Sunday 30th September, Mar Cantábrico near A Coruna.
NE force 4, 1020 mbar.
The boat cuts through the quiet sea, as it has continuously for the last four nights. By 3am we’ve reached the Spanish coast at Cape Ortega, heading west on the last leg. To port lies the dark mass of Galician hills, black against a bright, moonlit sky, with lights picked along roads and great lighthouses semaphoring their unique messages out to those watching for them. Trawlermen rumble past along the coast, nets out in the waters. Ahead of us I can see the glow on the clouds from the lights of Ferrol – Franco’s birthplace – miles away, still hidden behind the headland. As our phone signal has reappeared on reaching inshore waters, I text Carmen, my friend from A Coruna who is celebrating her birthday back in London.
“I can see your house from here”, I say.
Light thickens as the clarity of night is discoloured by dawn, still hidden behind the mountains. We round the last cape at Covas, where the echoes of great gun emplacements lie quiet alongside the lighthouses. We pass within a few hundred yards of the rocks, close enough that I can see the white spray surging up the cliff.
The proximity alarm goes off as we pass the waypoint, our computerised chart plotting our route as we turn south towards A Coruna’s old town on the headland, and the harbour further into the bay. I wake up Michael, now that the journey involves decisions. And rocks.
Welcoming us is The Tower of Hercules, a Roman lighthouse built by the Romans around 1900 years ago to protect their Mediterranean fleets as they passed up the coast towards Brittany and the vital tin ports of southwest England. It is the oldest continually-operating lighthouse in the world. Renovated sympathetically in 1791, it still even retains – mocked up in the masonry cladding around the original tower – the impression of the sloped external ramp on which barrels of lamp oil were wheeled to the top. As we arrive at around 7am, the moon, my companion these last few nights, slips quietly towards the Atlantic for the last time.
Sailing up the marina there are plenty of ribs rushing around, all carrying youngsters, it seems. Perhaps there is some kind of sea school, or competition taking place. The Guardia Civil eye us a they pass by on a launch, and a couple of middle-age fishermen. Towering over the marina is the strange modernist Port Authority building, two stark white pillars that trap two glass-jewelled office platforms surveying the harbour from above. It looks very odd, but I warm to it.
Mooring up to the wooden jetties that criss-cross the marina, Michael and the others disembark for the harbourmaster’s office. Technically I have arrived in Spain, but can’t get off until the others have wandered around a bit and no one will notice a surprise fourth crewman. After a while they return, freshly clean and glowing from the showers. I take a key to the gates and wander past racing yachts, fifty-footers like Salamander, power boats, and a couple of pretty impressive motor cruisers – though not quite in the megayacht range.
In a blissfully scalding shower, I close my eyes and my vision swims and sways as my legs struggle to adjust to surroundings that for once are not moving underneath me.
Night becomes day while I slip in and out of a truly uncomfortable sleep despite Greyhound’s claims of extra legroom and comfort, for which they congratulate themselves heartily whenever possible. Outside is a bland cityscape – a hinterland-scape – of turnpikes, roadside diners and McDonalds, nondescript housing and brown inbetween-land somewhere in New Jersey. But my heart skips a beat when I turn to see, stretched across a window of bright skyline carved out against the barely lit foreground, the crests of Manhattan’s spike-topped tower blocks and domes.
A sharp turn flings the bus into the Lincoln Tunnel, an entrance that shares the great square brownstones and muscular turn-of-the-century style as the city’s tenements, while inside its honeycomb white-tiled surface feels barely high enough to hold a modern supersized bus. The yellow sodium lights flicker flicker hypnotizing orange as we advance through the tunnel, and I awake with a start only minutes later at the base of a giant tower block at the Port Authority Bus station in the heart of Manhattan island and the middle of the madness of the city.
“Welcome to New York City”, says our driver Jarrold, a south Asian Montrealaise. “Sorry for the delays. Because of those officers at the border, we’ve been together almost 11 hours,” he chirps irrepressibly. “If they do that again, we will fire the lot of them.”
“Goodbye, have fun, enjoy Detroit”, says one of the group from Montreal who has come down for New Year’s Eve, as I have. She laughs at her own words, thinking on my travel plans to the motor city. “You know when you just can’t believe what came out of your mouth?”
One bag, two bags, three bags, coat. I struggle out of the surreal underground car park that is the bus terminal, built over several floors with road exits emerging at several different heights above ground level. I have no idea how that plugs into the rest of the city. New York City planners have clearly been hitting the meth pretty hard. I see a sign that says 8th Street and head towards it, only to be faced with turnstiles. An automatic gate opens from the other side and I walk through it. “Excuse me sir,” comes a firm voice, and I turn to see a sturdy female member of NYPD’s finest beckoning me. “You have to pay to come in here.” “Where’s here?” I ask, wide-eyed. Her eyes smile even if she doesn’t as she redirects me out of the subway and up to street level, another first timer inhaled into the city and sneezed out onto the streets.
The first thing I see at street level is the New York Post building, a modern skyscraper wrapped in fine steel gauze thrusting up with journalistic integrity from among lesser buildings. Modern towers and stone and brick buildings from two centuries ago jostle for space along the streets, where the height of adjacent buildings careens wildly up and down depending on, apparently, nothing.
I am heading to 6th and 31st Street. I am at 8th and 46th. I stride off. Wearing one bag and carrying two others I am a wide vehicle from whose bow-wave pedestrians have to move. In combat jacket and bags as far removed from Louis Vuitton as can be imagined, I feel like a human White Van – battered and in the way, but would you argue with it when moving aside is easier? I eye up street stands selling pastries and coffee, but the weight on my back demands to be dealt with first.
Cars are everywhere, but go nowhere. Having a horn is a sufficient reason to use it. At 8 degrees it is a full 15 or even 20 degrees warmer than the snowy Montreal I left behind almost 12 hours ago. Snatched conversation slips past my hood, American, Spanish, city speak. “An’ did your driver give you directions? Nawh, he did nawht”, someone behind me says rhetorically, loudly. A middle-aged businessman in a suit strides past in earmuffs. Three streets later I see a young, pale, wiry latino with gaunt cheeks and sunken eyes rocking a very different look but wearing the same utilitarian black ear muffs. For two so completely different styles, either one of them must be doing it wrong or earmuffs have a broader appeal in this city than I’d imagined.
40th, 38th. The streets tick down. But which way is 6th from 8th? I stop and ask. “6th Street? Well this is 36th Street. Do you mean 6th Avenue?” My first lesson: Streets run east/west, Avenues run north/south. Off I lurch, a greenhorn again, with a pocket full of Canadian funny money and too many bags.
I cross streets at traffic lights, walking in front of hordes of yellow cabs that are corralled behind the zebra stripes like a Red Sea held temporarily in check. I fight the urge to turn to complete strangers and say: “Hi there! I’m Mick Dundee, noice to meetchya.”
Where 6th Street should be instead I find Broadway, which feels strange to see that actual signage of such a remote and yet familiar name. But it doesn’t look like Theatreland at this end. I turn into a crowd of people and find myself next to a bold brass plaque and imposing doors bearing the name Macey’s, the department store. Shoppers are looking at fantastical mechanical window displays, steam-punk creations of ice blue and white and glitter, with pale, huge-eyed marionettes playing instruments, riding rockets, dancing on strange clockwork devices. On the other side of the street, Giselle’s already preternaturally long and slender legs are elongated to biblical proportions across the length of a 50ft advertising hoarding around the Victoria’s Secret store. All bee-stung lips and smokey eyes, propped on her shoulders her legs stretch up like a ladder to Babylon; or perhaps Babel, effortlessly compressing the distance between different spoken languages into an unspoken one.
I can see the apartment building now, as a siren screams the passing of a NY fire department tender. Only a few minutes wrestling with the door locks stands between me and whatever I feel like doing after 11 hours on a bus. But the view pretty much just brings me to a halt.
Nothing says New York like the Empire State Building, and it stands close enough from this apartment’s floor-to-ceiling windows for me to see the texture of the marble fascia and the art-deco fan motifs on the window casements, close enough to see the flash guns going off from the black specks looking down from the observation deck, far above me. Just beyond that is the instantly recognisable sunburst arches of the Chrysler building peeking above its nieghbours, and to my right a tower capped with a golden spire as if it were a cathedral, but the effect makes it look like something from Ghostbusters and I suddenly think of angry Sumerian gods and marshmallows. Beyond that, resembling two giant oil well pump heads on some super-sized oil field, are the supports for one end of the Brooklyn Bridge. And in the distance, an impossibly long way away visible only because I am 35 floors up already, is more and more and more New York disappearing into smoke and haze.
Everyone in New York was once in New York for the first time. And now me.