11 May

Tuesday 2nd May - Arriving in New York - "Hey, I'm walkin over 'ere"

Now for anyone who has not yet had the pleasure of visiting the Big Apple, they could very well find themselves in for a shock. That goes especially for anyone used to the reserved politeness common in the British Isles. For my American readers, you should know that in the United Kingdom it is considered bad form and the height of breach of etiquette to say anything negative about something or someone to their face. Phrases like "Oh, that's interesting ..." act as a thinly veiled veneer of boredom or disinterest. So, imagine the shock of visiting a city where the locals leave you in no doubt as to what they think of you or situation you may find yourself in. New Yorkers are brash and rude and they are proud of it!

My first experience of this was the evening I arrived. I had spotted a Chinese restaurtant near my hotel and so after I had unpacked and freshened up after the train ride from Boston, I headed out to explore the Upper West Side, ending my ramble in the Szechuan Palace. All was well at first; I was taken to a free table, my food and drink order was taken swiftly and I waited for my food to arrive. Suddenly, the front door swung open and a large woman entered the restaurant. Her demeanour made clear that she was already in a bad mood. She proceeded to give the waitress her order number details for a food pick up and then waited impatiently, repeatedly tapping her oversized nails on the counter. The waitress returned just 2 minutes later and yet she was greeted with a tirade of expletives including the words "B'tch, where have you been, I don't have all day!" She then looked at the receipt listing the items she had ordered and abruptly stopped, shouting "What the f*ck is this - b*tch I ordered egg fried rice, this says white rice!". Now, if this had been back home, I would have spoken up at this point, but out of my comfort zone and in another country I felt discretion was the better part of valor - at least until things escalated, when I would have had no choice but to step in. Thankfully, it did not come to that as the manager appeared from the kitchen with a box of egg fried rice and gave it to the woman, who without saying another word, threw the dollar bills onto the counter, then turned on her heel and marched out of the door. Now for anyone reading this and making any assumptions about the woman's ethnicity, let me tell you that she was white, in her early 30s and dressed like she had come straight from her yoga or spin class. While I cannot comment on the quality of the woman's food, it it was anything like mine, then she had no right to behave in this way. The food was excellent, and had I not become ill from something I ate the following day, I would have come back at least one more time during my time in the city.

This first experience was not a one-off, I encountered the same level of "directness" throughout my stay from hotel personnel, taxi drivers, park patrol officers and food stand vendors. As a German, I find that I get along well with people who make no pretence about what they feel or think and yet even for me, the level of vitriol and verbal agression I encountered was at times borderline disconcerting. Still, you could argue that this toughness has also helped New Yorkers weather many a storm or tragedy in the last 20 or so years beginning with the aftermath on the attack on the World Trade Center and culminating in how the city rallied to deal with the Corona-Virus. You cannot help but admire folk who come through a Gauntlet stronger and more determined that they were going in, one of the reasons why New York has always had a special place in my heart. Sadly, my experience this time would be blighted by a bad bout of stomach flu which somewhat spoiled the memory of my time in the city. Thankfully before this happened I had time to pay my respects to the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack and to increase my knowledge and appreciation for the histories of both the Marvel and the DC universe and the heroes that inhabit them.

Wednesday 3rd May -An Act of Terror & Superhero Origins 

After a good night and a hearty breakfast, I set out for the first of my two planned destinations that day. To reach the first, I had to head downtown and so my first task was to get myself a cab. Now, if you have seen any movie set in New York, you will have seen them, that iconic yellow taxi cab with the distinctive livery on the side and the small sign on the roof. Well, even today, the vehicles may have become larger but the look is still the same as is the way you need to catch one. Because of New York's road network with avenues running from West to East and Streets from North to South, no two of them running next to one another have the traffic going in the same direction. That means that depending on where you are, the traffic may not be going in the direction you are heading in. So, in order to catch a cab you may have to head a street up or down from where you are in order to be placed in a spot where the taxi driver can pick you up. The next important thing is that they have to be aware of your intentions while they navigate through the busy Manhattan traffic. This means raising your hand high and clear for them to see you. Be aware that some streets have 3 or 4 lanes and so taxis driving in the furthest lane away from you will not cross over two or three lanes of traffic to pick you up. So your goal is to flag down a cab in either the nearest or the second nearest lane to your location. The good thing is you will not have to wait long. There are estimated to be well over 11,000 yellow cabs in the greater Manhattan area at any one time. In places like Wall Street or First Avenue, there are sometimes so many, you would thing there is a hive of them nearby. Barely had I reached the spot from where I knew I could get a cab downtown that one appeared in the distance making a beeline for me after I had raised my hand above my head. The driver, a native New Yorker named Bradley, asked me where I wanted to go and then helped me into the taxi and off we went and in no time at all I had reached my destination, the 9/11 Memorial Plaza.

Now, I realise that there will be some readers too young to fully comprehend the events of September 11 2001. For me, a man in his 50s who has been to the city before and after the attack, this event is etched into my memory. Like my parents who remember where they were and what they were doing when President John F. Kennedy was shot in Dallas, my generation remembers where they were when Princess Diana died and when the twin towers of the World Trade Center came crashing down. Perhaps the most shocking thing I remember from back then is how quick everything happened. From the time the first hijacked plane hit the North Tower to the time the last of the towers collapsed took a mere 102 minutes. 2,995 people including the hijackers lost their lives in the attack. Yet what is perhaps the most remarkable is that at the same time people were running down the stairs of the two towers fleeing for their lives, paramedics and other first responders from across Manhattan were passing them going in the opposite direction! Many paid for their valor with their lives when the towers they were in collapsed around them.

Many months after the rubble, debris and human remains had been cleared from the site, thoughts turned to what should become of the site. Several ideas were proposed including rebuilding the towers, greater and higher than before, a grand gesture of defiance. Yet ultimately, it was decided to honour the memroy of the fallen and leave the site as a memorial to remind generations to come what happened on that fateful day. The foundations of the two towers were converted into massive pools, the names of the victims displayed on the marble borders. I walked around one of the pools and estimated that it would take the average adult roughly ten minutes to walk all the way around the outside of each one of them. 

In between the two pools stands the 9/11 Memorial museum and I would urge anyone intending to visit the city to spend some time there. Entrance is allocated by time slot on your ticket and the whole thing is planned with a sheer military precision. This ensures that the crowds waiting to get in never exceeds a few hundred people. Visitors to the musem must go through a metal detector and submit to a bad search. If the bag is too large, it is placed in a locker for the duration of your stay. My little shoulder bag passed the inspection with flying colours I had soon reached the gathering point from where the tour would start.  Each group is made up of between 12 and 30 visitors and before the tour got going, we were shown a video montage of the attack, the aftermath and things were were about to see. The museum itself is partially integrated with the foundations and undergound access points to what used to be the parking area below street level. As we walked in deferential silence down the long winding walkways, you could clearly make out the thick steel girders of what had been the former parking structure. 

We saw remnants of the antenna from one of the towers and a partially mangled fire truck from one of the local stations that had rushed to the scene within minutes of the first attack on the building. Then we came to a large wall of concrete with the occasional trickle of water emanting from it. Our guide explain that these trickles were nothing to worry about, their number being closely monitored on a daily basis. The reason for this was obvious for on the other side of that thick concrete wall was none other than New York's Hudson River! During the attack, the wall had been damaged but not sufficiently to crack and subsequently submerge lower Manhattan. It was a somewhat sobering thought that just inches away from me lay a body of water whose masses were suficient to drown everyone within minutes of the wall collapsing and I admit that I breathed a sigh of relief when I concluded the tour and returned to street level. 

I now had to make my way to the lower east side of Manhattan to get to the United Nations building from across where my next tour would begin later that afternoon. Knowing that the distance would be too great on foot and wanting to see a bit of the city on my way their, I decided to go part of the way by metro train to Times Square and then headed East on foot along 42nd Street. It was just past Times Square that I made the mistake of buying a slice of pizza from a street vendor, a decision I would come to regret the next day. For now, I wandered along 42nd Street, crossing through several smaller neighbourhood parks and past tennement blocks whose inhabitants had put a lot of effort in maintaining the facades of the buildings.  Having navigated my way across the 1st Avenue Expressway, I reached my destination, Ralphe Bunche Park, diagonally across from the imposing edifice that is the United Nations building. While it was only a small park, I was struck by how clean it was - not a soft drinks can, banana peel or chocolate bar wrapper in sight, Even the homeless woman asleep on one of the benches had gathered her discards and placed them in one of the trash cans provided! 

I was soon joined by an ever growing group of men and women who had assembled there to trace the footsteps of their comic book heroes. We were all there to see the sights and locations which had been used in both DC and Marvel movies since the 1980s. Visitors came from Peru, the Netherlands, the UK, Germany (no, not me) Australia, Sweden and of course from several States in the US. Our guide Todd armed with a clpboard containing stills of famous movie scenes checked everyones' tickets while he told us about the role the United Nations had played in both Marvel and DC films (Captain America Civil War and Superman IV - the Quest for Peace). With all tickets checked, Todd launched into his walking tour presentation about the origin of superhero comics and the men and women responsible for them. He began by explaining that the origin of many superheros was either a reaction to changes in society atr the time or the personal experience of their creators. The character "Wonder Woman" for example was created by American psychologist William Moulton Marsten and his wife Elizabeth in response to the lack of female role models in comic book culture of the later 1930s and early 1940s. Wonder Woman took on a more patriotic role after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in December 1941. More likely, she was created as a counter balance to another comic book hero of the period whose origins have seen countless films, TV shows, weekly serials, radio shows, etc. I am of course referring to the Man of Steel "Superman".

The character of Superman hides his true identity from those he lives and works with behind the persona of mild mannered ace reporter Clark Kent. Working for the Daily Planet alongside his love Lois Lane and his best friend Jimmy Olsen, Superman or Kal-El to give him his Kryptonian name fought for truth, justice and the American way against an array of villains from this world and beyond. The only surviror of his doomed planet Krypton, Kal-El was raised by a kindly husband and wife called Joanthan and Martha Kent and with their help learns to navigate the world, while learning about his special powers including speed, invulnerability, laser vision and super-hearing. This much we all know from the comics, films and TV shows from last 30 years. But has anyone ever wondered why Superman is what he is and does what he does?  As Todd explained, a lot of this comes from the experiences of the two men who brought him to life. When you hear their story, the parallels to Superman immediately become obvious. 

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster met in Cleveland, Ohio while attending High School in 1932. Both were the children of Jewish immigrants fleeing the growing threat of Nazism which was on the rise in Europe. Their creation, was therefore much like themselves, both an immigrant and a refugee from a world which through apathy and denial had been ripped apart and destroyed while those who saw what was to come were shouted down as panic mongers. The town Superman grew up in was called Smallville in the US state of Kansas - the high school the boys attended was called "Glenville". And the parallels do not end there. Both Siegel and Shuster wanted their hero to embody the ideals and values of the country which had given their families sanctuary, so it was no coincidence that Kal-El would fight for truth, justice and the American way. The powers the boys bestowed upon their creation were all the gifts and abilites that made someone super-human, able to resist and withstand anything modern warfare could throw at him. 

Yet my avid readers would be surprised to know that Superman's greatest weakness, his vulnerability to Kryptonite was not one of the boys' inventions. That came as a by-product of the radio shows of 1940s and 1950s America where the voice of Superman / Clark Kent was transmitted into the homes of thousands of children eagerly awaiting the story of the latest exploits of the Man of Steel. So, distinctive was the voice of actor Bud Collyer that were he to fall ill and not be able to record a radio session, something had to be done to explain his absence from the show. The producers then hit upon the idea that at times where Collyer was too unwell to make the broadcast, his absence would be explained by the fact that Superman had been the vicitm of an attack with Kryptonite, a combination of the words "Krypton" and "Dynamite" to represent the danger that this unknown substance posed. The episode would be taken up by Superman's friends fighting desperately to save their hero's life demonstrating their success when their hero returned to the airwaves in the following week's broadcast.

To be honest, I learned so much during the three hour walk, recounting all of it would take many months to write and may end up alienating my readers. Let me just say that if comics, their origin and the origins of the characters that starred in them for the last 100 years is something you enjoy, then you cannot go wrong with this tour. Of course there is a little marketing involved as the tour ends rather coincidentally outside a comic book store in lower Manhattan, but as Todd explained, there is no obligation to go in and buy anything. Some of the group went in to see if they pick up a memento of their tour experience. I poked around the store for a bit, but there was nothing there would took my fancy, so I said my good-byes, gave Todd a generous tip of 20 Dollars and made my way back to Times Square and further West to get to my hotel, stopping off at a 7-Eleven to pick up some food to heat in the microwave of my room. Truth is I was tired and the next day I had planned to take a guided tour of Statten Island, the Statue of Liberty and the South Ferry dock area. I had no way of knowing then that this plan would go up in smoke the next morning! 

There was just enough time to watch the sun go down on the Hudson River as I stared out on the spot where in January 2009, veteran pilot Chesley Sullenberger had successfully landed his Airbus A320 aircraft in the middle of the river, saving the lives of his crew and passengers after both the plane's engines had been crippled following a bird strike. The event was captured brilliantly in the 2016 movie "Sully: Miracle on the Hudson" with Tom Hanks taking the role as Sullenberger and I can recommed the film to my readers without hesitation.

Having spent most of the following day between resting and setting new records for the time it took to to reach the bathroom, I was happy to find that I had recovered sufficiently to continue my American rail adventure. With my bags packed and having flagged down a cab to take me to Penn Station, I briefly enjoyed the hospitality of Amtrak‘s Executive Suite before being taken to the rail car in which I would staying on my 1.5 day journey down to the Big Easy, the city of New Orleans.

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