It was a priceless moment — one that I would savour for years to come.
The statement, “Tony Blair…is normally immensely popular in the US for his support for President George W Bush’s ‘war on terror’”, contained in the Daily Mail article, Tony Blair is barracked over Iraq by students at Yale University, which I posted on this blog earlier this week, reminds me of a conversation I had with some middle-aged New Yorkers some time ago in the summer of 2004.
I had arrived in America for the first time at Boston’s Logan Airport a few days earlier and had booked straight away (once I’d found my way to Boston’s Huntington Avenue having totally lost my bearings in Boston’s new underground road system) into the YMCA. I had spent the next few days touring Boston harbor, Cambridge, Groton, the prep school out in the wilds of Massachusetts where FDR was educated (the hero of a novel I’m writing is educated there), Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Newport (RI) (to visit the mansions), and New Haven.
My holiday had been planned with military-style precision, rooms in youth hostels or YMCAs in the major cities I stayed in (Boston, New York, and Washington) and a vehicle from Alamos (a nice comfy Buick Century as it turned out), being booked weeks beforehand over the net, and staying in motels when on the road between places.
But my drive from New Haven to New York had not been so planned. I had simply picked my car up in the multi-story car park in New Haven, having visited Yale campus, the Stirling library, and YLS, and driven on down Highway 95 towards New York, “simply hoping for the best”, as my driving instructor of yore had often put it.
As the multi-story tower blocks of New Rochelle came into view, indicating that I was approaching the fabled city, I realized I hadn’t the faintest idea of how to actually get to the West Side YMCA, which is situated at 5 West 63rd St. New York, NY 10023, and decided to drive off at the next exit and found out.
I parked beside a bar on a marina in view of Throgs Neck Bridge and asked the bar lady how to get to my destination.
She didn’t know, but introduced me to some middle aged men sitting around a table on the veranda outside. It didn’t take me long to realize that I was talking to genuine New Yorkers.
“Do you know where you are?” one of them asked me.
“You’re in the Bronx.”
“Have you heard of the Bronx?”
“That’s Throg Neck Bridge, over there. Drugs Neck Bridge, they call it.”
The conversation turned to politics.
“We like your Tony Blair,” one of them said.From this remark, I gathered that my friends were conservatives and pro-war.
(By that time I was agnostic over the war, but, when British and American troops had invaded Iraq, I had believed the lies about weapons of mass destruction we had been told about in the so-called “sexed-up” dossier, over which, a year earlier, Dr David Kelly had lost his life, and could see no other way in which Saddam could be forced to comply with the UN resolutions. As we all now know, he had no WMDs, and it was only gradually that, over the next few months, it dawned on me that I had been sold a pup. But at this stage I was still sufficiently confused over the issue not to get into a heated argument over the reasons for the war. And in any case, I needed their help.)
They argued over whether Blair was a conservative or what Americans call liberal and what we would call socialdemocratic or left-of-centre.
It was a priceless moment — one that I would savour for years to come.
I had to explain to them that Blair was the leader not of the Conservative Party but of the Labour Party, which had been founded by the socialist Keir Hardy and which had once included the notorious Clause 4 amongst its aims and values and which was printed on the membership card of every member:
To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
In other words: Socialism.
Blair, who had once been a member of CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) and had called for Britain to leave the EEC at a time when this was the platform of every self-respecting left-winger, had abolished it at a Party Conference in 1995 shortly after becoming Labour Party leader.
Back to my New Yorkers, who really did pronounce the name New York, “Noo Yoik”, as New Yorkers are supposed to do.
Having not expressed an opinion on any subject for several days, I welcomed the opportunity to discuss politics, but the conversation soon moved on.
When I told them where I would be staying (Upper West Side YMCA, which was a hop, skip and a jump away from the south west corner of Central Park) and how much I’d be paying per night (about $50), one of them said, “You’d be lucky to get a bench in Central Park for that price.”
A false turn into the Bronx and the resulting calamity is what the entire plot of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities revolves around, and I when it transpired that to get to the YMCA I would have to cross the Cross-Bronx Expressway, I wondered whether it would be better to hand my car in to the nearest Alamo’s depot, get to New York by taxi or public transport, and pick up a car again when I moved on.
One of them lent me his mobile phone. I called Alamo’s. It was not possible to change the booking. So I would have to drive into New York.
After some deliberation, they explained to me the route, which I wrote down in the little red notebook I had brought with me with addresses of YMCAs, youth hostels and my itinerary.
During this discussion, one of them, who had dark hair and whom I took to be Italo-American, used the bunched finger, gesture, which is often accompanied by the Italian, “Che cazzo vuoi? “, or, in the case of English-speaking New York cab drivers, “What’s your problem?”.
We went over the route one final time.
“You’ll be alright,” they said, reassuringly.
Thus emboldened, I got up to go, and as I did so, they all shook my hand.
As I drove along the Cross-Bronx Expressway, taking care not to do a Sherman McCoy, I caught my first sight of the Empire State Building above the roofs of the abomination that is the Bronx. It reminded me of my first sight of St Peter’s, Rome, in far less propitious circumstances many years earlier.
I had arrived in Rome late at night and, as the Tourist Information Office, the only place i could get information about campsites, was shut, I had slept in the park outside the station, only to be woken up by someone who, like me, had also slept there, and been robbed, and to find that the pockets of my trousers had been slashed open and my traveller’s cheques had been stolen.
I wondered whether something similar would befall me in Manhattan.
A few minutes later, after driving down the Henry Hudson Parkway (the most exhilarating experience I’ve had since skiing down Kitzbuhel’s Hahnenkamm, and something akin to what I imagine it must be like to go down St. Moritz’s legendary Cresta Run, I found myself pulling my wheeled suitcase across Broadway in view of the Lincoln Center on my way to West 63rd Street.
I would have liked to have phoned those gentlemen I had met in the bar on the marina to say that I had successfully followed their directions, but I didn’t have a phone and I didn’t know their telephone numbers.
Although I now despise the views they held, it is salutary to reflect on the fact that at one stage in my life my own weren’t that far distant from theirs. So I don’t condemn them, tho’ I condemn the folk who have lied to them and to me. I had also reason to be grateful to them. They were just large-hearted, generous Americans who had been deceived by their leaders. It’s sad to reflect that there are still, now, after eight years, so many like them.
My stay in Manhattan, I am happy to say, did not begin as my stay in Rome had done. But it was not entirely uneventful. But that is another story.
© Anthony T. Hopkins, 2008