If March comes in like a lion, then Storm Gareth was its roar. Gale force winds and a relentless rain were battering the town for much of the week, with the sound so furious on Tuesday night that it was difficult to sleep. The wild wind was whistling through the front door of the close, sounding like the way an elderly smoker would wheeze through the gap between his front teeth after having been walking uphill for a couple of miles.
The following morning the town looked as though a tornado had rampaged through it. It was blue bin collection day, and the rubbish had been recycled onto the pavements. There was shredded paper strewn all across High Street, looking like confetti. Along George Street there were paper coffee cups which had been dulled by a night in the rain. Small chunks of polystyrene were seen everywhere, while a bin was floating along the shoreline. It was as though the town had held an underwhelming street party for the opening of a large box, and the only body that had enjoyed it was the sea, which had spent the morning spewing up the clumps of seaweed which were littering the pavement along the Esplanade.
The weather reminded me of three years ago and the second time I was in New York City, which was also the last time I visited the city that never lets you sleep. It needn’t have taken the poor conditions to put me in mind of that trip in March 2016, however, when social media is good at providing you with memories showcasing how much more fun your life was at a different point in time. For the entire week, Facebook was determined to have me looking at pictures of pizza, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the New York Earth Room – I never understood why I was expecting anything other than a room which was literally filled with earth – basketball and the fire station from the Ghostbusters movie. If there’s one thing I dislike more than having to look back at photographs I have taken of fun adventures, it is having to read the status updates I have written when trying to make it seem as though I am having a good time.
On the afternoon I arrived in New York it was balmy and on the verge of spring. The first thing I did, after checking into my hotel room and unpacking my luggage, was to take the train out to Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City, where I took photographs of the east side of Manhattan as dusk was emerging between the skyscrapers across the river. There were squadrons of schoolchildren eating ice cream and playing sports on the grass, while a plethora of runners and dog walkers were circling the park. Everyone was basking in a warm glow. The second thing I did was to visit the craft beer bar Alewife, where I was in search of a warm glow of a different sort.
They had a range of 20 beers on draft in Alewife, along with a wide selection of bottled and canned beer, and I spent around four hours there eating chicken wings and drinking the Hoppy Ending IPA. The barmaid initially mistook my Scottish accent for an Irish brogue, though after we were able to get over that awkwardness we enjoyed a nice conversation and I had the opportunity to really rub her nose in her ineptitude with linguistics when I spied the bottle of Oban malt whisky behind the bar and I could point out my hometown, if not on a map then at least by way of whisky.
At the end of the bar, which was of standard length and had a marble effect finish the sort of which you might in a bathroom, was sitting a local man who was busy telling anyone who would listen that it was being predicted that there could be record temperatures for March in the city during the week. I was sitting in a state of wonderment listening to an actual New Yorker in a bar talking about the weather. It was the sort of thing that I imagined only happened in Oban, where a child’s first word is usually “still” and its second is “raining?” I was trying to imagine if this was how visitors to Oban felt as they are congregated around the bar in Aulay’s, listening to the plant doctor, my brother and I talking about George Harrison.
I assumed that the prediction of record high temperatures was nothing more than drunken bar talk, a language I am fluent in, but the first week of my eleven days in NYC was spent in a burst of radiant early spring sunshine. It was only during the second half of my trip that the conditions became more akin to what one might associate with New York in March. It was cold and rainy and cloudy and miserable, and I had planned to go to the observation deck of the World Trade Center.
When I visited New York City the previous year, One World Observatory was still a few months away from opening. Being a skyscraper enthusiast I was keen to add the 1368ft structure to the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center, which I had taken photographs from in 2015. On the morning of the day that I had set aside to spend at the site of the World Trade Center, I awoke to the sound of rain tapping against the window of my 26th-floor hotel room, and my soul became like the drain on a bathtub, where all of the enthusiasm was being sucked out. I turned on the television as I was preparing to shower, and all of the weather reports were saying the same thing: there was going to be rain, and lots of it. New York was a washout. There was hardly a cloud to be seen during the first week of my trip, yet now they were huddled around the skyline like hungry children at an all you can eat buffet on the very day I was going to be climbing to the city’s highest summit.
By the time I had travelled downtown and navigated my way around the various construction sites in the area around the World Trade Center, which seemed so much bigger than it was a year earlier, it was around 11.20 and there was no line at the ticket booth. The woman behind the counter warned me before I bought a ticket that due to the weather, visibility at the observation deck would only be ten miles, compared with up to fifty miles on a good day. On the 102nd floor of the building the windows were kissed with rain, and it looked no different to my bedroom window, albeit I was looking at the Chrysler Building cloaked in clouds rather than the Oban Grillhouse.
I was thinking of my disappointing travel experience at One World Trade Center after I was approached by a man who I presumed to be a tourist in Aulay’s on Friday night. He was dressed in jeans and a short waterproof sports jacket, the type of outfit a person might wear if they were going to cause trouble at a sporting event or participate in a drug deal. His head was completely hairless, the scalp so bald that the lights from the bar were bouncing off it the same way they were reflecting off the bottles of whisky on the top shelf. He was in the company of a woman who I presumed was his partner, on account of her physical features and hairline not suggesting a family connection with the man. She seemed a little embarrassed that her companion had decided to talk to me about the subject he did, her eyes carrying a measure of apology as he came to me with an unusual proposal.
“We’ve been staring at you for a while,” he began in a dialect which was broadly Glaswegian. “You have a very striking colour scheme. I’d like to take a picture of your socks.”
In the circumstances, it wasn’t the worst thing he could have said. As I rolled up the leg of my black trousers to give the man a good shot of the pink socks which had caught his eye, it occurred to me that I have often been photographed when wearing socks, but I have never had a picture taken of my socks. He switched his phone on to the camera app and took the photograph he wanted.
“You reminded us of a Ruffle Bar,” the apologetic woman finally said.
In the upstairs bar of The Oban Inn, an older man whose long greying beard looked like the bristles of a hard broom had a look of confusion on his face when he saw me. I didn’t recognise him, but he seemed to know me.
“Has Aulay’s been closed down?” He enquired twice, because I didn’t understand what the question meant the first time he asked.
“Not unless something has gone drastically wrong in the last half an hour,” I responded, a little panic knotting in my stomach as I briefly considered the possibility that maybe something catastrophic might have happened and the bar had to have been immediately shut down.
“It’s just that I only ever see you in there,” the man with the long beard said, and I was feeling a welcome mix of relief and confusion, because I was certain that I would have made a mental or a written note if I had seen such a beard before.
Events were not much more noteworthy along the Esplanade in Markie Dans, until a man who had a quite unhinged manner came up to me and asked if I am a magician. I assumed that he had been given that impression by my attire, and I told him that although I have a habit of making girls vanish when I talk to them I am not a magician. It soon became evident that it wouldn’t have mattered what I had told him, even supposing I was a magician, because his question was only a means of laying the groundwork for him to perform for us a trick of his own. He had set a trap for us, and we walked right into it.
The magic trick involved us opening our wallets and fishing out a pound coin to hand over to the man. I wanted to give him 10p, but apparently the act would only work with serious money. Next he asked us to place our hand over the top our glass to completely cover it. Already I was unimpressed, having lost money and now being unable to drink my Jack Daniels. The man began circling his hand around the glass, all the while telling us that once we removed our hand from the top we would find the pound coin in our drink. I thought he was a lunatic, but sure enough, the coin was at the bottom of the glass, snuggled against the cubes of ice. On another performance of the same trick, I ended up with a pound coin in the top pocket of my suit, beneath the pink pocket square. I couldn’t fathom how he was doing it, and the bird watcher thought he might even have finished the night in profit.
In the end, despite my reservations, the magic trick was quite impressive, and far less unnerving than the circus act I was part of the following night in Aulay’s, when a girl asked if she could take a video of herself as she attempted to spit an ice cube so that it would hit my forehead. She managed it on the second try and I congratulated her on the achievement as I was wiping off my brow. I was wondering how she would make the video seem fun when she shared it on social media, and how she would feel in three or four years time when it appeared again on her feed as a memory. Would she see it the same way I saw the Statue of Liberty from the 102nd floor of the World Trade Center, barely visible through the clouds, or would it be a pound coin floating in a glass of Jack Daniels?