Tony James Shevlin

Tony James Shevlin

Back in the USA (part 1)

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It had been many years since I had visited New York City.  The last time I was there I had admired the view of the city from the top of one of the Twin Towers.  This time I visited Ground Zero and paused for thought at the memorial fountains.

There is something magical about New York.  Thanks to the movie industry, so many of its landmarks are etched in our memories:  The Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station and Times Square.  It’s a great city to walk round.

Despite the cold February weather, I walked up to Central Park.  I visited the section dedicated to John Lennon called Strawberry Fields.  There is a beautiful mosaic with ‘Imagine’ written in the middle.  From there it’s a short walk to the Dakota Building where Lennon lived for many years, and of course, where he was murdered in 1980.  I stood outside and cursed Mark Chapman.

Space is at a premium in NYC.  So I was very pleased with myself when I secured accommodation in midtown Manhattan for just fifty dollars a night in a 7th floor apartment on a street just off Lexington Avenue.  The blurb read “Private loft bed with office space.”  Boy was I in for a surprise.

The one-room apartment had been divided into four ‘rooms’ with the strategic positioning of a series of canvas blinds.  My loft bed was a bunk bed but where the bottom bunk should have been there was a space with a small table and chair; on the table was an office lamp.  There was a small stepladder to gain access to the bed.  After you had negotiated its three steps you then took a leap of faith up to the bed.  The host’s bed was hidden behind similar blinds.  And while those blinds kept her from view, it did not prevent me from hearing her snore the whole night through.  The other ‘room’ was occupied by a man I never met, although I did hear him scurrying around like some feral animal late at night.

I spent very little time in the apartment.

New York moves at an incredible pace.  If you try to slow that pace down New Yorkers will let you know in no uncertain terms.  On the bus in from JFK, one of the passengers couldn’t produce his ticket for an inspector.  The inspector said if he didn’t pay up (again) or get off the bus he would “shut it down and everybody would have to vacate the vehicle”.  He knew what he was doing.  The other passengers turned on the poor man and told him to “get the hell off the bus”.  One man offered to ‘assist’ his exit.  I told the inspector that I was behind the guy in the queue at the ticket office and saw him pay for his ride.  He stared at me as though I was part of a conspiracy to defraud the New York City Bus Company:  “Lemme see your ticket!”  There was a moment of panic as I searched through the many pockets of my coat.  And then a wave of relief when I found it and handed it over.  The eventual hounding led to the man leaving the bus.  This is a tough city. But often that toughness is laced with humour.

The next morning, I encountered the same impatience in the queue for a sandwich in a diner.  I dithered over what bread to have (there are so many and they are barked out at you).  A strong Brooklyn-accented voice from the back of the queue, said: “C’mon buddy, I’m missing my kids growin’ up, here!”

That evening, I hooked up with former Suffolk musician, Aaron Short, who now calls the Big Apple home.  I watched him play at a restaurant called Tommy Bahamas. I was pleased to note that the young Aaron I remember just starting out in the music business had matured into a fine musician, a confident performer, and a really nice chap.

After his gig, Aaron accompanied me to a bar called American Trash to watch me strut my stuff.  It was aptly named.  This was not a place where you performed your most intimate, subtle, soul-searching, finger-picked folk ballads.  Thrashing the hell out of your guitar was the order of the day.  This is what I did and I have lived to tell the tale.  Afterwards Aaron and I retired to a late-night bar and put the world to rights. It was good to see him.

The following day I met up with another musician friend – Sophie Jean Kim.  We had first met on a Spanish Songwriting retreat, and then again in London where we wrote a song together in Regent’s Park called Watching the World Go By.  Jean was still not over the result of the recent presidential election.  We could have channeled her feelings of shock and desolation into a song but instead we decided to write a song of hope for the future called Never Give In.  We filled it with positive affirmations, about coming together and healing.  I didn’t have the heart to tell Jean that I couldn’t shake the image from my head of a little orange man with his tiny hand on a big red button.

After my meeting with Jean, I took a ferry across the Hudson River to Hoboken, New Jersey for no other reason than it was the birthplace of Francis Albert Sinatra.  I found an Irish Bar with an Irish barman and had a very good pint of Guinness.  They were playing Frank on the jukebox.  My mother had been a huge fan, so as he sang One More for my Baby and One More for the Road, I ordered a shot of whisky, looked Heavenward and said: “This one’s for you, Mum”.

Next morning I woke to a city blanketed in snow.  I left my host snoring and her roommate skulking about and headed out to play at being Macaulay Culkin in Home Alone 2.  The streets had been cleared of snow, the detritus in the gutters forming little mountains ranges.  From the warmth of a coffee shop, I watched the natives head out to work, battling against the falling snow and the biting wind.  Nothing stops in this city.

Except the airports.  They stop.  Delta Airlines had informed me by email that my flight had been put back from 1pm to 8pm.  No problem – a few more hours in NYC, that was okay.  But when I arrived at La Guardia, the information boards read that my flight had been cancelled (it’s strange that Delta neglected to tell me this).

The desk jockey at the check-in counter told me that I was now booked on the 8pm flight the following night.  Summoning up the spirit of a native New Yorker, I looked at him steely-eyed and said: “Not happening, buddy. Get me on an earlier flight!”  I had been told that airlines always keep some seats back for more astute or assertive passengers that aren’t happy to accept long delays.  He immediately looked at his screen and said, “Oh, look at that, someone has just cancelled on the 11 o’clock flight tomorrow morning.  I can put you on that!” “Marvellous!” I said, “that is fortunate”.  He smiled, weakly at me.  He knew I knew, and I knew that he knew I knew but we continued our charade.

The problem now was to find a room for the night.  With the amount of flights cancelled because of the bad weather, all the airport hotels were fully booked.  I found a motel in one of the less salubrious areas of Queens (and that’s not easy) called Flushing.  The Flushing Motel.  It was pretty basic but it was warm, clean and dry.  I have a ritual that comes from my US tour of 2015 that whenever I stay in a motel, I hole up with beer and pepperoni pizza.  The concierge, a very nice Indian man, thought that I was crazy to venture out in the blizzard that had started up.  No matter.  A ritual is a ritual and has to be maintained.

Downtown Flushing is predominantly a Chinese neighbourhood.  And it seems that the Chinese in Flushing have little or no interest in beer.  Every store I went in to I was told “No Beer” by angry-looking ancient and inscrutable shopkeepers.  So I wandered the streets of Chinatown on a quest for beer like a frostbitten Jack Nicholson.  I doubt that that Oscar-winning movie’s protagonist, private eye Jake Gittes would have shown the dedication and determination I showed that night.  Eventually, in the distance, at the top of a hill, I saw a neon sign advertising a well-known brand of American beer.  With the resilience of Captain Scott and the thirst of Captain Haddock, I climbed the hill, entered the store, bought some beer, and headed back to the motel, stopping only to buy two large pizza slices on the way.  That beer tasted very, very good.

The flight from New York City to Kansas City was only memorable for two incidents.  The first was a stewardess who took umbrage at my wanting to bring my Martin guitar on board as hand luggage.  I reminded her of Delta Airlines’ policy of allowing musical instruments on board, and because I was still in a New York state of mind, added: “Lady, this is a thousand dollar guitar – it’s not going in the hold!”

We had another run-in later on when she was serving drinks.  She looked disgusted when I ordered a beer (it wasn’t quite midday).  “What beer would you like?” she asked, smiling through gritted teeth.  I smiled back: “It might be easier if you tell me what you’ve got.” She reeled off a list and I chose one.  She rummaged around in her trolley.  Without apology she said, “I haven’t got that one.”  I smiled benignly, “Now you’re just playing games…” I think she withheld my complimentary packet of peanuts on purpose…

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