|The Ballards - USA - Washington DC and New York|
I visited Washington DC in
late 1987 as a guest of a family friend who is English but lives in Virginia
(overlooking, if you lean far enough out on her balcony, the Pentagon).
Washington is a city of contrasts: the fine, restored and beautifully maintained historic items on the Mall, including the White House, versus the high percentage of poor black people living in a ring around the more affluent white centre.
This is what I have noted in the USA: where there are
poor people they are more likely to be poor black people.
My kind friend took me to Bilbo Baggins, where we had what I can only describe as the most beautifully-cooked lunch I have, to this day, ever eaten (and I'm married to a Cordon Bleu trained chef, so I know what good food is).
We also visited the ...Cathedral, that they have been
building since 19xx. The cathedral is on the same scale as the large 15th
and 16th Century cathedrals in France and looks very similar, but is brand
I visited New York in early 1988 as a guest of some expat friends: Charlie and Fi Clark, who lived a couple of blocks down from Central Park in a beautiful apartment on the 22nd floor.
We packed a lot in to a long weekend: but my abiding
impressions were of the intense cold caused by the funnelling effect of
the wind through the canyons between the tall buildings, and the Blade
Runner-like lack of direct sunlight at street level, even at midday.
New Yorkers are efficient: they have a reputation for
being rude, but in real life they are just adapted to living in a big
city: they get on with their own lives and don't want to communicate with
My hosts, being English, existed in a social set entirely
unconnected with anything American.
All the stereotypes are there: the thrusting, arrogant Wall Street banker a la "greed... is good" Gordon Gekko; the homeless sleeping, wrapped up in newspapers, on the doorsteps of the big hotels and apartment blocks; the arrogant apartment block doormen in sharp uniform and peaked cap; the taxi drivers like spaced-out Christopher Lloyd in the series Taxi; the whistle-toting traffic cops, the befurred NYC lady shoppers with multiple poodles and stiletto heels.
I wasn't as shocked by the homeless as I thought I would
be: there are as many living in London, and whilst New York is colder
in the winter (I mean, if I was homeless, I'd go and be homeless in Florida,
where at least I wouldn't have to worry about freezing to death at night,
and could wash on the beach) these people are homeless for a reason, which
is usually alcohol, gambling, drugs or mental illness.
Manhattan is not that big, and you can (Americans, of course, don't.....) walk around it. It's a bit of a hike from Wall Street to Central Park but it's not going to kill you. I saw people hailing taxi-cabs to go 200 yards......
The traffic wasn't as mind-numbing as I was led to believe,
but there was no on-street parking anywhere, and 9/10 cars were taxis.
And, of course, you had to cross the roads at the lights. And the lights
had to be green, or you could be ticketed for Jaywalking.
The World Trade Centre Towers were stupendous: I did the tour and the views were magnificent. I still have the introductory leaflet (which is probably worth some money now the towers are down).
The Chrysler Building and the Empire State were wonderful
monuments to 30s Art Deco, The
Pan Am building (now the Met Life building following Pan Ams demise)
a monument to the 60s hopefulness, and the fact that helicopters are not
allowed to land on the roof any more a monument to those dashed hopes
in the '70s.
I did the Statue of Liberty, of course. However, this
is a classic example of imagining something bigger than it actually is.
And of course the obligatory helicopter tour.
Eventually I was deposited back on a road seemingly (staggeringly) devoid of yellow taxis. After a few minutes of waiting, and feeling pretty stupid and not a little vulnerable hefting $1,000 worth of camera, a long, white stretch limo stops and the driver offers me a cut-price limo ride back to Central Park. The only time I have ever ridden in a Limo.....
I also travelled on the subway, which is so much better than the Tube in London it's ridiculous. New York's subways are, by comparison, faster, more reliable, roomier, more frequent, cleaner (don't believe the propaganda), but certainly more covered in graffiti. It covers huge swathes of the city (every tried to get a Tube South of the Thames?), and links very efficiently to other forms of mass transport.