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STEP IT UP! USA Travelogue 2005 - Part One - New York

  • Submitted by: Steve Roach, United Kingdom
  • Submission Date: 10th Apr 2006


The plane lands at JFK and I stop sweating the moment my feet touch American soil. It’s a relief to be back on the ground, rather then seven miles above it. All the months of discussing, arranging and preparing for this Big Trip are over. Here we are.
We stand in a long queue at Immigration. One by one, we step up. We have our eyes photographed for retinal identification. We are asked a few questions about who we are and what it is we do back in our home country, and the Immigration Official peruses our passports and eyes our faces with suspicion.
Outside, after collecting the luggage, we stand at the Airport entrance and light up a couple of cigarettes. Half a dozen people approach, separately, to tout for taxi business. Before we came, we were advised not to go anywhere unless it’s in a yellow cab, an official New York taxi. Apart from the fact that you may be driven in an unlicensed ‘cab’ to a flat in Harlem and gang-raped, there’s the issue of price. Once you’re in their car, they can charge what they like, and they can change their mind before letting you out.
Inside a yellow cab, there’s a chart against the back of the driver’s seat.
Anywhere in New York city for a fixed $45 from the airport, or:
$2 - Initial charge
30c - Per 1/5 mile
20c - Per minute stopped or slow traffic
50c - Night surcharge
Plus the passenger pays any incurred toll expenses.

The ride into Manhattan is a little depressing. Most of the way, the area reminds us of the dingier parts of Britain. Ignoring the architecture of the houses, and the obvious difference with the American road signs, the route could easily pass for the ring road around, say, Nottingham. The houses look like council properties, the road is lined with railings they paint the same miserable grey colour as ours, and dying plant life withers on embankments, choked by exhaust fumes. We see Budget Hire vans, Staples stores and so on.
Our hotel is the Pennsylvania, junctioned at 7th Avenue (the Fashion Avenue) and West 33rd street, opposite Penn Train Station and Madison Square Garden. The lobby is large, clean and bright. The room we get is small, dark and pokey. The check-in process takes longer than immigration. There must be fifty people waiting in line, in front of a hundred feet of gleaming Reception desk, but there seems to be only one member of staff actively serving. Other smartly dressed employees meander about behind the Reception, pick up bits of paper to staple them together, and wander around some more.
One guy in the queue, who may have been Drew Carey, shouts out “STEP IT UP!” and is ignored. Over the next five minutes, as the queue doesn’t move, he gets increasingly agitated and clears a little area by flapping his arms and sighing loudly.
“Welcome to New York,” I tell Steph.

We quickly affirm that New York is one hell of a noisy place, but nobody comes here and expects anything less. It’s a metropolis, and the impression I got was that this place was almost like a living, breathing thing. Alive. These streets will never be empty. At all hours, cars and people, the lifeblood of this city, are in perpetual motion.
There are thousands of people, all moving with determination, eyes straight ahead and focused on their route. They stop at junctions and wait for the lights to change, and then they all come forwards at once, like a tidal wave. You’re hemmed in on all sides by skyscrapers. The roads are seriously busy, and it seems there’s never more than a minute or two of relative silence before the sound of sirens fill the air and some emergency vehicle comes blaring by, forcing its way through the traffic.
Pick a bunch of things that describe your typical city - noisy, dirty, congested, crowded and so on - and multiply them to the power of ten, and there you have New York. Everywhere you look, huge buildings loom. Billboards and signs are stuck to store fronts and any available patches of concrete and glass, accumulating in scale and density until you get to Times Square, where you’re literally surrounded by neon and plasma. There is never silence here. People shout, cars honk their horns in a symphony of impatience.
We wander around the shops and stumble across a store that sells a lot of NYPD gear. I need a coat so I buy a jacket with the NYPD logo on it. It’s that particular shade of blue that the cops over here wear, and the jacket looks so good that whenever I wear it people ask me if I’m a cop. This seems all the more fantastic later in the trip, when a bad dye job leaves me with long, custard yellow hair, but there you go.
We try to track down the main item on our shopping list - a Global Positioning System. If we’re going to drive all the way round North America, there’s no way I’m doing it on maps alone. The electronics stores all seem to be staffed by gangs of assistants - Italian, I think - that descend on you like vultures and start the hard sell immediately.
“Hey! Whaddya want?”
Nobody seems to have heard about the Tom Tom Go GPS. I read a review of the brands back in the UK and this seemed to be the best one. It is supposed to come with the North America maps already preloaded - you just turn it on and you’re ready to go. The assistants try to sell other brands, GPS-come-mobile-phones and suchlike, but nothing as good as the TTG.
Eventually we try BHI Electronics on Broadway. The two gents beckon us inside and ask us whadda we want. The one guy, Ravi, he’s heard of TTG. He doesn’t have it in the store but he can get it within the hour. He wants half the money now - $400 - and half on delivery. As we’ve had no better luck, I think we might as well go with this, and hand over $400.
Five minutes later, sitting in a coffee shop, I hope I haven’t just done a very stupid thing. I have a vague fear of returning in an hour and being stared at, and asked:
“What $400? Go fucka yourself!”
However, when we get back, they smile and welcome us inside the store and proudly produce the Tom Tom Go. As there is a clearly displayed ‘NO REFUNDS’ sign, I get it out of the box to test it. There are eight accompanying cd’s. My stomach sinks. Here are the maps, and we’ll need a pc to load them.
“What’s the matter?” asks Ravi.
“We don’t have a laptop. We need to load these maps!”
“Use ours!” he says, pointing to a precariously wall mounted pc tucked away in the corner. “No problem!” he says, smiling.
Further inspection reveals a preloaded memory card, containing all major USA roads. I try this and it does seems to contain everything we need to get along. I start to wonder what the cd’s contain. I ask the guys if we can take the TTG away and check exactly what we need to do, and come back in the morning to use the pc if we need to.
“No problem!”
Back at the hotel, I unpack everything and inspect the goods. The memory card does indeed have every major road preloaded. We can zoom in on New York, Boston, Florida, Los Angeles, wherever. The cd’s contain every other bit of information you’re likely to need. All minor roads, hotels, public transport terminals and stations, right down to shopping mall sites, museums and tourist attractions.
I can’t get a satellite signal from the hotel room, so we go back into the streets of New York to try and get a lock. Everywhere we go, the tall skyscrapers block the minimum lock of three satellites needed for triangulating our position. We stumble into W34th Street and find the sky opens up a bit. Within a minute, the GPS has our position and shows us we are indeed on W34th Street. The joy is indescribable, at least for me. Steph watches me have a mini orgasm and wonders why it cost $900 to get a box that tells us where we know we already are.
I quickly put it away - walking around New York with an expensive piece of kit like this is a sure way of asking for a mugging.
Tomorrow, we head for Boston.