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Monday, 2 July 2018

New York, New York, so good they named it ….

                                        New York, New York, so good they named it ….

A city everyone says you have to visit. So it’s the first stop on a trip that will also take in Detroit and Chicago. I left home at 5.30am on June 12th 2018 for the drive to Heathrow. Plenty of time thought I. Surely at this time of the morning.. and all was going well until I hit the M1 and even worse the M25. Which reminded me of why they call this stretch of motorway the biggest car park in Britain! Interminable. Took me 3 hours! Luckily I had plenty of time but it was still a nightmare. 
Hot and bothered, never mind tired, confusion set in as I finally approached the Purple Parking car park, a ten minute courtesy ride from Terminal 5. 
Trying to pay attention to my sat-nav after turning off the M4 I missed the turn off at a roundabout, went round twice, cut some bloke up that was ungraciously greeted with a blast of his horn before getting on the right road. Then I drove into the Premier Inn Hotel next door to the car park. Clear as mud I said to myself, frustrated. Exiting the Premier after taking advice off a taxi driver I eventually arrived at my destination. I had made it. Dropped the car off and hopped on the awaiting bus.

The flight was excellent. Six and three quarter hours was passed watching a couple of films, a Michael Caine sort of documentary ‘My Generation’  and the brilliant ‘Darkest Hour’ which I’d seen at the cinema. Service on British Airways is superb I’ve always found and this was no different. Meals, free, though I suppose they are hidden in the cost of the flight, and free drink thrown in as well. What more can you want? Arriving on time at JFK the passage through customs etc went smooth. I’ve heard some horrific stories of trying to get through passport control at this airport so this was a pleasant surprise. I jumped a taxi to take me to the Washington Jefferson Hotel in Manhattan. Took over an hour, traffic was the same as in Britain, horrendous but it gave me a chance to view the famous skyline. I gave the driver a tip, the journey set me back 70 dollars. As the fare was actually 52 dollars I thought I was rather generous but the cheeky sod still looked disappointed, grunting something I didn’t quite catch. Talk about extracting the urine! On your way pal! It was mid afternoon, I had a few hours left of this day and I had an itinerary more or less sorted so I didn’t want to waste time. 
My room on the seventh floor was tiny, here we go again I thought! Adequate, view looked onto the side of a building with fire escapes prominent but I didn’t expect to see the neon lit Times Square or the Statue of Liberty. Reminiscent of West Side Story I thought to myself. Bed was single, not that that mattered much as I was on my own. Television didn’t work unless you put money into it but again that didn’t bother me. I hadn’t flown thousands of miles to watch the box. 
Central Park and the Dakota Building where Beatle John Lennon was shot in 1980 was to be my first sightseeing foray. ‘Turn left onto 8th Street sir, and keep walking’ the Consigliere informed me. The humidity was high, the street long. Crowded, with everyone it seems, walking towards you with their cellphones held in front of them, wires connected to their head, many talking to themselves, which always looks ridiculous to me. A few years ago these people would have been marched off to the funny farm but that’s the way it is in 2018. I’m thinking this and gradually getting peed off having to step aside these morons until I decided ‘right, I’m not moving’. So I reversed it and people started side stepping me! That was more like it! 
Received an occasional cursory glance but I was adamant. You walk into me, it’s your fault!
The heat didn’t help or the fact that New York is five hours behind us at home. It was beginning to feel like a long day. Then there it was, Central Park. The place I’ve heard so much about. The entrance I found myself at was the Columbus Circle, one of the busiest road inter-sections in the city apparently. A monument to Chris stands proudly in the middle of this mini roundabout, and proud he should look having found this place three or four hundred years back. For some reason I always thought Christopher Columbus was British but checking out this useless piece of information, it turns out he was Italian. There you go, learn something every day!
Wandering aimlessly around in search for the ceremonial Strawberry Fields Garden dedicated to John I decided to leave the park and stroll the road Central Park Way running parallel. Looking for someone who hasn’t got an iPhone stuck to his head. Three young lads relaxing in the shade on a bench pointed me in the right direction and also the Dakota Building. They probably weren’t even born when that fateful night occurred but they knew the Beatles. Everyone knows the Beatles! The Dakota was just off this main road, a hundred yards or so down. I recognised it immediately from memory of photographs, stood there in silence for a bit, remembering where I was when I heard the news of Lennon’s assassination. Sitting in my Royal Mail lorry on the dock at Oxford University Press, Corby. I took some photographs, not very good as it happened with the sun in the wrong place but I got a few. Two uniformed security men stood astride of the Gates and the door of the Dakota, youngish looking guys. I walked up to them, interrupting their conversation with, I don’t know why I do it, asking them the bleedin’ obvious! “This is where John got shot?” I asked, knowing full well it was. With a look of abject boredom on their faces, one of them looked at me as if I was dumbo. And nodded. Didn’t even open his mouth. I did think to be fair, they probably get asked that stupid question a thousand times a day, but I can’t help myself! I didn’t really expect a full rundown and commentary of that fatal night 38 years ago but the two of them could have at least looked interested. 
Job done I walked back to Central Park and continued the search for Strawberry Fields. Which was just opposite the road from the Dakota. Success! Felt as if I was getting somewhere. Two of my ‘priorities’ marked off the list on the first day. Nice one. Truthfully there’s not much to see. A plaque with ‘Imagine’ ingrained on it in the middle of a path, a fenced off section with shrubs and flowers, people mingling and resting on the grass. Appropriately peaceful with an opportunist busker sitting on a bench with his acoustic guitar, playing, well it had to be, ‘Imagine’. Nice moment. Time was moving on, getting hungry and thirsty I treated myself to a hot dog off a vendor, who looked disgusted when I gave him the correct money. I know the tip culture over here but hang on, throwing in an extra dollar or two when buying a sausage! Don’t think so. I walked around the huge lake, the Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir it says on the map, recognising various views from pictures I’ve seen, decided to head back towards the hotel - and got completely disorientated and lost!
I always like the idea of ambling along, trying to find my way around, but after an hour or two this was getting tiresome. I knew if I could get to 8th Avenue it would be fine. The way they work with a grid system of roads in America sounds simple but I obviously left the park through a different gate. Eventually I gave in, and asked a guy holding a placard on a corner who had approached me to ask my views on the Liberal Democrats or Donald Trump or something. I told him I didn’t have any, resisting the idea to tell him I couldn’t give a toss. Instead I told him I was knackered, lost, just arrived in New York, hungry, dying for a beer, my feet were aching! He told me I was miles out of my way! Pointed me in the right direction and I left him to carry on his campaign.
Half hour later I came across a police car parked up alongside Central Park. Always wary about approaching the police in America but they were good. Told me I was on the wrong side of the park, and just follow the sun! Which was a big round bright blob in the sky so it should be easy. McCartney’s ‘I’ll Follow The Sun’ immediately came into my head when the copper said that. Funny why I think of things like that!
Sure enough, keeping my mince pies on the distant sun I arrived on the road that I had started on, near the Dakota Building and headed back towards Columbus. And 8th Avenue. The heat was oppressive, 8th was thronging with people, many still obsessed with their cellphones. I escaped into a bar, had a lovely cold beer, chilled for a while watching the televisions, they don’t settle for just one over here do they? I ascertained that it was now around 10 o’clock which meant that back home it was 3am and I’d been up for nearly 22 hours. Time for bed! Slept like a log!

                                                         Wednesday 13th June
Madison Square Garden

New York, you think of Times Square, Ground Zero, Greenwich Village, Broadway, Harlem, Brooklyn, Central Park,…only scratching the surface of this great city.  My first port of call today though is Staten Island. 
A Uber taxi took me to the Ferry. First time Ive used this and have to say it was very efficient. Like the idea of knowing the price of the trip before you get picked up also. The ferry terminal was busy, awash with day trippers, like myself.
The highlight of this hour long return trip is to get a close up view of the Statue of Liberty. And its true what they say, ‘its not as big as you think’. Photo opportunity though and the Manhattan skyline was impressive from the boat. Whilst gazing at this serene setting the Airbus plane crash in 2009 came to mind! The aircraft that ditched into the Hudson River just up from us towards Midtown Manhattan, not far away from where we were. I tried to imagine witnessing such an event. Which also made me think of 9/11. Hard to visualise let alone imagine what that must be like. A flock of geese had hit the Airbus engines just after it had taken off from LaGuardia airport. Which is where I’m taking off from for Detroit in a couple of days time. Somehow you get a different perspective visiting places like these from watching the news on the television. Miraculously the pilots managed to glide the Airbus safely into the water. All 133 on board survived. Remarkable.
The sea air, or maybe I should say river air, gave me an appetite, I was starving on disembarkation. The Brooklyn Bridge is nearby, another famous landmark which I decided to head for. Wandering about I came across Wall Street. Couldn’t see the Stock Exchange, must be another long street I hazard, but I did come across an eatery with tables set outside which looked welcoming. I ordered a bagel and a coffee and I swear it’s the best I’ve ever tasted. Wonderful. Relaxing watching the world go by, opposite was a garbage lorry. With two Stars and Stripes flags attached to the bonnet! Blimey I thought, they love their flag that much they even have them on dustbin lorries. Can you imagine that at home? Quite extraordinary really. 
With my engine now stoked up I made my way to the Brooklyn Bridge. Gareth had text to tell me, if I had time, to try and find a bar called The Charleston he and his band The Victims had played in Williamsburg, other side of the river. It’s a bit like walking across the Golden Gate in San Fransisco, you have to do it! That’s what they say!
I had the address of  the bar, had read the map and was confident I could find it. Gareth had told me that the Charleston was right opposite the metro stop, which was the first station after the Williamsburg Bridge. Which was up river according to the map, couple of bridges away but maps can be deceiving. Walking for ages with a feeling of getting nowhere fast, two police officers idly chatting away was targeted for advice. They looked a tad bemused when I told them where I was going. Never heard of it! One of them kindly got his cellphone out and looked it up. ‘Your about an hour away if you’re walking’ he said. I told him it couldn’t be that far and asked him which direction it was. They both looked slightly amused, ‘who’s this mad Englishman’ written all over their faces! ‘OK, turn left up there by the lights and keep walking!’ I thanked them very much for their help and set off. Then it started raining. Welcome to a certain extent in the heat but still a little uncomfortable after a while. Coming to a crossroads two women traffic controllers were taking shelter in a doorway. To confirm I was in the right direction I thought I would ask them. They too looked surprised and advised me I was better getting a cab! Soaked to the skin with the rain I had to agree!
I flagged a yellow cab, showed him the address and off we went, took a good twenty minutes, which equating to walking, was what those police people were telling me! The cabbie dropped me off outside the Charleston, a dark and dingy looking place it first appeared. But it was a punk venue. Not the first I've been to following Gareth and his bands around and I thought for a minute that it was closed. To my relief, it wasn’t and I entered to find the place deserted with a barmaid painting her fingernails and a big heavy black chap acting as security. Gave me a big welcoming smile though, ‘morning Sir, what can I get you?’ Always polite over here I mused, nice. I ordered a Brooklyn Beer which has become my favourite already. For the sake of conversation I told the barmaid my son had played here a few years back. ‘Really?’ she asked. I asked her if it was alright to take a few photos. ‘Of course’ she said with the big guy looking on. ‘They’re a Swedish band’ I told him. No reaction at all to that, never mind. As I was about to start snapping, the barmaid asked, ‘would you like a free pizza?’ I thought she was having me on. ‘It’s free with a pint’. Well how can you say no to such an offer? ‘That’d be lovely, thank you.” I replied. The bar was elongated, with familiar punk decoration, pictures, heavy lighting. Atmospheric venues these are and I can well imagine loving this if I had been forty years younger. Or to be more precise, if venues had been like this when I was in my twenties. The pizza came out from a hole in the wall, a small square where the chef was poking his head out, looked amusing to me. Love these barmy sort of places! Sat at the end of the bar, I was soon joined by a couple of other punters, obviously locals by the way the conversation was going. The big guy was restless, sticking his head outside for something to do, moving a chair or two about. ‘Excuse me” I said to him. That stopped him. ‘Can you do me a favour, take a picture of me sat here at the bar?’ I gave him my ipad and he took a couple of pictures. ‘That alright?” he asked handing it back. I checked them and thought, ‘Christ, why do I always look so bloody grumpy!’ ‘Hold it, can you take another one? I’ve got to learn to smile when I’m having a photo taken” I said chuckling a little to him. Pan faced, he took another. ‘That alright?’ ‘Yeah, that’s better, thanks’. And he went back to tidying a few tables up.
So good I was feeling, I had another pint. ‘Another pizza too?’ Barmaid asked me with a lovely smile. ‘Blimey, no thanks” I said politely. They do have a good appetite over here in the States don’t they, to put it one way. 
Could have spent an hour or so in here but other things to do. I bade my friends farewell and went out to explore the neighbourhood before getting the metro back across the river. 
It was still warm and humid, rain had eased and I got off at the wrong station on 8th Street. Could have done without another long walk, my feet were aching, felt like they were swelling up. Wrong sort of shoes for this I decided. The respite of the hotel pulled me in. A break in the cool was needed before venturing out again.
Times Square was just two blocks away. Don’t know what I was expecting really but it wasn’t what I thought. I imagined a kind of huge sort of exaggerated Market Square or something, with all the neon lights of course. Which was something to see I have to admit. The area was rammed with people, a couple of street entertainment shows taking place which was, well amazing.  A group of young guys doing back flips and all sorts of acrobatics. Can’t help but watch with disbelief. How the hell do you do that? Moving on I walked past the famous Brill Building almost without noticing it. So this is where Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Mort Shuman and Doc Pumas and all the rest of those great composers wrote all those classic 60s pop songs. Saw the Carole King story/musical ‘Beautiful’ only last year in Manchester as it happens, brilliant. I thought of Kenny Lynch also when I stood there at the doors of the Brill. I met Kenny last year with my friend Bip Wetherell. He gave us a great story for the Clem Cattini biography. Telling us about the time he worked over here in the Brill during 1962. Fascinating. Walking around Broadway, 5th Street the scene in the film Crocodile Dundee came to mind. Paul Hogan sitting astride a cop on his horse. One of the funniest films of the 1980s.
Refreshment was needed and lo and behold I spotted a bar called Smith’s Bar! Had to investigate, might have been a long lost cousin or something, obviously it wasn’t. It turned out to be a pokey place but I was hungry so I ordered what was described a ‘Dublin Fish Style’ meal. It was crap! As was the beer. Feeling adventurous I asked for a pint of ‘21st Amendment San Fransisco Ale’. Wish I hadn’t have bothered. Bloody maiden’s water! A pint of ‘Bronx’ was marginally better but I gave in and went back to the Brooklyn Lager. Well you have to try don’t you?
It had been another full day and I still hadn’t been to what was at the top of my list, Greenwich Village. One full day left on this brief visit, I intended to make the most of it. I had received texts off friends telling me I should visit such and such a bar if I have time, see a show, Empire State Building. There’s so much to do in New York you have to prioritise. 
Maybe next time.

                                                      Thursday 14th June
MacDougall Street
Greenwich Village has fascinated me for years. Situated in the Lower Manhattan district of New York the Village was the epicentre of the Beat culture during the 50s and 60s. The bohemian capital it has been called. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs all passed through this pocket of New York City. Like saving the best until last, I set off to walk, all the way down 8th Avenue, which according to my map, I would then take a turning left, then right and into Washington Square, the gateway to Greenwich. 
Temperature was well into the 30s, 9.30 in the morning and as I found, New York was bustling, people going about their business in every direction. On my way I passed one of the world’s legendary venues, Madison Square Garden. I was surprised how small it seemed, from the street anyway. You have these preconceived ideas and images about certain landmarks and buildings. Was this where all those great boxing fights involving  Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammed Ali took place? Where The Beatles, Elvis played? Well as it turned out, it is and it isn’t. This is the third MSG, as they refer to it nowadays. All built on the same site. It’s more relevant to note that this is where George Harrison held his Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, John Lennon played his final gig as a guest for Elton John in 1979, Elvis played here in the early 70s. It’s now better known as a sports arena, home to the New York Knicks Basketball team.
An hour later, and I’m finally coming towards the end of 8th Avenue, feeling dehydrated, looking for my left turn which was Greenwich Avenue.  I walked another mile and found on the corner of 6th Avenue and West 8th Street, Jefferson Market Garden, with refreshments available from mobile street vendors. I took advantage and sat on a bench in the shelter sipping a nice cool Apple juice, watching the world go by, as you do. A few elderly gentlemen chatting away, Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Old Friends’ from their album ‘Bookends’ came to mind. Young women with their babies in pushchairs taking a breather, street cleaners gathering up items of garbage. Sat there for about half hour, enjoying the rest and relative tranquility. Time to move, another glance at my map and I headed off down West 8th Street towards 5th Avenue which should take me right into Washington Square, the Village!
It had taken a while, but eventually there right in front of me, at last, was the Washington Square archway. 
Research tells me that the arch was built in 1892. It celebrates the centennial of George Washington's inauguration as President of the United States in 1789 and forms the grand southern terminus of Fifth Avenue. Who said ‘you learn something everyday?’ 
The arch stands at the front of the Square where in the 60s buskers, poets, street entertainers congregated on Sunday afternoons to revel in communal spirit, play their instruments, get drunk, get stoned, sing folk songs. The scene grew until it got too intense for the NYPD. The chief of police, in his wisdom, decided they couldn’t be doing with people having too much fun and sent his force down to stop the singing and disperse the crowd. Riots ensued as the revellers cried for ‘freedom for speech and freedom to sing in America’. Many were arrested by the heavy handed police, thrown into the back of ‘meat wagons’. It’s all on film. And this is where it happened in 1961.

Digesting this I moved on towards MacDougall Street where I was pleasantly surprised to find immediately, the famous Cafe Wha. Animals bass guitarist Chas Chandler discovered Hendrix here in 66’, Dylan and his cohorts were regulars here before him. Disappointingly it was closed but it was still midday. Getting hungry I walked around and came across an inviting looking bar called The Lantern which was just opening. They had the opening ceremony of the World Cup on their television as well. Perched on a bar stool for a couple of beers, ordered a cracking Mexican Fajita meal and watched the Russia v Saudi Arabia game. It was lovely and cool as well. Outside, the temperature was well up, exhausting. Another hour of walking around MacDougall and Bleecker Street, buying a couple of t-shirts, checking out record and book shops, in which I bought two, and I made my way back, deciding that the last night in NYC would be spent down here in the Village. A pit stop for a refreshing beer on the way back to my hotel was opposite a fire station. And lo and behold, they were called out while I was sitting there gazing out of the window. Impressive and once again my thoughts turned to 9/11. These guys or their predecessors would have been involved. What must have they been thinking as they raced to the scene of the Twin Towers? What must it have been like to be standing around here going about your everyday business and watching in horror as those twin towers disintegrated before your eyes? God only knows. Terrifying.

The Village was swarming tonight. I went looking for The Bitter End in Bleecker Street. Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Dylan, Jackson Browne, just a few of the thousands of artists who’ve played there. To hot to go in, there didn’t appear to be much action going on either, I called into Willie’s Bar next door which was air conditioned, colourful and quirky. Signs and anecdotes, cartoons adorning the walls and ceiling. Some good music being played on the system too. From ‘Willie’s’ I headed back to MacDougall Street to seek out where the once famous bar The Gaslight was. This was another regular haunt for Dylan and the folkies. Closed in 1971 it is now a tattoo shop.
MacDougall was thronging with people, bars were rammed but the one right opposite where the Gaslight used to be,  The Four Faced Bar, had an unoccupied round table near the doorway. Got myself a beer and settled down at the table to take in the buzz. A couple came in, looking for a table, glanced around and were deciding to move on until I told them that the two stools next to me were free. They looked relieved, thankful for some respite. ‘No problem” I said, ‘Take em’. Russell and Kerry had just arrived that day from Canada and were originally from Sydney, Australia. Russell was on the same trek as myself, searching out the Dylan and other famous haunts. ‘Massive fan’ Kerry said, nodding at Russell. We discussed various things about Dave Van Ronk, the Clancy Brothers, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, the 60s, knowledgable he was too. Ramblin’ Jack is still around, aged 85 and still playing. Pity he wasn’t around here tonight. That would have been something. Being cocky, I admit, I asked Russell if he had found The Gaslight yet. He looked at me hopefully, obviously hoping I would enlighten him. I pointed out of the window. ‘Right there’ I said. They looked out at across the street. ‘Where?’ Russell asked. ‘The tattoo shop’. They looked gobsmacked. ‘I checked it out earlier’ I told them. ‘It was number 116’. They looked as disappointed at what I had been. It was nice meeting them and chatting away. Total strangers but its always interesting to discover other people’s backgrounds, outlooks, history. I left them to it and moved on to take in another couple of bars, soaking up the atmosphere and thrill of being in this place. A feeling I had when I went to San Fransisco some ten years before. I had achieved my goal for New York. Next time I’ll get round to visiting other landmarks and venues I didn’t make this time. Even a show, but I reckon you’d need more than three nights to achieve everything. 

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