Notes from New York, 1988

My first and only trip before this one to America was for two weeks in New York in 1988.

The World Trade Center, of course, was still standing. How the world has changed. Crime was also far worse. There were about 2,500 murders every year in NY. Now it’s about 550.

On the eve of arriving in New York for the second time, I thought I’d look at my photos from my first trip. I scanned them a while ago.

Coincidentally, whilst cleaning, I also found a notebook that I had when I was in New York then. What follows are some of those notes (and my comments, in italics, on the notes). They’re mostly uninteresting: you’ve been warned! I include them here so that I can throw away the notebook and still have some record of my time there.

I’ve left the notes as untouched as possible unless they were especially unclear. Therefore, some sentences are not complete or politically correct.

Friday 25 Nov 1988

The flight was smooth. Dinner was chicken. I had three seats. There were no problems with the courier. I found the YMCA in Manhattan easily. They charged $34/night. I arrived at the YMCA at 2245 and went to bed at 0130. Therefore, I’d been up almost 24 hours. I didn’t feel any jet lag though (yet).

US TV: there are 30-40 channels! In the UK, we still had only four channels.

Here are some of the TV channels and what was showing:

  • NBC: adverts every 8-10 minutes during the David Letterman show.
  • Channel 8: religion. Host keeps telling the viewing audience “your faith is weak” but it will “charrrrge myyy harrrt with DYNAMICS”. He’s been going on for ONE hour. “Just in case you’re sceptical these are gen-u-wine testimonies of people who have been INSTANTLY convinced”.
  • Channel 9: blacks vs. whites debate between black and white people with a neutral panel and frenetic audience. The “unbiased” host called one white woman a “Nazi hooker” and described racists as “slime, scum”. The swear words were bleeped out.
  • Channel 10: Powerful Women of Wrestling. Today it’s Luna vs Heidi.
  • Channel 23: pornography! Repeating adverts: when do the programmes start?! Hard sell. Escort agencies. Numbers like 123-HOTT. Explicit swearing!

At the time, flights were expensive. Mass discounted travel had not arrived. However, at the time, The Independent published an article about getting discounted flights if you acted as a courier for certain companies. They went by an obscure term so you had to know what you were looking for. You also had to go on whatever flight they chose. I think I found the courier company for BA. They sent me a flight list: dates and times of places they’d want to send packages to. There were many exotic places. I chose New York.

When it was time to fly, I had to wait for someone to give me a package at the airport. As far as I remember, no red rose or briefcase was involved. It all sounds suspicious – what if you ended up carrying drugs!

In the end, someone came to the meeting place and gave me a small package. In NY, on arrival, I handed it someone else. That saved me several hundred pounds.

I was surprised I was still eating chicken in 1988. I remember giving up red meat in my teens and telling my mum. I also remember travelling several years earlier to Amsterdam (and other places) and looking for vegetarian restaurants in far out places. In NY itself the notes don’t mention eating meat apart from on the flight. I must have been what is now called a flexitarian. Three years later, in 1991, I became vegan.

Saturday 26 Nov 1988

Breakfast at 0930: two fried eggs, two slices of toast, one pint skimmed milk, banana. Good.

In the morning, I went into a shopping centre. It was spectacular inside: fountain, black/gold decor plus two screens showing the location and direction of lifts! This was impressive for the time!

The temperature is about 65F. Pretty hot. It doesn’t help when everyone has central heating turned on.

I walked around town: first, downtown to Washington Sq; then to John’s Pizza, which is the “best pizza in NYC” as voted by a magazine and recommended in guides. The regular pizza was the size of a large UK pizza. A large pizza was massive! All pizzas had thin crusts. There weren’t many ingredients. Most pizzas were permutations of 6-7 ingredients; they weren’t too bad. (Not as good as Pizza Express in London Town!). Very friendly staff, who keep saying, “You got it” – even when it’s self-evident. They convincingly feign earnest small talk!

After eating, I went to The NY Experience in the Rockefeller Center. Interesting. Seven screens joined together; another nine elsewhere in the theatre; 45 projectors; quadraphonic sound!

As I was going to the Empire State Building, a group of young men came around the corner and one of them punched my nose. It didn’t hurt but I lost my glasses. It was very frightening and occurred at 7pm on 6th Avenue.

I continued to the Empire State Building, which was spectacular. The lift went from the first floor to the 80th in about one minute (lift speed = 600-1200ft/min). There are two observatories: 86th floor (inside and outside) and 102nd floor (inside only).

I took a taxi home.

TV: Sherlock Holmes is on Channel 13 (yes, the ITV one: Jeremy Brett). It seems to be the only decent channel (public TV), showing mostly ITV and BBC imports.

What an eventful day!

Sunday 27 Nov 1988

I had the same breakfast as yesterday.

I was very cautious today. I took a taxi to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s very big. Each room is perfectly styled for the paintings it contains. The whole place has a good feel. There are picturesque French and English period rooms and big collections of Egyptian, Roman, Asian, and Greek Art.

I then went to the Solomon R Guggenheim (SRG) Museum. It has a unique spiral structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

This is the section from my notebook where I draw the Guggenheim Museum:

The trick to navigating the Guggenheim Museum is to take a lift to the top then walk down the staircase that spirals down on the outer rim of the building.

SRG contains non-objective art. Most paintings are owned by SRG. He bought them after advice from Hilla Rebay. She said that “the non-objective picture stands by itself as an entirely free creation, conceived out of the intuitive enjoyment of space. It is the vital essence of rhythmic balance in form, design, and colour”. Therefore, the art of dichotomy (of abstract & figurative) became a trichotomy. She compared it with music, that is, neither was concerned with the reproduction of nature or the interpretation of intellectual theories; melodies and rhythms evoke similar responses to colour arrangement.

Practitioners include Kandinsky, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Klee. They all taught at the Bauhaus (1920s) in Germany. The Bauhaus more than any other school embraced principles of modernist abstraction in a variety of disciplines.

I was obviously smarter and/or more pretentious then because I don’t understand any of that!

I took a taxi to the Frick Collection. A guidebook, Paupers’ New York, said, “If your time in NY is limited to one event, this should be the one.” It’s the house of steel industrialist Henry Frick (1849-1919). It was built in 1913-1914 in the European 18th century style (English and French). It’s very plush and spectacular. There are works by Hals, Van Dyck, Titian, and Rembrandt.

Finally, I took a taxi back to the YMCA.

After the attack the previous day, I’m obviously still shocked/frightened now.

TV: adverts and programmes are almost entwined. There is no obvious indication that a programme has stopped and the ads have started, for example, no “End of Part 1”. Programmes are sponsored: the continuity announcer says, “This programme is brought to you courtesy of AT&T…”

Adverts: most car ones are for Saab, Nissan, BMW, Toyota, that is, non-American. On the streets, though, there are many large cars but more and more non-American ones are appearing (some Volvos, Jaguars, Porches, BMW, Mercedes, Nissan, VW, Toyota). Petrol costs about $1 per gallon. It’s cheaper in other states.

I went to bed for two hours then woke to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation. Good.

Monday 28 Nov 1988

In the morning, I used the Nautilus Fitness Center in the YMCA. The personal trainer there told me that on the previous day someone pulled a knife on him in Central Park. He said he fought the person: he was not going to hand over his wallet to anyone!

I met a West German photographer, Martin, whilst having brunch. He has a 70-year-old East German friend who has a photo exhibition at the Whitney Museum. It features anti-fascist photos taken in the 1920s. Martin is also going to photo (or has taken photos of) jazz drummer Art Blakey.

To replace my glasses, I went to the Pearle Vision Center to get contact lenses ($99). It was quick service. The contact lenses felt OK.

It was my first time wearing contact lenses but I had been meaning to try them. This was my chance. Occasionally, the contact lenses would irritate me. I later learnt that there is an inside and outside to each lens: I had a fifty percent chance of putting them on the right way.

The next place I visited was the New York Public Library. They have a sophisticated computer search facility to find books. The instructions are easy to follow, for example, FIND AUTHOR QUIRK AND SUBJECT GRAMMAR (can use AND, OR NOT).

You can’t take books out: you can only look at them in the library.

Back at the YMCA, I had a tasty salad. There were two bowl sizes. I took the smaller one and stacked it high – as per Pizza Hut. But alas the bowl was weighed! The food has much more nutritional information, such as the RDA of zinc, potassium, phosphorous, calcium, magnesium, etc. There are hardly any additives/preservatives. Alcohol is accompanied by a warning: “Pregnant mothers’ babies could be born with a defect…”

I met Pongardan, a French dentist from the Riviera.

Tuesday 29 November

I went out and walked around town; nowhere in particular. On returning to the YMCA, I read Village Voice (an “anti-establishment” weekly newspaper like London’s City Limits) and Oscar Wilde.

I felt tired so I watched a film (Fletch). The adverts last SIX minutes. They occur frequently and advertise other programmes.

The equivalent of Blind Date is The Dating Game. The prizes include a week in the West Indies. The part where couples come back is omitted. Instead, there’s another programme (Core Connection) devoted to the date itself.

The women on The Dating Game have jobs like Database Consultant, and Executive! There are no gasps as on Blind Date when a professional appears.

All prizes on game shows come courtesy of a company: everything is sponsored; everything is an advertisement.

Radio: WWPR has ten songs in a row with minor interruptions from the DJ or jingles, that is, no adverts. They say if they don’t play ten records (when they’ve said they’re going to), they’ll pay $10,000 to a caller. It never happens, of course.

In general, on other stations, there are too many ads.

I was obviously obsessed/outraged at the commercialisation of TV and radio; compared to now, it was probably benign.

Wednesday 30 Nov 1988

I have breakfast with Martin, the German photographer, and Duncan, an Australian. Duncan organises exhibitions for Aboriginal Art. He’s an interesting chap on a 21-day round-the-world trip.

He was talking about the plight of the Aborigines; apparently, they’re natural nomads, always wandering from town to town visiting relatives and friends. The government do provide houses but when they go to visit friends and return, they find their houses have been wrecked by Aboriginal vandals. The government gave them caravans but children destroyed them. Parents don’t impinge on the right of children to be “free”!

After breakfast, I went to an annexe of the Whitney American Art Museum. I met Gabi (German) and we walked around town. She’s a landscape architect student in Berlin.

We went to the Chrysler building (OK) and the IBM building (trees inside were spectacular) then Trump Tower (a shopping mall on bottom, flats on top). In the mall, there’s a 30ft waterfall – the whole place is very glitzy-plush.

After the mall, I went to the UN building (HQ). It was fairly standard. I returned to the YMCA.

In a bookshop, a child walked three metres to his father and said, “Dad, can you put this book back; it goes over there [about 100cm away!]”. Dad obeys.

I read an interesting article (in Village Voice) about the “new woman” as represented on TV ads. “The new woman has been politically neutered of feminism, regular and unpretentious. She’s not a shoulder-padded or sexy or silly girl (airhead). She’s a gal: practical, energetic, and upbeat. The principle of gal things, for example, mending hems with tape, or wiping kids (in a restaurant) with a napkin dipped in iced water, is improvisational wisdom.”

I eat in the YMCA with Martin and Pongardan (another tasty salad). We talk for two hours.

Telephones: operators give their names when they answer: “This is Mrs X” or “This is Winnie. Can I help you”! For directory enquiries outside the local area, the cost is 60 cents. For calls abroad, you have to pay for at least three minutes, which amounts to $5 during the day.

Excesses: five litre cars, which travel at only 55mph; central heating is always switched on but it gets too hot; so aircon is switched on too. The water is too warm for drinking; when ordered, water is always accompanied by a glass full of ice.

Thursday 1 Dec 1988

It turns out the French dentist, who I’ve been calling Pongardan, is actually Jean-Marc Pongardan! I’ve been calling him by his surname all this time. We, and a friend of his, go to the Jacob Jarrit Center, which is used for exhibitions, much like Olympia in London.

I leave them and go to Macy’s, which is huge – nine floors. The staff are friendly and unpretentious; the shop has an informal atmosphere.

I meet up with Jean-Marc again in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). It’s interesting and probably the best museum in NY.

On returning to the YMCA, we meet Martin and are joined by Leonard, a NY businessman now living in North Carolina, who spoke to us in the morning. His opening line that morning was, “This looks like a UN meeting. Can I join you?!”

Leonard, having lived in NY for many years, knows it well. He took us to Greenwich Village, which used to be populated by artists. Leonard now works (and quite possibly runs) a company that sells plastic cups and other “gimmicks”, such as Christmas tree disposable bags, front door covers (with Father Christmas, Easter bunnies), trays for holding cups, hamburger boxes, car personal organisers for your knick-knacks, and visors (to stop the light shining in your eyes when in a car).

During the taxi journey, Leonard was checking out all the driver’s accessories. If they weren’t made by his company, he would ask “Why?”, “How much were they?” and “Ours are cheaper!” And when Leonard spotted some elastic bands on the driver’s visor, he asked, “Why don’t you get a personal organiser?” The driver then promptly pulled out an organiser, which shut Leonard up!

In Greenwich Village, we walked around and popped into a rock’n’roll bar that was playing good live music.

On our way back, Leonard suggested going to the top of the UN hotel. He seems to know all the freebies and cheapies in NY! He knows NY inside out. In this case, we had a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline without paying for it.

He told us about how he frequently saw the second half of Broadway shows. When there was an intermission, smokers went outside the theatre. Leonard would hang out with them and, when they returned, he joined them, hanging back a bit so that they could all be seated and he could find an empty seat.

Friday 2 December 1988

Jean-Marc was actually Jean Marc! I was now calling him Jean. And Leonard preferred to be called Len. Jean and I went to the World Trade Center – a spectacular view; then to the NY Stock Exchange and the Lincoln Center (opera/ballet/theatre complex)

In the evening, Len takes Jean and me to a Japanese restaurant and then to a Broadway theatre to a see a black comedy called Checkmates. After that, we go to Columbia Avenue, which is somewhat reminiscent of Hampstead/Highgate in London.

Our final stop was a jazz bar full of students from Columbia University. Len told us the best way to get fast service in North Carolina is to act stupid. For example, he said, go into a chicken restaurant, and ask for pasta, then tomato sauce, then no tomato sauce. If you did that, he said they’d serve your chicken quickly just to get rid of you!

We got back to the YMCA at 1.45am!

Saturday 3 Dec 1988

Len gives Jean and me a guided tour of Chinatown, Little Italy, and South Street Seaport, a shopping mall on East River with a good variety of eateries. It’s a tiring day. Jean and I finish by going on a walk, popping into the UN building, which he’d not seen.

I was very fortunate to meet Len. He was incredibly knowledgeable: he described virtually every building, its owners, and history. He’s also very funny and often obnoxious to passers-by. Whilst we were looking in a yard, where a boat was being made, someone asked where the maker was. Len replied, “He’ll be back in two hours to give a demo!” They said, “OK” and presumably returned two hours later.

On another occasion, we were in a crowded lift, and Len said, “I want all your attention. I suppose you are all wondering why I called you here today…” People thought he was insane.

In the evening, Jean and I had a Mexican meal.

Sunday 4 Dec 1988

Jean and Len return home. I have six more days in NY. I’m going to miss them.

Alberto (from Argentina) and I went to Central Park. Then we split and I went to the AT&T InfoQuest Center, an interactive exhibition about comms and computers. There were some interesting exhibits.

The first had a camera that took a photo of your face and scrambled the result on a screen. You had to put the resulting scrambled squares back in the right order using the touch sensitive screen. It was advanced.

The second game required you to find the red, green, and blue values to match a target colour. When I was a programmer learning a new programming language, I used to write this exact game. Writing the same program in different language lets you focus on the language and not the problem, which you’ve solved many times. I didn’t know, until now, where I got the idea from!

The third game asked you to pick words (adjectives, nouns, verbs, etc), a voice (Big Joe, Sweet Voice, Professor) then told you a story using your chosen words and voice.

I went to Bloomingdales to shop but didn’t buy anything. I popped into a bookshop before returning to the YMCA.

The big event in NY right now is “lotto”, a national lottery, which, this week, has reached $45m. Today, twelve people may have won.

In Boston, I read, Christian Scientist parents didn’t call a doctor when their child was ill. Christian Scientists don’t use conventional medicine. Instead, they pray and seek spiritual help. In this instance, the child died and the parents are being prosecuted for manslaughter. Apparently, Boston allows people to follow their beliefs (but to what extent?). The father thinks the child died because his belief wasn’t strong enough. The father also admitted that he once went to a dentist for a wisdom tooth.

Robert Maxwell is throwing his weight around here too!

Monday 5 Dec 1988

I went shopping again. This time I bought my nephews New York Giants t-shirts. I also bought a book: They have a word for it by Howard Rheingold. It’s a book about words that exist in foreign languages but don’t have an English equivalent. A great read and I still have it!

Every place has “center” appended to it: education, dental, vision, visitor, foot, Rockefeller, Jarrit, and driving glove (in glove department). They could just say dentist, optician, etc.

Trial by TV: trials are partially shown on news programmes.

Gorby [Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union] is coming tomorrow. It’s pandemonium. The news covers the US and USSR but no other country. Parochial.

Tuesday 6 Dec 1988

Gorby fever hits Manhattan. I went to Chinatown and eventually ate in Little Italy with Alberto.

Wednesday 7 Dec 1988

John, a South African, and I go to the Statue of Liberty. He says that many people in SA want equality and that there have been advances, mainly because of the threat of sanctions. Since sanctions affect poor people – both black and white – and poor whites support the current government, the government are doing something. However, many South Africans believe SA will become totalitarian if the ANC run the country. He said in Zimbabwe, after independence, whites were persecuted.

Gorby fever continues. I waited outside the Stock Exchange to see him, with hundreds of others and many police. When Gorby finally arrived, no one hardly saw him! His windows were blacked out. We did see his 45-car motorcade!

The news is dominated by Gorby. The streets are blocked, the crowds are everywhere. The public love him (but not the US government because Gorby is taking the initiative). NBC news reported that when Reagan and Gorby met they talked trivia: “Reagan talked about horses and Gorby about earthquake relief [!]”

Health is a big issue. Focus has been on cholesterol at the moment and its relevance to children. Food packaging often has cholesterol content written on it.

There are many health shops and restaurants. These restaurants are like fast food shops – with plastic plates and cutlery. They are called “natural” restaurants; many serve meat and macrobiotic food.

Len told us that “NY is populated by nuts” since, many years ago, mentally ill people were institutionalised and the authorities were later prosecuted. The result is that authorities fear prosecution and dare not hospitalise those who are mentally ill any more.

Here my notes end. I stayed for a couple more days before returning to London. There was no package to take back on the flight.

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