“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22”

As my Amtrak train chugged through upstate New York, I watched the scenery pass me by. Back where I grew up, changes between the seasons were relatively mild compared to some other parts of the world. The eastern coast of Australia is populated by a lot of evergreen trees that generally don’t lose their leaves during the winter, but the eastern coast of North America was a different story entirely. The autumn equinox had occurred while I’d been in Canada, and summer was officially over. As my New York City bound train travelled through the woods, I could see that the trees surrounding us had already taken on hues of red, yellow and orange, and the normally green scenery was combined with a wash of natural fiery tones. It was something that I had only seen happen very sparsely in my own country, so I soaked in the sight and enjoyed the novelty of it all. It certainly made for a pleasant visual accompaniment on my trek back to the smog of the Big Apple.

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

The timing of my trip was so perfect that I observed foliage of both green and red, as the former gave way to the latter.

The timing of my trip was so perfect that I observed foliage of both green and red, as the former gave way to the latter.

Returning to Manhattan almost felt like coming home. After casually jumping on the S Train across town to Grand Central Station, receiving a friendly welcome from Brandon the doorman as I arrived at the apartment, and letting myself in to wait for Melissa to get home so I could tell her all about my trip, I realised just how much time I had spent here in the the last month. “Home is where the heart is”, as the old adage goes, and there in that moment I don’t think anything could have rang more true in my mind. After being on the road for so long you start to believe that you’ve lost all concept of home, but the reality is that if you have the right attitude, and surround yourself with the right people, anywhere can feel like home – no matter how brief or temporary a home it may be.

***

While I’d been keen to get back and see my New Yorker friends like Melissa and Stefon, there was also another reason why returning to the city this time had been such an incredibly exciting prospect. Georgia, one of my best and dearest friends from back home, had been doing her own tour across the USA for the past couple of months, and now she and her friend Eva had arrived in NYC, just days before my birthday. She’d kept warning me that she had a surprise for me, but that she couldn’t wait until my birthday and would have to give it to me as soon as she saw me. It was well into the evening when I arrived back in NYC, and Georgia had some final plans with the girls who she had been on the tour with, so we made plans to meet the next day at Grand Central Station.

I could barely contain my excitement as I almost ran the few blocks up Lexington Avenue, and it was almost surreal to see her big golden curls of hair and big smile waiting for me by one of the subway exits.
“Oh my God! How are you, baby?” Georgia said as I threw my arms around her and hugged her tight for at least a solid minute. “It’s been so long!”
“I know! I’ve missed you!”
“Let’s never be apart for that long again, okay?”
“Deal.” And just like that, within moments, our casual banter had returned, almost as though we hadn’t been separated for the last six months. I guess that’s the sign of a true friendship.
“So, tell me everything. What’s been going on? How was Canada? How was Stuart?” We set off walking down the street as Georgia bombarding me with questions.
“Canada was great! It was really nice to-”
I was cut off mid-sentence, startled as someone bumped into me from behind. New Yorkers can be very pushy when it comes to their pavement etiquette, and for a moment I thought I might have been in the wrong somehow. “Ah, I’m sorry I-”
“Hey, watch where you’re going next time, fool!” I might have been more offended if the words hadn’t come from a very familiar face.
“Oh… Oh my God. Oh my God!” The person who had bumped into me was my other best friend, Jesse, who was – to the best of my knowledge – still in Australia. “What are you doing here?!”
“Surprise!” Georgia said with a sheepish grin, and suddenly it all made sense.
“We’ve been planning this the moment Georgia booked her tickets,” Jesse said. “I called her up and told her, ‘If you think I’m gonna let you and Robert be in New York City without me, then you’ve got another thing coming!’ The three of us are in the greatest city in the world, your birthday is coming up, and this place isn’t gonna know what hit it!”

***

Apparently everyone had been in on the surprise – from Ellie in London to Stuart in Montreal, and even all of our mutual friends on Facebook – everyone had known about the surprise, and nobody had let the secret slip. Jesse had blocked me on Facebook under the guise that he was “taking a break” from social media, so I’d had no idea of his whereabouts.
The three of us had lunch together and caught up about everything we’d been doing in the past few months, sharing travel horror stories and laughing both at and with each other. Afterwards we decided to visit the Museum of Sex, and as we browsed the halls of artworks and exhibitions we made crass jokes and probably nearly got ourselves thrown out on a handful of separate occasions. But I’d been reunited with some of my most favourite people in the whole world, so right now where I was at was definitely starting to feel like home.

Reunited with my best friends.

Reunited with my best friends.

Perhaps the most definitive piece of art in the Museum of Sex.

Perhaps the most definitive piece of art in the Museum of Sex.

And the reason why we can't have nice things.

And the reason why we can’t have nice things.

Over the next few days, it was the little things that made the time around my birthday so special. Whether it was stumbling across a little street market with Jesse and Georgia, where we bought a variety of fresh mini donuts and sat and ate them in the sunshine at Madison Square Park; or when Jesse and I bought $15 tickets to an Iggy Azalea gig at a gay bar on a Friday night; or when we trudged around Midtown for over an hour looking for a place that would cut our hair for $20 instead of $100; or when all three of us visited a phoney psychic just off Times Square, who told us we were all troubled people with shady pasts and dark futures, so we retreated back to Georgia and Eva’s Air BnB apartment with margarita mix to watch The Little Mermaid and feel sorry for ourselves – there are a whole heap of fun and slightly bizarre memories that made it a special week for me.

New York City with my best friends.

New York City with my best friends.

Georgia and I were a little excited to see each other again...

Georgia and I were a little excited to see each other again…

Strange warm-up entertainment in the gay bar before the main event...

Strange warm-up entertainment in the gay bar before the main event…

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

***

When it came to the actual weekend of my birthday, I had a few more intercity and international surprises. Mischa was making a second trip down from Baltimore to join the birthday celebrations, and I even received a little surprise from Ireland. Well, in the end I knew to expect something, since Matthew had asked for my address in New York several times over the past two weeks, obviously anxious as to whether whatever he had ordered would arrive. In the end a package arrived that was addressed to both Melissa and myself, so I know that had to be it. True to his national pride, he’d had a bottle of Coole Swan delivered to me.
“It’s like Baileys, but better,” he’d told when I finally wrote to him saying I’d received it. “Gotta have a little bit of something Irish on your birthday, no?” I could almost hear his accent in my head as I read the words, and imagined that cheeky, playful grin of his.

A bottle of Coole Swan, courtesy of my favourite Irish gentleman.

A bottle of Coole Swan, courtesy of my favourite Irish gentleman.

The actual day of my 22nd birthday fell on a Sunday, so we decided that we’d go out on the Saturday night for the big celebration. Melissa had offered to have all our friends from far and wide over at her apartment, so that evening Georgia, Eva, Jesse, Mischa, Stefon, Nirali and Melanie, another friend of Melissa’s, all came over to join in the festivities. Melissa and Nirali cooked an amazing dinner, and we all caught up over food and drinks. I was surrounded by so many beautiful people, friends both old and new, and it really was a fantastic evening.

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

The meal was delicious, and in true Australian fashion the drinks were flowing freely. Unfortunately Stefon wasn’t over 21, so he wasn’t able to join us when we eventually headed out, and a few other people didn’t end up making it to the clubs. We had vague plans, but I’d be lying if I said there was an overall aim to the night. I was in bar called Therapy with Melissa and Nirali, dropping my phone all over the floor and dancing like a hot mess for over half an hour before they managed to tell me that the rest of our friends still weren’t here yet. Jesse, Georgia and Eva had someone gotten lost, and we ended up meeting them in another place just across the road called Industry. From that point on, my memory of where I was, who I was with and what I was drinking became a pretty intense blur. All I know is that I was definitely having fun.

The one vivid memory I have is stumbling out of somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen with Jesse, jumping into a cab and screaming at the driver to drive. I don’t know where we told him to go, and I don’t even remember where he ended up taking us. But as we sped down a road through the West Village, we hung our heads out of the taxi windows and howled to the moon like wolves, shouting at the top of our lungs. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the taxi driver had stopped and told us to get out, and I know it’s a hideous cliché, but in that moment I felt absolutely, 100% alive. Young, dumb, drunk and free of cares, at least I was never going to look back on my life and regret that I had wasted my youth.

The morning after - birthday brunch.

The morning after – birthday brunch.

I woke up at noon, curled up on the couch with Jesse at Georgia’s apartment. We’d gotten home just after dawn, apparently. Everyone was feeling a little tender as we attempted to sing happy birthday over a very hungover afternoon brunch, but I didn’t mind – the night had been worth it. For a night that I will probably never 100% clearly recollect, it was certainly a special and memorable birthday that I will never, ever forget.

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Roller Coaster: a trip to New Jersey and back

As well as getting to know my new American friends, being in New York also gave me the chance to catch up with some other dearly beloved old friends. Mischa was another American whom I had befriended during his exchange semester at university in Sydney. His speciality was mathematics, but the flexibility of his units whilst on exchange meant that he was able to take some subjects that weren’t usually offered in his discipline, and so we met in the tutorial for one of my Gender Studies units. He was also gay, and we hit it off right away and ended up hanging out quite a lot, and he became part of my regular circle of friends in Sydney. He was originally from Baltimore, but was now living in Connecticut, so as soon as he had a free weekend he jumped on a train down to New York to meet up with me. He is the sweetest little guy, and I was so happy I got to catch up with him – he met Melissa in Sydney too, so he stayed with us in the studio apartment that weekend, despite it still being full of the previous owners’ things.

Mischa and I went out for some drinks with some of his friends who live in New York (an evening which I’ll detail more in a later blog), the result of which we woke up at 7am on Saturday morning to drag ourselves to Port Authority Bus Terminal. Mischa’s friend Walter was going to the Six Flags in New Jersey for an event called ‘Out In The Park’: basically the theme park chain hosts an event where queers take over for the day and night. Walter was going with his friend Neil – who we met on Friday night – along with Neil’s friends Gabriel and Tim. Neil had convinced us to come along, so even though I was pretty hungover that morning, Mischa and I bid farewell to Melissa, still half asleep as we crept out the door, and headed across town to catch the bus that would be taking us to the neighbouring state. We greeted Walter and Neil, who looked equally as hungover, we were introduced to Tim and Gabriel – who turned out to be a couple – and there was a frantic rush to get our tickets, make our way through the terminal and get onto the bus or we would be waiting another hour for the next direct one. Slowly, we began to perk up, and after emerging from the first tunnels I was able to get a glimpse of Manhattan from the other side, from the second state I had been to since arriving in the USA on this trip.

Manhattan disappearing into the distance.

Manhattan disappearing into the distance.

It was a bus ride that shouldn’t have taken any more than two hours on a good day. Unfortunately for us, today was not a good day. There was traffic – my God, there was traffic. The bus came to a standstill at one point for almost 45 minutes. I’m not sure what was happening, because there didn’t appear to be any accidents or roadworks or anything… the cars just seemed to be going nowhere fast. “Oh my God! What is taking so long?” Neil said, peering down the aisle to catch a glimpse of the road out of the buses windscreen. “I have to pee so badly!” We’d consumed a lot of Gatorade and Red Bull to combat the early morning hangovers. We passed the time by chatting, getting to know my new friends, and taking the odd selfie here and there.

Walter, Mischa and I on the bus to Six Flags (filter courtesy of Walters Instagram)

Walter, Mischa and I on the bus to Six Flags (filter courtesy of Walters Instagram)

***

When we eventually arrived at Six Flags it was well after midday. One of the first things we did when we arrived, after buying our tickets and getting given our ‘Out In The Park’ event wristbands, was locate the nearest refreshment venue and order some food and some beers. I’m not really a fan of American beers, I discovered, but I drank them anyway because there really wasn’t much other option that day. We didn’t overdo it though, because we had a day of roller coasters and rides ahead of us. Now, for those of you who don’t know, I’m a screamer. Whether it’s scary movies, theme park rides, or just loud noises when I’m sitting in traffic, I am easily startled and I vocalise it loudly. Even for a theme park, where basically everyone screams to some extent, I think I earned myself a handful of strange looks from fellow riders. There were Batman, Superman, Green Lantern, and a bunch of other comic book superhero themed rides, there were rickety old wooden ones (at least, they seemed rickety – I really hope they were actually stable), there were sleek futuristic ones and there were the slower, more sensible rides for when your head, or your stomach, needed a break. I went on everything – as much as I scream, I love the rides themselves, and am never put off by any amount of twists or turns or loops. The slower ones, however, were good because they gave you a chance to use your phone mid-ride. One ride that was designed like a parachute descent allowed a brief moment of standstill in which I was able to take a few ariel shots of the surrounding park.

View of one of the huge, wooden roller coasters.

View of one of the huge, wooden roller coasters.

Six Flags: New Jersey at sunset.

Six Flags: New Jersey at sunset.

As the day grew later, we started to see more and more people with the same wristbands as us, meaning they were also here for Out In The Park. The event ran past the usual closing time of the park and well into the evening, which meant that for a couple of the rides we decided to forego the wait in the long lines and return later, when all of the regular visitors of the park were required to go home. The plan worked, and we managed to ride pretty much every major roller coaster, but if we hadn’t had the extended event passes I doubt we would have been able to see it all in time. When day well and truly became night, the park became a party in a huge outdoor area, almost like a mini-festival. There were crowds of people dancing to the music that was being pumped from the temporarily set up stages, and while the whole thing looked like it would have been a lot of fun, we were all just so exhausted from the day we’d just spent walking around in the hot sun and riding all the roller coasters. Neil was attempting to keep the spirit up, and most of us were still drinking our beers, but… in the end we decided it to call it a day. We still had a long way to go to get back to New York, and Tim even had to work the next day.

We exited out into the car park, and here is where the night started to get interesting… or frustrating, is probably a better adjective. As we were leaving, we had asked one of the women who worked at Six Flags where exactly to go to catch our bus, and what time it was coming. Seemed simple enough, so we exited and made our way to the stop. The parking space was comparatively empty to what it had been during the day, and there were a lot of buses at the far end. We inspected them, but they all appeared to be waiting for tour groups or something, or were otherwise pre-booked. So we waited where our bus was supposed to pick us up… and we waited… and we waited. Night had completely sunk in now, and while the September afternoon had been bright and sunny and warm, there was a chill in the evening that was inescapable, and I hadn’t even had the foresight to bring a jacket of any kind. As I was shivering there in my t-shirt and hugging Mischa for warmth, a guy approached our group and told us that there were no more buses coming to this stop.
“Over there is where the buses leave from this time of night,” he pointed past a fence to where there appeared to be some kind of security compound and back entrance. “You’ll be waiting until the morning, at least, if you stay here waiting for a bus. Trust me, I do this all the time.”
“We’re trying to get back to New York, though,” Gabriel told him. “This is where we were told to wait.
The man thought for a moment before continuing. “I don’t know about New York, but either way, there ain’t gonna be any buses coming through here. Over there you can get a bus to Freehold, probably back to New York from there.” We all looked at each other, not really sure of what to do. In the end we went with the stranger over to the security entrance, hoping that we might be able to speak to someone else who knew exactly what was going on.

I sat down in the gutter with Mischa, while some of the others went to talk to a security guard. The optimistic stranger who had started speaking to us before went down and sat on the bus stop seat. Then it started to lightly rain. I shivered some more.
“Oh my God, Robert, you’re freezing,” Gabriel said as he pulled off his hoodie and threw it over my shoulders. In a brief moment of pride I wanted to reject the offer, but I really was that cold, so I just pulled the hood close around my neck and thanked him.
“It’s okay, you were making me colder just by looking at your shiver. I’ll just steal Tim’s if I get cold,” he said with a laugh.
At that moment, Tim came over to us, accompanied by two girls who apparently worked at the park, who must also be trying to get home. “The security guard said there’s no more buses coming,” he said grimly.
“Well that’s just great,” Gabriel said. “Where are we supposed to get a cab out here? We aren’t even close to anything.”
Six Flags was located a fair distance from even the closest small town in New Jersey – too much of a distance to walk, and it wasn’t an area favoured by taxis. I had no knowledge of the area and know real way of finding anything out, so I felt pretty helpless. All I could do was just stick around and hope the others could negotiate some kind of solution. Gabriel went out to speak to some of the workers nearby, but came back shaking his head.

“I asked if there were was any kind of car service around here. He looked at me strangely and said “What, like a mechanic?” God, it’s like they don’t even speak English in New Jersey!” Despite the bleak situation, I had to laugh. In pretty much every TV show or film set in New York City, they talk about New Jersey like its the end of the Earth, or going there is like crossing over into Mordor or something. I used to laugh when the main character of Coyote Ugly “moves away” from New Jersey to New York: what is that, like, 40 minutes away? But sitting there holding my knees in the chilly air wondering how the hell we were going to get back to New York, I felt like maybe some of those shows weren’t exaggerating as much as I would have guessed.

***

We tried telling the optimistic stranger that there were no more buses coming, but he remained, characteristically, optimistic about the next buses imminent arrival. In the end one of the security guards somehow managed to get a hold of a contact who had cars that were willing to pick us up and drive us back to Freehold. There were six people in our party, plus the two workers and the optimist, who we basically had to drag into the car because we didn’t want him sitting there all night, but I think we all somehow managed to fit into the two cars. One of them might have been an SUV, I don’t remember. I don’t even know if they were legitimate cabs, but we weren’t exactly in a position to be fussy. I was freezing cold and exhausted – I wouldn’t make the mistake of underestimating a North American autumn again. The cars arrived at Freehold just in time for us to see the bus heading to New York to pull into the parking lot. We ran to the bus like our lives depended on it. It was pretty much empty, and it was taking the long route since it was the only service running at this time of the early morning, but the last stop was Port Authority Bus Terminal. We all found our own spaces among the seats, curled up, and slept as best we could, which was hardly at all.

It was almost a shock when we stepped out of the bus terminal and there were still people walking around everywhere at four in the morning, and lights were flashing all the way along Times Square. Of course, this is New York City on a Saturday night, so I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s just that the contrast between there and the parking lot in New Jersey could not have been any more different. At this point in my stay, Melissa hadn’t even managed to have a spare set of keys cut, and since we wasn’t replying to my messages I assumed she wouldn’t be awake to let Mischa and I in when we got home. We had to catch a taxi with Tim and Gabriel to the upper west side of Manhattan, where they generously agreed to let us crash for the remainder of the early morning.

All in all it had been a fun day. I had met some nice, funny and interesting people, and the debacle that had been the end of the night had been an entertaining story to tell Melissa when we had rocked up back in midtown the following afternoon. I just swore to myself that any future journeys into New Jersey were going to require a lot more planning.