Alcatraz, trolley car rides and a day’s hike through Yosemite were all arranged and paid for, but the boys were keen to first visit the big Apple store in Union Square to purchase items that would enable them to spend more time on the internet. I couldn’t see how this was possible. As far I could tell, every waking moment since we left the airport had been spent on their devices. Presumably, some cutting-edge gizmo fresh out of Silicon Valley could be plugged directly into the brain so that while asleep their REM could be used to swipe through whatever missives were pouring in from back home in Australia.
The salesman looked at me as if I’d asked him for a Morse-Vail Telegraph Key.
The shop was fascinating though: a two-storey glass cube and no furniture but for scrubbed wooden benches with nothing on them. Products appeared on HD digital wallpaper, which read the metadata off your Fitbit as you walked through the door. Undercover staff pretended to be just happening past as you made your selection. My sons purchased a variety of plugs and cables, paid for by pointing their screens at the salesman’s belt. An Apple end-user myself, I thought I’d enter into the spirit of things and get a replacement case for my iPhone 4. The salesman looked at me as if I’d asked him for a Morse-Vail Telegraph Key and my children beat a hasty exit lest I infect them with my lameness.
Our tour of Alcatraz was more successful. I was able to answer all the guard’s rhetorical questions. I knew their most famous inmate was Robert Stroud, the Birdman of Alcatraz and that Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery had once foiled a biochemical terrorist plot from up in the guard tower (The Rock). As the rest of our group listened spellbound to my account of the Native Americans Occupation of Alcatraz in 1971, my children snuck away, fashioned a glider from bed linen stolen from the prison laundry and escaped back to the mainland.
The queue for the trolley car ride to the port that afternoon was too long (a Chinese dragon had got there ahead of us) so we abandoned our plans for a ferry trip under the Golden Gate Bridge in favour of watching a YouTube clip of Max Zorin falling from it in A View To a Kill.
Then it was onto Yosemite National Park for a spectacular view of what the children dismissed as exactly the same as the default Mac screensaver for OS Catalina, and a night at the theatre to see A Christmas Carol, where I glimpsed the back of what my wife assured me was Dan Aykroyd’s head. It was our first celebrity spotting.
Just as Scrooge learned the true meaning of Christmas after being taken on a journey by three ghosts, I hoped our three children would learn the same lesson on their journey with us. I explained my hope to my wife as she packed our bags the next morning. She couldn’t quite follow my logic and told me to fix up the bill and arrange a cab for the airport. New York City – which Dan Aykroyd had helped to simultaneously save and almost destroy in Ghostbusters – lay ahead.
Tipping has always caused me angst and I always tend to overdo it. After a porter helped us into the taxi with our bags I raced back into the hotel and pressed a handful of American dollars on him. He looked shocked and tried to give the money back but I insisted. “No, no. You’ve earned it,” I said in a loud over-enunciating voice to compensate for what I assumed was his lack of English. Another Chinese man behind the desk in a similar shirt looked most put out and I then realised I had just given $30 to a guest checking into the hotel. Still, it was too late to explain so I handed over some more cash to the porter and another wad to another man standing nearby so he didn’t feel left out, bid everyone a Merry Christmas and left as red-faced as Santa himself.
New York, New York was, as Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and that other guy once sang, a wonderful town. Unlike the three sailors on leave in that movie (On the Town), our three sons didn’t so much run amok, singing and dancing, as dawdle along behind us as we visited museums, art galleries and the theatre, sighing.
Real Americans were on display everywhere though. One enterprising fellow came up to me and asked if I’d like my shoes shined. As I’d bought them only an hour before I declined politely and bid him good day. Undeterred, he fell to his knee and grabbed my ankle, continuing his spiel with the can-do spirit of Horatio Alger. Didn’t I know that a man of style such as myself deserved only the best and that he had been shining the shoes of New Yorkers for 15 years? Was I aware he once dubbined the Oxfords of Mayor Bloomberg outside of Penn Station? I chortled at his chutzpah and let him force my foot onto his crate.
My wife and children were keen to move on as they had made a booking for the queue outside Carmines for that evening, but this was a real moment of connection between two cultures; a bond forged in the melting pot of the New World; in its small way, a moment akin to when Hernando Cortes met Montezuma II at the gates of Tenochtitlan. I nodded my approval and the man spat on my shoe and began rubbing it with his sleeve. My children watched on, appalled.
When he tried to charge me $16 and I reached for my pocket, my wife stepped in and offered eight. The man, on both knees now, explained that he was married with three children. My wife replied that she was too, plus she had an idiot husband to support. The man took the money and mumbled something about “tourist assholes” as my wife and I ran down the street to join our children, who were almost a block ahead of us by then.
Our second celebrity spotting? Brooklyn Nine-Nine‘s Terry Crews at the Benjamin Steakhouse on E 41th St on Christmas Day. He was there with his wife and children. God bless us, every one.