The blog article below is one of the more light-hearted chapters written early this year from my as yet unpublished book – with the current climate and “terrorism” the talk of the town I thought it might be semi-relevant to post…
The War On
New York is my third love. After Carolina and Sydney of course. In late 2010, and still fairly new to travel, Carolina mentioned we should go to the States. I had always been a bit skeptical of how “touristy” it may be and had never really seen myself there, except a brief trip to Miami with a mate staying with his family. Especially because as a kid the States was a pipe dream. When some friends managed to go to Disneyland in Florida I secretly envied them and it seemed so luxurious and a world far away for me. The plan was to go to New York, Las Vegas and San Francisco, with a night stopover in Los Angeles on the way back. I had enough money to splash out so we booked it and counted down the days.
When the holiday came I thought that the flight from Sydney to Los Angeles may be gruelling, over 14 hours in one leg. As usual I didn’t sleep on the plane and by the time we arrived in New York I was a complete zombie. It was June and a humid 35 degrees outside. But as we exited the taxi to our studio penthouse apartment in Chelsea I was intoxicated. The sheer noise of New York was deafening. Sirens, garbage trucks, a sea of iconic yellow taxis, cars furiously and constantly beeping their horns. For most this might be the idea of hell but we both quickly fell head over heels for the city.
The first morning we set off on foot at 7am walking endlessly block to block. I would look up open mouthed for minutes gazing at the buildings. Sydney is a village in comparison and even London’s buildings do not come close. Carolina of course also loved New York for its endless retail experience but she, as though it’s a work event for her clients, plans meticulously and would mark off on a map where we had been and where we needed to go. This included some unique, one of a kind restaurants and cafés, not the sort you see in movies where you order a burger and chips and end up with a plate of heart disease. Although on one occasion in Starbucks my request for an iced coffee was met with a blank stare as the attendant poured black filtered coffee from a jug over a large cup of ice cubes. Carolina was not amused. I didn’t have the heart to take it back so I watched her confuse the guy even more.
When we returned to New York for two weeks in late 2012 the vibe was different. Before we even set foot in the city I experienced one of the scariest, surreal events yet on my travels. At Sydney Airport we checked in with ease, arriving over three hours before the flight, as is standard for me, much to the annoyance of Carolina. The lady at the counter smiled as she marked off my ticket with a luminous yellow cross. Tired after the epic Sydney to Los Angeles flight I remembered the route across to the domestic terminal ready for the New York flight in a couple of hours time. It’s a non-conventional route that takes you up a small ramp and to a type of pre-security check. An officer checks your tickets and you leave your baggage before moving on. As we handed over the boarding passes the lady marked something with a pen. Carolina asked, “Why did she mark yours?” I replied, “She’s just marking every 20 passengers or something love,” and continued towards security. The Australian attitude of, “She’ll be ‘right” had grown in me. As I attempted to enter the security section I handed my boarding pass to an official-looking lady. Her expression and eyes were wooden. She stared at my pass: “Sir. Can you come this way please.” It was not a question.
She opened a third cordoned-off lane that looked like it led to nowhere. At least it did not lead through to the x-ray machines, my favoured destination. I glanced around but could not see Carolina. I neglected to explain the carry-on bag I was holding was my fiancé’s. This must be a routine check I reasoned. As I was led away I could see through the glass parallel to us the traditional security section as passengers sailed through smiling, even laughing. There was something a little different about this one as it was an isolated section and there were an unreasonable amount of security officers staring at me. I was sat down on a bench next to the machine that analyses bag swabs. As one guy went through the bag, another tried to make the most ridiculous small-talk. He asked about “Down-Under” in a way only an American can. I’m quite sure he mentioned kangaroos and his head could not quite grasp my explanation that I was from London but lived in Australia. Suddenly I could hear Carolina’s voice and her assertive tone and relief washed over me briefly as she appeared. This made the young security officers flustered. She demanded that she be able to sit with me and told them that the bag was hers. They didn’t listen but sat her down anyway on the bench. She looked at me worryingly. I stared back and tried to send telepathic messages: “I’m fucked.”
The extent of my fucked-up-ness and the tension in the room increased somewhat when out of the corner of my eye I could see a red message on the swab machine flashing. Immediately I thought of Border Control; one of my favourite Australian television shows detailing the real-life events in airports. A usual scenario involves passengers caught drug-trafficking or not declaring that damn biscuit they forgot they had in their pocket. The red light was combined by an electronic horn-type sound that indicated further badness. The sort of noise you hear when you die in video games. At this point the security guards became increasingly tense and three huddled to whisper. Seconds later, with no explanation, I was led into a small enclosed room opposite the bench. My chest tightened. As did my buttocks. An officer accompanied me and we stood in this small space opposite each other. The door closed. The small-talk had suddenly become more about my job, background and a round about way of saying, “Are you sure you are not of middle-eastern descent?” 18 hours after leaving our house in Sydney I was looking like crap, with huge bags under my eyes and had a slightly unkempt beard.
The clock ticked away and we were dangerously close to missing check-in for the NYC flight. They did not care one bit. Another officer came in the room. He explained they had “detected something” inside the bag and had to pat me down. This was fairly harmless but my panic increased when he left the room looking even more concerned. More whispering followed. More awkward small talk. The officer returned to the room and explained with a completely straight face that the next search would be more invasive. I only heard the words “crotch” and “run across your private parts”. My fate was sealed when the latex gloves were enthusiastically put on. Just 30 seconds into the search with the officer commentating on every centimetre of it, I thankfully realised I could keep my pants on. Although a male you do not know, running their hands firmly around your buttocks and across, around and firmly on your “Crown Jewells” was demoralising. When I was led out of the room Carolina sat on the bench looking at me with eyes that were saying, “Did they put their fingers up there?”
We sat again and she repeatedly tried to tell the officers the bag was hers. The officers were in too deep at this stage and when a huge, commando-type muscular skinhead appeared he spoke to his juniors. Clearly the senior officer he was the most human of them all. A quick, no-fuss recheck of the bag and an explanation that sometimes fertiliser shows up “explosive” solved the mystery. We think. The tracksuit bottoms I wore had been used, although clean now, at football training and could have picked up particles from the soil. We were free to go, “Have a safe trip sir.”
This time around New York was in early winter and everyone was preparing for Thanksgiving and Christmas. As our taxi from the airport neared the city and we saw the skyline appear heading over the Brooklyn Bridge, every hair on my body stood on end. This may have been partly due to the terrifying taxi drive. In New York drivers have no fear. But mainly it was the city and the fact that I know Carolina loves New York with a passion. That makes me love it even more. You already feel engulfed by it when you are 20 kilometres away. From shopping and museums to incredible bars and cafés, to the breathtaking almost Lego-land type landscape view from the top of the Rockefeller, New York owns you.
Walking through Central Park exploring as much as I could and a Thanksgiving dinner in our favourite bar as well as finding new and quirky corners of the city were the highlights of our trip. Another must is the over the top American experience of a sporting event. I had been to a basketball game in Miami but this was on another level in the sold-out Madison Square Garden. On a high after the game we planned to head back out the subway to the hotel ready for dinner. On this occasion it was bitterly cold outside so we took the subway. It was just as busy as London peak hour tube traffic and as I clocked three policemen and a German shepherd at the turnstiles I made eye contact with one officer. My buttock cheeks twitched.
Inevitably when I reached the turnstile I was pulled aside sternly and asked to open my bag. Not one other person around us had been stopped previously and hundreds sailed past me. The officer took the bag and rummaged through my newly bought Calvin Klein’s. He passed me the bag back without even looking me in the eye and said something inaudible as he looked away. No courtesy, a thank you, an explanation, nothing. Again I had the early stages of a beard that day and remember thinking as I walked away that I must clean-shave urgently. Needless to say my worry about the police state that the US was clearly becoming was heightened.
We unpacked as soon as we arrived back in Sydney and as I chucked out piles of clothes next to the washing machine I noticed a pamphlet at the very bottom of my case. It was emblazoned with the crest of the Department of Homeland and Security and explained my bag had been opened and searched. Basically it stated I had no rights and if the suitcase was damaged when opening then they were not liable for anything and I should be grateful for such vigilance. Luckily mine was not broken but did have a code that they must have beaten with a skeleton type key. It’s a good job I love the city and I can only hope the police state realises freedom is what made New York. We were due to return as part of our honeymoon and I can only guess my name has made a list of questionable bearded suspects somewhere…