Friday, 27 June 2014

New York - Coney Island

There's something I forgot to mention about our first Monday in New York. I was idly trundling around reading something about shit-eating insects when Emma, who had no doubt been equally idly wandering around somewhere close by, returned and told me that Rik Mayall had died.

Rik Mayall was a comedy legend. He was undoubtedly my favourite comedy actor when I was growing up. Only Rowan Atkinson comes close. For a long time I knew virtually every word of every episode of The Young Ones in which Mayall played Rik, a quite ridiculous would-be anarchist student of sociology or some such. I could still recite a lot of those scenes now if called upon to do so but back then I couldn't get through a day without making some sort of Young Ones reference. I'm now trying to imagine a set of circumstances in which I would be called upon to recite scenes from classic early 80's alternative situation comedy. No, can't think of a single reason. After The Young Ones there was Mayall's lesser known but no less dizzyingly brilliant turn as Richie Rich, a failed actor and television personality in Filthy, Rich and Catflap. Then the gloriousy sleazy and obnoxious Tory MP Alan B'Stard in The New Statesman. Not forgetting his all too brief roles in the Blackadder series' as Lord/Captain Flashheart. If you liked things kept a little simpler he delivered that too with yet another incarnation of Richard Rich in Bottom, a slapstick farce that you had to love just because it had a character in it called Spudgun. At 56 Mayall has been taken far too early and the world will be a slightly less amusing place for his loss.

The weather is a little better on Tuesday, which is good news because we are off to Coney Island. It's about an hour south-east of Manhattan on the subway train. We have done our research (well, Emma has if truth be told) and we know that the subway is mostly accessible. Mostly. In the way that Luis Suarez is mostly well behaved. Yet much like the antics of the Uruguayan munch-meister, if and when it goes wrong the results could be ruinous. Certain stations are inaccessible completely, or are rendered inaccessible because the platforms in use do not allow you to gain access to a lift. I wouldn't go so far as to call travelling on the subway train a lottery, but arriving at your destination without major incident has to be regarded as a touch short of a certainty.

The subway station is on 42nd Street. As soon as we enter I'm confused. The signage is bewildering. At first arrows seem to point everywhere except to anything resembling wheelchair access or Coney Island. The trains are numbered and lettered. The B, C, D, the 4, the 5 and the 7. There's a booth manned by one person, but most people aren't buying tickets from her. They're using ticket machines. You buy a card from the booth which you can then top up at the machines or at the booth. But if you choose the booth then don't expect service with a smile. The people manning these things always look affronted when you approach, and downright insulted if you ask any questions. You get the feeling they hate tourists because we ask the most questions by far. We're reluctantly told that we need the D train. It's fortunate that there are lots of D trains and that they arrive at the platform pretty regularly because it takes a while to get your bearings in a New York subway station. Even more fortunately Coney Island is the last stop for the D train so its name is written on what platform signs there are. Things could have become more complicated if we had needed any stop in between 42nd and Coney Island.

The journey takes around an hour. There seem to be in infinite number of subway stations in New York which is good in one way because you are never too far from one if you need one, but not so good if you are already on the train and would just like to get to where you are going as quickly as possible. This being our first New York subway journey there's a slight nervousness which is exacerbated with each stop. You hear stories and, if you're like me, you watch too much television which teaches you that the New York underground is rife with gun-point robberies and terrorist atrocities. In reality it's more like the boneshaker that takes you from Thatto Heath to Lime Street. Only much, much longer. The front of this train may already be in Coney Island. We manage to disembark without incident, at least until we try to exit the station at Coney Island.

Since passengers buy cards and not tickets there is a swipe system in place to exit the station. Swipe through the turnsytle barriers and leave. You're ahead of me if you are wondering how you might get through a turnsytle using a wheelchair. You don't. There's a large gate to the side of the turnstyles which is the disabled exit. It also has a swipe system. Only the card we have will not swipe. We try it several times and nothing happens to the gate. It stays rigidly locked. Then we take a risk and leave the ticket inside the machine, thinking that it might spit it back out like a cash machine spits your cashcard back at you.

The machine swallows the card.

Now, not only do we have no way of getting through the gate but nor do we have a way of proving that we have paid for the return journey when we leave. We are advised by a staff member that we will have to go all the way around and back outside to get to where we got off the train, still the wrong side of the exit gate. When we do we approach another booth, again manned by another woman who doesn't want to be disturbed. Emma begins explaining what has happened to the card but before she can even finish the story the woman is just slowly, arrogantly shaking her head at her. The look on her face screams 'what do you want me to do about it, I only work here'. When she has had enough of the headshake she finally advises us that we will have to call 511, a different department which deals with refunds. But we're not asking for a refund. We're asking for a replacement ticket. Nothing, no response. There's a phone a few feet away just inside the station. Emma and I both try calling 511 but after endless automated instructions we are both cut off in the way that I cut off anyone who rings my house asking for Mr Kelly or Mrs Caddick. Mr Kelly has been dead more than a decade and Mrs Caddick remains Miss Caddick. If you don't know that then you don't know her and you're not speaking to her. It's ok to put the phone down on someone who has cold called you to try to sell you something. It's not good form to do it to tourists stranded in a Coney Island subway station when you work for MTA. That's the underground rail and bus company of whom we are currently at the mercy. Perhaps it stands for Manhattan Transport Agony.

Then something surprising happens. The rude headshaker emerges from the sanctuary of her booth and strolls over to us. She asks us what we need and we explain again about the swallowed ticket. We don't want a refund, we say again, just a way of getting through to the platform when we need to get back on the train later. She wants to let us through now but we have only just got here. We're not going back now. The penny drops and she asks what time we want to go back to Manhattan. It's around 11.00 now so we agree on something around 2.00 in the afternoon. Coney Island isn't that big and we have only come for a little stroll along the famous boardwalk and along the pier. Maybe an ice cream or two and a walk around the fairground. Three hours should be enough. She says she will still be here at the booth then and that if we get back then she will let us through. We won't need anything to get through on the other side once we have got on to the train, she says. It's a win of sorts but I still can't help feeling like we now have a curfew due to the user-unfriendly disabled exit gate.

There isn't time to contemplate the subway lady's transformation from rude, obstructive headshaker to customer service heroine and curfew maker. We head towards the fairground and the prom, enjoying a drink at one of the boardwalk cafes until tribes of children descend on us. There must be hundreds. It's predictable that we choose to take this trip on the same day as every school in the state of New York. They're noisy but after a while I've shut them out. We go for a walk along the prom and up the length of the pier. It's an overcast if dry day so the views are probably not at their best. Still, you can see quite a distance out to sea. At the end of the pier are the fishermen. I'm reminded of the shark-gutter we met at Venice Beach in Los Angeles in 2011 and as we approach we are subjected to a similarly harrowing incident. The men have already caught a few fish and they are not throwing them back. One lies presumably dead on the surface of the pier behind the fishermen, while another flaps around as it takes what will be its last breaths. I try to console myself with the notion that fish are too stupid to be afraid but this thing has death in its eyes. It looks like it is suffering, and it looks like it knows that the end is near.

We have that ice cream and a saunter around the fairground and it's blissful if uneventuful. Coney Island isn't the most exciting place you will ever visit but it has a unique charm. It's how Blackpool would be if you removed 90% of the people and banned stag and hen parties. It feels old. Almost as if everything should be in grainy black and white. At the fairground there are still armies of children, one of whom looks at me with deep suspicion when I roll past him. I must have disturbed him. While Emma is in the ladies a bearded man in a hat approaches me, great purpose in his walk as if he has something important to say to me;

'Shalom' he starts;

'Are you Jewish?' he asks me.


I spare him the lecture about how all religion is intellectually and morally dubious. Fortunately, he's ok with my non-Jewishness. He's not a fanatic wanting to cure me of my wretched atheism.

'Have a good day' he says, and wanders off happily.

Before we leave there is time to pay a visit to the strangely located Brooklyn Nets shop. The Brooklyn Nets are an NBA basketball franchise based until recently in New Jersey. I have absolutely no affinithy with them whatsoever but holidays and Christmas are just about the only occasions that I am moved to acquire any sportswear. I buy a t-shirt at a reasonable-ish $26 but I pass on a hat once more. Neither the peak nor the price are quite right. I'm at a loss to understand why the Nets have a store here on Coney Island anyway. It's not quite Brooklyn and basketball doesn't fit in to the rest of the Coney Island theme. It's all fairgrounds, ice creams, blissful strolling and dying fish. It's not a place you want to be doing much slam-dunking.

True to her word the subway booth lady helps us get through the gates and back on to the platform to take the D train back to Manhattan. The journey back is again a nervous one but this time there are a couple of good reasons for that. At one stop a man with a cane gets on and spends his entire journey (around three stops or so) chanting about something or other. It's a bit like the time we ran into a rapping beggar in a park in Barcelona only the chanting feels more sinister. He's not begging, he's trying to convince us of something but it's not clear what. That he is stark, staring bonkers, perhaps. Another man is an inexhaustible bundle of energy. He can't keep still and he can't keep his mouth shut. He shouts something at the chanting man as he gets off and every time the door opens he leans out of it and looks around as if he is expecting someone. Maybe he is just looking for someone to shout at. Inside the train he fidgets constantly, adjusting his ruck sack, grabbing a pole, releasing a pole, moving to the other side of the train to perform what look like small stretching exercises. He gets off before his ruck sack detonates.

We get off the train at 42nd in Times Square and have another ludicrous wrestle with the disabled exit. At least this time we know not to put anything in the swipe slot. Not that we have anything to put in there at the moment. A staff member is passing with a trolley full of something and I ask him to open the gate, which he does without asking questions. We'll have another chance to work the gate out for ourselves in a few hours. We'll be back on the subway then to head for Queens, where the New York Mets take on the Milwaukee Brewers at Citifield.

"Hey pig! Do you really give a fig, pig? And what's your favourite sort of gig, pig? Barry Manilow....or the black and white minstrel show!"

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

New York - Monday

Rain. And lots of it. It's absolutely bitching down in New York on Monday morning. Call me Steve Naive (actually, don't, we know my feelings on Steve) but I had not considered this possibility until now. As far as I was concerned I was off on my holidays and that automatically meant sunshine. The reality is that not all of America is sun-soaked all of the time.

It's reached biblical proportions by the time we head downstairs for breakfast. Did I mention we are on the 11th floor? It's not a problem as long as the lifts are working but I notice as we pass through the lobby on the ground floor that one of the three has been shut down for what they call 'important maintenance'. This probably means that it's broken but I don't want to think about that for now. There are still two more that are working but it wouldn't be the first time I have been left stranded in the upper reaches of a tall building with no way to get downstairs other than an undignified shuffling descent on my backside.

There's a restaurant attached to the hotel called Pigalle, so we head there. What we know now but didn't know then is that you can get to Pigalle without actually having to bother to go outdoors. There is a door just behind the concierge's desk which leads straight to the upper level. And it has low tables. Only if you're eating, naturally. Why else would you want a low table eh? Unaware of this secret passage we dash around stupidly in the bouncing rain. More soaked than you would imagine it is possible to be having been outside for all of 20 seconds we then have to queue to be seated. Of course Americans don't queue, they get in line. The word queue seems to be totally absent from their vocabularies like pavement, lift and cinema. The queue (line?) begins at the top of the steps to the upper level. Emma joins it and I wait on the lower level before blatantly pushing in alongside her when she reaches me. Considering the queue it doesn't take very long to be seated. It takes far longer to get any service. A man offers us tea and then disappears for at least 15 minutes. In the end we have to remind him and he's all gestures and apologies but it is still a few more minutes before the tea turns up. It arrives just before I reprise Stephen Fry's Duke of Wellington role in Blackadder The Third, slapping him about the head and shouting 'TEA!!!' repeatedly.

We plan to visit the American Museum Of Natural History but there is no way we are going to be able to do so under our own steam in this weather. The forecast for the next couple of days is pretty grim so there seems to be no mileage in putting it off until later. We need a cab. I was told last night that if I want to book an accessible cab then I need to give two hours notice. Two hours. It's barely credible when you consider what else you can do in two hours. You can drive from St.Helens to Nottingham in two hours. You can fly from Manchester to Paris in two hours. You can watch an entire football match and even sit through Alan Shearer's analysis at half-time and at the end. You can watch around two and three quarter episodes of Breaking Bad. You can get drunk enough to attempt to climb the stairs at Crystals nightclub. You can even write an entry in Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard from start to finish, provided you have some decent notes and you are not drunk enough to attempt to climb the stairs at Crystals nightclub or you haven't been plunged into a coma listening to Alan Shearer's half-time analysis.

Fortunately I am able to transfer from my wheelchair into a car seat. So I'll be able to get into a standard taxi cab. Anyone who has mobility problems severe enough to prevent them from transferring had better prepare themselves for a wait if they want to get anywhere in the rain in New York. It's unfathomable to me how it takes so long to arrange an accessible cab for those who need it. Do they have to build it from scratch before they can send it? It's more likely that they need that long to find a driver who is willing to assist a wheelchair user into the accessible cab. It is well documented on these pages the trouble I have had in the past with taxi drivers driving past me and, on occasion, doing me the courtesy of stopping only to shout "I don't do 'em" out of the window before driving on again. Once, on a night out in Leeds, I had to push back to where I was staying because the taxi drivers wouldn't even look at me. It rained that night too, as I recall.

The quickest way to get a taxi in New York is to hail one the old fashioned way. That is to stand around somewhere on the street waving your arms around desperately. Fortunately we don't have to do this for ourselves. The hotel's bellmen will do it for us. One of them stands gamely under his umbrella waving at every taxi driver he sees. He must be desperate, but he's good at not showing it. There's a bit of a queue developing but at least the hotel entrance is sheltered. Several drivers stop to talk to the bellman and then drive on, clearly unsatisfied with where the prospective customer wants to go. Wait till I get to the front of the queue. Till they get a load of me. A wheelchair, you say? Shit. In the end it's quite painless. A man driving a hatchback pulls over, has a quick word with the bellman who then ushers us over with a nod. A cool, calm, I'm-not-bothered-that-I'm-getting-soaked nod. The chair fits into the back of the car without having to remove the wheels which is handy. There's nothing more undignified than the sight of a taxi driver trying to work out how to use quick release wheels. Well, an aeroplane toilet, maybe.

New York taxi drivers appear not to have The Knowledge. Our man doesn't know where the accessible entrance to the museum is located and, being tourists, neither do we. We saw a sign yesterday suggesting that it was on 81st Street between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West. Having reached 81st we reckon we can find it for ourselves so we ask him to just drop us off anywhere he can. He obliges, and inevitably the next ten minutes are spent trying to find the accessible entrance. The front entrance is all steps and banners but eventually we get our bearings. Not before we change direction and go back on ourselves at least twice.

As we enter the museum we are told a lie. The lady pointing us to the ticket booth informs us that there is no admission fee, only a donation at your own discretion. They recommend that you 'donate' $22. Recommendation is rife in America. Every time you sit down for a meal you can expect to receive a recommendation for how much you should leave as a tip. Usually they recommend around 18%. Eighteen percent of bloody expensive is a lot, you know. Back at the museum we learn that their recommendation is based on you only walking around the museum and not partaking in any of the shows or presentations on offer. Today there are six shows or presentations running at the American Museum of Natural History and if we want a ticket that gets us into any or all of these then it will be $35. The woman at the desk advises us that the shows can be up to an hour each so we might not have time to do them all. It is currently around 11.15am and the museum closes at 5.45pm. What we can do is buy a ticket for two or three now and then just get it stamped upstairs by another member of staff if we decide to do any more. It won't cost any more for this 'upgrade' because even two or three is going to cost $35. We should book all six now but we trust her judgement, believing that it will be easy to upgrade and get into any extras. It isn't.

Our first show is at 12.30, about 75 minutes from now. You have to be booked into a specific time slot for the shows but this still gives us over an hour to potter around before the first one, an IMAX cinema film about something or other. Something natural or historical, no doubt. And American. Until then we wander around the exhibits which are closest to us which consist of a lot of stuffed animals as far as I can see. There's mooses, brown bears, black bears, wolves, several types of deer, and many other types of wild animal associated with cold, grim parts of the USA. There's oodles of information about each so you can't really fail to learn something. What you get out of it depends very much on how impressed you are at the sight of large stuffed animals and how much you want to know about what they get up to in their spare time. Personally I prefer them alive as they would be in a zoo but then again you wouldn't be able to get this close if any of this lot were alive. The bears look like they are having a particularly violent mood swing.

Next up it is the 3D IMAX presentation, a diverting if not mind-blowing film about stuff we don't see. Either because it is too fast or because it is too slow. Time lapse photography providing the viewer with the ability to watch a flower grow is, I'm sure, a wonderous technological achievement but it is nothing you haven't seen before on your television. In fact, if this were a nature programme on BBC2 you would probably turn it over for The One Show. But in 3D on an IMAX screen it gets your attention well enough. There's a couple of particularly nasty moments to look out for if you are the type to suffer from irrational fears. You might not enjoy the snake jumping out at you with his mouth open or the owl swooping down towards you with a look in his eyes that suggests he might just have mistaken you for a small rodent.

What we really want is dinosaurs. Dinosaurs and large sea creatures. I'm making this sound like some kind of jurassic zoo and sea life centre. It's a bloody museum. Our next show is at 2.30 but we have decided that we want to add another one to our ticket. The planetarium is showing 'Dark Universe', a film which promises an insight into recent discoveries made about the universe and the work going on to find out more about what's out there. Human endeavour is brilliant, which makes it even more puzzling that it apparently cannot equip an aeroplane with a wide enough toilet or arrange for an accessible cab in less than two hours. Human endeavour is rubbish. We find a staff member and explain what we were told at the ticket office about getting our tickets stamped. But the man in charge is currently dealing with everyone trying to get into the next screening at 1.30. When he gets a minute he acts like he doesn't know what his colleague is talking about, but advises us to come back when it is quieter and he will let us in. Which we do, and he doesn't let us in. In all it takes three or four attempts get the tickets upgraded, a feat we achieve just in time to see the 4.00 screening. Which is the last of the day. We like to cut things fine.

We're not helped by the situation with the lifts. Just like nobody walks anywhere in America, nobody takes the stairs either. Obviously not. How can you climb stairs if you don't walk? Unless you're drunk at Crystals. Every time we attempt to get into a lift we find ourselves at the back of a huge queue of people with varying degrees of need for the use of a lift. Although in fairness there are a lot of prams and a liberal smattering of screaming children. Some of these families would be a serious safety hazard if they attempted to get up the stairs.

Before the planetarium we take in the sights of the dinosaurs and the huge sea creatures. In many ways they defy description. In one room there is a massive model of a blue whale and not much space for anything else. Something is going on downstairs and it's closed to the public so we move around the upper deck, around the huge blue whale which is suspended from the ceiling but still utterly dominates the scene. It's majestic.

Not so impressive is the second of our special presentations. Expecting a film, video or guided presentation of some sort we are instead led into a room housing an exhibition about the pterosaurus, a flying dinosaur. A security man welcomes every single visitor with the same message, instructing them to leave the room at the exit at the back of the hall. I'm trying to inform myself on what the bloody hell pterosaurus might be and he's all I can hear, saying the same thing over and over again. If only the whopping great pterosaurus model that dominates the room blue whale-like would spring to life and fly off with him in his mouth. Pterosaurus was 16 metres tall and bad tempered, I learn. In another part of the exhibition there are children playing on a Pterosaurus flight simulator. It's like that round on the Krypton Factor when the contestants had to try and land the plane. Many Pterosauruses end up in the drink or crashing into a nearby mountain. And that's why children don't fly planes. They just build them for American Airlines. All of this is interesting enough but I'm a little peturbed that only those who have paid the extra admission are allowed in here. It's just another part of the museum and nothing very special.

Before we see Dark Universe we are treated to another wonderful slice of modern customer service. Around fifteen minutes before our show starts we are lead via a lift into a waiting area just outside the planetarium theatre. We are told it may be a little while before the doors open but to just wait here. A bespectacled, geeky looking boy emerges from the door and stares at us as if we are from another world. We hear him incredulously and disapprovingly ask one of his colleagues how we got into this area. When it is time another staff member shows us to our seats and we settle back for the start of the show. Only the bespectacled geeky looking boy isn't happy. He looks me straight in the eye and says;

"Sorry sir, the wheelchair can't sit there."

Thinking I didn't hear him right I ask him to repeat himself;

"The wheelchair can't sit there." he says again, this time with greater conviction.

At this point Emma tells him how offensive that is. Not that we are being asked to move from a space clearly designated for wheelchair users and which we have been guided to by his colleague, but that he has referred to me as 'the wheelchair'. And directly to my face. He doesn't get it. He just repeats again that the wheelchair will have to move. Somewhere in the argument I mention that I am not a wheelchair but he still can't get his head around his mistake. Before someone belts him around the head one of his superiors comes over to find out what is going on. He explains again that he was just telling us that the wheelchair can't sit there and will have to move. His colleague doesn't seem to get it either but she knows enough to know that we're offended and just tells us that it is fine to stay where we are. As the lights dim I can hear him explaining to her that he didn't know that we were able to sit there and thought we had to move. He actually comes over to apologise to us for asking us to move. Nobody has been convicted of the wrong offence this clearly since Al Capone was arrested for tax evation.

There's just about time for a quick walk around the rest of the dinosaur exhibits before we leave. Again it seems superfluous to try to describe it. You truly have to see it. There's all the old favourites, T-Rex, mammoths and so forth. All of which is fascinating and awe-inspiring, but doesn't provide a whole lot of material for a comedy travel piece with a disability slant.

By the time we leave the rain has abated, and we make the long journey back without the aid of the famous yellow cabs. The day is topped off with a meal at Daniela Trattoria, a nice Italian restaurant just down the road from the hotel. A nice, expensive, Italian restaurant just down the road from the hotel. Where they recommend an amount you should leave as a tip.

Monday, 23 June 2014

New York - Sunday

Despite the confusion our bodies must feel following the five hour jump we are up early on Sunday morning. Never wanting to lose complete touch with the outside world while on holiday I put the television on as we get ready to go out for breakfast. There's a man on ESPN called Steve Coburn complaining bitterly about his horse losing a race, and therefore the coveted triple crown. So coveted is the triple crown that I had not heard of it until Steve mentions it. Ordinarily and unless I have had a bet I find horse racing to be about as interesting as lettuce or bath plugs. But something Steve says gets my attention. He's upset because his horse has lost to horses which did not enter the other two races in his precious triple crown. There's a barmy moment when he announces that it is not fair to the horses, and then he tops that with a gem of a comparison;

"It's like me playing basketball against a kid in a wheelchair." he moans.

I'm startled by the crass and offensive nature of this comment, but my first thought is actually that in my many years in wheelchair basketball I reckon I have seen loads of kids who would thrash Steve one on one. He doesn't look the most mobile and I'll bet he hasn't got much of a shooting action. Nobody in America seems offended by the analogy as the clip is played over and over again to general nods of agreement from the presenters. Jim White would be sacked on the spot if he didn't offer a sharp intake of breath and demand a swift apology. And tutt a lot.

The plan is to visit Central Park this morning. Not the one in Wigan that is now a branch of Tesco. I refer of course to the more famous and somewhat larger park which is located about 10 or 15 blocks uptown from where we are staying. I can use words like blocks and uptown in a blog about America. As long as I don't say that anyone was like anything I'll be ok. Besides, using uptown in particular glides me safely over the fact that I have no clue which way is north, south, east or west around here. Or anywhere else for that matter.

First we have breakfast at a place called Applebees which is around 50th Street-ish. The ground floor, which you would think would be the most accessible to me, suffers from a Hard Rock-esque high table problem. In fact, as we go through the front door we are met by a member of staff advising us that we might be better off to go through the side entrance and to take the elevator (her word, not mine) up to the second floor where handicapped restrooms (again her words) are located. The use of the word 'handicapped' is everywhere in New York which makes it seem stuck in the past somehow. That word has been bludgeoned out of existence by the UK's disability terminology police and good riddance to it. I don't consider myself handicapped. The favourite in the 2.45 at Chepstow is handicapped. It doesn't seem right to refer to a human being that way.

I have pancakes, which again I can do because I'm all American. I'm like all American. Like. I hate to go on about pricing and money but I have to report that you can't get anything resembling a decent meal for less than about $15 per person, excluding any drinks. Not just here either. It had been the same for an evening meal in McHales last night. Fifteen dollars is roughly about £9.00. To put that into context I think the cafe around the corner from where I work are still doing full English breakfasts for about £3.00. Don't come to New York unless you have plenty of money and you aren't afraid to fritter it away.

Before we go to the park we make a few stops for essential supplies. Water, mainly. And I'm looking for a hat to protect my hairless head. I once got sunburned on a cold day at Old Trafford so I don't really want to take any chances. But I'm not having much luck finding anything. Since we are passing we stop off at the M & M store. It's not exactly Willie Wonka's Chocolate Factory but it's not your standard sweet shop either. It's three floors high, two of which have walls which are literally lined with chocolate. Great tubes full of M & M's hang down along the walls of all kinds of weird and wonderful flavours. Yet at $13 a bag they are a little overpriced. If it's not sweets you are after there is pretty much everything else on sale here. M & M's have brached out into the world of merchandise in a manner that would make Manchester United blush. There's keyrings, mugs, fridge magnets, pens, pencils, soft toys, bottles and even board games featuring little coloured sweet characters. It's early in the week so we don't buy anything for now, but we'll be back I'm sure.

Central Park is a good 20-30 minutes push from the M & M store, all of it uphill. The blistering heat makes it even more difficult but it's worth the effort. It's a beautiful place on a day like this. We stop just inside the park for a rest and watch the horses trot by offering their carriage tours of the city. They all look knackered but happy enough. Those currently unemployed are tied up close to the entrance, and one has been positioned in such a way that he has to endure a face full of smoke from a nearby hot dog stand. He doesn't look too put out by it. Maybe he really likes the smell of hot dogs. Maybe he has just got used to it. Maybe he's just glad of a rest anywhere.

It's not that much easier to get around Central Park than it is to get to it from the middle of Manhattan if you use a wheelchair. There are lots of hills and slopes and the lack of signage means you can easily find yourself coming to an inaccessible dead end. My own chair hates the downhill slopes as much as my aching shoulders hate the uphill slopes. The right hand rear wheel is wobbling wildly on each descent but it feels fine uphill or on the flat. I don't remember it being buckled to buggery before we came to New York. My best guess is that it happened on the plane. It's not enough for American Airlines to try and humiliate me with a farcical toilet door episode, they want to damage my wheelchair aswell. At least they didn't lose it, I suppose. I'm waiting with mortified trepidation for that day and I'm sure that it is inevitably looming. I'll crawl before I get in an airport chair.

We spend a perfectly pleasant but uneventful few hours in Central Park without ever finding its mythical visitors centre. Is that a tourist information centre? Who knows? As I say, we never find out and instead exit the park around 81st street close to the American Museum Of Natural History. We toy with the idea of going in at that moment but decide to leave it for another day. I like to take my time with museums and by now it is already after 2.00 in the afternoon. And it's going to be a long journey back from here. We walk and push the 30-odd blocks back to Times Square, again often engulfed by the manic crowds. We head down 9th Avenue where our driver had told us to look for cheaper restaurants. Nothing stands out as somewhere we would be desperate to come back to. Maybe they are cheaper for a reason, and many of them look like wheelchair access is a concept they haven't yet considered.

After a brief collapse in the hotel room we are back out again early evening looking for some entertainment. Only we have a problem. A Hard Rock Cafe inspired problem. Every bar we go into seems to have high tables, which if you have ever tried to have a conversation with someone sat at a high table from your wheelchair you will know is bloody useless. The bar directly across the street from our hotel has high tables and a disabled toilet. Again they give and they take away when it comes to access in New York. Two more bars offer only high chairs for which one or two proprieters apologise with differing levels of sincerity. One asks us to wait 10 minutes until someone seated at their lower tables leaves. We decline. Not only am I outraged that they can't accommodate this hardly earth-shattering demand, but there is nowhere to wait. Except at the high tables and remind me again what the point of that would be? We move on.

To a place called Hurley's as it turns out. There is a girl standing outside the doorway trying to get people to call in. She asks how I am and since I am feeling a little stressed at our inability to find even a bar we can be comfortable in, I tell her I'm not doing that well and explain the situation. She consults her manager. Only high tables in here, except one booth which can be accessed from a door off to the side. The manager offers us what she probably thinks is a sensational, kind-hearted proposal. We can go into the booth and just have a drink, but we only have an hour because the area is booked up for a private function at that point. It's better than nothing and the only thing rivalling my disdain for these access problems is my thirst. At last we can have a pint in comfort. I'm not even going to moan about the price in the circumstances.

When our hour is up we go back out to look for low tables. It's becoming an almost comical, absurd quest. Our luck doesn't change but as it happens we are starting to get hungry. Access in bars and restaurants is excellent if you want to eat. Mostly. We spot a TGI Fridays and reason, quite understandably, that we will be able to go in there for food. Yet we are told that they 'don't have the elevator', seemingly implying that they had it and misplaced or damaged it in some way. Not to worry, they say, they will bring a smaller table to the ground floor. Like Applebees, TGI's ground floor needs a few adjustments to be considered truly accessible. Adjustments, it turns out, that they are unable to make. First of all they bring a low table out to us but the only space available on the ground floor is too small to comfortably sit at the table together. When we explain this to the somewhat dumbfounded staff (heck, what do we want?) they go on the look for an even smaller table. Which after several minutes of what can only be described as fannying around they fail to find. Even had they been successful it is difficult to see how a table small enough to fit into the space available would have been suitable for two people to eat at. Miffed and not a little exasperated we finish our drinks that I now feel duped into buying, and leave.

We find a place called Rosie O'Grady's and although there is a little wait for a table we decide we can handle one drink at different heights because we know they are going to get the seating arrangements right once we settle down to eat. It says something about my frustration that I'm impressed by a small shelf which flips out of the bar giving me a lower surface to lean on while we wait. We chat to the barman about the World Cup. He's Indian so is not supporting anybody in particular but says that he thinks England will do well. He doesn't define doing well. I tell him I don't think much of the USA's chances, an opinion which their coach, Jurgen Klinsmann has been widely crticised for expressing. But I can say it because I'm not the coach. And it's true, they won't win the World Cup. It's not like winning the soccer send-off series.

What else are you going to eat while you are in a New York restaurant pretending to be Irish but fish and chips? With that and a few more beers the night has not been a total washout, but much of the conversation is around how to go about solving the ongoing high seating problem that threatens to plague our holiday evenings. We decide we'll think of something, but we're not exactly sure what. What we do know is that we have a night at the baseball and one at the theatre already planned. Two nights sorted then, only another six to consider.

We get back to the hotel to find Steve Coburn still complaining about those nasty, cheating horses, still proclaiming his dominance on the basketball court over 'kids in wheelchairs' and still generally being a total arse. And still getting away with it.

It's an odd sort of place, this, in many ways.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

New York - Saturday

I woke up in ridiculous amounts of pain yesterday. Without pouring it on too much it was seriously unpleasant. But it did at least serve as a reminder of the kind of agony I was in when I landed at JFK airport in New York City on June 7 2014, which is where we left the story last time. How very helpful of my mysteriously damaged back to assist my writing in this way.

I'm still writhing around stupidly when we go to the customer service desk to speak to the people responsible for getting us from the airport to the hotel. We can't book transfers in the usual fashion. I have done it before, but I now consider myself too old and battered to suffer the indignity of climbing aboard an inaccessible coach like everyone else. Sometimes we just jump into an inaccessible taxi, a feat I am still just about capable of in my decaying state. However, on this occasion the hotel is too far away for that. It would be far too expensive. So back in February Emma booked an accessible vehicle with a company called Go Air Link. That's February. The February that is four months ago. How is it then that when she phones them to let them know we have landed they act like they have never heard of us or our booking? Not only was this booked four months ago, but at their request we also emailed to confirm this earlier this week. Yet still they are not very sure of themselves. To top it all they question the need for us to have confirmed it in the week, despite that being their request. Eventually they acknowledge our existence and our booking and agree to send a vehicle. Ten to fifteen minutes they say, which is about ten to fifteen minutes more than I can stand in my current condition but at least things are moving along now.

I'm stretching out my back in a position which probably looks absurd. Were I able to feel any embarrassment at this stage I would likely feel like Alan Partridge stretching out his hamstrings in his hotel room. Eventually I find a position that seems to help. Or is it the tablets finally kicking in? Unlikely, considering that I violently wretched them up a few minutes ago in another visit to the toilet. What you need when you are suffering excruciating back pain after a seven hour flight on a flying 10A is another visit from your hiatus hernia. Regular readers (or anyone who has had the misfortune to go out drinking with me) will know that on occasion this causes a violent gag reflex which leads to long spells of wretching. There's no vomit involved. It's like being sick without being sick. It's among the least enjoyable of my accumulating ailments.

Around twenty to twenty-five minutes later the help arrives. It's a black van. Give it a red flash and it could belong to BA Baracus. Except that obviously he wouldn't be anywhere near an airport, you crazy fool. The last time I saw a van like this was the morning we went to pick up one of the kids on the school run only to find that he had passed away that morning. Which might seem inappropriate for what is still a happy and exciting occasion but I just want to get there now so I don't question it. My back is starting to ease because of the stretching and things are looking up. On route to the Hilton Garden Inn on 48th Street and 8th Avenue our Guatemalan driver shows us a few of New York's sights, not all of which would immediately spring to mind if you thought about the city's major landmarks. Flushing Meadow where the US Open tennis championship is played. The largest cemetery I have ever seen. Michael Jordan's restaurant. Radio City Music Hall. 42nd Street. He advises us to eat on 9th Avenue between 44th and 48th street where he says there are nothing but restaurants and that they are more reasonably priced. I can believe that. You wouldn't expect Michael Jordan to sell you anything cheaply. We will soon learn that nobody in New York sells you anything cheaply.

The time difference between the UK and the eastern side of the United States means that we are effectively living this afternoon twice. It's still only around 4.00 in the afternoon when we head out onto the streets. The first port of call on any holiday, in any place with which we are unfamiliar, is the tourist information centre. Of course the Americans don't call it the tourist information centre. This is a nation that is currently referring to World Cup warm-up matches as the 'soccer send-off series'. So naturally they call the tourist information centre simply the visitors centre. And a simple title seems apt given it's simple minimalist layout. It's a huge place but it would be difficult to find a more unnecessary amount of space. Wigan, perhaps. All that can be found of note is the reception desk and a touch-screen guide to New York. That's a clever idea but it is also rather basic. There's three or four suggested places to eat and drink and the rest is information that you would only need if you had recently landed from Jupiter. The Statue of Liberty is here, did you know? Yes. And the Empire State Building. Revelatory. One thing on the touch-screen catches my eye. A pub on 6th Avenue is hosting Shakespeare plays performed by drunken people. Apparently they down shots of whatever lethal concoction is popular and then attempt to recite Hamlet or something. They'd never put up with it in Stratford but 'Drunken Shakespeare' sounds like something I'd like to see. There are passes available for the more famous attractions but after a brief discussion with the staff and a look at the prices versus paying individually for them we decide not to go that way. It's $180 for a pass which gets you into any six attractions but you have to do them on consecutive days. Individually they cost around $22-$29 and you can visit at your own convenience.

The visitors centre is on 7th Avenue on Times Square which is busy to say the least. As is well known many American cities have a block system of streets and avenues to help you avoid getting lost. It works very well to that end, but in Times Square you don't get very far very quickly. Every few yards you have to stop to cross the road at the pedestrian crossing where the street meets the avenue. The crossings work in basically the same way as ours except that drivers turning into the street you are crossing are not held up by a red light, and are instead trusted to stop as they make the turn to allow you to cross. This works most of the time but there is also a fair smattering of horn-honking and swearing going on as frustration builds on both sides. Just like pedestrians, drivers on Times Square can expect to crawl around New York at a very slow pace, despite the apparent haste.

We'd been warned in the Manchester hotel about the naked cowboy, but I wasn't prepared for the naked cowgirl. Shuffling among the huge throngs of people I catch her out of the corner of my eye. She's stood on the corner talking to some people about something I can't quite catch. To her right are Iron Man, Spider Man and Woody from Toy Story. On this corner you would be forgiven for thinking you had landed in Disney Land. Except for the naked cowgirl maybe. And maybe the mostly-naked, body-painted girls who also hang around seemingly doing not much of anything. But despite their glamour they are overshadowed by the shocking sight of the naked cowgirl. She's mature, to put it politely. If certain parts of her body go any further south then they will be in Disney Land after all. I don't look for long and I'm certainly not looking to have a chat. Instead I get across the road as quickly as possible, through the potholes and the cracks in the road surface, narrowly missing the legs of people who randomly stop in front of me.

We need a drink. There aren't that many options on 7th but in this searing heat and after half an hour mingling among these crowds we decide that Hard Rock Café is good enough. It's not good enough. Not really. Just like the Hard Rock Cafes in Los Angeles and Barcelona we have experienced there is nothing but inaccessible, high seating in the bar area at Hard Rock Café. If you want a smaller table then you have to have something to eat. But we don't want to eat. We just want to get a drink, consult the information we have and plan what to do for the rest of the afternoon and evening. The girl at the bar advises us that we cannot have a small table in the dining area unless we are dining, but that we can take the drinks back out into what she calls the lobby and find a seat there. Wearily we agree to this but go back to the lobby to find that there are no seats available. There are only around eight seats in there consisting of two small sofas wedged into a corner. It's another blatant misuse of space. And anyway all the seats are currently occupied by shouty people reporting to each other that they were like, and then he was like, and then she was like, and then they were like. It's a bad episode of Friends. More commonly known as an episode of Friends.

We go back to the bar to speak to someone else about getting a seat at a sensible height. One woman sees sense and allows us through to the dining area with our drinks. Yet within seconds of sitting down we are questioned again. A man comes over and informs us that he will be our server for the evening and he'll now take our food order. There isn't a food order, we say. We just want to get a drink and we've been through all of this once before. He's not sure. The idea of someone using a wheelchair wanting an accessible table is clearly quite confusing to him and he wanders off to consult one of his seniors. Finally he accepts that there will be no food order and no further moving of chairs but ten or fifteen minutes later he's back to offer us more drinks. Another controversy looms. There are free refills on drinks in this area and we are advised that will apply to us even if we do not eat. I find it hard to believe and sure enough our server questions it. He has to speak to the manager when we ask if the next lot of drinks are free. We would maybe not have ordered them if we had known they would not be free, and because we have been told that we can have them the manager agrees not to charge us. The server looks suitably miffed. We've broken two house rules in the space of a few minutes and it has completely disorientated him. We don't see him again. Presumably he has gone for a lie down.

I'd forego a free drink for some decent access. Is it too much to ask in 2014 to have a bar area at one of the largest bar chains in the world that has some lower, accessible seating? It would seem so. They have accessible toilets and lifts but no lower seating. I always find it puzzling when a public place has an accessible toilet but no access in other ways. It smacks of lip service to the accessibility laws. And as we were to discover, this problem is not limited to Hard Rock Café.

Back out on the road we head for Drunken Shakespeare. It's housed in a pub called Queens. I don't know where the Arms or the Head is. It's just Queens. It's a small pub but I can see one low and therefore accessible table placed in front of the big screen showing England's soccer send-off series match with Honduras. Promising. Now comes the disappointment. We ask about Drunken Shakespeare and the lady there enthuses about it at length as if she is trying to sell it to us. But of course she hasn't thought it through. It's upstairs, she tells us when we enquire about accessibility. She offers to get the staff to help lift me up the stairs but I decline. Like climbing on to coaches I'm passed all of that now. I don't trust people I don't know to do that and besides where would I then go to the toilet? Another toilet drama on this holiday is not required thank you very much although who knows, there might well be a disabled toilet upstairs. You have to comply with the law after all.

By now fatigue is beginning to set in so we decide to head back towards the hotel for a rest. The plan is to come out again for a late meal. We set off again on the packed streets, stopping regularly for a game of frogger at the crossings;

"Hey yo cruise control!" shouts a man stepping out in front of me. Before I can say 'who the fuck are you calling cruise control and what does that even mean?' I find myself taking his outstretched hand. I feel somehow at the time that it would be rude not to. Now, on reflection, I think I should have told him to shove his hand up his arse. Not only has he just referred to me as cruise control (and apart from anything else I am not on cruise control I am pushing my tripes off on some quite steep slopes in stifling heat) but he compounds his error with the following nugget;

"He's on cruise control and he's still got a chick!"

Emma's my chick. I'm sure she's flattered. I should probably be grateful that he has worked out that we are partners and that she is not just some care in the community worker. Even if I am greatly offended that my domestic arrangements seem to surprise him. He explains that he is collecting money so he can go on tour to Toronto, Canada. Why do Americans always feel the need to tell you what country they mean when they name a city? Toronto, Canada. London, England. Wales, England. Or something. He shoves a CD into my lap. He's signed it as if he is some kind of well known artist. It looks like some kind of gangsta crap. It becomes apparent that he wants me to make a donation to his tour fund. I'm suspicious that he is not going to Toronto, Canada at all and that he is just going to the pub with its high seating. There's an awkward moment when I fail to reach for any change to give to him and he makes a remark about how he accepts notes also. Still I don't feel compelled to donate. He's no Geldof, this fella;

"Does this mean I have to give you your CD back?" I ask almost rhetorically and before I have even finished the question he has snatched his CD back and is telling me to have a good day. He thanks me, for what I am not sure.

We're about half way back when Emma stops suddenly. She has noticed that the ruck sack on the back of my chair has been opened. Nothing has been taken out of it because I keep everything valuable to others elsewhere, but it's still a little unnerving. We can't figure out when it could have happened but she says it was definitely not open earlier when she was walking along just behind me. You've probably watched too much television if you think New York is really some kind of crime capital but at the same time it goes to show that you have to be careful here. We can only conclude that it must have happened at one of the many crowded corners where you have to stop to cross the street. Maybe it was the naked cowgirl trying to be opportunistic on a slow day.

Our evening meal is at McHales, a pub just a couple of blocks away which has both a disabled toilet and a crap ramp. Two men sit animatedly discussing ice hockey as they watch the Stanley Cup Finals between the Los Angeles Kings and their New York Rangers. In truly American style one leaves before the end, and soon after we take our leave at the end of a long, exhausting but kind of fun first day in the big apple.

Friday, 20 June 2014

New York: The Journey

They've let me out of the country again.

I've just come back from New York. That's New York, New York. So good they named it twice. Either that or just because actually, like most things American, it just likes to shout about itself to you repeatedly until you bloody well listen. In any case and as we all know, I can't go to the paper shop next to the chippy without some kind of incident, so send me 3,000 miles across the Atlantic and you are guaranteed a story. What follows is as faithful an account of that story, the trouble, stupidity and the joy and wonder of it all as I can remember. Though I do have notes, obviously.

Inspired by Emma's prolific ability to Get Things Done I am something of a frequent flyer by now. I travelled a lot when I played basketball but now I'm actually opening my eyes and seeing the world. Rather than hotels and sports halls. Also, I'm sharing it with someone I love and choose to be with, rather than with a group of athletic types who all think I'm a loser and laugh out loud when I speak at team meetings. Enough of that. Let me get off the psychiatrists couch and get back to the point of this paragraph which is that having travelled a lot I have come to realise that one of the few things I dislike about holidaying are the unreasonably early starts. You all know how it is I'm sure. Your flight is at 10.00am say, but you are advised to get there three hours before that. Since the nearest airport that offers access to anywhere further away than Luton is in Manchester you have to get up a couple of hours before that if you are travelling there on the morning of the flight. Our flight to New York is at 9.50am on Saturday June 7 2014 so we take the decision to stay in one of the hotels near to the airport on Friday night. It's expensive but you can't take it with you and besides, that extra hour or two in bed and the opportunity to have some breakfast might be helpful before a seven-hour flight. Particularly with my experience of airports and airlines. Again, they don't let me down. Well they do, but you know what I mean.

The Crown Plaza isn't the monstrous skyscraper I had anticipated but it serves its purpose. Except that there is no disabled parking available when we get there on Friday afternoon. There are a few spaces, around eight, but of course they have all been taken already by a mixture of fat people and dyslexics. Luckily I am now well versed in the art of getting out of my car and into my wheelchair in a space no bigger than an aeroplane toilet (much more on which later) without scratching the Rolls Royce made entirely out of gold parked next to me. Once settled in we naturally head straight to the bar and the rest of the day passes without incident. It's enjoyable even. Even I would struggle to fail to enjoy an afternoon in a bar in the knowledge that I have 10 days in the Big Apple to look forward to. Were it possible, I might even get excited.

On our way back to the room I am stopped by a man I am struggling to recognise.

"Fancy seeing you here." he says cheerfully.

Fancy. I don't remember this man. This happens a lot. I've explained before how using a wheelchair makes you instantly recognisable, and if it doesn't then it at the very least makes people think they recognise you. There are people out there who think I wrote A Brief History Of Time. I use a wheelchair so it must have been me.

"Where are you flying to?" the man asks, unfazed by my discomfort and my yes-I-absolutely-know-who-you-are act. It's impossibly rude and embarrassing to ask someone who they are so I fake it with all I have. It might be my fault anyway. There's every chance that I do know him but I just cannot bring him to mind. Even now, two weeks later as I write, I have no idea;

"New York." I answer.

He smiles at this and enthusiastically advises me that I must see the naked cowboy who hangs around Times Square. We're staying in Times Square so there is a fair chance that the naked cowboy and I will run into each other. I don't fancy it. I wish I had known about this earlier. , I could have prepared at least. Perhaps gouged my eyes out. Perhaps not. I need another disability like the BBC need another panel show. My unrecognised friend goes on to tell me how he is about to visit Venice, and I mumble something about how I went there once and it was full of steps which my dad had to carry me up despite the fact that I was 11 years old. Why does everything come down to access with me? Oh yes, because there isn't any. There was even less than none in 1987. I haven't been back to Venice.

Things start well on Saturday morning. We are awoken at a more civilised 6.00am and enjoy a proper breakfast. The plan is to get the free bus from the hotel to the airport terminal and, after being told on Friday night that we might have to get a taxi we learn that the bus is accessible after all. The driver tells me this with great pride, as if he's telling me that he's just found out how to eradicate disease across the world. He hasn't, of course. He's come up with two metal planks that pass for a ramp. Somehow they get me on to the back of the mini bus and we're on our way.

We'd had some trouble checking in online yesterday, a fact we explain to the American Airlines staff when we arrive. They're very helpful. They check us in quickly, bumping us past the growing queue of tired children and their disinterested parents. They're falling over each other to help, asking if there is anything else they can do for us. If I had known then what I know now I would have written them a list. Before we are allowed to advance to the departure lounge and the next bar they ask the obligatory stupid security questions. Are you carrying any sharp objects? Any fireworks? A large bomb perhaps? A nuclear device? Even more pointlessly they take our word for it when we tell them that we are not carrying anything dangerous on to the plane and I am left wondering what the point of all that was. Is anyone going to say that yes they are carrying a set of knives and a detonating ruck sack on board?

Boarding the plane carries with it the usual embarrassment attached to being dragged backwards on an aisle chair but thankfully there is no repeat of last year's Rio Ferdinand episode. They have let me board the plane first for once which seems like the sensible and therefore least likely thing they could have done. However, I am alarmed by the size of this plane. When we went to Orlando and Las Vegas the planes were three times the size of this one. Essentially what I am now sat on is a flying 10A. I would not be at all surprised if it stopped at Dovecot. I'm in the middle of a row of three seats with Emma to my left nearest the window. To my right is a young man who seems to know some of the airline staff. He's talking to them quite matter-of-factly, not in that forced, awkward way that people who don't know each other ordinarily communicate. He has an ipad and throughout the flight he uses it to play some kind of inane war game. Every time I glance over he is pushing buttons in an attempt to virtually invade Poland. I have absolutely no room to move and I'm going to pay for it at some point.

The in-flight movie is The Monuments Men, a would-be comedy set during the second world war about stolen paintings or some such. It stars Matt Damon and Bill Murray and I remember seeing them promoting it on the Graham Norton Show a few weeks ago. Sadly, there were more laughs in that 10-minute interview than there are in the whole of the film. Perhaps it is not supposed to be funny. It is set during the second world war after all. If that is the case though, why does it have Bill Murray in it? For a character that dull they would have been better off casting Roy Hodgson or Andy Murray. My war-loving neighbour is not impressed. He never once looks up from his war game, let alone go to the trouble of putting on the headset. He likes his war a little more realistic, obviously.

Going to the toilet would not make the cut in a holiday story for most people. But the disabled are not most people. When the film finishes I have to go through the rigmarole. This is a seven-hour flight and people who go the toilet by the clock cannot just jump around in their seat with their hand between their legs in the manner of a small child when they need a wee. I put my attention light on reluctantly, feeling like the kid in class sticking up his hand and asking Miss if he can go to the toilet. My discomfort is only going to get worse from here. The stewards bring the aisle chair and after the mandatory backwards drag down the aisle they place me outside the toilet. I wait for them to push me into the toilet but they never do. I realise that they're somehow expecting me to stand up at this point and walk in to the toilet. I have to explain that the chances of that happening in this life aren't good to which they respond by wearily setting about the task of pushing the aisle chair into the minute crevice that qualifies for a door way. This is when we all realise.

The aisle chair does not fit into the toilet.

At first they try and force it in there anyway but it's not happening. Whichever angle they turn the aisle chair, however hard they push it, however many times they sigh and ask me again if I can stand, it's not going in. I'm going to wet myself, so I decide that a slightly better option is to ask if they have anything that I can pee in. I've peed in a pint glass before now which you may not want to think about if you are going to the pub this evening and you spot a wheelchair user who does not have the luxury of an accessible toilet. It's ugly but it is the only way I can see this working. I'm about three feet away from the actual toilet bowl and guess what ladies, it doesn't stretch that far. I know, I was as surprised as you are. I need a bottle, a glass, a fucking empty coke can, anything to pee in except my pants. But they don't have anything. In fact they look at me as if that suggestion is a good deal worse than the prospect of peeing in my pants. They would. They're not wearing my pants.

They take the door off the toilet.

I'm not kidding. They have to unscrew it in several different places which takes a while, but eventually they just pull the bloody thing down. I am so relieved that I don't really think about the fact that I now have no privacy in this desperate, door-less dunny. There are two people waiting to use the toilet behind me, one of whom is of course female. But I ignore all of this and go about my business. It's become an emergency. Mid-pee it dawns on me that the stewards are standing behind me with a curtain to protect my modesty. My dignity has flown away so fast that it will be in New York before me. When it is all over the drag back to my seat seems tame by comparison. I thank the stewards for their ingenuity, hopefully without a trace of sarcasm, and hastily stick my head into my kindle.

An hour before we land my pain becomes physical. The tiny seat I have has played havoc with my posture and the right side of my back has stiffened up considerably. By the time we land I am just desperate for the war-game man to stand up and just get off the plane so I can at least stretch the muscle out. Inside the terminal at JFK airport I pay another bathroom visit, keeping the door where it is this time, and I have to sit on the floor for several minutes to alleviate the pain. We try to pass through immigration but are dragged back because American Airlines have not advised us that we needed to fill in one of the blue forms. The ones which ask whether you have brought any fruit into the country. The last thing the Americans want is to run the risk of foreigners bringing their exploding apples into the USA. There's further confusion about the flight number because there is one for BA who are running the show and one for American Airlines who have provided the flying 10A. A staff member insists that we use the American Airlines number and only then can we finally progress to pick up our luggage. By this time I have never felt pain like it in my back. I'm literally writhing around in my chair, chucking down painkillers like polos. I think a nerve is trapped and I'm not sure it will free itself in time for us to enjoy our first afternoon and evening in New York.

Which would be a real shame because it has been such fun so far.