I have finally decided to write down a piece of travel writing that has been a funny story I tell at parties for a couple of years now. I tend to write fiction and poetry, so it was a nice break to write an essay of sorts.
Never trust an Ad that sounds too good to be true – no matter how cute the cat in it is! This is a lesson that my partner and I learned the hard way on our first trip to New York City; a lesson that was made abundantly clear while laying is a sweltering room with no air conditioning and painted shut windows at 2am, with a door that didn’t close, and a house-mate that we had not intended on sharing space with, who proceeded to practice her violin until sunrise. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It was mid-July when we set off from our beloved home on Vancouver Island, boarding the Seattle Clipper foot ferry a day before our flight would take us from Sea-Tac to O’Hare, and then on to LaGuardia to begin a fourteen-day trip to remember. We had been planning the trip since New Year’s and had decided to go the route of Air BnB for accommodation. Plenty of friends and family had highly recommended the service, and with the price of accommodation in the Big Apple, it made sense over a pricey hotel stay. We poured over maps of Manhattan and the boroughs and settled on a very inexpensive, cramped but clean looking, adequate enough apartment that was in the Bronx. (When I say we, I mean I eventually relented with my concerns and allowed my partner to book the place, which I am still certain he only booked because the flat had a resident cat who wore a dress that matched her eyes.)
The foot-ferry ride (another first for us) was not at all what we had expected, having been used to the larger ferries that crossed the Georgia Strait to Vancouver and back to the Island. We didn’t know that it had first-come, first-serve assigned seating based on when the tickets were purchased. Once we had boarded the small boat, we realized we were not only going to be split up, but because we had basically purchased our tickets a few days before the trip, we were each going to be trapped at a six-person table with families: a pair of introvert’s worst nightmares.
The table I was placed at was a hodge-podge of a pair of Scottish travellers who bickered in hushed tones for the entire ride, and a family of three with a teenage daughter who chewed gum loudly into my ear for over three hours. To make matters worse, we found out quickly that it was a fairly bumpy ride even when the weather was good, which was bad news for my sensitive stomach. I spent most of the ride pretending to read or playing Candy Crush on my iPad and just trying not to hurl.
Thankfully, we landed in Seattle safely, sped through customs (which is an absolute breeze compared to airports) and headed downtown to visit with an old friend. We stayed at a hotel near the airport that night and went to bed relieved the ferry was over (though mildly concerned about the return trip in a fortnight) and excited for our adventure begin.
The next morning went by smoothly and the first leg of the trip left us in the very large, very busy O’Hare airport in Chicago for a near four-hour layover. We learned then and there that we don’t like O’Hare but suffered through it until our flight (thankfully on-time!) to LaGuardia left at around dinner time. It was a very long travel day, but I felt the weariness float away as the plane descended and the lights of the city that never sleeps lit up the darkening sky.
In a flurry we disembarked, found the baggage carousel and waited for our bright pink luggage to appear. Once we had collected it we made our way outside into the stifling heat of an east-coast summer and waited in queue behind other sweaty, grumpy looking travellers for a taxi.
When it finally came our turn, the taxi coordinator, clad in one of those orange and yellow vissie-vests, asked us where we were headed. Being from a smaller town, we promptly gave this man the address. He stared at us blankly for a minute until I blurted out, “It’s in the Bronx.” He seemed satisfied with that and led us to a mini-van where the driver loaded or bags. Once inside he asked where we were going in the Bronx and again, we provided the address. He looked over his shoulder at us wearing the same puzzled expression and asked what the cross-streets were. We all just sort of looked at each other in bewilderment for a few moments until he plugged the address into the GPS on his phone and muttered “That’s not the Bronx.” which as you can imagine, filled me with joy and a tremendous sense of calm. I was in a pretty full-blown panic by this point, and when the driver handed his iPhone back to my partner and told him to call out directions as we drove, I just about passed out from the stress.
My partner started to call out direction by distance, which immediately turned into an issue as everything was in miles and we have very little idea what that meant as far as driving directions, so he would call out something like “Make a left in three miles.” And then the driver would ask him to tell him when he got closer, which didn’t really work so the GPS was constantly recalculating as we haltingly wound west and north. I was momentarily distracted from panic by the lights of Manhattan as we crossed a bridge. The feeling of wonder and excitement faded the further north we got. The surroundings got rougher until every block had at least one check-cashing joint and throngs of people milled on street corners.
Finally, I saw the street sign of the street the apartment we were to be staying in was on and felt a tremendous sense of relief; that is until the drive stopped the cab in the middle of the street and gave us a very concerned look and said, “Are you sure this is the right place? This is Dominican Harlem.” I remember thinking that I didn’t even know what or where Dominican Harlem was, as we exited the cab and the driver unloaded our bright pink suitcases into the street. We may as well have been wearing flashing neon signs that said “HEY LOOK THESE ARE TOURISTS FROM A SMALL TOWN WITH STEAL ME LUGGAGE!” The driver clearly didn’t want to leave us there but we were committed now so we thanked him and drug out luggage to the front of a worn, white stone apartment building.
And then it got worse. We rang the buzzer for the apartment and there was no answer. We were expecting to see the owner, we’ll call her Katy, who had asked us last minute, only a few days prior to when we left, if we would be alright with her staying just that one night with us as her travel plans had changed. We begrudgingly accepted this as she agreed not to charge us for that night. But we rang that dang buzzer multiple times, in the dark, hot, sweaty July night, and no one answered. I had moved beyond panic now to a world that consisted entirely of Law and Order SVU episodes. My partner had Katy’s phone number and called, and thankfully she answered. The buzzer was broken, along with the lock on the front door of the building so we should just come up. (I’m pretty surprised I didn’t have a stroke right then and there.)
We walked through a filthy lobby, complete with broken tiles and piles of cardboard boxes filled with God knows what, and started up the near-crumbling staircase. Originally we had planned to grab some food somewhere after settling in, but once we saw the area, we decided venturing out on our own at night was probably not the best idea. My appetite had vanished until we entered the building and smelled the most delicious Spanish food wafting from one of the many apartments. I secretly hoped Katy was the one making the building smell amazing, and that the night would turn around from this point on.
Unfortunately, instead of walking into a small, clean apartment with a friendly hostess who was making delectable Spanish food for us, we stumbled into a cramped, filthy, swelteringly hot apartment with a mousy, neurotic woman, who didn’t seem to care at all that we were hot, tired, and annoyed with how she had misled us. She revealed very quickly that she had taken on three different guests via Air BnB the past week while she had been out of town and they had left the place a sty. It also became clear as we jostled around stacks of books in the entry way to the apartment that the air conditioning unit was in the living room only, and she had strung up a sheet as a curtain to hold the coolness in the one room where we would definitely not be sleeping.
As Katy flitted around the rooms half-heartedly trying to tidy up, I gave my partner the get-me-the-Hell-out-of-here-or-they-will-never-find-your-body look as the panic returned. Exhausted and bewildered I asked if I could sit on the one chair that didn’t have things piled on it in the room and she said yes, so I plopped down and started trying to figure out a solution on my phone. Gretchen, the dress-wearing cat (sans dress at this point) was sprawled in front of the air conditioning unit, hogging the cool air, making me feel even more erratic and annoyed. There I am, browsing for an affordable hotel when Katy comes back into the room and casually lets me know that Gretchen had peed on the chair I was sitting in. I stood, fighting the urge to torch the entire building and made my way through the sheet-curtain to the tiny expanse of hallway that housed the bathroom and the bedroom and tried to wrestle my suitcase through either doorway, to no avail. I needed a shower in the worst way, but the bathroom was so beyond filthy, and Katy seemed much more concerned about cleaning the kitchen, that I decided we should just clear the crap out of the bedroom doorway and go to bed.
We started ferrying things out of her room, finally uncovering a litterbox that had been completely buried by clothes and boxes (no wonder the cat peed in the living room!). It occurred to me then, that we couldn’t close the bedroom door and the cat would need to get in, which infuriated me further, as well as that the bedroom was approximately one thousand degrees and we would surely die if we slept there. In hushed tones I vehemently told my partner to “fix it” and saddled up to take that bathroom to task. I needed a clean place to pee and if I didn’t get a shower, I was going to murder someone.
Twenty disgusting minutes later it was clean and I was about to be. Things were looking up. By the time I got back to the bedroom, we had figured out a temporary hotel situation for a few days and then found a friend of a friend that had an apartment we could stay in. As we laid in bed, both exhausted from the long day of travel, the heat, and the stress we heard the sounds of Katy continuing to rustle around. Soon the rustling noises were replaced by violin, which we realized after a few minutes was actually her playing, not a CD, and that it wasn’t likely to stop anytime soon. And then we laughed.