I gazed across the Hudson at the most famous skyline in the world. The Empire State to the left, the World Trade Center to the right and all of lower Manhattan in between. It was a fine enough view, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be seeing. This was a tourist sight, a shot from a million movies. By no stretch of the imagination could it be considered the untold story of the USA.
It had been four months since I had left my job, which had been more than enough time to turn me from a level-headed easy-going sort of chap into a mild obsessive. I thought that I had this whole expedition planned down to the last detail. My itinerary had been meticulously put together. I’d not only devised a route that took me through each state consecutively without the need to re-enter any a second time along the way, I also had a list of half a dozen or so “unknown” towns to hit in each of them. I’d worked out the mileage, the lunch-stops, where I would stay the night, and uncovered at least one uncelebrated sight or event in each state. I’d even written down all the junctions and exit numbers that I had to take when I changed roads. Today was supposed to be the day when I hit the highway, but despite all the preparation, here I was stuck in Hoboken NJ and going nowhere fast.
Yesterday had started well and finished badly. The plane had taken off on time and stayed in the air all the way across the Atlantic. I’d cleared immigration and customs effortlessly at Dulles and was enjoying a well-earned cigarette break when it all began to go bandy. Storms in the Chicago area had led to the surprising consequence that the plane due to take me on to La Guardia was now stranded in Hartford. Thanks to my nicotine interlude, I’d also been beaten to the few seats available on the next two flights and was looking at a sudden and unforeseen four-hour delay.
I was planning to stay with Neal and Lisa, an ex-colleague and his wife, who were expecting me to arrive for dinner in about 45 minutes’ time. I had some loose change, so I tried calling them to let them know of the delay. A pleasant sounding lady came on the line and invited me to deposit a further $3.25 in quarters to effect connection. In quarters? In the normal scheme of things, I try not to wander around with a deadweight of coins in my pocket, primarily out of a desire not to reduce my scrotal area to some sort of clacking executive toy, but who arrives at an airport carrying that much change? I looked around in vain for a phone that might accept credit cards. There wasn’t even somewhere that would break a $5 bill for me.
The joylessness continued when we eventually arrived at La Guardia. We landed just before 8.30pm local time. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of my bags. I waited at the carousel until ten, as three separate United flights came in from Dulles. Still nothing. Finally, with the clocks back in London showing 3.30 in the morning, I gave up and went to pick up my hire car.
A hostile reception awaited me at Hertz. They sneered when I told them I’d come to pick up a car and, after a few minutes of furtive tapping on the keyboard, informed me that they had no record of my booking. I scrabbled in my hand luggage and found a payment voucher receipt from the booking agency in London. After more tapping and a couple of calls, they reluctantly accepted that I did have business being in their lobby. “Hey. Do we have any economy compacts?” she hollered at her colleague, The Man In Charge of the Keys. Mercifully it appeared that they did and, after a brief discussion that I was too tired to pursue about the unavailability of loss damage waivers in New York state, I went out to find a battle weary red Mazda Protégé waiting for me with 20799 miles already on the clock. I knew my trip wasn’t exactly going to be Easy Rider – I was more interested in reliable rather than cool transport – but I had hoped for something that might have stood at least a chance of having another 16000 miles squeezed out of it without major surgery.
It was just gone eleven by the time I was driving away from the airport, and it took me over an hour to make my way across Manhattan to the Lincoln Tunnel, and under the Hudson to Hoboken where Neal and Lisa lived. My road atlas was in my missing baggage, but I had an e-mail printout of the directions. To complete my day, the car had no internal light and my torch was also in my bags. I had to keep stopping under streetlights to figure out where to go next. When I eventually reached home, it was an achievement just to bumble up to bed and collapse.
If anything, things seemed worse this morning without fatigue clouding the issue. I was up early to telephone the automated service that was on my lost luggage receipt, and was less than delighted to learn that my stuff had still not been located. I tried telling the machine that I had to have my bags back urgently so I could set out to drive around the 48 lower states in 48 days, but it didn’t care. The Plan allowed only one contingency day for things going wrong, and here I was in danger of using it up before I’d even got away from the shadow of New York. At least getting arrested, or breaking down in the desert, or being kidnapped by troglodyte religious maniacs would have been a delay of some adventure. But “bag not appearing on rubber conveyor belt” was barely the stuff of Marco Polo.
I left with Neal when he went to jump on the PATH train to work and that’s how I found myself down by the river. The only thing left to do for the meantime was to have a mooch around Hoboken. It was a nice enough place, and boasted two claims to fame. It was the birthplace of Frank Sinatra and also possibly of baseball. I say possibly because Cooperstown in New York also laid claim to the same thing. Out on Washington, I found the shop that wanted to have the last word on the matter. In amongst tons of general Americana, it sold T-shirts that proudly bore the legend “Hoboken. Home of Baseball. Not rounders like in Cooperstown”.
I did need to buy some trainers and so took the opportunity to pop into Stan’s Sports Emporium across the road. Unlike any other sports shop that I’ve ever visited, this one had chosen not to display any of its wares. All the shoes and equipment were still in their boxes on shelves around the store. I had practised the vocabulary and was ready to ask for “sneakers” when cross-questioned shortly after entering.
“You want sneakers?” said the man with some incredulity. You’d have thought I’d just walked into a bakery. “Yeah, that’s right, you know for playing soccer” I replied, feeling that some clarification was in order. “You want soccer shoes?” with increased disbelief. “Well, not boots with studs or anything, you know, a pair of trainers” I flailed, my careful practice gone to pot. “Oh. What type?” This was getting difficult. “White ones made by Nike,” I answered unhelpfully. “It sounds like you want a cross trainer. What size?” More panic. I neither knew what a cross trainer was nor what size my feet were in American. By now, the other three people in the shop had stopped what they were doing and were intent upon my next words. “Er, nine in British”. He pulled a box from the shelf. “These say UK size 9. That’s a 10. You’re size 10. OK?” The box contained a pair of trainers that were white, made by Nike and, for all I knew, could well have been cross trainers. They fitted. I bought them. I left as quickly as I could.
Back at Neal’s I tried again to find someone to talk to about my luggage without success, but felt that I was becoming quite good mates with the automated voice laid on by United Airlines. Finally my new robotic chum gave me the news that I’d been longing for. My bags were at La Guardia and were awaiting pick-up for delivery to my address. One of the many options on the system was to press 4 if you wanted to go and pick the bags up yourself and in my excitement I hit the number. I couldn’t bear the prospect of waiting in for the rest of the day or any of the multitude of things that I could envisage still going wrong if I left it in the hands of the androids. It also meant that I could still set out and try to get as far through New Jersey with what was left of my first day on the road.
It was a lot easier finding my way out of La Guardia by daylight, and soon I was on Interstate 80 and heading for Paterson. My first planned stop was Waterloo, a tiny village that wasn’t even marked on my map. It had made it on to my schedule because it boasted a working gristmill, blacksmith shop and sawmill. According to my book, it was one of the finest restored villages on the Morris canal. What the book didn’t say was that it had been restored inside a compound making it look like a stockaded Centre Parcs as you approached it. In fact you don’t approach it, as no roads seem to run through it. It’s more like you notice it to your left as you whip by on the main road. The next stop was Clinton, or at least it would have been, but I was through and past that too before I realized it was there. It was becoming imperative for me actually to stop somewhere and do something that amounted to “experiencing” New Jersey.
I followed the Delaware River towards Lambertville where I was sure I’d have an eventful time. Another book had directed me to the remarkable collection of penis bones that hung from the roof in Mason’s Bar. At the very least, I expected that I’d be able to pick up a good souvenir and hopefully some postcards. It took me a while to find the right street and I’d had to cope with the minor embarrassment of having to stop and ask the same man for directions twice. When I got there, it wasn’t what I had expected. It was a residential street and I drove the length of it three times without being able to find any Mason’s Bar. I then noticed a building slightly set back from the street, with grilled windows and a flickering Budweiser neon sign.
It looked like it could be the place. Walking up the path I could just make out half a dozen faces grinning inanely from the darkness within. The afternoon sun was still high in the sky so I had some difficulty seeing in through the window. As I got up close, another smiling face popped up and pressed itself to the glass just in front of me. It had blotchy skin, wild eyes, a shaven head, and its body was dressed in dungarees. It remained stuck with a hand either side to the inside of the glass until the condensation from its breath obscured the view. Behind, the heads of other inmates bobbed, each with an expression somewhere between anger and bewilderment.
Even in normal circumstances, it would have been a hostelry to avoid. The prospect of entering and then having to order a Coke because I was driving held little appeal. The prospect of then having to enquire about a collection of penis bones made it disappear off the appeal radar altogether. I was on the doorstep and it was almost too late to turn back. It called for desperate measures. I dropped to one knee and pretended to tie a shoelace. Crouching low so as to remain out of sight to those at the window, I then made an imbecilic dash back to the car. At least this time I was safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t making a scene. Any onlooking neighbour would have assumed that it was just one of the bar’s regulars scampering back home for afternoon muffins.
Today was proving to be a washout. Just managing not to sail through places was proving a challenge let alone getting out of the car and doing any profitable exploring. I’d lost so much time with the baggage fiasco that I decided to head straight down to Cape May. The water would force me to stop and I’d be left with at least a couple of hours to have a reasonable look around. Day 2 Postcard – Cape May
The traffic on the Garden State Parkway was thick and fast. Jersey-plated vehicles were vying with those from New York, as if they had a real point to prove. There were at least two accidents on the Parkway that afternoon. One involved an open top metallic turquoise Thunderbird that had come past me with some aggression and that I later saw five miles up the road wrapped around a lamp-post. The other happened right in front of me. A dirty yellow compact came screaming down the outside lane and decided to pull in sharply. It was going far too fast for the traffic in the inside lane and, realizing that it was about to total itself into the back of an RV, threw on its brakes. It went into a skid, careered off the road and down the embankment. Quite a price to pay for being worried about the size of your willy.
Cape May was sleepy. Strolling along the seafront, it reminded me of Brighton. On one hand, this was very nice but it was not ideal for my purposes. It meant that most of the people on the street were holidaymakers and probably from out of state, leaving the cotton candy merchants et al as the only prospective natives with whom to chat.
Unfortunately they didn’t really want to chat. They wanted to sell you some cotton candy or whatever. I thought I might have better luck at the ferry. I drove north out of town and round to the docks. After buying a ticket from the kiosk, I wandered over to the ferry terminal. There were loads of people milling around and, like me, they all had nowhere to go for the next hour and a half. I ambled around trying to catch people’s eyes, but I’d have had more luck trying to make light conversation in the waiting room at the local STD clinic. Everybody seemed intent on paying as little attention to anyone else as possible. There was no friendly American outgoingness here and the time passed slowly before we were summoned back to our cars.
It was about 8 pm as the ferry pulled into Lewes in Delaware, and nighttime had fallen. All the motels along Savannah Road were showing no vacancy signs and I was about to give up when I went over the bridge and spotted one more called Vesuvio’s. The guy behind the counter was like Joe Pesci with a moustache. The reception area had soft furniture and clearly doubled as his family’s living room. I asked if he had a room available and instead of answering my question he asked me my name.
“So Kevin, do you smoke?”
“Well, er, yes I do.”
“You can’t have this room then. It’s a no smoking room. I’ve only got a no smoking room left.”
“That’s all right. I’m quite happy not to smoke in it.”
“Kevin, I’m telling you, you can’t smoke in this room.”
“No Kevin, I’m serious. You mustn’t smoke in this room. Serious.”
“OK, OK. I promise I won’t smoke in the room.”
“Right, that will be 91.60. Now you’re not going to smoke in this room are you Kevin?”
He turned to one of the kids watching TV on the sofa nearby. “Hey you. Are you ready to take a ride then? Go and get yourself ready, we’ve got to go over to see Fuckface in five minutes.”
I smiled, which was a mistake. He obviously read it as a secret sign of my smoking intentions. “Look Kevin. You really can’t smoke in this room. I’ve got a couple arriving tomorrow and she’s pregnant, so we wouldn’t have time to get rid of your smoke. Seriously.”
He gave me the key and took me outside and pointed up to my room. Next to my room on the raised walkway, another guest was fumbling with the keys at his door. “Hey John. Are you having trouble there? Don’t you have any trouble putting the key in that door now. You’re embarrassing yourself in front of your wife there. I tell you John, if you don’t get that door open in ten seconds, I’m going to come up there and do it for you. See what your wife thinks of you then.”
As I reached the walkway, there was time for one more volley:
“So Kevin. No smoking right? Smoke out on the balcony, not in the room.”
It was 8.30 and I decided to have a rest before going out to explore the town. I set the alarm for 9.30 and closed my eyes. When they opened again, the clock read 01.22. Lewes was shut.