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Roll call

Much of this trip, as I hope has transpired to be clear, was not really my doing at all. I just crunched numbers and moved around. Passed from hand to hand to velociraptor claw as I was, so much was undertaken by the awesome human beings who looked after me. I have thanked them all already, but it would be remiss of me not to dedicate a post to these fine individuals.

Thank you, all.

Nailbunny
SirToons
Job4125
DiannaoChong
Jobastion
JonXP
Sara Lynn & Aneurhythmia
TheRoadVirus
TK-42-1
WIckedKarma
JoshOfAllTrades
Rhysatti
JAEF
Xantus
BionicMonkey
RandomEngy
Verr
Snappy
Iowa
Arminas
My friends in Lafayette and Pittsburgh
and Akilae

Thank you also to the supporting cast – wives, girlfriends, and other relations, and to the other forumers who cropped up along the way to tag along for the ride. You all made this into a very special trip. I thank you.

Travelling by numbers

I decided to keep track of a few things during my travels, just for fun. Here are the numbers:

TEN THOUSAND, ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY-FOUR Miles traveled SIXTY-SEVEN Posts made THREE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FIVE Tweets twittered SIX Girly drinks unabashedly ordered ONE Amount of times talking with me compared to religious experience TWENTY-SIX THOUSAND, TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FIVE Words typed (approx.) TWO THOUSAND, TWO HUNDRED AND THIRTY-FOUR Pounds spent including flights TWENTY-FIVE Greyhound rides endured  FOUR Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies consumed SEVEN Wild Australians encountered SIXTEEN Times MP3 player needed recharging FOURTEEN dogs and TWELVE cats and ONE hedgehog introduced to on my way FIFTY-TWO Hours logged in Pokémon Pearl TWO HUNDRED AND NINETY-FIVE Average hits per day for this site TWO HUNDRED AND TWO Photographs kept THREE Times I very nearly screwed up very badly indeed ONE Pair of swimming trunks left hanging over a railing in Las Vegas TWELVE Times was informed I was a Long Way From Home TEN of which were in Wyoming and Montana ONE HUNDRED AND SIX Top speed in mph TWENTY-FIVE States resided in ONE HUNDRED AND TWENTY-FOUR Times I was asked where I came from TEN Free drinks due to my answer to this SIXTEEN Packets of jerky bought THIRTY-ONE Snickers devoured and TWO HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-EIGHT Comments posted from you guys.

Edit: As of posting, the forum thread has 56,913 hits too. Wowzer.

E Pluribus Unum

So I return to England, whereupon I am immediately whisked off to Eastbourne (think Florida – full of old people) to stay with my Grandparents for the weekend. Which is why this has been strangely void of denoument.

My travels across America have shown me some interesting things. It’s a land of extremes. Nothing is done by half if it can be done by whole, or preferably overdone – unless it’s the steak. What are you, some kind of inbred?

First and foremost, I suppose, the diversity. America as I experienced it was cut into five chunks, broadly speaking. The west coast, with its party-hard south and sanguine north; the dustbowl in the middle (here be dragons); The south and deep south, where two cultures steadily intermingle and the adage that America has no official language really is poignant; the east coast and Appalachia region, and the northeast, from Minneapolis (though really, more Chicago) to New York and above.

I’ve talked at length about most of these areas, though I have no official summary for my northeast experience, so I shall just write that now:
The northeast saw me in with rain, promising much but equally mysterious. Mist shifted under the tyres of the bus and the roads were murky and slick. As I headed to Chicago from Minneapolis I felt that the Twin Cities, whilst very enjoyable, were nonetheless likely to be comprised of different stuff than the hard-nosed town of Capone and the places to come. And I was right. Although perhaps coloured by my lack of stops in rural areas in Illinois, Indiana and Pennsylvania, the northeast felt as different to the ‘flyover’ states as California had felt to Texas. Here I found a populace altogether more fast-paced, more urgent. There seemed less time in the day than in the south, despite the long northern evenings. Creativity that had been demurely expressed in murals and statues in areas like San Diego, Denver and Sioux Falls was here honed into fierce little pinpricks of rebellion: signs hung in vacant windows and graffiti staining vacant lots, people singing on the street to apprehensive glances. The city life lends itself to this individualistic need, I often find. In a place with so many people, you need a loud voice to stand out, even if only to yourself.

Chicago and Pittsburgh felt like conceptual road bumps on the way to New York, which is in no way meant as a slur. Indeed, I was enamoured with Chicago in particular, and Pittsburgh was no slouch either. But New York is just so big. So fast. If you haven’t got time for New York, then New York has no time for you. Take whatever measure you wish of almost any other city in America: when it reaches New York, it is magnified. Even to me, aspiring city-dweller, lover of urban rush, inveterate traveler, New York damn near swept me right off my well-prepared feet. I can see why people would fall in love with the place, and I can see why people would hate it – but there’s no denying it’s an astonishing spectacle. I had heard people compare it to a theme park before I came out here, and I’m not sure they were far wrong.

The lead weight of New York on the rubber sheet of the northeast is a hard force to resist when weighing up the area as a whole, and unfortunately I did miss New England so I’m sure that my analysis has gaping holes, but once again I did feel more like I was in the modern world, up here. I felt like I belonged a little bit more; that the phenomena I observed in California could perhaps be applied again. Maybe I need to come back.

Going back to the point, however, this diversity is extraordinarily varying. Though I cut up the US into loosely-defined areas, each state definitely has its own feel and individuated character. You try telling someone from Louisiana that they’re similar to Texas, or likewise Texas to Arizona or New Mexico. Sometimes I pass through hyper-state-of-the-art complexes and gorgeously landscaped gardens or fountains, and sometimes I pass through snug little villages where one feels that the only change is that coke started coming in plastic bottles, instead of glass. Similarly, the demographics and racial blends switch up hugely depending on where you are, as well as the nationality of the original settlers. The resultant cultures are therefore, in this nation of immigrants, highly tinctured with who happened to get there first, and who followed hot on their heels.

The second, titantically unmissable thing about America is the strength here of business, capital, and capitalism. I’ve mentioned here and there in my posts about the television adverts, the slight sense of hysteria that thrums through the public psyche, the influence of special interest groups and the overwhelming amount of information and misinformation that is slingshotted through the air in all directions, to be eaten up and spat out by the scrolling 24-hour news networks. Everyone has a cause, everyone has an opinion, and everyone wants to be heard.

This is a Good Thing. It’s valuable to democracy. But boy, is it loud. Coming back to the decidedly more sangfroid England I actually experienced a sort of reverse culture shock. It’s so calm here. Where are the giant billboards? Why can I watch TV uninterrupted for an hour? Who’s sponsoring this? Where’s the visual stimulus, guys, come on, you’re missing a trick here! It’s as vivid a contrast as I can paint it – though who knows, things might change very soon. Some dickhead genius at Channel 4 already hit on the idea of copying the American strategy of throwing up an advert directly after the opening credits.

The inevitable result of this, of course, is the rife consumerism that is absolutely everywhere. Americans consume triple the amount of resources of the UK per capita, who in turn are the greediest hogs in Europe, chowing down on about 50% more resource than France. So when it is said that everything is bigger in America – and it is – that includes everything. Cars, refrigerators, buildings, televisions – everything. Well, everything except petrol. It’s a balancing act that one can’t help feel is of limited life expectancy. I don’t see how such luxury can go on against a rising petrochemicals price. But again, we shall see.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m not calling Americans bad people for this. It’s a culture, it’s how the US is brought up to see things – just laid out in front of it. It’s very difficult to start thinking in a different way, especially when everything is made so easy for you. I won’t lie, the environmentalist (and a bit of the humanist) in me dies a little when it sees something like Vegas, but who knows? Most of the energy use is by heavy industry like titanium manufacturing, which takes 12 cells per process, each of which could power the entire of Vegas for a week. Even if the people of America and the western world could reduce their consumerism (again, I’m certainly not saying it’s endemic to just the states), you’d really need to tackle industry… but I’m getting eco-political, and who wants that?

Whatever your gripes about it, American consumerism and the capitalism that stokes it gives the country a very unique character. I’ve certainly seen more inventive and funny adverts here than anywhere else, and there’s a real drive to win that gives, for example, the tours I’ve been on here a great level of quality. There is a sense that anyone can make it, no matter what the norm of reality might dictate, and no matter what opposition you face. It is inextricable from the people and the country is in turn rooted in it. The American dream, indeed.

The third thing about America is the space. The space. My word. I’ll let you handle that one because my head is still spinning from the fact it only took two hours to reach the south coast from here. What better way to remind me I’m home, than to get back to our tiny (metric!) scale?

Home. Lots of sayings about that. Home is where you hang your hat; home is where the heart is. Home is a roaring fire, or a hot meal, or your boss’s wife between the hours of four and six.

But really, I would say home is what you make of it; home is where you are. And I’m itching to leave home, but that’s okay, because I’ll be going home. Heck, it’ll be a home away from home. And if I get homesick I could always go home, not that I get homesick – being home as I am. And really, why should I be?

After all, there’s no place like home.

A bite of the apple

You know, I think the reason I had such a hard time envisaging living in New York is because it’s just so damn huge. The ubiquitous grid system in the USA is fine when you have smaller cities, because the neighbourhoods are necessarily smaller and more concentrated, but in New York the streets go on for miles and miles and miles, meaning that the various areas are spread out over distances that challenge the usual perception of character, and the gradients of change are subtle. To put it another way, you spend so long in one neighbourhood that you kind of don’t realise you’re in it.

The other thing is that I really didn’t see enough of New York. I mean, I was never going to and I don’t feel like I was short-changed or the like, but it’s really a place that you probably have to live in to know if you like living there. It’s certainly got a unique brand of lifestyle – fast, edgy, highly strung, and infectious. Akilae’s flatmate was saying how, since moving here a little over a year ago, she can no longer bear to stand in line at the subway and has to suppress the urge to barge her way through. It’s all here, floating around: lots of energy and a not inconsiderable amount of pent-up aggression. For instance, my final day started off with being yelled at for offering my seat on the subway. You have to smile.

I made my merry way to the Rockefeller Plaza, that impressively vast complex of limestone and artistry, and wasted no time in going to the top. En route, they had done a decent job of cobbling together a fairly compelling account of the audaciously hubristic undertaking. The center was built without a main client, in the middle of the great depression, and on one of the grandest scales ever seen. An unparalleled team of architects agreed to work together to design, build, and decorate this elegant monument, which featured some of the most groundbreaking infrastructural innovations ever seen as well as a breathtaking array of art. This was largely thanks to Rockefeller’s wife, who believed that art had an important role to play in the zeitgeist.

Next to the central tower sits the Radio City building (Regina Spektor is playing there soon, go see her!), which has a fascinating history itself, but I’ve dwelled enough on that stuff already.

The sun was feeling co-operative as I ascended to the Top Of The Rock, and lit up the island of Manhattan below me. Quite, quite breathtaking.

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It really gives you a sense of scale to see the streets like that, threads nestled in between vast duplo blocks of steel and stone. I received on that rooftop a clearer sense of the city at that point than I had at any other time. Hard to explain. An urban connection.

I turned north to Central Park. It’s a very interesting contrast to the tamed and gentle Royal ones in London; the place was envisaged as a space entirely on its own grounds, a wilderness in the middle of a metropolis. Therefore, there are waterfalls. There are large boulders. There are, indeed, brambles and thickets. It’s very surreal if you’re not used to it. Sunk below street level as the park is, New York simply – but for a few lonesome spires peering over the treeline – disappears. Much of the good work that is done here is down to the donation-funded Conservancy Agency, who really make the difference. There was a particularly sad-looking shot of the Mall in 1991, almost unrecognizable from the rather splendid boulevard today.

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Wending toward the center of the park, I eventually cut west into Strawberry Fields, which hopefully is a reference not lost on you all. A modest but evocative mosaic at the crux of the teardrop-shaped garden bears the simple slogan:

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To finish the recountable part of my day (in the evening I went out for drinks, which was very nice but not particularly riveting for purposes of story), I wandered down into the coagulant drum-like heart of Times Square.

It’s an all-out sensory assault, it really is. I timed my day to arrive there at just before sundown, that I might sit quietly at the side of the mayhem and watch the Crossroads of the World zip by. There was a great deal to see: street artists, drummers, and even a proper authentic poetry recital and lecture. And this, of course, isn’t even accounting for the billboards that plaster every single cubic inch of visual real estate. Some boards are just a company name – just being there is enough. As the spherical countdown clock glowed above the main corner, and the evening flared orange against the neon, it seemed only a matter of time until they cover the sky.

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And that was New York, more or less. I must say I found a much broader appreciation of it on this third day. Prior to this I fell, perhaps, a victim to my own hype. I might have expected too much and been bemused by mere greatness. But the third day, that view from the top of the tower, that set me straight. This enigmatic city… Although I hadn’t nearly enough time to explore everything I wanted to, I’ve seen enough of the place to guarantee my return at some point in the future, to try to tease out its secrets and subtle flavours, to wander around the less famous parts and find out that maybe, just maybe, I ? NY.

New York, New York

So! Today I woke up later than I wanted to due to a sleepness night, and wasted no time getting out of the door and into the city.

Taking the subway to the Lower East Side, I made my way to Katz deli, established in 1888 and still going strong. Famous almost as much for its patrons and role in When Harry Met Sally as for its food (stolen from wiki: each week, Katz’s serves 5,000 pounds of corned beef, 2,000 pounds of salami and 12,000 hot dogs), it was absolutely slammed when I arrived in the middle of the lunch hour.

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You pick a ‘cutter’ from the long bar and do your best to try and queue orderly whilst at the same time fending off would-be spot-stealing interlopers. When you reach the counter, you get to watch the guy behind (it seemed to be an all-male workforce) slice and dice the goods, which nine times out of ten is the famous pastrami on rye. It runs at a pretty eye-watering $15, and isn’t actually the best sandwich I’ve ever tasted (someone I know is going to punch me for saying that), but the atmosphere of the place is intoxicating, and one gets the feeling that that’s more what you pay for. Salamis and photographs alike plaster the walls, and there’s a lively, even abrasive hubbub at all times. It’s a real experience, and worth the surcharge.

Afterwards, I wandered north to Central Park. This contains a lot more activity than that sentence would suggest, for a few reasons.

Firstly, the map I had was not to scale. I did not realise this for quite some time – namely the point at which I thought that I should really be on 25th by now and why does that sign only say 15th. Suffice to say I had a lot more ground to cover than I expected to. Secondly, New York is on a grid system but there is a wild card thrown into the mix in the diagonal shape of Broadway, cutting a foot-stamping line from the southeast to the northwest. This led to me getting a little lost more than a few times, as Park Avenue was suddenly on the left instead of the right and what am I doing on First goddamn it.

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I always enjoy ambling, however, and it was great fun simply wandering the streets haphazardly, gazing up at the skyscrapers or around at the people. Shops and bars are everywhere, something I very much appreciated, from the dingy and inviting drinking holes in the south to the super-posh, super-pricey establishments near Grand Central Station in the north (though still below Central Park, so I suppose more Midtown than anything) that cater for the after-work crowd from Wall Street et al. To my delight I found a Pret A Manger – a high-quality London chain – and subsequently bagged myself a free sandwich, further reminding me why I love the place so much. No, I’m not telling you how.

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I actually passed quite a few NY monuments: Grand Central, The Empire State, The Sex Museum… but what was more interesting was the city, to me. It’s thronged – ensconced, almost – with people, and pulses with human energy. There’s a lot of very interesting things to see, which I shall endeavor to show in pictures rather than use my insufficient words, and it possesses in spades that fast-paced culture that is so dear to me – more than anywhere else I’ve been in the world, in fact. But, much to my surprise, I have not yet found myself drawn towards the idea of living here as in Chicago, though I do like the place. I’m not passing judgment yet, though, as I have my one last day to check it out further.

Sadly, by the time I reached Central Park, it was very low light and raining so I repaired home. Tomorrow I shall start there, and try to investigate the many things I have not yet seen!

I want to be a part of it

‘Everyone wants to go to New York,’ the white-haired Italian man said, at the Pittsburgh station. ‘Why does everyone want to go to New York?’

Good question. But all I know is that I’ve wanted to visit this city for a looong time, longer even than I’ve wanted to come to America. Pictured in so many ways across so many mediums, it’s one of the most culturally represented cities in the world, and if not quite all things to all people, it is certainly something to many.

I took a Great Wall bus, one of the network of asian-run transportation options that span a constellation across the east coast, interlinking the biggest cities, frequently by their asian districts. It is a lovely bus. Do excuse the aside, but after so long on Greyhound, inured though I am to them the startling contrast in luxury was… well, startling. Clean, well-aired, full of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese people instead of mad ones, it was even comfortable enough to get a few hours semi-sleep in. It was also faster and cheaper than Greyhound, with more sensible times. I really recommend it should you need to get around the seaboard.

It rained through the night, and on into the morning. I landed in Chinatown having slept through the station approach just as the light was starting to filter into the streets. The city that never sleeps was doing a remarkably good impression of it, but soon after I disembarked, the muffled sounds of slumbering concrete started to pick up the dull roar of another day. At exactly 7am, a light flicked into life across the street as the Wing Sing bakery started its business.

I met up with Akilae, who proved an awesome tour guide – very knowledgeable and with quite a flair for rhetoric in his own quiet way. Together we bought me a subway pass, jumped back to his apartment in Brooklyn where I got a blessed hour or so of proper sleep (before jumping out of my skin at finding him standing behind me. Guy is a ninja). Then we headed underground.

We used this tour, which involved queuing in the drizzle alongside an inauspicious street before climbing down an equally ordinary-looking manhole (someone needs to rethink the ontology of that word) in the middle of the traffic.

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(That’s my new jacket!)

It’s a very tight fit. Underneath though, through the accumulated dirt and mud of decades, is a cavernous man-made tunnel with a colourful and fascinating history (covered to some extent by the site I just linked); technically the first subway in the world. I could only take one picture because, y’know, pitch black, but there are some more on the site that do a decent job of it.

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Also, politics was super-corrupt back then. If it wasn’t so awful it’d be impressive. Small wonder America distrusts their men in suits so much.

Afterwards, we returned to Chinatown to eat a whole bunch of Dim Sum, which I made a valiant effort at, even trying the shudder-inducing chicken feet, but I decided probably wasn’t for me on a regular basis. The Chinatown in NY is a pretty expansive one with a lot of character and the slightly otherworldly feel of its cousins elsewhere (Philadelphia, San Francisco, London…). ‘Not going to gawp at the ducks?’ asked Akilae, gesturing at the bronzed poultry dangling in the window, then looking slightly disappointed when I broke the news I had unfortunately seen it before.

We decided to walk the rest of the way home, but by a circuitous route. First we reached Ground Zero.

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No American, and very few others, need further detail here. It’s a place full of sadness and optimism. The discrete information center hosts a model replica of the planned replacement tower and memorial (square waterfalls set where the foundations of the prior buildings were), as well as a simple timeline and unsensational explanation of what occurred. I was pleased to see a focus on contextualizing the event that shaped the first decade of the 21st century, rather than blind outrage or festering resent. It felt like it was being handled properly. There was, additionally, a blacked-out, sound-proofed booth wherein one could record their recollection of that day in three minutes. I left my own words in there, and shan’t repeat them here.

We ambled on through the odds and ends of the city, across small parks and cemeteries, past Wall Street and the ‘anatomically correct’ bull outside, and crossing through the square in front of City Hall. There was a small ‘truther’ protest being held there. Having just been to Purdue, where they did explain how the towers collapsed as they did, and subsequently the scarred site of the tragedy itself, I found myself getting very, very angry.

Some vapid and earnest-looking young man with curly hair was speaking into a microphone in front of the relatively diminutive crowd, and I managed to ignore him. But it was the people hassling passers-by with their leaflets that really choked me. You don’t get to ask a question that serious and then disregard the answer. I yelled back that there was no such cover-up and that Purdue had already shown exactly what happened, and as an amateur camera-man wheeled on me with a slightly predatory grin he was followed by a kid of about eighteen (‘Really?’) who had that wild-eyed look of the conspiracy theorist. As he bounced after me yelling about willful ignorance and abetting an evil Government it was all I could do not to turn around and punch him in the face. I’m not a violent man, but some things…

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We finished the day by crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, a marvelous structure with wonderful views of the city, the Statue, and its sister the Manhattan. Very photogenic.

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And not quite true. We finished the day proper by stuffing ourselves with NY-style pizza, fresh from the restaurant oven in the fashionable waterside DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) district of Brooklyn. Watching the sun set over the silhouetted skyline, the first skyscraper lights glowing through the distance, I found myself more eager than ever to explore this city – to be a part of it.

My adventures continue tomorrow.


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