I See The Neon Lights

“When Americans finally reach Mars, they’ll find a group of Australians already there, running a bar.”

I’m not sure who made this astute observation or even what time it was. I do know we were in a bar, in Manhattan’s Chelsea district, and it was some time after 1am on Saturday morning. It may even have been after two. The bar in question was the Chelsea Commons, a local’s local kind of place, just around the corner from the apartment block where we were staying with my writer friend Sybil.

“We” in this case was me and Pete. Pete had flown over from the UK to buy a laptop and a new camera. The money he saved on this deal was more than enough to pay for not only his flight, but mine too, and still have change. So there we were, in a bar right in the heart of Manhattan.

Pete got in to Penn Station at just after midnight. I flew in from Detroit and arrived in Newark at 11.30am. By the way, we–that’s the royal we–loved the automatic upgrade to first, a big leather seat and a free beer at 10am. Online check-in, so no waiting in a line at the airport. Elite security line, elite boarding. Thank you, Continental. Yes, I’ll miss all the perks when I’m no longer an elite passenger next year.

Anyway, I had the best part of a day to hang out. More than enough time to get in a couple of hours of walking in the afternoon. More than enough time to have a substantial lunch–substantial by normal standards, that is. I’m sure it’s just a regular lunch for a regular New Yorker. I walked. I did lunch. I still had time. More than enough time to take in a couple of movies.

First Wimbledon–Kirsten Dunst moving energetically in a short white skirt and providing all the momentum in a British rom-com based around tennis. It’s a reasonable matinee film, just nothing extraordinary as the cast, including Sam Neill, easily surpassed the formula script. No doubt, though, this will be billed as “a huge hit in the States” when it reaches UK cinemas. Well, I’m sure the half-dozen old dears I sat with in the multiplex were suitably impressed and will be babbling about it at bingo for the rest of this week, Alzheimer’s permitting.

Then The Forgotten. Nothing to do with Alzheimer’s, this is Julianne Moore hanging on to the memory of her son, killed in a tragic accident. One day, she wakes up and friends and family deny the son ever existed. Maybe she has lost her marbles, after all. Julianne chases after the truth. We chase after the point. It’s like a long episode of the Twilight Zone without Rod Serling. Nothing overly cerebral although it’s entertaining, pacey and sometimes unintentionally funny. It provides a couple of great “Holy shit!” moments and one, “Kill her already! Now! Now! Now! Sheesh…” when a police detective offers to help.

Fast forward several hours and I’m at Penn Station meeting Pete. New York Penn Station turns out to be larger than Heathrow Airport. An underground rabbit warren any self-respecting first-player VR gamer would be proud to have created. Pete and I play “Brit Hunt” using our cellphone tracking devices until we eventually hook up. Pete buys some cigs and we take the C train down to Sybil’s.

Next I thought going out to the bar for a couple of quick drinks would be a good thing, so we went round to the Chelsea Commons. I was thinking, “Well, maybe just til one o’clock. Two at the latest.” I hadn’t counted on James, the barman, recognizing me. “Hey! I know you! You were in here a few years ago.” Yes, yes it was me. They can’t get that many Brits there. James had had more than a few shots of Maker’s Mark and was on top form. We were introduced to several of his friends, including Frank who runs a craft services (film catering) firm with his brother.

Frank describes his job as being in charge of morale on set and he has an endless stream of stories about films he’s worked on. Spider-Man, Meet Joe Black, 15 Minutes, Devil’s Advocate… The list went on and so did Frank. So too did the beers. Frank was a fascinating, funny guy and the three of us swopped stories way beyond the wee small hours. James kept the CD’s spinning and the banter flowing as generously as the liquor. It was like being at a friend’s house where you know you should really be getting home but the music and atmosphere keeps getting cooler until your brain simply bails.

Our brains had opened the trapdoors in our heads and bailed long before when all of a sudden it was twenty past four and James was locking up, so we headed down to the Empire Diner, an NYC landmark and location for various films itself. Great burgers, root beer floats and more chat. We eventually headed for home at five and Frank headed back to Queen’s. It was 5.30am before we got to bed yet we were up at 7.30, woken by bright sun streaming in through the windows. Well, if you’ve only got one weekend to see New York, you’ll have to skip something–in our case, sleep.

The rest of the weekend was spent doing more walking. We walked until I got a blister on my heal. We found double decker tour buses at the Empire State Building and bought 48 hour hop-on, hop-off tickets. Much easier on the feet. Our guides showed us what was cool and we got to see a whole lot more, including the Lower East Side, Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem, none of which I’d ever seen before.

Pete took a ton of pictures–hey, it’s what he does!–but still not enough to fill a new 2GB memory card (holds 599 raw images). We took the ferry out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island but didn’t get off because it took so long to actually get on the boat. Tip for other visitors: if you just want to photograph the skyline, get the Staten Island Ferry which is free.

The Circle Line, which runs out to the Liberty and Ellis Islands, not only costs $10 but seems to be running some kind of graft with the street performers. They build the waiting line to hang around for 90 minutes while an acrobat guy performs and then holds out a hat. He must be making one or two hundred bucks an hour. He’s good but it’s quick and meanwhile the Circle Line ferries are leaving two thirds empty with just the upper deck full and two below devoid of passengers.

Cool views but it all took three hours before we got back to the bus. We met a New Zealander in the bus line–another antipodean travelling the world. Travel was broadening all our minds and the chance of finding an Aussie bar on Mars looked ever more likely. At the same time, an endless stream of street salesmen plied us with Prada handbags, Rolex Oysters and Oakley sunglasses for $5. A remarkable price for such an indispensable fashion item, Pete had to have a pair, so we parted with some cash.

Six or seven full buses came and went in the meantime until eventually the guy let us on to sit on the lower deck. Not ideal, although we smelled the fish market and caught glimpses of the Brooklyn Bridge. We got off the bus outside the NBC studios and walked around to Rockefeller Plaza, where there’s lots of cool art deco incorporated in the buildings and a weird new sculpture depicting life-sized people walking up a 60 foot pole into the sky. We did burgers at Burger Heaven around the corner then worked our way back down to West 23rd via a couple more bars.

It was a long day. It wasn’t over. We crashed for an hour then went over to El Quihote for steaks. Twenty ounce steaks. That looked like a lot given that we were already stuffed with large burgers, so I opted for sole broiled in bananas instead and Mr Stevens wound up with a whole saucepan full of chicken roasted in garlic. “Most people would take some home and have it for lunch tomorrow,” I told him but he scoffed nearly the whole pan leaving just one small carcass before we headed back to the Commons.

It was midnight.

For some reason, I thought we’d just stop for a quick beer with James and Frank, while settling up anything outstanding from our bar tab the night before. Pete had given James $50 at 4.30 but we’d never had a bill and the register was closed when we left. Oh, the reason I thought we’d just do a quick beer was this strange notion that we could maybe sleep before getting up really early to avoid long lines to go up the Empire State Building. I thought we could have maybe just one pint, be asleep by one. We left at 2.30am…

Sunday. Yesterday. 8.10. I’m awake. Pete is snoring in the bed opposite. I get up. Get dressed. I prod him. He snores on. 8.15: I open the blinds and light up the room. Still snoring. 8.20. I open the window and loud bus noises can be heard more clearly. Pete wakes up, bleary eyed. “Time to go,” I tell him and Sybil appears with coffee. Somehow we manage to get out the door and up to 34th and 5th to join the line: “15 minutes from this point”. The sun hasn’t yet burned off all the haze but we have our tall building experience, lots more photos are achieved and we do the Yellow Cab thing back down to West 23rd for breakfast with Sybil.

Our hostess is writing a book about Berlin while simultaneously planning a Zen Buddhist film festival. We eat eggs, bacon, French toast and strawberries at the Moonstruck Diner then call in at the video shop next door which turns out to be an Aladdin’s Cave of movies. Sybil knows someone there who’s involved with Rooftop Films–a short film screening program, along the same lines as Cinema Slam–but they aren’t there so Pete and I head off for more bus rides.

Our next tour guide has a microphone failure and shouts at us with trivia about Hell’s Kitchen, lately renamed Clinton, a name which is ignored by the locals. We wait for a new microphone and a couple of Chinese people get out and order pizza at the place on the corner. They’re back in time for the replacement bus and we go up, around Central Park, past Yoko’s apartment, Julliard, the opera house, Carnegie Hall, Raquel’s apartment, the new Time Warner building, Times Square, Bill Clinton’s offices… an endless list of sights, sites and sounds.

We duck overhanging branches on the open top bus as our guide explains that Broadway doesn’t fit the grid because it was the first road, built over the old Indian trails and extending 170 miles from beginning to end. We do the whole circuit then ask our guide where to get the best burger. He sends us to Island Burgers, a tiny place up on 9th and 51st. We’re having lunch in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s a last taste of New York, medium rare, and then we’re done. Cooked to perfection and more than a little toasted.

I manoeuver the burned out husk of what used to be Pete Stevens to Newark Liberty International Airport and ship him and his toys back to Britain before heading to the bar in Terminal C for a pre-flight Sam Adams’ October special “with a hint of roasted pumpkin”. The sun sets a brilliant scarlet splash over the dramatic skyline before I board the plane and settle down to finish reading National Geographic’s dire warnings about the impending global warming catastrophe. Pete phones. “How do I get a DVD to play in the powerbook?” I explain where the program is and he finds it. Now he can watch Contact on a reasonable sized screen while Virgin hostesses cater to his every whim.

My Continental Express jet thunders down the runway and once again, I’m lifted magically up into the heavens, racing over houses, roads, buildings, then floating up to a void where a full moon looks down with enigmatic indifference. Behind me, the neon lights go down on Broadway and a thousand showtunes ripple out across the Hudson.

My brain is full. I look out in wonder at the millions of gold and silver jewels sparkling up from below, beautifully blotting out the stars from those on the ground. The effect is gorgeous, like a luminous tapestry, all thanks to fossil fuel. Exquisite destruction brings forth something spellbindingly aesthetic in a blip on the cosmic timescale. And it occurs to me that half a globe way, the sun is rising on a group of unambitious surfers as they recover from one pint of amber nectar too many and all too-lucid dreams of brewing in low gravity.

2 thoughts on “I See The Neon Lights

  1. I couldn’t have described it better … A memorable weekend – will publish the photos on my site when i get over this lingering hangover and jet lag! Great blogg. Thanks Keith.

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