The rain had stopped. I walked around the Village, down Bleecker Street, looking at the buildings – mostly brick, full of architectural detail. I love walking through New York streets: there is so much to look at. I walked down into SoHo, zigzagging across the lattice of streets, watching people, looking at the buildings.
I woke early, and snuck out into dawn streets. I caught the subway down to City Hall, the downtown local, and stepped over the water. I realise that, perhaps, the Chrysler Building may not be my favourite structure in New York. (Favourite is a very flexible word for me; it changes with the weather.) The Brooklyn Bridge is, or just then, early on a Saturday morning, it was. Few people were about: some joggers. A line of cormorants flew under the bridge, skimming the water. A fleet of police cars, lights flashing, sirens stuttering, sped into the city on the car deck. (I later learned this was, I think, a ceremonial affair: it was the day a memorial to dead policemen was being dedicated.)
Landing at Newark Airport into the long lines that characterise every US airport I have been to is a strange, disorientating experience. The queue is badly organised, being broken into mini-queues which mean that you pray you don’t get stuck behind the Muslim (or the Hindu or the Sikh; I don’t believe US immigration officials are targeting Muslims; they seem to hate everyone) who will undoubtedly be given a long going over, or anyone who can’t speak English or Spanish, or the many, many of us who have filled in the incomprehensible forms incorrectly.
xi. The End: Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Town
Outside San Francisco, after 7pm, at a bus stop. On the Bay Area Rapid Transit system – ultra-new, techno-flash tubes. Problem: night in a big, strange city, known for the depths of its vices and problems. Big problem. At the station, Market and Eddy, on the phone for ages, trying to find a room. Yes! A cheap room – $20 for two… We rush around the corner, through the weirdo people, flashing neon night and cables cars to the hotel. We took it even though the price was more (!) than we’d planned. Fall on our feet.
Thus started a ten day romance. San Francisco is a great place, and we got to know (parts of) it pretty well. As you must have realised, our hotel – it had a really incongruous name, something like the Rutherford or the Stratford – was in a real down area, so far downtown it almost reached Hell. We were right in the heart of the Tenderloin. Junkies, drunks, gays of all descriptions; leather and chains; prostitutes of both sexes.
viii. Fear and Loathing.
We got dropped by the monster family at a road into Vegas; we were very glad to get out of the car, even though it had been a fast ride – probably the fastest we had, more than 70mph the whole way. The grandfather, so he said, had never learned to read or write so well (we had to tell him which way to go, because of the road signs. He took a couple of wrong turnings. They also didn’t know about crossing time zones – their watches were two or three hours out with ours. Weird). We were a couple of miles from the heart of Vegas, Downtown. We had to walk in 100° heat – at 7pm – into Main St to find a place to stay. We found a brothel; $5 each per night – dirt cheap. It looked very dubious, though, but we needed all the money we had, so took it. We were pretty exhausted, and crashed for a bit with the TV on, anything on any channel. These two girls kept coming asking if they was anything they could for us.
At 9 or 10, we split and wandered into some casinos. Vegas has two main gambling areas – the Strip (Las Vegas Boulevard) and Main St; these are about three or four miles apart. The Strip is upmarket – Caesar’s Palace, Silverbird, Circus Circus. Hard time big losers. Main St is down market – all glitter, but small time people – grannies; no big games. Slot machines are everywhere.
vi. Colorado: rock formations and park bench mutations
Denver. We arrived driven by freaked out Vic, in the rain, drizzle. He dropped us at the Greyhound station: always a good place to start – everybody knows where that is. And then the statutory phone call to the youth hostel; except that they have moved, the building that used to house the hostel is now entertaining the Unification Church – the Moonies. The hostel was understandably worried about this, and all over the Greyhound and Amtrak (that’s the railways – the trains are huge, long things. We drove past some trains that we estimated from our speed were about three quarters of a mile long, headed by five more diesel locos, bright yellow animals that English engines to shame) stations they had pinned notices.
The hostel was quite a way out: Denver’s a surprisingly big city. The rail tracks cut the town in two, the geography on side is different to the other: street organisation is shifted through 45 degrees. This was the case in a lot of place – Denver, San Francisco, LA and Chicago. The other side of the tracks – the wrong side – is a true phenomenon: the original streets and avenues, and then the railway came, the tracks, and then the cheap down and out side; a sudden change of atmosphere and you’re in the poor district.
ii. Counting the Cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
Thumbs out and let’s go… We took a bus to Newark, New Jersey, and started to count the cars… We chose Highway 80, our plan being to head to Chicago, then across to San Francisco, LA, San Diego…
Newark is really an industrial extension of New York: petrochemical works and factories; Bruce Springsteen-land, where Patti Smith grew up.
Standing by the side of the road in 102F heat; nothing stops. Then – something to put us 80 itself, a pick up. Dumps us in a bad spot ten miles on. Shit. Another, and another. I had an amazing view of the New York skyline as we went up a hill – I really regret not taking a picture. Still no lift of any length; then we start getting fifty miles rides: medium distance. Long waits between rides – but then who is going to pick up two blokes on the road?
And here we go again.
i. New York, New York, 42nd Street.
New York was great. That basically fits, and describes the place.
We got to JFK after an exceptionally boring Laker flight across the Atlantic. The first thing I did was phone Michael 1, so we could get something arranged for our first night – and she said we could stay as long as we wished; she reiterated this when she saw us, too, so we ended up accepting the offer – we hadn’t intended to.
Leaving JFK on the bus, and thus to a subway… Where do we go? No subway map – go and find one: green red yellow blue spaghetti thrown across an outline of Manhattan, impossible to trace or follow. How to get from here to there via… local and express trains, excepted stops… jump on and pray.
In 1980, a friend and I flew to New York, where we spent a few days, and then we hitch-hiked to San Francisco. I have transcribed some letters that date back to 1980, which describe this trip to the USA. I hadn’t read “On the Road” when I went to the States; I read it after I came back – whilst I wrote these letters.
They were written to my brother; he was working in Africa at the time – teaching English in Sudan, I think. (I am sure he will tell me if I have got this wrong.). I was a twenty year old student.
Going to the States was a big adventure. I travelled with G, to whom I gave a copy of the letters (and who knows I am going to post about them), together with some of the photographs.