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Zoo York


So I lost my job on Wednesday. I woke up on Thursday with the associated memory loss that comes with farewell commiseration drinks. And in between brushing my teeth and dry retching, I found myself humming the first few bars of “New York, New York”. Start spreading the news, I was leaving on Monday. I had panicked the previous day and somehow  booked 8 days in New York. As all unemployed, and apparently unemployable, people should. Bukowski must have become a drunken role model at some point in the evening and I must have decided to set off and posthumously find him.

It was only when I got on the plane and heard the ambient American chatter around me that it dawned on me that I truly disliked Americans. And as the fasten seatbelt sign pinged and we taxied towards my nemesis, it all became clear why. I picked up the atypically pithy in-flight magazine. In true American bigger, bolder, brasher, brighter, “you wanna play mommy or daddy, big boy?” style, they had souped it up into a telephone directory sized tome titled “The Sky Mall”. Within you could find useless, expensive, instantly redundant gadgets to make your life ostensibly less complicated. The mind (if you have one, hence the target market) boggles. On one page I found a telescopic pet ramp for your vehicle, and a tastefully carpeted pet ramp to facilitate fido’s obese ascent onto your waterbed or vibrating lazyboy. On the adjacent page was a high-pitched furniture sensor alarm that promised to sub-sonically perforate your pet’s eardrums should it leap on your couch or bed. No wonder American pets are fat, like their owners they have turned to comfort eating with all these mixed signals. Pavlov would be choking on his Pavlova. The in-flight service and food confirmed I was truly on a jet to another planet. Apparently our stewardesses had been replaced by the Stepford Wives. The American’s famed reputation for overeating and junk food became apparent, as they served up scale model troughs of airplane food that had me loosening my belt and pounding my sternum to get my hypoglaceamic heart pounding again. “Lunch” consisted of a happy meal box containing a can of Pringles, a Mars bar, a deep fried marshmallow snack and a processed cheese and pretzel deluxe dipper delight. I wondered if my travel insurance covered deep vein thrombosis. You could power a small family car on the amount of kilojoules in that snack. All washed down with litres of sickly kawfee. It’s no wonder the seats were bigger and more spacious then usual. They had to be.

The pilot even lived up to the stereotype. He would come in over the PA and get really animated with his flight description. “We’re currently cruising at 30 000 feet I hope to put my foot on the gas a bit and get this crate up to 35,000 feet baby and…” All we needed was for Top Gun’s Goose to chirp up and I would be right into the danger zone.

And so we landed 7 hours later but 5 hours earlier somehow. Go figure, as they would say. All the non-Americans went through passport control like lambs to the slaughter, braying and baulking between the barriers. Left fingerprint, right fingerprint and “smile for the camera sir.”  They are so robotically polite that I’m convinced a customs officer, completing a body cavity search, would snap off his latex gloves, shake your hand and wish you “an excellent day now, sir”.

As soon as I had blundered my way through this and into the subway system, my sense of foreboding subsided. Despite an initially bewildering subway system, I managed to get to my hotel relatively painlessly. Thanks, in the most part, to incredibly helpful New Yorkers, who approached me and offered to help. 45 minutes later, I was disgorged from the ant farm and left reeling from the physical and emotional vertigo that smacks you in the solar plexus, when you first realise the scale of the place. The emotional vertigo comes from the unshakeable inkling that you are in a movie. Walking past a film crew on a side street and hearing “cut” I almost believed it to be true.

Not being one to remortgage a house that I haven’t mortgaged yet, for the privilege of staying in a mediocre New York hotel, I had opted for the YMCA on the Upper West side. It was only walking there, gaily humming the Village People to myself that I realized I was truly in the global village now and I was the global village idiot for booking myself in there.

Walking into the “boys only” entrance, I was half expecting a welcoming committee of leathered up, moustachioed rent boys to be enthusiastically patting their laps and rattling their dog collars. Instead I was hit by the spring, musty smell of a gym change room. It has one of the biggest gyms in Manhattan, and the smell of stale sweat permeates the place.

Clutching my luggage to my buttocks, I walked down the corridor to find my room. I came across a geriatric standing in his robe and slippers rocking back and forth, his face inches from the stained wall. 45 minutes later as I left my room, he was in the same predicament and I was concerned that if he didn’t move soon, mould from the skirting board would start growing up his legs. My movie was fast becoming an unwanted triple-bill of Barton Fink, The Shining and Deliverance.

My room was nothing to write home about. But I’ll do so anyway. It was dirty. Musty. Mouldy. Shoebox sized. There were dodgy stains everywhere. It had lots of character. Lots of characters had obviously been drooling on the pillowcases, I thought, shoving my pillow into my dirty t-shirt, rather taking a chance with my own bodily secretions than with stranger’s. It was time for a cleansing stroll in Central Park.

And so I did what everyone seems to do there. Powerwalked, and walked and crawled. And tried to orientate myself on a blurry printout I had taken off the Internet. It was high time I bought a map. And an infamous hotdog. I was determined to keep normal nap and eating times, despite still having a sleeping pill coursing through my veins on 4 hours sleep, and lunchtime was beddytimes according to my biological clock. Eating in New York is just a series of disappointments. A hot dog here is still just a dubious snack of processed lips and arse on a stale roll, served by a dubious looking immigrant with dubious hygiene standards. It’s far more glamorous in technicolour.

And with that little spurt of sustenance I pounded the streets. With naïve folly, I decided it would be quite feasible to stroll from the Upper West Side downtown to Little Italy. Mere inches on the map, after all. I didn’t take into account all the other ants in the ant farm bouncing off each other and moving on. Nor did I account for the gazillions of intersections and “walk, don’t walk” signs. Progress is slow with the glut of visual stimuli. I found myself stopping every 10 metres to photograph some inanity, or to wait for a dog to go about its business.

New Yorkers seem to love their pooches. I have seen professional doggy walkers, doggy baskets and even kangaroo-style doggy slings, which allow you to carry your café latte in one hand, cell phone in the other, Chihuahua chilling on your chest. New Yorkers also seem far more sociable than any other big city inhabitants, stopping constantly to chat to passers-by, or else just strolling by with a “Howya doin?” I wandered around the truly impressive Central Park and then went down one of the broad arterial avenues to Times Square, stopping every now and again to pick my jaw up off the sidewalk.

It truly is a relentless juggernaut of a metropolis. Taking shelter from a monsoon style downpour in a doorway on Times Square, an attractive blonde smiled and sashayed up to me. I looked behind me expecting an amusing poster or a clock or something, but no, she was approaching me. 45 minutes later, my eardrums bleeding and my face hurting from its forced rictus, I was laden with armloads of Scientology leaflets and brooches. It was my soul she was after, damnit. I decided it would be prudent to move away, before I fell prey to whiplash from sidestepping pedestrians, vertigo from staring up towards the capitalist heavens, or narcolepsy from the flashing advertising billboards.

I continued swimming upstream, though technically downtown and an hour later ended up in Chinatown. Like any other Chinatown, just bigger. I strolled past the typical dead animal and marine life displayed out front or hanging in steamy windows, and past the odd massage parlour into Little Italy. I opted for a really dodgy looking authentic Italian bar, figuring it was my best bet to get around New York’s Nazi nicotine policy. By the time I had felt my way through the dimly lit interior, it was too late to double back and chicken out. The card playing Mafiosi at the corner table had already looked up and stopped chewing mid-hand. There was only one way to get through this. Heroic quantities of beer.

My movie kept flicking channels and I was now well and truly stuck in a mob movie. The walls were adorned with literally thousands of framed photographs of the balding, moustachioed owner in a remarkably consistent pose. His arms conspiratorially around many important, scary looking Italians. His expression and posture only changed for the funeral photos, in which he adopted a pained, theatrical look of solemn sympathy as he consoled grieving relatives. There were many funeral photos. Too many for them all to be natural deaths. Perhaps they had also ordered the stale pepperoni calzone? I still lied and kissed my fingers several times assuring the waiter it was delicious. I managed to blag my way into the courtyard, where I could smoke, write and order 2 tiny American beers at a time without getting caught in any crossfire. When two Russian prostitutes joined me at my table (1 of 20 vacant tables) self-preservation kicked in and I decided it would be prudent to leave. Checking my wallet, I realised to my horror that I had haemorrhaged my monopoly money for the day and the five notes in there amounted to a mere $5. Not wanting to get blood, brains and half-digested calzone over the prostitutes’ sequined frocks, I opted to approach the counter and confess to my financial dilemma. I think I may have even called him sir.

After much dispute and chip and pin errors, I fled back to the Y for a cleansing shower. Bivouacking myself behind the flimsy shower curtain, I became aware of a repetitive moaning coming from the adjacent cubicle. Someone was either beating themselves with a birch branch in there, or just plain beating off. He emerged to find me vulnerable, one leg in my boxer shorts, hopping round the showers like a crutchless amputee, in a vain attempt not to catch athlete’s foot. His vacant, cross-eyed stare suggested he was merely mentally ill, and couldn’t control his pornstar-style tourette’s. As a control test, this was confirmed at three o’clock that morning when he caught me with pants down yet again at the urinal, and his record was still stuck. He must have either have had prostate problems or a bladder synchronised with my own, because nearly every time I took a pee that week, he was rocking back and forward at the urinal next to me, moaning to himself. I can safely say that was the first time in my life I suffered from stage fright.

My crocked internal alarm clock woke me at 6am and I made an early start. I was first in line and an hour early for the Empire State Building. Getting up to the 80th floor was a series of painful cross-selling pitches, with all the moneymaking extras being repetitively punted as we wound our way around 25 minutes of bewildering barriers. The guards kept changing the ropes around to control the queue as it got fuller and I began to feel like a mouse in a behavioural maze experiment. I just wanted to get to the cheese already, damnit and “no, you can’t interest me in an Empire State building pepper grinder, thank you”. On top we were buffeted by brisk winds but were consoled (by Tony the Bronx Cab Driver’s voiceover on my audio guide) that the building only swayed 1 inch in such winds. I felt like I was looking down on the Grand Canyon of capitalism as he guided me around the observation deck with his witty and informative Joe Pesci style anecdotes. Heading down I noticed I had won a free gift according to the back of my ticket stub. I headed to the electronics store next door, to collect my free gift. 20 minutes later I walked out with a 20Gb iPod, and my free gift, a shabby disposable camera. Damn these guys are good. In the midst of the consumer frenzy in the store were devout Hassidic Jew shop assistants. The service industry really over services you here.  First you had to express interest in an iPod. The floor salesman would then walk you to a counter to order. You would then be directed to another counter to pay. Then to another to collect your purchase. And another to collect the free gift. The net result was that there were more Hassidic Jews in there then customers.

Trying to order a Whopper at Burger king I was told to come back in 4 minutes because they only started serving the lunch menu then. Yet again I was trying to beat the system. The sales assistant looked like she had drowned doing doggy paddle in the shallow end of the gene pool. Yet she was giving me a look not just of reproach, but of patronising sympathy as if I was absolutely beyond help. It was a pattern destined to continue. I tried unsuccessfully to swipe my metro card for a good 5 minutes, with the lady behind the armoured glass barking unintelligible instructions through her microphone at me. Her parting look and expletive couldn’t have been dirtier had a parked a coil on her shiny shoes. A bus driver let me try and insert my bus ticket into the slot in so many different directions, like a sadistic special needs teacher watching a child trying to put a square peg in a round hole. I was worried we’d run out of petrol before finally he helped me out.

And so feeling a little bit simple, I stomped around as many sites as my brain and knees would allow in a day. The Public Library, Central Station, The Chrysler Building, The United Nations, The Rockefeller Centre, a cathedral and Saks 5th Avenue. You certainly need sacks of cash to shop there. It’s like Harrods. Harrods just has more Americans in it.

If the movie that is New York isn’t stimulating enough, you can always tune into the passing sound bytes.  My iPod has remained firmly in my bag. Instead I amuse myself catching some pretty pedestrian conversation. Little Sex in the City and Seinfeld outtakes abound, as well as the prerequisite Wall Street boastful investor cell phone monologues. I heard one guy telling his wife he didn’t want to spend a million dollars on something. I suspect it wasn’t just a turn of phrase.

People really aren’t shy about barking into their cell phones in crowded buses or elevators. It’s the first place I’ve seen people use them walkie-talkie style, holding them up to their mouths for a minute’s diatribe then listening for 10 seconds, before holding it back to their mouths for the next riposte. They really don’t seem interested in listening to anyone. Cell phones are New Yorker’s earrings, glued there at all times. I’ve watched people arrive at a table, shake hands with each other, hug and kiss. Then sit down and yak into their respective phones for half and hour. They then got up, hugged and kissed goodbye and went their separate ways. The only bonding happening there is between their phone and their ears. They sure spend a lot of time communicating, just not with each other. Interestingly sms’ing or texting apparently hasn’t taken off there at all.

I stumbled across Washington Square. Home to student’s rattling on about their dissertations and junkie’s trying to sell you shit. And vice versa. From there I walked “The Village” and picked up a new pair of sneakers, since mine were stinking of burning rubber, after just 48 hours on these pavements. From there I ended up in a bar with a chatty bar lady regaling me with her stories from a year in London and then demanding a huge tip for the favour. New Yorkers now work almost exclusively in the “service” industry. Whereas the American dream was built on industry and construction, now the whole city “services” itself. Which is a perverse evolution. Imagine having to pay to service yourself.  Some people do pay for masturbation, but explode that into anything else you desire but can’t be arsed to do. A job is created. On the streets are shoe shiners, people offering to charge your phone in 10 minutes, umbrella sellers popping out of nowhere with the fall of the first raindrop.

I stumbled across a 2-for-1 happy hour and decided to dive in and escape the madness. An elderly, posh, waspy New York couple struck up a conversation with me. They really are a gregarious bunch. Despite stressing that I was quite happy in my own company they persisted. Maybe you just need to be upfront and shout, “Leave me alone, enuff already”. The old fella just couldn’t be dissuaded and he seemed to have a frustrated, but virile, bee in his rusty bonnet. Despite my protestations, he conducted a long monologue where he decided every young man needs a pitch and mine was to be the “great white hunter from South Africa”. With that gem, he decided to proposition a group of 4 single girls on my behalf. They now kept gesturing to me to come over. I declined. His wife admittedly found this a positive trait and boasted of her own infidelities. Deciding to play along with the great white hunter pantomime, I convinced them that you distinguished a male zebra and female zebra by the fact that males have white stripes on a black hide and females black stripes on white. I then fled, before someone made a trophy of me.

Hoping there would be less old drunks in Soho, I headed down there. En route I came across a rerun of “White Men can’t jump”. A group of black dudes took on some white boys. A crowd watched and bayed through the chain-link fence. I snuck inside to take some photos. The ball narrow missed me a few times, accidentally on purpose. I left as a fight broke out between the two teams. Someone was judo thrown onto the floor and dragged along the asphalt. People laughed. I left. I expected Soho to be rough and ready. Instead it was ripe and ready to take your cash. I settled on a working class American bar, complete with pool table, jukebox and swinging saloon doors to evict one through. It was the kind of place you would expect to bump into Bruce Springsteen. Complete with bandanna. And a knuckleduster. I had a little fajita with my grease. And washed it down with a steady stream of beer. At some point the waitress produced my bill and suggested I leave. Perhaps English style binge drinking was too much for an establishment like this. Or maybe it was the fact that I was sitting cross-legged and drunkenly scrawling in the corner. The only writing that went down in this bar was in tattoo form. It was probably a good thing I left when I did.

The next morning I woke up with a hangover that suggested I had destroyed sufficient brain cells for me to find myself in the garden shed in 20 years time, standing there in a bathrobe and slippers with a spoon in my hand, wondering what the hell it was exactly that I was looking for in there again. Getting into the elevator, I shared the ride down with yet another victim of post-traumatic stress. Elevator silences are always awkward, but it’s just plain alarming when a co-passenger starts mumbling about gooks and firing off alpha, bravos and charlies. Trying not to make eye contact I noticed a Vietnam bush hat festooned with political slogan buttons in my peripheral vision. The elevator pinged before he did, fortunately. An omelette was called for. It appeared as a 2-egg omelette on the menu. The platter that arrived contained 4 slices of fried bread, a large serving of fries, bacon, cheese and two eggs that they must have plucked from a passing ostrich. It seemed like a good idea at the time. 5 hours later as it bobbed in the ferry’s wake somewhere between The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, it didn’t seem such a hot idea anymore.

The Statue of Liberty. Amazing. But we’ve all seen it to the point of familiar saturation. It felt like I had already been there. A few times. Getting to actually see it was another story. I’ve got the “strip for the metal detector whilst walking” shuffle down pat, removing belts, watches, and cell phones whilst walking. If you want to even take a dump here, you need to take everything off and pass through security. I can empathise with their heightened vigilance, but as a tourist you begin to feel like a striptease artist. And you’re constantly having possession panic as you keep circulating wallets, belts, cell phones through various pockets and backpacks.

The Statue of Liberty had 2 security checks, one before you even got on the ferry and one when you arrive. It was real Minority Report stuff. When prompted by an android voice, you walk through a large 3-D full body scanner. You position your feet in a square, and stare straight ahead. A light turns red. The voice announces “Air puffers commencing”. High pressure blasts of compressed air pat down your whole body, as you’re peppered by the jets head to toe. Skirts were lifting, hair was dishevelled. You remain motionless in your square for an eternity before the light turns green and the voice orders you to “proceed, step forward”. Where you pass through a standard metal detector and a guard with a hand-held scanner. Before this, all baggage and cell phones were checked into space age storage lockers, that are opened and closed with fingerprint scanning technology. Not a hell of a lot of liberty going down on that island.

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