After breakfast, I had another chat with Becky as she pottered at her morning chores. She claimed to have lived in over forty of the states during her upbringing and adult life (she was single and her father had been in the military).
Becky asked me whether the emergency telephone number in the Middle East was 119. She was aware that America was unusual in the way that it wrote its dates, with month followed by day followed by year. It was a connection that I had not made up until that point. September 11th was, of course, in numerical terms 9.11 and the American equivalent of the British 999 telephone number was 911.
I drove for about half an hour until I reached the turn off for Watch Hill. At the very least, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. From the map I could see that it stuck out in the ocean on a small peninsula, but I might have guessed that from the wind when I got out of the car. I was almost blown over. Presumably those playing on the nearby golf course had to contend with a significant degree of fade.
This was a town that lived for the summer, and there was something sad about seeing it deserted now that the season had passed. The roller security blinds on many of the shops had been battened down for the winter. I fought my way against the gale across the parking lot to where the beach lay, but found my path barred by a wire mesh fence. There was just enough space to stick my camera lens through one of the holes and take a photo of the Atlantic.
I found the Inn at Watch Hill up on the hill overlooking the promontory. It was an old Victorian house with Gothic touches and more than a touch of the Addams Family about it. A sign warned non-residents of the hotel not even to think about using the parking lot. I had no desire to meet Cerberus, or whatever it was that they used to greet unwelcome visitors, and so turned around at the end of the lane and was on my way.
Within ten minutes, I had completed my mission and had crossed the state line into Connecticut. This was my 46th day on the road and I had now set wheels in all 48 contiguous states. I was pleased, but not exactly elated. My mind was now focused on getting home, or at least reaching the familiar faces of New York and not living out of a car trunk any longer.
Adam from Arizona had been born and brought up in Connecticut, and had made a number of insistent recommendations. Some of these had been negative: “Believe me, you do NOT want to go to Bridgeport”. My plan was to continue along the coast road without diverting inland, so I was going to have to pass through Bridgeport even if I didn’t stop.
On the positive side, he had circled the town of Mystic in black ink on my atlas. I couldn’t remember why I was supposed to go there, or what I was supposed to see, but I decided to make it my first stop in the Constitution State.
It was a pretty town that boasted a seaport. I followed the signs and found my way to a sheltered stretch of inland water where old sailboats and schooners were moored. I was put off visiting the maritime museum by the crowds. In the short time that I had been there, I had been bustled by confused and disorientated octogenarians and had my ears assaulted by screaming schoolkids. I got the impression that most were there out of a sense of obligation to a public holiday’s day out and would all have sooner been some place else.
It was almost lunchtime, and I wanted my final stop of the journey to be in nearby Essex. Kathy and Eileen, whom I’d met in Maine but who came from Connecticut, had enthused about the Griswold as a splendid place to eat. Essex was another place that bore very little resemblance to its English namesake, or at least to the bit of Essex that runs along the Thames from Southend to the East End of London. It was a tree-lined rural idyll, with one main street that sloped down to the Connecticut River.
I stopped at the General Store to buy some final postcards. When I came out, a car had pulled up in the car park. The window was wound down and the two female occupants hollered at me as I returned my car. They wanted to know directions to somewhere.
I explained that I was over from England and didn’t know the area at all. They forgot about their problem, and immediately wanted to know where I was from and what I’d been doing. When I told them that I was on the final day of a trip that had seen me drive around all 48 lower states in as many days, they almost wet their pants.
They introduced themselves as Karen and Yvonne, and hurriedly scribbled down their e-mail addresses. They were from Rhode Island and were desperate to find out which of the states I would most like to come and live in. Mindful of my solemn declaration on my visa waiver application at immigration, I assured them that I had no intention of settling in any of them.
The Griswold was like an upmarket old English Tavern. A sign warned that although a coat and tie were not compulsory, diners were expected to be appropriately dressed and groomed. No tank tops were allowed, which I took as a good sign.
There were several dining rooms in the complex, and I was taken to one of the more empty ones. The food was very tasty, although the people on the table next to me didn’t seem to think so. It was a couple who had developed being gratuitously rude to waiters into a fine art. It was almost as if the thing that they had come out to enjoy wasn’t a meal, but the chance to pick on a young kid who wasn’t allowed to answer back.
It wasn’t that this couple were just discourteous, they nearly disappeared right up their own arseholes. He wanted a gin and tonic, and then sent it back because it wasn’t Bombay Sapphire. She wanted to be given a list of the brands they used for the ingredients for her chosen dish. At the end of the meal, he wanted a double decaff cappuccino and she just needed shooting.
Or perhaps I’d been in America too long. It wasn’t the first time that I had seen manners like this in New England. Perhaps it was a wealth and arrogance thing, but most other places people seemed to understand that basic courtesy was very easy.
Back on the freeway, it was stop-start traffic all the way, presumably because of the public holiday and people returning to town after a long weekend away. There were only about a hundred miles between me and New York, but it looked like it could take anything from three to four hours to cover them.
Things were still not looking bright by the time I reached the dreaded Bridgeport. From the looks of things – admittedly from the vantage point of a crawl across an Interstate flyover – Adam had probably been right.
It was almost six by the time I reached the state line and the toll road of the New England Thruway. The traffic was now flowing, but remained very heavy. After the debacle of my late arrival on the first day at Neal and Lisa’s, I didn’t want a repeat performance. I glanced at my watch nervously. It was 6.30, the time I was supposed to be there, and I had only just reached Pelham Parkway West.
It was no longer holiday traffic – just the conventional NYC type – that hampered me as I struggled through the Bronx. I kept looking around expecting to see indicators of fundamental change post-9.11.
It was strange to be back under the circumstances, but the place looked and felt much the same to me. There was little evidence of any new-found gentleness of manner that the rest of the country had been speculating about. The horn and the finger remained central tools in the NYC driver’s armory.
I had no idea where I was going when I arrived the other side of the George Washington Bridge. Now everything was moving at speed and I got sucked from one lane to another in my uncertainty. Chance led me to the New Jersey Turnpike, where gloriously I spotted a sign to the Lincoln Tunnel. This led me to the Hess Gas Station at the end of Willow Avenue. I was outside Neal and Lisa’s ten minutes later. It was 7.30 on the nose, which made me only an hour late.
I made a careful note of the mileage. Including the drive to La Guardia still to come, I would be returning the car to Hertz with 23,424 miles on the clock. It had read 7,703 when I had picked it up in Savannah GA. Even without the 2,252 miles that I had covered in the first car, the total would still be 15,721 miles. Well, the deal had been for unlimited mileage.
I rang on the bell and Neal came bounding down to throw the door open and greeted me with a “Whay-hey. Welcome back warrior”. It felt as if I had only been gone a couple of days.
Up in the apartment, Lisa was preparing dinner and they had invited another old friend, Johnny, round. Johnny had worked with Neal and me back in London, and had also come out to work in the New York office with Neal when our boss had transferred out here. It was good to be home.
After dinner, I got out my array of souvenirs and explained that I had bought something distinctive from each state. My much better half, Christine, was flying out on Wednesday to meet me in New Mexico for a week’s holiday. It was her birthday on Friday and these 48 souvenirs were going to constitute her presents.
The assembled party asked whether I had bought her anything decent as well. The looks on their faces when I said I hadn’t suggested that I might have made a mistake.
The others wanted to know what had been my most memorable experience, or the most spectacular highlight. It was a hard one to answer. The street-fight in New Orleans? The porno shoot in Nebraska? Use of authorized deadly force at Area 51? Maryland Pat and his France/England confusion? The toilet paper question from Indianapolis man? New York Sabrina and her luminous animatronic models? Trying to escape from Oklahoma? It had been less a trip of amazing and cataclysmic events, more a patchwork of small happenings and conversations that had added up to a remarkable whole. As I made this point, I was aware that I sounded like a politician.
I thought back to my first day and my gazing across the river at the Empire State and the World Trade Center. I’d seen a million shots of the tower-less skyline in the four weeks since the attacks, but I couldn’t help wondering what that view looked like from outside the camera lens. It was time now for Johnny to go home, and he suggested that I take the same walk with him back to the station that I’d taken with Neal back in August, and have a look at what could be seen now.
Down by the river, the water glistened with the reflected lights from Manhattan. The Empire State was lit up in red, white and blue. Turning to the right, bright white lights illuminated a spot where there was now a break in the skyscrapers. Smoke was still rising like dry ice, billowing up into the atmosphere.
Somewhere over there, an army of punch-drunk, hapless souls was continuing the grizzly task that had been going on 24-hours a day solidly for almost a month. Even with the gargantuan effort that had been made, still little progress had been made.
Johnny said that the water people had only got to test the mains that ran under Ground Zero that weekend and had found water heated to 180°F.
This was not a sight to be taken casually. I stood gawping in silence and was only shaken from my stupor by Johnny saying goodnight and being on his way.