The way to combat the lack of low seating in the watering holes of New York City is to find something else to do in the evening other than drink. As drastic as that may seem, it is the only sensible course of action.
With this in mind we visit the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre on 46th Street on Thursday morning to see if we can get tickets for a show. We notice this theatre in particular because they are advertising their Motown musical in garish colours all over the outside of the building. I love all things Motown and have done from an early age. When we were kids Helen and I got into trouble for getting on the train to Liverpool without permission but it was worth the trip just for the fact that we came back with an album of 40 Michael Jackson songs from the Motown era. The Michael Jackson Mix, I think it was called. Old enough so that there was not a shamo in sight. I might not have spelled shamo correctly, to be fair. I never watched much of Bo Selecta. As someone wise once said, that lad hasn’t got enough material to make an advert. Ironic then that I’m quoting him in an attempt at humour in my own work.
Our luck is in this morning and we pay $59 apiece for the tickets. In the queue in front of us I hear a woman loudly telling her companion that she moved to New York from Philadelphia because Philadelphia is too violent. This strikes me as the very definition of moving between a rock and a hard place. Frying pans and fires spring readily to mind. I’m just glad that I hadn’t learned this little nugget of wisdom before our trip to Pennsylvania yesterday. It’s bad enough not knowing where you are going in an unfamiliar city without having to contemplate the possibility of getting shot to shit.
Breakfast had been an expensive and sickly affair at a place called The Blue Fin on Broadway opposite The Winter Gardens. We’ll be seeing the inside of that place tomorrow (Friday) when we see the much anticipated (and since unfathomably cancelled) Rocky musical. Emma had french toast that made her feel sick, and another hugely unreasonable bill was enough to turn anyone’s stomach. A long walk was planned for this morning and was now very definitely in order. We headed out down towards the Flatiron Building on 5th Avenue. Built in 1902 it is so named because its wedge shaping is similar to that of a clothes iron. It’s the centrepiece of the Flatiron District and is one of the most iconic and recognisable buildings in the city. We don’t go inside. The fascination is all in the curious looking exterior.
We want to find Little Italy. In two days time England will kick-off their World Cup campaign against Italy in the Amazonian city of Manaus, Brazil. I have this idea that watching it among a packed crowd of stressing, gesticulating Italians might be fun. A good atmosphere. Good atmospheres have been lost in the field of watching football at pubs in recent years. Remember Sol Campbell’s disallowed goal against Argentina at the 1998 World Cup? The Springy was packed, pints and tables flying all over the joint as Campbell illegally rose to nod England into the quarter-finals. Or so he thought. I’m not sure who was the slowest to realise that the referee had disallowed the goal. Campbell, or the hordes of people crammed into The Springy. What I do know is that we all got wet. Since then The Springy’s decline seems to have had a direct correlation with the increase in apathy among the general public towards the England team. Most of the time fans complain that England games get in the way of their preciously pulsating mid-table squabbles. Then every two years those same fans scream blue murder when another tepid England performance culminates in an early flight home.
We travel for about 45 minutes down 5th Avenue and stop for a drink and what tennis players call a comfort break at a Pret A Manger. That’s one of the pitfalls of moving fairly aimlessly down New York’s main avenues when you have mobility problems. It’s not easy to find places for comfort breaks so you end up going into places you wouldn’t normally bother with. Once, in Salou, I visited a hotel every evening solely for the purpose of spending a penny because the access in all the bars was so sub-standard. The pubs around New York with their high chairs aren’t open yet anyway. It’s another hour until our map starts to suggest that we might be getting within range of Little Italy. We pass through the varyingly beautiful surroundings of Union Square and Washington Square Park and are randomly spoken at by a local man bemoaning the cost of home owning in the area. The houses don’t look anything special but it’s pretty scenic in this neck of the woods. You can imagine it is not cheap to live here. Later in the week we would meet a bus tour guide who openly expresses his outrage that high taxation is driving rich people out of the area. If rich people left the area where I live because of high taxation I’d wave them goodbye. I don’t want to sound too much like one of Harry Enfield’s Self Righteous Brothers but if that Gary Barlow came around here….telling me Love Ain’t Here Anymore I’d…….
Enough. We turn left off 5th Avenue and find ourselves in the part of town where the streets have names , not numbers. It would be much easier to get lost here. Finally we turn down Mulberry Street and we’re where we want to be, in the heart of Little Italy. The idea is a scouting mission for suitable England-watching venues but it’s not long before we are coaxed off the streets and into a café bar by a pushy bar owner. Two hours pushing around in the heat has worked up a thirst so we order a couple of beers and enjoy the rest. We ask about the football and he points to an underwhelmingly small television set in the back of the dining area. This is not Sol Campbell in 1998 material, even though the bar owner assures us that they will be showing the match. The fact that our Englishness hasn’t provoked him into any Anglo-Italian banter ahead of the game at the weekend serves as further evidence that this is not the place to be for it.
We move along Mulberry Street and I spot another bar which looks a little more like the sort of thing I’m looking for. But again access looks dubious at best. I keep it in mind without exploring further at this stage. We’ve covered miles and we need to get back in plenty of time for our night at the Lunt-Fontanne. We go into the nearest accessible subway station and are again bemused by the numbers, letters, gates, booths and platforms therein. A train comes along which we think might take us back up towards Times Square but we’re a little uncertain. Eventually we decide to take it so Emma takes a step forward to board. I try to follow on behind but the step up from the platform is just that little bit too high. But Emma hasn’t noticed. She turns around from inside the train and gestures for me to get on and just as I’m about to explain that I might need a push the doors close.
The next thing I see is the train pull away with Emma on board. Amid the mild panic there are nothing but 'What The Fuck?' gestures as the train trundles away. On the night we are heading for a slice of Motown, it's a Ball Of Confusion.
Had it not been for the incredibly fortuitous fact that my phone has available text credit this situation would be right up there with the LA to San Diego petrol debacle of 2011. Then, we hung around on the freeway helplessly like two dead cert victims from an episode of Criminal Minds until with the last shred of battery from Emma’s phone I was able to call 911 to get assistance. Having available text credit is by no means a certainty for me these days. My phone is an infuriatingly inconsistent entity which, whether I top up by the required amount to trigger my free texts or not, could leave me without communications at any time. Often it claims that there is not enough storage space to receive texts and I have to spend minutes of my life that I will not get back deleting data from apps that I never use. So I’m lucky on this occasion. I text Emma to find that she is at the next stop and I tell her I will try to get on the next train. Even that isn’t straightforward, and I have to be helped on by a random girl who sees my frustrated attempts to haul myself on from the platform. These two trains are the only two that I have any trouble boarding the whole time we are in New York, accessible platforms permitting. I think they call that Sod's Law.
While Emma rests I watch the Brazil beat Croatia 3-1 in the opening game of the World Cup thanks largely to the most dubious refereeing decision since W G Grace refused to leave the field having been clean bowled. Grace told his conqueror that the crowd had come to see him bat, not the bowler bowl. Brazilian striker Fred would struggle to make the same argument if questioned about the scandalous penalty he is awarded which turns the game in the hosts' favour. When we get to the Lunt-Fontanne there is a queue outside but it is not long before we are ushered in. I notice a sign that says that table service is available for wheelchair users. However, none of the staff appear to have seen the sign. I ask the lady who shows us to our seats and she looks at me like I have asked her to perform sexual favours. We’ll be getting our own beer. If the prices in the restaurants so far have been steep, the price of a beer in the Lunt-Fontanne is terrifying. Thirteen dollars buys you a Bud Light, but you get to keep the container. Refreshingly, they do at least have a low service area for wheelchair users so there isn’t any queuing involved when I go back during the interval. And I do, despite the price.
The show itself is a bloody marvel. It’s basically Berry Gordy’s story. Inspired by a radio broadcast of Joe Louis winning the heavyweight championship of the world in the late 1930’s Gordy borrowed some dough from his sister and set out to prove that a black man could be a success in the music business in America. Aswell as Gordy all the other famous Motown players are here from Smokey Robinson to The Supremes, to Marvin Gaye and The Temptations. The young lad playing Michael Jackson turns in a quite astonishing performance, albeit a little too fleeting for my liking. But this is very much Gordy’s story and centres heavily on his relationship with Diana Ross and the eventual ship-jumping that went on as artists fought to take their careers in a different musical direction. The story of Mary Wells is particularly unfortunate. The 'My Guy' singer left the Motown label for a better offer financially and faded into obscurity before dying of cancer before her 50th birthday. Sad stories notwithstanding, musically the show is sublime. Helen would love it.
During the interval the man sitting in the next wheelchair bay comes over to speak to me. This happens a lot on holiday. In Portugal it was Brendan, the Irish gentleman on the beach who along with his wife Gill managed to bump into us on several occasions. We had alerted them to the fact that there were free loungers to be had in the area of the beach we were in. I suppose other wheelchair users feel a connection, particularly in a foreign country where we’re all fighting against the same absurd access issues. Tonight’s kindred spirit is from Germany and he waxes lyrical about his love for Motown and musicals in general. It will be our only meeting, however, as he is setting sail for Folkestone tomorrow. It will take eight days to get there before he then flies on home to Hamburg. Rather him than me. Say what you like about American Airlines (and I do) but at least they will get me home in a matter of hours once I’m on board. The risk of wetting myself is worth taking for a swifter end to my journey. Eight days on a ship does not really appeal too much.
Not if it is going to Folkestone.