My grandfather took a trip to New York, New Year 1941/42 – this is his record of it.
1941/2 New Year during Second World War
So You Are Going To New York?
You would think, looking at a map, that there could be nothing more simple than to travel from Prince Edward Island to New York. You would think, too, as Canada and the U.S.A. are so near and so friendly, in these strife-ridden days, that they would be only too pleased for their inhabitants to become acquainted by travelling to each other’s country, and taking this into consideration you start making a few inquiries how this may be done. First a passport is necessary and after a long lapse of time and much correspondence you obtain one, and there you are you rather fondly imagine. You then make one or two more inquiries to find that your imaginings are without the slightest foundation; there are, you are informed, many many things yet to obtain before you can think of getting into the States. For instance, there is Form H, which is all tied up in the sticky financial side and the bank must be contacted and wheedled with and time must be lost while the application goes to Ottawa for sanction. There is, also, a bit of bother about a visa, some say it is imperative, so you write to the American Consol to find the whys and wherefores. The Consol writes back a letter that might mean yes or no; he doesn’t really seem to know himself – hurrah for the evasion of officialdom.
Two months elapsed and we weren’t getting any further so Gordon and I decided to risk going to the border and finding out what chances we had in making our way to New York. Nothing amidst the welter of paper that we possessed, signed by everybody we could think of who could write, could be guaranteed to pass us into the U.S.A. without any trouble; but with all that mass of bumf, with signatures ranging from the C.O.’s to the up-and-coming bootlegger, surely we could get across somehow. So we got leave and we left.
If you have ever left P.E.I. by train you will have sworn never to do so again. It is the only way, but the weather that lurks around it has a liking for murkiness, freezing rain and general unpleasantness that makes flying a matter of taking-off quickly between storms and dodging them as best you may. For days before intended departure we gazed into the sky and shook our heads at its greyness. The Met man shook his head too, but then Met men care only for the weather and not how it affects others. Come the day and sky was full of anti-flying properties; we rang the flying people, “Could we fly?” we said. “No” they said “you certainly cannot”.
The train had gone; we couldn’t have caught it anyway; we thought of everything else. We couldn’t go by car the road was blocked; Gordon suggested rowing: one day they are going to lock that man up. Lunchtime came and I lay despondently on my bed, all but asleep. Through the drowse I heard an aircraft take off, id didn’t register anything significant to me, my mind was made up that we were stuck until the next morning’s train. Down the corridor there was a crashing of doors and a stamping of feet; my door burst open and Robby who was taking Kathleen to N.Y. to catch a ship for Australia, screams “There’s a plane in ten minutes”. Panic, Pandemonium. Throwing everything I could lay hands on into a case, I dashed headlong into the snow and ice. Had I got my passport and all those bits of paper? Yes. Had I got money? Yes. Nothing else to worry about then.
The aircraft stood running-up on the aerodrome, but there wasn’t any pilot. We had to be in Moncton in 40mminutes or the St. Johns plane would have left and then we should be stranded there, and Moncton is no place for that. We stamped our feet and looked into the sky for the millionth time, we doubted if we should ever get anywhere near Moncton – a ducking in the freezing sea seemed more likely. The pilot it seemed was sitting in his office smoking a last cigarette. “Plenty of time” he muttered, blowing smoke into the air and running his hand through an incredible shock of stale ginger coloured hair, “Plenty of time”. He stubbed out his fag and wandered to the aircraft. At least nine people milled around inside when we had clambered in after him. Some fiddled with the wireless, others just fiddled; we sat and wondered if we were all going and if so how the hell we were ever going to get air-borne. Minutes passed, anxiety registered on our faces; reassuring screams, completely drowned by the roar of the engines, were thrown at us, we smiled, God knows why. Four bodies scrabbled out, everything is in order it appears. We taxi out, turn, rev up and leap into the air with a bang as if hauled there by a drunken crane driver.
Around us there is nothing but cloud at about 200 feet. We hugged the coast until we saw the ferry quay and then started across for the mainland. Half way over was the ferry ploughing its way, so we had to climb into the clouds and then dive on it. We screeched out of a cloud and went straight for it but missed it by the peak of the skipper’s hat, the pilot was very pleased with himself and climbed away with a smug grin on his face.
Over New Brunswick the weather was worse still. We kept darting sidelong glances at the ??ailerons, little globules of ice were springing up, perhaps they would jam, along with the elevators and rudder; the Met man had said it was no weather for an ??An… to be out in. Too bad we wouldn’t see New York before we died. But we didn’t die. Miracles are still things that apparently happen, for over there to starboard was Moncton. Just to show that the R.A.F. wasn’t to be put off by a little ice and the like, we did the steepest turn ever done on Moncton airport and landed. We were off that island, thank God.
The civil plane to St. Johns was nice and sedate. There was still a cloud over everything and it was all fine until we suddenly broke through to find minor mountain peaks rearing up on both sides. We gulped and hoped. The St. John River lay broad and frozen below, the city of St. J. smoked dirtily to port and the runways of the airport looked as if they were made for gnats. We circled and came in and a hill appeared on each side and houses were at our very wing tips, most odd and very worrying. Down we were safe and sound and New York just around the corner …… or so it seemed.
Into a taxi and St. John, through the dirtiest streets with the most dilapidated of houses, streets thick with smoke and ragged children and grimy billowing washing. Robby went to see the American Consol, who didn’t like being disturbed and made that quite clear; visas, he said, were unnecessary and so were border crossing cards, it was only too easy to get into America, he implied. We had dinner at the Admiral Beatty and went for the train. We sat and sat and nothing happened; it was, said an official, two hours late, and no one knew when it might start. We settled for the night. The American Immigration official got up and made a speech; unless, he said, you have a passport, a border crossing card, et al, you had better get off and go see the Consol. Well, we didn’t know; we’d heard so many stories how service personnel had got over with nothing but an Australian driving licence. We thought we ought to go and see the Consol, and then we thought we would risk it; then we thought we would see the Consol and the train started so that was that. What now, we wondered. At one in the morning we got to the border where were shooed off.
Immigration officials are a breed on their own, have peculiarities which are indescribable. Their faces were sat on when they were young and their dispositions are such that a good overdose of Ex Lax could do nothing but improve. The station with its immigration office was a model of unwelcomeness, if it had said so on the mat you couldn’t have been more conscious of it. We stood on one foot and then the other, we swore under our breaths and said, “They can keep their bloody county”. We got mad, good and mad. Gordon was all for telling them what he thought, with difficulty I restrained him. “After we are across the border say anything you like.” T:hey didn’t bother with us that night though the train waited three quarters of an hour and we could all have had our passports fixed up and caught it, but those dear officials thought a night at Vanceboro wouldn’t do us a bit of harm. No, a night of acute discomfort would do us good, they thought; you could see it on their vice clamped faces. The train crawled out and still we stood glum and cross and ready to burst into giggles at the slightest thing. Time passed and odd officials hovered about, a man with a gun assumed toughness. One said that if we went to bed they might deal with us the next morning, but it was doubtful, he thought the following night more likely. Where, we asked, do we sleep? Upstairs, said the least surly, and proceeded to clump through the door, muttering to the man with the gun – “You’d better stay at the bottom of the stairs so they don’t get away”. We were nearly in hysterics, it was all so bloody annoying and yet incredibly funny. The bedroom had two beds in it, one single, one double; some trodden out cigarettes, the peel of an orange and some silver paper and a rather small lavatory. The sheets, he said, ain’t very clean. He brought some more that were in the same condition and hadn’t seem a laundry in many a long day, but he thought they were dandy and said as much. A Naval officer shared the room with us. They wouldn’t let him through either: now if your mother were dead or your father were dying, then …. There is no war in Vanceboro, it would seem. The fact that he had to rejoin his ship in Norfolk meant nothing to their miserable souls. We gave him the double bed; Gordon took the mattress off the single one and put it onto the floor. I didn’t undress but lay on the springs fondly thinking that bed bugs didn’t lurk there; since then I hear that’s just where they do get to. A soldier appeared, grinned, and said, “How’s about a slug of gin?” We scowled – he went away. The room, once we had settled down, was so hot that it’s a wonder that there weren’t any orchids blooming in the little hell hole; I turned off the heat and a noise like the rumbling of a regiment of tanks burst from it, heat won.
If you are up at seven sharp, the officious official had said, then, perhaps – so we rose at seven, squeaked downstairs to find it was six: time, it seemed, was another thing they pushed around as they felt inclined. We strode along the dark and icy platform, gulped down a cup of dish-wash tea and lay in wait for the O.O. At seven he appeared and we smiled and we grinned and said we had only a few days leave wouldn’t he please, couldn’t he please, do something to fix us up? He thought about it, scratched his head, pondered awhile and finally lugubriously set to work. Name, height, age, place of birth, colour of eyes, etc., it had all been done a thousand times before, we smiled, we answered patiently. He typed it out, he took our fingerprints, he clipped a card into our passports, it took ten minutes; if they had made an effort the whole procedure could have been done the night before.
The 8.15 train bore us away and New York was almost ours.
We chugged toward Bangor. We stopped and we started and stopped again; local trains can become extremely un-amusing. The country in that part of Maine is the same as New Brunswick; small fir trees, many of them broken and lying on the ground, small marshy lakes, scattered wooden shacks, a layer of snow over everything We had seen so many miles of it before that we could easily have become bored, but we were in the U.S. and on our way to New York and our spirits were, considering lack of sleep and shattered nerves, high.
At Bangor we got our faces shaved of stubble and caught the Boston train.
Now the country began to change. The railway ran by the river, free from the logs that fill it in the summer, but iced at the edges, packed up ice, layer on layer looking like the inside of an oyster shell. The sun shone in a cloudless brittle blue sky: the buildings seemed clean and sharp-edged, the trees thrust their crackling twigs to be silhouetted; a black intricate network against the old sky.
This train was faster and more comfortable and I sat and thought how many times I’d wanted to go to New York and here I was on my way: I didn’t quite believe it. The sun sank and the land took on an orange glow and the ice in the river was bright with colour. A spectrum of pastel shades flooded across the ice. It was very lovely and I felt immensely peaceful. In the corner of the carriage a pregnant girl and her Mickey Rooney like husband were locked in passionate embrace, unembarrassed by the gawking passengers, their hands wandered and their lips met; they were having a swell time. What was the beauty of colour to them?
Night slowly closed in. At Portland a dining car was attached, we bee-lined for it, hungry as pelicans. Something filling, I thought looking down the menu, a nice rib of beef would do me fine. And what’s this under the menu? A wine list? Ye gods, the first I’d seen in over a year, a real wine list. Fancy being in a country where there liquor for the asking – well, the paying anyway. Beer, we screamed. They brought beer. And they brought ribs of beef too. We gulped the beer to prevent ourselves fainting for on the platter placed before each of us was a piece of red meat 14” long and 6” wide and about half an inch thick, one for each of us. Never saw such a thing and never likely to again; we ate the lot, it was delicious. Did we feel good, pretty full, pretty sick but positive balls of fire. There was no stop to Boston. We slumbered heavily and watching Gordon, ungracefully.
Boston: change stations and wait an hour. We whizzed in a taxi through the city. We passed an hour in a news theatre and then we got on the New York train.
If we expected to find a big fine streamlined train there we were out of luck, two coaches and a mail van and a mass of drunken sailors and a five hour trip ahead of us. We tried to sleep, it wasn’t any use. Every time I thought a snore was in sight a nasty youth yelled at the top of his voice: Hot coffee, hot coffee, hot coffee, ham sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, combination sandwiches, hot coffee hot coffee hot coffee. Dear boy, I’m sorry for his mother. The sailors drank some more, and yelled a little more; a little old Jew wandered up and down the car mumbling to himself and arguing with anyone he could. The train didn’t feel as if it was moving but it must be presumed it was as after a while we found ourselves in Providence. The sailors got out, the army got in. Drink is a wonderful think and drunks seem more prevalent in America and Canadian trains than in any other confined space. On we went, slowly, making a great noise about it. We tried to sleep, I must have done for a while as Gordon said my head fell off a couple of times. Hot coffee hot coffee hot coffee ham sandwiches cheese sandwiches combination sandwiches hot coffee hot coffee hot coffee. For God’s sake push that bastard under an express.
New Haven. New London. Stamford.
There ain’t no such place as New York; someone thought it all up – or else the train’s going backwards.
A sailor came from nowhere and a soldier. They peered at us, said, For God’s sakes, w’a’s these? Being English we didn’t hear, our eyes were glued to the head in front. Cumon, cumon, jeez what do you suppose they are? Say what the hell are you? We, I said, with all dignity left at my disposal, are R.A.F. Gee, said the sailor. Well what do you know said the soldier, we’re glad to meet you. Silence, except for the uprush of ginny wind. What’s the three buttons on your coat stand for? Nothing. Silence. What’s the two stripes on your shoulder make you? Flight Lieutenant. Geez, are you officers? said the sailor in awed tones. Nod from Walker. Gee but we’re sorry, we wouldn’t have spoken to you if we’d know’d you was officers. Which, of course, can be taken more ways than one.
Cramp in the bottom from sitting all day was getting bad. I looked at my watch, only another hour to go thank God. I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to go to New York now. Maybe I could get a few minutes shuteye. Snuggle down as best possible; first snore coming up – Hot coffee hot coffee hot coffee ham sandwiches cheese sandwiches combination sandwiches hot coffee hot coffee hot coffee hot coffee. Why doesn’t someone do something about that bloody boy?
I looked out of the window and there were bright lights in all directions and we crossed a bridge and here were more of them streets and streets of them. The suburb of New York. Three o’clock New Year’s Eve morning. The train plunged into the earth and ran for a mile or so, stopped. We tumbled out, staggered up some steps into the deserted foyer of the Pennsylvania Station. Taxi. Out on 33rd St. The taxi driver says the Pennsylvania Hotel is only just round the corner. Tired and near death we plodded around, register, sink into bed. And as I throw my clothes into a chair and switch off the light it dawns on me that I’m in New York. So you’re in New York – never thought I’d really ever get there, maybe………. maybe……………………….This………………..not……………….maybe………….it/s a dream……………………..Freud says…………………………..
So THIS IS NEW YORK
It was nearly 11 when we got up New Year’s Eve. So we were in New York: now what? I rang up the Robins to see what they were going to do and we arranged to meet for a drink in the bar. We drank, we lunched, and Gordon and I went for a walk mainly to see the place, partly to buy a camera. Up 33rd St., along Broadway for a while, down 43rd St. onto 5th Avenue, along there to the corner of Central Park, back the other side. The buildings didn’t seem so very high, but then there are only a few of the really tall ones that make up the skyline and tower up above the others; here and there a church is set down in the midst of it. Back to the hotel and to the Robins room for gin and French, and try and make some plan of campaign for the evening; where to go, what to do. Everywhere was expensive, but what the hell – not often in New York for New Year’s Eve. We rang up the Rainbow Room (it was an upscale restaurant and nightclub on 65th floor of the GE Building in Rockefeller Centre founded in 1934) and told them about the poor R.A.F. boys who didn’t know where to go but had heard the Rainbow Room was the place. They fixed up a table for us, we thanked them and they, diplomatically, thanked us. We thought we better have another drink or two so we went to Bill Gay Nineties, where we got involved with a drunk in an argument about the great American people; he seemed to think they stank. We felt a little better and more in the spirit of the occasion and the spirit of New York is alcoholic; but definitely. We went on to the Waldorf Astoria, we sipped expensive drinks and didn’t feel excessively bright; three men and a woman.
In the Rainbow Room the press wanted our names, please – nothing like getting one’s name in the paper. We drank a few more dinks (sic) and went and ate. The food was superb, genuine turtle soup and an array of delicacies, which partially made up for the comparative dullness of the evening; Robby and Kathleen having had a row because she had asked the head waiter that if he found any women straying about the place to bring them over for the R.A.F.’s inspection. So.
There were a mass of people we knew when it was twelve as the band blared as loud as possible and everyone screamed and whooped and yelled and before you knew it is was 1942; somehow I didn’t feel any different.
At the next table a drama of great intensity was being played by a tall dark sinister looking man and two women, one blonde and chubby and only a kid, the other dark and determined and dark. What ingredients for a story, original too. God knows what the man wanted (what do they usually want, you numbskull?) but the girls certainly weren’t going to let him have it. The blonde cried ceaselessly for four solid hours, while she pleaded and entreated and begged. The man turned a blue jowl to them all. The girls were sticking together anyway and that seemed to annoy him even more. We didn’t find out what it was all about but I’m sure it was good and dirty.
At two we had had enough. As we were just about to get our coats two females swooped down on us. Were we Canadians? No. So you’re English? Brilliant. Well it makes no odds they cried, you’re going to have a drink with us. Really? Sure. It was New Year’s Day and we hadn’t got anything to lose so we drank. Robby and Kathleen had vanished. Two men appeared on the scene, one as pickled as a dill and the other saying he was. One of the women said you had better come and have some soup at Chan’s. Sure, nothing we’d like better. God knew whose clutches we were in – but who the hell cared. Perhaps we looked a bit dubious because they said, Don’t worry, we’re quite safe. Safeness is all.
Down we went in the elevator, which drops you through 65 floors in less than 25 seconds and takes your stomach with you, though it’s best to yawn at the bottom or you may think there is something wrong with your hearing; it goes up at the same rate, in fact it’s quite a thing.
We ate, for the soup was mostly pork and cabbage, at Chan’s. It was nearly four in the morning when we gulped down the last mouthful of soup Of the four people it seemed that two of them were man and wife and they said if we rang them up in the morning they would show us New York. We took their address and they us home; the streets were as crowded as they had been in the afternoon.
For a few hours we slept. When we woke up we rang them and they asked us to lunch which was mostly liquid, though there was some ham and eggs thrown in to help. In the light of day we discovered that the Petersens were delightful people and were going to take us under their wing and make sure we didn’t waste time in the big city. During the four and a bit days we had there they did everything they possibly could to help us enjoy ourselves – and they made a fine job of it. Florette – Mrs P – is an interior decorator for the Rockefeller Centre and other large concerns; Arnold – Mr P – is a big wig in an engineering firm. They have a small but very pleasant apartment on 41st which would seem to contain more alcohol than anything else. Having been refreshed he and a little man named George, who is vice purchasing agent for Rockefeller, took us round Manhattan Island.
East River Drive. Greenwich Village. The Bowery. Wall St. Italian and Chinese Quarters. Riverside Drive, which runs up the Hudson and past the docks, deserted but for the Normandie [French cruise liner built in 1932, in January 1942, Pop saw her being turned into a US troopship but a fire in February she caught fire and slipped under pier 88. Scrapped in 1946-7]being dabbed grey, for miles until Fort Tryon with its monastery stuck on top. Apparently it was raining; we didn’t notice it. We sat there goggling at all we saw. From Tryon we gazed through the mist at New Hersey and far up the Hudson. Back to the flat, through Harlem, one of the best parts of the city as far as layout is concerned, and 7th Avenue.
We felt, though we didn’t really want to, we ought to meet the Robins for dinner. The Ps said the Havana Madrid was a good place to eat and dance, so we went there. As the name implied, it was Latin (ish) and the band played South American rhythms to which Kathleen and I tried to dance not very successfully, I knowing none of the steps and she having no idea of time or rhythm. We got bored. Every time we were with the Robins we found the minutes dragging and weighing exceeding heavy. We rang up the Ps who had gone to Greenwich Village and they said they would meet us later. The Robins were tired and left. I was thoroughly bloody minded and didn’t care what happened. But the Ps arrived and George with them. They said the place for you is Leon and Eddies. I said, Oh. I didn’t give a damn. [L&Es nightclub had begun life as a speakeasy on 52nd St., one of the more reputable spots on this block known for hot jazz, strippers and mob-run clip joints].
Into a taxi – on this continent you live half the time in a car and the other half on the telephone – and 52nd St. I was beginning to cheer up a little and when I’d been in Leon and Eddie’s for five minutes I was a ball of fire. The bar we discovered was in dire need of being propped up, so we leant against it so nothing as dreadful as that should happen.
No doubt about it, L&E’s is an amusing joint. Joint it is, but with a difference. Around the walls hang drawings, cartoons, caricatures, etc. which to the pure would be simply filthy. To the impure they’re very amusing. A two-hour floor show keeps the eyes occupied while the hand strays back and forth to the bar, at the end of which Eddie Davis comes on and sings his own dirty-ditties that start where the cartoons leave off and are guaranteed to make you smirk; I was nearly sick with mirth, but you can smirk if you prefer it. Eddie is indeed a scream, or rather a sker—r-e-e-m.
Florette and I danced the rumba and did alright (not like the last time I did it with Pam in the school hall and fell down and had the eyes of a hundred outraged mothers on me). Gordon looked on witheringly hoping to see us crash but he was doomed to disappointment so he went on downing scotch, encouraged by Arnold. Florette came out in one piece and the plaster cast was not required. By this time the hours had passed us by and left us well into the next day and a weariness was fast descending so we made a move homewards. Over the exit a notice informs you, “Through this doorway the world’s most beautiful girls PASS OUT”. We weren’t girls and we weren’t beautiful and we didn’t pass out, we went entirely of our own free will.
In the streets when we wandered about, people weren’t at all sure if the postmen had a new wartime rig-out or if we really were some strange creatures from another land. One man in the Havana Madrid, on seeing us, snorted, “Huh, R.A.F.” as if that institution were only too familiar to him. But his girl friend was obviously thrilled to little bits and smiling sweetly she thrust her hand into the air and delicately stretched her indeed and middle fingers upward and outward and giggled, V for Victory. We grinned and look embarrassed as is only right for the retiring English to do. She was not however to be put off in any way; she insisted her boy friend dance her into our corner of the floor so she might gaze undisturbed upon us – whilst we pretended to notice nothing. The boy friend didn’t think a great deal of this and left her to make her own way in the world while he went and drunk himself into a stupor at the bar. Whew, for hero-worship. Poor girl, if only she knew.
The Rockefeller Center became our headquarters and Gordon christened it “George’s Tower”, as George worked there; that made us feel a little less like the trippers we really were, it gave us some connection with the place. The next day we went up to the top to see the view. I, like a perfect fool, had left my camera at PEI which made me livid, but in the panic of leaving it had got well and truly overlooked. Gordon hadn’t bought his yet, but George had fixed it so he got it at cost; but we wanted it now that very minute to snap wildly in every direction so we had proof that we had been to that most extraordinary of cities. It was mist and we couldn’t see as far as we would have liked but to the south the Statue of Liberty was tiny in the distance. Nearer was the Empire State Building, the Chrysler and others, downtown the Woolworth and the skyscrapers of the Wall St. section. To the north, Central Park, Harlem, Fort Tryon, The Bronx. The Avenues run the length of the island and the cars, looking down from that height, seem like perfect tiny toys and the people like ants transformed to the human shape.
We went downtown then to buy the camera. It was too misty when we arrived back to take photographs and we had a date with Kathleen and Florette to go shopping for evening dresses for officers’ wives here who thought it would be so much nicer to have them from New York. We sat and waived aside this and that but eventually found one or two that fitted the descriptions and the measurement that had been very carefully given to us. The price was desirable too; Florette knew this shop and once more we got things at cost and a $60 dress for $20 is something not to sniff at.
The theatre was a thing we hadn’t been to for over a year. That evening we went to “Lady in the Dark”. Gertrude Lawrence was in the show and no-one or thing mattered but she. It was an odd mixture of neurotic psychology and musical comedy, on the whole original but a little fatiguing in spots. Still it was fun and when Gertie sang “The Saga of Jenny” the girl who would make up her mind, she brought the house down.
We nearly hadn’t got there at all. Robby during the afternoon had joined the Yale Club and it had gone to his head along with the gin and Frenchs he’d had there. At dinner he fell off his chair, oh, he was good and plastered. He burbled incessantly about his beautiful club. Mus’ come to My club, Ol’ boy. After dinner they vanished into thin air. First Kathleen went and then Robby. Then she came back. He went off again. Gordon and I were seething with fury , and more each minute. Eventually they both turned up and we did arrive at the play before the curtain went up, but only because it was late rising. Later we went to Leon and Eddie’s again where Eddie grasped our hands and sang “There’ll Always be an England” for especial benefit, which made me feel I had tarantulas in my trousers. The thought was sweet. We drank some more and saw the floor show through again and laughed and enjoyed ourselves – even Kathleen and Robby were amused.
Saturday was our last, the Petersens said they were going to show us the town before we went and they started to do so about midday.. They said come to lunch and we went. It was a liquid meal, consisting of brandy and Manhattans. The afternoon was spent seeing Brooklyn. Brooklyn is on Long Island; we drove over the Queensboro Bridge and out toward La Guardia Airport. The small shops, the filling stations, the low jerry built houses and it might have been any London suburb. But the airport could hardly be mistaken for anything but American. It’s huge and the buildings, like all American commercial buildings, are spacious and magnificently laid out. A perpetual stream of aircraft take off and land.
We went on around Brooklyn, past the site of the World’s Fair now dismantled, along roads that wound intricately into and away from each other. Miles and miles of broad highways so expertly planned that one never runs into another. A mass of sweeping roads alive with cars doing nothing less than fifty, entwined in one another but never meeting. Looking back you can see seven or eight roads that appear to join each other but in fact are all separate, divided by a fence or strip of grass.
Brooklyn is flat and marshy, built up with street upon street of nondescript houses of all sorts and sizes. It’s depressing and bleak. On the outskirts wooden shacks lean precariously in the drab dismal marsh country.
We went past Jamaica; Gordon had the place in his head and wherever we were he would point and say “Jamaica is in that direction”. No-one knew, he didn’t himself, why Jamaica was his focussing point. Curving back toward Manhattan we passed Sheepshead Bay with its little fishing shanties along the river and it might have been a hundred miles from a city. But it is all a part of New York and there is a road that is nothing but eating places that serve seafood and nothing else. From there you can see across the entrance of the harbour and out to the Atlantic. Further on and the towers and wheels of Coney Island stuck up over the housetops; along by the sea, it was getting dark, a mist was coming up, a few cargo vessels belched black smoke as they chugged up the river. We drove through dock land with its cobbled streets and cranes against the murky sky; through Long Island City, across Brooklyn Bridge which carries the subway, the elevated and motor traffic into downtown New York.
The lights of the skyscrapers filled the misty sky and the great tower on the Empire State flowed red in the upper distance. Up East River Drive and back to the apartment. We threw some liquor down our gullets and went out to have dinner in the sky. The Rainbow Grill served us a grand dinner, and the drinks which appeared with alarming regularity didn’t do us a mite of harm. Florette and I danced very nicely, WE thought. About ten we started out to drink, and as we left George’s Tower the first snow of the season was hovering and wafting down in the lights of the buildings, like some billowing white dream I had wandered into.
Simone’s was the first place on the list; a basement of minute size lit by candles. We downed a scotch or two slowly, we had lots of time. We took the subway downtown to Greenwich Village, the Ps having told us we should see a little of lower New York. So they took us to the Howdy Club. Whew, what a spot. Run by perverts for perverts or rather inverts. There the waiters were the sweetest things you ever saw; they served and entertained. ‘Simply too divine my dear’; ‘where did you get that too gorgeous lipstick’; and ‘darling if you don’t watch out your eyelashes are going to drop off’. While we watched the show a private for the U.S. Army, who it seemed had a finger in the joint before he was called up, was doing his level best to seduce a sergeant, very tactfully and skilfully with the whole gamut of his wiles. We left, thank God we hadn’t been quite sober.
Next we went to Dottie Darlings on 52nd St. Dottie is a girl friend of George’s, so seeing him she gave a drunken giggle and dashed in our direction. A waiter handed her her ukulele and she started to strum and sing dirty ditties. Dottie is an ex-Ziegfeld and runs this club; looking at her you think she must have seen a thing or two in her forty odd years, but how in the name of the Devil did she manage to keep preserved the way she has. Dottie’s worn alright and her mind is as dirty as her skin is clean, but when she sings and the waiters join in and do a tap dance, she is undoubtedly entertaining.
But now it was after three and the legal time for stemming the flow of liquor (and it flows like water over Niagara) is three on a Saturday. So there we were and we hadn’t started the evening or so it seemed. There was nothing for it but to get us some ham and eggs. It was five when we got to our beds – and by three in the afternoon we must catch the train to PEI.
We had crammed a great deal into a short time and had enjoyed every minute of it and didn’t want to leave though the pace would have got us in no time at all.
The Petersens plied us with drink to start the journey properly and invited us down whenever we could manage it. We left them with genuine regret – but this war must go on and we were considered cogs that could not be spared except for a quick cleaning.
The Grand Central is colossal and impressive and the train moved out and away, and so goodbye to New York.
I don’t suppose I shall ever be there again, but I enjoyed what I saw and know of it and shall not quickly forget it; nor the fact that I had a better time than in any other city.
Time has elapsed now and looking back there is only a swirling mass of drink and elevators and being hustled from here to there and back again horizontally and vertically and it seems a great myth; or something I dreamt. But it wasn’t. There are things on which I can cast back my mind and discover an impression that has to do with the incredible place that could not have come from a dream.
Without a doubt the first and deepest impression is of the influence of American women. In four short days the vitality of these females amazed and overawed me. We were badly disappointed in their appearance; like all gullible young men we thought that the women of New York would be the most wonderfully smart and attractive creatures that we could ever hope to see. We were wrong – they were only too ordinary – as far as looks were concerned. But their vitality and their zest for whatever this life has to offer, or what they consider it has best to offer them, is unbelievable and they leave the men sitting, gaping. The men seem slow and lifeless against the women, as if they could not compete and they had left the struggle to the female of the species. And thinking that, an enormous question immediately rears its head. Do the women of America rule the men? Or do the men in their slower way contend with the battering femininity that must be perpetually at their heads? And if they do, does it matter? Women have ruled over men before now and have made no worse mess than the men; in fact they have usually done better. But if this is so, then a reversal of what we have taken as a natural law, the superior position of the male in this Man made world, may be taking place slowly and comparatively unnoticed and unheeded. Although Woman in her way has always steered Man in the direction of her wishes it has been in a way that the majority of men have not realized has worked through them. But here is something bigger, more blatant; the American woman, the career girl, has competed with her mate and slipped past him whilst he wasn’t looking.
The wheels of New York are lubricated by liquor. At New Year when I was there perhaps there was more drinking than at normal times, but from the astonishing number of clubs, bars, and dives, it would seem that unless they are in use throughout the year they could not be kept open. It is the great stimulant that keeps the pace at fever pitch. It has no time or place; it is a part of the whole whirling mass; it is so much part of the life that it is obvious that prohibition could never work effectively and that it was stupid to ever have put it into practice. No one anywhere can really believe that the forbidding of the drinking of liquor could do anyone the slightest good. New York strikes me as being like a heavy drinker who would slowly lose all strength and life if the liquor was taken away from him; it is part of the system and harms no one.
New York is business and nothing else. All the amusement and gaiety is a side line for the tired and weary who cannot bear themselves when their work is over in the evening. And there business rules over everything as it does in all cities, but in New York it is exaggerated and more obvious as is everything. It is a city where nothing would seem to be hidden, there is much that must be, but the surface is so full of all the rubble (sic) and bubble of human urbanity that it is difficult to imagine there is more underneath. It glitters and throws itself along at a speed that is terrifying to the stranger. An unequalled naivety seems to spread itself; it’s like a great artificial but vital, glittering, breath-taking woman who is quite insincere but seduces you by her simple belief in herself.
There’s something about the place.
Original document tightly typed on foolscap copypaper by Fl. Lt. Derek Croxton Walker in 1942 when on Prince Edward Island, Canada
I have corrected some spellings and grammar, but most is as it was written originally. GC 2011