Though I too love to sail forbidden seas, I have not travelled half as far as my heart wishes. A few years back, I did find my way to New York City, as far from home as I’d ever been. It was a spur of the moment sort of affair but one that had been coming for some time, for I had long felt the pull of the great white whale living far across the sea.
I was travelling in excellent company with Dimitri, my best friend, a man after my own heart who was partial to drink and a good time, ideally with some regularity and maybe in exotic locales. We’d flown from London, nursing mean hangovers, the payoff of the previous night’s bon voyage party. It’s a sorry way to travel, particularly when it involves nearly eight hours in the pressurised air of a flying tin can but we’d made the most of it, helping ourselves to a number of the inflight beers which had the added benefit of being free. As I was ordering another round, the hostess said, “I’m sorry sir, but we seem to have run out.” I was taken aback. We’d drunk the plane dry. She was lying of course but she had the upper hand and she knew it. Any protest from my part would have been met with stern condemnations and a reminder that my vacation may very well be cut short, before it had even started, if I didn’t behave. So I did.
We landed soon enough and after a quick word with the local officials, were let loose in the city. I shall spare you the tedium of banalities common to every trip to the United States. Yes, we were overwhelmed by the titanic size of the city. Though we did come form one of the world’s major capitals, nothing had quite prepared us for what we saw. It was evident that, limited by water on all sides, New York’s architects had long realised that the only way was up and set off to build their home in the sky. Yes, we were giddy with excitement walking around all those places we’d only ever seen in the movies. They all were fresh and new to our eyes yet felt strangely familiar and neither of us could quite shake off the feeling that we’d stumbled on a film set. Yes, we’d been surprised by how warm and friendly the locals were. Though I had heard New York being called the Fuck You State, I had by then met enough Americans to know that they are no less but often more welcoming than any other people anywhere else. Yet I couldn’t help but being slightly disappointed not to have been told by an angry cab driver to go [expletive] myself, me being a son of a [expletive] or anything of the sort, as countless movies had lead me to believe was part of the experience.
Long story short, we did everything that was expected of strangers in a strange land and in a few days, had managed to cover most of Manhattan and Brooklyn as well as Ellis and Liberty Island. I’m a firm believer in the idea that a city only reveals its true self once the sun has gone down and this one having a reputation for insomnia, I was anxious to find out what the night had in store for us. We’d ended up in Hell’s Kitchen and as the evening drew near, had decided to find moorings at the nearest bar, a bare brick dive with a jukebox belting out Blues standards. The barman, a barrel-chested beast of a man with arms like tree trunks, instantly saw us for what we were and pandering to his growing audience of regulars, welcomed us with “Evening, ladies”. We didn’t mind, mostly because he looked like a back alley bare-knuckle prize fighter and had the attitude to go with it but when we laughed and took our seats at the bar, he was friendly enough.
We knew it was customary to tip in this land and did so generously. What we hadn’t expected though was that the barman would show his gratitude by plying us with free drinks. I lost count of how many when I ran out of fingers and bearing in mind that we’d clocked quite a few miles walking up and down the city, fatigue started showing at the seams. I turned to Dimitri and saw that he wasn’t doing any better but I spotted that telling twinkle in his eye and knew the party was about to start. “This is great” he said, “How long do you think he’s gonna keep on watering us like that?” “This is the American way” I answered, “You’ve got to invest to make a return. Capitalism at work.”
We started swaying in our seats to the rhythm of the music, which the barman spotted instantly. “You boys looking for a good time?” he asked. “Yes, we are” I replied, “We were thinking about going up to Harlem.” He pondered this for a moment then said “Last time I went to Harlem was to score heroin. A dirty habit I picked up in Nam. Took me years to shake off.” He thought some more. “No, you boys don’t want to go to Harlem. You’ll never make it out alive but I know this place a few blocks down if you’re interested.” We said we were. After all, when in foreign land, what’s better than a place recommended by someone in the know? By following his advice, we would avoid spending the night in a tourist trap and get an exclusive taste of the New York nightlife. He went on to explain that the place wasn’t strictly legal, a speakeasy run by people who had little time for such trivial matters as regulations and taxes. “Even better” I thought. Dimitri and I would party in the underbelly of the beast with all the merriments it implied. “You’ll have to give the password when you get there” the barman continued, “it’s anchor.” That was easy enough to remember even in our advanced state and thus went on our way.
We had a little trouble finding the place which I suppose is what you want for a speakeasy but eventually arrived at a metal door hidden behind a dumpster in an alleyway. “Are you ready for this?” I asked Dimitri. “Let’s do it” he answered, “I need a toilet anyway.” We knocked and in an instant a slot opened, just large enough for a pair of dark, fiery eyes to scan us. “What d’ya want?” asked a booming voice. “Anchor” my friend and I replied in unison. “What’s that?” the voice wanted to know. We looked at each other, unsure by then if we’d even got the right place and tried the password again but this time with our French accents seeping through more than usual. The slot disappeared and the unmistakable clank of a heavy lock let us know the door was being opened. The owner of those dark eyes, a towering hulk of man, beaconed us in a small vestibule and slammed the door shut behind us. He sized us up once more, long enough for me to wonder if we hadn’t just made a terrible mistake and then nodded towards a flight of stairs. We relaxed a little and didn’t wait for him to change his mind.
The thump of electronic music guided us up the stairs and down a dimly lit corridor which then opened on a large crowded area. Dimitri was scanning the room and dancing on his feet. “Off to the loos” he said, “Get us a drink will you.” He disappeared in the crowd. The punters screamed New York art scene, young creative types who wouldn’t go anywhere you’ve ever heard of and pride themselves in being regulars at the kind of place that will always be out of bounds to the likes of me. But for some reason, thanks to a recovering addict, Vietnam vet, Hell’s Kitchen barman, tonight we were with the in crowd. Of course I felt out of place but I was past caring and pushed on in search of the bar. The atmosphere got better as I went deeper into the place and I was glad to discover that the clientele got more diverse too. Patrick Bateman lookalikes were mixing with latter day punks, washed out new-romantics were trying their luck with sorority girls and a couple of college boys were doing their best to be discreet whilst trying to score from who I thought was a rather stereotypical gangbanger. A good crowd really and it was nice to see that those people who would avoid each other during the day, were united at night in their quest for a good time.
I got a couple of beers and decided to try and find the smoking area which was a small platform locked between towers on all sides. I found a spot near the ledge thinking Dimitri would have the same idea and turn up any moment. “First time at Encore?” the man next to me asked, making the effort of pronouncing the word correctly. “Encore? Ah, yes” I thought, the episode at the door making now a little more sense. “Yes, it is” I replied, “Pretty cool place.” He nodded in agreement. “It’s changed a lot, just like this town. When I first came here, you could sometimes hear gun-shots from this very spot. Wanna hit this?” he asked, offering me a spliff as big as traffic cone. “Wow” I thought, “this is grand.” I handed it back to him after a couple of tokes, the slight buzz already getting to my head. It didn’t seem to have any effect on him as he was gazing into the void and he reminded me of a Carib friend of mine who always had this thousand yard stare after a heavy smoking session. “So what brings you here?” he inquired. “Just visiting” I replied, “with a friend. We’re from London. Came to see what the fuss was all about.” He seemed to approve. “Well, you’ve picked the right place to party. It’s cheaper than average and the music’s usually far better than you’d get elsewhere. Here, finish it and have fun” he said as he gave me the spliff before disappearing back inside.
When Dimitri found me a few minutes later, my feet didn’t touch the ground. “What’s going on?” he asked. I offered him the spliff. “Someone gave me this.” He studied it for a moment before having a taste. “Jesus!” he said. “Yes,” I agreed, “it’s pretty strong and I don’t think the yanks use any tobacco either. We want to be careful otherwise we’ll make fools of ourselves.” Alcohol and weed when mixed together, are not what you might call performance enhancing and often make it a challenge to keep a semblance of dignity, so by the time we regained the dance floor, we were watching our steps and doing our best to behave, knowing full well that any minute, all hell might break loose. Yet, it seemed to me that we weren’t the only ones in an altered state and the few who still appeared sober, looked inclined to humour us. We parked ourselves at the bar and ordered another round. Feeling like it was the right thing to do, we ditched the beers and hit the hard liquor in style with a couple of martinis which turned out to be a mistake. Within minutes, we were reduced to a horrifying tableau of drunkenness and depravity, holding on to the bar to avoid swaying out of control all over the place. We could see ourselves reflected in the damning eyes of the people around us but we didn’t have time to be apologetic. Something had to be done and it had to be done fast.
“This is so wrong” Dimitri slurred, “What have we done?” I took hold of his arm to steady myself. “We can’t leave now” I said, “We’d never find our hotel for a start.” He reflected on this and had an idea. “I know what we should do” he started, “Let’s go to the toilet. I’m sure I heard snorting noises coming out of the cubicles when I went. That should sort us out.” “Are you crazy?” I asked, “We’re gonna end up with bath salts and chew our own faces off or worse, attack a civilian.” I thought I’d made a good point but he seemed to disagree. “What do you propose then?” he enquired, his nose pointed at the ceiling, “We can’t go home and we can’t stay in the state we’re in. We’ll most likely have another drink and it’s only gonna be a matter of time until the management comes to give us a tap on the shoulder.” We’d hit a roadblock, so I yielded and followed him to the toilets.
Once there, we were greeted by half a dozen closed doors. The cubicles were all occupied by what sounded like dutiful janitors armed with powerful vacuum cleaners, which we saw as a good sign. Surely out of six, one of them would take pity on a couple of weary travellers and show himself generous. Even though this place had an extremely relaxed attitude to recreationals, we thought it bad form to loiter suspiciously where we were and headed for the urinals to wait for a cubicle to open. It didn’t take long, for moments later, the music stopped and was quickly replaced with the loud protestations of the disappointed clientele. Five cubicles opened and their occupants burst out looking worried. Their fears were instantly confirmed by the panicked hullabaloo that started coming from the main room. It dawned on us: “a drug bust!” Dimitri and I said.
Very soon, we were the only ones left in the toilets and though the surprise had sobered us up a little, we were at a loss as to what to do next. There was nothing incriminating about us beyond our inebriated state, so spending the night in a New York gaol seemed unlikely but the inconvenience of having to explain our being there to the local constabulary, was more than we could handle at the time. “What do we do?” my friend asked. I was about to answer that I had no idea when the door of the last cubicle flew open and who would step out but the very same man who’d given me the spliff earlier. He headed for the door and for a moment I thought that would be the last we saw of him but after peering down the corridor, he turned to us and said: “Follow me!” We did without hesitation.
He lead us through a maze of corridors and stairways, whilst we were doing our best to keep up. Occasionally we had to find support against a wall or banister, struggling to catch our breath and swallowing hard to not be sick on the floor but eventually, we got to a fire escape. The commotion behind us had died down and there was no sound outside but the usual traffic. He surveyed the area and satisfied that it was safe, signalled us to come out. We were a few stories up on one of those iconic iron ladders and slowly, with the grace of a drunken swan, we made our way to the ground. We could see a couple of police cars at the end of the alleyway but from what we could tell, we were out of the woods. “Thanks” I muttered, barely breathing. “No problem” he replied, smiling and ambling back to the main road, “Welcome to New York.”
Dimitri and I went the other way, acting as normal as we could manage and found a store where we bought a couple of cans which we had on our way back to the hotel, in brown paper bags. Though we were advised that it wasn’t allowed, we thought we’d deserved them and enjoyed them immensely, laughing at ourselves and at the night’s events all the way. It was one of those great nights that only come about if you let them, those you only experience when you say yes to something you shouldn’t and it was all the better for having being shared with a friend in a great city.
A couple of days later, we were on the plane back to London, several hundred pounds poorer but in my mind, richer in experience. I often wonder what happened to the people I met there. Do they still keep the party going by sending keen customers places they have no place being at? Do they still help strangers lost in the night, when the man pulls the plug? I like to think they do and judging by other adventures I had in other countries, I know they’re not alone. But that’s for another time.