‘OK darrlin’, bellowed the large lady at JFK’s Air Shuttle desk. She didn’t look up from under her impressive afro as she handed over a small white card. ‘Here’s your ticket, ‘n I want choo sittin’ right here at a quarter pay-ast. Ok honey?’
‘Thank you,’ I bleated, my economy-travel-worn English accent suddenly sounding very weedy.
Soon enough, I found myself in the back of a black SUV with a sanguine lady from South Africa and a very tense New Yorker. ‘Ain’t no use starin’ at me like that,’ our driver advised him, addressing the rear-view mirror. ‘Won’t get you there no faster, man! You need to chill!’
I turned to look out of the window. A beautiful pink blush was spreading across the early evening sky. The other cars crowding in the road seemed as big as boats, with salt and mud flying up from their spinning wheels. Their drivers all seemed so relaxed – chewing gum, steering with one hand, baseball caps pulled down low.
‘Is that the cops?’ asked the disembodied voice from the illegal station on the radio. ‘No, it ain’t the cops. Ha! Soooooo…. Michael Jackson… Oh, Michael, Michael, Michael!’
Eventually, the cab made its way down a residential street of red brick buildings, and deposited me at my friend Charlie’s empty apartment. I successfully negotiated with the key and the door, and heaved my giant suitcase over the threshold. Then I noticed a note on the floor.
‘Pearl!’ exclaimed the scrawled handwriting, ‘Welcome to the Big Apple! We are Charlie’s neighbours, Shane and Jimmy. Come over to ours, we’re going to get some take-out and a movie!’
I took a quick look in the bathroom mirror. Bloodshot eyeballs gazed back at me, but a little porcelain mermaid perched on a toothbrush holder looked up at me with an encouraging smile.
‘Oh, what the hell…’ I murmured.
I shuffled across the hallway and pressed the neighbour’s buzzer. Almost instantly, the door whipped open and, after I was released from a bear hug, I was welcomed into a warm and beautiful apartment. ‘How ya doin’? You jet lagged? What you fancy? Take-out or you wanna go someplace? Shane, what about that cute little Cuban place? The Cuban place, yeah?’
Everything was coming at me like a steam train through a fog of exhaustion, but I acquiesced to the idea of the Cuban place. And it turned out to be fantastic. Situated right underneath a Subway bridge, all the glasses and cutlery rattled every time a train thundered past overhead. Softly glowing paper lanterns danced about the ceiling, and I looked up at the fading pictures of famous New York City landmarks hanging proudly on the walls.
As I made a start on my gigantic serving of chicken, rice and beans, I began to feel a little more human, and ready to take on one of the greatest places in the world – New York City.