I’m always searching for travel bargains. Browsing ebay late one night, I saw someone selling four nights hotel accommodation in central Manhattan for £150!! Turns out it was a British guy who’d bought timeshare in a hotel just south of Central Park, for one week every year. Something he undoubtedly regretted since you pay more in annual fees for those timeshare scams than it would cost to just to book a regular hotel. Anyway, I’d always wanted to visit America and thought I’d take a punt by placing the minimum ebay bid possible. Hugely surprised to get the notification I’d won! So I’m heading to the USA!
(Sorry, no pictures of myself this time, as I was going alone and taking selfies never occurred to me. The quality of the images is a lot better though. I’d invested in a nicer camera just before heading out to NYC.)
Conveniently, I was working as a freelance consultant in early 2009 so could take time off whenever I wanted. I found the cheapest flights out there for the dates I wanted, sorted out my American visa online, packed lightly and headed to Heathrow. Checking in was fine, but when I got to the boarding gate it was obvious something was wrong. There were security guards waiting for me, and they insisted on (again) going through my luggage – even though I’d already gone through that process once more. I straight up asked them if I was being racially profiled. They told me I’d be better off not talking, because saying things like that was likely to get me banned from the flight. Being the bolshy sort, I asked them under what powers they’d be banning me from the flight for mentioning racial profiling. They looked confused. Obviously they’d not been challenged like this before as they clearly didn’t have an answer once you call their bluff.
When I finally got to New York, everything got a little clearer. The border staff at JFK airport are pretty dour faced at the best of times. But once the officer had put my details into his computer, he looked even more serious. He wrote the letters “CTR” in big black marker on a piece of paper and stuck it, along with my documents, in a clear plastic folder. I asked him what CTR stood for. He told me it meant “Counter Terrorism Response”. That confirmed it. I was on a Homeland Security list. Which meant I was going to be escorted to the “special room” at JFK. The one most of you will never see, but it’s where the “profiled” people go. What followed was a one-hour wait sitting on an uncomfortable plastic chair, followed by a banal interview about my work, my family, my travel history, my intentions in the USA.
Eventually they did finally let me go. I had made it on to American soil. And who was the first person to greet me there? A taxi scammer! Some guy asking me where I was headed and helpfully informing me that all the yellow taxis lined up outside the terminal don’t go to Manhattan! But he could. I stopped talking to the scumbag and kept walking to the official taxi rank and it wasn’t long before I was settled into my hotel and off exploring Central Park.
Your first time in New York, you’ll probably wander around in a happy daze, as you spot all the landmarks and unique lingo that’s so familiar to us all thanks to American TV programmes. Fans of shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and the City, Gossip Girl will have plenty to marvel at while just strolling through the town. Especially if you’re anywhere south of Central Park, you’re likely to see a landmark you recognise. I had a lot of fun pretending I was living in one of my favourite sitcoms.
I do like New York. Genuinely. But if you’ve lived in London, or spent any time in major European cities, it’s not going to impress or overwhelm you. There’s always plenty to do and different events are happening all the time. I even managed to find myself an Indian restaurant (which was terrible) and an Arabic restaurant that refused to label itself as Arabic! “We just serve healthy food here!” the owner insisted when I asked him if his menu was Lebanese. Even though I’d never questioned the nutritional value of his dishes.
The subway is fun to try out and usually pretty convenient as long as you avoid rush hour and can work out which trains will actually stop at the station you want. The NYC Metro can even get you from the airport to the city and back. Which I took advantage of when it was time to leave. However, for me, I preferred walking to taking public transport. Just pick a direction and explore. I did end up in some dodgy looking neighbourhoods as a result. But as a tall, confident, well-built guy – who also looks like he has no money! – I never got any hassle. And the city generally has a pretty low crime rate anyway.
As it happens, I would end up practically living in New York City just a year later. That’s when the place got really interesting for me as I started exploring outer suburbs like The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Jackson Heights and heading across the Hudson to New Jersey. But that’s a set of stories for another time.