My Week in New York: The End

Another 7am start, and I got out of bed and showered with a heavy heart, knowing that this day would mark the end of my holiday in New York City.  After a hearty fry-up breakfast to set me up for the day, I went up to my room and packed my bags.  As it turned out, this was quite an ordeal.  Fortunately, my mum had suggested packing a hold-all bag inside my suitcase that I could use as an extra bag if I couldn’t fit all my stuff in my case for the return journey.  And even with the hold-all as a second bag, it was a tight squeeze.  After much struggling, I had to give up on trying to get the Swamp Thing toy packaging (this great pulp mould of Swampy’s head) into my suitcase, having to leave it behind in the hotel room to get trashed.  But eventually, I had everything packed, and my hotel room emptied.  I was sad to exit the room for the last time, leaving my keycard on the table as I went out.

I went down to the front desk, and checked in my bags for the day: my flight wasn’t due until 11:05pm, and there was little point hauling my suitcase around the city for several hours.  The folks at the Comfort Inn were good enough to put all my bags in storage, freeing me up for a final day of shopping in NYC.  I picked up three T-shirts from Old Navy, two more pairs of skinny jeans from Levi’s, and a new jacket from Macy’s.  So, one good thing about my trip to New York was that it got me a whole new wardrobe, head-to-toe.  All I neglected to pick up were underpants and socks.  Oh, and a hat.  My friend Jamie keeps on telling me I need to start wearing a hat.

When I was done shopping for clothes like a normal human, I then resorted to the much more geeky/fun pursuit of comics hunting: as if I hadn’t already had my fill of comics!  I started the day by kicking myself, because I had intended to go back to Midtown Comics’ booth at NYCC on Sunday and pick up an Ex Machina Deluxe: Volume 1 hardcover, but it had slipped my mind completely.  So I decided to start my search for it at Jim Hanley’s Comic Universe.  For doing the signing, I had been given a 20% discount card for the store, valid for a year.  Since I was about to travel back home to Scotland, I figured it’d be now or never for making use of it.  Unfortunately – perhaps because it was Comic-Con season – Jim Hanley’s stock of graphic novels was sorely depleted, so much so I couldn’t find any book I was looking for, and I had a whole shortlist I ran through in my mind.  I eventually settled for Shade the Changing Man.

An aside on this theme of stock trouble: why does America hate John Constantine?  Is it because he’s English?  At Midtown Comics, Forbidden Planet, Jim Hanley’s, even New York Comic Con, the stock of Hellblazer comics was abysmal.  I say, without exaggeration, that Forbidden Planet Glasgow has the widest range of Hellblazer trades I’ve seen anywhere in the world, in my admittedly limited experience.

But back to my Ex Machina search.  Midtown Comics had a much wider range of books available, but still no Ex Machina Volume 1.  I had to make the long walk to Forbidden Planet (the New York one, the Glasgow one would have been a long walk indeed!) to finally get the elusive hardcover.  While in Forbidden Planet, I also picked up Elk’s Run, an early story by Joshua Hale Fialkov that I’ve heard great things about.  So, worth the trek out!

In amidst this search, I had lunch at Goodburger (where I took two bites of a Badcookie before promptly chucking it in the bin), and stopped in various shops selling jeans.  I figured I’d check out the range offered by folks other than Levi’s.  But I was promptly reminded why I’m not normally fussed about shopping for clothes.  The prices were crazy!  Diesel was charging several hundred bucks for a pair of their jeans, and their jackets required an investment of over $1000!  For $1000 I could fund an issue of a comic, or wear a jacket with a trendy label.  Crazy, I tells ya!

With time moving briskly on, I made a final stop at a souvenir shop to pick up some sparkly tat for family back home, then headed back to the hotel.  I got my bags, and was sure to tell the staff I had greatly enjoyed my stay, and would happily return next year.  And it’s true.  I really don’t have any complaints about the Comfort Inn Convention Center, it would definitely get my recommendation for anyone thinking of visiting NYC to attend the Comic-Con next year.

My last view of NYC before entering Penn Station... goodbye, Big Apple!

I had scoped out the journey from the hotel to Penn Station, figuring out the quickest, most efficient route to take by foot.  I thought I had it all sorted.  But it turns out that journey feels a lot longer when hauling a heavy suitcase and an even heavier hold-all bag.  I did eventually struggle my way into the station, and got my ticket to Newark Airport.  Agonisingly, I had to walk a couple of circles around the station trying to find the exit onto my platform, due to confusing signs, but I did finally manage to get on my train, and it was time for the journey home to begin in earnest.

I arrived at Newark International Airport a few hours early, and I must say it’s a lot less intense departing from the place than it is arriving there.  Less people with guns eyeballing you, at least.  I did, however, experience some confusion trying to find the check-in point.  I’d go upstairs, and someone would tell me to go downstairs, then when I got downstairs someone would tell me to go back upstairs.  Have I mentioned those heavy bags I was hauling around?  But eventually, I found the British Airways check-in tucked away in an obscure corner of the airport.  There was a nervous moment where I had to check if my giant, bulging hold-all bag could count as hand luggage.  I slid it into the little “your bag can be no bigger than this” frame.  It sat on top of it for a few ominous moments, before slowly sliding down into place.  I just made it, it would seem.  That could go in the overhead carrier, and the backpack on my bag could count as the “briefcase or small bag” I could put under my seat.  Technically, I was within my right, but when I was taking up three little trays with my stuff while going through security, or huffing and puffing carrying this heavy hold-all around the airport, I kept on worrying someone would stop me and tell me to check my bag in.

I grabbed a quick dinner nearby my gate, figuring I’d set myself up and avoid depending on dodgy airplane food.  When I arrived at my gate, my heart sank to discover my plane was delayed by nearly one hour.  Not disastrous in myself, but I had to catch a connecting flight at Heathrow, and suddenly that changeover was looking very tight indeed.  I passed the time by reading some more of the Starman Omnibus, and watching this old lady just walk in circles endlessly.

Eventually, the time came to board the plane, and I watched in quiet amazement at the number of people unable to follow simple instructions and wait for the number of their row to be called out.  This always fascinates me.  I’ve been on planes enough times to know how it works.  They’ll shout for people with small children, then they’ll shout for people in business class, then they’ll shout for people in rows 30-25, then rows 30-20, then rows 30-15, then say everyone can join the queue.  So why then, every time, is there always someone from row 2 front of the line, moaning and grumbling when they’re told they have to wait before getting on the plane?  I just don’t get it.  Whether you get on the plane first or last, YOU WILL BE SITTING ON THE SAME SEAT, AND YOU WILL BE LEAVING AT THE SAME TIME AS EVERYONE ELSE!  You’ll be on the plane for long enough as it is, why rush to get on sooner and be on it even longer?  Calm down, take a seat, and wait until you’re called!

When I got on the plane, I found I was sitting next to a 2 year old flying for the first time.  Cue lots of squirming, whimpering, and trying to undo his seatbelt, get out of his seat and run away.  He kept on grabbing my arm, looking up at me as if expecting me to aid in his escape.  Sorry, kid, I just wanted to sleep.  I’ll admit, though, once we took off the kid quietened down, and wasn’t any trouble at all.  In fact, he promptly fell asleep, and his mother carried him over to an empty row of seats behind us and laid him out.  It didn’t take me much longer than that to doze off, and I ended up sleeping through the majority of the flight.

When he landed at Heathrow Airport in London, I was informed that my flight to Glasgow would be boarding in five minutes.  I don’t see what the point of them telling me this was, as I still had to go through the agonising procedure of crawling through their security.  Heathrow is surely the worst airport I’ve ever been to.  When I stopped there back in 2004 I had to deal with massive queues bigger than any I’ve had to experience in any other airport, and this year I went through no less than 4 security checkpoints.  While Newark managed to all this stuff in two stages, Heathrow dragged the whole process out over two floors, and all the while I’m hearing the last boarding call messages for my Glasgow flight blaring over the speaker system.  Better yet, when I get through security the tanoy system starts shouting, “JOHN LEES, HEAD TO THE DEPARTURE GATE IMMEDIATELY!”  How embarrassing.  And here’s the kicker: after all that paranoid security, I walk up to the gate, and they say, “Are you John Lees?”  I reply with, “Yes,” and they just give me a boarding pass and usher me onto the plane without even looking at my passport!

I get on the plane, the last one to sit down, and I become that person I hate, the one I silently tut at, assuming they’ve held up my take-off while they shopped at duty-free or whatever.  Only, it seems it wasn’t just me that held the flight up.  After all that hurrying and stress, the plane then doesn’t take off for 40 MINUTES!  It turns out there was a bit of a hold-up with the take-offs, and they had to wait for an opening.

When we belatedly took off for Glasgow, it was a nice, short flight.  I just had time to read a couple of chapter of Ex Machina before our descent began.  And I was home, back in sunny, rainy Glasgow!

At the airport, I went to baggage claim, and to my dismay, there was no sign of my bags.  Going to the customer services office, I was told that due to the tight connection, there had been no time to load my bag into the plane.  Erm… how about that 40 minutes when we were just sitting there?  However, they told me by bag would be sent over on the next flight, and took my details.  Fair enough, my bag arrived at my home a few hours later.

I’d had an overnight flight, and it was now Tuesday afternoon in Glasgow.  I called a cab, and in no time at all, I was home.  New York already felt very much in the past tense, and it’s funny how quickly a vacation like that feels long gone.  But I was happy to see my family again, and enjoyed catching up with everyone and sharing stories of my time away.  This was an absolutely amazing week – I’m already planning on a return visit in 2012!

My Week in New York: Monday

For ages, it seems like it’s been looming as something exciting and a little bit scary in the distance.  From Monday October 10th to Monday October 17th, 2011, I would be visiting New York City.  Tyler James, publisher of ComixTribe, had invited me out to the New York Comic Con to represent The Standard, and I jumped at the chance.  Having missed out on getting tickets for San Diego Comic Con earlier in the year, I had the funds to pull the trip off, and so I decided to build a vacation to the Big Apple around my first experience as a pro at a major con.  And somehow, it managed to sneak up on me, and all of a sudden it was only a few days before I would be heading off.  It was an early flight, due to depart at 6:45am on Monday morning, so after finishing packing on Sunday night, I went to bed, setting my alarm for 3am.

Needless to say, I had a tumultuous start to my holiday, going on something of an emotional rollercoaster that veered from nightmarish to brilliant and back again in quick succession.  We got off to a bad start when I woke up at around 5:25am, having slept in over 2 hours.  Now, I’m usually neurotically early when I’m setting off to the airport, having everything packed well in advance, but still managing to spend a good couple of hours double and triple checking everything and getting myself organised on the morning when I’m due to set out.  That didn’t happen here.  Operating on pure panic, I was ready in a whirlwind and in a cab headed for the airport within 15 minutes of waking up.  And I was panicking, as my ticket told me I had to be checked in for 5:45.

I needn’t have worried  The motorway extension built near our home meant that I had the quickest journey to Glasgow Airport ever, cutting a journey that used to clock in at over half an hour to a mere 10-15 minutes.  Things started to go really well once I (belatedly) checked in.  The lady at the desk informed me that my flight was overbooked, so they were asking customers if they would mind switching to a later flight at 9am.  This flight would be via Continental, rather than the British Airways journey I’d booked, and would be direct to New York rather than having to make a stop at Heathrow.  This was great for me, as it cut down my journey time and ensured I would arrive in New York two hours earlier, even with the later departure time.  In fact, a direct flight was what I had originally wanted, but couldn’t afford.  Then, on top of that, I get compensation of £220 for the “inconvenience” of now having to wait such a long time for my flight!

But really, it worked out great.  Instead of what would have been a crazed rush, I now got to take my time, browse the shops, and grab the breakfast I had been forced to skip at home.  And by the time I’d breezed over to the gate at a leisurely pace, I didn’t really need to wait all that long.  If I’d gotten up and left at my intended time, I’d have had to hang around for ages to get this later flight.  So really, everything actually worked out perfectly.  I believe the term you’re looking for is “jammy bastard.”

However, karma got its payback once I got on the plane, and things took a turn for the sucky again.  Just as we were taking off, I got this lurching feeling in my stomach.  I tried to ignore it, as the seatbelt signs were still on, but it soon became clear that the combination of the pumping adrenaline from my early morning shock and dodgy airport food had taken its toll.  Ignoring the pleas to stay in my seat, I had to run down the aisle and spent the first half of my oh-so-desirable direct plane journey curled over a bathroom, dry heaving.  No, I wasn’t actually sick, but I felt so wretched I found myself wishing I would just heave and get it over with.  On a plus note, I discovered that Ted Beneke, the loathsome character from Breaking Bad, is actually named after the Beneke brand of airline toilets.  “That’s interesting, I’ll have to make a blog observation about that,” I thought to myself in-between retches.

When my stomach finally settled a bit, I got to enjoy the luxury of Continental airlines and their magic multi-channel telly systems on the back of every seat.  No longer are we in the Dark Ages where we are stuck with a single lame in-flight movie while on a  plane journey.  No, I had a vast choice of movies, and I selected Fargo.  Watching it again, I was reminded why I consider it one of the greatest movies of all time.  I think it just about cured my rampant nausea.

But eventually, the plane journey from hell was over, and I arrived at Newark Airport.  I tell you, Americans are INTENSE.  I hadn’t even done anything, but walking through customs, looking at the officers with one hand on their guns at all times, I was terrified of getting shot, perhaps through some accidental faux pas or case of mistaken identity, or simply through one of the officers sneezing or something and accidentally firing a round off into my gut.  And smiling nervously and making awkward, pleading niceties only seems to make the folks sitting behind the desk more suspicious!  Thankfully, the customs officer who asked me about my reasons for visiting the US seemed to be a comic fan, and I got to break the ice a bit by showing him copies of The Standard.

I hopped on the airtrain, and got off at the Penn Station stop.  Thus began the first of many moments where I made an arse of myself.  I took the escalator downstairs, I walked around, I went back upstairs, walked around some more.  I just couldn’t find the exit!  I went and asked the assistant at the booth where the main entrance out onto the street was.  She told me there was no street exit here.  I told her that I thought there was an exit onto West 34th Street.  She blinked in confusion, then told me I was still in Newark Airport.  This was merely the point where I could get a connecting train to Penn Station.  Oh.

By the time I eventually DID get a train to Penn Station, and walk with my suitcases on what I would discover was a ridiculously long, roundabout path to my hotel, I ended up arriving at my hotel around the time I was originally scheduled to land in New York.  I was utterly exhausted, and my stomach still didn’t feel too great, but I was in New York City!

New York, New York!

I forced myself to unpack my bags, then I took a walk around a bit.  I didn’t really do much of note: I just wandered around a bit, trying to get accustomed to the city.  NYC, especially around the Midtown Manhattan area, seems to operate on a pretty rigid grid system: you have numbered streets (West 34th Street, West 35th Street, West 36th Street) running perpendicular to numbered avenues (7th Avenue, 8th Avenue, 9th Avenue), so that as long as you can keep track of what way is right and what way is left, it’s very hard to get lost.  Unfortunately I can’t, so I did.

Amidst numerous exercises in walking several blocks, then having to do an about turn, it occurred to me that traffic in New York is fucking mental.  I mean, here in the UK we have a very nice system where everyone gets their turn to have free reign over the road.  Cars going one way, cars going another way, pedestrians.  New York operates on a grid system, where first everyone (cars and people alike) who wants to go in the direction of the avenues gets a turn, then everyone who wants to go along the streets has a go.  Which creates this crazy dynamic where, every time the WALK sign indicates you can cross the road, you have to watch out for cars turning into your path and trying to drive past/over you.  I almost got hit on numerous occasions on the first night alone, and after a few days I was kinda numbed to the impact of the near-death experiences.

I didn’t do much shopping on this first night.  I just picked up basics, such as water, a phone from Radio Shack for using while in the city, and a few of the toiletries I had forgot to pack in my mad rush.  On the subject of water: I went through a ton of it over the course of the week!  The pollution in New York must be terrible, that or there is some massive conspiracy with the bottled water companies to propel dehydrating properties into the atmosphere to make people buy overpriced bottles of H20 in an environment where it would take a braver man than I to chug from the tap.  Because each day, I was going through on average 2 bottles of water, with the countless Duane Reade pharmacies peppered throughout the city being one of my most common destinations throughout the trip.

I was tired and ill, so once it got dark, I decided it’d be best to head back to the hotel for an early night.  I did, however, make sure to stop at Midtown Comics on West 40th Street, just shy of Times Square.  I had fond memories of this place from visiting it as a teenager back in 2004, and it lived up to my expectations on the return visit.  It’s two floors of geeky comic goodness in the heart of the Big Apple, well stocked with a range of titles old and new.  I was pleased to note that, on each occasion I visited the store, it was always busy, and the sign on the door indicated that there were two more Midtown Comics branches peppered throughout the city.  It’s nice that the home of Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four is such a thriving comics hub in the real world.

My humble abode while in New York.

I popped into a deli to grab a light takeaway dinner for attempting to eat back at the hotel, and headed to my room.  The room was small, the furnishing was dated, and aside from a few HBO channels (which all stopped working midway through the week) the TV sucked.  But the Comfort Inn Convention Center was a hotel I ended up becoming very fond of.  The staff was friendly, helpful when required, but happy to otherwise be hands-off and let you do your own thing.  It was clean, the shower was nice and warm, and the bed was incredibly comfortable.  The hotel was in a brilliant location, a mere five minute walk from the Javits Convention Center (and the walk was only as long as five minutes because roadworks meant the most direct route to the building was closed and I had to take a detour), and best of all, it was cheap.

I looked at my carefully plotted out schedule for the week (the kind I often like to make when going on trips, but rarely am able to keep), and saw I had a big day ahead of me.  With the New York Comic Con starting on Thursday, and with me meeting up with my ComixTribe compatriot Joe Mulvey on Wednesday, I knew Tuesday would be my one day to go into total tourist mode.  So I called it a night.

NEXT TIME: Times Square!  Jazz clubs!  Giant dinosaurs!