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The Lake Shore Limited and New York

28/02/2013

In two weeks crossing America, I’d encountered almost every American stereotype – the cowboy, the Amish, the corn-growers, the hippy, the gun apologist. There was still time, on the last leg of the trip, to tick off another stereotype – the distantly Irish. To his credit though, he turned out to have the best story I’d heard in five months on the road.

Before that, there’s also the narky American to add to my list. The person checking tickets in Union Station in Chicago is a woman of impressive rage. As I struggle along with two big bags holding my ticket in its pouch, she yells at people to have tickets open. “That’s not open!”, she cries at the person in front of me. I contort to reach the pouch and flick it open with my thumb. “Go!”, she shouts after me as I head for the platform. “You got three minutes to catch a train!” I don’t – I’ve 15 minutes; I don’t know what she’s going to tell the 30-odd people behind me in the queue – and for good measure, she helps me along with the wrong platform number.

It’s 1,000 miles from Chicago to New York, and the Lake Shore Limited runs along the shores of Lakes Michigan and Erie for a good portion of that. Unfortunately, the train leaves Chicago at half nine at night, by which time it’s already dark (the family in Chicago said it was noticeable how late it got dark in Ireland in the summer), and so the scenery goes unnoticed. Instead, I settle down for one last sleepless night sitting up on a train. Come morning, we’ve just left Lake Erie behind and entered New York State, skirting around the more interesting parts of the Appalachians and instead passing through low hills, small lakes and country retreats hidden away in the trees.

Around 1pm, with the train already an hour late, I head for lunch. I’m placed at a table with a retired American who’s spent much of his life in Canada and a large, black man who’s an IT worker in California. In all the previous train lunches, two of the people had known each other and conversation had started naturally from there; it’s a lot slower at this table. After a minute or two of silence, the retired man spots the shamrock on my t-shirt and asks if I’m Irish. I am, I say, and try to explain the point of a t-shirt commemorating arguably the best performance ever seen in an Ireland jersey, saying THE IRON CUЯTAIИ above Richie Dunne’s head. (As an aside, the t-shirt wrecks the head of anyone I know from a country that uses the Cyrillic script).

“Oh. My family was Irish”, he says. “From Roscommon, I think.” He enunciates “Roscommon” carefully – the word means little to him; he’s just trying to repeat syllables he’s heard before.

Here we go, I think.

“They were chased out of Ireland.”

This is a new one. I ask him what happened.

“He was given an order. It was found that he…” – here, he pauses a moment, and looks into the distance to remember the exact words – “…did ‘wilfully, wantonly and with malice of forethought lead an insurrection against His Majesty and His Majesty’s armed forces in Ireland’. He was told he could be hanged, drawn and quartered or be exiled to the New Colonies. Naturally, he was on the ship the next morning. They gave him a parchment to take on to the ship to show the captain to cover his fare. We still have it in the family.”

I’m fairly speechless. But there’s more. “Ten years later, the same man wrote home to his family in Ireland saying that this America was a grand place, because now they were paying him to fight the English.”

On a high of amazing history, I decide to ask the black IT worker if he has any interesting family history. “My family’s from the South”, he says, slightly sadly. Whoops…

We’re two hours late when I finally get off (or “de-train”, as Amtrak insist on calling it) at Penn Station. I’ve been offered a room for the weekend by Ed, who’s only recently started a two-year contract with PWC in New York. As Ed’s been working in Dallas all week and is only flying in about now, I’ve been given directions to the flat – out Penn Station, turn left, walk ten blocks or so and it’s on the right. I’ve no idea at all of the geography of New York, and it’s only after walking for a minute or two that I realise that I’ve landed on my feet here –

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The price for staying within half a mile of Times Square is upwards of $2,000 a month for a one-bed, three-room flat (bedroom, bathroom and a joint kitchen/living room with a pull-out sofa). It’s still the biggest flat on the floor; the floor map on the fire escape plan shows that some are surely no more than cupboards. There’s even an Irish pub – the last of the trip – just across the road. After meeting Ed there, though, it’s off to a different pub for an arguably more New York experience – a burger for dinner, and pints which change price over the course of the night depending on how they’re trading. The better a beer sells, the higher the price goes, and vice versa; the second drink comes in a good 10c higher than the first. Screens around the bar keep you updated on the latest trading.

The next day is Saturday, which means that although this is just the latest in a series of stops over the last five months, the couple of days feel strangely like a bog-standard Celtic Tiger-era weekend trip to New York. Myself and Ed take a walk down town to tick off some of the main sights, starting with the majestic main concourse of Grand Central Station –

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From there, we struggle to find the subway to head right into the city centre (it doesn’t help that there are 44 platforms all told, and yet this isn’t even the busiest station in New York). It’s a relief when we do get on; the temperature is again over 30, so the air con on the trains (though not in the stations) is quite welcome. In town, we head for the Staten Island Ferry, the free ferry between Manhattan and Staten Island which most people take purely for two views –

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There’s not much on Staten Island to divert really, so we run through the ferry terminal to ensure we beat the crowds from our boat to get the immediate return; most people are just going straight back to Manhattan. The Statue of Liberty itself is closed for renovations, so the trip to Liberty Island is skipped. Instead, we head down Wall Street and past the new World Trade Centre, nearing completion –

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On a banner surrounding the construction site are – for reasons I never work out – a series of place names, from New York, Dublin and Cork to the more obscure like Fes, Torshavn, Leh and Perm.

I’ve the afternoon to wander around town myself, so I head for Central Park, 340 acres of recreational space in the centre of the city where you can do anything from sunbathe to tango, roller disco to boat, play beach volleyball (I had no idea people actually played – as opposed to watched – beach volleyball) or even –

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Bobby Fischer was a regular visitor before becoming famous; my opponent isn’t quite as strong, although no beginner, but I do win all four games to end the trip on 11/11.

Central Park is a great place to wander around and get lost in, or to sit and relax; a nice mixture of winding paths, lakes and open parkland, with the skyscrapers always visible on the periphery to let you know just what it is you’re escaping from –

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Dinner is taken in 5 Napkin Burger – just another take on what at times seems America’s only dish – before joining up with a couple of others to head down the pub. I get a drink at the bar and am lightly chastised when I get back to the table – not for skipping on a round (we’re not doing rounds, for reasons lost in the haze of drink), but for not leaving an extra dollar at the bar as a tip. I’m advised to head back and leave a dollar now or I’m liable to be ignored when it comes to buying another drink. A bit of probing reveals that the reason behind this is that America’s tax system is borderline third-world. Bars and other places of employment take advantage of the American habit of tipping to justify paying staff as little as possible – $2 or $3 an hour in some places – on the basis that the bar staff can live off the tips. All these tips have to be declared as income when you do your annual tax return; there’s no proper PAYE system, and any taxes stopped from your wages are only an estimate – it won’t include tax on tips for starters. It’s hard not to draw comparisons with the tax system in Cambodia, where so much business is done in cash that businesses are usually taxed via licences for operating rather than a percentage of profits. Presumably, there’s an art to just how much of your tips you can get away with not declaring.

Even worse is American money. The notes are all the same size and colour (“How do you tell them apart?!”, I had asked Abe, the Hawaiian in Phnom Penh. He pointed to the number in the corner, which wasn’t exactly what I meant!), and the $1 notes are generally in tatters for the same reason that we got rid of the £1 note in 1990. Coins don’t bother with numbers; instead, there’s a quarter, a nickel, a dime (which is worth less than a nickel, but it bigger) and a penny (even though it’s a cent). There is a 50c piece, but like the dollar coin, no-one uses it. Coin-operated machines are still everywhere; in San Francisco, I’d used a laundromat which asked me to insert 11 quarters. I had to get change of a $20 in quarters from a change machine. It’s as if Americans simply deny the existence of inflation and pretend their money is worth the same as in the 50s.

Of course, the single most bizarre aspect of money in America is the irritating habit of displaying normal prices for goods, and then adding tax at the till. So a bottle of water might be $1, which is grand. But then 7% GST gets added, so the price magically becomes $1.07, which either leads to huge amounts of shrapnel in change or an age working out whether it is the nickel that’s worth five cents, or whether there’s some trick I can pull off with the quarter which would lead to a neat amount in change. When buying a souvenir in San Francisco, I asked the price and had the following conversation –

“How much is the engraved crystal block?”
“$19.99”
“Ok, I’ll take that then.”
“That’ll be $21.38 please.”

So a quarter plus a dime – no, wait, a nickel? Which is the small one? – plus…how many of these pennies have I got at this stage?

Before you’re even half-way through working this out, you can usually feel the glare of the person behind you, though I generally resisted the temptation to hand over notes and get even more coinage back. For a supposedly civilised country, everything about money in America is monumentally stupid.

There’s a trip to Broadway lined up for the next day; Ed has tried to get tickets to The Book of Mormon, but it’s pretty much impossible – it’s booked solid for a couple of months, and while there is a daily lottery for a small number of tickets, the odds of winning are small. There can be a couple of premium tickets available at short notice, but you might have to shell out $300 plus per ticket. So we get the next best thing – a Broadway closing night. Memphis tells the story of the birth of rock and roll and the 1166th and last showing comes with a celebrity thrown in – the show’s co-author, Bon Jovi keyboard player David Bryan.

Outside the theatre after, we pass by the locals –

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– and the local shuffle car park –

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– before whiling away a bit of time walking Central Park and going for more burgers until it gets dark enough to head up the Empire State Building. Maybe it’s travel-weariness setting in, but tall buildings – and I’ve been up plenty at this stage – all seem very much the same by this stage. So yes, there’s a good view of some of other notable buildings –

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– but generally, New York by night looks the same as Tokyo or any other big city really, and the view isn’t really enough to justify the $42 to go up to the 102nd floor. Until, that is, a flash of lightning lights up the night sky and the entire city below it.

After a couple more drinks, it’s back through Times Square, which even in the early hours is showing no signs at all of going to sleep –

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Ed’s back to Dallas in the morning, so I head for the High Line. In 1934, it opened as a train track 30 ft above street level to ease the transport of freight between warehouses. Gradually, lorries took over, and the line went from being “The Lifeline of New York” in the 50s to defunct by 1980. Derelict for almost 30 years, in the past couple of years, one mile of the line has been redeveloped as a park –

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From there, there’s views out over the Hudson and some of the more imaginative murals this side of Derry –

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An hour’s walk away is the Brooklyn Bridge –

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The footpath across the bridge goes above the traffic, with the New York skyline behind and the Statue and Governor’s Island out in the bay –

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But the afternoon’s getting on. It’s soon time to hop on the train for to head to JFK Airport and move on around the world again. Next stop – Dublin. I wonder what that’ll be like?

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