Back in November 1986 I decided to visit New York for the first time. I was coming towards the end of my stint as European Financial Analyst at Pfizer based in Fairfield House, Staines and was thinking about a change in both location and role.
I’d got it into my head somehow that Wall Street was beckoning me and that the streets would be paved with gold if only I visited Manhattan, ignoring the fact I didn’t have a green card or any prospect of an internal transfer through my employer.
I shared my vision over with close colleague and fellow financial analyst Ian O after perhaps a rather intensive wine tasting session at work – as can be seen in the photos below – those were the days!
Ian agreed with my idea, after all I had a cute English accent didn’t I, so how hard could it be? If it didn’t work out well maybe it was time to start thinking of joining IT were the Rob D the European IT Director was interested in the pioneering work I done with PC LANs.
So the next day I booked the cheapest return flight for a long weekend I could find via Stanmore Travel which turned out to be on Pan Am 103 – Clipper Maid of the Seas – leaving Heathrow for JFK airport just after 6pm UK time in early December 1986.
This is the same plane that was blown up by Libyan terrorists en route to New York over Lockerbie a couple of years later on Wednesday 21st December 1988, which I have to admit sends a shiver down my spine thinking about it all these years afterwards.
The economy window seat I had been allocated was broken so I had to sit upright the entire flight. This particular 747 was then 18 years old and rather tatty, in fact it was only the 15th jumbo jet made and it was only renovated just prior to the act of terrorism.
Despite this I arrived safely after my first ever long haul trip with no hotel reservation, just a little guide book to New York and the phone number and address of (what I think now was) the Vanderbilt YMCA on 224 East 47th Street Manhattan. It took ages to clear immigration’s big queues, but at least I’d travelled light with just hand luggage from memory.
I took the airport bus from JFK and was deposited alone in the cold and dark streets early evening, opposite some expensive hotels I couldn’t possibly afford and so slowly made my way to the YMCA and booked in for 2 nights. I remember a cockroach halfway up on the bedroom wall and a tiny black and white TV in my room, wondering why on earth I’d come all this way for this, an Englishman in New York perhaps, but not as Sting imagined! Looking at the YMCA website today I feel it has been somewhat upgraded since my visit!
First thing I needed after I “unpacked” was food and drink, but coming out of the entrance of the YMCA I couldn’t see any traditional supermarkets not even the small convenience stores back in Blighty, but I did spy close by a small delicatessen with a “liquor” sign that was tiny with very narrow walkways through the shelves and a bewildering array of what looked like to me foreign food. Eventually after being highly embarrassed buying some alcohol in a brown paper bag, some bread and I think pretzels I made my way back to my room for the “feast”. Disappointingly so far no American woman had chatted me up but I was sure that was just because I looked a tad jet-lagged…
Then came the fun, banging, shouting within the hostel, with police sirens going all night I had trouble getting to sleep initially but with dreams of Kojak I eventually woke up late morning wondering what to do next. During a leisurely breakfast of pretzels I sat on my bed watching a James Stewart film called “It’s a Wonderful Life” which I’d seen before but never with so many commercial breaks. This film in fact was being repeated constantly on the channel I’d selected it being the Christmas season and it became a comforting friend during my stay in New York, I think I watched it at least 3 times!
Next the expedition began in earnest, I didn’t have enough money for taxis so I put my shoes on and believe it or not crisscrossed the island walking the streets covered in snow, with pavement vents belching out steam being used to heat the buildings I believe. My head was constantly looking up in amazement at the immense skyscrapers all around me & my neck was cricked badly as a result.
It’s difficult to remember exactly the route I took and all the places I visited after so many years, but here’s a snippet of what I do remember and photographed that gives you some idea. I just wish I’d kept a diary!
First stop was to go and visit Pfizer’s global HQ on 42nd Street which wasn’t too far away where I took the following picture.
Also close by was the United Nations HQ building and again I took a picture from outside but this time in the vestibule there was some kind of UN related exhibition.
Shopping in Macy’s where I bought a cheap leather wallet. The size of the store and the ornate lifts were a real delight, especially at the festive season when it was crammed to the ceilings with excited people.
Lunch in the Natural History Museum restaurant where I had a carafe of wine with my meal before looking round all the exhibits surrounded by visiting school children eating their packed lunches. I seem to remember being rather horrified when I got the bill so many of the subsequent meals were at McDonald’s!
Walking round Central Park where I met an attractive & talkative young lady next to the ice rink, who unfortunately turned out to be a lesbian living in Greenwich village, so alas no green card for me there!
I walked a long way past Northern Central Park towards Harlem but my guidebook advised not going too far on my own so reluctantly I turned back. In recompense I walked ages back South to China town which reminded me a lot of London’s China town.
From there I walked further South & I paid to go up one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre from where I took the following pictures of the Manhattan skyline.
In the end it was time to head back to JFK, there was still plenty to see and do in subsequent (& frequent) visits made in subsequent years, but that first time was for me a heady mix of magic, excitement, danger as well as being a trifle lonely if I’m honest!
Looking back after all this time I can’t help but think of those poor souls who had their lives cut short by the terrible bombing of my flight only two years afterwards, as well of course the even larger number of victims of 911 in 2001, thirteen years later.