“Manhattan?” “Yes.” “And you’re taking your car?” “That’s right. And then we’re driving down to DC.” At this point my ex-Manhattanite friends started to shake their heads rather slowly, mumble about my sanity and reach for their rosary beads. “You’ve not been there before, have you?”
The consensus seemed to be that taking a car to the city (and, let’s face it, if you have to ask which city, then you’re not a New Yorker) was an act of the most supreme folly. The traffic, the gridlock, the traffic, the taxis, the traffic, the people, the traffic, the one-way systems, the traffic, the shortage of parking spaces, the traffic But, I reasoned, I’ve driven in London, in Tokyo; I’ve even driven in (and this was, for my money, the trump card) Miami on a Friday afternoon. But no, I was assured, a car in New York would be an albatross, a millstone and a really ugly tie round my neck.
We drove anyway. I’ve never driven any great distance before I come from Manchester, in the north-west of England, from where it’s impossible to drive more than about 400 miles in any direction without falling off the edge of Britain. The idea of a 1,300-mile drive without leaving the country was a touch difficult to process 1,300 miles away from Manchester is Helsinki.
Driving made sense. Airline tickets for the three of us (my wife and I were taking our 7-year-old daughter on her first trip to the city) would have cost more than we really hoped to spend, and I was keen to see a little more of the country I now call home. Even when fuel and hotel costs were considered, driving was still a more economical way to make the trip.
But what about the city? What about driving in New York? I’ve been in the US long enough to be comfortable driving on the wrong side of the road (Britain, of course, like the rest of the civilised world, and Australia, understands that left is right and right is wrong), so that wasn’t a concern. Directions were carefully prepared using Mapquest. Maps were pored over thoroughly. And so we arrived.
The Lincoln Tunnel is an astonishing thing. Diving beneath the Hudson River, it comprises three tubes, each with two lanes of traffic. The two outside tubes funnel traffic under the river, in and out of the city. The direction of traffic in the middle tube switches to accommodate the needs of the moment. This, at least, is the theory. We sat in traffic so slow that moss appeared to be growing on the tyres of the car next to ours, with a reasonably splendid view, to the east, of Midtown and the Upper West Side to keep us company, for almost half an hour as we spiralled down to the toll booth. Seven lanes of traffic then bottlenecked into two as all the east-bound traffic was funnelled into the only open eastbound tube. As we watched and, make no mistake, we had plenty of time to watch precious little traffic came out of the centre pipe.
We arrived in New York late on a Wednesday afternoon. We were expecting traffic of apocalyptic proportions to be awaiting us, but, almost disappointingly, almost shockingly, the traffic actually wasn’t that bad. I base this assessment upon the fact that, within ten minutes of emerging from the Tunnel, we were sitting outside the Roger Smith Hotel on Lexington Avenue, without a single bullethole in either us or the car. In fact, and I really have to be fair to New York here, the drive across town wasn’t half as bad as we’d been led to believe. It was, after all, less than two miles, and involved barely half a dozen turns. Sure, it involved slightly more aggressive driving than, I was recently familiar with London’s North Circular Road, say, or Tokyo’s Gaikan Expressway, might be a better place to practice than McMullen Booth Road but the volume of the traffic, if anything, worked in our favour. When you have horrible, gridlock-inducing bottlenecks and traffic jams, then it’s a little hard, really, to have too bone-crunching a crash, and so we manoeuvred the streets of the city quite safely.
What I still don’t get, though is the honking. Somebody is missing a fabulous artistic opportunity tune the horns of the cabs of New York to the same key, and you could spontaneously generate some incredible symphony every rush-hour. But then again, you could simply make them each as utterly discordant with each other as is musically possible, and you’d end up withwell, what you have now an endlessly grating, nerve-shredding cacophony.
Honking may, at some point, have made sense to some drivers. “Oh, my word,” thought a cabbie, “that chap just cut in front of me. He clearly didn’t see me I shall take this opportunity to let him know I’m here, so he’ll be able to avoid me a little more safely.” Or words to that effect. But once that idea spread to every single driver in the city, suddenly it becomes a little meaningless. “Is he honking at me?” was asked Lord knows how many scores of times even before we even made it to 42nd Street.
Maybe, I thought, I should honk back. But what’s the protocol? One honk for “Watch out,” two for “watch out, you clueless little piece of” and so on? I didn’t want to use the wrong number of honks and risk questioning someone’s parentage instead of just his sanity. So I refrained.
We arrived at our hotel and parked up. Well, that’s not quite entirely true. My wife ran in and had the bellhop come out and relieve me of my car keys. We fetched our bags in from the boot sorry, the trunk and watched our car disappear around the corner. It had happened we’d negotiated the traffic in Manhattan and lived to tell the tale. Just as I’d expected we would. I was, however, mightily pleased to spot a large, and seemingly well-stocked, liquor store directly across the road. The car had made it; I wasn’t entirely sure about my nerves.
The next day, we didn’t miss our car at all. We hit plenty of the standard tourist spots Rockefeller Plaza, Chinatown, Battery Park, the Village, Central Park and didn’t once wish we’d had a car. The subway turned out to be significantly less dreadful than I’d been led to believe very similar to subways I’d used in Rome, Seoul, Hong Kong or Beijing, albeit with slightly louder passengers. Don’t use the subway after ten at night, I’d heard, and I dare say that this is very wise advice, but in the middle of the afternoon, the only danger is being beaten to a seat by a couple of highly focused and determined high-school girls. All in all, very much like the Tokyo subway, then.
We walked plenty. Manhattan is a highly walkable place the sidewalks are wide enough, the roads are straight and having a Starbucks every nineteen paces was a truly winning idea and one which kept me nicely coffeed up. We did realise, however, that maps of Manhattan can be deceptive. “Oh, it’s only twenty blocks,” we thought but twenty blocks, in the middle of July, can be more than simply somewhat tiring. Maybe there’s some weird time-and-space thing going on in Greenwich Village quite likely, considering some of the other weird things that are also going on there but more likely it’s just that maps of the island give the impression that anywhere is within walking distance. Yes, you see more of the city from street level than from underground, but after ten blocks or so, flagging down a cab starts to make more and more sense.
Which we did on the way back from the Upper West Side. Central Park, being Central Park, was a delight. I’ll refrain from even trying to describe it many other writers, most significantly more able than I, have already done the Park more justice than I could. We were quite taken with the place. But we had to make it back to 48th and Lexington (Oh, how hip and cool we sounded, after barely 24 hours in the city), and we simply weren’t up to the walk, so we hopped in a passing cab. The owner of the Poona, the exceptional Indian restaurant where we had dinner on 2nd Avenue, had reckoned that we should look to pay around $11 to get back to our hotel. We were already impressed with his food; when his guess turned out to be only a dime short, we were impressed with his knowledge of the city, too.
New York cabbies, as everyone knows, are the most opinionated, the most discourteous, the most unpleasant individuals in the continental United States. We clearly, then, were most unlucky. We made it down Broadway and across to Lexington without once fearing for our lives or our life savings, and our driver spoke to us precisely once to thank us for paying the fare. I tipped him, even, despite my disappointment at being denied a truly authentic New York experience.
The next day, we recovered our car, having paid $34 per day for parking, and promptly headed out over the Brooklyn Bridge and on to Washington, remarking that spending more on tolls to get through Delaware than we’d spent on parking to keep our car in New York for a day was somewhat distressing. I’m already planning our next trip to the city, and I’m not going to listen to my friends this time, either. While taxis and the subway are undeniably the best way to get round the city, there’s nothing to fear about driving there. Now, if I can just learn a few honking rules