Writer Nick Fisk fills us in on his recent trip to New York to read from his book The Blues Are Back in Town at The Football Factory and see the sights with the help of tour guide and fellow Parthian author Lloyd Robson taking in the Statue of Liberty, The White Horse, football fans, street hotdog venders, bars and more bars, Woody Allen playing clarinet, MOMA and the Guggenheim.
During the World Cup, my publisher Parthian was talking about releasing a Premier League edition of my football book The Blues Are Back in Town. Somehow the idea of doing a launch in New York was discussed. As it was also my birthday in October, I decided October would be a suitable time for me to go. And so a couple of months on from that first conversation I’d arranged to stay with fellow Parthian writer, Lloyd Robson, and the idea was becoming a reality.
On the day of my departure I was up bright and early packing the last few things of mine and then I headed off to catch my coach to Heathrow. I was on the bus and on my way, still nervous for all kinds of reasons: would my bag be overweight? Would I be questioned about why I had so many books with me? Would there be any problems meeting up with Lloyd? But for now, there was not much else I could do but sit back and listen to tunes on my mp3 player.
Arriving at Heathrow, I had one quick fag before continuing to find my flight. There was a slight confusion as I was sure I’d booked with Austrian Airways, but on the ticket, it said United. It turned out it was indeed United, and fortunately, my case was well under weight so there were no real problems.
My seat on the plane was second from the front (obviously not first class!) and it turned out I was sat next to a very friendly American called Roger who looked a little like Woody Allen which was ironic as I’d planned to see Woody Allen on my trip. I explained to Roger the main purpose of the visit, to do a little launch of my book, and Roger even said he might try to come along!
When Roger and I weren’t talking, I watched three films: one that Roger recommended called A Quiet Place, Fever Pitch which was not as good as I remember it being, and a new one called Book Club, which was more of a chick flick, but still, enjoyable enough. I had five or six glasses of wine on the flight, managing to spill two of them. The time passed relatively quickly.
Ewark turned out to be quite a drab airport. The queue (or line, as they would say in the States) for customs was long and took quite a while to get through, but again, turned out to be straightforward after all.
I exited the airport and had my first cigarette on landing. Here, I had a slightly bizarre experience as someone who asked me for a cigarette looked exactly like Sid Owen who plays Ricky from Eastenders! “Ricky?!” I said, and he seemed to reply affirmatively. I’m almost certain it actually was him! Ricky nipped off to catch his Uber, and I set about finding where I needed to catch a train. I went through crowds of people going this way and that and eventually found where I needed to get on. “Two stops” I was told.
I was due to meet Lloyd at TGI Friday’s at Penn Station. However there was some confusion as there seemed to be more than one Penn Station. The station I first of all got off at was definitely the wrong one. I went up and down elevators, couldn’t find the exit even and definitely couldn’t find TGI Friday’s. I asked people, but no-one was very helpful. It was dark, I was tired, and I felt very lost and alone. Eventually someone suggested I go to a particular platform and I could only imagine he meant I should catch another train.
I sat at the front of a carriage, clueless as to whether I was on the right train. Finally, a ticket inspector came along and said, yes, this was right and that I should get off at the last stop. The train creaked and rattled and it occurred to me that I wasn’t having the best welcome to America.
Finally, we arrived at the last stop. I got out along with everyone else and followed the crowds. I walked through the station, and then I saw a TGI Friday’s. I prayed that this was the right one, and as I approached, I could see Mr Lloyd Robson sitting at the bar! I don’t think I’ve ever been so relieved to see someone! Lloyd greeted me in a very friendly manner and I quickly ordered a beer.
Soon after, I nipped out for a fag and saw New York at street level for the first time.
Lloyd and I drank and chatted for a while before jumping on a tube to his neighbourhood, Jackson Heights. My first impression on seeing the area around Roosevelt Station was that it was like a scene out of Bladerunner. Anyway, I was quite keen to be unburdened of my bag and case, but Lloyd suggested we get something to eat first, so we stopped at a little Indian restaurant. I wasn’t especially hungry, but I did order a goat biryani. The goat was on the bone and a bit tricky to eat. Probably, I should have ordered lamb.
Lloyd wolfed down most of his, but we did both have some left over which we took with us. Finally, we got back to Lloyd’s little apartment which was to be my base for the week, and I no longer had to worry about my luggage.
Lloyd’s apartment had the look of that of a writer, with shelves full of books. It actually reminded me a little of my friend in Cardiff, J. Brookes’ flat, with postcards and little knick knacks here and there. Lloyd explained the house rules, the main one being that you had to smoke in the bathroom. Lloyd smokes, but his wife Catherine, who was away in Virginia, doesn’t. Lloyd had already told me about how he currently lives between Virginia and New York.
I think we stayed up and had another beer before it was finally lights out and I put my head down on the couch in Lloyd’s living room.That first night, I had an extremely weird sleep. I kept waking up every hour or so thinking it was much later than it actually was. I surfaced at about 11am, but it felt more like mid afternoon. I guess it was a symptom of the time difference.
Other than the launch and the hope of seeing Woody Allen, I hadn’t in fact planned much for the trip, but I reasoned I should really try to see the Statue of Liberty. Friends back home had suggested I go on the Staten Island Ferry as it’s free for one thing.
So Lloyd, in his role as tour guide, took me to the tube with the plan of heading down there.
I must admit, I was not that impressed with New York’s underground system. The tube map itself is absurdly complicated compared with London’s beautifully designed and easy to follow map. The stations are mostly unattractive and dirty.
Lloyd did take me to Grand Central Station. At least that had some charm. We also went to the new World Trade Centre which is an impressive sight.
Eventually we headed over to the ferry port. Here, I gave my guide, Lloyd a break – he’s been on the ferry a few times – and I joined the waiting queue alone.
There were loads of people waiting and I wondered if we’d all get on, but I didn’t see anyone turned away. I headed upstairs on to the outside deck. There was a good view of the Manhattan skyline as the ferry pulled out. Gradually, it came closer to the Statue of Liberty. It went close enough for you to get a reasonable view, but was just a little too far to get a really good photo.
The ferry ride took around half an hour. There was the opportunity to get a drink or snack on the other side, but many people like myself who firstly, didn’t have any great desire to explore Staten Island itself, and also were not especially hungry or thirsty and had only really caught the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, simply joined the queue to catch the ferry back to Manhattan.
Once back, I rang Lloyd, and he came to meet me. He had only just ordered a drink, so we went back to the pub and his waiting drink, and of course I also ordered one. We had one or two hours in this bar before heading back to Lloyd’s apartment.
That evening, Lloyd took me to his local, The Penny. He told me to expect something like the bar out of Star Wars as there are all sorts in it. The bar lady, Helen, was Irish and she greeted us with a friendly smile. I played a game of pool with one of the regulars. I liked the bar, but was a bit tired so we didn’t stay out too late.
We got back and I got started on a bottle of whisky I’d bought from a liquor store. I’d hoped Lloyd would join me, but he stuck to beer.
It was great catching up with Lloyd. We talked about mutual friends and people we knew from the poetry scene. Lloyd spoke of his time over here. He’d worked as an art handler for Sotheby’s which sounded like an interesting job. He told me that most people assumed he was rich, but he is always keen to assert the fact that he is working class. Of course, we talked about sport, especially football. Finally, we got our heads down.
Day 2, the Friday, and Lloyd took me to a couple more landmarks. We went to Times Square for a couple of photos, and also had a McDonald’s. We went for a stroll around Central Park and also, just prior to this, we passed the building where John Lennon had lived and died. We saw some excellent street performers in Central Park.
Then Lloyd took me to the Village so we could go to the White Horse, famous for being the pub where Dylan Thomas drank 18 whiskies leading to his untimely demise. Just before that, Lloyd very kindly got a NY Bluebirds T-shirt made for me.
The White Horse was nice enough, but we only stopped for one in here. We went to one other bar, grabbed some pizza and headed back to Jackson Heights.
Lloyd’s local was having a Halloween party but we were in two minds about going due to our early start the following day for the Cardiff match and my launch. We decided we’d compromise and go early and not stay too long.
So we got to the Penny at about 9pm just as things were starting. It was busier than the previous night, but only Helen and a couple of other people were in costume.
One or two more people, mostly, women, did turn up in fancy-dress, but it occurred to me that this party was not really cracked up to much, maybe because it was still a few days before Halloween itself. After we had a couple of drinks, and I’d had a couple of games of pool, we said our goodbyes and headed home in readiness for the big day tomorrow.
The time difference means that matches starting at 3pm in the UK are shown at 10am in New York, necessitating the setting of an 8am alarm. I didn’t hear mine so it was just fortunate that Lloyd was up and got me to hurry myself up also. It was a damp day as we headed off, but we actually made it in good time – I think it was about 9.30am when we arrived at The Football Factory, the venue where we’d be meeting up with fellow members of the NY Bluebirds, to watch the match, and then for me to do a little launch afterwards.
Bar manager Jack was a friendly guy and insisted on the first drinks being on him. I ordered some pancakes, and these arrived in time for the kick off of the Liverpool v Cardiff match and were quite tasty. Other members of the NY Bluebirds started arriving and Lloyd introduced me to them all. They were all much younger than I’d imagined. Don’t know why, but I think when Lloyd had told me in advance that most of them were married with kids, I’d pictured them being older.
We were also joined by a couple of Middlesbrough fans who’d watched the match that had been on before ours (God knows what time they’d have had to get up for their game). It wasn’t looking very likely that we were going to get much out of this game, especially after Mo Salah got the early opening goal. However, people mostly remained in good spirits, and at half time, I was introduced to a NY Bluebird ritual.
They have a copy of Craig Bellamy’s autobiography, which is signed by all kinds of people who have ever visited the bar, Cardiff fans, and I think, also some fans of other clubs. The ritual involves somebody, in this case, first of all, Luke, who was due to be moving back to the UK shortly, reading a paragraph from the book, while fellow fans kneel before the reader. The next thing, everyone launches into the following chant: “Bellamy! Bellamy! He plays for Cardiff City and he’s back in time for tea!” A bit bizarre, but enjoyable enough, and I was also encouraged to read a paragraph as a fledgling member of the group, to the same reception.
The match continued, which of course eventually resulted in a 4-1 defeat for Cardiff. Some members of the group were surprised that I was willing to watch the game intently until the final whistle, but I guess I just like watching Cardiff games, win or lose.
Following our game, the evening kick off was a Leeds match. Lloyd is not very keen on Leeds fans, particularly as he was almost involved in an altercation with one of them some time back. So while some of the Cardiff fans stood in a corner while the quite sizeable Leeds contingent crowded round their dedicated section, we went to the other side of the bar. Jack, the manager’s original plan was that my launch should take place after the Leeds match, but it occurred to me that this would mean too much waiting around for some people, so we decided we could do the launch during the Leeds game, but on the other side of the bar to them.
Lloyd introduced me and I began reading a little introduction I’d written. I quickly decided this was a bit long and began to read a section from the book that details a trip to Millwall. I then decided that this was also going to be too long, so instead, I ditched the book, and just related the story of the trip, sticking to the main details. This went down quite well – there are quite a few amusing aspects about this tale, including when I actually found myself in the Millwall end accidentally before kick off, and also, this was the game when one of our fans actually fell from the upper tier, injuring himself quite badly, although, fortunately, it was not life threatening.
Well, I sold a few books, so this aspect of the launch also went quite well. I even sold a couple to non-Cardiff fans, including a Fulham fan, who I think was going to give the book to his Cardiff-supporting friend, and another guy who if I recall was a Leicester fan. I had a photo taken with an amicable Geordie and also Jack the manager. Fair play to Jack, he worked incredibly hard looking after everybody, and has a bit of a job putting up and taking down the flags depending on which teams are playing, but he had time to chat to everyone.
People were beginning to drift off, but a few of us were intent on carrying on drinking, so we went to another bar nearby, Foleys, which was also a sports-themed bar with the main focus in this pub being baseball. My other friend that I knew who lived in New York, Will James, had turned up by this point, and he joined us in Foleys.
I ordered a large plate of chicken wings and these were devoured by those of us who weren’t vegetarian. The chat continued, but I was tiring a little after our early start and the early consumption of alcohol. Nonetheless, it was well into the evening before Lloyd could be convinced that it was time to leave. As we headed to the tube station, someone handed us a flyer for a strip club, and I did wonder if I may have been able to gain a second wind, but Lloyd said that due to the fact I’d been adamant we should leave, that we should now head home. Barring the result of the match, Day 3 had been fun, and kind of successful.
As it was predicted that the Sunday would be another damp day, I decided I would make this the day I visited the Museum of Modern Art, which many people back home had suggested I do. Lloyd had some stuff to do, so he drew me a useful little map with directions to the nearest tube station, and also gave directions to the museum itself. So this was the first day I spent in New York largely on my own.
MoMA was large, with a lot to see. Of course, the likes of Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rothko etc. were on display, as well as some of Europe’s most famous artists. However, more interesting for me were the temporary exhibitions on the lower floors by Charles White and Bodys Isek Kingelez. Kingelez was probably my favourite: a very colourful presentation of three dimensional, futuristic style cityscapes.
Well, I spent a couple of hours at MoMA before a quick hotdog outside and heading back to base.
That evening, Lloyd took me to an excellent Thai restaurant just around the corner from his flat. The decor was very gothic looking, and they didn’t need to do much to make it look in keeping with Halloween. The food was excellent, and by New York standards, not too expensive. We went to one other quite swanky bar before retiring for a night cap back at Lloyd’s.
I now had just a couple more days in New York, but I was still to experience one of the main events of my trip. I’d more or less decided I was going to pay the quite hefty entry fee to see Woody Allen play his clarinet, but as this was in the evening, in the afternoon of Day 5, I headed to the Guggenheim Museum on 5th Avenue as this was very close to the bar that Woody Allen would be playing at.
On the lower floor of the Guggenheim there are again some paintings by well known artists such as Picasso, but the vast majority of the space was taken up by paintings by an artist I’d not heard of before, Hilma Af Klint. The Guggenheim is quite a unique space as it’s a circular building which spirals up over several floors. Af Klint’s work is mostly quite abstract, with a spiritual feel to it. According to the notes and the guide that I had, Af Klint was very much interested in the supernatural. But the most incredible thing was that she had apparently had a vision that her work should be exhibited in a circular, cathedral type space that was spread over several floors. It occurred to me that she would be completely in her element to have her work exhibited at the Guggenheim as it seemed to be almost exactly like the space she had envisioned her work being on display at.
Next, I sought out the bar where Woody Allen would be playing. It was around 5pm by this time and the bar was not due to open until 6.30, so I went for a drink and something to eat. I got back to the bar by about 6.45, and there was already a queue of people. The system they have is that you can pay in advance for a seat at a table, but these mostly sell out in advance. So for a seat at the bar, you have to queue and hope you get a place. After about half an hour’s wait, we were informed that there would be just six seats at the bar, but then another fourteen spaces for standing room only. As there were probably around twenty people queuing, we were all going to make it in. We were told they would remember our faces and we could go away for about an hour to be back in time for 8.30, just before the performance was due to start.
I went with a couple of Spanish guys who’d been behind me in the queue to get a drink together. We chatted about our interest in Woody Allen, sport and the like. I didn’t let on to my own interest in the famous film director. The story in a nutshell is that when I was nineteen, I believe that God spoke to me asking me simply to “Name my God.” For some reason, after I’d looked around all the posters on my wall and had a think about it, I had a photo of Woody Allen, and settled on him, giving God my answer! Two days later, Woody Allen was splashed all over the news headlines with the story about him becoming involved with his adopted daughter. Of course, in the grand scheme of things, I can’t be certain what it all meant, but it did make me question my previously held atheist beliefs.
So anyway, it got to about 8.15 and we headed back to the bar. When we got there, we rejoined the queue. One of the waiters came out and said that two people had reserved a table of three, but only two of them where there, so would somebody like to join the table of two? I decided I might as well go for this, and was shown to the table.
However, I quickly realised that this table was not in a very good spot, in a corner at the side of the stage where the view was terrible. The couple were nice enough, as we ordered cocktails for the evening, but as the band took to the stage, and I realised I could hardly see the band at all, I decided I’d ask one of the waiters if I couldn’t instead watch from the bar after all, where I would get a much better view.
The waiter had a word with the manager, and it was decided that yes, I could do this. So now I was at the bar with a clear view of the band, and Woody Allen himself doing his thing. It was quite a surreal occasion. I wouldn’t say the standard of music was really that exceptional, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, despite having paid quite a hefty entry charge.
The night drew to a close and I was handed my bill. The bill included the cost of my drink, plus the bar entry charge. I was a bit flustered, as I’d assumed I was going to have to pay the couple for my seat at the table. Surely I wasn’t going to have to pay twice?! I was assured that they’d sorted things out with the couple, so no, it was just the bar charge.
Finally, Woody Allen packed up his clarinet and began to exit the room. I hurried over to try to speak to him, and perhaps give him one of my books, but it was clear he was not stopping to greet fans, and made a quick exit. So instead, I let my two Spanish friends have a copy of the book, and headed back to the tube station, and on to Lloyd’s.
I had no plans for Day 6, but Lloyd suggested he take me to an area called Astoria. We walked around quite a lot. I bought a tasty, if expensive, bagel, and also another gift for a friend back home, to add to a collection of gifts I’d already bought. We went in one bar Lloyd was familiar with.
With not much else to do, that evening, we went back to The Penny. That night, Lloyd and I got horrendously drunk. Every time we thought about leaving, Helen the bartender would serve me another drink! Or just as Helen spoke about the possibility of closing the bar, more people would come in, so she changed her mind and kept it open a little longer. Three punters who looked like they were dressed for Halloween came in quite late. They had in fact just been to see a Cramps tribute act. It got to the stage where I honestly could drink no more, and as we were about to leave, Helen came to the other side of the bar to give me a big kiss goodbye. Lloyd and I eventually stumbled out at about 3am so there would be no early start the following day.
We did not surface until well into the afternoon, and it was fortunate that my flight home was not until 11pm. I packed my things and it was time to head off. It was actually Halloween and they were having a parade in Jackson Heights which we had to walk through at one point so we saw several people, children and adults alike in fancy-dress. Lloyd took me as far as Penn station, I got my ticket and I was on my way to the airport.
I had far less hassles on my return journey than I’d had coming over. I did tell the check in lady that I’d had a fair bit to drink the night before. She questioned exactly how much, asking me if it was as much as twenty drinks! I think if it had been that many, I may have ended up in a similar state to Dylan Thomas, so I said, no not quite as many as that. I had a slice of pizza and a glass of wine before it was time for boarding. Next to me on the plane was a family with young children, so there wasn’t really anyone for me to chat to this time. As my flight was overnight, I was able to get a bit of sleep instead.
Somehow I managed to lose my mp3 player on the plane which was a shame as it meant I had no music to listen to on the coach coming home. But no matter, I was home at last with stories to relate to friends I would catch up with later that evening.
Overall, it had been a great trip, but it definitely wouldn’t have been as good if it hadn’t been for Lloyd who’d been a fantastic host and guide. Thanks also to all the New York Bluebirds I met and to Jack, the manager of The Football Factory for providing me with a stage.