This was my first visit to the USA. Ashes series meant that I always went east out of Heathrow. But an increasing number of friends Stateside made it more attractive to visit than ever. Accommodation and guided tours would be free. All I had to do was turn up.
The flight was entertaining. Departure was late because of a Spanish-speaking prima donna. The entire plane could overhear her complaints. She was booked into first class but had turned up late and her seat had been given to somebody else. So she had to sit next to me in cattle class. “This is so unfair,” she moaned. Life is unfair, isn’t it? Especially when you don’t get that extra six inches of legroom you paid for. She decided that being sat next to me for six hours was intolerable, so off she went.
“Close the door behind you, please.”
She cut me a filthy look.
There was also a group of Hasidic Jews, who made such a fuss of finding their seats. It must have taken them 20 minutes to be happy with their seating arrangements. They made a bit of a mess with their nibbles and biscuits. A (white American, presumably well-off) lady seated close to me said, “My, they’re a bunch of slobs.” It would not be the last time I heard such casual racism on this trip.
I was met at Newark by the delightful Bernardette Lyon, a friend of a friend who I’d met only twice before. For my first night in NYC she had very generously invited me to stay at her mother’s house in Brooklyn. We drove into Manhattan, me grinning like Joe Buck in Midnight Cowboy as he looks around NYC for the first time.
Bernardette took me on a tour of Brooklyn, including Saturday Night Fever territory in Bay Ridge. I think we went through Bensonhurst, too, where that brilliant car chase was filmed for The French Connection. The obligatory pizza was followed by dinner at Tatiana in Brighton Beach, or “Little Odessa.” There are lots of Russians in London (in Belgravia, anyway) but I’m sure Bernardette and me were the only non-reds in the hood.
We walked along the boardwalk towards Coney Island, sat underneath the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (Saturday Night Fever again), walked down Cranberry Street where Moonstruck was filmed, and then refuelled at Junior’s, a Brooklyn joint famous for its cheesecakes. A slice about the size of the Isle of Wight (or Staten Island) was put in front of me. Bernardette and the waiter were amused by my horror at the amount of calories on my plate.
The final pit-stop was at Farrell’s, just up the road from Bernardette’s place and where a scene in As Good As It Gets was made (so many films today!). Bernardette had never been in there, which seemed surprising at the time but once inside I could see why… It is a very macho, Irish/cops place, though the regulars turned out to be friendly enough and we stayed there until 2am. Bernardette has vowed not to go again unless it’s with me, bless her.
An American Football match was on the TV in the bar. I have not yet grasped how this sport works but today (22 October) I was at The Oval cricket ground to see a friend. The pitch was being prepared for a “top secret” training session by the New England Patriots (or Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I can’t remember which) ahead of Sunday’s NFL match at Wembley. They are completely paranoid about their practices being filmed, my friend told me. She won’t be allowed in the The Oval tomorrow (she works there!) and the Americans had expressed great concern about the flats that overlook the ground. They were politely told that nothing could be done about that. My friend also said that the team’s cheerleaders have a full-time (male) manager. The best job in the world or the worst? We couldn’t decide.
After one night chez Bernardette, I spent the next three nights on the other side of Prospect Park with Lisa Granik MW and her partner Sandy at their splendid house.
Lisa is smart, funny and very candid—which is to say she speaks with great honesty and integrity. Her brilliant mind (and palate) and links to Russia mean that she does not fit easily into the mainstream.
Lisa invited me to a dinner in Chinatown with several of her friends and colleagues. Before coming to the restaurant I met Lisa and her friend Gaetano and we tried the esoteric Domaine Ferret Pouilly-Fuissé Le Clos Tête de Cru 2004—as puzzling as The Times crossword—and a quite lovely Huet Le Mont Sec 2005, with not a discordant note anywhere. I brought with me to the restaurant two vintages of Dr von Bassermann-Jordan’s Deidesheimer Kalkofen Riesling Spätlese Trocken. The 2001 was very tightly coiled, with acidity like the lash of a bullwhip. By comparison, the 2002 was a big softie. It was hard to believe that two such different wines came from the same vineyard and cellar.
We also tried some Champagnes—a simple Jacques Lassaigne Les Vignes de Montguex Blanc de Blancs NV; a good Piper Heidsieck Rare 1999 and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne Rosé 1999 (though not at all flattered by the restaurant’s glassware); and a woody and fat Vilmart Grand Cellier NV.
Lisa, being a responsible adult, went back home after dinner but the rest of went for cocktails in the West Village. I was asked by one of our dinner companions, “Don’t you ever laugh?” It’s true that my natural expression is a curmudgeonly frown. But I do laugh at things that I find amusing (as this picture taken at Santiago airport proves).
By midnight only Gaetano and myself were left standing. We went to a bar where he knew (and fancied) the manageress. A youngish bloke and four younger ladies parked themselves on the table next to us. I struck up a conversation with one of them, “Kath, from Michigan.” She was blonde, had lips that implied the assistance of collagen, and wore a skirt slightly narrower than my belt. At first glance she was attractive She told me she had studied Victorian Literature in Glasgow. I was excited—perhaps finally I had found an intellectual soul mate wearing a two-inch skirt.
“And who is your favourite Victorian poet?”
“Oh, I think that would be Edmund Spenser.”
Kath then made me an offer that normally I simply could not refuse. But, having put Spenser in the nineteenth century, I declined. Perhaps they do teach Spenser as part of the Victorian Literature course in Glasgow. But more likely Kath was a dumb blonde who was drunk or stoned or both. She looked thoroughly discombobulated by my refusal. As Spenser wrote: “But the trew fayre, that is the gentle wit,/And vertuous mind, is much more praysed of me.”
Gaetano did not believe that I had received such an offer. I told him to ask Kath. Then he was downright disgusted at me for refusing it.
The chaperone, who spoke fluent Italian, claimed to be an “erm, historian” and blinked nervously like the villain in Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, was a very odd fellow. Think of Ed Balls’ (the UK Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families) twitching eyes, too—would you trust him? I suspect that accepting Kath’s offer might have meant an exchange of cash before anything else.
I got back to Brooklyn at 5am. Fortunately I did not have any appointments that day and was able to sleep off my evening of over-indulgence. But in-between the cocktails, interesting offers and hangovers, I did actually do some work. I went to the “California Wine Rush” tasting at Grand Central station, Terry Theise’s “Tasting Grower Champagne: Your how-to Guide” and a Sauternes tasting at Vermilion Restaurant.
I interviewed Jamie Ritchie, Sotheby’s head of wine, and have written-up this for Harpers. Rik Pike of Christie’s was met on an informal basis. I also caught the train from Grand Central to Scarsdale to speak with Jeff Zacharia at his enormous and copiously stocked Zachys store.
After four nights in New York, I went to California for the weekend before returning to NYC for one night. I had planned to stay in the airport but all the best sleeping spots had already been taken and I needed to wash and rest. So I paid $170 for the privilege of staying in a very basic Best Western hotel next to the airport. Ouch.
That left me with a full day to kill before flying to Brazil in the evening. I raced around the city, doing all the cheesy things that English tourists are supposed to do— walking through Central Park, going to the top of the Empire State Building, eating hotdogs, seeing the Yankee and Citi Field stadiums, the Chelsea Hotel, walking over Brooklyn Bridge, the Staten Island Ferry… I also did a few things that would only occur to me, like going to the building at St. Mark’s Place in the East Village that was used for the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti. (My dad was at school with John Bonham!).
Other things that amused me during this first trip to NYC included the umbrella salesman on the subway and his rhyming sales rap—“It’s going to rain, it’s such a pain, buy an umbrella, it’ll last forever” or something similar. At the Chinatown restaurant there was a reassuring sign in the loo: “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.”
I will write about my travels in California, Brazil and Chile soon…