Across the Atlantic: Arriving in Manhattan

Having a seat on that afternoon flight to New York was a feeling of sweet relief that went unrivalled for a quite some time – the emotional toll on everyone involved during my last morning in Dublin plus all the unexpected problems with the flights and visas had made for a very stressful series of events. Even if it was amongst a group of rowdy and restless Italian teenage boys who were acting like they’d never been on a plane before (they definitely weren’t locals of Ireland so I highly doubt that was the case), a seat was a seat. In a way the long overseas flight between continents was kind of cathartic – travelling by train in Europe had always left things open to possibility and potential, and plans could change at the drop of the hat, but the long haul flight across the Atlantic meant that there was no going back. As difficult as it may have been, I had felt the feelings that I needed to feel, but then I packed them up and moved along. It was almost like leaving home again – there were definitely things I would miss, but the excitement of what to come was just too overpowering.

Since I had gone through the pre-customs clearance at Dublin airport, I didn’t have to deal with any of that when I got to New York. We landed at Terminal 5 of JFK, a domestic terminal, and after collecting my bag from the baggage carousel I walked out of the terminal and… that was it. It was so easy. Too easy, I would have thought, but seeing how quickly I was out of there, I guess the whole pre-customs clearance thing in another country makes a whole lot of sense. I navigated my way to the subway system, purchased the swipe ticket that would be my access to said system for the next six weeks, and started the long train ride from the airport to Manhattan. Thank God for express trains, that’s all I can say (even then it took over an hour).

***

And so I found myself in the main chamber of Grand Central Station, staring up at the ceiling and all around me at the great, cavernous hall. It was almost like having déjà vu – I knew I’d never been to New York City before, but I had seen this very scene countless times in movies and television shows, and the familiarity was somehow there. Just being there made me feeling I was in a movie myself – hearing American accents alone was enough of a novelty. But thankfully I wasn’t sleeping in Grand Central Station – I was waiting on a message from a friend, and as soon as I got it I navigated my way out of the station to the street.

Enter Melissa – co-star in this part of my journey and subsequently in many blogs that will follow. Melissa and I had met in Sydney when she had been there on an exchange semester. She was in the same philosophy class in which I had met Stefan (the three of us had been study buddies before our final exam), and from the moment she had struck up a conversation asking me about some of my tattoos – and showing off some of her own – I instantly knew that we would be good friends. We didn’t get to hang out too much off campus or outside of classes, but we had kept in touch when she went home, and when I had told Melissa about my plans to travel the world she had insisted that I come and visit her should I ever find myself heading to New York. Of course, New York being… well, New York, I had hardly needed a reason to include it on my travel itinerary, but the fact that I did have a reason made it all the more exciting. I scanned the opposite side of the street 42nd Street until I saw her jumping up and down and waving, and as soon as the traffic lights changed I rushed over to greet her.

“Robert! How are you? Oh my God, it’s been so long I’ve seen you!” Melissa is without a doubt one of the happiest and most loving people that I know. It had been over a year since we’d seen each other, or even really spoken in depth about our lives, yet meeting her there that night felt as natural as meeting an old friend I had known for years.
“I’m good! I’m great! Exhausted, but still great,” I said with a smile as I leant down to hug her – Melissa was a short woman. “I’m so sorry I’m late, the airport in Dublin was a bit of a disaster – I have so much to tell you!”
“Excellent, I can’t wait!” she replied with a smile. “You’re so lucky, though – I know I’ve been saying you could stay with me this whole time, but I’ve been in the process of moving at the moment… I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be in this apartment by now or not, but I moved in today – literally just got the keys.”
“Today?”
“Yeah, today! I was scared for a minute that we’d have to stay out with my mom in Jersey.” The impact of that statement was lost on me at this point in time, since I really had no idea how far away New Jersey was.

“But you’ve got it now, right?” I’m all about spur of the moment plans, but I’d had my fair share of them this morning in Dublin, and the time differences between here and there had made it a very long day. I just needed to lie down.
“Yep, it’s only a couple of blocks away. Follow me!”

***

Melissa’s new apartment was on East 39th Street, pretty much right in the middle of Manhattan. At this stage I still had no sense of where that was, or how big Manhattan was, or how big New York City as a whole was, but the geography of the city is actually both simple and fascinating – anyone who’s seen a road map of Sydney might understand – and something that I would come to master by the end of my stay. But for now, we were home.
Melissa introduced me to the doorman on duty as we passed into the lobby, stressing to him that I was just a friend who was staying with her for a little while. Brandon introduced himself, a muscular man with tattoo sleeves extending from his wrists up his arms and underneath the shirt he was wearing, and I almost squealed with excitement when he spoke with his Queens accent – it was just like the movies!
“The place is a studio, and I told them there’s only one person moving in,” she explained once the sliding doors had closed. “So it just looks a little odd that there’s another person coming in with all these bags.” She just giggled, confident that it wouldn’t be a problem. When we went through the apartment door, we walked through a small kitchenette and a bathroom before walking into the main room. It was a sizeable studio, and would have been very spacious… except that there was a lot of junk all over the place: stacked boxes, stacked tables, half assembled furniture.
“So, the reason I ended up getting the sub-lease for this place was because I agreed that the girls who were here before didn’t have to move their stuff out right away. They can’t get it out for a few days, so for now… well, it’s here for now.” There were a few things that were Melissa’s, but a lot of her stuff was back at her mom’s house in New Jersey, which she would bring over once the previous owners stuff was gone.
“I don’t mind,” I said as I plopped my bags down to soak it all in. “It’s kinda cozy.” I turned around to smile at her and found she was back in the small kitchen.
“Aww, yeah! It will be cozy! I’m so excited you’re here! Are you hungry?” There was leftovers of a thick, New York style pizza Melissa’s mother had bought earlier in the day, so  we heated it up and I tucked into a piece of that. There was also red wine, so Melissa got out some glasses.

“To your new place,” I toasted, raising my glass once Melissa had poured. “And to living in New York City, baby!”
“I’ll drink to that!” she said with a grin, and she raised her glass to clink with mine. We pulled down one of the mattress that had been standing against one of the walls, and we sat on the floor with our wine and pizza and caught up and gossiped like school girls.
I also decided it was best to have a shower after the long flight, which led to the minor problem of us not being able to turn off the bath taps when we were done. Unsure what to do, Melissa ended up calling Brandon to see if he could help us. The bad news: the hardware in one of the taps had come loose, and we would have to wait until the next day for the building manager to come and repair it properly. The good news: Brandon was able to force the tap closed and stop the water flow, but it took him several minutes to achieve, and Melissa and I enjoyed the fabulous view of his butt in his tailored work pants while he was doing so. I considered it our housewarming gift.

It’s hard to believe that all this was the same day that I had had my airport emergency back in Dublin. My situation had changed so much that it was bare recognisable – I almost had to pinch myself. But such is the life of a traveller, and I didn’t dwell on it too much – eventually jet lag lulled me to sleep, and in the morning I had a brand new city to explore.

East London is a Vampire

I’d seen the museums of London, and I’d taken day trips to old historic towns, but there was only so much I could see of a city before, like a moth to the flame, I was drawn out of my comfy apartment to venture into the gay nightlife. For me, the most notable thing about the scene in London was that there really wasn’t just one scene. Back in Sydney the gay bars are mostly concentrated around Oxford St, with a smattering of more alternative venues in Newtown and the Inner West. Going out, both at home and in many of the other cities I’d been to, was simply a matter of asking “Where is the gay district?” and heading there. I would soon learn that London, given the vastness of the city, had several gay districts, and the question became one of ‘which’ rather than ‘where’. I’d spoken to a few people and picked up some maps around Soho in order to navigate my way through the sprawling districts – other than the central hub of Soho, there were clusters of gay bars in Vauxhall, Clapham, Camden and Shoreditch. Vauxhall was the next biggest scene after Soho, and the rest were smaller pockets of gay venues around London, which I can only assume came into existence and developed due to the sheer size of London, and that people didn’t want to travel all the way into Soho every time they went out for a drink. While I was quite keen to eventually check out the nightlife in Soho, I’d been told that some of the nightlife around Shoreditch, a district in the Borough of Hackney, was a younger crowd and more alternative, and something that I would probably enjoy. It was conveniently close to where I was staying in Hackney, and so one Thursday evening I set out to a nightclub called East Bloc.

***

It was my first night out by myself in London, and if was definitely a matter of trial and error. I had talked to a few people about the nightclub culture around London, and it wasn’t too different from what I was used to back home. Normally we have a lot of drinks beforehand, either at someones house or at a bar where the drinks are moderately priced. So I honestly can’t tell you what possessed me to catch a bus to Old Street Station and rock up to the nightclub by myself at about 11 o’clock. The bouncers kept a straight face as they checked my ID and waved me on through (it was free entry at East Bloc that night), but they surely would have been laughing on the inside. I made my way down the entrance steps into the club to find… nothing. Well, not nothing, but definitely no one. Apart from a couple of staff behind the bar, the place was literally empty. I did a quick loop of the place to see if there was something I was missing, but nope, it was just a tiny venue of which I was the first patron of the evening. There were £2.50 house spirit and £2 shots all night, and for a moment I contemplated just staying there and having a drink and waiting, or getting wasted on cheap shots until everyone else finally arrived. But I had no idea how long it would be before the club became full, and I had come out by myself with the goal of meeting some new people and socialising, so in the end I took my leave from the club to find the other gay-friendly East London watering holes.

It was then that I discovered something else rather different about London nightlife. Venues very distinctly fall into the categories of ‘bars’ and ‘clubs’, and almost without exception, the bars close at midnight. Clubs stay open a lot longer, and are the places where everyone usually heads to after they’ve been kicked out of the bars at closing time. This explained why East Bloc had resembled a ghost town when I had arrived just after 11 o’clock, only half an hour after the venue had actually opened. What’s worse is that I had known all this previously, and yet had still made a beeline for the club. So now I found myself heading back up Old Street towards Hackney Road, where there were two gay pubs that I had seen on my map: George and Dragon, and The Joiners Arms. Unfortunately, by the time I reached either of the pubs, it was closer to midnight than it was to eleven, and there was a steady stream of people who were being escorted out of the pubs and moved along down the street. No one was going inside the bars, and it was with grim resignation that I realised I had completely messed up the planning of my Shoreditch trip – I had arrived just too early for the nightclub, but far too late to do any drinking in the bars. As I result, I stood there, stone cold sober on a damp, chilly London street, with no real idea of what to do next.

That was when I remembered yet another cultural difference in London, but this time it was one that worked in my favour. In Australia, all our alcohol is sold from dedicated liquor stores, or bottle shops as we call them. In London you can easily pick up a few cans of beer from a corner store or a supermarket, so that was exactly what I did. Alcohol sales cease at midnight, so I ran to the closest convenience store and bought myself two pints of Heineken in cans. It wasn’t exactly classy, but hell, I was a backpacker. I had worn my tired, dirty outfits in the nightclubs of Paris, so I definitely wasn’t above sitting in a gutter in East London and downing a litre of beer before heading back to the nightclub I had originally been at and praying that a few more people had arrived since I had last been there.

And thankfully, there was. It wasn’t exactly packed, but there was definitely a sizeable crowd milling around the bar section, although the dance floor remained rather sparse. I people watched for a little bit, scanning the room. A pair of British guys began chatting to me,  and started asking a bunch of questions when they realised I was a foreigner, but they were quite drunk already – they had been at George and Dragon earlier – and their wavering attention led them elsewhere. I also got a free drink from one of the bartenders. After I ordered my drink, he went off to go and make it, but when he returned and I tried to pay, he just shook his head and waved away my change. I was slightly confused – I hadn’t even been flirting or talking to him, and I thought that there had potentially been a mix up between the staff. But I just couldn’t find anyone to take my money, so in the end I just accepted the stroke of fortune, tossed a few coins in the tip jar and continued on my way. I chatted here and there, talking to some people, avoiding others, and after enough £2 shots I finally hit the dance floor. The event, called Boy Trouble, described the music as “non-stop double-drop pop, Italo, house and anything else that tickles your pickle”, which was an ultimately unhelpful description but it turned out to be a pretty fun soundtrack for the evening. There were some new songs, some classics, some that I didn’t recognise and some to which I had secret choreography planned in the back of my head. Throughout the night I had been making eyes with a guy, and we ended up bumping hips and lips on the dance floor. We encountered some difficulties when we tried to speak to each other, partially because of the loud music, but partially because of our accents. It turns out his name was Yitav, and he was not English as I would have assumed, but on holidays in London visiting from Israel. I can only assume my Australian accent was just as shocking for him when he first heard it. He was there was a friend though, and I started to feel bad, like we might be making a bit of a third wheel out of him, so I got him to come and dance with us, and we played wingman until he finally ended up hooking up with a man of his own. We stayed for a little bit longer, but eventually Yitav and I slipped out of the club and into a minicab.

***

I spent the night at the apartment that Yitav and his friend Guy were renting through AirBnB, a trendy little two bedroom near Chancery Lane. In the morning we awoke to discover that Guy had brought his own lover home, a guy named Tristan who was originally from New York but now lived in Berlin, though he was spending some time abroad (from being abroad?) in London. After awkward introductions between trips to the bathroom, the four of us headed out into a gloomy London day to have a late breakfast. Guy and Yitav told me more about where they lived in Tel Aviv and about life in Israel, and we asked Tristan about living in Berlin.
“Do you go to that club… that… Berg… Berg-” Guy began to ask.
“Berghain? No, I’m not a tourist!” Tristan said it in an almost playful way, though his tone made me believe he wasn’t really joking. I bit my tongue and just laughed along. I had loved my time in Berghain. Whatever, I played the tourist card. You can’t avoid it forever.

It was a really fun morning though. Guy and Yitav were travelling through London and Amsterdam, a tour that they had planned so as to see a couple of gigs of their favourite DJs. They were in holiday mode too, so we were all pretty chilled out, and Tristan had this sassy, camp energy about him that was almost infectious, and you couldn’t help but laugh and smile when you were in his company. I headed back home after our late breakfast, but I ended up catching up with Yitav, Guy and Tristan again during some of my final days in London, having a few cocktails on a Sunday night which turned into drinking all night in their apartment. Yitav told me I was welcome to come visit him in Tel Aviv if I ever made it to Israel in my travels, and while my route for this world trip would ultimately be taking me in the wrong direction, I’m not one to cross off a travel destination before I’ve been there, so I guess Israel is a new addition to the wish list. I would never have expected that to happen after a night out in Shoreditch, but there you go. The vast array of people that I met and befriended on my travels only continued to amaze me, and I look forward to the day in the future where I will eventually get to meet them all again.