Friday, 20 June 2014

New York: The Journey

They've let me out of the country again.

I've just come back from New York. That's New York, New York. So good they named it twice. Either that or just because actually, like most things American, it just likes to shout about itself to you repeatedly until you bloody well listen. In any case and as we all know, I can't go to the paper shop next to the chippy without some kind of incident, so send me 3,000 miles across the Atlantic and you are guaranteed a story. What follows is as faithful an account of that story, the trouble, stupidity and the joy and wonder of it all as I can remember. Though I do have notes, obviously.

Inspired by Emma's prolific ability to Get Things Done I am something of a frequent flyer by now. I travelled a lot when I played basketball but now I'm actually opening my eyes and seeing the world. Rather than hotels and sports halls. Also, I'm sharing it with someone I love and choose to be with, rather than with a group of athletic types who all think I'm a loser and laugh out loud when I speak at team meetings. Enough of that. Let me get off the psychiatrists couch and get back to the point of this paragraph which is that having travelled a lot I have come to realise that one of the few things I dislike about holidaying are the unreasonably early starts. You all know how it is I'm sure. Your flight is at 10.00am say, but you are advised to get there three hours before that. Since the nearest airport that offers access to anywhere further away than Luton is in Manchester you have to get up a couple of hours before that if you are travelling there on the morning of the flight. Our flight to New York is at 9.50am on Saturday June 7 2014 so we take the decision to stay in one of the hotels near to the airport on Friday night. It's expensive but you can't take it with you and besides, that extra hour or two in bed and the opportunity to have some breakfast might be helpful before a seven-hour flight. Particularly with my experience of airports and airlines. Again, they don't let me down. Well they do, but you know what I mean.

The Crown Plaza isn't the monstrous skyscraper I had anticipated but it serves its purpose. Except that there is no disabled parking available when we get there on Friday afternoon. There are a few spaces, around eight, but of course they have all been taken already by a mixture of fat people and dyslexics. Luckily I am now well versed in the art of getting out of my car and into my wheelchair in a space no bigger than an aeroplane toilet (much more on which later) without scratching the Rolls Royce made entirely out of gold parked next to me. Once settled in we naturally head straight to the bar and the rest of the day passes without incident. It's enjoyable even. Even I would struggle to fail to enjoy an afternoon in a bar in the knowledge that I have 10 days in the Big Apple to look forward to. Were it possible, I might even get excited.

On our way back to the room I am stopped by a man I am struggling to recognise.

"Fancy seeing you here." he says cheerfully.

Fancy. I don't remember this man. This happens a lot. I've explained before how using a wheelchair makes you instantly recognisable, and if it doesn't then it at the very least makes people think they recognise you. There are people out there who think I wrote A Brief History Of Time. I use a wheelchair so it must have been me.

"Where are you flying to?" the man asks, unfazed by my discomfort and my yes-I-absolutely-know-who-you-are act. It's impossibly rude and embarrassing to ask someone who they are so I fake it with all I have. It might be my fault anyway. There's every chance that I do know him but I just cannot bring him to mind. Even now, two weeks later as I write, I have no idea;

"New York." I answer.

He smiles at this and enthusiastically advises me that I must see the naked cowboy who hangs around Times Square. We're staying in Times Square so there is a fair chance that the naked cowboy and I will run into each other. I don't fancy it. I wish I had known about this earlier. , I could have prepared at least. Perhaps gouged my eyes out. Perhaps not. I need another disability like the BBC need another panel show. My unrecognised friend goes on to tell me how he is about to visit Venice, and I mumble something about how I went there once and it was full of steps which my dad had to carry me up despite the fact that I was 11 years old. Why does everything come down to access with me? Oh yes, because there isn't any. There was even less than none in 1987. I haven't been back to Venice.

Things start well on Saturday morning. We are awoken at a more civilised 6.00am and enjoy a proper breakfast. The plan is to get the free bus from the hotel to the airport terminal and, after being told on Friday night that we might have to get a taxi we learn that the bus is accessible after all. The driver tells me this with great pride, as if he's telling me that he's just found out how to eradicate disease across the world. He hasn't, of course. He's come up with two metal planks that pass for a ramp. Somehow they get me on to the back of the mini bus and we're on our way.

We'd had some trouble checking in online yesterday, a fact we explain to the American Airlines staff when we arrive. They're very helpful. They check us in quickly, bumping us past the growing queue of tired children and their disinterested parents. They're falling over each other to help, asking if there is anything else they can do for us. If I had known then what I know now I would have written them a list. Before we are allowed to advance to the departure lounge and the next bar they ask the obligatory stupid security questions. Are you carrying any sharp objects? Any fireworks? A large bomb perhaps? A nuclear device? Even more pointlessly they take our word for it when we tell them that we are not carrying anything dangerous on to the plane and I am left wondering what the point of all that was. Is anyone going to say that yes they are carrying a set of knives and a detonating ruck sack on board?

Boarding the plane carries with it the usual embarrassment attached to being dragged backwards on an aisle chair but thankfully there is no repeat of last year's Rio Ferdinand episode. They have let me board the plane first for once which seems like the sensible and therefore least likely thing they could have done. However, I am alarmed by the size of this plane. When we went to Orlando and Las Vegas the planes were three times the size of this one. Essentially what I am now sat on is a flying 10A. I would not be at all surprised if it stopped at Dovecot. I'm in the middle of a row of three seats with Emma to my left nearest the window. To my right is a young man who seems to know some of the airline staff. He's talking to them quite matter-of-factly, not in that forced, awkward way that people who don't know each other ordinarily communicate. He has an ipad and throughout the flight he uses it to play some kind of inane war game. Every time I glance over he is pushing buttons in an attempt to virtually invade Poland. I have absolutely no room to move and I'm going to pay for it at some point.

The in-flight movie is The Monuments Men, a would-be comedy set during the second world war about stolen paintings or some such. It stars Matt Damon and Bill Murray and I remember seeing them promoting it on the Graham Norton Show a few weeks ago. Sadly, there were more laughs in that 10-minute interview than there are in the whole of the film. Perhaps it is not supposed to be funny. It is set during the second world war after all. If that is the case though, why does it have Bill Murray in it? For a character that dull they would have been better off casting Roy Hodgson or Andy Murray. My war-loving neighbour is not impressed. He never once looks up from his war game, let alone go to the trouble of putting on the headset. He likes his war a little more realistic, obviously.

Going to the toilet would not make the cut in a holiday story for most people. But the disabled are not most people. When the film finishes I have to go through the rigmarole. This is a seven-hour flight and people who go the toilet by the clock cannot just jump around in their seat with their hand between their legs in the manner of a small child when they need a wee. I put my attention light on reluctantly, feeling like the kid in class sticking up his hand and asking Miss if he can go to the toilet. My discomfort is only going to get worse from here. The stewards bring the aisle chair and after the mandatory backwards drag down the aisle they place me outside the toilet. I wait for them to push me into the toilet but they never do. I realise that they're somehow expecting me to stand up at this point and walk in to the toilet. I have to explain that the chances of that happening in this life aren't good to which they respond by wearily setting about the task of pushing the aisle chair into the minute crevice that qualifies for a door way. This is when we all realise.

The aisle chair does not fit into the toilet.

At first they try and force it in there anyway but it's not happening. Whichever angle they turn the aisle chair, however hard they push it, however many times they sigh and ask me again if I can stand, it's not going in. I'm going to wet myself, so I decide that a slightly better option is to ask if they have anything that I can pee in. I've peed in a pint glass before now which you may not want to think about if you are going to the pub this evening and you spot a wheelchair user who does not have the luxury of an accessible toilet. It's ugly but it is the only way I can see this working. I'm about three feet away from the actual toilet bowl and guess what ladies, it doesn't stretch that far. I know, I was as surprised as you are. I need a bottle, a glass, a fucking empty coke can, anything to pee in except my pants. But they don't have anything. In fact they look at me as if that suggestion is a good deal worse than the prospect of peeing in my pants. They would. They're not wearing my pants.

They take the door off the toilet.

I'm not kidding. They have to unscrew it in several different places which takes a while, but eventually they just pull the bloody thing down. I am so relieved that I don't really think about the fact that I now have no privacy in this desperate, door-less dunny. There are two people waiting to use the toilet behind me, one of whom is of course female. But I ignore all of this and go about my business. It's become an emergency. Mid-pee it dawns on me that the stewards are standing behind me with a curtain to protect my modesty. My dignity has flown away so fast that it will be in New York before me. When it is all over the drag back to my seat seems tame by comparison. I thank the stewards for their ingenuity, hopefully without a trace of sarcasm, and hastily stick my head into my kindle.

An hour before we land my pain becomes physical. The tiny seat I have has played havoc with my posture and the right side of my back has stiffened up considerably. By the time we land I am just desperate for the war-game man to stand up and just get off the plane so I can at least stretch the muscle out. Inside the terminal at JFK airport I pay another bathroom visit, keeping the door where it is this time, and I have to sit on the floor for several minutes to alleviate the pain. We try to pass through immigration but are dragged back because American Airlines have not advised us that we needed to fill in one of the blue forms. The ones which ask whether you have brought any fruit into the country. The last thing the Americans want is to run the risk of foreigners bringing their exploding apples into the USA. There's further confusion about the flight number because there is one for BA who are running the show and one for American Airlines who have provided the flying 10A. A staff member insists that we use the American Airlines number and only then can we finally progress to pick up our luggage. By this time I have never felt pain like it in my back. I'm literally writhing around in my chair, chucking down painkillers like polos. I think a nerve is trapped and I'm not sure it will free itself in time for us to enjoy our first afternoon and evening in New York.

Which would be a real shame because it has been such fun so far.

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