The TransAtlantic Hearing Aid

Eighth Bit: I Was a Worm in the Big Apple

Monday 8 September 1980, continued

Andy Porter, a reassuringly bearlike figure, helped us out of Penn Central Station more or less by the scruffs of our necks. Though travel-worn we'd greeted him effusively: 'Gug,' said Hazel. 'Nng,' I agreed. Sensing that dynamism was at a low ebb, Andy got us to his apartment by heroic efforts involving cattle-goads, firemen's lifts and subway tokens used in a manner not convenient to describe. '....,' I remember saying gratefully as at last I sank to the floor in Pineapple Street, Brooklyn.

The Porter apartment was a deeply fannish venue, with vast toppling heaps of Algol/Starship (anyone remember that?) and SF Chronicle everywhere; ramparts of mint review books which Andy generously offered to sell us (I have never equalled the chutzpah of his insistence that publishers send two copies of everything, one for the reviewer and one to sell to visitors); typewriters and ansaphones and a pan-galactic card index which late one night I was graciously permitted to update with a hundred-odd new cards for new Starship subscribers.... But behind the gay exterior lurked the hidden terrors of New York. Why was half the kitchen-cupboard space sealed up and inaccessible? We never got round to asking. Why did Andy return ashen-faced and tight-lipped from an innocuous trip downstairs? 'I saw a roach in the trash,' he gritted through clenched nostrils, and secured fourteen bolts and three locks on the apartment door, frenziedly spraying door-edges, floors, walls, food and guests with an aerosol labelled something like Zyklon-B.

We'd hit upon one of the great preoccupations of New York (pronounced 'Nyork') life. With the nervous interest of hay-fever sufferers in pollen counts, fannish apartment-dwellers swap notes on the cockroach count. Even subway cars were full of ads from something called a Black Flag Roach Motel: 'Roaches check in – but they don't check out!' Or if I got the bilingual bits right, 'Las cucarachas entran – per no pueden salir!' My planned witticisms on the Roach Motel were pre-empted by despicable Leroy Kettle (only a year later), so out of spite I now steal his version: 'A superficially attractive little cardboard construction into which the vile monsters march with remorseless stupidity until they die gurgling in vast quantities of their own secretions. It's incredible how many countries seem to have their own version of the BSFA.' Thank you, Leroy.

When Andy had calmed down from his attempted acts of genocide in self-defence, we found it was still early afternoon and strolled out to see the sights. Dr Johnson used to quip about the finest sight a Scotsman ever sees being the high road leading to England; similarly, the sights of Brooklyn are all down by the East River and consist of Manhattan Island. We duly gaped at the edited highlights which were actually visible of the Brooklyn Bridge, Statue of Libertarianism, World Trade Centre (or Center), Empire State and Chrysler buildings, and as Hazel was swift to observe it was all just like the photographs. Amazing, astounding, analog! Descriptions of sightseeing are liable to be a bore without the special angle which converts them to insightseeing, and by then I was clean out of insights. Conversely, although the secret of trip reporting lies in knowing what to leave out, the second law of thermodynamics has been nibbling at my memories to leave the far more challenging problem of finding something to leave in. The remaining evidence for the prosecution consists of a mere nine Fortran cards pencilled with the faded Langford minuscules which made Hazel accuse me of writing microfiche.... I wonder how Proust did it without Fortran cards?

It was bloody hot. (Pause to omit joke about Muriel Spark's Hothouse by the East River.) Even hardened NY city cops, laden with what appeared to be about 30% of the arms race, could be seen staggeringly pathetically to lap at drinking fountains. 'Your accent is so thick,' Andy told me bafflingly, but perhaps he was referring to the air, which pressed around us like tepid gumbo. Dimly through the glop we encountered Sarah Prince, Sue-Rae Rosenfeld, Lise Eisenberg (large) and Moshe Feder (small). 'Peter Roberts,' said Moshe earnestly, 'wanted to go up the Empire State building because it was more traditional than the World Trade Centre even if the WTC is higher.' Passively agreeing, I found I'd booked Hazel and self for a trip next day up the Empire State.

Through fading evening heat, Moshe led us to stock up at the nearest bagel dispensary carrying his rare Seal of Approval (as withheld from everywhere in Boston). The alien comestibles were vaguely doughnutoid, coming in a variety of creeds and colours: ordinary, dark, fruity, onion, worcester sauce plus chocolate-chip, etc. I failed to collapse in hysterics at someone's quip about onion bagels as a secret password to Harry Harrison. Evidently my overloaded sense of wonder had finally sputtered out.

But not for long. Trance persisted through the subway journey (where points for style and cool were awarded to a vast black chap seen air-conditioning himself with a battery-powered fan)... but the Staten Island ferry, even more trad than the Empire State, overwhelmed my blasé sleepwalker's pose in sheer bogglement. Out over the water, all Manhattan was glowing like a clutch of neon-lit Chris Foss paintings. Noises like Goshwowboyoboy emanated from slack-jawed Langford, and little oohs and ahs from formerly jaded Hazel. Flocking to the rail like Gadarene swine, the rest of the tourist passengers snapped photos of the lurid spectacle – overcoming the problem of the dark by using flashguns at half-mile range. Even those aggressively dull WTC towers had become cubist Christmas trees, outglittering everything else in view: 'Japs still working,' Andy clarified. 'There are two rush hours in New York, five o'clock and again at seven when the Japs go home.'

The Statue of Liberty was floodlit too. It didn't seem right: how can they let something with that mythic power (in SF, anyway) just be there, year in, year out? Surely it should be rationed, unveiled on rare and ceremonial occasions.... While thinking about large mythic figures, I unguardedly told Andy my theory that he resembles two British authors, a touch of each: Mike Scott Rohan and Andrew Stephenson. The latter name rang unexpected bells. 'Oh, him, He's the guy who goes around with a bottle of whisky in his hand, inseparable – I've got pictures to prove it.' Pause to worry: this sounded more like me.

The ferry droned on remorselessly and I finished waking up, to find that the party consisted only of myself, Hazel, Andy and Lise: Moshe, poor devil, had retired to review his advance copy of Tolkien's Unpublishable Tales. We fell on the defenceless bagels, which were triffic with cream cheese but more dubious with lox. I'd always thought the latter was a liquefied gas you kept in bottles, not part-liquefied fish you put in bagels... like gas it escapes at the slightest opportunity, and the analogy might be taken further but not here.

A vast free lightshow of planes and copters erupted over the Manhattan skyline, yet another 50s SF vision: even the illuminated cranes at the docks were Fossiferous laser cannon aimed into the sky. I tried to curb the sensawonder before Andy started to remind me of Gort or Mighty Joe Young. In a searing illustration of the proverb 'better to travel hopefully than to arrive,' there turned out to be nothing whatever do on on Staten Island except catch the ferry straight back... and venture on foot into the untamed interior. (Hazel complained of an untamed interior, but this was merely the lox.)

Up close, the Manhattan streets shed their technicolour glamour. Down-and-outs slept in heaps by the ferry terminal like the aftermath of Saturday at Noreascon, diffusing a pong of urine. Hazel claimed to overhear an Illicit Transaction in the street, and Andy informed us that 42,088 bullets had been made from a statue of George III previously erected in this vicinity by grateful Nyorkers. Nineteenth-century edifices burst into gormenghastly outbreaks of gothic furbelows and classical pillars, hundreds of feet from the ground. At Trinity Church, alarmingly vast and black, we learnt that savage New York sanctions against Iran involved noonday bell-ringing. Liberty Tower ('Being Restored As A Residential Co-Operative Gothic Skyscraper'), Federal Reserve Bank, Chase Manhattan Bank... Andy seemed especially keen on banks, perhaps owing to his semi-pro ambitions, and explained deadpan that a certain panel in the Chase Manhattan plaza contained a plunger which would destroy the whole massive erection. He even pointed out the panel, which opened at his touch, and....

Everything went a bit surreal at this point, and I don't wholly trust my hallucinations of a fifteen-inch illuminated clock buried in the pavement (sc. sidewalk), the ornate mosque ceilings of the Woolworth Building, a panel boasting 5,600 branches of Woollies in ten countries, and our brief collapse on the steps of City Hall. By 10pm it was cool enough to sleep, a bracing 76°F, and we caught the subway to Pineapple Street.

There were three sofas in the Porter residence. One was nobly proportioned but deep-frozen by the main air-conditioning fan: the prognosis included cramp, hypothermia, chilblains, frostbite and death. The others were each four feet long. Hazel contrived to curl up, giggling and yawning at the same time (versatile woman) – while I tried to balance left-over bits of my own six-three (chiefly my feet) on painstakingly constructed piles of old Algols. Since that night, I've had enormous difficulty in remembering that it was Macbeth and not the Porter who murdered sleep.

Tuesday 9 September 1980

Suffice it to say that old copies of Algol are slippery. A further scientific discovery was that bagels, left overnight, assume the texture of structural concrete. We left Andy gnawing them in preference to the only alternative (his review copies), and with insane confidence headed for the subway. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, was to meet Moshe at the Museum of Natural History. Forensic analysis has utterly failed to reconstruct the route we took: the Tube in London has no pangs to compare with seeing your chosen station flash by and deducing you are on a blasted 'uptown express' which is determined to take you somewhere like Poughkeepsie. As on a golf course, the inept neophyte gets a lot more value and mileage for the money... Moshe was frankly disbelieving when told of how we had to search the museum from within to locate the special, convenient, direct-from-subway entrance where he awaited us.

Hazel pronounced this museum better than the Smithsonian for your actual density of exhibits, and had a great time. Amid the bumf on a Zulu-ritual exhibit I found the cheering phrase 'libations of beer alone can absolve the people's sins', a point for US con-fandom to ponder. Vondanikenesque exhibits included 'spaceman' masks and the kinky regalia of the Ibo Society of Ghosts, a whole-body knitted garment oddly foreshadowing Damart Thermawear. Nothing foreshadowed Gary Farber, who appeared as if by magic, simultaneously with our discovery of a full-size blue whale in tasteful fibreglass. Moshe carefully explained that the whale wasn't a real one, but neglected to confirm the status of Mr Farber.

Soon we hit the streets again, enthused by Gary's recommendation of the Big Apple: 'The only place where I've found a kosher Chinese pizza house.' The world-renowned Feder city tour began with the offer of a peep at the Dakota building where Richard Bergeron lurked, 'as seen in Time After Time and Rosemary's Baby.' The reclusive one was still in New York (and still in possession of his marbles) then. John Lennon was still alive. I was still under thirty....

In Central Park, a man picked a small, full glass from the ground with his teeth, drinking it without spilling a drop. (Can D.West do this?) I was momentarily dubious about the park's internal nomenclature – Horse Dropping Walk, Gayrights Path - but Moshe was impossible to disbelieve. He knew all. For each NY building he could (and did) recite name, date, nature and purpose, all major renovations/redecorations, and principal childhood illnesses of the architect. My notes luckily failed to keep up. Hazel scorned his effort to tempt her with glittery shops like Tiffany's; there was nothing for it but a bus to the Empire State Building, where new horror struck.

'You've got to have 60¢ ready,' Moshe had said. I obeyed slavishly, $1.20 in hand to cover self plus Hazel (I did O-level maths, I'll have to know). The surly driver looked at my huge plutocratic dollar bill as though it were a badly forged rouble: 'No bills,' he barked. I groped frantically for change while a queue of 5,271,009 people formed magically behind me and grew restive, and of course I dropped dimes all over the floor, and smashed my head clangorously into a metal rail provided specially for people who tried to pick up change.... Thus I sulked with a headache for the ensuing ride past millions of famous shops, Gucci, Cartier, Saks, etc., while in an undertone Moshe revealed the number of bricks used to construct each one, also the current owners' inside leg measurements.

The Empire State experience starts unpromisingly, with a walk downstairs for your $2.25 ticket. Moshe resumed our education in the lift and seemed mildly irritated when a girl asked hopefully if he was an official guide. From the 80th floor he pointed out obscure landmarks: the Coney Island Parachute Drop near the horizon this way, the giant Unisphere globe from the 1964-5 World's Fair far off that way, and 'The stadium is, er, that stadium-shaped thing.' We were on a high windy perch, railed-in and much overpopulated, with an utterly unconvincing scale model of the city wavering in heat-haze far below. Yellow Cabs crawled like infant beetles. Alarmingly, the next lift to the 102nd floor had an altimeter rather than the usual indicator.... 1250 feet. I felt exceptionally traditional and touristy – also, not quite real. The very top chamber is a small, hot, blue-painted steel room like the interior of a bomb. THE TOP OF THE BIG APPLE, said untruthful signs: the view from tiny, cloudy windows was even less convincing. Being up there is a state of mind.

A final touch of wonderment, which somehow gave perspective to the hugeness, came as we left and Gary asked the info-desk where he could find the toilet. 'There isn't one,' they said. Outside, we gazed awestruck up 102 floors and marvelled at the inhabitants' self-control. (I'd already had suspicions of the little gobs and splutters of pseudo-rain that kept hitting us in the streets, but allowed myself to be persuaded that these were merely the excretions of high-up air conditioners.)

Moshe was quite distinctly miffed when again taken for an official guide, ths time in the vast Barnes & Noble bookshop. (Apparently he's tired of having his leg pulled in this area, and awaits each new TAFF report with mounting dread. Oops.) Meanwhile I acquired a stack of books which almost ruptured several things including my credit card, and Hazel chased a cockroach. It was small and elusive, and she followed it intently from shelf to shelf. Gary and Moshe leapt back in alarm, projecting 'We're not with this person' vibes at innocent passers-by. A sidelong whisper from Moshe: 'Why's she trying to catch it?' With irrefutable logic I explained: 'She's never seen one before.' Stark disbelief from Moshe: 'But you were at Stu's!' I gleaned the impression that our night chez Shiffman without the scuttle of tiny feet was an event which shattered legends, a portent on the same order as blue moons, flying pigs, and correct punctuation in the writings of Alan Dorey. Eventually Hazel desisted, consoled by a loyal husband with the thought that her quarry was too small and she'd have had to throw it back anyway.

A great deal of complicated walking revealed flaws in the rectilinear idealism of New York's street plan: Einstein might approve of the curved space in which West 4th Street intersects West 11th Street, but Euclid would have a fit. Eventually we found ourselves studying the illuminated Empire State building from a distance quite far enough to account for the meeting of parallel lines, and Gary chilled my bones with the casual remark, 'You realize we've walked all the way from there?' Instantly I realized my feet were raw pulpy masses exuding a substance resembling bolognese sauce, and we collapsed into an alleged Indian restaurant. It must have been very exclusive and special: I'd never before seen Indian menu entries like 'Yummy Potatoburgers' or 'Punjab Dinner for One/Two – From the Land of Zesty Punjabis'. Despite all ordering different things, we received teensy identical portions of Generic Brown Curry, except for Moshe, who got nothing at all. Scurrilous conversation saved the meal: 'Harry Andruschak used to be fandom's biggest fugghead – went round propositioning all the women, then decided he was bisexual and propositioned all the men,' etc. Moshe, eyes narrowed, complained that it was harder to understand Langford now than at Noreascon. Hazel explained with lightning tact: 'He always talks slower when he's drunk.'

The day was running down. We had an awesome glimpse of the apartment block containing Charles Platt... a fun visit to an ice cream shop where I discovered the Irish Whiskey flavoured version and ever-didactic Moshe instructed me in the subtleties of how to eat it... Bill Rotsler walking by the same shop as we left, ice-creams that pass in the night... a 'Head Shop' devoted to the paraphernalia of naughty substances, with everyone lurking cravenly outside as I bought a nice present for Peter Roberts, banana flavoured cigarette wrappers ('pure cannabis paper, finest rolling paper in the world')....

The almost godlike Mr Porter welcomed the returned travellers with a half pint of near-beer: Britfans will realize my state when I mention tears of gratitude at being offered Harp lager. 'You could get several Gary Farbers on to that,' assured Andy Procrustes as he shoehorned me again between the arms of the four-foot couch. 'Vernon Brown and Pat Baxter only used one between them when they stayed here....' No doubt. And so to 'sleep', brooding on why my memories of the day, far from being a richly coherent sociological and intellectual exposition replete with moral instruction for the young, instead resembled a smashed kaleidoscope.

Last Day: Wednesday 10 September 1980

After all-night protrusion, my legs had the sturdiness of asparagus. I soon gave up trying to clean sweaty footprints from the valuable copies of Algol. The bagels, speculatively placed in the fridge, now aspired to being neutronium. I could feel my sentences getting shorter, more fragmented, as our flight time neared... even if it wasn't until 22:15 that evening. Andy tried to soothe us with the antiquities and oak panelling of the nearby Long Island Historical Society. Local-interest material in the Society bookshop included the undeniably local title Last Exit to Brooklyn, as well as a history of Coney Island titled Sodom by the Sea. The memory of our promise to Lunch With Moshe produced a resurgence of deathly pallor – due not to fear that he'd tell us the unexpurgated history of luncheons, but to the prospect of another lone subway journey.

Andy scribbled us a freehand map, full of HERE BE TYGERS and EDGE OF WORLD – GO BACK. 'Made your wills?' he asked solicitously. With false confidence we stalked out and demonstrated our sense of direction by not getting lost in the elevator to Pineapple Street. At this point we paused, wondering which way to go, until Andy shouted from the fire escape, pointed, and threw down a fluttering, forgotten subway map. Delusions of self-confidence were abandoned.

This time we beat Moshe to the rendezvous point, and admired slums and an immense, revolutionary wall-painting for several minutes before being quick-marched to the Yonah Schimmel Knishery, where Moshe's cultural shame at Boston's 'small red egg-shaped knishes' was at last wiped out by giving us the Real Thing. We smacked our lips vigorously despite total failure to remember how the false knish had tasted in Boston. (Later – no memory in UK of how the real knish tasted in New York. I blame Heraclitus.) Next came the even realler thing, the Crown Kosher Deli: 'Don't embarrass me by asking for milk!' hissed Moshe. As a generous concession I drank beer, while Hazel declined Dr Brown's Celery Pop.

Onward to the Waldorf-Astoria, Times Square, notorious 42nd street with porn films showing on either side, and more, and more: if ace guide Moshe had pointed out the Taj Mahal I'd have mechanically written Taj Mahal in my notes. The afternoon slipped by, with Hazel and I developing a tendency to scream at the sight or mention of aircraft, air, birds, flies, even geometrical or astral planes. Our touching farewell scene on a subway platform was marred by persistent strangers, lured by Moshe's air of authority into asking route directions. The train squatted, humming, unmoving, for subjective hours, us inside and Moshe on the platform, swapping uneasy grins, farewell noises used up. Eventually the graffiti-encrusted train grumbled off into the tunnel, Hazel declared Moshe to be Really Nice, and I wondered idly about the evening's low passenger density. Andy explained all at the other end: Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, 'three million people staying home instead of crowding the subways.'

We packed suitcases, meditating on last things. The gloating radio promised hurricanes over the Atlantic. Hazel twitched a lot. A grey procession to the last subway journey... more goodbyes, eulogies to mighty Porter hospitality, assurances that sweaty TAFF footprints had doubled the value of all those Algols. Some while later, our special JFK Express train emerged from the catacombs, bits of New York glowing behind it in a dull red sunset like furnace heat.

JFK Departure. Hazel trembling. In eschatological mood I blew our last dollars on drinks. Hazel confessed enjoyment of: mosque, museums, National Geographic HQ, 'people one at a time'. Not crowds. Not Noreascon. In macho silence I blankly failed to come up with any likes or dislikes whatever. Stern notices warned of hideous penalties for carrying bombs or drugs, also for joking about carrying same. Were there infinite levels of metapenalties for joking about joking about joking about...? Wisely I didn't research this, but Wrong Thoughts were detected anyway as the Langford shoulder-bag provoked gadgetry to irate beeps. My shaver plus loose change formed a convincing infernal machine on the fluoroscope. Very Stainless Steel Rat. I thought of several brilliant jokes, bit them back for fear of being shot where I stood. Later I forgot them all.

Plane. Hazel near-catatonic. Fine cracks visible in Langford machismo. Cheering demonstration of lifejackets, oxygen masks, as we moved to the runway. Thrum thrum. Through the window, psychedelic glimpses of lit-up America tilted away and vanished. Me: 'The big question now is, are our feet going to swell up?' Hazel, resigned: 'Mine swelled up yesterday in New York.' Did Camus ever use this symbol of Angst?

Special arrangement between Laker and weather: dinner served in appetite-flattening turbulence, stomachs leaping through mouths on every side. The food: unidentifiable fine-grained probable-mince entombed in possible-pasta. Imagine a Wimpy or Burger King lasagne. Ate Hazel's as well her my own, drank her wine, ordered liqueur, muttered excuses about abstinence in USA. She Who Must Be Obeyed feebly agreed: that foreign stuff didn't really count as drink. Queasy blank period. Somewhere underneath, it became

Thursday 11 September 1980

The small hours. Extreme turbulence. Noise of plane bouncing along a sheet-iron runway. Pneumatic drills were also implicated. Mighty hammerblows detectably ripping off wings, battering fuselage into bagel-shape. Hazel in tears. A stewardess recited soothing lies, 'happens every time, dear,' while I felt useless. Even my double assault on nervousness failed to induce stupor: dulling senses with whisky and intellect with (bought specially from Andy for this purpose) a Piers Anthony novel. All was grim until the indigestible breakfast, low flight over patchwork green England, gentle touchdown, end of notes, end of trip report.

Well, nearly. UK Customs were gratifyingly nonplussed by my declaration of a suitcase and a half full of used books: no duty, no VAT, and somehow we never got round to discussing the typeball. The Gatwick-Reading train journey was plainly a time for peaceful sleep and recuperation, but was instead dominated by a middle-aged Canadian over here to research a book on pilgrimages. As a returned pilgrim I felt well briefed, but could only stare with glassy tact while he pulled out endless rare stamps I'd surely like to see, ancient first editions which I was invited to envy – 'I got a first of Gray's Elegy at home,' the researcher droned: having instinctively dozed off at this point, I don't remember any more.

The Langford hovel proved to be unburnt and unpillaged. Leaving an immense drift of mail to be dealt with in future months, we reaffirmed the ancient values of civilization with visits to a real tandoori restaurant (wholly devoid of Zesty Punjabis) and a real-ale pub, followed by several days' continuous sleep. This would be the place for a final summing-up, an ultimate distillation of the TAFF odyssey's moral lessons; but really, everything my ravaged brain can recall is somewhere in the preceding 30,000 words of variegated tedium. Gooey gratitude is again extended to all who, over these immense cycles of time, caused, inspired, enlivened, or published my long-past TAFF trip and this ensuing ego trip. The only remaining points are that I'd like to go again, while Hazel would like never to go in a plane again.

We're working on it.