An Illuminatus in New York
Spoofing Blackdragon’s “A Dragon In…” series, this report finds Illuminatus and Bliss in The Big Banana, ‘Marica, attending a conference last week.
NEW YORK, United States. After being frogmarched at gunpoint by military policemen from the plane to the terminal of JFK, the first thing I notice about this sprawling 1970s airport is that the queues are ridiculous. On the left, a green neon sign beams “5 minutes” as 12 customs officials serve the seven US citizens returning home. On the right, a red neon sign says “60 minutes” where 1000 international travellers gather to have their passports and visas inspected by three officers. 40 minutes later we turn around to see the signs now saying “10” and “75”, respectively. Five minutes later, the signs say “30” and “35”. We assume at this point that the signs are actually randomly generated to give the illusion of order in the midst of this clusterfuck.
At the front of the queue, armed guards glare at us and occasionally yell at everybody to “stand straighter in line”. The manpower expended on bullying this line of assumed international terrorists is dizzying, and provides a hint of the paranoia and wastefulness that awaits us on this trip. After being asked a dozen probing questions and having my fingerprints and photograph taken, I am finally allowed through customs. I am here under the United States’ ESTA programme, through which I have to pay $14 for the privilege of this interrogation plus agreeing to waive all my personal liberties while going through customs (that is literally a clause in the ESTA programme). I also had to tick a box on that form promising not to commit genocide while I am here — because, as we all know, 90% of terrorists give themselves away through improper form-filling.
Getting from JFK to the subway system requires boarding the AirTrain, which costs a staggering $7.95 for one stop. In England, such transport is free in most airports. I leave the AirTrain and head into the New York subway station. An enormous pool of water covers the ground at the entrance to the station, inside the building, and I ruin my shoes wading through it. We then board the hottest, most overcrowded subway train imaginable — even worse than in Paris. It smells like a refugee boat. Looking out the window we see sparks falling from the ceilings of the ancient tunnels, and maintenance works that look like they were started in the 1980s and never finished. Inside the train are bizarre posters instructing people not to poledance on the railings, and another saying something along the lines of, “If you’ve been felt up on this subway train, tell a cop.” The driver announces the next stop in unintelligible Spanish as the train accelerates forward with the finesse of a stroke victim. We weather the discomfort well because we are both still elated — after all, we are in New York, which American television has been telling us for the last 30 years of our lives is the greatest city in the world.
On exiting the subway near Times Square, trying to find our bearings to the apartment, we are accosted by a dishevelled black man.
“Hey… HEY! You dudes look lost.”
“Yes, we’re looking for 420 West 42nd Street.”
“Cool, I can take you there. I’m Arthur by the way.”
As we walk, I am almost impressed by the number of different varieties of weed I can smell all along the street. After walking us about 50 yards from where we started, Arthur stops and sticks out his hand. “Okay dudes, here you are. Time for a tip. Just call it $8.50. C’mon. C’MON!” Arthur waved his hand impatiently.
“Sorry, we don’t have any notes. I’ve only got coins.”
“Okay, that’ll do.”
I emptied about a dollar’s worth of change into his gloved hand and he swaggered off.
We entered the apartment building. According to our host, AirBnB is outlawed in the US due to its negative impact on the hotel industry. Obviously Mr. Hilton has had a word to his pals in Congress. We have to pretend to be friends of the host, just visiting for a few days. After being scrutinized by three doormen, we are logged into the system and finally allowed up. The apartment is tiny and, due to the roulette factor of AirBnB, we are also stuck sharing it with the host’s housemate that week. That means we are taking turns on the couch. I hate AirBnB. However, when the alternative is spending thousands of dollars on a hotel room in central Manhattan, we literally have no choice.
The windows do not open in New York apartments. The result is that the sun bakes the room all day long leaving it a heaving airless dungeon of heat. Throughout the night the air is punctuated by the sound of fans whirring constantly — pointed directly at our faces, the only way any of us can get anything resembling sleep. This country is geared for waste.
Before going to bed, we decide to have a wander around the area and get some food. According to Blackdragon, New York pizza is the best in the world. We find a place nearby and I order a couple of pieces at four dollars a slice. It was pretty good. Wanting to round off the night with a beer, we just start walking, looking for somewhere that feels like “us”. However, every venue is an overcrowded sports bar. We keep walking and turn a corner into what suddenly appears to be daylight. Nope, it is just the gaudy, incandescent glow of Times Square. All those posters, all those movies made about this location, and all it boils down to is a million LEDs flashing sequentially, advertising the very trash that’s going to kill you. New York is the human problem turned up to 11.
We just pick a sports bar since that’s our only option, and head in. Personal space is non-existent and I have to sit on someone’s coat. Literally twenty televisions, all turned up full blast, blare out a baseball game. It is impossible to hold a conversation. Even though I don’t care about baseball, the mesmeric glow of the TV sets, lined edge to edge around the whole perimeter of the bar, plus the ear-splitting volume, render any kind of personal interaction impossible.
We are brought our beers and this is when I am first introduced to the “tax plus tip” rule that, in New York, turns an $8 beer into a $12 one. The beer is surprisingly decent. America was, until very, very recently, generally regarded as the laughing stock of the world when it came to beer, with such piss-tasting brands as Budweiser and Coors Light dominating international perceptions. We started getting US craft beers in British bars a few years ago and I was immediately impressed, and continue to drink them now. Later on in the trip we would also take a visit to McSorley’s in the East Village, the oldest Irish bar in New York, and found their homebrew also to be good and very cheap by New York prices at $5.50 for two small glasses, adding up to about an English pint.
The next day, Thursday, we are due at the conference at which Bliss is both launching his first book and giving a lecture on the Sunday. We decide to grab some breakfast from a diner on the way. I order the fried chicken waffle, because it looks quirky, and YOLT (You Only Live Twice). Out it came, and it was enormous: four pieces of breaded fried chicken atop a huge waffle, all covered in syrup and butter — enough to feed four people. It was also awful. It was just the cheapest frozen food, flash-fried and thrown on a plate. I usually like cheap shit, too (ask me about my barbecues), but this was inedible. Tax plus tip, henceforth “T+T”, meant I paid $20 for the one-third of the filth I ate.
Arriving at the Javits Center, the conference organization is in complete shambles. The Center is needlessly large, taking up an entire block to itself, and there are no signposts on the building. We walk around the whole perimeter before finally finding the front door. Inside, we are harassed by dozens of people all looking for registration. “Do you know where it is? Do you? Do you?“
The exhibitors are setting up and we are not allowed in unless we have a red badge. Bliss explains that he is an author being launched at the event and a guest lecturer and they are expecting him. “No red pass, no entry!” the security woman scowls.
We next spoke to the Properties Manager and he said he didn’t know how to get us a red pass. He then looked around and whispered, “But if you want to sneak up, your best bet is the freight elevator!” and winked while pointing towards the huge loading bay at the end of the corridor.
We got to the freight elevator and Bliss began panicking, saying, “I’m not sure I want to get stuck in a freight elevator.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure?” I asked, and pressed the call button. The enormous freight elevator arrived and we climbed inside. I pressed the button for floor 3 and an ear-shattering alarm sounded. “I didn’t sign up for no alarms!” I shouted, while running off.
We next spoke to the Registrations Manager and, after being shuffled through no less than four additional different people, finally found ourselves at the Show Manager’s office. “Oh, I’ll fix that up for you,” she said, and just took out two red passes from a great big box. We slotted our paperwork into them and approached the same security woman from earlier, who saw the red passes and nodded us through. Luckily this red pass would get me full access to the entire event for its duration because, despite having “Guest” written on it, it was RED, which actually means “Exhibitor”. I would have had to have paid to see Bliss’s lecture if I had not had that pass, which would have been irritating since I had just proofread his speech back at the apartment.
After meeting the publishing team and getting a photo of Bliss with his book, we had the rest of the day free and decided to go and visit the Statue of Liberty. I’m not particularly bothered about landmarks, but it seemed like the right thing to do. At the very least it gave me something to say when people back home asked me, “What did you do in New York?”
On the way to the subway station, we hear a voice shout, “Hey bros!” Somehow I know it’s directed at us. I turn around and see Arthur waving at us from the midst of a huge black gang, all with joints in their mouths. We wave back and head down quickly into the subway. He follows us down the escalator. “You pimps still lost?” he asks.
“No, we’re okay now, thanks,” we say, before breaking into a half-jog.
On exiting the subway at the South Ferry, we are immediately set upon by twelve aggressive black men shouting, “You goin’ to the Statue? YOU GOIN’ TO THE STATUE?!” I try to avoid eye contact but Bliss has succumbed to their “Ticket Official” name tags slung around their neck, and suddenly prices are being talked.
“Okay, firstly you can’t go inside the Statue because Homeland has it locked down.” Apparently you have to apply three days in advance and give the US Government all your biodata in order to visit their most famous landmark, so we had to settle for sailing around it on a boat. “It’s $30 for the ticket, but that doesn’t include tax. It’s $33 with tax. Now, you are not legally bound to give me a tip, but I don’t work on commission and it would really help me out.” Suddenly the ticket is $36. Bliss only has a $50 so can’t make up the difference in change. “No worries — I’ll give you back your ten, now give me the fifty, here’s the rest of the change, and now we’re set.” A flurry of hands shuffling bills of cash that all look practically identical sets off an alarm somewhere in my stomach. I knew what was happening, but could find neither the words nor the conviction to verbalize it in the moment.
Bliss obviously felt something was wrong, too, as he counted his cash a minute later as we were walking to the pier. “He stole eight dollars off me.” We then looked at the tickets and saw the actual price written on them: $28.
On the walk to the pier we are accosted by another two black men trying to upsell our tickets. One of them is literally shouting, “You will spend more money! You will spend more money!” I guess NLP hasn’t quite caught on in the ticket-vending world yet.
We arrive at the pier and the boat boards at 5pm, not 4pm as the ticket vendor had told us. In England, that entire team of vendors would simply be replaced with a single sign pointing towards the pier with departure times written on it. To kill the time, I decide to get a hotdog from a stand run by an Iranian guy who speaks no English. There are no prices written on the stand, and when he hears foreign accents my hotdog and Coke suddenly cost $13. The meal was supposed to be “Italian sausage”, depicted on the sign with mouthwatering peppers, onions and salad hanging from its sides. He handed me back a sandwich with a slab of Iranian horsemeat in it, no salad, no sausage, no anything. “At least make it look like the photo!” I cried. He smeared some gelatinous onion goo on it and handed it back to me, then muttered something in Arabic.
Even while standing in the queue for the boat we are harassed by another black guy asking if we’ve bought our tickets yet. While in the fucking queue for the fucking boat holding our fucking tickets. Suddenly, two heavily armoured Parks Enforcement officers arrive and take him to one side. “Sir, we have reports that you requested and received a tip from somebody over there.” The officers book and fine him. It turns out that taking tips is illegal in that job. Two officers are paid to fine a dozen people who needn’t even exist. This is the America I saw: a country geared for waste, with innumerable petty laws and regulations and a massive class divide.
When boarding the boat we are forcibly shuffled through a tent where some Chinese people have set up a camera pointing at a small, crude model of the Statue of Liberty and a heavily JPEG’d skyline photograph. The literal Statue of Liberty would be visible behind us if we tore that tent down. We are not allowed to walk around the tent, but must walk through it, and snap “No!” at them when they wave the camera in our face with one hand while sticking out the other for money. Aboard the boat I begin to feel more at home out on the water, knowing that distance is already being put between myself and Manhattan. Suddenly, a CD narrative begins to play at volume level ∞ with a tour guide’s voiceover supposedly guiding us through the journey. The CD is horribly out of sync with the journey and we hear it describing the Statue of Liberty as we are already sailing back to port. Ironically, the CD also contains ocean sounds of birds and waves. If they turned it off for just one second we would have been able to hear actual ocean sounds. I begin drinking heavily at this point as I remember I have four more days of this crap. It turns out it is a lot easier to be enlightened in your home town, which makes me wonder how many Buddhist monks are actually enlightened and how many are just really used to living in the same mountain temple their whole lives.
We head towards East Village, where we are to meet Pat from here on PPM at McSorley’s. (Great guy, by the way, and a pleasure to meet you. 🙂 ) He asks how we are finding New York so far and we tell him about the relentless attempts to screw us over in the one day we’ve been here. “I don’t know much about that,” he said. “I don’t really come into the city because it’s too expensive.” After a few tasty homebrews, we walk around trying to find where the action is. We have been told that East Village is the equivalent of Camden (ha!). In London, if you want something to do, you just walk towards some lights and there will be something going on. In New York, if you walk towards some lights, you will get there and find… some lights.
I pop into a corner shop to buy some cigarettes and cash my $5 scratch card. After charging me $13.50 for a box of Camels, the Indian and Chinese guy serving “forget” to give me my change and five-dollar prize. After asking a couple of times they finally hand it over, and snigger amongst themselves. Continuing to search East Village for some fun, we find that most bars are deserted — not surprising, since beer costs $10 a glass and most people are working minimum wage. I also notice a distinct lack of attractive women anywhere. Even in my home town, which may as well be called Nowheresville, UK, there is better stuff walking around than here. We enter an Italian bar and order three Brooklyn Lagers. The bartender reaches down and gets three small bottles out of a fridge, then hands us a bill for $21. I pay since it’s my round, he takes the money then taps his finger on the “suggested gratuity: $5” note on the receipt. “You need to pay this.” He has literally not even moved his feet while serving us. I give him $40 and tell him to make it $26. He then walks off without giving me any change. I call him back and ask for $14 change and, after first claiming he has given me my change, he finally goes into the till and gives me back $14 — in one-dollar bills. Yes buddy, because we’re really going to stay here and tip YOU some more.
“Have I got a fucking target drawn on my head?” I ask Pat.
“I’m starting to see what you mean now,” he replies. We decide to call it a night since there is literally nothing else to do.
Wading back through downtown Manhattan, poverty is all around us. There are homeless people literally everywhere. The working classes are all slaving at minimum-wage service jobs in a wage structure that does not afford them to live without receiving tips. Consequently, service is an ever-present intrusion in daily life in New York. There are three service staff where there need only be one. In a restaurant, one waitress will greet you, another waiter will show you to your table and bring you water, then yet another will take your order. If you drop your fork a team of them will scrabble around it in the hopes it will not go unnoticed when it comes to T+T time. Service staff are beleaguered and browbeaten. They smile at you through pained faces, sniffing the money in your wallet. They are whores. The money itself looks like it was printed in a Mexican warehouse, and is covered in a bizarre-smelling wax. All change is given in one-dollar bills, even large amounts like twenty at a time, all in the hope that it will be recycled into more tips. There is valet parking to move your car three yards forward. The apartment building has three doormen and two maintenance men who, judging by the amount of time they also spend holding open the door for you, don’t actually have that much maintenance to do. Three or five or ten people for every one job. Paranoia is rampant as the doormen check that I am logged into the system practically every time I enter the building — I’m starting to think they’re actually doing it just to stave off the boredom and distract themselves from the meaningless blight of their own existence. At least we know now why the apartment windows don’t open in New York.
The class divide also manifests as a race divide. In a café or restaurant, chances are your waiters will be Hispanic. In bars, entertainment venues and fast-food joints, staff will be black. People harassing you in the street or subway for tickets and money will also be black. It is very easy to be racist in America. Let me explain. The human pattern-match system is extremely limited, and is geared for survival:
screwed over → brown face
screwed over → brown face
screwed over → brown face
screwed over → brown face
RULE: avoid brown faces
In such circumstances the act of maintaining an open mind becomes an unsustainable overhead. If your holiday is suddenly markedly improved when you begin avoiding contact with all ethnic minorities wherever possible, suddenly that pattern-match system is starting to seem like a useful tool. That is completely harsh, but we are talking about gritty human existence in a city where race and socioeconomics weave together in a tapestry of despair, rather than leftist utopics.
Simultaneously, white dudes wearing business suits will wade into the middle of the road without looking, cell phones glued to their ears, shouting “Taxi!”, oblivious to anything beyond their immediate line of sight, including traffic. I am sure ethnic minorities dislike whites just as much as whites are wary of them — so defined is the master-slave relationship drawn along racial lines. I now understand the American media’s complete obsession with race, the extent of which seems bizarre when viewed from abroad. Personally, I see the various subcultures in America as being so distinct that these problems seem intractable.
However, I am also willing to entertain the idea that perhaps I am just a xenophobic elitist who can’t hack it in a big city. Either way, on my next holiday I’m going to the mountains.
On Sunday, after Bliss’s lecture, Pat came and picked us up in his car and took us to a small town outside the city called Westchester. As we entered the highway, Bliss turned and said, “As soon as we hit this road, I felt the sense that we were driving to a better America.” Westchester is heavily Irish, sparsely populated and incredibly laid-back. We went to a lovely Northern Irish restaurant where the service actually deserved the tip. I popped across the road to buy some cigarettes and experienced some of the local colour. I spoke to the Iranian shopkeeper who actually talked me down to $9 for a pack of 20 when I thought they were $10.
“Wow, that’s a lot cheaper. I paid $13.50 for the same cigarettes in Manhattan,” I said.
“Yeah, Manhattan sucks. We paid over $17,000 a month for the lease on our store there, and it was the size of a shoebox. We moved here and it’s $7,800 a month, and we get all this,” he replied, spreading his arms. We talked for a little bit and, for the first time during this holiday, everything just seemed all right in the world. See, when you give me some personal space and don’t try to steal my things, I’m actually a nice person. At this point I am also finally starting to face a fact my right brain has been trying to tell me for years: I do not like cities.
We hit a few more Irish bars, played some table football and went home happy. I only wish we had done that every night instead of wasting the trip in Manhattan. This, to me, was Real America.
On the way home, relaxed and in high spirits again, Bliss and I slipped into our old banter born of years of friendship. Pat found this highly amusing and remarked that we should record it. Well, was he in for a treat. Back at the apartment I played him some clips from our juvenile, lurid podcast, Rehearsal Room, which had enjoyed a small cult following on Myspace about ten years ago. These unscripted shows were recorded between takes at our acoustic band rehearsal nights, while drinking heavily. Here is the Viagra episode:
The views and behaviours expressed in Rehearsal Room recordings are for comedic value only and are not necessarily the views of anyone, especially Bliss.
In the recording, I am the one in the left speaker describing the bizarre sexual fantasy. For our transatlantic chums, here is a translation table:
“newsagent” = “drugstore”
“chav” = “welfare scum”
“fags” = “cigarettes”
“skip” = “dumpster”
I also showed Pat some of my t-shirt designs from that era, his favourite being the one I made during the height of the Josef Fritzl craze. I think it was pretty apt, considering our location. 🙂
In final thoughts, I think my biggest disappointment with New York is not how it actually is, or how I found it. Ultimately, the kinds of problems I have described would feature to a degree in most large cities in the bankrupt West. My real disappointment is that, since I was a child, I have grown up with American television and film telling me how America is the greatest country in the world. It truly has been a non-stop propaganda machine. The reality however is that America is a second-world country. The vibe in most of New York was virtually indistinguishable from the one I experienced in the Dominican Republic during my stay there ten years ago. In that country I was similarly marauded by outstretched hands upon their recognition of a white face, and witnessed poverty, corruption and failing infrastructure. The only real difference in New York is that there are really tall buildings instead of white sandy beaches. However great it may once have been, New York is now just a dilapidated monument to the folly of man.