Escape In New York City

Throwback Thursday is an Instagram/Facebook gimmick. But it’s also a great exercise in scheduled nostalgia. An excuse to look back on photos taken years before and revisit what almost seems like a former life. This week, I went right back in my digital photo archive. Almost to the beginning. Sometime in August 2003, on the New York subway.

It was less than two years after 9/11. George W Bush was president and Tony Blair was Prime Minister. The Taliban had been chased out of Kabul. War was raging in Iraq. The SARS virus was causing a panic. A swathe of central European countries voted to join the EU, quickly leading to waves of migrants and on to a later nationalist uprising. But it was a heatwave that was the greater crisis that summer, with soaring temperatures leaving more than 70,000 Europeans dead.

And all the while, I spent the whole summer touring Mexico, with a few days in El Paso and a week in New York City to finish off with. Happy, happy times. The best of times. It’s not a great photo, sure. But memories aren’t made of megapixels or any other measurement of photographic quality. The girl was an Australian lass called Clare. For the life of me I do not remember the name of the chap in the shot. I just remember he was from New Zealand. Let’s just call him the Kiwi. We were all single travellers staying in the same hostel in Harlem, which is how we came to be brought together.

Although the exif data has long since been lost, I can date the photo very precisely. It was the day after the Northeast Blackout, which happened on August 14th. It was also the only day we enjoyed the company of the Kiwi. Primarily because we didn’t enjoy the company of the Kiwi. He was a nice enough chap I guess, albeit a bit dull. But he was trying very hard to do New York on a budget of about $10 a day. He was on a very different holiday to us.

We did all discuss the following day’s plan before retiring for the evening and arranged to meet in the hostel’s garden early the next morning. Clare and I were earlier than he. And had been thinking the same thing, although we’d been far to polite to mention anything infront of the Kiwi the evening before. There were two plans for the day. Our plan, involving theatre, subway rides and hip restaurants. And the Kiwi’s plan which involved walking, free things and dives. We much preferred our plan.

I honestly don’t remember which of us suggested it. We caught sight of the Kiwi coming out of the hostel and into the garden. “Shall we run?” It doesn’t matter who said it. We were still thinking exactly the same thing. Whoever didn’t say it, wholeheartedly agreed. We ran, seeking a rear exit from the garden, clambering over a low fence into an alleyway. We kept on running until we were sure that we were safe. We didn’t know if the Kiwi had seen us, but I expect he had. Our departure, whilst sudden, was none too subtle. Yes, we both felt a bit guilty. But the next few days were all the better for our devious escape from budgetry boredom.

We never did see the Kiwi again, I don’t think. But then Clare and I left the hostel early, didn’t get back till very late and frequented venues that would clearly have been well beyond the Kiwis spending power. We saw Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway, which remains the best musical I’ve ever seen. We (or at least I) discovered chocolate popcorn, which remains the greatest popcorn I’ve ever eaten. And we watched a guy get robbed in the street for $100, which remains the greatest con trick I’ve ever seen.

I have no idea what became of Clare. Like many people I’ve met when travelling, we quickly lose touch. But I must go back to New York one day. Which remains the third greatest city I’ve ever been to. The first and second? You can probably guess…

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