the nothing whatever...

Its a Helluva Town

After a 14hr flight in which you must force yourself to stay awake in order to avoid grueling incapacitating jet lag, the last thing you want to find out is that you have been selected “randomly” for a little chat with the upstanding individuals at TSA, America’s border security. I am not sure if it is a deliberate thing, but the way it seems to work is that there are two sets of “randomization”, the first is that you are “randomly” flagged at the immigration area upon entry into the country, the second is that, once your file and passport has been given to TSA, it is then thrown in a pile of others, all of varying colors and all with no semblance of linear structure, just a disordered muck that the officers will wander over to and pluck from at random. Whether or not this is done deliberately, I don’t know, but for the lucky, this can mean that you will be waiting for no more than five or so minutes, your file snatched off the very top of the LIFO stack (an IT term, stands for Last In First Out), allowing you to jump the queue of the fifty or so other individuals of mainly Arabian or Indian descent. But, if you seem to have an unlucky streak when it comes to these things (like I do), then you will be THE DEAD LAST PERSON TO BE CALLED UPON.

The immigration officer assured us it could take about fifteen minutes for me to be processed but no more than half-an-hour, two lengths of time that he must have just arbitrarily decided were suitable based on the probability of selection. But no. Two hours later and I was watching the TSA officer hover his hand over the two remaining files, that of a young Arab boy who could not speak English and was terrified because he had no phone reception (I know this because he asked if he could borrow my phone, which I did not have), and mine. I was actually glad his was selected first, as earlier on in the piece one of the TSA officers had plucked his file out and called his name. But, when the officer discovered he didn’t speak English, he shook his head and threw it back into the heap, motioning that the boy sit back down. And even though he didn’t speak English, I am sure the boy understood the meaning behind the gesture.

Finally, there was one red folder left in the pile that could only be mine. But the officer didn’t select it right away. I began to wonder if this was some sort of personal vendetta when I saw him extract his phone from his pocket and start to text away, ignoring my look of unmitigated outrage. I just didn’t understand how someone could be that rude, just so completely and utterly disrespectful without reason, and I began to think that I must have done something to instigate such behavior, like filling out my immigration form with obscenities or maybe saying something to the immigration officer that could in some obscure way be deemed as racist. After he was finished with whatever it was that couldn’t wait, he finally called my name out. The conversation went something like this:

“Ben Youlten?”

“Yes.”

“You have been flagged by our system because you have been traveling around a lot lately.”

“Yes.”

“Can you explain why?”

“To experience the world.”

“Hmmm…” scrunches face, looking back at his computer ”…why would you want to go to Vietnam?”

“Vietnam was actually one of my favorite places.”

“Hmmm…I see. You have been traveling for a long time, how did you save up enough money to do this?”

“We worked for five years and sold everything we had.”

“Hmmm, OK. I…ahhh…so you are just a young man traveling the world huh?”

“I sure am.”

“Well, let’s get this done then.”

And that was it, two and a half hours of my life I will never get back, two and a half hours of being witness to little abuses of power by people who don’t have the restraint nor the intellect to examine their own behavior, two and a half hours that I would have much rather spent embroiled in the grips of the fabulous New York City.

Shena and TJ (the couple who we met at Halong Bay who had so kindly offered to accommodate us for the duration of our stay) were expecting our arrival a few hours earlier, but with no way to contact them they had assumed the worst. It was a relief for all involved when we finally walked through the doors of their Brooklyn apartment, unloaded the backpacks off our backs, and cracked our first beer in over a week. Muchly needed. After settling in, we went around to meet some friends of theirs at a nearby apartment, the roof of which has a clear line of sight across the Brooklyn rooftops and towards NYC. The Manhattan skyline is something that has to be seen to be believed. There was a lingering fog that shrouded the top half of most of the buildings, making them seem like they could possibly go up for miles into the stratosphere and adding a haunting “Gotham City” vibe to the metropolis.

The following day, we went to work on our list of NYC institutions, like “eat a New York sized slice of pizza (one that folds over your hand)” and “eat a hot dog from a street vendor” and “take a stroll around Times Square and 42nd street and Broadway and Central Park” and “take a photo of the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State and Rockefeller Plaza”, but the very first item we ended up checking off on our list of NYC institutions was “get lost on the subway”. Despite the very clear and easy to interpret instructions Shena wrote out for us, we went in the wrong direction on the G-train and ended up at the end of the line. Luckily for us, the station at which we boarded was only two stops from the end of the line, so our mistake wasn’t very costly and we just had to sit it out while the train we were on went back in the correct direction.

NYC is a city made up of fragments of deja vu. Even if you are unsure why you know a place, you get the strong feeling that you have been there before, and, more than likely, you have; shopping for shoes with Carrie Bradshaw, walking with George to buy some soup from the Soup Nazi, waiting for Jack Donaghy in front of the Rockefeller. Just walking the streets is a novelty in itself, pointing out restaurants, street names, franchises, all the things that have been inadvertently ingrained in worldwide popular culture simply due to the city being such a prominent setting in mainstream media. After taking the Staten Island ferry past the Statue of Liberty (something sold to us by several people, all using the line “it is free, and you can drink beer on it too”), we re-boarded the subway in the direction of 7th and 42nd street, Times Square. The heart of the concrete jungle.

It is easy to see why it is arguably the capitalist hub of America, if not the world, with every single major chain fighting desperately to seize and hold your attention, creating a vibrancy about the place that both attracts and intimidates. McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Burger King, Intel, giant conglomerates usually relying on name alone to sell their brand display their bright beaming insecurity with flashing lights, oversize screens and enthusiastic voices, all politely but forcibly asking you to look in their direction.

We both began to walk in a trance-like state, holding everybody up behind us, unsure of where we wanted to go but so mesmerized by where we were that we didn’t bother to discuss it. “Arrgh…I hate tourists. They walk so slowly!” said a girl to her friend as she pushed past us. I missed my opportunity to shout back “aaaay, I’m warrrkin eeeere”, but I still laughed, remembering Nicole saying something very similar to me about two tourists drifting in front of our path only a few months ago, when we were meeting up for lunch in the city of Sydney. How great it was to be back in an English-speaking country!

We found a hot-dog vendor and I bought myself a chilli-dog for a few bucks (tick!), then became involved in an argument with a guy selling Comedy Show tickets. I had stupidly told him that I wanted to go see a show, but I was unsure of where the best place was to see one or what time I wanted to see it or if Nic wanted to see it as well etc etc, basically, I just didn’t want to buy anything right there and then and I needed a bit more time to mull it over. But, as soon as he caught wind of my intent to buy, he wouldn’t let up.

“Come on man, you’re going to go anyway. What is there to think about?”

“Just…let me…I’ll be back, OK?”

“Don’t do that to me man, anybody who says that never comes back.”

As the “maybe later” kids will testify, it wasn’t just a mechanism to get him to leave me alone, I was genuinely entertaining the idea of purchasing the tickets.

“Yeah, well, I’m different. I’ll be back.”

At this point, he became very unhappy with me, and cut off his nose to spite his face.

“You know what man, you’re just, just…I have been doing this for a long time, man. Do me a favor and don’t bother, OK?”

The green man flashed as a signal to cross, and we quickly crossed the road to avoid what we felt was a tirade coming on, deciding that the comedy scene wasn’t really for us anyway.

In the following days, we shared a jumbo meal at a fast food restaurant (tick!) and ate a slice of pizza that was big enough to fold back over your own hand (tick!). We went out seeking the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or “The Met”, and ended up at the Museum of Modern Art, or “The Moma” (half tick!). We went for a walk through Central Park (tick!) where we saw the “Friends” fountain and where the final scene of “Gossip Girl” was filmed (tick, I guess). We saw the Empire State Building (tick!), the Rockefeller (tick!), and the inside of numerous bars of differing themes (not on the list, but still get a tick!).

Although the weather wasn’t too flash, we decided to go for a trip out to Coney Island, taking the hour long trip on the subway to the location of “The Cyclone” (a roller-coaster that has been running since 1927 and has been declared a historical landmark). Again, it was a case of vivid deja-vu, with one of my favorite movies “Requiem for a Dream” having several scenes filmed in that location (the dream scenes, just to add another layer to my feeling of false reminiscence). Although there was a thick fog blanketing the park and the beach, that didn’t stop the people from enjoying their Sunday afternoon by the water. The place was packed.

We went on a few rides before deciding to make our way over to “The Cyclone”, which is a little distance away from the rest of the park. As you get closer though, you start to hear how old the roller-coaster actually is. The high pitched squeals of those riding The Cyclone were drowned out by the scream of the grinding steel and the rattle of the vibrating wood (yes, it is made of wood), and the first thing I thought of was Indiana and Short Round riding the mine carts in the Temple of Doom, the track serving as only a guide for where you actually will go. The seats of the ride offer no sort of reassurance, leather lounge seats that are too big for one person but not quite big enough for two, seemingly attached to the frame by only a few bolts. Nic and I were squeezed into one seat so tightly that I began to think that the wedging of bodies is an added safety measure, before there was a loud clank and we shuddered off around a corner and up to the top of the first dip.

The ride is called “The Cyclone” because it follows a circular path that starts off wide and high, before progressively getting tighter and quicker as the loop descends. The first few dips were great, even if the bar supposedly holding us in place was a bit too high, meaning that we were airborne for a fraction of a second before slamming back into our seats at the base of the curve. But, as the ride began to speed up, the shuddering became more violent, and it became harder and harder to determine whether we were having a good time or just genuinely fearing for our lives. The piercing scrape of the metal track was ringing in our ears whenever we went through the covered sections, and I swear I felt the seat slightly rotating off its frame whenever we went over a particularly bone jarring section. You might think that I am overreacting, so let me just say that it comes as no surprise to learn that in 2007, a 53 year old man fractured his spine on The Cyclone and later died in the operating theater. It was a pretty hectic ride, and the photo below doesn’t do justice to the turbulence we went through (we do, however, look like we are going faster than everybody else).

Although fairly horrifying, it was one of those rides that (once you have taken the time to regain your composure after being forced to stare your own mortality right in the face) you want to ride again and again until you are desensitized to its chaos. I dunno, there is just something about being initially unable to fully appreciate the experience your life flashing before your eyes that makes you want to go through it again and look at it objectively, sit back and go “OK, so this is what nearly dying feels like”. But maybe that’s just me.

And that about wraps up New York City, a place that we will no doubt see again some day, if only to check off the items on the list we didn’t have the opportunity to do; see a Broadway show, get a beer hat at a Yankees game, visit the WTC Memorial site, as well as a bajillion others.

Oh, and a special shout out goes to Shena and TJ for putting up with us in their lounge room for the better part of a week, amazing human beings to whom we are forever indebted. You guys are truly awesome!!