When I was last here 23 years ago, I traveled on the subway just once. Quite how I almost ended up in the Bronx while trying to make it to Times Square is anybody’s guess, but I managed to alight before arriving in the place whose name to me, back then, meant certain kidnapping, if not death.
I am well used to adapting to travel systems in new countries. I have my father’s instinctive sense of direction (my mother and brother share theirs, too, but in their case it is always the wrong direction) and make sure I am familiar with routes and times before venturing out. In that, too, I am like my father. When I buy any new gadget, I read the instructions thoroughly before attempting to use the thing; that way, when it goes wrong, I know which faults to look for. Mum and Nigel want it working NOW. And when it stops, they call me.
In Paris, I walk or use the Metro, which is among the most efficient in the world. In London, I rarely venture below ground – the King’s Cross Tube fire of 1987 that killed 31 people still haunts me. In LA, I walk everywhere or take the bus. I am considered something of a freak there. In Cardiff, I sit on my backside at home watching TV because it’s always raining too much to go anywhere.
So, yesterday, having walked several miles on day one, I decided to brave New York’s transport system again. Having been promised that New York is now the safest city in the US and that the subway is both clean and safe to travel, I headed for the B and C line just three minutes walk from the holiday apartment I was renting.
It was easy. I bought a weekly travel card and travelled Downtown (not Downton; if I hear another word about that bloody Abbey, I will torch the place myself).
I wasn’t really heading for anywhere in particular and chose the Rockefeller stop because it was the only name I recognized en route. A short walk took me to Bedlam, an arena of flashing lights I quickly discovered was Times Square.
Blimey. It makes Piccadilly Circus look like the Three Day Week of 1974 (restrictions of power for those of you too young to remember. Note to self: if you have to explain a joke, it ain’t funny). This must be the “buzz” and “energy” that everyone had told me about. A moving statue of Liberty of about ten feet tall nearly beat me up when I was taking a selfie because he thought I was taking a photo of him. You have no idea how angry a statue can get when trying to separate you from your dollars. “Not you! Selfie! Me! Reverse shot!” I yelled, in that way we have of talking to foreigners (and statues) who can’t speak English.
I found my way from Bedlam to the highly recommended Bar Centrale, above Joe Allen on West 46th Street, but it was shut, so I took the bus (yes, the bus! Get me!) down to the private members’ club, Soho House, where I have been a member since its opening in London in 1995.
It’s really terrific. A cross of old-style gentlemen’s club style leather and dark wood, and modern French brasserie. Despite the many chandeliers, you still need a miner’s lamp to find your way around, and I needed a ladder to make it onto the bar stool, but apart from that, I loved it.
How to get home was the problem, but I quickly found the subway and leapt on the first train.
The electronic system in the carriages is very good at showing you where you are and is accompanied by a speaker system, just to reinforce the route you are taking. Unfortunately, said voice does not say: “You silly woman, you have done exactly the same as you did 23 years ago and are heading for a part of town where you will certainly be hung, drawn and quartered before dawn.”
Having nearly thrown myself into the arms of the baddies once again, I had to get a train all the way back to where I had started, only to discover that the trains to my area of Lower Harlem were no longer running. Everyone who told me that the subway runs all night were clearly lying, and I stood alone on the platform as train after train for Coney Island came and went.
Interestingly, there were so many women traveling alone. In bars and restaurants, too, the same thing: women totally at ease in their own company, even chatting with each other, enjoying their food and wine and feeling totally safe. There are, by comparison, fewer men by themselves; they are either with women or other guys – and I have never heard so many men in pairs talking about trying to understand their girlfriends.
It’s a very different culture from London, where nobody speaks to anyone, and women by themselves (certainly ones of my age) are treated like second-class citizens.
I finally made it home, by the way, after giving up at 53rd and hailing a cab – very loudly.
I felt so Sex and the City, I started humming I’ll take Manhattan.
Which I will.
All supposing the bandits in the Bronx don’t take me first.