Layers of ‘Phil’ and a New York break

A short break in New York last week. Arriving mid-evening Wednesday Rich and I were determined to stay up late to nail the time difference. The hotel bar was packed and we ended up in a two person booth with someone waiting for his mate, Phil.

“Hey, sit down!” said booth mate in a booming voice when Phil pitched up. Shaking us from a firmly wedged in, warm, exhausted, sneaky pre-slumber.

“Nah, I’m good. I’m too fat to sit there!” said Phil cheerfully dismissing the 6 inches of seat on offer and ordering a Four Roses bourbon.

A Four Roses bourbon.

It turns out, Phil, an expansive, personable New Yorker, had worked for 30 years at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. Working with people now called ‘developmentally disabled’. So many different labels over the years, he said with feeling, holding his hands up. Reminding me of Joyce Davidson’s ‘More labels than a jam jar’. My exhausted brain puzzled over how we’d landed in John F. Kennedy airport only an hour or so earlier and were now talking to someone intimately immersed in New York learning disability history.

Creedmoor where?

Over a couple more bourbons and with the lightest of prompting, Phil talked about his (working) life. He’d worked his way up from carpenter’s assistant to carpenter to estates director after his parents died in his teens. He was on a countdown to retirement in the next few years with a cracking state pension. His long term aim. He’d stopped making padded cells in the late 80s…

Patients at Creedmoor seemed to be people to Phil. He was concerned about the push toward deinstitutionalisation by New York State because of inadequate community facilities. How can people get their haircut, see the dentist, chiropodist, get healthcare and hang out when they are scattered and isolated? People should be ‘supported to progress’ he said.

What did good look like to Phil? “Managers who are on the phone to me all the time to mend stuff, to sort stuff. They’re the good ones.”

Creedmoor.

I dunno. The strands, the brutality, the human rights breaches, the glaring and yet apparently fine smashing of rights. I mean rights are right, right?

I’m left wondering about the layers of ‘Phil*’ in these spaces. In ATUs and supported living places in the UK. I don’t know if Phil was who he seemed to be. But he seemed to be a decent guy. How much did Phil do? How much did he ignore? Did he call out brutality? Are there gradients of brutality in practice and if yes, how are these measured? And who decides?

Why are learning disabled people routinely terrorised?

Day One (two)

The next day the sun sliced through the freezing air, bouncing in, off and between buildings. We walked, talked, watched, saw and listened with only a vague plan of what to do and where to go. Late afternoon we fell into the Stonewall Inn, Greenwich Village. Where pride began. Happy hour. Over the next hour or so, sitting at the bar we heard first hand accounts about the Stonewall riots, spaces and original places. Tree, the barman, has worked there or thereabouts for more than 40 years.

“I met the queen once in England”, he said, in between serving customers and dishing out happy hour tokens. A mate had invited him along on some London gig back in the 70s. Another customer, an HIV activist, wearing a natty red suit, white shirt and red sparkling tie provided more detail about the riots. He was concerned New York State thinks HIV is sorted now when it isn’t.

Tree came back with his phone. He swiped through to a faded photo of a young queen and a couple of young men.

“That’s me,” he said. Pointing to the back of a tall 70s hair head.

He swiped through a few more photos.

“And here I am in the 80s and, yeah, the 90s”. Extraordinary photos from pre-selfie days.

The Stonewall riots in the late sixties. Fifty years later the bar was heaving, loud and joyful. Phil stopped making padded cells in the late 80s. Why the less than snails pace on change for some people?

When we were leaving, I asked Tree I could take a photo of him. He darted out from behind the bar to be in a (rare) photo with me. He’s about to turn 80.

The next day or so we walked some more. And simply enjoyed. It was a good break.

*

This isn’t about Phil.

Housecoats, aprons and mucky labour

Captivated by the women of Galicia along the last section of #CaminoLB.

“Can I take your photo?” I asked pointing at my camera. A few said no. Others stood tall. Looking me in the eye with quiet confidence. There was no artifice or prevarication.

Incredible, beautiful faces.

Lines. Life carvings. Contours of determination, humour, dignity. Resilience. Well earned, authentic resilience.

Glimpses of triumph and more. So many stories.

Housecoats, aprons and mucky labour.

Back to work tomorrow.  It’s been a long five years.


When Pittsburgh turned yellow…

L1031481Last day in the US. Teaching on a short course for researchers within the Veterans Administration at the Grand Wyndham Hotel in Downtown Pittsburgh. In a conference room cut off from the outside world with air-con set to ‘artic’.

Lunch break was 1 hour 15 mins. I step out of the hotel into a beautiful sunny, beyond baking hot day. Slightly disorientating. Everywhere I look people are wearing yellow and black. Walking across the park in front of the hotel. It’s Sunday. The Steelers are playing. I walk in the same direction. Across the yellow bridge. Towards the stadium.

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L1031507I’m told/observe a few things.

American football is a family event. People head over to the stadium hours before the game for the atmosphere, pre-drinking and eating. Very, very few people do not wear the kit in some shape or form. You can take alcohol into the stadium but no bags (other than clear/plastic bags).

I saw one policeman on a bike. Looking totally out of place. As if he was passing by on his lunch hour.

A retired player posed for photos with fans. The queue was enormous.

 

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“Get your phones out and ready” people were told. No charge. A snap or two. A ‘terrible towel’.  More cheer.

I wandered back towards the yellow bridge. To the beige hotel (in the photo below) for the final sessions in this marathon trip.

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What a backdrop. What a city. What an extraordinary journey…

I cannot wait to be home.

Pittsburgh and the speakeasy

L1031307 (1)Pittsburgh. A city where everything seems big.

After meandering my way here overland via Montreal with some freedom, I’ve been full on working.

Tonight a free evening and some wandering.  I stumble across an extraordinary old building positioned in what looks like a stage set in the shadow of sun soaking tower blocks. Beckert Seed and Bulb Co. A Disney film in the wings.

L1031416Nate happened to be sorting the rubbish. He ran with my fascination with this ‘out of/more than in’ place building.

“There’s the old speakeasy down there… You know. The illegal liquor sales… The door to the speakeasy is still there.”

The speakeasy.

L1031422We went and looked at the door down the alley way.

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“So long ago now…” said Nate. Shaking his head. He went back to work.

L1031424I went back to my big hotel.

 

Finally, New York to Pittsburgh

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L1031190 (1)So I’m inviting the nerdier among you to join me on my last long distance journey on this mammoth North American trip. New York to Pittsburgh on an Amtrak train. Leaving New York Penn Station at 10.52am. Get some nosh in advance I’ve been advised. The train fare can be a bit limited.

Tim is the ticket inspector. With more than a hint of banter and humour.

“You think this is the first time my picture has been taken by someone from England?!” he asks, posing for a few pics like an old pro as the train bounces around the track a bit and he keeps blurring.

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The train is well worn, comfy, spacious with a range of around the seat gadgets. A distant table, a foot rest attached to the seat in front moved with a foot pedal. Under each seat is a pull out chair extension so you can recline your chair and almost lay down with your legs stretched out. A shiny round black knob on the arm of the chair pings the extension back under the seat.

There’s plenty of room.

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A dining car and free (speedy and largely consistent) wifi.

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And wonderful views.
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From the edges of New York city through villages of colourful wooden houses dotted around tree filled Pennsylvanian hills, the 400 or so mile journey takes nine hours. Its a relaxed pace, slow to middling. Allowing time to soak up the changing scenery. Read, work. Think.

A bit of excitement mid afternoon. Tim’s replacement, a similarly comedic, big voiced, kindly woman, marches into our nearly empty carriage.

Now listen up everyone. I have an announcement to make! Are you listening? I have something important to say!”

Crumbs. What’s happened? The six or seven of us left after the mass exodus at Philadelphia station a few hours earlier poke our heads out from our by now, personalised spaces. Footrests up or at ease. Seats reclined. Full body sleepage on the go.

“A couple of people have reported the smell of smoke in this carriage. Yes. Smoke. Now if I catch anyone smoking I will toss them off the train at the next station. Got it?”

We nod. Feeling guilty. She marches out of the carriage with a flourish and a cheeky smirk.

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Early evening, more excitement. An unexpected announcement over the tannoy. We’re about to approach the ‘world famous horseshoe curve’. Time to look out of the left hand side of the train. Wow. One for the serious train buff maybe but it’s pretty cool. It takes me back to the days of wooden toy train track building with the obligatory figure of eight curves. We never had enough pieces for a horseshoe.L1031276

We settle back in our various spaces. The sun slowly sets and by Johnstown it’s dark. The industrial approach to Pittsburgh reduced to chaotic lights in blackness.

Time for a cheeky bottle of the local brew, Yeungling, from the dining car. And to reflect on the humanity both generated by and captured on public transport.

Walk on the High Line

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I entered New York three times for the first time over the last four days. Train from Boston Friday, car on Saturday evening, Coach USA today. Arrival into Penn Station, via the George Washington Bridge and the Lincoln tunnel.

Friday involved an in and out, without stepping out, of stations. Cloaked in a humid, frantic and harsh Friday evening space. New York a promise of familiar names, signs and lifelong memories.

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Saturday evening I walked a chunk of Manhattan Island with the friend/colleague I was staying with in Nyack. Promise more than realised as we grazed Central Park, Times Square, 5th Avenue and the Empire State Building.

Today I caught the bus from Nyack and checked into the New York Yotel. Mid afternoon, I went to walk the High Line. The park that almost wasn’t.

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Built on a historic, elevated freight line destined for demolition… run by the non-profit conservancy Friends of the High Line which relies on individual donations.

A disused elevated freight line made into a park. An extraordinary, joyful space with original tracks, plants, walkways, seating, artwork and views.

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And then I came across the choir.

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L1031150Truly wondrous.

Eh? Sorry, what was that? A park on a bridge across the River Thames? 

Final day in Old Orchard Beach

Staying at the Pine View Motel. Motel life. A glimpse of a pool here through the window and beyond, Saco Avenue, the main road between Old Orchard and Saco. I worked, Skyped, went to the laundrette [exceptional] at lunchtime and late afternoon walked the beach.

I walked the other way under the pier this evening towards Brunswick. Sea gulls stood almost to attention with a haughtiness along the beach while tiny (groups/gaggles/ chatters?) of sand pipers (I think with a quick google) added a joyous layer of fun and playfulness. Tripping over themselves without touching, chasing and ducking the waves.

I met Pretzer (or Prezzer) and his owner. A dog who loves the beach.

At JJs Eatery, where I ate, Halloween preparation was underway with serious attention.

On the way back to the motel I passed Lisa’s Pizza. Squaring, or circling the Old Orchard Beach experience. A place where you can order a pizza and someone will deliver it and wait. No stops necessary.

Rib beef buffet and Eric Spoonton

Quiet day in Old Orchard Beach. Skype calls, work in my motel room and a walk along the beach late afternoon where some nifty painters were busy at work in the sky.

L1030709I had dinner in Strike Zone, sitting next to Peter who was carving an enormous piece of meat for an ‘all you can eat’ buffet. Another deadpan legend.

“The pumpkin mash is amazing. Did you make it?”
“Nah. None of it”.

Custom was steady with a few rules in operation.

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“You need a clean plate.”
“This one’s fine.”
“No you need a clean plate. It’s the rules.”
“Ah. I’m all for rules.”

I started to take some pictures.

“Where are you from?” He asked.
“Oxford, England.”
“We had someone from Manchester the other week. He really loved the pickles. ‘I love the pickles so much!’ he said.”
“That’s cool. Is that beef?”
“Yep. Prime rib beef. All you can eat. On Fridays it’s all you can eat haddock.”
“Wow.”
“Make sure you take a photo of Eric Spoonton.”
“Who?”
“Eric Spoonton. Like Eric Clapton.”
“Ok.”

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Greyhound days, Dave and the red pear

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When I got to the Montreal Greyhound station this morning the queue had woven untidily through available space and back almost out to the pavement. I thought about the Oxford to Newcastle Megabus (a nifty six hour journey) I pass on the way to work. Seeing the odd, pale, typically beaten passenger having a quick puff on the pavement.

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I parked these reflections. This was going to be a bus journey and a half. I had music, books, wifi, kip potential and the Vermont autumn scenery to soak up. By the time I reached the front of the queue other stragglers had joined and we were directed to another bus. A new bus. An express bus. Driven by Dave.

Dave.

I would want to employ Dave, or a someone like Dave, if I ran my own organisation. A exemplar in minimal interaction, keeping passengers informed/in line, and doing what matters.

I settled into a seat next to a woman wearing a round straw hat with her nose very firmly in a book. ‘Don’t talk to me’ she said without words. Comfy seat, space and big windows to beak through. A greyhound on the right side of shiny.

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There was chatter at first. People exchanging peculiar transient life fragments; where they were going, where they’d been. Why we were on that bus. The demographic was mixed with a hefty dose of young, scrubbed student types.  An older Greyhound-pro on his way to give an engineering lecture sat in front of me. He had a striking comfortableness with the process. Leafing through his newspaper he could have been sitting on a hotel balcony with a cup of coffee.

An hour or so into the journey the bus was largely quiet. People hooked into books, phones, tablets or dozing. There was weighty traffic as we approached the border and we inched forward slowly.

“Can you hear me?! I’m stuck on the bus. I’m stuck on the bus at the border. I don’t know what time. I’ll ask the driver.”
“What time will we be stopping in Brunswick?”
“We’re not stopping in Brunswick. This is an express bus.”
“But my ticket says Manchester.”
“You’re on the wrong bus.”

The promised border guard eventually appeared. After a brief chat Dave told the woman caller to get her stuff and wait for the next bus. The rest of us were get off the bus with our ‘on bus’ bits. Cases could stay in the hold.

“Is this yours?” said the young woman sit across the aisle to me. “It fell into my bag when you stood up”.

My red pear. From my hotel breakfast.

“Thanks…”
“You might have a bit of trouble with that pear. You aren’t allowed to bring fresh fruit into the US.”
“Oh.”
“You might want to lose it or declare it…”
“Lose it? Like leave it on the bus?”
“Mmm. That might make things worse. You should probably declare it.”

I got off the bus with the pear and a tub of grapes humming in my bag. We were herded into a new queue.

“Does anyone want a grape?” I asked.

The grapes went down well. I was allowed to keep the pear. Back on the bus we drove through spectacular countryside, had a break in torrential rain at White River Junction and arrived in Boston around 7pm.

 

 

Dave switched the lights on.

“Are you visiting Boston or do you live here?” asked the woman sitting next to me.

So much more than a ‘bus journey’.

I was taken back to this transport related piece of wisdom from LB.

Finally, New York to Pittsburgh…

L1031184

L1031190 (1)So I’m inviting the nerdier among you to join me on my last long distance journey on this mammoth North American trip; New York to Pittsburgh on an Amtrak train. Leaving New York Penn Station at 10.52am. Get some nosh in advance I’ve been advised. The train fare can be a bit limited.

The ticket inspector is a cheerful Tim. With more than a hint of banter and humour.

“You think this is the first time my picture has been taken by someone from England?!” he asks, posing for a few pics like an old pro as the train bounces around the track a bit and he blurs.

L1031188

The train is well worn, comfy, spacious with a range of around the seat gadgets. A distant table, a foot rest attached to the seat in front moved with a foot pedal. Under each seat is a pull out chair extension so you can recline your chair and almost lay down with your legs stretched out. A shiny round black knob on the arm of the chair pings the extension back under the seat.

There’s plenty of room.

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A dining car and free (speedy and largely consistent) wifi.

L1031204

And wonderful views.
L1031225

L1031191

From the edges of New York city through villages of colourful wooden houses dotted around tree filled Pennsylvanian hills, the 400 or so mile journey takes nine hours. Its a relaxed pace, slow to middling. Allowing time to soak up the changing scenery. Read, work. Think.

A bit of excitement mid afternoon. Tim’s replacement, a similarly comedic, big voiced, kindly woman, marches into our nearly empty carriage.

Now listen up everyone. I have an announcement to make! Are you listening? I have something important to say!”

Crumbs. What’s happened? The six or seven of us left after the mass exodus at Philadelphia station a few hours earlier poke our heads out from our by now, personalised spaces.

“A couple of people have reported the smell of smoke in this carriage. Yes. Smoke. Now if I catch anyone smoking I will toss them off the train at the next station. Got it?”

We nod. Feeling guilty. She marches out of the carriage with a flourish and a cheeky smirk.

L1031193

Early evening, more excitement. An unexpected announcement over the tannoy. We’re about to approach the ‘world famous horseshoe curve’. Time to look out of the left hand side of the train. Wow. One for the serious train buff maybe but it’s pretty cool. It takes me back to the days of wooden toy train track building with the obligatory figure of eight curves. We never had enough pieces for a horseshoe.L1031276

We settle back in our various spaces. The sun slowly sets and by Johnstown it’s dark. The industrial approach to Pittsburgh reduced to chaotic lights in blackness.

Time for a cheeky bottle of the local brew, Yeungling, from the dining car. And to reflect on the humanity both generated by and captured on public transport.