Over the years I think it’s fair to say that I have moved about more than most. My travels, and prior to those the travels of my parents, have taken me around the United Kingdom and beyond to Australia, Germany and Russia, from where I have been able to explore much of Europe and small pockets of the rest of the world.
America, on the other hand, had always eluded me; odd, really, given the undue influence it seemed to have over my life — surely second only to that of the country of my birth. The thing about living such a nomadic life is that there are precious few throughlines tying the whole thing together — even now most of my closest friendships are only a few years old — and after my family, as strange as it might sound, the most enduring influence I have had is probably television.
Perhaps not so surprising given that The Simpsons, which first aired in 1989, is nearly as old as I am — and as such I have watched it for almost as long as I can remember. Other shows might not have run as long, but at an average length of seven seasons, or years, they have still endured longer than any home, school or workplace I have ever had. Thanks to shows as diverse as Home Improvements, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The X-Files and Lost, American culture has been a constant and incalculable presence in my life, wherever I might have been living at the time.
And it’s not just TV either. In Australia my dad used to play The Eagles’ Hotel California on a loop; in Germany Bill Bryson audiobooks accompanied us on frequent road trips; and in Scotland a job at a cinema (and later accreditation as a film critic) meant that I was watching just about every movie Hollywood slated for release. It started to effect my dress, my frame of reference and even my speech: I picked up the intonation, the vernacular and the jargon. I will never forget losing my Oyster Card during one drunken misadventure in London and being helped out by a kindly American who mistook me for a compatriot. An it’s not the only time something like that has happened. I was already going native and I hadn’t even been.
When I say, then, that I have always wanted to visit America I am not exaggerating; for years part of me has been eager to reconcile the world I have watched on screen with that I have witnessed in person. I have seen coffee culture, fast food and reality television take hold in Europe, as if fiction were becoming reality, and have felt compelled to trace such imports back to the source. I wanted to taste the Kool-Aid; to see if America as I knew it bore any resemblance to America as it actually stands. Travel should be about challenging preconceptions, after all, and I had more pertaining to America than any other country on Earth.
And so it happened that on Black Friday 2015 I searched for discounted flights to New York. That year I had been shortlisted for a travel writing competition with a US road trip as its prize, and although unsuccessful it motivated me to find another way. I didn’t end up booking anything, having at 09:05 already missed the best deals, but I noticed that even at normal prices the journey wouldn’t be as costly as I had always presumed. Just a few short weeks later a friend and I had secured direct return flights to Newark for £550 each. Paul could have happily spent all six days in New York but I pushed for an onward journey to Washington DC, and we ultimately compromised on a night in Virginia, within commuting distance from the National Mall.
As excited as I was to finally set foot on American soil I still had to get there first, and with recent flights increasingly causing ear pain I was already dreading the eight hour journey. Thanks to the Oscars and a conveniently timed day of press screenings I easily deprived myself of sleep in the days leading up to departure, but just in case I hadn’t tired myself out enough to sleep on the plane I bought enough Sudafed, Haribo and Strathmore water to make the trip to New York as comfortable as humanly, medically and Tangfastically possible. It didn’t quite work out, but thanks to regular refreshments, a small complimentary pillow and a selection of television programmes (mostly American, of course) provided by United I made it across the Atlantic in one piece, eardrums and enthusiasm intact.
We hadn’t even landed yet and I was already deep in ethnographically study — a bit like Jack Skellington on his first visit to Christmastown, only with the seat belt light switched on and a woman snoring next to me. The airplane took us over Greenlandic and Canadian tundra, great swathes of empty, inhospitable wilderness, but as we entered American airspace the blanket snow-cover gave way to greenery and other signs of life. I marvelled out of the window as we flew past towns and cities, each recognisably American thanks to their telltale skyscrapers, interstates and sports stadiums. I followed the flight tracker on my TV screen, and as we approached New York I kept my eyes peeled for Manhattan below. We all did: my newly wakened neighbour, her boyfriend and I craning our necks to see the famous sights below.
Having actually entered the country through New Jersey, on the other side of the Hudson, we soon arrived in New York at PENN Station, emerging onto 7th Avenue at Madison Square Garden — perhaps one of the most evocative and universally intelligible sentences I have ever typed. It was overwhelming to be surrounded so suddenly by the ubiquitous iconography of New York and the United States of America: yellow cabs whizzed past, honking as they went; streets stretched out into the far distance, unbroken thanks to the distinctive grid system; buildings soared higher than I could have ever imagined, the formidable skyline punctuated by some of the most famous towers in all the world. I didn’t know where to look, glancing from window to window, flag to flag, street sign to street sign as I tried to take it all in at once. What’s this?
Luckily, Paul seemed to know where he was going, and I was lead away, grinning stupidly to myself, in the general direction of our hotel. Here I was, surrounded by billboards and water towers and steam plumes, half expecting Spider-man to swing past or Marshmallow Man to come lumbering by, reliving about 40% of the movies I had ever seen. Were they all, like Starbucks, actually real? Before I knew it I was standing in Times Square, blinking in the blinding light of McDonalds, Coca-Cola and innumerable Broadway shows calling out for my attention. Batman, Olaf and Spongebob Squarepants mingled with the crowd, posing for photographs and together making the scene even more surreal than it already was. I was so tired, so overawed that I could have sat down on the Bleacher seats of TKTS and left the real world behind.
First, however, we had to check-in, and arriving at our hotel it became clear that we would not be permitted to do this ourselves. As far as I can remember I have never encountered a bellboy before — not in person, anyway — and wasn’t entirely sure how to navigate the interaction. They don’t really exist where I come from, at least not in the price bracket I normally operate within, and having packed light in order to avoid extra baggage charges at the airport I really couldn’t see the need for one now. Nevertheless, we relinquished our belongings for a short ride in the elevator, and then paid for the privilege upon arrival at our room. Or Paul did, I should say, for even after five days in America I couldn’t get the hang of tipping — I couldn’t get the hang of a lot of things.
Thanks to the time difference it was only two in the afternoon, most of the last eight hours having been erased from history, so after a quick shower to freshen up I joined Paul for lap of Central Park before nightfall, at which point we’d been instructed to give it as wide a berth as possible. It really was a beautiful day though; freezing, sure, but the sun was shining and there was nary a cloud in the sky — no doubt because they were all settled over Scotland, as usual. I bought a pretzel at the first vendor we came to, getting my first proper taste of New York as we strolled past Umpire Rock, Bethesda Fountain and Belvedere Castle, joining 5th Avenue at the Met so that we might return to Midtown for something a bit more substantial to eat. Something without holes in it. And maybe some nutritional value.
It was uncanny, to see so many images once confined to a cinema or television screen now contextualised anew. I had expected Bethesda to be nearer the perimeter, having apparently seen Macaulay Culkin enter the park through the terrace in Home Alone 2, while Belvedere looked a lot smaller when not viewed from the perspective of a Smurf. I don’t think I have ever been anywhere with so many cinematic references, and recalled The Avengers, Madagascar, Stuart Little and Enchanted as we walked from one film location to another, sometimes searching them out, sometimes stumbling on them by surprise. Paul turned his attention to the surrounding buildings, searching Eighth Avenue for The Dakota, which doubled for the Bramford Building in Rosemary’s Baby. We were in our element, and with the rest of New York to explore the fun wasn’t over yet. But first: food.
We opted for Carve on 47th and 8th, deciding that our first meal in New York should be at a bona fide pizza joint. Paul ordered a couple of oversized slices while I went for a sort of braided lattice. Family lore has always maintained that Pizza Hut Zoological Gartens in Berlin does the best pizza in the world (a miracle by their usual standards) but Carve certainly comes a close second. At some point between bites I clocked the cake counter at the other end of the diner, my gaze settling on what can only be described as the cheesecake I had been waiting all my life to taste. I ordered a slice and then returned with it to the table, admiring it for a time before obliterating it in an instant. It was simply delicious, cheesier than most cheeses and with a crumbly texture that more than compensated for the lack of a breadcrumb base.
I have often said that the first thing I do upon arriving in a new place is climb to the tallest point. I was spoiled for choice in New York, but with the Empire State Building set for the next day and the One World Trade Center at the other side of town I was struggling to decide where to go. Paul suggested Sixty Five, the trendy cocktail bar on the eponymous floor of the Rockefeller Center, and I agreed, somewhat skeptically, suddenly aware of how not-trendy we both looked. I figured they’d let me in, with by black shoes and dark jeans, but imagined they’d take issue with Paul’s trainers and send us away, a-scoff. This was based on every altercation I’d ever had with a bouncer while at university in Aberdeen, where Converse were a sure ticket home. Unfortunately for me, the opposite is apparently true in New York, where Paul was waved through while I was only admitted on the proviso that I zip up my coat to hide the hoodie beneath. I swallowed my pride along with a $25 Manhattan.
Exhaustion didn’t stop us — two film buffs in cinema’s favourite city — from taking in a movie at AMC Empire 25 on 42nd Street. There was a 3D screening of Gods of Egypt at 10:30pm, and both because of and despite the toxic reviews we decided to give it a go — even ignoring the TripAdvisor warnings of bed bugs to do so. Besides, it had yet to secure UK distribution which meant this might have been our only chance to see it. The film was awful, as expected, but what prevented us from being able to enjoy it for what it was — a gilded turkey — was the abysmal behaviour of our fellow cinemagoers. There could only have been twelve of us in the entire screen, yet the experience was undermined by more sweet-rustling, seat-kicking and chit-chatting than either of us could quite believe. Press screenings will undoubtedly skew your expectations when it comes to acceptable cinema etiquette, but it was still amazing just how disruptive that small audience was able to be.
We left the cinema just after one, and were back at the hotel by two, thereby ending our first day in America…ever. Our window blind might have been woefully ineffective, and the air conditioner next to my bed may have let out regular bursts of cold air, and the shower in the bathroom may have had an incessant drip, but I was out for the count in a New York minute. The pilot a success it was time to proceed to episode two: The One Where Steven and Paul visit Monica’s Apartment. We were going to series.