As I now nervously hold my inferior EU passport and wait in line, the severe reputation of the US Customs and Border Protection Protectors coming into view precedes them, and my eldest two daughters (Meggie and Mimi, for those who haven’t been paying attention) both warn me not to make any unwise cracks when seeking admission via JFK.
‘Where are you staying, Steward?’ asks the expressionless Protector.
That’s fine. This Protector can order my name howsoever he sees fit. Nonplussed but composed, I consider it only polite to compliment him on his own name instead, and at the same time I congratulate myself on having avoided enquiring as to whether his first name might be Jesus-of.
‘Nazareth, that’s a great name.’
I feel Meggie’s and Mimi’s eyes boring into the back of my skull. They no doubt fear that I will shortly be facing at best detention, and at worst crucifixion. Nazareth proves tricky to convert to warm dialogue.
‘Where are you staying, Steward?’ he repeats, impatiently. It dawns on me that he might have worked out that Steward is my surname and that he is simply being assertive. Either that or he is a simple being.
‘Inn New York City.’
Before this descends into an Abbott and Costello sketch, I spare his blushes by explaining that my hotel is confusingly (I am trying to be generous to him) called Inn New York City. I sense I still haven’t quite broken the ice.
‘Right hand, four fingers… Right hand, thumb.’
I raise my pickaxe and hammer it home. ‘So is Donald Trump really going to be your next President?’
‘Left hand, four fingers… Left hand, thumb.’
Abandoning my hopeless ice-breaking metaphor, I duly oblige and allow the Protector to collect my fingerprints without further frosty dialogue. It is nearly midnight and he no doubt wants to get home to enjoy his own reflection in uniform whilst fantasising that he is NYPD. It is a small victory but I press a lot harder with my index and middle finger for Nazareth’s photograph, as I feel they are the two fingers he most deserves.
Our driver, Joe le Taxi, is a much warmer, more loquacious individual. The metaphor returns and I melt the ice with my opening question.
‘Donald Trump is de maaaaan. He’s a New Yoiker. He’s going to Make America Great Again. We’ve had enough of O-bama. And Hillary makes Bill look like a choirboy. She’s corrupt. She’s a murderer. It’s time for change. We’ve had enough of all these immigrants. Not every Muslim is a terrorist, but every terrorist is a Muslim.’
This hasn’t gone quite as planned and I am taken aback by the revelation that the Secretary of State and Democratic presidential candidate is in fact a killer. I must have missed that episode of House of Cards. I am also conscious that I am pausing a little too long with my response as I mentally try to list to myself all of the other creeds, beside Muslims, which have in recent history committed atrocities, from the Catholic Christians of the IRA to the revolutionary socialists of the Basque Separatists.
I decide to swiftly change tack to less controversial territory.
‘Have you always lived in New York?’
‘No sir, originally from the Caribbean, St Lucia; moved here aged seven and lived here ever since.’
It seems his violent objection to immigrants has developed later in life, post-green card acquisition.
Lit by atmospheric streetlights of sodium orange, we pass a pile-up on the other side of the road (trivial compared with the potential pile-up if Trump does get into power).
‘Cool,’ says Meggie, temporarily contributing from her introspective Spotify bubble, ‘NYPD in action.’ She doesn’t hang around to hear the response, reinserting her earphones and withdrawing once again from social interaction.
‘I was NYPD for fifteen years,’ says Joe, unexpectedly. ‘Retired out with invalidity benefit after 9/11.’
https://www.bitebackpublishing.com/books/in-search-of-nice-americans” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>I am praying (as only true atheists can pray) that Joe or Mary in the back of the car don’t ask if 9/11 is a 7-11 after a lie-in. I would imagine that New Yorkers expect all generations to have an appreciation of 9/11, but my own expectations of my youngest two are a lot lower. Fortunately, they aren’t listening as they are too distracted by their ongoing and futile search for Wi-Fi in the car.
Joe le Taxi’s apparent dislike of Muslims is now put into context when he explains that he was one of the first on the scene and rushed into the North Tower after the first plane hit, to help get people out, and was crushed in the exiting stampede. He was already in hospital by the time the South Tower collapsed, having titanium plates inserted into his spine.
I ask him to perform another act of heroism tomorrow and pick my mother up from Newark airport, when she joins us for our week in New York.
We arrive at the hotel after midnight, which is gone 5 a.m. in the UK. We are too fatigued to unpack or fully appreciate the magnificence of our red-brick 1890s Manhattan apartment hotel, and have time for nothing other than the priority task of getting my son logged onto Wi-Fi so that he can virtually sleep online.
Mary asks what time it is in England. I am impressed that she realises she has left England.
‘That’s the latest I’ve ever stayed up. Cool.’