New York 1997. Part 6. A Fitting Finale.

We departed Buffalo and arrived late to Penn Station, too late to purchase tickets to Boston next day-another early start.

The subway from Westside to the station was becoming familiar and there was time for coffee before boarding the train, which was packed. Leaving New York via The Bronx was a much more dramatic and interesting journey than going out through New Jersey and there was a fine view of Manhattan’s skyscrapers as we left. Later, though, the scenes were the same dull, monotonous, derelict industrial sites that we’d seen before.

The train pulled into Boston at midday and we walked out into a proper station concourse, fitting for a large city in the way that Buffalo’s facilities were not. There were shops, cafes and bars-all very smart and clean. But we wondered how to go about finding a hotel. An information desk provided travel help, though not accommodation. We persevered and were pointed in the direction of ‘Hotel Reservations’ in a different part of the station, also bizarrely serving as a cigar stall. A sturdy, jovial woman called Marsha claimed to be there to help. After asking our ‘requirements’ she phoned several hotels. They were able to offer one night, but not two. We assured her we’d cope with staying ‘out of town’ provided it was on a subway route and sure enough, Marsha came up trumps. The ‘Hotel Farrington’. ‘You what?’ she hissed. ‘It’s messy? You have a back-packers’ room?’ She cast us an enquiring look. ‘OK-OK. They don’t mind. They’ll take it.’ She gave us a copied set of instructions for the route then we handed her the $5 booking fee and thanked her-feeling relieved and grateful, which was ironic when you consider what was to come.

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We studied the directions-a ‘red line’ train and a ‘green line’ train. Emerging into the Boston sunshine, towering buildings reared at us as we plunged down into the subway and to an unusually unhelpful ticket clerk. The Boston subway was newer and cleaner than that of New York, the trains quaint and picturesque, like historic trams. A number of lines converged and you had to clamber up steps into these tram-like compartments. ‘Boston College’ was our train. It rumbled along, slowing and almost stopping at intervals then emerged into a sunlit boulevard lined with college buildings and blocks. an ivy-clad ‘Alfred Morse Auditorium’ and several Oxford-like university piles. This was Boston University and Harvard lay just across the river in ‘Cambridge’. Boston is a university city and the society, pace, buildings and people reflected this.

As instructed we stepped down at the 3rd stop, located the street and walked; far, it seemed, carrying bags in the hot sun, but we came to Farrington Avenue and thus to Number 23. Farrington Avenue was elegant and tree-lined with large timber houses, one of which was our hotel, accessed by steps up to the polished doors. We entered into a grand, wood-panelled room, styled with antiques, chaises and a huge, burnished desk for reception. So far so good!

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The young woman there motioned us to a sofa. She had an unhurried air. It seemed unlikely that in this gleaming, gracious, stripped-pine, polished building there would be a ‘messy’ room. The woman took our details and searched around in some drawers for a key as one or two people drifted in and out. At last she led us out and up the road to another house of the same style, but here the similarity stopped. It had a neglected, decadent look, it’s wooden floors dusty, dirty and unkempt. We were led up two sets of stairs, weary of bag-carrying by now. The woman dithered at the top as we looked on, aghast. The entire building appeared like some kind of squat. She descended back one flight, apologising, round a corner and past what might have once been a kitchen but a quick glimpse made me shudder, through a once-glorious lounge area. Off this, behind a frosted glass screen was our room.

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It was dirty, cramped and unpleasant and the sheets worn and threadbare, though clean. The woman left us, saying that coffee and muffins would be served next morning from 8-10am. We threw the bags in and looked around in disgust, venturing out to see the bathroom, which would not have been out of place on the set of ‘The Young Ones’. It was grim. But the towels were clean.

Nevertheless, Boston awaited. We left everything and went to the subway to go into town, alighting at Park Street, where all was green and there were food stalls and folks enjoying the sunshine. Deciding on a trolley-bus tour we were told that next morning would be better due to rush-hour. Instead we walked the ‘Freedom’ trail, following a red line on the sidewalk and taking in the sights. Boston seemed a relaxed city, very conscious of its history and sporting a great many Irish pubs staffed by an unending stock of Irishmen, Bostonians proud of their history and eager to help with sightseeing suggestions. There was a huge market square like Covent Garden boasting gift shops, cafes and restaurants and it was here that we stopped to eat, choosing an outside table in the warm evening.

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Everywhere teemed with people and musicians played South American music as we ate, the food good and washed down with Samuel Adams Boston-brewed beer.

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By the time we returned we were too tired for a last drink at the Irish bar on our street. In the ‘hotel’ a man was wandering about on our floor looking for a screwdriver as the lock on his door had broken. We braved the shower together, using some discarded towels to stand on then tip-toed back to the room, through the dust and dirt of the lounge, to fall at last into bed. Then someone came into the lounge, putting on lights and TV, neither sound or light muffled by the tatty blind over the glass door. We groaned as a conversation also began, the TV, thankfully as dysfunctional as the rest of the place was extinguished and peace settled.

The Farrington breakfast was dispensed at reception, coffee and enormous muffins dispensed by an elderly. frail man at a table. Chatting to an Australian woman who confirmed the lack of Boston rooms we discovered that it was Graduation Week at Harvard, hence all was booked in advance. We had to grateful for our flea-pit!

We returned to Boston centre for the trolley tour, waiting while crocodiles of schoolchildren were shepherded along the streets. The tour began; the now-familiar, carefully rehearsed monologue punctuated by the odd joke. We got off at Charles Street, a quaint, though expensive row of shops with quirky signs, everything engineered for faux antiquity. We ate then took the next bus which drove past Harvard, through an up-market area and into theatreland where we left to walk on to Chinatown and on to the docks and the Boston Tea Party ship [unimpressive].

In the market square we had coffee and relaxed. The remaining time was dripping away. It would be our final evening in Boston and in the USA. We got a subway to Hynes Convention Centre for an ascent of the Prudential Tower, a tame 50 floors, to look over Boston at dusk. At the top it was quiet but with a stunning view over the blocks and landmarks of the city. It was a contemplative end to the trip.

At the ‘hotel’ a couple had moved into the next door hovel to ours and were complaining loudly, their remarks clear through the flimsy plywood between the rooms. ‘This room’s so Fucking depressing!’ cried the woman and the man’s low voice could be heard placating. We showered and went to ‘Arthur’s’, a small seafood cafe we’d spotted and had a last beer at the Irish bar. On our return the TV was silent, as were the next-door couple.

At the muffin and coffee breakfast next morning, two refined Oregon ladies proudly revealed the were in Boston for a reception in honour of Jackie Kennedy. Their home town had a population of 350 and this was an adventure for them. They were tremulous at the idea of the Boston subway so we told them they’d enjoy the experience for its period charm, and we recommended the trolley-bus tour.

Finally it was time to pack, lug the bags to the subway and to the station, board the New York train and sink back into our seats to watch the New England scenery float past with its quaint and pretty towns and villages, lakes and marinas, white churches and pastel, weather-board houses. The sky clouded briefly then cleared as we came to New York. The trip was done…

Elvis and the Egyptian Odyssey

                In the 1970s I undertook some independent, backpacker type travel to Egypt. This meant heaving round a large rucksack and using local transport, in the main, although when you are young this kind of travel seems adventurous rather than daunting. The trip involved flights to Athens, ferry from Piraeus to Alexandria [two days on a vehicle ferry, nights on deck in a sleeping bag], finding a hotel on arrival, moving on by bus to Cairo, finding a hotel, travelling to Luxor down along the Nile on a sleeper train and on to Aswan by minibus; five weeks in all. It was my first sojourn outside of Europe.

                Arriving to the port of Alexandria was a culture shock, since I had not expected Africa’s north coast to feel so alien, so exotic or unnerving. After a long, slow entry through early morning mist to the quayside past skeletal wrecks of long sunken vessels we docked, to be met by a teeming array of jostling, robed porters, hawkers and tourist fleecers. Alighting from the ferry there followed a brief, unseemly struggle to retain control of my rucksack but apart from this there was little to cause alarm or suspicion during the entirety of the trip.

                Everyone we met was eager to help, and not necessarily for remuneration. An enquiry re whereabouts of hotels would be met by offers to accompany us, carry luggage etc. On bus journeys, where the vehicle would resemble a termite nest we would invariably stand, but seated passengers would take items we were carrying on their laps. Conversations were struck wherever we went, with the local population keen to find out about us. There was no suspicion, threat or mistrust.

                The festival of Ramadan took place towards the end of our stay. We’d returned to Alexandria with a few days free to visit the beach and relax. Waiting for a bus to take us back from the beach to the town a couple in a car stopped and offered us a lift. “Did we know”, they asked us, “that Elvis Presley died today?”

                They were keen to chat, needing to pass the time until they could break their fast and eat. I fell ill with food poisoning two days before we left for Piraeous and was compelled to run the gauntlet of the doorless holes in the ground that amounted to the ferry terminal ‘facilities’. Despite this I retained memories of Egypt as a fascinating, beautiful country; packed with history, enigma and mystique.

                I have made one more visit to Egypt since that time-to the tourist Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh, for one week-and one week too many!

                I feel no more desire to return to Egypt now than to stick my hand into a hornets’ nest. Nor do I wish to visit any troubled Moslem countries. In the forty or so years that have passed since that innocent piece of travel those parts of the world have changed, become edgy, uneasy places at best-war torn hell holes at worst. Are we ever to move on from historic grievances, bury hatchets and let the by’s be gone? Or are we to be forever the ‘infidel’ and they, forever the ‘heathen’, locked into a spiral of hate and mistrust?

                Of one thing, however, there can be no doubt. I will always know what year it was that Elvis died…it was 1977.