Friday, 16 December 2022

All professional duties discharged, I took my last full day in New York for myself. Walking aimlessly for a while, I found myself in the lower west side, somewhere down near the bottom of Eighth Avenue, or possibly Ninth. It was another drizzly day, the sky made of slate and the ground slick with rain. Chelsea, which I think is where I was, is not, or at least not there, a rich neighbourhood. I ignored the beggars, until one insistent chap, a skinny, white guy with a beard, not particularly unkempt, refused to take nothing for an answer. “Huh?” I said, with elegance and panache. “I’m not a creep, I’m a veteran,” he repeated. “I beat liver cancer.” He started to roll up his sleeve to show his wrist, which did indeed appear to bear a plastic hospital ID bracelet. “Do you have two bucks for a vape? I’m not going to buy drugs. I beat cancer,” he said again. Worried that he might start displaying his abdominal scars, I fumbled a $10 note out of my wallet, handed it to him and crossed the road.

A block further on, another mendicant mumbled something that I didn’t catch. My new friend was neither skinny, nor white, not by a long shot in either particular. He followed me a short way while I continued to pretend that he didn’t exist. He was not particularly threatening – I felt confident I could beat him in a sprint without particularly trying – but I didn’t need to. A police car, containing a single, female officer, also Black, slowed near the curb and the local arm of the law stared at the guy with an expression that I have no doubt brings her own sons to heel, quick smart and no backtalk, yes ma’am. No words were exchanged, but Big Dude backed right off, and the cop pulled away.

Ten paces further on, Dude was back, but this time keeping a respectful distance. He just wanted to say one thing. “I meant you no harm,” said the Dude, who could have fit all of me into each trouser leg and worn a third one of me as a scarf, no problem. He sounded like a grade six kid who just got told off by a teacher he liked for something the other kids had done. Having protested his innocence, he turned away. Just then, I saw my cancer-beating veteran. “It’s alright,” I said to the Dude, moved to explain myself for reasons I can’t explain to myself. “It’s just this guy touched me for ten bucks only a few minutes ago.” “He did what?” said Mr Dude, and I saw suddenly the potential for misunderstanding. “I mean, he just… I just… I gave…” I spluttered, and fled into the nearest coffee shop at the same time as Mr Veteran spotted me and hailed in a loud, cheery voice, “Hey, man, thanks for the ten bucks!” I decided to have my coffee in the store.

Diagnosing that further aimless wandering without a native guide was not indicated, I decided to make a plan, and recalling the discovery of the USS Intrepid earlier in the week, booked myself a ticket to visit an aircraft carrier. A short while later, the street outside clear of men of any size and colour, I headed for Twelfth Avenue and a peep inside a bloody great big warship. Twelfth Avenue was showing signs of congestion, the reason becoming clear as a sign hove into view providing what seemed more detail than was strictly necessary for the information requirements of those wondering why traffic had slowed so. Still, nice to know everyone was ok.

And so to the big ship. Not as big as a modern carrier, perhaps, but still large enough to be going on with. The Intrepid had (I learned) a complement when commissioned of about 3,000. That commissioning took place in 1943, in time for her to do duty in the Second World War. I strolled the flight deck, snapping shots of a few planes, including a Mig-21, a fighter that I’d had a model of as a kid, and might still do, somewhere. At the stern of the ship is built a hangar she never had in real life, containing the only space shuttle I will ever likely see, albeit one that never flew in space, the Enterprise. I remember her test flights, and the maiden flight of Columbia, the nearly identical ship that did make the first shuttle orbital flight. What a long time ago that all seems now.

Finally, another walk around a chilly, drizzly Manhattan evening for the last time, the sky precisely that you would want if you had to project a giant bat symbol against it to summon superheroic help. Fortunately, I had no need, the NYPD being clearly up to the job.

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