Wednesday 1st October. Manhattan, New York City, New York, USA
I was woken by Bob's running footsteps down the stairs, and his hurried phone call.
"I'm running late" he said, presumably to his boss, "but I'm on the way. I'll be there soon". With my eyes still closed, I said a blurry 'thankyou' and 'goodbye' to Bob, and fell straight back to sleep. When I woke a couple of hours later, his Mum was waiting to cook me a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs, hashbrowns and toast. She drove me to the train station, and I had a couple of hours in Philly before catching the bus to New York City. Greyhound was twenty bucks one way to the Big Apple, but Bob had given me directions to a shopfront in Chinatown where I could catch a bus for twelve dollars.
The Liberty Bell was about the only 'attraction' I had time for in Philly, so I set off in search of it.
"Got a quarter?" came the familiar call from a ragged man sitting on the sidewalk. As always I reacted with a brief smile and a small shake of my head. I didn't slow my pace.
"What about an old tshirt?" he pleaded. After a few more steps, I stopped. It was a sunny day, but the air was cool, and I bet the nights were getting cold on the street. I had just the thing for him. The boys at Dignity Village in Portland, Oregon had given me a tshirt, and I don't often wear it as black isn't really my colour, baby! How appropriate that the shirt given to me by homeless guys on the west coast should end up warming a homeless guy on the east coast. He beamed when I produced the extra large black tshirt from my backpack. It was even freshly laundered! The green velvet sweatshirt he wore was a couple of sizes too small, and exposed about four inches of his waistline to the cool air. Before I even had a chance to put my pack back on, he was proudly clothed in his new shirt. As I walked away, I wondered who was smiling more- him or me.
The bus to New York City was less crowded and more comfortable than any of the Greyhound busses I'd ridden so far. I should explain why I've temporarily given up hitchhiking. It's not that I've gone soft. I only have a week left in the US, and it'd be a shame to spend most of that time standing by the road with my thumb out. In this part of the country, hitchhiking is a confusing option. Just have a look at a map and you'll see; the whole area from DC to Philly to New York is just a mess of twisted motorways and tollways. I wouldn't know where to hitch from. It's not like Idaho or Wyoming where there's just one highway heading east and that's the one you take. This here is like finding your way through an upturned bowl of spaghetti. *like the simile*
So I'm in New York. The bus arrived into Chinatown which is in Lower Manhattan. My first piece of business was to collect my mail from the post office at Grand Central Station in Upper Manhattan, almost fifty blocks away. That's okay cause I wasn't in any hurry anyway, and apart from the fact that I wished I didn't have my full backpack on, I like to walk around. I'd phoned Veronique, my host for tonight, and left a message on her machine. I couldn't remember exactly where she lived but I thought it was somewhere near Grand Central, give or take ten blocks or so. By the time I reached the station a couple of hours later, I was a little less enthusiastic about the walking. Then when the post office staff told me that they don't have Genearl Delivery there, and that my mail would either have been re-routed to the GPO or returned to sender, I started to remember how much I didn't like New York on previous trips. I phone Veronique again, but again no answer. Where's the nearest pub?
From Limerick House Irish pub, I phoned a local contact of mine. Joseph is the webmaster behind the very successful travel site Trekshare. He'd said that I could stay with him if I was in a bind, but either way we should catch up for a beer. As luck would have it, he was out on his bicycle when I called, and happened to be just a few blocks from the pub. He had things to do and places to be- this is New York- but dropped in and joined me for a pint and a chat about all things travel. After Jospeh left, I finally got through to Veronique, who chastised me softly for not emailing her to confirm my arrival. Oops! I thought I had, but it was inevitable that this would happen sooner or later.
Veronique didn't seem too displeased with me, and welcomed me into her huge home studio. Originally from France, Veronique has been in New York for fifteen years and is a dentist and a photographer.
More accurately she was a dentist. Now a professional photographer with her own 11th floor studio and other studio space she rents out, she just works as a dentist a couple of days a week to supplement the less predictable photography income. She'd just started dinner when I rang the doorbell, and quickly put together another bowl of ham and cheese and salad with homemade vinaigrette, and some delicious homemade tomato soup- not homemade by her, she pointed out.
"You prefer Mexican beer or Japanese?" she asked.
Wow. What a choice.
"Um...Japanese is good!"
We sat up late talking about travel, family and photography, and Veronique showed me through some of her favourite photographic work. On a recent trip to Vietnam, she took over five thousand photos! I was blown away by the great 'people shots' she had. One thing that's always frustrated me is my reluctance to take people shots, and Veronique told me I must get over that. It had taken her a whole month of walking around with a camera before she could bring herself to lift it and point it at strangers in the street, but once you do it a couple of times, it comes natural after that... so she tells me. That's my new resolution now, so watch out for a different style of photography soon.
Veronique's studio has an incredible view, and when I asked her what that tall building was, she kind of smiled.
"That's the Empire State Building, my dear" she said. Mmm..silly question, I guess. I asked her the inevitable question about the World Trade Centre towers. She did have a view of the twin towers from her bedroom behind the studio, and yes she was here on that fateful day. She talked of the dust and the confusion and the sickening smell that filled the air for months, but she also told some incredible stories from the days immediately after the attack. Like when she walked into her local bakery and the baker wasn't charging for bread. Everything was free. The trains weren't running, so she caught a bus and the bus was free.