The New World – Part 1: At Home with the Homeless
I think I now know how Sir Peter Jackson felt when he got involved in The Hobbit films. Originally this was going to be all one piece, but as I wrote it and little memories started coming back here and there and what I wanted to include increased, I decided to make it two. Then again, the more I wrote and the more I thought about what I wanted to write, I ultimately decided that this should be written in three parts, which is (for now) what I’m going to do. Although I’d love to a fully planned out blog to post each time, unfortunately that just isn’t something that is going to happen with my current work schedule. It’s a lot of work, and I don’t think the majority of people who write blogs really put much thought into it anyway. Neither do the readers think or expect too much with blogs, so that’s good! I’ll admit I didn’t have the pressure of a multi-billion movie company putting pressure on me to do this, but Jackson, I sympathise.
This one has been a long time coming. I finally sat my arse down to write about my trip to America, which is now coming up to two years ago. TWO YEARS. As I started writing and looking through the old photos I took, I couldn’t believe it had been so long. Two years might not sound like too much, but when I considered how eventful those two years have been (both on a personal and international level), I struggled to believe it was back in 2019 that I went there; time just seems to all merge and the concept of days, months and years has become meaningless the older I get. I’m sure everyone feels it. but before I get into any deep and philosophical conversation about life and time, let’s jump into it, shall we?
For quite some time it had always been a dream of mine to go to New York. It’s not that far from the UK really (especially in the days of the Concorde), and I would have much rather have travelled from there than Japan, but as life as lead me to the land of rising sun, I didn’t really have much choice in the matter. But my coming to Japan was actually one of the reasons why I ever felt like I wanted to go to there in the first place. Not New York specifically, but the US. Had I not come to Japan, I likely would have never met many Americans and in particular the ones who will feature in this blog. And had I never met them, I likely may have never felt as strong a want to go back there. I say ‘back there’ as I had been to America twice before. Once when I was very little (I had my second birthday there) and then later in the summer of 1997, when I was still little, but just not quite so little anymore. I’m usually terrible with years as we’ve already determined, but I remember this particular year as it was one in which something rather major happened. I remember going through the checkout at a Walmart and the lady at the till sparking up a conversation with my mother. If memory serves, it went something like this:
‘Oh, are you from Engerland?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ said my mum.
‘Didn’t, like, your queen die, or something?’
Panic mode ON. She pointed us in the direction of the news stand and we rushed over to have a look (after packing all of our bags, of course). We grabbed a newspaper (yes, an actual newspaper made from actual paper. No smartphones back then) to find out that it was not, as I’m sure everyone reading this is aware, the Queen who had passed. No, it was the late Princess Diana, whom the friendly checkout lady had mistaken for Queen Elizabeth II. Still very big news at the time, but not Queen Elizabeth II levels of gargantuanism. Bless.
Other than the potential death of Elizabeth II, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, the trip was filled mainly with theme parks, tornados, terrible sunburn (highly likely my first), and seeing quite honestly the largest people I had ever laid my eyes on. Particularly the taxi driver who took us to a Henry VIII restaurant. He was a big boy. Fag ends and wrappers stuffed in every available crevice within arm’s reach all left quite the impression on me. It was an incredible time for my 9-year-old self, who was obsessed with the likes of Jurassic Park (despite crying out of sheer fright and leaving the cinema early when it was released), Toy Story, Star Wars, etc. I even learnt how to swim out there, for which I am grateful. Thank you, America! All in all it was a jolly holiday and I enjoyed every moment of it.
A few decades later and I would come to want to go back. This time not as an innocent 9-year-old boy who was interested in Jurassic Park and Disney, but more in the real America. At least as much as I could see of it, anyway. America is rather quite large, as would become apparent.
Come 2019 and the chance for me to make a trip out there materialised in the form of a friend’s wedding in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I do love a good wedding and had been thinking of jetting off to America at some point anyway, so this really was the perfect combination! It certainly wasn’t cheap, but it would prove to be totally worth it.
It wasn’t a last-minute decision by any means and I certainly had time to prepare, but on the run-up to my departure, I found how ill-prepared I actually was. As a pompous Brit, I assumed that surely I would never need a visa to get into America. What about our ‘special relationship’? I’m British, damn it! How wrong I was. And how fortunate my girlfriend told me about the visa that she had to apply for online to enter America. Even then I assumed that I didn’t need it, but yet again my ignorance was proven and I begrudgingly dropped however many dollars it was for me to get this silly visa.
Well that was certainly a close shave, but it would not be the last problem I encountered on this trip, despite my best efforts to prepare, I soon realised that having lived in Japan for nigh on 7 years by this point, my expectations of convenience and high levels of service that I now evidently assumed was the norm would come to bite me in the bottom throughout the rest of the trip. Some of my own doing, some not.
Flight booked? Check. Hotel booked? Check. Transport from the airport to the hotel booked? Check. Lovely. Off I went. I hadn’t been to another country by myself in quite some time and was really looking forward to spending time by myself and letting go a little. The flight was pleasant enough. I got a direct flight from Nagoya Centrair Airport to Detroit with a transfer to Phoenix and thence to the final destination, Newark Airport. I decided not to go directly into New York just because it was that little bit more expensive, and there was a handy shuttle bus service that could pick me and take me straight into the heart of the city.
Wonderful, I thought. I arrive and go through immigration (with a valid visa, thank you) and am tasked with the mundanity of answering questions such as ‘Why have you come to America? Oh, a wedding? In New York? Oh, Pennsylvania. That’s pretty far. How do you know him? Japan? That doesn’t make sense. What are you doing in New York?’ I could go on, but I think you get the gist. I was tempted to answer with ‘to take back the colonies’ to the first question, but I thought I’d better not. With that over I picked up my bag from the magical luggage conveyer belt and headed off to the pick-up area. I waited. Waited a little more. Then waited some more. Checked my phone a few times while I waited to make sure I hadn’t made a mistake. Nope, everything looked fine. I spotted a phone I could use and gave them a call. After taking ages for someone to finally pick up, I explained my situation to them.
‘Oh, errr… Yes. He’s on his way at the moment’. Really, I thought. Well, I found out that the service I was using had a nifty little location tracker for the driver, so naturally I log in and check the status of the driver. Oh. He’s… still in New York at the bus station. An hour after the scheduled time and now passing midnight, the bloody driver hadn’t even left to pick me up! It was not a great start to the trip, but it was one of those moments that made me notice that the Japanese do really hold quality of service highly. The convenience of hopping on a train down to the airport in Japan was a stark contrast to my first experience with transport in America and it would certainly not be the last time I realised that.
The driver eventually turned up to whisk me off to the Big Apple. Being a Brit, I naturally didn’t complain (to his face) and I happily clambered onto the bus with a smile on my face. When he asked me where I wanted dropping off, I opened up my phone again and checked the reservation for the hotel to get the name and address, and to my horror realised that I had somehow messed up the hotel booking (this time it was my fault). I still don’t really know what happened, but I had somehow set the check-in date a day too late and I hadn’t booked a hotel for my first night in America! Big whoops indeed. I scrambled to find another hotel on my way in the bus, but quickly discovered that now that the clock had ticked over into the next day, it was not possible for me to make a booking for that night anymore. When I arrived at the hotel, I explained my situation to the guy working the night shift but he told me, with the utmost sympathy, that there were no rooms available that night, but he’d be able to take my luggage at the very least. How kind!
I spent one hour or so traipsing the streets of Manhattan considering my options, which were: try every hotel to find a room, find a bar that would be open all night and just drink as I hide out there, or find the local homeless and see if I could kip with them. Initially I thought it’d be a good opportunity to check out some of the New York nightlife straight away, but I couldn’t find anywhere that was open! I had the impression that New York was the city that never sleeps, but it was pretty damn quiet where I was! So I settled with either just staying out all night and waiting for my room to become available the next day, or go to every hotel in the area and try and find a room. Jetlag and fatigue won and I decided to try every hotel I could find for a room. It took a while, and after being turned away at five or six hotels, I finally came upon the Kimpton Hotel Eventi, with a lovely lady at the front desk who sympathised with my predicament and was able to give me a room.
Once I’d dumped all my stuff in the room and had a much-needed shower, I took a little trip out to grab a night cap (despite the shops not being allowed to sell alcohol after 9 pm or sometime around there, which they thankfully chose to ignore) and crashed to recoup my strength for the next day. There was lots I wanted to do in New York and time was of the essence. My first night in America may not have been great, but I had high hopes and was confident that once the sun was out, it was going to a great experience.