We had expected to be amazed by New York and we were. Most of the time it exceeded our expectations and often it completely overturned them.
Apart from two stopovers in Los Angeles back into the last century, I’d never been to the States. Even from those brief, long distant encounters, I carry memories of gruelling queues, heavy security, close, lengthy passport scrutiny, questions, bag searches and peremptory, if not rude personnel. We flew in from Athens to John F. Kennedy Airport expecting more of the same – much more of the same. That first expectation was soon overturned.
Posters, lining the corridors from the plane to the Immigration Hall, told us that we could expect courtesy and respect from airport personnel and where to go if denied it. Good start! The queues dealt swiftly with 300 or so passengers who disembarked from our Olympic Airlines flight. Only one firm, efficient, but courteous, young African American in a suit directed it. I looked for signs of guns but couldn’t find them. Even though we had filled in the wrong immigration form and had to return to the desk for another, we were soon back at the booth again where we were fingerprinted efficiently, our passports were scrutinized and stamped quickly and we were welcomed to New York warmly. Our bags were already circling the carousel when we arrived in baggage claim. We passed unchallenged through a door marked “Nothing to Declare”
We were carrying with us a set of preconceptions gleaned from the media, veteran friends of the NY experience and our own conjecture, that New York was impersonal, people suspicious and paranoid and that the city’s systems and infrastructure were inefficient. These were soon dispelled too.
Out on U.S. soil in arrivals we were greeted by the cheerful Marie, one of a team, in scout-inspired uniforms, dedicated to helping confused foreigners as they emerge wide-eyed from the other side. A taxi to Times Square, she advised, should cost $45. Should we tip? “Sure, if they’re nice to you” said Marie “But if they’re mean to you ain’t gonna tip now are you?” Er, well we thought we had to “No Sir uh uh, ain’t nobody gonna tip nobody mean” OK well then how much should we tip somebody who’s nice? “Well now that’s up to your own generousity”
Also somewhere in the back of my mind lurked the vague idea, that since 9/11, Middle Eastern people in the US lived in closely watched a demi-monde, with no part in its systems apart from tossing together the odd kebab. I thought too, naively that the typical New York Taxi driver was an old, crusty, gravel-voiced Robert De Niro, Joe Pesche or Archie Bunker type with a fund of NY folk stories. These ideas too went the way of my expectations and misconceptions.
Our taxi driver was called Aziz. His brothers seemed to be driving the taxi in front, the one behind and the one next door. He looked about 18 and was totally silent. Arab music played in the background. “Love this music” I said half to myself. Aziz turned the music up.
Gridlock was a word I had firmly linked to the phrase New York traffic. It was 5pm when we sailed out of JFK and onto the expressway. Peak hour! But truly, the traffic was no worse than, if as bad, as the Tulla freeway, I decided as we zoomed along with the haunting drums, bells, strings and pipes of Arabia in background and New York’s amazing cityscape unfolding on both sides.
We tipped Aziz generously.
More about New York in Travelstripe’s next post