A direct flight from Tokyo to New York on average takes twelve hours and forty-five minutes. Thanks to an industrial strength sleeping tablet she was awake for only two of those hours and apart from a stiff neck, it was the best sleep she’d had on a plane.
The elderly man seated next to her wasn’t impressed though. Her snoring, drooling and sudden jolt awake after her seemingly comatose state frustrated him. It wouldn’t have been a surprise if the air hostess placed a sheet over her halfway over the Pacific; she was that out of it. She supposed he was just grateful he had the aisle seat and not the window so he didn’t have to climb over her to empty his bladder.
She had boarded her flight at Narita Airport on a Thursday at 5.30pm and arrived at JFK Airport at the exact same time on the exact same day. She had time travelled and it was to the only city in the world where she found her expectations met reality.
She reached Border Control and saw the Immigration Officer eyeing people off with equal suspicion and contempt. When it was her turn to approach him, she was feeling wide awake and flashed him her biggest smile. She handed over her passport which he peered down at, looked back up at her and then surveyed it once more. She saw his grey moustache twitch like a rodent as he tried to find something wrong with it. She had prepared everything well and knew her visa was correct. He looked up again and finally cracked a smile.
“First time in the States?” he asked and she nodded. He asked about her plans and she was brutally honest; she was there to get drunk and see a Rangers game. He seemed to approve of her answer, stamped her passport and waved her through.
She found a transfers counter and booked the cheapest option to get her to her hostel on the Upper West Side. After waiting inside the airport for over thirty minutes her driver, who wasn’t much of a talker, arrived. With two fingers he gestured to the exit, grabbed her luggage and walked with such speed it gave her anxiety. Though she followed him with haste through the airport, the moment she stepped through the sliding glass doors to walk outside, she stopped dead in her tracks as she heard the city for the first time.
The shouts between drivers, the sound of cars honking and planes taking off all combined with the chatter of millions of people meshed together to make a continuous hum. She loved it.
The driver pulled back the van door to expose the other backpackers he had already picked up from other terminals who for some reason looked panic stricken. She quickly learnt the man in charge of delivering them all to their hostels alive was the most reckless driver in existence. He made speeding, weaving through heavy traffic, slamming on his brakes and near-misses look like an Olympic sport; and he was going for gold. While she absolutely hated rollercoasters, she had never felt so close to her impending death on one like she did during that ride. To be fair though, he did get her to her accommodation in a decent amount of time.
The hostel was wedged between residential buildings on a street two blocks away from Central Park. She stepped out of the van and as she turned to say good bye (and good luck) to the remaining backpackers, her feet flew out from under her like she was running on the spot. After what felt like forever, she fell backwards and landed on her tail bone. The sidewalk was still icy from snow that had fallen the day before causing her to perform her best Road Runner impersonation unwillingly to strangers. She was more annoyed at the fact she had missed the snow.
With red cheeks from the cold and embarrassment she got up from the ground as awkwardly as possible and waddled to the door. A condemned notice was pinned to the front explaining it would shut and be demolished in two months to make way for apartments. She walked inside and was greeted by a friendly receptionist who was proudly from Queens. While he checked her in, she asked where she could go for a drink nearby and he recommended a jazz bar six blocks up towards Harlem. She went upstairs to her dorm room, dumped her back pack and showered quickly to freshen up from her flight.
When she came back down she could hear a commotion coming from the games room. Peeking around the corner she saw a room full of people playing beer pong beneath a ceiling covered by red love heart shaped balloons. In her travel from one time zone to another she had completely forgotten it was Valentine’s Day. Everyone in the room however appeared single and their sole mission was to get roaring drunk. To hell with love. A Brazilian man converged on her with a ping pong ball in hand and convinced her to play a round against him. It wasn’t her first rodeo and she was competitive and in need of a drink. She destroyed him.
After three games, all of which she won against three different Brasileiros, she decided to break their hearts and make her way alone to the jazz bar.
Upon entry the doorman greeted her and informed her she had to sit at the bar and order a minimum of two drinks because she didn’t have a dinner reservation. She told him the two drinks policy wasn’t going to be a problem.
Once inside, she saw a mahogany bar, dark red velvet curtains and white walls covered with monchrome portraits of various jazz musicians. The space was made up of tables of two or leather booths all full with patrons and all complete with red rose and candle centre pieces.
The stage was set at the back of the room where an African American jazz band was in the middle of a set. All the band members were in black tuxedos and bow ties and had the most incredible stage presence she had ever seen. She sat down on a high wooden stool at the bar, took her coat off and hung it over the back. A female bartender acknowledged her with a hello and slid a drinks menu in front her. They shared the same name and immediately bonded. She ordered a glass of red wine and scanned the room, noting it was mainly full of couples. She wondered if any of them had noticed her and wondered if they felt sorry for her for being alone.
When the band finished its set two songs later a man in his 50s sitting next to her at the bar introduced himself. He was polite and asked her about her plans in New York and her previous travels. He was in the middle of telling her about his adult children, divorce and job as an investment banker when two frat boys interrupted. Never in her life had she encountered such arrogance. She knew American guys were forward, but this was too much for her to deal with. Their attention was only directed at her and they were aggressive in their approach. When they repeatedly cut the man off from trying to speak to her and physically tried to edge him out of the conversation by getting between them, she put her foot down. She told them there was no way in hell she was interested in speaking to such a pair of backwards-hat-wearing-small-dicked-douchebags. They had asked her to join them at another bar around the corner and she suggested they head there immediately without her. When they realised she was dead serious they backed off. She looked innocent, but when she was really angry she could scare a 120 kilogram bikie into submission.
The man in his 50s was in shock and awe and thanked her for choosing his company over the younger men. Apparently seeing this as an opening for a new avenue of discussion, he then asked her if she would like to be his mistress for the week while she was in town. ‘Are you fucking kidding me?’ she thought. What was with these men? She politely declined his offer and began a conversation with the bartender. After a few minutes the man sheepishly stood up and left. She told herself he was just lonely because it was Valentine’s Day.
By this stage the band had begun another set. She became too enthralled by them to notice a new guy was sitting next to her until he leant over and asked what she thought of the music.
“They’re amazing aren’t they?” she gushed and he agreed. He was in his 30s told her how he was trying to make it on Broadway.
Yet another set ended and the lead singer, with the charisma of Sammy Davis Junior, walked straight up to them. It turned out he and the guy sitting next to her knew each other and she was introduced. The singer was ecstatic she had chosen to visit that particular bar and catch their performance on her first night in the Big Apple. As he was talking, a woman with a familiar looking face crept up behind him and slid an arm around his waist. It took her awhile, but she later realised the wife of the singer was an actress in a prominent TV show set in New York which she had grown up watching. She came across as polite but aloof. Could this night get anymore surreal?
The singer grabbed a drink from the bar and went back to the stage. When the audience went quiet he announced there was a special guest in the house. It was her. He told the crowd it was her first time in New York and wanted to dedicate the following song to her. It was Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind. Yes, it could get more surreal.
The rest of the night became a drunken blur as she was invited to stay for a lock in with the staff and band. She discovered two distinct correlations. One was between the consumption of free alcohol and increased memory loss. The second was between Americans and drinking games. The last thing she remembered was checking the time to see it was past 4am.
She abruptly woke up later in the morning in the girl’s dorm at her hostel and raced to the toilet to throw up the previous night’s regrets. There was nothing quite like having to puke in a dirty communal toilet shared by over a dozen men and women. She had a flash back of doing cheap tequila shots with the bass player. How the hell did she get back to the hostel in one piece? She couldn’t remember. When her head stopped spinning she managed to dress herself and stumble out of the hostel and into the corner store at the end of her street.
When she walked into the shop the Hispanic father and son who ran the store began laughing at her. Offended and not in the mood she skulked to the back corner of the store to gather supplies like Gatorade and Panadol. When she reached the counter the son waved her passport in her face and smirked.
“You left this here this morning”. Ho-ly-shit. She’d lost her passport on her first night in New York and managed to somehow get it back. What were the odds? The travel gods were clearly smiling down on her. She thanked the men profusely and headed to Central Park still processing what had just happened.
While walking through the park she couldn’t think of a more perfect introduction to the city. She stopped a dog walker to point her in the direction of the nearest McDonalds.
The sound of an ambulance screeching past was like a knife to her brain.
She was definitely going to need a supersize.