Travel across this many time zones is almost everything, if not all at once, at least within the one package. Numbing and thrilling, it consumes your attention while being profoundly boring. The hours are interminable, while the individual moments are absurd and absorbing. The hours I will elide – they bored me at the time, they would bore me when I read this back years hence. The moments came thin and slow, but there is time enough, in such a day, for many of them, even so. From lifting off in Adelaide at 1.40pm to getting to my hotel in New York after 10.30pm on what, the calendar insists, was the same day, almost exactly 24 hours had elapsed, making my Thursday nearly forty hours long. Arthur Dent would have had a nightmare.
Still, moments. On the bus between the domestic and the international terminals at Sydney airport a woman behind me spoke French and I was delighted to be able to understand most of it, even after I realised that she was speaking for the benefit of her three year old daughter, clearly in the hope that the little girl would absorb some of her mother’s native tongue in an otherwise Anglophone family. Lots of pointing and basic nouns. Just my speed.
At Sydney airport a young man scrutinised me carefully as he asked me if I had packed my bag myself and had it with me at all times. As always under official scrutiny I was slightly nervous, despite blameless living. Having received the required assurance he put a little sticker in my passport, and advised me that I could change my shirt in the men’s toilet. “Why,” I asked, “have I sweated through it?” No, he indicated, it just advertised my enthusiasm for a Premier League team for which he harboured no fondness. Score one for fans of Sadistic Pricks United.
On the plane, the menu of movie options included, under “Classics”, both Call Me By Your Name (2017) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972). Older than both, I felt older still, and watched instead The Electrical Life of Louis Wain (2021 and filed under a different category). I managed some sleep and my back hurt.
Annabelle had wondered whether I might, on arrival in Dallas, record a conversation with a local so that she could be convinced that they really do talk like that, not just in the movies. I had explained that I wasn’t going to do that, either secretly or openly, with people all of whom were presumably armed and not famous the world round for their sense of humour. It didn’t matter, as I had no time. Rushed from one terminal to another, I spoke to only three human beings. A man on the train between buildings saw me taking a photo of the rainy window (It rains! In Texas!) and asked whether I wouldn’t rather keep the memory than a photo. I explained that it was my first time in the US and I planned to photograph everything, stopping myself before adding that it was, I believed, a free goddamn country. His accent, as far as I could tell, was Midwestern.
I may have been slightly spooked by the fact that nearly my first task in the land of the free, about half an hour earlier, had been to walk through an area patrolled by sniffer dogs. Arriving at that point in the queue, supplicants for the privilege of entering the United States were made to walk, two by two, through a ten metre area in which two men held on leads two dogs not much smaller than they were, which roamed and, as you might guess, sniffed at me and my companion of the moment, our luggage and ankles. The exigencies of odd and even numbers meant that I got paired with a woman whose male travelling companion had just completed the ordeal. I spent the time, when not hoping that I hadn’t accidentally pocketed a rasher of bacon from my airline breakfast, wondering what the etiquette was if one of the beasts went for her throat. Was I expected, as her pair, to try to fight the thing off with my bare hands or did that honour fall to her boyfriend who had already been deemed acceptably unodorous? I was so absorbed that I lagged noticeably behind my companion, who was off, away, our lives never to intersect again, she never to know how close she came to being mauled to death while I stood by, paralysed by questions of decorum.
La Guardia felt new, apparently recently refurbished. Our luggage came out on the wrong carousel. But it came, and then to a taxi, where in the queue a man asked where where I got my luggage. New York City yellow cabs are not like in the movies, at least the ones from the 1970s. All new, sort of mini SUVs with hybrid motors, they would be perfect if the screens carrying incessant advertising of the early morning TV variety would just shut up.
A late night arrival but that’s early by my body clock, so I went for a walk. A couple of degrees above freezing. Every city has a smell. New York’s is like clove cigarettes, if they replaced the cloves with tyres. So fond of it are they, that they pipe it up from some Morlockian underworld through elongated witches’ hats to ensure that we surface dwellers don’t miss any nuance. Just a few blocks, enough to get my bearings and see the skaters at Bryant Park get kicked off the ice at midnight. Then for my first Quintessential New York Experience (hereinafter QNYE), a chilli dog in Times Square. It was, remarkably, exactly what I expected: a plastic sausage in a bun made of air topped with a bean stew containing zero chilli and three, count ’em, sauces on top. Apart from American Mustard (TM), I have no idea what the others were.
And so to bed.