Gran, me & the USA Part 6: Taking a Bite from the Big Apple
So far my American adventure had more than lived up to my expectations, I think mainly because gran was the most amazing travelling companion any 11 year old could wish for. She enjoyed life, embraced people, was naturally curious and most importantly treated me like her best friend.
With our suitcases packed with memories, it was time for us to leave Florida and head to the Big Apple. We’d already been advised there was a transport strike in the City, and that a big American company had block booked our hotel for its staff. I guess that was a lesson in the power of the dollar! However, an alternative hotel had been sourced and we’d be staying there instead, so I wasn’t worried about this change and that evening we landed in New York and were transferred to the hotel.
I think this is a good moment to point out that New York in 1980 was a very different city than it is today. Lets just say it was much more “urban.” Even before we’d left the UK people warned us that it was a dangerous city and even in the States people would tell us not to go on the subway and not to visit the Bronx.
As it was late when we arrived it was simply a case of off the bus and into the hotel. At which point I started to notice things being not quite what I was expecting. Our hotel was on East 42nd Street where we were greeted by a doorman like no other. He was the actual size of the doorway, and was without question the largest person I’d ever seen. Clearly no one would be able to get past him, unless he was prepared to grant entry. Of course we made it in, and on the way to our room we spotted the swimming pool. My excitement was soon dashed, seeing that the pool didn’t have any water in it, and by the looks of it this pool had been dry for quite some time. This pretty much sums up the hotel, and opening the drapes the following morning I was greeted with a view of a litter filled embankment. We really had been downgraded!
Did this matter, not in the slightest! New York was waiting for us to discover, and compared to some of our fellow travellers whose “alternative” hotel came complete with gunshots in their corridor on that first evening we really had no cause to complain. On hearing their story, I will admit to becoming reassured in the knowledge that we had the impenetrable doorman to look after us at our hotel.
World famous for its theatres, our first walk along 42nd Street gave us a very real introduction to the city. Many of the theaters were only showing adult films, and there were groups of young people listening to music outside some of them. Now, if I wanted to make this read like a tabloid story, I could have written “menacing gangs of youths with ghetto blasters” but they weren’t, and gran always greeted them with a cheery “hello” and consistently we received a friendly response. It just goes to show how important it is to treat people with respect, not to prejudge people, and not to believe the headlines!
At the time New York was living its reputation, which meant I saw machetes for sale in the window of a souvenir shop, and five steps down into the subway the smell of urine was so overbearingly strong we instinctively knew to turn around and head straight out. This didn’t worry us, it made us aware that we needed to be careful, and gran was smart, she knew how to keep us safe. It did feel edgy, but at the same time there was New York’s intoxicating energy that made you want to see what was around the next corner be it good or bad. I was hooked on this city already and we’d only been walking its sidewalks for a few minutes.
That morning we were heading to the Empire State Building, my excitement was way beyond Christmas Eve levels. I was going to go to the top of the skyscraper of all skyscrapers, this was a dream come true. We approached it along W 34th Street, I’d look up and there it was, close enough to touch, I’d look down to street level and it was miles away. I kept looking up and down, and for what seemed like forever it felt as if we weren’t getting any closer to this majestic beauty. I remained patient, and we kept walking, and at last we were there inside the foyer. The Empire State Building was (is) a work of art, I looked in wonder at the foyer of this Art Deco icon as we waited for the lift that would take us to the top.
Some 86 floors above the street, there I was on the Observation Deck, with the whole of New York just waiting for my gaze. It felt amazing to be outside so high up, the weather was good and the views captivating. I drank in as many of the buildings I could, there was so much to see. The scale of New York was unbelievable, this dense forest of skyscrapers on a small island with just one clearing in the shape of that ultimate urban oasis: Central Park. Had I gone from the Empire State Building to the airport and returned home that day I would have been perfectly content. My childhood dream had been realised, and it really didn’t disappoint.
After leaving the Empire State Building, we took a bus uptown to Central Park, and we must have been hungry as gran spotted the Tavern On The Green and decided it would be a good place for lunch. My memory tells me there was a long buffet table, with a very elaborate display of food, it was so impressive that gran had her photo taken next to it. Unfortunately, try as I have, I simply can’t find that photo. For the first time since we arrived in America, I remember us being served by a waiter instead of the usual waitresses, and as gran ordered artichokes I guessed this must have been a sophisticated place to eat. She loved the artichokes, and yes she failed miserably in her attempt to get me to try them. I was more than happy with my choice from the kids menu, and truly enjoyed my hotdog.
We didn’t have a food guide with us, and so we’d pretty much end up eating at places we came across when we were hungry. I like this approach, and although I don’t truly know if Lindy’s really was world famous for its cheesecake, eating there in Times Square I was captivated by the menu, not because of the food, but because it was covered in a photo montage of famous stars who had all eaten there. I carefully folded this paper menu and gran deposited it her handbag for safekeeping, it was next unfolded in my bedroom at home, where as a poster, it did a wonderful job of covering up at least some of the Haywain wallpaper!
Eating out in the evening would usually be based on a recommendation gleaned from a fellow tourist or helpful New Yorker earlier in the day. Such a recommendation took us to Greenwich Village, and on the evening in question gran spotted a policeman and pointed out to me his gun. Of course we weren’t used to seeing armed police, and yes we were soon in conversation with the police officer, with gran asking him: “What’s it like to carry a gun? Is it loaded? Is it heavy?” Her inquisitive questions were enthusiastically answered, and then right in front of my eyes, there’s my gran on the streets of New York holding a fully loaded gun! The officer had offered it to her so she could see what it felt like to hold a gun. I can only assume that the safety catch was on, and it certainly became a topic of conversation during our dinner that evening.
As we entered the restaurant, a diner noticed and commented on the Eastern Airlines badge I was wearing. This was the badge I had absolutely no intention of taking if off since the moment it was presented to me on our first flight in America at the start of the holiday. This began a conversation with a couple who we soon found out were architects. They invited us to join them for a drink, and gran told them of my own ambition to be an architect. I was told that I had the hands of an architect, and to this day I wish their “HandDar” had been accurate. As my life has progressed it seems becoming an architect was not to be my destiny, yet their kind words certainly encouraged me towards my dream for a number of the following years.
I’ve never quite understood when people say that people in cities aren’t friendly. Maybe it’s simply a case that you need to be prepared to be the first person to talk? On countless occasions this is exactly what my grandmother would do, and yes in some cases the response would be minimal, but at least civil. However, it was always the times when her smile and greetings were returned with equal enthusiasm that you knew, irrespective of how brief the encounter, it would always be uplifting, enjoyable and engaging. It makes me wish that more people were like that more of the time, and I’m sure it would make our world an even better place to be for everyone.
Our time in New York also included a trip to the United Nations, where as you can imagine I was impressed by its International Style architecture and gran seemed equally impressed with its bar. Had I been an adult too, I think I may well have had a quick drink too, as next up we were taking to the skies for a helicopter trip around Manhattan. Sitting next to the pilot, the front screen curved down to the floor, there seemed to be virtually nothing separating me from the outside, and this gave me the most spectacular views of all the skyscrapers, it literally did feel like being in an architectural utopia. Judging by the screams of laughter from gran and the screams of terror from a fellow passenger, the pilot’s creative maneuvers were doing a good job of also creating a white knuckle ride experience for us. I found this totally exhilarating, and it was many hours after the flight before I stopped smiling.
Just like countless millions of tourists, we took the ferry to Ellis Island, and here I climbed the stairs inside of the Statue of Liberty to reach her crown. Gran choose to stay at ground level as I eagerly made my way up. It felt surreal to be inside the statue, and I was surprised at how thin the structure was. I guess I associated statues with being very solid and hadn’t thought her metal construction didn’t need to be particularly thick. This truly iconic symbol, not just of New York, but of the welcome the Country gave to immigrants looking to build a better life for themselves seems so very poignant today. I can only hope our societies can once again become welcoming of others who simply want the opportunity to create a better life for themselves.
Our time in America had certainly filled my mind not just with the fun stuff that all kids, young and old, love. It also showed me that not everyone got to live the American dream. Did I live the American dream? I very much did so, thanks to a grandmother who was determined to take me there and make my dream come true. Such a generous gesture, had to be rewarded, and as I’d not really spent a lot of money, and the exchange rate was in our favour, a New York jewellery shop provided me with the perfect opportunity.
Gran had seen a small gold crucifix that she seemed to really like, so I let her wander deeper into the store, and covertly gained the attention of the sales assistant. Quickly and quietly the necklace was purchased, and I gave it to gran outside the shop to thank her for bringing me to America. At that moment I received the most heartfelt hug imaginable, I couldn’t have been happier. From that day on gran always wore that necklace, every single day for the rest of her life. It passed onto my mother who wore it everyday for the rest of her life, and now its with my sister. I love knowing that a small thank you gift has been so loved by the most important women in my life.
Ultimately, this adventure taught me that it doesn’t matter where you go on your travels it’s the people you go with that matter so very much. And even if you don’t get to go anywhere, it’s still the people who are around you that matter so very much. I’m so thankful my grandmother taught me that lesson.
Its been a real pleasure for me recalling and sharing the memories of this exceptional trip, and I truly hope you’ve enjoyed travelling with gran and me on our American adventure.