Stephen Pennell visits the City that Never Sleeps.
My wife Kerri’s birthday is the day after Valentines, and I was feeling loved up when my mate announced that, through his links with Brummie trainer Rob McCracken, he’d got hold of 200 tickets for Anthony Joshua’s US debut at Madison Square Garden.
Kerri loves AJ, which is understandable when one look at me tells you that he’s just her type. In fact, the ex-champ and I could be twins – as long as the twins in question are an English multi-racial version of Danny de Vito and Arnold Schwarzenegger from the film. I’ve often toyed with the idea of taking her to one of Joshua’s fights instead of paying to watch him on the telly, and with loads of my mates going this seemed like a perfect chance for an exciting city break.
As ever, Kerri organised our travel plans with military precision, and our outbound journey via Gatwick passed off with barely a hitch. There was one frightening moment when immigration officials split us up at JFK by dint of Kerri having a brand new passport, but I somehow managed to get through security alone without having to throw myself at the mercy of the British embassy.
We then endured the dullest taxi ride ever, as the driver went through all combinations of how long the journey to our hotel on Eighth Avenue would take, depending on roadworks and the hour of the day. By the time we arrived he had gone through every possible scenario and it had taken about half an hour, although it seemed a lot longer.
After a much-needed night’s sleep and a ravenous raid on the hotel’s breakfast buffet, we were ready to take in the sights and sounds of the second greatest city on Earth, armed with nothing more than a fistful of dollars, a couple of tickets for the boxing, and a Group-on voucher, bought online at home, which provided us with a list as long as Livery Street of pre-paid attractions and activities, from which we could pick five.
First off we got a two-day ticket for the hop-on, hop-off Big Bus Tour, and erm…hopped on. After seeing much of the sun-drenched city from the upper deck, we alighted at the stunning memorial to the victims of 9/11, Ground Zero. It was every bit as moving as you might imagine, especially the tradition of placing a rose next to the names of the lost who’s birthdays fall on that particular day. It’s a spectacular, worthy tribute, and one that causes a tinge of regret – a feeling that we’ve done a disservice to the victims of the Birmingham pub bombings by allowing the Tavern in the Town to become a nondescript pizza restaurant.
From Ground Zero it was little more than a brisk walk to the pier, where we boarded the ferry that gets you up close and personal to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The on-board commentary was informative and entertaining, and in the age of Trump, it was heartening to hear that some Americans at least are still proud of the welcoming attitude towards immigrants that the statue, a gift from France to the US, represents. It may seem obvious to the practical types amongst you, but I was surprised to learn that Lady Liberty arrived in flat-pack form with assembly required. Can you imagine the instructions?
We then enjoyed (endured?) a crosstown ride on the crowded subway, on which I asked a native New Yorker for the best stop to get off for 42nd Street, which is near our hotel. She just smiled and said, “42nd Street”. The last leg of our first full day in the Big Apple was spent in Times Square, where we bought a few bits and pieces from the Levi’s shop at around midnight. The square and surrounding streets were packed with people until the early hours, and we spent an interesting ten minutes watching a homeless man having a heated debate with himself as he enjoyed a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs from off the top of a rubbish bin.
The day of the fight began with a peaceful few hours walking round Central Park, six-and-a-half times the size of Hyde Park according to a bloke who wanted to take us round on his bicycle taxi. He was obviously eager to impress and/or make his service seem necessary; he wasn’t to know I’m from a biophilic city of 571 parks, including the biggest urban one in Europe.
Small as Central Park is compared to Sutton, we still couldn’t find the Diana Ross Playground or the John Lennon tribute, Strawberry Fields, although we did come across a bloke proposing to his girlfriend. She said ‘yes’, accompanied by applause and cheers from those around, when as someone who has only witnessed public proposals at Villa Park, I half expected to hear a chorus of “You don’t know what you’re doing” from the onlookers.
Then it was back on the bus for my personal highlight of the trip, a visit to Harlem. On the way we past some of the most celebrity-laden areas of the city, the neighbourhood where Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac hung around together, and the spots where Lennon lived and died, quickly followed by the home of his killer’s inspiration, JD Salinger. Our guide said he’d seen the top Beatle’s widow out walking a few weeks ago, and after hearing that, we kept our eyes peeled for a bit of Yoko-spotting, but sadly to no avail.
If ever I think about what New York means to me, my first and last thought is music, so Harlem was a must-see. The guide abandoned his commentary halfway round and treated us to a soundtrack of Duke Ellington, Bill Withers, James Brown and, of course, Bobby Womack as we drove down 110th street. We saw the Martin Luther King and Malcolm X boulevards, the hotel where Malcolm met a young boxer called Clay and persuaded him to change his name, and the building where the radical leader was assassinated, just months after making his last speech outside the US – in Smethwick.
The guide for this tour was a white bloke, but he spoke eloquently and emotively about the cultural and political impact of the district. He meant it (maaan), and I would have made a show of myself were it not for my Raybans. After a flying visit to see Kerri’s cousin at work in Macy’s (the world’s largest store, but the world’s largest Primark runs it close), we toured the Rockefeller Centre, and took in the famous skyline from its observatory. This was on the recommendation of a friend who said it was better than the viewing deck at the Empire State Building.
Over two days we visited both, and my friend was wrong. The latter oozes history and art-deco class in a way that the former doesn’t, and unlike the Rockefeller, allows you to take in the spectacular views without the spoiler of Perspex sheets keeping you safe. Plus I’m a big fan of the original King Kong movie, so it was no contest for me.
We watched the Champions League final on our hotel room TV – it was broadcast live with Spanish commentary – but it soon became apparent it was a bit of a snore-fest, and at half-time we headed for Madison Square Garden early to soak up the atmosphere and witness the undercard. There was boisterous support for the Brits on the bill, who had mixed results. Joshua’s defeat was disappointing, although it was such a small part of our trip it didn’t spoil it to any great extent. As Kerri said: “Win or lose, I could still see his muscles”. Even I couldn’t see mine – my appeal is “more cerebral” apparently.
Our itinerary was so packed that the only time I saw my mates was at the fight, where some of them were getting a bit too wound up for comfort as an American behind us sarcastically shouted “The British are coming” as AJ took his beating, but overall the limeys in the crowd accepted defeat with good grace and sportsmanship. Like me and Kerri, most people we spoke to thought that Andy Ruiz deserved his victory – he may not have looked the part but he certainly had the heart.
The next day started with the aforementioned visit to the Empire State Building, and a huge unplanned walking tour of the city as we attempted to find a gluten-free restaurant, Friedman’s, that my wheat-intolerant wife had spotted on Instagram. It was a lot harder to find in real life. When we finally thought we were in the right vicinity we asked directions and were told that we were actually on the wrong side of town.
Then a ride in a big yellow taxi had to be abandoned as part of the route was closed to traffic for a couple of colourful parades – one to do with Israel and another celebrating New York’s Filippino community. It didn’t stop the driver charging us $8 for a 500-yard drive in a circle though.
We eventually found the place and despite having to stop at a pharmacy to buy an ankle support, it was worth every painful step. We left them a good tip and a plea to open a branch in Brum. In the evening we tried to book tickets to the Temptations’ juke-box musical on Broadway, but it was sold out, as were all the other shows. Apparently, Tuesday is the only night of the week where one can buy tickets on a whim, so book ahead if that’s your thing.
After our marathon walk and hearty Sunday dinner at Friedman’s, we went back to the hotel, lay on the bed for abreather while it poured down with rain, and woke up at about 2am. The city may never sleep but it’s bloody tiring for the people. Monday was home time, and we went shopping around Times Square for gifts for friends and family. I managed to crowbar Kerri out of the Swarovski shop (There’s one in the Bull Ring!” I reminded her), but we walked past it again a few times before I noticed that Wifey and the assistant in there were exchanging waves and knowing looks.
In the end I gave in and bought her some ear-rings. Wile we were in there Mahalia’s new song came on the radio and I was proud to tell the assistant, who remarked on my caterwauling along, that the singer went to school in Birmingham with my wife’s little sister. As far as I can recall, it was one of five English songs we heard on the radio while we were there; Oasis, Adele, Black Sabbath and UB40 were the others.
More reminders of home came in the form of a Longbridge-built Mini, the ACME Thunderer whistles constantly blown by NYPD traffic officers, carbonated drinks, plastic, some bloke called Benjamin Franklin who’s on the dollars and was connected to the Lunar Society, and lots of other Americans who looked like they might be in need of some digitalis.
After a last supper at another branch of Friedman’s restaurant, our taxi driver again talked endlessly about endless traffic all the way back to JFK, where the departure lounges were in chaos. It strikes me that instead of having eight terminals and not enough gates, the airport would be more efficient with less of the former and more of the latter. I advised one particularly highly-strung officer to relax, to which he barked “I AM RELAXED”. I’d hate to see him when he’s stressed out.
It was a fantastic trip to a wonderful city with a lovely companion. (Note to editor: she’ll read this you know). Our hotel, the Hampton on Eighth Avenue, was clean, comfortable and an oasis of calm not too far from the madding crowd. The Big Apple is no country for young kids – too crowded for them I reckon – and some of my mates were bored because all they did was drink in bars and go to the boxing and a rounders game at Yankee Stadium.
But if you like the hustle and bustle of a super-diverse city, steeped in history and culture, it’s perfect. And if you don’t… what are you doing in Birmingham?
Pics – Kerri Pennell