Part two: English lessons (retrospective)
How to make the most of a whirlwind tour of London:
*Umpire a game of Australian football at The Oval
*Visit Buckingham Palace, the British Museum, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral
*Sunday roast at The Champion in Notting Hill (recommended fare: pork shoulder followed by sticky toffee pudding; recommended attire: maternity)
*Whizz through Harrods to see what a $5000 jacket looks like
*Eat great Mexican
*Develop appreciation for well constructed ‘Old Fashioned’ cocktail
A lesson in not giving up
And to think, all of the above almost didn’t happen. As I thanked my lucky stars to have made it to London, the city that never sleeps was blanketed in snow care-of yet another storm dubbed the ‘Nor’easter’, and 400,000 New Yorkers were still without power in the aftermath of Frankenstorm.
It was miraculous I even got out of New York for the AFL match in London, with all transit services out of action indefinitely and Toronto airport presenting my only viable option for getting to the UK and then on to Europe.
If I left New York by midnight, I could drive the 10 or so hours and still have plenty of time up my sleeve to make the flight. Simple! Accessing a rental car was another story. I worked through a list of companies, prefacing each phone inquiry with ‘I know it’s a long shot, but …’ to avoid being laughed at by the person on the end of the line. It seemed I was a step behind every other schmuck trying to escape the city. Flooded subway systems and road closures had put trains and buses out of action until further notice.
The cliched gamut of emotions in grieving for Europe surfaced as I trawled the internet for solutions (thank goodness for a friend who took me in and had access to electricity). Denial came first, as I tried Amtrak rail, Greyhound buses and a range of lesser-known tour companies on the off-chance of finding a lift. I considered ride share options through Craigslist, carefully scrutinising head shots of the drivers to weed out potential psychopaths. Hope emerged with each new lead, followed by despair as every door slammed in my face. There was short-lived acceptance followed by gratitude … after all, in the grand scheme of things, I was very lucky to have escaped the downtown district without having to endure the hardship that many New Yorkers were now experiencing. What will be, will be, I reminded myself. Alas, hope re-emerged with the news that buses were scheduled to start up again in the next few days – enough time to get me to Toronto – but no bookings were being accepted. It was first in, best dressed when the offices reopened in the morning. I had a day up my sleeve to secure a bus ticket and get to Canada, but the inevitable backlog of passengers with pre-purchased tickets whose services had been cancelled had me preparing to kiss London – and beyond that, my first trip to Paris, Barcelona and Rome – au revoir.
After a restless night’s sleep, I headed down to the NYC Port Authority at 5am on Thursday morning and was pleased to secure a spot at the head of the line. But things looked grim as 6am rolled around, and then 7, with no sign of the promised Greyhound staff showing up to sell tickets. The ‘Happy Halloween’ sign hanging in the abandoned office beyond the corrugated security screen only fuelled my annoyance at being lied to the day before when I was told buses would be on the road by now. (Note to major organisations with the power to impact thousands during times of duress: honesty can provide useful information and generally be good for business. Duh.)
When policemen alerted the anxious queue that ticket offices were closed until 12, I steeled myself for the inevitable bladder strain I would endure over the next five hours when leaving the line to use the bathroom would be too great a sacrifice. News of the delay bonded strangers desperate to reach Philadelphia, Connecticut and Buffalo, who tried to stay upbeat in the face of growing dissatisfaction with the pathetic customer service they were receiving. Pacts were made that if the circulating whisper was true – that a ticket booth had opened upstairs – whoever got there first would mind a spot for the others.
When the announcement came, confirming the booth upstairs was indeed opening, allegiances were cut with the deftness of a guillotine and an Amazing Race-style sprint up the nearby stairs ensued. I had the advantage of not being weighed down by luggage, and in the end, after the expectation of a long, difficult wait in line for a large part of the day, getting a ticket turned out to be easy. By 8.30 I was dancing out of the station, excited by the prospect of a shower and breakfast before having to be back on deck for a 10am departure. By 9.30pm, I would be in Toronto.
Not even bus-related trauma from a 36-hour trip to Adelaide (wait, there’s more) could dampen my spirits. It was 15 years ago, but the smell of broken toilet still being used to full capacity and permeating confined cabin space via the air-conditioning still assaults my nostrils like it happened yesterday. The freezing midnight transfer in Griffith – normally a punishment for the damned – was a breath of fresh air on that journey. Ah, if I could live through that, 11 hours heading through upstate New York, rejoicing in the sounds of Moby’s Destroyed blaring through my headphones was nothing. In fact, for the first time all week, I felt relaxed.