, the death toll was read, every flag in the city was at half mast — accepting a lower position so as to give space above to the invisible flag of the dead — Senators Obama and McCain both stopped by to visit, but we were unable to see either of them. The people of New York City were very kind in accepting us into their mourning, and wherever you stand politically you can’t help but feel tears building up inside when you feel the force of what happened here seven years ago. During the evening, from Ground Zero two solid beams of light were shot out into the night sky overhead: symbols of the hope, defiance, and love that the city will hold in its heart forever as of that day, September 11th, 2001.

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