I am delighted to present Roam with Juliet’s first guest post, from someone who features in this blog heavily: Steve McCaul (my boyfriend). Enjoy!
It didn’t feel real, not at that time of night.
After landing at JFK airport at about 8pm Eastern Time, then waiting an hour or so for Mikey’s vodka (he’d left his duty free in the overhead compartment of our flight, and like a true Scotsman he was going nowhere without his alcohol!) we were in a yellow taxi heading towards our apartment in Midtown Manhattan. I still couldn’t quite believe I was in New York.
I’ve known Mikey since high school; Rich I met on the Internet about eight years ago. We’ve been planning this trip since May last year. My favourite band in the world, an Irish-American punk rock band called Flogging Molly, announced that they were commandeering a cruise ship over the 2015 St Patricks Day weekend with a host of other bands – I had to be on that boat.
It still felt like a dream as our cab dropped us at the corner of 30th and 9th Avenue. We collected the keys to our rented apartment from a young lad called Carlos and ascended to the top floor of our block. A queen-size bed and two sofas were a welcoming sight after a day of travelling, but first we needed dinner. Rich’s extensive research meant we knew the best eats before we left.
The steam billowing up from the grates onto the street, the friendly distinctive New York accent and the smell of oregano and pizza dough wafting out from pizza parlours started to bring home the reality of where I was. At Coppelia diner I ate incredible Tacos Campechanos – soft tacos stuffed with ground steak and chorizo – washed down with Peruvian beer. Home-cooked, authentic Latino cooking for $20 was worth every cent. Service was quick and friendly. We earned the lazy cab ride home after filling our faces.
Awakening to daylight and the sound of constant car horns the next morning made it blatantly clear to me where I was, had I still been in any doubt. We sought breakfast at the Skylight Diner, a typical American diner complete with black and white floor tiles and stools lining a counter, from behind which a woman was serving coffee from a pot. The main seating area lies under a series of windows that give the place its name. I was salivating within seconds of browsing the breakfast menu: pancakes, waffles, cereal, stacks of toast and bottomless caffeine. We all opted for the lumberjack pancakes, a plate piled high with fluffy batter and bacon, with a sausage on the side and a bottle of syrup big enough to drown in. Fresh fruit juice and the obligatory cup of coffee completed my fuel for the day. Once again, reasonable prices from a friendly and efficient establishment.
Rich had seen New York before and wanted to make a pilgrimage to a comic book store in New Jersey owned by cult movie director Kevin Smith, a mecca for fans of everything Jay and Silent Bob. Awaiting him there was a signed Monopoly board game, so Mikey and I left him to go and play tourist for the day. After a stop in Bloomingdales for a famed Little Brown Bag (a souvenir for Mikey’s mum) we headed for the subway. As a resident of London for five years I figured that this would be a simple task; but after getting to grips with the relatively simple Metrocard system (not dissimilar to a London Oyster card, and better value-per-journey than buying single tickets) the terribly-explained signage led us to wrong platforms, resulting in some confused to-ing and fro-ing.
Having worked out the system, we arrived eventually at the Statton Island ferry port, which is next to, but not quite, the correct place to buy tickets for the ferry to Liberty Island and its iconic statue. The hustlers must have spotted us tourists from a mile away. “Hey guys, Statue of Liberty? Don’t worry, I’m a ticket agent”, the friendly New Yorker on the street told us, flashing a laminate pass at us. He took out a leaflet with boats and locations and prices on it and was well on his way to selling us a multi-attraction day pass when an officer of the New York Police Department interrupted him. “Got any ID buddy?” He told the officer he had none. “Well we’re gonna have to take you in so we can find out who you are.” Suddenly, the forgetful ticket man produced an ID card from his pocket. “Ah, see now you just lied to us, we need to take you down the Precinct…” An argument ensued as I realised that the man in front of us was being arrested. Our instinct was to back away slowly. “Gentlemen?”, the other officer asked us. Uh oh. “Don’t buy from these guys, they’ll rip you off.” Then a smile: “Don’t worry, you’ve done nothing wrong!” Lesson learnt.
A short walk through Battery Park leads you to the redbrick ticket office for the Liberty Island ferry. For $18 you can sail to the statue itself and to Ellis Island, which served as immigration and border control until the 1950s. A genealogists’ paradise, for $7 (30 minutes) you can search the records of every immigrant who arrived into the port of New York by boat more than 100 years ago. For free, you can browse an interesting museum display about the history of American settlers. But sailing towards the Statue of Liberty on the passenger ferry, like the hopeful immigrants of decades-past, is genuinely exciting: a sign that you’ve truly arrived in New York. You can’t actually climb the statue unless you pre-book online a fortnight in advance (so the authorities can background-check you, seriously) but circling the grounds of Lady Liberty with an optional audio guide is enough to allow you the required selfie.
Back on the mainland, our next stop was the Empire State Building. Having mastered the Subway, we navigated our way there with ease. $32 is pricey for what is effectively a rooftop view (with an additional $20 fee to go right to the top), but in fairness the view is spectacular. New York City definitely looks its best from above, the criss-cross of skyscraper-lined streets being zigzagged by bright yellow taxis is beautiful in an urban, movie-magic kind of way. It was around 4pm by this point so the attraction was quiet enough for us to descend within 20 minutes. I can’t imagine much worse than having to queue for what must be hours at peak time, so utilise early mornings and weekdays if you can.
We met Rich in the famous main concourse of Grand Central Station. Satisfied with his purchases at the comic book store, he led us to Times Square, the cacophony of electronic billboards and capitalist extravagance that is one of the most identifiable NYC landmarks. And I loved it. Despite the rain and the biting wind, it finally felt real. This was the New York I’d seen so much of on TV and in movies. After basking in the electric glow, and with a sudden subliminal thirst for Coca Cola and various gadgets and phone apps, we left in search of hot dogs. After deciding not to queue outside at Shake Shack, we ended up at Normans Hotdogs in a large canteen filled with a variety of fast-food outlets. A standard chilli-cheese beef frank with bacon-ranch fries and a surprisingly good mac and cheese (I could taste cheese over flour and plain pasta, a sign of good quality) was a basic meal but it set us up for our finalé: a night with Boston’s finest punks, Dropkick Murphys.
Irving Plaza is, by my standards, the ideal gig venue. The stench of beer as you walk in only just distracts you from your feet sticking to the floor. The theatre itself is small enough for a big gig to feel intimate, but with enough space for pit-dwellers and those chilling on the sidelines when things get too heavy to co-exist. The stage is high, so you can see the band with ease from the back of the room. And most of all, the New York audiences are crazy. Throughout the gig people were singing, jumping, moshing and dancing from the stage to the bar; the energy was constant and positive for the whole night. Dropkick Murphys were on fire, dropping a lot of old material that sent hardcore fans into a frenzy. Handing darts to audience members and choosing songs from a dartboard is one of the best setlist-writing mechanisms I’ve ever seen. As gigs go, it was incredible by every possible measure. Rich and I topped the night by picking up a pizza from a vendor in Penn station. For its size, it may as well have picked us up; it was bigger than most truck wheels. My lips tingled from the spicy frank sauce coating the breaded chicken and buffalo topping as I slept.
Thank you to Steve for this awesome report! And if you thought his writing was good, just wait til you see his proper photography… (shot on a camera, as opposed to a phone like the ones featured here!)
And because I now have it stuck in my head, here’s Sting to sing us out: Englishman in New York