5 days ashore and I was still playing catch-up. Thanks to the Comfort Suites in Gettysburg I couldn’t access the internet so had time to reflect on an odd week. From the high of arriving in NYC to the low of a bar-room floor on the Jersey shore. I’d begun to question the entire endeavour, and hadn’t yet uploaded the first chapter! Speaking of which, I was about to disembark…
If there’s one thing Cunard need to improve, and on my trip there really was only one thing, it’s the disembarkation process. You’re given an assigned time and place to await your colour code being called. Mine was pink 2 at 9.45. I arrived at my assigned spot in the theatre at 9.35 and began to wait. 10.00 passed but I wasn’t annoyed, there was no point rushing off since my hotel room was unlikely to be ready. By 10.15 I began to wonder. They were calling out Gold numbers, which should have been after Pink. Sure enough I’d missed my slot! Oh well, I wasn’t in a rush. But now I couldn’t disembark because the crew were running a drill…. Oh well…after a few minutes we were allowed off, only to discover the epic queue for immigration. …Oh for…This thing snaked back and forth across the room more than a dozen times, with each crossing about 50 yards. Worse still, we’d collected our luggage by then, so had to shuffle forward, dragging cases with every step. I got chatting with a friendly couple from Derbyshire which passed the time, but by 6 laps in I was growing weary of dropping my suit carrier and big coat. The official would yell at us for leaving even a small gap, then ask how we were. So I decided to play my Joker:
“Actually I’m feeling pretty dehydrated, can I get a drink of water round here”, I was assuming that I couldn’t.
“No, sorry sir”, official looks concerned, Paul does best to look queasy – not hard after 2 hours sleep!
Official glances round, then: “You’d best come through here sir.”
“Are these 2 with you?”
Well, now I’m torn. These 2 nice people have helped me pass a lot of time and we’ve come through that hell of a queue together, but these are US Customs officers, and you don’t want to mess with them. In that split second I look back and see the desperation in the eyes of my fellow queue-ees, like starving immigrants given a chance at a new life, and I have to try to take them with me,
“Yes they are”
..and with that we’re at the immigration desk!
My joy is short lived however, when I remember my previous encounters with US Immigration, and that I’m travelling alone, with no fixed plan, no job, and no ticket back to the UK. All of the possible questions and answers are whirling through my head as the lady checks my fingerprints and points the camera at me, then she looks up and startles me with “Have a nice day!”
I’m on American soil!
It was truly strange to walk out onto an American street without having been on a plane. Compounded by not having seen cars or traffic for a week. It also took quite some time to get out of the habit of looking at everyone and expecting to recognise them, as you do in the small community of the ship.
Spurning another epic queue for a taxi I risked being fleeced for a town car, but 25 dollars seemed worth it. I arrived at the grandly named Wellington Hotel to see a pile of bags and a lot of people milling around. This was going to be a major pain, it was 11.50 and check in wasn’t until 3pm.
“Your room is available now sir” said the receptionist, and I could have kissed her. Actually, she was very attractive so I’d have kissed her anyway given half a chance. Maybe I’d been on a boat too long!
So by noon I found myself in a crumby hotel room a block from Central Park!
In order to stay awake I then began the quintessential New York experiences: walked in Central Park, had a Hot Dog from a street vendor, saw the Chrysler building, the Rockafeller and the ESB, but failed to go up them because of the fog and rain, and got ripped off in Times Square. The one thing that blew me away though was Grand Central Station. How a train station can be so beautiful and have such a sense of “hush” about it I don’t know!
By the evening I was knackered and it was all I could manage to stagger round the corner to Hooters. Unfortunately the service was slow, the atmosphere was “shouty New Yorker” and there wasn’t even much to look at. I did have the first of many random bar conversations though, and learned that nobody in New York supports the Yankees, they’re the NY equivalent of Man U.
The next day started OK, but soon turned grim and grey again. I had a jolly run through the Park in the morning, and was amazed by how 3 dimensional it is, with the steep banks cutting you off from the noise of the traffic and the city. I had a great slice of cheesecake for lunch from a place called juniors (..or more likely Junior’s!), and I set off to walk down past Madison Square Gardens and through Chelsea. However the rain was turning torrential so I ended up bar hopping back to my hotel with mixed results. I did find a place called the West End Grill on 8th Ave which served the best steak I’ve ever had.
After a fantastic time on the QM2 I was struggling with the cut and thrust of NYC, and was planning to make a run-for-it in the morning. However the weather was looking better so I decided I’d stay one more night, even given the exorbitant hotel rates, and give myself and the city one more chance.
Right, so it’s 10am, I need to be out by 12, I’m starting an epic road trip and I don’t have a car. Renting a car from Manhattan for 6 weeks would be ridiculously expensive, getting a taxi out would be a faff, so I came up with a plan to rent for a few days, then rent again. As I’d been invited to meet up with Eric from table tennis, I planned the switch for Pennsylvania. So with 30 minutes to go, and whistles and sirens ringing in my ears from the union demonstation across the street, I had my escape plan.
Driving out of New York wasn’t so bad, nothing like as difficult as London, you just have to be prepared to be beeped at, and expect wild lane changes from yellow cabs. Sat Nav (GPS to the Yanks) should make things easy, but you have to make it work for you. I didn’t want the quick way out, I wanted the scenic way across the bridges. So with some effort I crossed the manhattan bridge, then the verrazano narrows bridge (over the top this time) and was in New Jersey, my 34th state.
Springsteen references abound as you head through Asbury Park and south toward Atlantic City, but I came to rest in Surf City on Long Beach Island, at a nice place on the beach called the Drifting Sands Motel. I took a room with a great view, carted my ridiculous amount of stuff up 3 flights of stairs, walked on the beach, then went to find some food in the local bar, where I ended up flat on my back on the floor.