Travelling alone tests you. It’s shit at the time, obviously, but when you look back on it, wrapped in the warm blanket of hindsight, it’s a beautiful thing.
I was in New York in August, 2014, at the end of the best three months of my life. During those three wild months I had visited Vietnam, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and had travelled the whole width of the USA. New York was the end of the line, and I was due to fly home in a couple of days. I was the most tanned I’ve ever been, my hair was long and curly and bleached by the sun, and I was horribly unfit after months of partying and boozy adventures around the world.
I realise I could have lied to you then, and made myself sound more charming, but… meh.
I’d been travelling in a group of 12 across the States for three weeks, and it was finally time to say goodbye. The previous day our minivan had emerged from the underpass and into the streets of the Big Apple. Nando, our guide, played Frank Sinatra’s ‘New York New York’ as we emerged from the tunnel and into the cacophony of life and grime that is NYC. It’s hard to describe New York without resorting to a thousand clichés. Anybody who has been there will know exactly what I mean when I say it’s simply a place where everything happens at once. I saw yellow taxis and my heart soared. Photoshopped faces beamed at me, gazing down from shining LED billboards. Everything looked dirty, grimy; there was gum all over every surface. It looked like the city was a million years old; like the avenues had always been there. We craned our necks to see the tops of the buildings as we drove through. Winding down the window, you were hit with a wall of noise, engines, heat and horns. Go to any big city in the world, go to London, New York, Berlin, Havana, Hanoi, and it’s always noise, engines, heat and horns.
We took forever to reach our hostel, which was arguably the worst I stayed in over that whole three months, and the most expensive without a doubt. A riverside lodge in River Valley, New Zealand? $25 a night. A palatial room within walking distance from the old town in Hoi An? $5 a night. A grubby little cupboard in the West Side YMCA with a rusty metal bed and springs that scream when you sit down? $150, thank you very much. Even though the room was like a solitary confinement cell and there was scaffolding around the window, the view was astonishing. I stared out at the thousands of windows opposite, the skyline impossibly complex, and the air hot and buzzing with that energy that audibly crackles in a big city.
We went to Times Square that night. It was Nando’s birthday and we bought him a tiara, among other things, which he proudly wore through the streets. We emerged into the monstrous neon of Times Square, a hive of lightning, a million people meshing together at crosswalks. The huge stone cross and the stern statue of Francis P. Duffy in the middle of it, completely out of place. We sat on the TKTS steps and let it soak in. You could sit there for hours. You could sit there forever. It feels like the centre of the world.
We ate dinner at a Cuban restaurant just off the Square. We said goodbye to Nando after; his time as our tour guide was over. I loved him, and we both shed a tear when we hugged goodbye. “We will party again, man,” he reassured me. I remember watching him walk away, his bag on his back, his bald head bouncing with his loping, easy gait. I thought I kept seeing him after that. Every bald, bearded guy that passed me for the next three days in New York, my heart jumped. He’d returned so we could continue our adventures! But, of course, I was seeing ghosts. For three weeks we had spent every single minute together. He always knew what to do, through all the parks and ghettos and weird truck stops and bustling cities and hick towns and mountains, he always had an answer, always had a plan. Now I was in New York and he was gone. I wished he wasn’t, and I wished it a lot more the next day.
We didn’t do anything else that night, we just hit the hay. It was already late, I was completely penniless, and I missed Nando, and the city is too big to wonder out into alone. Next morning, my group said our goodbyes. Some were emotional, some weren’t. There was a girl I’d liked for the whole trip but had never told. I said goodbye to her, still lacking the balls to say anything. They left. I had to borrow $80 from a French girl named Charlene, who I am fairly sure regretted it when I took two weeks to pay her back. Erm… sorry, Charlene.
I didn’t have a second night’s accommodation booked because of the ridiculous price. Only one night at the YMCA was included in our tour. I checked out and wondered into the city with my backpack on. It was 30°C at least.
Here’s what I had on me:
Bank card with around $200.
Notice anything missing? Yeah, I dropped my phone off a cliff in Yosemite on the first day of the tour. Without a phone, I had no way to search for hostels. Before I said goodbye to my last two friends, a brilliantly funny Irish couple, they lent me their phone. I messaged my uncle. My uncle works at a filmmaking company in London, and they have a New York office as well as an apartment which was currently empty. My uncle had a friend in NY, Dan, who had the keys. He gave me Dan’s phone number on Facebook chat. I wrote it on my arm. I then said goodbye to the Irish couple as I left them to go and nest in their swanky hotel room. How envious of them I was.
Boom. Alone on the streets of New York, with nothing but phone number scrawled on my forearm in red biro. Great. Every bald man I passed was Nando; I had never longed to hear a gravelly Puerto Rican voice so badly. I decided I would have to call Dan. I found a payphone, and crammed quarters into it. The payphone looked as if it hadn’t been used in years, or at least not as anything but a piss target. I daintily held the sticky receiver to my ear and dialled. It actually worked, to my astonishment, and Dan answered. He told me he was in Brooklyn, and could I meet him. Erm, no. He breezily instructed me to simply hop on X tube to X stop, and to walk X minutes to X landmark and meet him. I explained I didn’t have a mobile, and if I missed my stop or couldn’t find him after arriving in Brooklyn, I’d be fucked. I told him thanks anyway, and said bye.
A hostel was now my only hope. I didn’t realise at this point how universally expensive New York City is. I tried a long succession of hotels and hostels, each time they pointed me to another that might have a vacancy. None did. I felt I knew how Mary and Joseph must have felt, except I wasn’t pregnant with the son of God. Panic slowly crept in. I was walking blocks and blocks; my shirt was see-through, I had sweated so much. I had said goodbye to the Irish two hours ago and still not found anywhere to stay. It was getting on in the day. 4pm. Creeping fingers of anxiety were tugging at my brain. I tried to stay calm. I could always sleep on a bench in Central Park. And no doubt get shagged to death by bandits. Great.
I even relented and decided to spunk the last of my money on a hotel, even after promising myself (and my mum) I’d return home with some money. I staggered back to the YMCA under my pack and queued for 15 minutes, only to be told by the receptionist that there were no rooms. Arse. Oh Nando, save me, Nando.
With no other option, I found another vomit-splattered payphone and dialled Dan, picturing myself lost and forlorn in Brooklyn with nighttime drawing in. Dan answered, surprisingly chipper. He told me that he’d actually just finished whatever business he had, and would be heading to Manhattan in an hour. Elated, I said I’d meet him for the keys. We tried to arrange a place to meet, which was difficult as my geographical knowledge of Manhattan is thus: Empire State, Ground Zero, Statue of Liberty, and ‘that big bridge’. He didn’t think it would be sensible to meet at any of those locations. He told me to meet him at the point of the Flatiron Building, which I knew as it starred as the Daily Bugle offices in Spiderman (the Toby Maguire one (which is the best one)). I hailed a yellow cab from whatever corner I was mooching about on, and requested the Gridiron Building, which doesn’t fucking exist, because I am a dick head and forgot the bloody building’s name instantly after hanging up the phone.
We drove through the New York streets for maybe 20 minutes, my driving staring wildly around and saying things like ‘I ain’t never heard of no Gridiron Building’, and me staring wildly at the rising fare meter and saying things like ‘Oh’. By pure chance we passed it, the immediately recognisable Toblerone-shaped building. I paid him his hefty fee and he floated away into the stream of perpetually furious traffic. I had half an hour to kill, so I found a street corner and sat on my backpack and watched the weird and wonderful crowds part around me, like water washing over a stubborn turd in a toilet bowl. I don’t know where that simile came from. I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.
Dan eventually rocked up dead casual, shirt unbuttoned, blonde hair charmingly ruffled, arm around his girlfriend. I was sat red faced, wet-shirted, quivering with frustration. I’d met Dan a year or so previously during work experience at my uncle’s place. He gave me the keys and we had a brief chat, but I think it was obvious I was internally battling a stress induced heart attack, so he didn’t keep me. He drew the location of the flat on my map, and, to coin New York vernacular, I beat it.
Manhattan looks quite small in the films, like when it gets destroyed by aliens or King Kong swan dives off of Empire State, or Spiderman is chucking his webs everywhere. In reality, it’s shitting massive, especially in the height of summer with a heavy backpack and no real knowledge of where you’re heading. I grabbed an ice cream from a fancy shop and set off to find the East Village, constantly scanning my battered, limp tourist map for street names. There aren’t any bloody street names! Just numbers. In a taxi you have to ask for things like ’55th on 3rd, please.’ It feels cool to say, but it’s a bugger to get your head around as a foreigner.
I made my way to the flat, passing through Tompkins Square Park, which was packed with weird people forcing their dogs to socialise in massive outdoor play pens. One horrible dog was snapping and ruining it for all the others. Owners stooped low running after their pets in that awkward adult-looking-after-a-child run. I didn’t hang about. There was a band of leathery old black guys playing lazy jazz on ramshackle instruments at the far end of the park. That was far better.
Finally, I found it. Dear god, I found it. East 9th Street between Avenues B and C. The key worked in the lock and I nearly wept with relief. I let myself in and found a very lived-in flat. I think there was one girl currently staying there, but I never saw her. I found the spare room and lay down for about a million years. Hallelujah! I wasn’t going to be bummed to death at 3am in Central Park by a gang of fingerless-glove-clad hobos! You know you’ve a rough day when that statement is cause for a ‘hallelujah’.
At this point I’m going to attempt that thing that authors do to indicate that time has passed. You know – the thing where they type five stars in a row? That. Okay, let’s see if this works.
Whew, it worked. Sweet.
After a nap, I woke up all sweaty and gross but was past caring. I got the feeling I could walk the streets in nothing but clingfilm and barely warrant a second glance from the New Yorkers. I didn’t know where to go, so I walked – yes, fucking walked, for I am a moron – back to Times Square. After 4 avenues and 33 blocks, I made it. You see a hell of a lot, walking 33 blocks in New York. I found Broadway, and followed the bright lights all the way. I once more wandered through the neon chaos of Time Square, the fizzling church of consumerism. You know the music video for A-Ha’s ‘Take On Me’, where they jump into the pages of a comic book? Imagine leaping into the pages of Grazia magazine. That’s what entering Times Square feels like. I sat back on the TKTS steps once more, and realised how lonely New York can be, as ten thousand people buzzed around me. I watched a gigantic Levis poster; watched a man’s perfectly toned ass the size of a double decker bus wrestle its way into a pair of 101s.
I kept not-seeing Nando everywhere, only now I was not-seeing everyone else from my group, too. I kept hoping they’d have had the same idea as me and headed back, but none did. I got bored of feeling shit and went to find the Rockefeller Building. I bought a ticket to go up, ‘Top of the Rock’, but it was so busy that I had to book to go up at 10pm, and it was currently around 8. I found the nearest bar – an Irish boozer called O’Donoghues. I pulled up a chair at the bar, feeling like a kid in an adult’s world, totally lost in a sea of people who seemed to know exactly where they were going. That New York walk is nothing if not assured.
I ordered a couple of beers at the bar by accident, somehow, so I sat nursing two bottles at once. An old grey haired guy on the chair next to me looked over and made a joke about the beers. We ended up chatting. He was from Texas, and somehow we ended up having an in-depth conversation about Little League baseball. I couldn’t get my head around it. I told him I was on a world trip, and he whistled through his nose when I told him about Vietnam. He said it was strange for him to hear about young people going there. He told me to imagine holidaying in Iraq. He was a good guy. After another beer it was time for the Rock. I headed over, hiccuping.
The elevator to the top of the Rock has a glass bottom, and lights flash wildly as you ascend. It’s unnerving, but I had beer in me. I wondered out onto the roof and gazed at the twinkling lights of the New York skyline. I have only one photo of this experience, and it’s arguably the worst photograph of me ever taken, thanks to the dimwit girl I asked to take it. Seriously, who uses a flash against the night sky?
Oh well. I watched the golden streams of traffic far below for a very long time, and stared at the slowly rotating H&M sign on top of a distant building. I looked at the Empire State Building. I looked at the darkness of Central Park. I looked at the million windows surrounding it. I wished I could take photographs with my eyes. It was astonishing.
After a long time, I made my way back down, humbled and lonely and amazed. I sauntered out past the Radio City Music Hall and its dazzling lights. People were queuing to see Broadway shows. So many dazzling lights. More dazzling lights than you could shake a stick at. I realised I was exhausted. I walked home, another 33 blocks. My feet were sore. I could barely stay upright by the time I got my key in the front door. I collapsed onto the bed, and slept deeper than I had in years. It felt especially safe, sleeping in New York. It’s the mothership, tiers of humanity stacked on each other, reaching into the sky. I lay in bed, and as my eyes were closing and distant sirens rang out, I felt safe to be so surrounded with life. I felt so grateful to have a bed at last, finally nestled safely in the heart of the centre of the world.