Rain. And lots of it. It's absolutely bitching down in New York on Monday morning. Call me Steve Naive (actually, don't, we know my feelings on Steve) but I had not considered this possibility until now. As far as I was concerned I was off on my holidays and that automatically meant sunshine. The reality is that not all of America is sun-soaked all of the time.
It's reached biblical proportions by the time we head downstairs for breakfast. Did I mention we are on the 11th floor? It's not a problem as long as the lifts are working but I notice as we pass through the lobby on the ground floor that one of the three has been shut down for what they call 'important maintenance'. This probably means that it's broken but I don't want to think about that for now. There are still two more that are working but it wouldn't be the first time I have been left stranded in the upper reaches of a tall building with no way to get downstairs other than an undignified shuffling descent on my backside.
There's a restaurant attached to the hotel called Pigalle, so we head there. What we know now but didn't know then is that you can get to Pigalle without actually having to bother to go outdoors. There is a door just behind the concierge's desk which leads straight to the upper level. And it has low tables. Only if you're eating, naturally. Why else would you want a low table eh? Unaware of this secret passage we dash around stupidly in the bouncing rain. More soaked than you would imagine it is possible to be having been outside for all of 20 seconds we then have to queue to be seated. Of course Americans don't queue, they get in line. The word queue seems to be totally absent from their vocabularies like pavement, lift and cinema. The queue (line?) begins at the top of the steps to the upper level. Emma joins it and I wait on the lower level before blatantly pushing in alongside her when she reaches me. Considering the queue it doesn't take very long to be seated. It takes far longer to get any service. A man offers us tea and then disappears for at least 15 minutes. In the end we have to remind him and he's all gestures and apologies but it is still a few more minutes before the tea turns up. It arrives just before I reprise Stephen Fry's Duke of Wellington role in Blackadder The Third, slapping him about the head and shouting 'TEA!!!' repeatedly.
We plan to visit the American Museum Of Natural History but there is no way we are going to be able to do so under our own steam in this weather. The forecast for the next couple of days is pretty grim so there seems to be no mileage in putting it off until later. We need a cab. I was told last night that if I want to book an accessible cab then I need to give two hours notice. Two hours. It's barely credible when you consider what else you can do in two hours. You can drive from St.Helens to Nottingham in two hours. You can fly from Manchester to Paris in two hours. You can watch an entire football match and even sit through Alan Shearer's analysis at half-time and at the end. You can watch around two and three quarter episodes of Breaking Bad. You can get drunk enough to attempt to climb the stairs at Crystals nightclub. You can even write an entry in Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard from start to finish, provided you have some decent notes and you are not drunk enough to attempt to climb the stairs at Crystals nightclub or you haven't been plunged into a coma listening to Alan Shearer's half-time analysis.
Fortunately I am able to transfer from my wheelchair into a car seat. So I'll be able to get into a standard taxi cab. Anyone who has mobility problems severe enough to prevent them from transferring had better prepare themselves for a wait if they want to get anywhere in the rain in New York. It's unfathomable to me how it takes so long to arrange an accessible cab for those who need it. Do they have to build it from scratch before they can send it? It's more likely that they need that long to find a driver who is willing to assist a wheelchair user into the accessible cab. It is well documented on these pages the trouble I have had in the past with taxi drivers driving past me and, on occasion, doing me the courtesy of stopping only to shout "I don't do 'em" out of the window before driving on again. Once, on a night out in Leeds, I had to push back to where I was staying because the taxi drivers wouldn't even look at me. It rained that night too, as I recall.
The quickest way to get a taxi in New York is to hail one the old fashioned way. That is to stand around somewhere on the street waving your arms around desperately. Fortunately we don't have to do this for ourselves. The hotel's bellmen will do it for us. One of them stands gamely under his umbrella waving at every taxi driver he sees. He must be desperate, but he's good at not showing it. There's a bit of a queue developing but at least the hotel entrance is sheltered. Several drivers stop to talk to the bellman and then drive on, clearly unsatisfied with where the prospective customer wants to go. Wait till I get to the front of the queue. Till they get a load of me. A wheelchair, you say? Shit. In the end it's quite painless. A man driving a hatchback pulls over, has a quick word with the bellman who then ushers us over with a nod. A cool, calm, I'm-not-bothered-that-I'm-getting-soaked nod. The chair fits into the back of the car without having to remove the wheels which is handy. There's nothing more undignified than the sight of a taxi driver trying to work out how to use quick release wheels. Well, an aeroplane toilet, maybe.
New York taxi drivers appear not to have The Knowledge. Our man doesn't know where the accessible entrance to the museum is located and, being tourists, neither do we. We saw a sign yesterday suggesting that it was on 81st Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. Having reached 81st we reckon we can find it for ourselves so we ask him to just drop us off anywhere he can. He obliges, and inevitably the next ten minutes are spent trying to find the accessible entrance. The front entrance is all steps and banners but eventually we get our bearings. Not before we change direction and go back on ourselves at least twice.
As we enter the museum we are told a lie. The lady pointing us to the ticket booth informs us that there is no admission fee, only a donation at your own discretion. They recommend that you 'donate' $22. Recommendation is rife in America. Every time you sit down for a meal you can expect to receive a recommendation for how much you should leave as a tip. Usually they recommend around 18%. Eighteen percent of bloody expensive is a lot, you know. Back at the museum we learn that their recommendation is based on you only walking around the museum and not partaking in any of the shows or presentations on offer. Today there are six shows or presentations running at the American Museum of Natural History and if we want a ticket that gets us into any or all of these then it will be $35. The woman at the desk advises us that the shows can be up to an hour each so we might not have time to do them all. It is currently around 11.15am and the museum closes at 5.45pm. What we can do is buy a ticket for two or three now and then just get it stamped upstairs by another member of staff if we decide to do any more. It won't cost any more for this 'upgrade' because even two or three is going to cost $35. We should book all six now but we trust her judgement, believing that it will be easy to upgrade and get into any extras. It isn't.
Our first show is at 12.30, about 75 minutes from now. You have to be booked into a specific time slot for the shows but this still gives us over an hour to potter around before the first one, an IMAX cinema film about something or other. Something natural or historical, no doubt. And American. Until then we wander around the exhibits which are closest to us which consist of a lot of stuffed animals as far as I can see. There's mooses, brown bears, black bears, wolves, several types of deer, and many other types of wild animal associated with cold, grim parts of the USA. There's oodles of information about each so you can't really fail to learn something. What you get out of it depends very much on how impressed you are at the sight of large stuffed animals and how much you want to know about what they get up to in their spare time. Personally I prefer them alive as they would be in a zoo but then again you wouldn't be able to get this close if any of this lot were alive. The bears look like they are having a particularly violent mood swing.
Next up it is the 3D IMAX presentation, a diverting if not mind-blowing film about stuff we don't see. Either because it is too fast or because it is too slow. Time lapse photography providing the viewer with the ability to watch a flower grow is, I'm sure, a wonderous technological achievement but it is nothing you haven't seen before on your television. In fact, if this were a nature programme on BBC2 you would probably turn it over for The One Show. But in 3D on an IMAX screen it gets your attention well enough. There's a couple of particularly nasty moments to look out for if you are the type to suffer from irrational fears. You might not enjoy the snake jumping out at you with his mouth open or the owl swooping down towards you with a look in his eyes that suggests he might just have mistaken you for a small rodent.
What we really want is dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and large sea creatures. I'm making this sound like some kind of jurassic zoo and sea life centre. It's a bloody museum. Our next show is at 2.30 but we have decided that we want to add another one to our ticket. The planetarium is showing 'Dark Universe', a film which promises an insight into recent discoveries made about the universe and the work going on to find out more about what's out there. Human endeavour is brilliant, which makes it even more puzzling that it apparently cannot equip an aeroplane with a wide enough toilet or arrange for an accessible cab in less than two hours. Human endeavour is rubbish. We find a staff member and explain what we were told at the ticket office about getting our tickets stamped. But the man in charge is currently dealing with everyone trying to get into the next screening at 1.30. When he gets a minute he acts like he doesn't know what his colleague is talking about, but advises us to come back when it is quieter and he will let us in. Which we do, and he doesn't let us in. In all it takes three or four attempts get the tickets upgraded, a feat we achieve just in time to see the 4.00 screening. Which is the last of the day. We like to cut things fine.
We're not helped by the situation with the lifts. Just like nobody walks anywhere in America, nobody takes the stairs either. Obviously not. How can you climb stairs if you don't walk? Unless you're drunk at Crystals. Every time we attempt to get into a lift we find ourselves at the back of a huge queue of people with varying degrees of need for the use of a lift. Although in fairness there are a lot of prams and a liberal smattering of screaming children. Some of these families would be a serious safety hazard if they attempted to get up the stairs.
Before the planetarium we take in the sights of the dinosaurs and the huge sea creatures. In many ways they defy description. In one room there is a massive model of a blue whale and not much space for anything else. Something is going on downstairs and it's closed to the public so we move around the upper deck, around the huge blue whale which is suspended from the ceiling but still utterly dominates the scene. It's majestic.
Not so impressive is the second of our special presentations. Expecting a film, video or guided presentation of some sort we are instead led into a room housing an exhibition about the pterosaurus, a flying dinosaur. A security man welcomes every single visitor with the same message, instructing them to leave the room at the exit at the back of the hall. I'm trying to inform myself on what the bloody hell pterosaurus might be and he's all I can hear, saying the same thing over and over again. If only the whopping great pterosaurus model that dominates the room blue whale-like would spring to life and fly off with him in his mouth. Pterosaurus was 16 metres tall and bad tempered, I learn. In another part of the exhibition there are children playing on a Pterosaurus flight simulator. It's like that round on the Krypton Factor when the contestants had to try and land the plane. Many Pterosauruses end up in the drink or crashing into a nearby mountain. And that's why children don't fly planes. They just build them for American Airlines. All of this is interesting enough but I'm a little peturbed that only those who have paid the extra admission are allowed in here. It's just another part of the museum and nothing very special.
Before we see Dark Universe we are treated to another wonderful slice of modern customer service. Around fifteen minutes before our show starts we are lead via a lift into a waiting area just outside the planetarium theatre. We are told it may be a little while before the doors open but to just wait here. A bespectacled, geeky looking boy emerges from the door and stares at us as if we are from another world. We hear him incredulously and disapprovingly ask one of his colleagues how we got into this area. When it is time another staff member shows us to our seats and we settle back for the start of the show. Only the bespectacled geeky looking boy isn't happy. He looks me straight in the eye and says;
"Sorry sir, the wheelchair can't sit there."
Thinking I didn't hear him right I ask him to repeat himself;
"The wheelchair can't sit there." he says again, this time with greater conviction.
At this point Emma tells him how offensive that is. Not that we are being asked to move from a space clearly designated for wheelchair users and which we have been guided to by his colleague, but that he has referred to me as 'the wheelchair'. And directly to my face. He doesn't get it. He just repeats again that the wheelchair will have to move. Somewhere in the argument I mention that I am not a wheelchair but he still can't get his head around his mistake. Before someone belts him around the head one of his superiors comes over to find out what is going on. He explains again that he was just telling us that the wheelchair can't sit there and will have to move. His colleague doesn't seem to get it either but she knows enough to know that we're offended and just tells us that it is fine to stay where we are. As the lights dim I can hear him explaining to her that he didn't know that we were able to sit there and thought we had to move. He actually comes over to apologise to us for asking us to move. Nobody has been convicted of the wrong offence this clearly since Al Capone was arrested for tax evation.
There's just about time for a quick walk around the rest of the dinosaur exhibits before we leave. Again it seems superfluous to try to describe it. You truly have to see it. There's all the old favourites, T-Rex, mammoths and so forth. All of which is fascinating and awe-inspiring, but doesn't provide a whole lot of material for a comedy travel piece with a disability slant.
By the time we leave the rain has abated, and we make the long journey back without the aid of the famous yellow cabs. The day is topped off with a meal at Daniela Trattoria, a nice Italian restaurant just down the road from the hotel. A nice, expensive, Italian restaurant just down the road from the hotel. Where they recommend an amount you should leave as a tip.