Friday, 20 April 2007

8. Hunter Killer Ambulances

Strolling north of our neighbourhood the other day I came across a Hunter Ambulance (so it said on the side). It looked a bit smaller and nippier than the average ambulance that rushes by all sirens blazing. Its possible significance dawned on me a bit further on. I was by a hospital and noticed a sign saying Intake and Vacancy Control Entrance. I assume this indicates a difference from the UK's 'bed management', which seems to consist of pushing people through and trying to empty beds of patients before they are properly recovered in order to fill them with the next patients waiting in line (I mean 'in the queue') - or do the UK Hospital Trusts call them customers now? Noo Yoik must be over-provided with hospital beds. 'Vacancy control' presumably means reducing the numbers of empty beds and so going out proactively looking for customers, as long as they have their private medical insurance card about their person. Adverts on TV for medical insurance schemes and for different hospitals all remind me this is a commercially competitive domain.

The Hunter Ambulance must be a bit like hunter killer submarines. They don’t actually kill anyone of course - it does say on the side of the ambulance 'Basic Life Support' - but they must have some equivalent of a heat seeking device for injured and ill people. Or at least a GIS system to locate building sites. Every construction site seems to display its rigger licence for scaffolding, but also advertises that it is inherently unsafe. Notices outside invariably say “To anonymously report unsafe conditions at this work site call” and gives a number like 1-800-HARDHAT. Scaffolders must have a high death rate in Noo Yoik – hence the term rigger mortis – or perhaps they just used to have before the invention of the hunter ambulance to whisk them off to hospital on the on-board basic life support machine. Very reassuring.

I was further reassured to find we live not far from a huge hospital area, ‘bedpan alley’, which the New York Times, rightly, I’m sure, regards as being of world-class importance. Taking the air, the somewhat polluted air up the riverside walkway between the East River and the Franklin D Roosevelt Drive on Sunday – by the way I have never seen a pedestrian leisure walkway so close to a motorway anywhere before, at times you feel you are on the non-existent hard shoulder – I noticed a sign for the conveniently placed Hospital for Special Surgery – convenient for any road accident victims, that is. Then the next day, walking north from 62nd street along York Avenue, the avenue closest to East River, I passed the Rockefeller University, initially founded as the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research in 1903, a plaque tells passers-by. It made its name as a biomedical research centre. Over the next ten blocks, since the thirties, other hospitals, medical schools or research centres have taken over the neighbourhood: the New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and the Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and buildings that are part of them: the Arnold and Marie Schwartz Hall of Science for Cancer Research, the Helmsley Medical Tower, all seemingly named after donors – of money, that is. The northern frontier of the medical blocks is at 72nd, where Sotheby’s has built a tall, brand new sea-green all glass building with American, British, French and Italian flags above the huge entrance – two Italian flags but one each of the others. I wonder why.

Linking all these medical institutions from the river to 1st avenue there are apparently a lot of tunnels for transporting patients. The word ‘patient’ does actually appear on some of the hoardings surrounding building sites. Hoardings hiding building, because Bedpan Alley is still expanding. In 2001 the Sidney Kimmer Center for Prostate and Urological Cancer opened – now that does sound reassuring. One of the newest additions is a not yet complete research laboratory (Memorial Sloan-Kettering) that towers above the rest and has started to eat westward into the traditionally residential areas. The Times, as people in Noo Yoik call the NYT – to distinguish it from the ‘London Times’ – cites the new opportunities for cancer research offered by the recent analysis of the human genome. Further westward (second Avenue and 66th Street), there are plans to close a single-screen local cinema – the Beekman Theater – don’t ask why all cinemas are called theatres – to build a breast cancer treatment and imaging centre. Local residents associations find it hard to argue against privately financed medical research developments, especially if it is to do with prostate and beast cancer, two of the sexiest areas of medical research, if I may coin a phrase.

The New York Presbyterian has got permission to redevelop most of a block (i.e. to knock it down, if I interpret the notice put up by the Par Wrecking Corporation correctly). It is a typical residential block with lots of old cast iron fire escapes fronting onto First between 71st and 72nd. They are due to erect a 19-storey block for staff residences and offices. Well, nurses and other workers need to live somewhere and hopefully not too far away like the far end of the Bronx. The terrace is boarded up and seems completely empty. On the corner of First and 72nd is what’s left of a fine looking old diner, all thirties angular aluminium on the outside and no doubt aluminium and neon on the inside, rather like the celebrated Empire Diner in Chelsea. It was called the High Life, I was told. Further down is what looks like another former restaurant or maybe a food shop. The words Good Fayre can be picked out the brickwork, less faded where the name used to be. A barber’s shop has disappeared, and a dance studio, places where people used to ‘hang out’, as one local said – the ‘loss of social networks’, as someone else put it – social scientists, what do they know?

As I go round a corner nearer the river towards an as yet unfinished hospital building I am hit by an overwhelming smell of fried battered haddock, every bit as authentic as something on the North Shields Fish Quay. It’s a newish diner probably catering for the British medical brain drain. (Make a note to go back.) The hoardings beyond it announce to all and sundry that I have arrived at the future Weill Cornell Medical College Ambulatory Care and Medical Education Building “creating a New Patient Experience”. Does that mean it makes you feel like a new patient, or gives you, as a patient, a new experience – novelty is not necessarily what a patient is looking for - or is it telling doctors and nurses that they guarantee if you work here that you will experience a good supply of new patients? brought in in their own state-of-the-art fleet of hunter ambulances, no doubt. Walking up 68th Street I finally get to the 23-storey MSK New Research Facility, “Building the Best”. It straddles the whole block from 69th to 68th but could not get any closer to 1st Avenue because it come up against a relatively new church – well not relatively new in US terms, it looks as though it was built in the early seventies, yes, I do mean 1970s: Saint Catherine’s of Siena Parish run by Dominican Friars (Irish and Italian to judge by their names). Their parish magazine has an advert for a Restaurant and Bar called Murphy’s Law (“Rooms available for Christenings and Other Private Functions, 417 E. 70th”). As laws go, Murphy’s Law is perhaps not terribly Christian, although Jesus might not have agreed with me when he was on the cross. At least big medical business cannot ride roughshod over the spiritual domain, I thought. It has some fine modern stained glass, as well as air conditioning, "a gift of the parishioners in 1976". As I leave I notice, below a statue, that the niche the church occupies here is not just physically a good fit, Saint Catherine’s of Siena is, I should have guessed, the patron saint of those who care for the sick. Nice one, guys.

Monday, 2 April 2007

7. Youth and Age on an MTA bus

We got on the bus, the 103 down Third coming back from the doctors. Cathy has had a chest x-ray. Very quick, no waiting – if she hadn’t had the last appointment yesterday she could have had it done at the doctor’s there and then. No charge, just ten dollars for yesterday’s appointment. UN health insurance coverage is good.

Quite full, the bus, people standing. I couldn’t sit down, but Cathy got the last of the four sideways seats at the offside front of the bus. I hung on to a pole close by. Sitting next to her was a little girl of about 4 or 5, and next to her a middle aged woman I took to be her childminder, or perhaps collecting her from school or nursery. The girl was white; hair more fair than red but she made me think of orphan Annie. The childminder was a woman of colour, not very dark, but I guess Afro-American rather than Indian. The girl was holding a doll on her knee, a pink-skinned doll, with an elastoplast on its bald head.

“Your head hurt?" she asks her chaperone.
“Yes, it hurts.”
“Did I make it hurt?”
“No, you didn’t make it hurt.”
“Who made it hurt?”
“Nobody,” she says, philosophically.

The little girl goes back to her thoughts and I watch the shops slide slowly by, a nail bar, Starbucks, Ye Olde Vitamin Shoppe ‘serving you since 1975’, a deli, another nail bar.

After one or two more stops, a tall, well padded man, seventyish, hauls himself up the steps of the bus using both handrails. He manages to put his MTA card into the slot by the driver and turns his whole body round to face down the bus. He sees much of the corridor populated with standing passengers.

“Holy mackerel!” he exclaims, with theatrical projection and articulation. A phrase I have never heard before, only read, when I was a boy, in a Superman comic coming out of the mouth of Clarke Kent, or was it Batman and Robin?

Then, turning his head slightly to his left he notices the first sideways seat on the nearside of the bus is free. Someone had just got off.

“I’ve hit the jackpot!” he declaims, to no one in particular, and at the same time to the whole bus. He lowers himself slowly down and sighs a loud sigh of relief as his behind eventually comes to a stop on the plastic seat.

“How ya doin’, precious?” Everybody looks up, wondering who the words are aimed at.

The four-year old sitting almost across from him answers: “I’m good.”Her chaperone reproaches her gently: “Say: I’m good thank you.”“I’m good thank you,” murmurs orphan Annie.

Another few stops, a deli and another nail bar.

“Your head still hurt?" Annie asks her companion.
“Yes, it still hurts.”
“Did I make it hurt?”
“No, you didn’t make it hurt, sweetie.”
“Who made it hurt?”
“It just hurt by itself?”
“It just hurt by itself.”

A couple more stops, more passengers get off and more get on. Suddenly, Annie’s minder gets up from her seat, keeps the child in hers. She has noticed before I did a tall elegant woman struggling to mount the steps. She indicates to the woman to sit down. The woman moves slowly and painfully, is short of breath. She more or less falls into the seat and throws her head back, closes her eyes, sucks in some air. Her short hair is greying blonde, not silvery but dull, it has no sparkle. The fine profile of a Vanessa Redgrave, but her cheeks are hollow, her skin a sallow off-white, more like a death mask. She may not be as old as she looks. Or maybe she is and it’s just the cut of her coat that takes a few years off her. She sighs a deep sigh, or at least as deep as her lungs will let her. A sigh of frustration, not of resignation, but recognisably a sigh of rage, of longing to be finally free of it all.

I look down at the little girl who runs her finger over the elastoplast on her doll’s hairless head.

In the meantime, the man opposite, I notice, has quietly disappeared.

Thursday, 22 March 2007

5. US mail

I wrote a reference for a former student today. He wants to do an MA in War Studies. I had to take it to the Post Office. I had some stamps, but I wasn’t sure how much it weighed and indeed didn’t know the maximum weight for the standard letter to Europe. The queues, or lines as I should say, are always long in the week. But there is a little room straight off the street at the Post Office on Third and 55th (or thereabouts) where you can weigh the mail yourself and pay for it by debit card without any human contact, so I thought I’d give that a go.

I get to the place and see through the glass walls that one of the three machines is free, not even a line. But there is a dog tied by its lead to the door handle. I have never really liked dogs. I’m a cat man. But it was only a small one. A pug, I think, from my knowledge of the Rupert Bear books, not really like Algy Pug, more anxious, smaller, more the size of Pong-Ping the Pekinese, and black and white, but near enough for me to call him son of Algy. I tentatively lean across to pull the door gently towards me and son of Algy having less than two feet of rein, so to speak, immediately scoots through the door and inside the Post Office, or as far as he can, which is about two feet. I pull the door a bit wider and son of Algy is dragged back and then decides to use his limbs to move in my direction and let me inside. I sense that someone else behind me held the door as I slid through.

I lost sight and sound of son of Algy for a while. It was fairly easy to weigh the letter, push a few touch-screen buttons and discover, mercifully, I had the right amount in stamps. So I decide to exit and find a post box. Then I am stopped in my tracks by a booming and … I think the term is strident, if that does not contradict ‘booming’, voice. A woman, I sensed.

“Is that your dog? That dog does NOT belong tied to the front door of a PUBLIC Post Office. You cannot do that!”

I turn round, no one in sight, she is obviously not talking to me, because the voice is coming from the inner room of the ground floor office.

“You can NOT do that, the dog’s nearly strangled itself, twice!”

I can’t hear a response, but a lady emerges from the inner office, head bowed as if in shame, opens the door and starts feverishly to release son of Algy from his door handle. She is followed by someone who reminds me of Dorothy of the Golden Girls for her size and demeanour. Golden Girls is on cable TV for an hour every night at six. One of the better programmes. One featured dizzy Rose as a volunteer dummy for local firemen’s first aid class. At the thought of mouth-to-mouth ressuscitation Blanche turned green. Did you ever see that one? But I digress.

Dorothy repeats her imprecations as son of Algy and owner exit stage right. A man is holding the door on the outside and says to Dorothy: “Are you finished?” in a surprisingly soft and mild manner, I thought, so not as a reproach but maybe as a genuine question. Maybe her husband.

“No, I’m not, I gotta go back in,” say Dorothy frustratedly, “I had to bawl out that woman. Did you ever see such a moron? Tying a dawg to the front door of a Post Office. She’s pregnant too.”

I hadn’t noticed. Or perhaps she meant son of Algy, in which case it would have been daughter of Algy. The dog didn’t look pregnant to me. But would I notice?

“Would she do that to a child!?” she adds, still incredulous.

Hmm, I ponder the proposition. Is it likely she would put a leather leash round a child’s neck and tie it to a door on a main street in Manhattan, while she went into a shop, indeed a public Post Office. No, on the basis of this one example of her behaviour, I don’t think we can necessarily make that inference. For one thing, I imagine children are not banned from Post Offices here. Or perhaps they are.

“I’ve never SEEN such a moron!”

You should get out more, luv. In “Sex in the city”, it’s called multitasking. But it’s a good job Bill Badger didn’t come on the scene. “Sex in the city” is on cable TV every night too, later than Golden Girls. I wonder if Rupert is on the Children’s Channel?

I exit and enter another door to take the escalator up to the main Post Office, passing the splendid plaster of Paris busts US Mail has bought or commissioned. I can’t imagine the Royal Mail or whatever it’s called these days – Letters ‘R Us? – doing anything similar. (By the way NEVER use the Royal Mail redirection “service”, but that’s another story.)

I look for the post box that seems to be the one that takes most types of mail, since you come across so many interdictions on some of the boxes that you don’t know what to put in where. There is a new, large, capitalised notice above it.


I say ”new” but it may be the last line only that is new, it is in a different type. It makes me hesitate before offering up the student reference, wanting to avoid it being cancelled. I read it again. “Effective from April 1, 2004”, well that certainly means it’s effective now, so I must be careful. Mail must be deposited by 7 pm. It’s not yet mid-day so it could certainly affect the letter I’m about to drop in. “For same day cancellation”. Hmm, can it mean that if you put a letter in the box you can change your mind and stop it going up to 7 pm? If impulse-buying habits are spreading to letter writing, that might occasionally be useful, but surely not? It must be another Americanism. “Cancellation”, I conclude, must mean something like franked or just sent. I drop in the letter, weighing up the odds, which I decide are more in my favour than not.

It’s rather like the “Post no bills” notice I saw soon after arriving. I was behind a post box on a hoarding. I was about to drop in a cheque to pay off a Barclaycard bill and had to reason myself through it to make sure I wasn’t about to do something I’d regret.

Before leaving the Post Office, I look across to the line that snakes left and right in front of the counters. I was wise not to try that. People are still walking as slowly as Edward Trunk from the front of the line when they are indicated to go to a free counter, and they may have to go 20 yards to the left or 15 yards to the right depending which one is free. I do find that Noo Yoikers walk slowly in the street, but they all eat so fast, in restaurants. Perhaps the two things are related. But which came first, the chicken or the triple egg sunny side up? It’s rather like wondering what on earth are boneless buffalo wings. I’ve never dared ask, it’s just one of those questions that gnaw away at you, but you know it’ll really show you up if you blurt it out in company.

Wednesday, 21 March 2007

4: The Empire State

A fine morning and I decide to do the Empire State Building. I had seen queues winding round the outside of the building at weekends during the day, so I guessed an early weekday start might save me time. But what with breakfast and getting a bus (limited stop, of course) down 5th Avenue to 34th Street, I arrived at the (once again, sadly) tallest building in New York, grateful to see no people waiting outside. As I stepped inside I looked at my watch: 9.45 am. More or less straight up the elevator by a sign saying Tickets for Observatory, I emerged, frowning, into a big roomful of 150 people winding round the ubiquitous roped queue lines towards (I assumed) the ticket office(s). I had heard the lines move quickly.

10.0 am I reach an airline-type security gate and take everything out of my pockets and put my camera into the box, almost forgetting my keys. Beep, beep, beep. Oh! No, not my shoes? No, I had forgotten the notepad in my shirt pocket was metal ring-bound. Phew. Into another similar sized room with identical roped lines winding towards, yes, it looks like ticket offices. We pass notices indicating the offers: one adult $14, or a “new” item: “an upgrade for your Empire State Building experience”. When I see the word ‘experience’ I reach for – my notepad. When you get an upgrade in an airline you tend to get better seats and champagne at no extra cost. Here, the upgrade cost an extra $6. For $20 we could “actually see more by listening [sic] … to Tony’s Audioview.” Hmm. I wasn’t convinced, and I wanted my hands free to take photos. But Tony was an authentic retired New York cabbie. That settled it. I’d go for Observatory only.

But we were still in a line, with kids impatiently trying to slip past and being dragged back by their parents. Another sign offers us a further novelty, a New York Skyride, a high definition digital “motion” film as if we were flying over Manhattan. Not just after breakfast, thank you.

We come to another sign giving further ticket options. For $53, in addition to the ESB Observatory, I could get free entry to five other New York tourist hotspots: MOMA (I am a member already and get free entry, queue jumping and free films), the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier-museum (well, we might go, I suppose), the Natural History Museum (probably not), a 2-hour Circle Line boat trip (already done a three-hour one around Manhattan), and another attraction that was probably the Statue of Liberty (but the best view is from the free Staten Island ferry)? By 10.10 am I have my ticket.

Suddenly, to our left, a glimpse of a lift, but we are guided by more ropes a long way past them and as we advance the lifts get further away. We are moving very quickly now and trot past a sign saying 45 minutes to Observatory. What? Let’s hope it means if the queue is stationary. Having lost time at the security check I am now behind a British-Asian family of five presumably from Merseyside since the youngest child was wearing a Liverpool FC shirt and being teased by his teenage sister about wax in his ear (not that the latter is confined to the north west). I sympathise with the lad. The teenage girl turns to her mother and says: “We could have gone into five shops by now.” I sympathise – with the mother.

10.27 am A lift door closes five yards ahead of me, I am held at a turnstile – temporarily, it turns out and I am allowed to join my compatriots in one of lifts number 3, 4, 5, 8, 9, and 10 – by the look of them the original lifts. Up we go, my ears pop at the 60th floor, as I hang onto my trousers and my breakfast. The British-Asian lad grimaces. We get out at the 80th. I’d thought it was higher. Another line, but we glimpse a bit of skyline through a window. We all have to pass an individual or family group photo shoot and I almost end up in the Liverpudlians’ picture. “Smile please!” I make a note in my note book that it is 10.34 am and an Eastern European-sounding woman in uniform makes some sarcastic remarks about all the trivia I must be recording. Indeed, luv.

We turn a corner and … more roped lines to get to … the next bank of lifts. We pass some coloured photo menus advertising a cafeteria. 10.37 am. “Mum, I’m hungry.” – the teenage girl. This is getting like a Billy Graham revivalist meeting, building up tension and expectations by forever making us wait for the main event. We pass people coming down, looking rather shell-shocked, or goggle eyed, I thought. But one minute later we are out of the second lift and emerging into the Empire State Building Observatory souvenir shop, then out onto the viewing platform and the bright sunlight … and the heat – 53 minutes after setting foot inside the building.

Quite a few people already up there, but you can generally make your way round and get a good position to look or snap, despite the tough wire fence and steel bars making it very difficult to throw yourself, or anybody else, for that matter, off into the void. It is a bit misty despite promises of ten mile visibility. However, I take a lot of wide-angle photos – with my proper camera, rather than the digital. You see the bridges over the East River, the UN building looking quite small, the elegant Chrysler, the mid-town skyscrapers, Central Park in the distance, and as I walk round, the Hudson river and New Jersey, nearer the round shape of the new Madison Square Garden Center (round not square, that does puzzle me, and its not a garden centre either, by the way, in case you are not a boxing fan), and the Flatiron Building, quite close but a long way down. As I am scanning the downtown Manhattan skyline against the sun, someone points out the Statue of Liberty in the far distance through the mist (not Tony the ex-cabbie). The one thing missing from the view is the Empire State Building, the most beautiful profile of the lot. New York doesn’t seem complete without it. No doubt it would be on the Skyride. For some of the points of interest I fail to identify, there are helpful names on drawings of the skyline etched in metal. There are also coin-operated telescopes – I guess powered by quarters like everything else here, from parking meters to launderettes.

Before going back into the souvenir shop, I notice a bronze plaque on the inside wall, typical of all sorts of buildings and events, drawing attention to the American flag on the flagpole way above us: “Old Glory atop the Empire State Building dedicated to the Defenders of Freedom … around the world, the ARMED FORCES OF THE USA” [in capitals], inaugurated May 13, 1968 by some rear-admiral or other. That must have been the Vietnam era, and now it’s Iraq. The US’s own white man’s burden (but with a lot of black squaddies), to spread its own view of freedom to the rest of the world, was not born with Dubbya, nor did it die with Johnson or Nixon.

As I move into a corner of the souvenir shop, a woman is leaning with her back to the glass window avoiding looking out, she looks a bit pale – heat exhaustion or a problem with heights? I walk round the whole of the inner glass-enclosed area and find that you are above the height of the people on the viewing platform, you look through antiglare glass – and it’s all air-conditioned! This is the best tip I can offer when visiting here: look out for the two side corridors of the souvenir shop – north and south - for the best views. As I turn my back to the views in these corridors, I see behind me a mirrored wall – I CAN EVEN TAKE A PHOTO OF MYSELF TAKING A PHOTO OF MYSELF THROUGH THE MIRRORS WITH THE NEW YORK SKYLINE IN THE BACKGROUND (a mirror-image of course). When I come round again the lady has changed colour – it looks like verdigris – or do I mean vertigo- no, verdigris is a better description. I mention to her there are toilets around the corner should she need them, then correct myself to ‘rest rooms’.

Resisting the temptation to buy a little, glass Big Apple snow globe with a miniature ESB inside, I venture outside for one last look and realise that I had blotted out until now the noise of the city. The rumble (in the urban jungle) of the traffic and the air-conditioning units – the white noise of New York, interrupted by the horns and sirens of Tony’s fellow professional drivers, since the taxis and emergency vehicles seem to make most of the noise at street level.

I head for the lifts and find the guards are holding a queue of would-be visitors until more people have decided to leave. AND there is queue for the down lift - I say ‘lift’ in the singular since one of the down lifts has stopped working. One of the employees suggests those who choose to could follow him down the stairs. A few of us decide to – remembering it is only five or six floors to the other lifts, but before we are halfway down one flight he comes back up and says we can’t go down that way now. “Why not?” “We can’t get down.” “Why not? “’Cos we can’t.” Ah! He heads for another stairway and a senior uniformed guard says: “You can’t go down there.” The non-uniformed man asks: “Why not?” “’Cos you can’t.” Nobody bothers to ask why.

We wait in the original queue, having lost a few places. But within a couple of minutes we emerge onto the 80th floor and walk past the photo sales site. I see a reasonably good ¾ portrait of myself posing beside a photographic reproduction of the ESM. I look at the price - $15 – and remember I already have a self-portrait in my Olympus OM-1- in principle. There is no photo of the Merseyside family there. At $3 each a family group must have seemed good value.

A short walk further to the six high-speed lifts, no real queue and down we go. I wonder if I would have seen more by listening to Tony’s commentary. Maybe next time. Doors open at the first floor, which I remember is the ground. We exit pasta pizzeria [I have left this typo in], Uncle Louie G’s ice-cream parlour, a Walgren’s supermarket and through the smart lobby to see directly across the street (that is, across Fifth Avenue, for goodness sake) a McDonald’s – great location, pity about the food.

Monday, 26 February 2007

6. Great American Events

There is a huge amount of sport on American TV. The most popular of American sports are ones that Americans excel at because they are not played much anywhere else in the developed world – baseball and football (American version). Other TV sports, NASCAR (stockcar racing), hockey (meaning ice-hockey), basketball, golf, tennis, boxing and track and field (athletics) have their followings, but are definitely not in the same league as baseball in summer and football (American) in winter. Soccer gets some coverage, for example by Farks! (Fox Soccer Channel) because of the growing numbers of Hispanics in big cities like New York.

Cricket has not caught on over here as far as I can see, whereas the Tour de France got a lot of live coverage on Outdoor Life Channel. This small channel also broadcasts hunting programmes where you can see grown men in camouflage showing young men in camouflage how to stalk and shoot elk, with pictures of the hunters posing beside the still warm corpse congratulating each other. One advert in this programme was for a brand of bullet, I noticed.

Not all “minor” sports warrant as much TV coverage as the Tour de France, but some unusual ones are worth mentioning. College lacrosse, drag racing (not what some may imagine), professional poker and the national arm wrestling championships. I’ll not mention beach volley ball as unusual or monor, since it is after all an Olympic sport.

One minority sport that most Brits will be unaware of, but where you would think we should excel is Competitive Eating. August saw the US Open of Competitive Eating in Las Vegas. Highlights were covered on Saturday TV. Like any other self-respecting sport it is rigorously regulated – by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. “Pro-eating”, I discover, is a mixed sport, where men and women compete on equal terms. Two women were among the 16 “eaters” (as we aficionados refer to them) attempting to get though to the quarter-finals. This round involved eating pasta, easy enough you may think. A significant rule in this round was that “utensils were mandated”, so no use of the fingers. One commentator said of a competitor; “My mom would nail him for eating badly but the rules of etiquette don’t apply in competitive sport”. The eater was using a fork rather than his fingers nonetheless, but you could see what he meant.

I cannot say how popular the elite version of the sport is, but looking around me I reckon it has a strong grass roots base. The regular eater however has to put down his pizza and applaud the game’s stars.

There is the Richard and Carlene Lefevre husband and wife team. The name is pronounced Le Fever by the way. Carlene is reckoned to be one of the "most elegant eaters" on the circuit. I read that she frequently can be seen reapplying her lipstick immediately following a contest, using the side of a knife as a mirror. She has given her name to one interesting move. By popping up and down as she eats, she settles the food down in her stomach, releasing any air pockets. This move is known as "The Carlene Pop”.

38 year old Ed “Cookie” Jarvis is seen by some as a fading star, but holds more titles than anyone in the world, including the World Ice Cream Eating Championship. The former IFOCE Rookie of the Year did last year manage a corned beef and cabbage win, but he faltered at Coney Island in the 27th Nathan's Famous hot dogs and buns contest. From the nickname I guess he excels in sweet rather than savoury.

Eric “Badlands" Booker a 420 lb African American has been on a run lately, so to speak, with victories in cannoli, of which I plead ignorance, cheesecake and pumpkin pie. He has also released a rap album entitled "Hungry and Focused”. He is regarded by many now as the top American. His significant victories include a pea contest in which he put away nine and a quarter pounds of peas in 10 minutes. Reports don’t say whether it was fresh, processed or mushy peas – but if mushy I guess not chipshop flavour, 'though there is a chip shop in manhattn called A Salt and Battery, honest . Badlands is a conductor on the New York City Subway. "Conductor" may mean he is a driver, but I can't be sure.

The Americans are, however, no longer top of the tree. The favourite for the US Open was the winner of the competition that brought the sport to my attention, the Coney Island hot dog contest, Takeru Kobayashi. The 27 year-old, nine and a half stone Japanese now dominates pro-eating as Tiger Woods dominates golf. The trouble is he is not American. He obliterated the competition in Coney Island by consuming forty-nine hot dogs in 12 minutes. Superbly fit, he is also one of the most cerebral of the elite competitors. He did, after all, once eat 17.7 lbs of cow brains in 15 minutes.

In Las Vegas the fans were asking can anyone beat Kobayashi. Well, America’s new great white hope is a woman, the diminutive Sonya Thomas. Slender of stature and, from her speech, of Hispanic extraction, she has been excelling recently, second only to Kobayashi in Coney Island (which does not appear to be an island in itself by the way). She was IFOCE 2003 Rookie of the Year and was rarely beaten in competition in 2004, except, we learn, for one highly controversial loss to Dale Boone in a baked bean eating contest in which the beans were said to be far too hot. She prefers the Long Course version of baked bean eating (an outdoor sport, I hope), and her record for Pulled Pork is 23 pulled pork sandwiches in 10 minutes. She is single by way, chaps.

Turning to the most recent competition, the Alka-Seltzer US Open of Competitive Eating, to give it its full name, sponsorship oblige, the unit of measure in Round Two was 20 oz platefuls of cooked spaghetti (al dente) in a marinara sauce. Contestants go head-to-head, or should it be mouth-to-mouth, in knock-out contests to progress to the next round. Carlene Lefevre (Le fever, remember) was eliminated in Round 2, despite a few Carlene pops between plates. Like most competitors she used the single-fork-fill technique. Interviewed, she illustrated the demanding nature of the sport: “If you don’t feel lousy at the end, you haven’t done your best.”

The statistical equivalent of speed of the ball in cricket and baseball or strokes per minute in rowing, the Chew Track statistics on jaw movement did not seem to be in operation during the competition. However, the specialist commentators made up for this by pointing out when certain competitors were eating more quickly than they could sustain. One technical innovation is a headband holding in place a micro video camera that protrudes from the contestant’s forehead giving the TV audience the eater’s view of the plate. Adapted probably from Formula 1, the device is called the Chew-View Cam. It's true.

Sixty-year-old Rich Lefevre (good, you did remember), whose forte is the longer contests favoured in Japan rather than the 15 minute rounds or less as in the US Open, nonetheless broke the world record by scoffing 9 lbs of spaghetti marinara in the allotted time. Asked what had been his strategy, he offered this insight: “Eat as much as I could as fast as I could and when I got tired slow down a bit.”

Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas once ate 65 hard boiled eggs in 6 minutes 37 seconds. For the pasta she used innovative “two-fork instrumentation”. Her apparently large oesophagus, allied with a lot of muscle tone, great jaw strength and very effective chewing, allowed her to beat the new record with an incredible 10 lbs in 14 minutes.

Up to the gastronomic tatami stepped the muscular young Takeru. In a pre-match interview he said through an interpreter that he was interested in seeing how far he could push himself. When that limit would come he didn’t know. His opponent, in a gesture that recalled, for some of the audience, the famous “Messieurs les Anglais, tirez les premiers”, at the battle of Fontenoy (1745), delayed the both of them digging in immediately. Once Kobayashi did decide to start shoveling in the spaghetti, the commentator contented himself with an awestruck: “Boy, can he put it away!” As indeed he could: thirteen and a half pounds in 14 minutes. He looked about as likely to be beaten as an American in the Tour de France.

The quarter-finals consisted of seven minutes of crunching “chopped mixed salads lightly tossed in a sun-dried tomato and basil vinaigrette” (pronounced “bayzle”, I now know). The surprise of the round was vet Rich Lefevre (that’s vet for veteran by the way, I don’t think a vetinary could do this) succumbing to rookie Tim Janus, who is being groomed as the Beckham of the meatball. Picture a handsome young man, dressed fashionably for his age, I presume, with a reversed baseball cap (hence Janus, I assume, but no one mentioned this) and face paint - honest. Cookie in his Stars-and-stripes bandana beat Badlands. Sonya whupped her increasingly red-faced opponent. As did Koby, using spoons like chopsticks to shovel in the salad. An interesting comment by a commentator on Sonya’s ability here was on “her large mouth – that’s in the evolutionary sense”, whatever that meant, quickly adding the rider “ – not to debate the Creationists”. Sports channels can’t afford to be controversial and lose viewers even if the viewers believe that God created competitive eaters as a separate species.

2 lb plates of potato skins proved no semi-final obstacle to either of the two favourites, and certainly not to Kobayashi’s power nibbling. The rookie lost to Sonja and Cookie to Koby.

Awaiting the two finalists were six-pound tailgater platters, assortments of appetisers from spinach dip, through celery and crooditays, to Swedish meatballs, to name but a few. And fifteen minutes of munching. “There is only one man in the world that can challenge Kobayashi” screamed the commentator, “and that’s a woman”. The petite American had beaten some big power eaters, but was she a match for the muscular Nippon, with his secret weapon, not yet used in this competition, the Koby shake? The Koby shake, we are informed, is being copied on the disco floor, such is the young man’s growing celebrity on the club scene “worldwide”. It’s pretty even to start with, but Kobayashi gradually pulls ahead with his tremendous jaw speed. Two minutes to go and Sonya looks beaten, she’s groggy, her eyes are rolling. Glass jaw rather than glass ceiling. Koby delivers the knockout blow with combination bites into another buffalo chicken sandwich. With a scarcely suppressed burp he accepts the trophy and a check (as we must spell it) for $10,000. Phew! Pass the Alka-Seltzer, someone.

On the IFOCE website fans can subscribe to the official IFOCE magazine, “The Gurgitator”, and buy IFOCE T-shirts (sizes: Large, XL, XXL, XXXL and XXXXL). (, honest!

3. Have ironing board, will travel

We both agree here that public transport in Noo Yoik is very good. It may not always be comfortable, the available maps in the subway or on the buses are not easy to consult or to follow, but public transport is inexpensive, always available and a never-ending source of interest.

We went to Brooklyn on Saturday and to Staten Island on Sunday – using public transport travel cards – 20 dollars for 12 journeys on subway or bus. We got a subway from Lexington and 51st direct to Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, five minutes walk from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The BAM, the guide books tell us, is the oldest performing arts centre in New York, nay, in America (1859) and has kept a reputation as an avant-garde venue. We went to see a matinee of Vanessa Redgrave in Hecuba, an RSC production, directed and translated from the Greek by Tony Harrison, who in his time has been called worse things than avant-garde. We got back-row seats in the orchestra stalls and enjoyed it, if that is the right word for a play with so much blood and (off-stage) violence recounted in gory detail. Just as well we had eaten in the cafĂ© before rather than after – highly recommended for its food and service, by the way – quite swanky.

By chance, we ended up in mid-afternoon in Fort Green park where Walt Whitman Day was being celebrated – we caught the end of a poetry ‘slam’, as I think they are called, then went on a ‘Jazz’-themed walk around Brooklyn’s older, once posh avenues (Clinton, Vanderbilt, Washington, etc.), seeing little of the promised jazz venues, even from the outside, but got a good idea of the big 3-4 storey ‘brown stone’ terraces and detached houses where nineteenth century industrialists and other upper middle-class New Yorkers settled. Now the area is a bit run-down and one of the most ethnically diverse in Noo Yoik. Did you know, by the way, that there are more named cats (13, including Pumpkin) living on the Pratt University campus than there are Starbucks in the whole of Brooklyn (10)? Not middle class enough, I guess. It’s amazing the trivia you can pick up. Pratt was the wealthiest benefactor living in the area in late 19th century, having made his money, I think, from kerosene. I also got very wet trousers from an unexpected grass sprinkler that strayed onto the pavement as we emerged from the campus.

We saw inside a beautiful Baptist Church which the minister happened to be leaving as our group passed – it has, by repute, one of the best black choirs in Brooklyn. Ironically, the Church had originally been built by Pratt and his friends as an in-yer-face gesture to the church across the road where they never set foot again after a sermon had been preached that to be a real Christian an employer had to ensure good housing, good wages and good pensions to his workers.

Back home by subway, which seems pretty safe, when we take it. In the ‘city that never sleeps’, it runs all night. We prefer the bus, since you see more. On Sunday, going to Staten Island, we therefore took the M15 bus down 1st Avenue all the way to the Ferry Terminal on the southern tip of Manhattan, through the bright red and yellow shop-fronted avenues of Chinatown. The ferry, which also runs all night, takes about 20 minutes, enough time to down a very drinkable (I have to admit) Starbucks coffee, while watching the Statue of Liberty glide past (or were we gliding past the statue of Liberty?). Free views of the islands in Upper New York Bay, and the Jersey City and Brooklyn waterfronts, and on the way back the Manhattan skyline, you certainly get your money’s worth! Just before docking on Staten Island you see the elegant single span of the 1964 Verrazano Narrows Bridge against the sun and the Atlantic beyond – in its day the longest in the world – of course.

An easy change onto the SIR (Staten Island Railway, or was it 'Railroad'?), whatever, but more importantly the Travel Card not only works but registers a transfer fare from the bus journey and costs nothing more. Another 20 minutes or so through leafy small-town American suburbia – Grasmere is one of the stops – and we alight at Great Kills. The guide book says either a short walk or a Number 54 bus ride will bring us to Historic Richmond Town – a partly authentic, partly reconstructed village offering ‘an opportunity for all visitors to experience the domestic, commercial and civic activities that supported families and community for more than 300 years’. We opt for the walk in the warm sunshine.

If it weren’t for the all-wooden detached houses we could have been in a bit of English suburbia: people were washing their cars in the drive, tending their lawns and shrubs, taking dogs for a walk. Well, OK, there were a lot more stars-and-stripes flags up flagpoles in the gardens and a lot more ‘God-Bless-America’ and ‘Support-our-Troops’ bumper stickers than we are used to in Jesmond.

The walk, along the bus route, began to feel very long, with no sign of Richmond, so just before the houses ran out we asked a lady polishing her car whether we were on the right road for Richmond. Yes, we were. ‘It can’t be more than half-a mile. Just follow Arthur Kills Road as far as you can go and take a right. It’s a pity the sidewalk runs out, be careful. Hey, you guys look pretty hot, can I get you a glass of water.’ How kind of her, but with very (misplaced) British stiff upper lips, we (or rather I) politely declined.

We plodded on, crossing the road when possible to get onto a grass verge, where a bus passed us! Arthur Kills Road could easily have been ‘Road kills Arthur’. Eventually, on the right a few wooden buildings, painted in unusually dull colours from what we had seen earlier, emerged through the trees and we saw those welcome words ‘Visitors Center’. On our way in we noticed a trailer selling drinks and eats, but on paying our $5 entry fee, we were encouraged to rush to join a guided tour that had just started.

We were taken round various houses, a general store, with a 19th century Bloomingdales mail order catalogue and all sorts of old merchandise, the Historical Museum, with a good exhibition on local life, a carpenter making a wooden hammer, a basket weaver’s home, a farmhouse kitchen where a girl was making a pear-and-raisin cake which was to go into a wood-fired oven (she did not have one she had made earlier), and, the pride of the village, the 1695 Dutch Church and schoolhouse. We were hissed at by free-range geese, talked at by various guides, and chatted to by a bearded American liberal whose little daughter was engaged to stir in the goose (?) eggs to the butter, flour, sugar, raisin-and-pear mix, while we answered questions such as “did we too think Blair was Bush’s lapdog?” Is the Pope catholic?

We eventually found our way back to where we had come in to see the trailer had closed its hatch. We spotted a ‘Tavern’, pushed open a door to find an animated costumed inn-keeper halfway through an explanation of the origins of the word ‘bar’ – don’t ask. We learned the tavern had offered, in addition to beer, a bed for the night to tired travellers or drunken locals, with rules such as ‘no more than five in a bed’ and ‘organ grinders must sleep in the wash house’ (presumably on account of the monkey). What we could not get in this tavern was anything to drink.

But succour was at hand, the Visitors Center had a shop that sold bottled water, for one dollar, bottled in Ohio but named after the website If only we had looked it up before setting out.

We asked for precise directions about a bus back to St George and the ferry terminal. The bus was pretty full, standing room only. But our travel cards worked again.

Standing up in country bus on a late Sunday afternoon is not the most comfortable way to travel. Was the driver in a hurry to get home for his tea? Were the brake pads very worn? The one might explain the jerky use of the accelerator, the other the harsh braking. You needed both hands to stay on your feet, and Americans being generally taller than us the rail down the centre of the bus ceiling was uncomfortably high.

There seemed more space at the back of the bus. We squeezed past, Americans also being generally wider than us. We found at least three empty seats, but it was pointed out they were soggy from continuing drips from the ceiling lights – a curious effect of the conjuncture of air-conditioning, open windows and condensation.

Despite the erratic driving and the frequent and deep potholes, two or three small children and one adult were fast asleep and had to be woken at the terminus. We waited ten minutes, used the toilets or rest rooms, I mean,– as always very clean – and puzzled over the large sign on the wall between the Men’s and Women’s rest rooms that declared: “Occupancy by more than 3,530 persons is unlawful and dangerous.” A very precise and large figure for admittedly fairly commodious facilities, but hey, who's counting?

On the ferry we enjoyed the view of Liberty and Manhattan, ran for a M15 bus, and yes the transfer fare worked again. Four dollars each in total for an hour and half journey each way from Midtown Manhattan to the midddle of Staten Island. We now know that buses in New York are flexible enough to allow travel card payment (a fixed sum for so many rides, or a weekly or monthly pass card, or a return ticket). It appears you have to buy travel cards at subway stations, not on the bus. You can pay for a single ticket on the bus, but with cash only. Or to be more precise coins only, dropped into an automatic ticket dispenser.

We noticed this particularly on the way back to Midtown from the Ferry. One passenger – they don’t seem to call them customers here – tested the system to its limits. The lady was not herself of small stature shall we say, 40-ish, looking generally at ease and quite content with life. She got onto the bus with some difficulty, since not only did she have a full and heavy-looking rucksack on her back, a sizable one, but was also carrying a full-size ironing board with her. It was attached to a set of wheels of the type that you can use more commonly to drag a case. The attachments were the gaudily coloured elastic straps with silver hooks on the end, as you might use on a car roof-rack. Getting herself and her accoutrements safely onto the bus without knocking anyone over was negotiated successfully, if slowly, and involved, once inside, re-attaching a strap around the board and to the set of wheels. She then turned to the question of payment of the fare. A brief conversation with the driver, then she balanced the ironing board against the driver’s cab, holding it with one foot while extracting a large purse from one of the several pockets about her person. Pause, she apparently had not foreseen the need for change. Another brief exchange with the driver, and she extracted two dollar bills from her purse. The driver indicated the coin slot. Undismayed, she waved the notes at a nearby passenger of similar age and gender, who happened at an earlier stop to have got on with a large case (now between her legs) and a heavy travelling bag (on her knee). If you need a favour always ask someone who appears likely to understand at least one of your problems.

The sitting lady scrabbles for a purse and counts out, laboriously, a number of quarters, nickels and dimes, and possibly even some pennies (as they seem to call cents), and hands them over to the ironing board lady, taking the two dollars in return. The ironing board lady recounts it and obviously feels the need for another coin. Scrabble, scrabble, another nickel is handed over. The ironing board lady, in order to get back safely to the coin slot, hands over her ironing board, on its wheels, to the seated lady with the case between her legs and the bag on her knees, who steadies the ironing board with her free arm. The ironing board lady, still with her bulging rucksack on her back, turns though 180 degrees, missing the ironing board by the thickness of the dollar notes she has handed over. She drops the handful of coins into the slot. The light flashes on behind the driver’s cab to say ‘Adult’; the payment had been accepted. Was there an audible sigh of relief throughout the bus or did I just imagine it? A ticket emerges from the machine. The driver has to gesture for her to take it. She turns another 180 degrees forcing a mounting passenger to take evasive action from the backpack. The rest of the bus is still watching, transfixed. The ironing board lady collects her ironing board and moves slowly down the bus and out of our sight.

But not out of our mind. For what explanation can we put upon this rare and compelling apparition? Why the ironing board? and what was in the rucksack? Had she simply been shopping? The ironing board could have been new – but there was no sign of packaging on it. Was she a backpacker whose one concession to creature comforts was to have the wherewithal to iron her clothes properly? That would explain the heavy rucksack, which would contain her clothes. Plus an iron. But there were no obvious signs of sharp creases on her shift or trousers. Did she make a living by making home visits to iron people’s clothes? What about the full rucksack? Perhaps she also took washing home? She would have been better prepared with the change. Cathy noticed she had got on at a stop close to an accident-and-emergency hospital. Was she a nurse leaving the profession after her final shift and taking all her worldly goods with her. She did not get off at Grand Central. Following the hospital connection, she might just have been to the hospital for some treatment for a bad back. By day she has taken to carrying a heavy rucksack over her shoulders to keep the spine straight. By night she needs a flat board to sleep on. Fearing she might need to stay in overnight she had brought the ironing board with her. That she did not have to stay the night, explains her happy mien. But on a Sunday? Perhaps not.

We may never know the truth. But what we do know is that whatever the passing, unusual needs of the Noo Yoik city dwellers, the Metropolitan Transport Authority and its staff will not be fazed.

2. The Siamese Connection

Walking along the street I keep seeing signs on columns at the bottom of buildings saying “Siamese connection on the other side” or words to that effect. I have worked out this is something to do with water hydrants, but it could have been the Far Eastern mafia. New York is after all a city of immigrants, as I am constantly reminded.

We had the painters in the flat the other day. A knock at the door and in came three well dressed people – one from the flat agency and two I soon took to be painters and decorators wanting to have a look at the bathroom ceiling where there had apparently been a leak before we arrived, not that I had noticed anything. They arranged for the painting to be done the next morning.

Sure enough, at 9.30am another knock and a big guy in dirty white overalls, obviously Hispanic, declared: “You ha’ some work.” Seeing the size of him I was disinclined to argue, but since he was not one of the people who had come the previous day, I asked what kind of work? His English turned out not to be good enough to give me an intelligible response, so I prompted him: “You mean painting?” “Yea, pain’in’. You show me.” I showed him. “I come back.” I asked for some details. “in haf a’ ‘our”. The work would take two hours, I gathered.”

Two hour an’ a haf later, he turns up again with several buckets of paint, some steps and a brush, scrapes off various bits of plaster on the ceiling and puts a coat of chemical on it, complains about the smell. He is from Colombia, built like an ex- heavyweight boxer gone to seed and who has gained an impressive paunch. He takes a phone call and all I can understand are his words: “I buy, I buy” – drugs, shares in Google, pastrami sandwiches? and disappears and a’ ‘our later returns with more paint, complaining about the prices in Ma’ha’ [Manhattan]. He asks if I have a broo’. Having no tea in the kitchen, I offer him a dustpan and brush, with a long handle, which he proceeds to unscrew from the broom head and affix to his paint roller. Hey presto, he soon has an undercoat on the ceiling and disappears again for a’ ‘our.

Hardly has he started on another coat than there is another knock at the door. A tall be-turbaned and similarly overalled Sikh, more by sign language than English, gives me to understand he is a colleague of the painter. They have a chat in very broken English. The Colombian asks for a bi’ fave’ and the Sikh agrees to take over. He has the long fingers and wrist of a concert pianist and reminds me of a Heath Robinson drawing. He is as thin and artistic as the Colombian is slapdash (slapping on the paint and dashing off before it can drip on him - the bath is somewhat besmirched). Having finished in the bathroom, the Sikh points to the ceiling outside the bathroom. He asks me something about the “light”. Do I want it painting? Do I want it taking down before he paints? At least that is what I guess he means – it turns out, after he realises my answers makes less sense than his questions, that he wants to know if I want it white? I had understood enough of his colleague’s instructions to him to know there is a tin of off-peach to match the dull colour of the rest of the flat. He is soon finished and cleans up.

The problems of communication engendered by the mixture of foreign languages and pidgin American in which the service sector seems to operate must be legion. A week later I have another knock at the door – a tall Malian says he is from the building owner, Mr Sam (?) and is here about the leak – he is as puzzled that the painters have been as I am puzzled that he wants to test the bathroom and adjoining ceiling for damp. I let him in. He hardly needs a chair to prod the ceiling with a two-pronged electronic device. Can I open the closet door? After the briefest of hesitations I open the wardrobe. His damp tester shows a fierce red – a bad sign. I gather the roof has not been fixed yet and it has been raining on and off for the last few days. They are going to wait for it to stop before going up to fix it.

There are so many different nationalities I bump into every day. I speak French with a Moroccan girl serving in the bread shop in her Muslim headscarf. Her parents would be horrified, she says, if they knew she had an hour’s commute on her own every day from Brooklyn. There’s the Hungarian girl serving in the French bistrot near Central Park; and the Russian cab driver. The Englishman whose cut-glass accent must give communication problems to local customers in the Lexington Avenue Liquor Store where he specialises in French wines, must also impress with his suave, ex-public schoolboy confidence.

Last Saturday there was a Turkish American Day parade – Turkish and American flags, marching bands, floats, local worthies. We just missed the Irish St Patrick’s Day parade. The Irish have been in New York from the earliest days.

In Chinatown, you hear a lot of Chinese spoken, and see a lot of Chinese language signs, but then the Chinese have been in New York so long there is a Confucius Plaza and a statue of the great man. But only the youngest of the Chinese in the 24/7 deli around the corner appear to speak English.

The number of pizza parlours around recalls how much a part of New York the Italians are. Lombardi’s, reputedly the first one, must still be one of the best if our visit last Sunday is anything to go by. We hadn’t realised you make up your own topping and get one big pizza per table, pre-sliced (more or less). The pizzas were 12 or 15 dollars depending on size, with 7-8 dollars to personalize it with toppings. When it came we realized we had obviously picked too big a one. The house wine, a 2003 Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, cost 20 dollars. Add a side salad and two espressos, and tax and tip and the bill comes to 65 dollars. There must be restaurants of every nation within walking distance: we have already seen Greek, Indian, Japanese, French (lots), Afghan (really) and more …

Hispanics are now all over the city - like the bus driver yesterday announcing the stops: “Sisty sis stree’ ”, and Hispanic TV stations, including a Spanish-speaking variant of the main New York local news station, NY1.

We must get the ferry to Ellis and Liberty islands, or see them from the Staten Island Ferry. Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty must be so much more impressive than the one I am used to seeing clusters of Japanese tourists around in the Luxembourg Gardens. The real one faced the European immigrants as they sailed in across the Atlantic to be accepted or sent back in the immigration sheds of Ellis Island. There is an immigration museum on one or the other, Ellis, I think.

One Guide Book suggests that the Statue of Liberty must have been a more inspiring sight to newcomers than the long lines waiting to pass the customs check in JFK airport nowadays. We had got (or should I say 'gotten') through immigration fairly quickly and unproblematically, but then we had visas from the UN. We discovered later we should have gone through the Diplomatic Channel which hardly has a line at all. Not that the UN is in good odour in US government circles these days. There is no lack of further would-be immigrants– witness the knots of people always waiting outside the Ukrainian and Peruvian Consulates just down the street from where we live. The American myth remains strong. And I’ll bet that they, as we did, still craned their necks as their plane banked to come into land at JFK to catch a glimpse of Liberty as the symbol of all that awaits.

1. First Impressions

Arrived in Manhattan (Midtown East) in a yellow cab driven by a Russian and the buildings just hit you in the face. You know there are going to be skyscrapers (the Woolworth Building, the Empire State, the Chrysler Building, and so on) but every single building is taller than anything in Newcastle, and in Paris come to that (if we discount the Maine Montparnasse). They are in your face the whole time, and you walk round with your head in the air and mouth open. The older brown-stone ones, the art deco ones, the new one-way-mirror glass ones that reflect the one next door, the pointy-top ones, the triangular ones, the ones built like Lego blocks that get thinner the higher they go.

It means there is no view from our flat of course – except of the top of the CitiCorp building and a lot of brown brick walls with the back ends of air-conditioning units mooning out of the windows. We are near a number of hotels – the Waldorf Astoria for one, but closer to the Marriott, pronounced like the Marie in Marie-Celeste and the -ott as in blot. The Marie – ott has a super-strong air-conditioning system whose fans produce a constant background noise. We have learned to sleep with it – but not yet with our own air-conditioning on.

The other irksome noise is that of the yellow cabs. Every other vehicle seems to be a cab and they seem to have squeaky brakes, the noise of which, at night from the flat, we first thought was the sound of squealing tyres going too fast round corners (Osborne Road conditioning), and it does go on all night.

Can there really be enough people around to fill up these office blocks and residential blocks? As in the UK, you see people gathered outside office blocks or by the rear service entrance of Marie-otts all smoking since the mayor has recently banned all smoking on work premises, including restaurants and bars, but there are really only three or four at the bottom of each 40 storey building. Perhaps it takes too long to get down to the bottom, so they give it up as a bad job or cheat somehow. To be investigated.

It really does seem as though we are two nations separated by a common language. The Russian cabbie told us he could understand us better than he could the locals. I too have problems especially on the phone –it seems partly the speed, although I know that’s just a common false impression for language learners and le nooyoikais is a foreign language to me. I took a bus all the way down to City Hall yesterday and in response to my question about where the bus stop was for the return journey, I understood the driver to say, with a flick of his head, by Jenners. I saw roughly where he meant and when I crossed the road I saw it was a shop called J&R. I need to adjust my listening.

Buses are great of course, if you get the right stop. I found the right line on Lexington Avenue and saw, not a yellow line on the pavement as the guide book said, but a red, white and blue sign that indicated M101 and M103 – M being for Manhattan. I wondered why buses were driving past me – I stretched out a tentative hand and the next bus swerved out of the bus lane to give me an even wider berth. I walked up the street to the next stop and found some locals waiting –exclusively older female and Afro-Americans – no change there then – and found it said that this was a limited-stop stop, which means even the limited-stop buses stop there. And, sure enough, one did.

A lady who winters in Florida and spring-and-summers in Noo Yoik, sat down beside me with a pile of polythene-covered library books – one week’s reading - she loves Ed McBain. She gave me a running commentary on the Stuyvesant Town and the Peter Cooper village, which seem like US gated communities and where there was no point in going to look since there were no shops or anything, but said I should go to the South Street Seaport, where I guess there are shops.

Shopping is not an unpleasant experience- the assistants and cashiers do all say “Have a nice day” – but they sound as though they mean it and that raises the spirits. My Nat West debit card causes as few raised eyebrows but it does work, and I am asked if I want any cashback – there’s globalisation for you. I can’t get over the amount of recognisable European food – don’t the Americans make any cheese of their own apart from something that resembles Kraft Cheese slices? And where can I find some ordinary semi-skimmed cow’s milk? The fat-free organic is a bit thin, but it does all come from a cow; the Fat Free ultra-pasteurized Half & Half’s second ingredient is corn syrup and claims to be free of most other things such as cholesterol, vitamin C, most calories and even fat - except for a “trivial amount of fat” from the added cream – it sure tastes of cream but drowns out the coffee taste in the morning.

And where can I get a decent cup of coffee? I made the mistake of going into a Starbucks to regroup in a doubtful area I had wandered into when searching out the Bodum shop. The only thing I recognised on the big sign above the counter was “mocha”. I indicated by sign language that I wanted a small (should I have said regular?) cup. The assistant picked up the smallest paper cup and I nodded – he shouted: “one tall mocha”. Don’t ask. I declined the squirty cream on top, but the second assistant remembered too late and had to ladle it out, but then added further half&half. I didn’t pick up the straw and, by the time I had finished it, found the chocolate had gravitated to the bottom. Jennifer tells me I should go for a flat white.

I say ‘doubtful area’ because I went into a discount store and found a pack of six clothes hangers for $1.99, but in order to get out of the shop I had to have the receipt that had been pinned to the plastic bag signed by a black guy the size of “the Refrigerator” on the door.

Bodum by the way because, despite the flat being well equipped with an all stainless steel set of ice-cream scoop, pizza cutter, beer-can opener, corkscrew, potato peeler, tablespoon measures and an over-complicated coffee percolator, it has no simple cafetiere. Indeed, the word ‘cafetiere’ or even ‘caffatier’ (with an increasingly desolate rising intonation) evokes no response. I did find a kitchenware store that had everything including very helpful staff who recognised the name Bodum and my description of a glass container and plunger and told me I needed a “French press”. Le Monde, by the way, is even harder to find than a coffee maker.

To get to Bodum’s I take my first ride on the subway and on my way back I confidently assured a German tourist that, yes, the incoming train was going ‘uptown’. There seems a lack of subway maps both on the platforms and in the carriages. It appears a bit dirty, but only in contrast to the streets that are completely free of litter and dog mess. Just as well since I shall again today be walking around with my head in the air.