The anti-terror paranoia that pervades New York City had started to rub off on me. What if they were out to get me?
Train from Summit NJ to New York Penn Station
The skyscrapers of the New York skyline, about twenty miles distant, appeared through gaps in faintly autumnal trackside trees. The other passengers sat glumly, resigned to another day in the office. I remembered Paul Theroux’s account in ‘The Old Patagonian Express’ of boarding a Boston Commuter train and starting a journey that would take him the length of the Americas: he had months of hard travel to look forward to, I had mere hours before my flight back across the Atlantic. Nonetheless, solo travel gets the creative juices flowing: as the train made its penultimate stop at South Orange an outdoor swimming pool caught my eye, swampy with recently fallen leaves. I started scribbling awkwardly into an overly small, orange-jacketed Moleskine notebook.
The leafy suburbs gave way to estuarine scenes of industrial decay: muddy reed beds and yards full of wasting machinery; trucks, diggers and trailers. On the seat beside me a man wearing a blazer and jeans annotated printed emails with a ballpoint pen. He underlined a sentence about the difficulties of shorting small caps. I wrote a note describing the event. Two pens scribbling side by side, a window into the past in a carriage dominated by portable electronic devices. A limp harangue broke the silence.
“Your headphones are really loud, everyone can hear…” The voice tailed off into a mumble as the train halted beneath a motorway flyover.
The tinny rattle continued. Previously oblivious, I focussed on the offensive noise. It sounded like thrash metal. Blazer man instinctively blessed the lady opposite when she sneezed. A half-hearted challenge and a blessing were the only vocalisations on this sombre forty minute train journey, packed with city workers on their way to start the last shift of the week.
The famous skyline was visible again. Only bridges and cranes rose as prominently above this flat, wetland landscape. A flag hung limp atop a graffiti-stained rocky outcrop. Wherever possible transport infrastructure and real estate reared from the reed beds. How much of this might be rendered worthless by exposure to storm surges as sea levels rise in the coming decades? Geese preened and ate pond weed amid partially submerged blue drums and green-stained plastic bags. The train entered the long tunnel beneath the Hudson that links New Jersey with Manhattan.
Subway to South Ferry
The General had come to New York from British Guyana 26 years ago. He made a living working as an unofficial guide in Penn Station, preying on the confused. Having successfully extracted a subway ticket from the machine, I was standing in a corner to the side of the morning rush, perusing handwritten notes that listed my transport options, a sitting duck in the General’s sights.
“Where do you want to go?”
The General laughed. “You’re already there.” He drew me towards a map on the wall. “This whole island is Manhattan. Now tell me, where on Manhattan do you want to go?”
“I want to catch the ferry to Staten Island.”
He had hooked me into his world, made a customer of me. I knew I was being had, but didn’t care. The General amused and captivated me. He bore more than a passing resemblance to Haile Selassie wearing Robert Mugabe’s glasses. This association may have been triggered by his attire, an almost camouflaged coat and a khaki hat that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an African head of state. He pointed at the map.
“You are here. You want to go here, to South Ferry” He jabbed with increasing vigour.
He made me repeat after him. “Line 1 to South Ferry.” I was his now.
As he escorted me to my platform the newspaper sellers greeted him and gleefully slapped my back.
“That’s the General, everybody here knows the General!”
Along the way he provided autobiographical details and explained the details of his plan: I would give him a fee for his services, perhaps ten or twenty dollars, with which he would purchase some breakfast. I considered asking him for a receipt. Some of the pages in my Moleskine were perforated, presumably for just such occasions. But what would I expense it under? I visualised the relevant drop-down menu in my corporate expense reporting software and decided that the General’s services didn’t match any of the categories. At the barrier I handed him a five dollar bill, shook his hand and wished him well. He thanked me and flowed with the crowd in search of his next client.
The New York subway is every bit as noisy as it sounds on TV, the clatter of the rails accentuated by polished metal surfaces and by the frequency of the trains: at every station we passed a train moving in the opposite direction. On the instruction of the tannoy I moved towards the front of the train in order to get down at South Ferry’s short platform. Relieved to be above ground in sunlight I paused briefly on a bench, making myself part of the backdrop for scores of photos of Japanese tourists holding aloft small stars and stripes.
The Staten Island Ferry
The Staten Island ferry has been described as the best free tourist attraction in New York. It runs every half hour during the day, mostly giving cheapskate tourists a free view of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. I joined the throng on the deck, held my phone aloft and snapped low quality photos. All passengers, even those who planned to take the ferry straight back across, are obliged to disembark. The late morning beer urge to which solo travel makes one so susceptible was building, and the relatively tranquil surroundings of Staten Island seemed a fine place in which to loiter before submitting to it.
The Twin Towers memorial is located a short walk along the waterfront from the ferry terminal, the only point of interest amid a sea of car parks. The memorial consists of two rectangles of white stone, perhaps twelve metres high, signifying the collapsing towers. They are separated by around three metres and are more or less parallel at the bases, but peel progressively away from one another with height, as would a newspaper opened from the top corners. Inlaid at head height is a grid of small rectangular flagstones inscribed with the names, job titles and dates of birth of selected victims. As I examined them more closely I noted that into the seaward end of each stone had been cut the individual profile of the victim’s face, staring forever across the water towards their place of death.
The original twin towers of the World Trade Centre entered my consciousness only as they were destroyed. Having never seen the skyline in the flesh, nor having examined photographs of it, the footage of that fateful day in 2001 was intangible, no more than television. But standing between the leaves of the memorial I came to appreciate just how much the twin towers had dominated the skyline. Their gap has been filled by the recently completed One World Trade Centre (1WTC), the 417 m high main structure of which is exactly the same height as the higher of the twin towers. 1WTC stands head and shoulders above the rest of the skyline. Surprisingly, it is only marginally larger than the 381 m Empire State Building, completed in 1931, but it has an antennae on top that takes its total height to 541 m, much greater than the Empire State’s 443 m. The current world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa in Dubai is over twice the height of 1WTC, an incredible 828 m: were it a Scottish mountain it would not quite be a Munro but would comfortably make the grade as a Corbett.
As the twin towers fell I was at my dusty desk in Oxford University’s Physical and Theoretical Laboratory, writing a dull paper and thinking that, if this was the start of the fall of civilisation, or of World War 3, or of some other momentous occasion, what a shame it was that I wasn’t doing something more enjoyable. It was the day that changed everything yet changed nothing, for the attacks are best viewed as a reaction to US foreign policy and covert interference that had for decades caused death and suffering around the world. And what was the response? A further decade of resentment-breeding military intervention. But standing at that memorial on Staten Island I began to appreciate how significant the event had been. Every day millions of people look at the gap where the Twin Towers once stood and remember the horror.
I turned my back on the memorial and ascended steps, leaving this wasteland of parking lots behind. Soon I found what I was looking for. A barmaid was chalking up the specials board. She’d found her first customer of the day. I took a seat at the bar, ordered an eggplant panini and a beer and engaged her in smalltalk. She told me that New York had changed: now only Brooklyn approximated to the NYC she knew and loved, having partially resisted the tide of corporatisation and maintained some local character and a slower pace of life. Staten Island really was like New York used to be. This despite half a million people being crammed onto an island of eighteen miles by seven. After a second beer I felt motivated to leave the oasis and catch the 1200 ferry back to NYC.
With time to kill I wandered up Wall Street, mingling with office escapees and tourists, many of whom looked, like me, as if they were wondering exactly why they had come. Near the New York Stock Exchange I was presented with the strange spectacle of a topless woman conducting an interview to camera. The interviewee, camera and sound man were arranged such that there was only one clear line of sight to the interviewer’s bare breasts. Any time a passerby tried to take a photo, a fourth member of the crew stepped in and acted as a human shield, pulling his t-shirt over his head and revealing his ample belly.
On this fine and sunny day office workers sat on benches, their lunches in the skyscrapers’ chilly shadows. I wondered once again exactly what I was doing wandering these vile streets, far from my natural environment. Gift shopping for my children gave me a sense of purpose and I entered an emporium in search of a snow globe. The proprietor issued me with instructions on which subway station to take to connect with the Airtrain to JFK, Cortland St. The station was on the perimeter of the World Trade Center site. 1WTC’s overbearing reflective sides towered above. Construction was ongoing within the site. Cranes towered above. Beside the concrete frame of a partially built tower block, a massive steel structure, the memorial, was under construction. Its rusty-tinged surfaces brought to mind the fossilised vertebrae of some monstrous beast. Upon its shelves workmen welded and ground metal, sending sparks flying below. On the opposite side of the lot an identical structure curved towards it. Combined with the street noise and the bustle of pedestrians it was to me a scene of absolute hell, though many people, myself included, had voluntarily located themselves there.
The exaggerated topography of 1WTC is staggering: the height of a small mountain with the footprint of less than half a football pitch. In a natural feature such dimensions would enthral me, yet I found the same specifications in the built environment appalling. It was not the structure itself, rather the contents that I found disconcerting, anxiety inducing. The view from WTC1 may be fine, but does everyone have a window seat? No matter how good the view, the idea of being stacked up in a pile of 10,000 people, with another 14,000 visitors passing through each day, gives me the willies. I think it was Billy Connolly who encouraged his audience to visualise an aeroplane without the metal tube, just a flock of seated humans zooming across the sky at high speed. Conducting a similar exercise for 1WTC reveals, behind the mirrored glass, a 400 m high human pyramid of probably 12,000 people at any one time; a thousand tonnes of meat and bone, breathing their germs, spouting inanities; expelling, at a conservative estimate, well over 10,000 litres of fart each day.
Touts hawked commemorative programmes and memorabilia. Across the incongruously sited historical graveyard of St Paul’s was a shopfront promising a preview of the memorial. Curious to see what these rusty spines would make when they met in the middle, I milled into the shop, the interior of which was encircled by a massive queue. “Next tour three o’clock, a las tres” shouted a security guard. Two hours hence. That settled it. I was off the hook, needing to be making my way to JFK by 1430. What would I do with my last hour in NYC? I could have visited the memorial gardens on the other side of the site, but felt strangely reluctant to move any closer to 1WTC. In any case felt that the grotesque steel work in progress before my eyes was in many ways more fitting, conveying as it did something of the past horror for which the location was famous. Instead I wandered across Broadway in search of a beer, through the gardens of the city hall, home to pretentious modern art sculptures including a 1980s Raleigh racing bike, a model I had coveted in my youth, bent into an unridable cylinder. The park could have been described as an oasis amid the city bustle; at the very least it was a slightly less disagreeable zone. Bars were thin on the ground but eventually I found one, ordered a Brooklyn Lager and enjoyed the peace, before setting off into the fray once more.
Subway and Airtrain to JFK Airport
As soon as I boarded the E Line subway I felt conspicuous. Before boarding the train I wanted to verify that I was in the right place and asked a policeman who was standing part way up a stairway to confirm that I was getting on the right train. He proudly produced a new iPhone 5s and showed me the stop I wanted to change at, Sutphin Boulevard. When I glanced back I noted that he was eyeing me suspiciously. As he walked past me to board a train he asked, in that superficially friendly but mildly intimidating manner characteristic of the US authority figure.
“Say buddy, where did you get that backpack?”
“I’m from Scotland. I bought it there.”
He looked relieved. Clearly his alarm bells had been ringing at the sight of a foreign sounding man wearing a backpack, asking directions to the airport. Would I have received different treatment had I told him that it was from Syria or Somalia?
The encounter ratcheted up a backpack paranoia that had been building since the previous day, when my entry had agitated the security guard at my company’s facility: his eyes darted around the room as he barked a question.
“What’s that guy doing with the backpack?”
My escort cut in. “He’s with me, he works for us.”
The atmosphere calmed.
As if on cue an announcement came over the tannoy.
“Backpacks and other large containers are subject to random search by police”
Just a few months ago, pressure cooker bombs, concealed within backpacks, killed three and injured hundreds at the Boston marathon. Any luggage item capable of accommodating a pressure cooker is now a cause for suspicion and alarm. Recently a respectable family had been paid a visit by six armed anti-terrorist officers after they had separately conducted internet searches for pressure cookers, backpacks and the details of the Boston bombing. This was a paranoid land and its paranoia was rubbing off on me. Supping a pilsner in Steiny’s in Staten Island seemed a world away. The suspicious policeman knew my travel plans. Hopefully he hadn’t arranged a welcoming committee for me at Sutphin Blvd.
The free paper provided some distraction. Two articles reported that New York had never been better, the air quality was the best in 50 years and the homicide rate was at its lowest since the 1950s, only 240 through to September 25th. At Sutphin I scanned the crowds for any policemen, uniformed or otherwise, half expecting to be huckled to the ground at any moment by shouting armed men. None came. The Airtrain ferried me directly to the terminals on an elevated track. I was relieved to get to the departure lounge without having my bag searched, to be bound for an environment where the population density is below my alarm threshold, where people don’t expect a backpack to contain anything more sinister than outdoor equipment.