I woke up in ridiculous amounts of pain yesterday. Without pouring it on too much it was seriously unpleasant. But it did at least serve as a reminder of the kind of agony I was in when I landed at JFK airport in New York City on June 7 2014, which is where we left the story last time. How very helpful of my mysteriously damaged back to assist my writing in this way.
I'm still writhing around stupidly when we go to the customer service desk to speak to the people responsible for getting us from the airport to the hotel. We can't book transfers in the usual fashion. I have done it before, but I now consider myself too old and battered to suffer the indignity of climbing aboard an inaccessible coach like everyone else. Sometimes we just jump into an inaccessible taxi, a feat I am still just about capable of in my decaying state. However, on this occasion the hotel is too far away for that. It would be far too expensive. So back in February Emma booked an accessible vehicle with a company called Go Air Link. That's February. The February that is four months ago. How is it then that when she phones them to let them know we have landed they act like they have never heard of us or our booking? Not only was this booked four months ago, but at their request we also emailed to confirm this earlier this week. Yet still they are not very sure of themselves. To top it all they question the need for us to have confirmed it in the week, despite that being their request. Eventually they acknowledge our existence and our booking and agree to send a vehicle. Ten to fifteen minutes they say, which is about ten to fifteen minutes more than I can stand in my current condition but at least things are moving along now.
I'm stretching out my back in a position which probably looks absurd. Were I able to feel any embarrassment at this stage I would likely feel like Alan Partridge stretching out his hamstrings in his hotel room. Eventually I find a position that seems to help. Or is it the tablets finally kicking in? Unlikely, considering that I violently wretched them up a few minutes ago in another visit to the toilet. What you need when you are suffering excruciating back pain after a seven hour flight on a flying 10A is another visit from your hiatus hernia. Regular readers (or anyone who has had the misfortune to go out drinking with me) will know that on occasion this causes a violent gag reflex which leads to long spells of wretching. There's no vomit involved. It's like being sick without being sick. It's among the least enjoyable of my accumulating ailments.
Around twenty to twenty-five minutes later the help arrives. It's a black van. Give it a red flash and it could belong to BA Baracus. Except that obviously he wouldn't be anywhere near an airport, you crazy fool. The last time I saw a van like this was the morning we went to pick up one of the kids on the school run only to find that he had passed away that morning. Which might seem inappropriate for what is still a happy and exciting occasion but I just want to get there now so I don't question it. My back is starting to ease because of the stretching and things are looking up. On route to the Hilton Garden Inn on 48th Street and 8th Avenue our Guatemalan driver shows us a few of New York's sights, not all of which would immediately spring to mind if you thought about the city's major landmarks. Flushing Meadow where the US Open tennis championship is played. The largest cemetery I have ever seen. Michael Jordan's restaurant. Radio City Music Hall. 42nd Street. He advises us to eat on 9th Avenue between 44th and 48th street where he says there are nothing but restaurants and that they are more reasonably priced. I can believe that. You wouldn't expect Michael Jordan to sell you anything cheaply. We will soon learn that nobody in New York sells you anything cheaply.
The time difference between the UK and the eastern side of the United States means that we are effectively living this afternoon twice. It's still only around 4.00 in the afternoon when we head out onto the streets. The first port of call on any holiday, in any place with which we are unfamiliar, is the tourist information centre. Of course the Americans don't call it the tourist information centre. This is a nation that is currently referring to World Cup warm-up matches as the 'soccer send-off series'. So naturally they call the tourist information centre simply the visitors centre. And a simple title seems apt given it's simple minimalist layout. It's a huge place but it would be difficult to find a more unnecessary amount of space. Wigan, perhaps. All that can be found of note is the reception desk and a touch-screen guide to New York. That's a clever idea but it is also rather basic. There's three or four suggested places to eat and drink and the rest is information that you would only need if you had recently landed from Jupiter. The Statue of Liberty is here, did you know? Yes. And the Empire State Building. Revelatory. One thing on the touch-screen catches my eye. A pub on 6th Avenue is hosting Shakespeare plays performed by drunken people. Apparently they down shots of whatever lethal concoction is popular and then attempt to recite Hamlet or something. They'd never put up with it in Stratford but 'Drunken Shakespeare' sounds like something I'd like to see. There are passes available for the more famous attractions but after a brief discussion with the staff and a look at the prices versus paying individually for them we decide not to go that way. It's $180 for a pass which gets you into any six attractions but you have to do them on consecutive days. Individually they cost around $22-$29 and you can visit at your own convenience.
The visitors centre is on 7th Avenue on Times Square which is busy to say the least. As is well known many American cities have a block system of streets and avenues to help you avoid getting lost. It works very well to that end, but in Times Square you don't get very far very quickly. Every few yards you have to stop to cross the road at the pedestrian crossing where the street meets the avenue. The crossings work in basically the same way as ours except that drivers turning into the street you are crossing are not held up by a red light, and are instead trusted to stop as they make the turn to allow you to cross. This works most of the time but there is also a fair smattering of horn-honking and swearing going on as frustration builds on both sides. Just like pedestrians, drivers on Times Square can expect to crawl around New York at a very slow pace, despite the apparent haste.
We'd been warned in the Manchester hotel about the naked cowboy, but I wasn't prepared for the naked cowgirl. Shuffling among the huge throngs of people I catch her out of the corner of my eye. She's stood on the corner talking to some people about something I can't quite catch. To her right are Iron Man, Spider Man and Woody from Toy Story. On this corner you would be forgiven for thinking you had landed in Disney Land. Except for the naked cowgirl maybe. And maybe the mostly-naked, body-painted girls who also hang around seemingly doing not much of anything. But despite their glamour they are overshadowed by the shocking sight of the naked cowgirl. She's mature, to put it politely. If certain parts of her body go any further south then they will be in Disney Land after all. I don't look for long and I'm certainly not looking to have a chat. Instead I get across the road as quickly as possible, through the potholes and the cracks in the road surface, narrowly missing the legs of people who randomly stop in front of me.
We need a drink. There aren't that many options on 7th but in this searing heat and after half an hour mingling among these crowds we decide that Hard Rock Café is good enough. It's not good enough. Not really. Just like the Hard Rock Cafes in Los Angeles and Barcelona we have experienced there is nothing but inaccessible, high seating in the bar area at Hard Rock Café. If you want a smaller table then you have to have something to eat. But we don't want to eat. We just want to get a drink, consult the information we have and plan what to do for the rest of the afternoon and evening. The girl at the bar advises us that we cannot have a small table in the dining area unless we are dining, but that we can take the drinks back out into what she calls the lobby and find a seat there. Wearily we agree to this but go back to the lobby to find that there are no seats available. There are only around eight seats in there consisting of two small sofas wedged into a corner. It's another blatant misuse of space. And anyway all the seats are currently occupied by shouty people reporting to each other that they were like, and then he was like, and then she was like, and then they were like. It's a bad episode of Friends. More commonly known as an episode of Friends.
We go back to the bar to speak to someone else about getting a seat at a sensible height. One woman sees sense and allows us through to the dining area with our drinks. Yet within seconds of sitting down we are questioned again. A man comes over and informs us that he will be our server for the evening and he'll now take our food order. There isn't a food order, we say. We just want to get a drink and we've been through all of this once before. He's not sure. The idea of someone using a wheelchair wanting an accessible table is clearly quite confusing to him and he wanders off to consult one of his seniors. Finally he accepts that there will be no food order and no further moving of chairs but ten or fifteen minutes later he's back to offer us more drinks. Another controversy looms. There are free refills on drinks in this area and we are advised that will apply to us even if we do not eat. I find it hard to believe and sure enough our server questions it. He has to speak to the manager when we ask if the next lot of drinks are free. We would maybe not have ordered them if we had known they would not be free, and because we have been told that we can have them the manager agrees not to charge us. The server looks suitably miffed. We've broken two house rules in the space of a few minutes and it has completely disorientated him. We don't see him again. Presumably he has gone for a lie down.
I'd forego a free drink for some decent access. Is it too much to ask in 2014 to have a bar area at one of the largest bar chains in the world that has some lower, accessible seating? It would seem so. They have accessible toilets and lifts but no lower seating. I always find it puzzling when a public place has an accessible toilet but no access in other ways. It smacks of lip service to the accessibility laws. And as we were to discover, this problem is not limited to Hard Rock Café.
Back out on the road we head for Drunken Shakespeare. It's housed in a pub called Queens. I don't know where the Arms or the Head is. It's just Queens. It's a small pub but I can see one low and therefore accessible table placed in front of the big screen showing England's soccer send-off series match with Honduras. Promising. Now comes the disappointment. We ask about Drunken Shakespeare and the lady there enthuses about it at length as if she is trying to sell it to us. But of course she hasn't thought it through. It's upstairs, she tells us when we enquire about accessibility. She offers to get the staff to help lift me up the stairs but I decline. Like climbing on to coaches I'm passed all of that now. I don't trust people I don't know to do that and besides where would I then go to the toilet? Another toilet drama on this holiday is not required thank you very much although who knows, there might well be a disabled toilet upstairs. You have to comply with the law after all.
By now fatigue is beginning to set in so we decide to head back towards the hotel for a rest. The plan is to come out again for a late meal. We set off again on the packed streets, stopping regularly for a game of frogger at the crossings;
"Hey yo cruise control!" shouts a man stepping out in front of me. Before I can say 'who the fuck are you calling cruise control and what does that even mean?' I find myself taking his outstretched hand. I feel somehow at the time that it would be rude not to. Now, on reflection, I think I should have told him to shove his hand up his arse. Not only has he just referred to me as cruise control (and apart from anything else I am not on cruise control I am pushing my tripes off on some quite steep slopes in stifling heat) but he compounds his error with the following nugget;
"He's on cruise control and he's still got a chick!"
Emma's my chick. I'm sure she's flattered. I should probably be grateful that he has worked out that we are partners and that she is not just some care in the community worker. Even if I am greatly offended that my domestic arrangements seem to surprise him. He explains that he is collecting money so he can go on tour to Toronto, Canada. Why do Americans always feel the need to tell you what country they mean when they name a city? Toronto, Canada. London, England. Wales, England. Or something. He shoves a CD into my lap. He's signed it as if he is some kind of well known artist. It looks like some kind of gangsta crap. It becomes apparent that he wants me to make a donation to his tour fund. I'm suspicious that he is not going to Toronto, Canada at all and that he is just going to the pub with its high seating. There's an awkward moment when I fail to reach for any change to give to him and he makes a remark about how he accepts notes also. Still I don't feel compelled to donate. He's no Geldof, this fella;
"Does this mean I have to give you your CD back?" I ask almost rhetorically and before I have even finished the question he has snatched his CD back and is telling me to have a good day. He thanks me, for what I am not sure.
We're about half way back when Emma stops suddenly. She has noticed that the ruck sack on the back of my chair has been opened. Nothing has been taken out of it because I keep everything valuable to others elsewhere, but it's still a little unnerving. We can't figure out when it could have happened but she says it was definitely not open earlier when she was walking along just behind me. You've probably watched too much television if you think New York is really some kind of crime capital but at the same time it goes to show that you have to be careful here. We can only conclude that it must have happened at one of the many crowded corners where you have to stop to cross the street. Maybe it was the naked cowgirl trying to be opportunistic on a slow day.
Our evening meal is at McHales, a pub just a couple of blocks away which has both a disabled toilet and a crap ramp. Two men sit animatedly discussing ice hockey as they watch the Stanley Cup Finals between the Los Angeles Kings and their New York Rangers. In truly American style one leaves before the end, and soon after we take our leave at the end of a long, exhausting but kind of fun first day in the big apple.