It was 18 years ago today that I first set foot in New York City. I had been to Utah a couple of times for the Sundance Film Festival earlier in the 1990s, and had walked a few hundred yards in Minnesota, changing planes at Minneapolis St Paul airport en route to Salt Lake City. This was my first trip to the States outside of January, the first time I saw American streets that were not covered in snow.
Three of us flew out from Heathrow on a bright spring morning. It was a Friday. The sky was blue as we took off, and blue skies accompanied us all the way to JFK. It was mid-afternoon when we got to our Midtown hotel and took our first tentative walk on streets that could have been, for all we knew, Mean Streets. Within 20 minutes we knew we were safe. We spent an hour in what was to become my favourite bar in the world, Rocky Sullivan’s on Lexington Avenue.
An Irish barman called James explained how tipping worked. I had read something about this. If three or four of you are together you leave a dollar or two on the bar after each round of drinks as a tip for your bartender. When you have each done this the next round is on the bartender. I had tentatively left a couple of dollar bills on the bar after buying my round but one of my travelling companions had put them in the jukebox. I had never before seen a machine that could take dollar bills. On my previous travels, to Sundance, I had saved up bags full of silver coins for phone calls home and for the pinball tables at Minneapolis St Paul airport. After my supply of dollar bills had been fed into the jukebox James told us the score about how to tip properly. We didn’t make the same mistake again. Our first meal was nothing special, at a nearby place called “Curry in a Hurry”, and we were all asleep by 10pm Manhattan time, 3am UK time.
I can piece together every day of that trip. I have scribbled a few things about it before over the years, but plan to create a record of that week in the days ahead. There is probably no other week in my life that I could recreate so fully from memory. It was a time before social media, before smart phones and even (in my case) before text messaging. I had used my dual band Nokia phone in Rome a few months earlier, and our experiences there directly led us to New York, but that phone was no use to us in the States.