New Routes in America
1977 TAFF Report: Peter Roberts

Chapter 2 illustrated by Stu Shiffman

Published 1978 in Egg 11 ed Peter Roberts
Rekeyed by Ulrika O'Brien

Stu Shiffman's fine-line art doesn't scan and reduce well: it's omitted here but appears in the printed report. DRL

2 • Big City Hustle

Airports are not distinctive places and John F. Kennedy airport in New York is no exception. If the pilot had told us that we'd been forced to turn back and make a landing at Manchester, Milan, or Moscow, we would probably have believed him. Anyway I was glad to be off the plane and delighted to be in America. 6.00 am Eastern time, 11.00 am British Summer Time: 27 hours away from Dawlish. It had been something of a long journey.

Anyway we shuffled through queues to the immigration desk. Dr. Jackson sailed through fairly swiftly; but a disshevelled Mr Roberts obviously looked far more suspicious. 'Purpose of visit?' 'To attend a convention in Florida.' 'A two month long convention?' 'Ah, well, I'm intending to do some travelling and things afterwards.' I forget the rest of the interrogation, but I didn't sound at all convincing. It would've been hell if they'd shaken their heads and put me on the next plane back: shortest TAFF trip on record. However, they let me through and Rob and I went off to find our luggage.

Once again Dr Jackson cut swiftly through the red tape, partly, I suspect, because the customs official wasn't about to manhandle cases weighing several tons. They gave me a more quizzical look, however, and started rummaging through my Sainsbury's shopping-bag. Inside were bits and pieces for the journey and also several hundred British Worldcon buttons. The bloke picked one out and stared at it. 'What are these for?' 'To give away at a convention.' Pause. Further examination of badge. 'Who are you giving them to?' 'Anyone who asks for one.' Further pause. Delves into bag and examines second badge. Looks up at me. yet another pause. Nervous tension on the part of Mr Roberts. Customs official smiles: 'Can I have one for myself and one for the other guy over there, please?' Childlike look on official's face. 'Yeah, sure, go ahead, fine,' says kindly Uncle Peter, and is waved through the gates. Through the gates and into a real, live, no more documents needed, United States of America.

At this point I should mention that we'd arranged to meet Jerry Kaufman and assorted Fanoclasts at the airport and they'd conduct us back to Washington Heights for a Welcome to America party. This, of course, had been planned before the strike and was based on our original arrival time of 8.00 pm, Saturday evening. It was now 6.00 am, Sunday morning. Neither of us had Jerry's phone number, so we'd only been able to hope that he'd heard about the strike and hadn't made a fruitless journey out to the airport. Our new, revised plans were to get a cup of coffee at the airport, find the phone number, and then ring through at some more civilized time and appeal for help. We followed the signs out of customs, therefore, with Rob dragging behind with his lead weights. I eventually turned a corner into the main concourse and took the opportunity to get out of the stream of passengers so that I could sort out my own baggage. As I did so, I heard a shout of 'Peter!' Looking up I saw parallel rows of people waiting for exiting passengers on either side of a roped-off section. Somewhere amongst them frantic wavings and gesticulations were in progress and placards were visible. Fans. Real American fans at six o'clock in the bloody morning. I was stunned.

The meeting was made. I don't know anything about it; people were rushing around, asking questions, making arrangements, making quips, listening to Rob talking about Maya, and generally acting excitedly and chaotically. I just stood there like a cabbage with an inane grin on my face, taking in nothing whatsoever except a continuous thought: 'Goshwow, here I am.' It wasn't until I was let out of the airport, a vegetable on a leash, into the early morning sun that my brain started working and I made some effort to find out who was there and say hello to them.

This is where I run into trouble. Ideally all fans should look thoroughly remarkable so that it would be simple and straightforward to introduce them; I could then say, example, that Suzanne Tompkins was eight foot tall with green hair, or Gary Farber was the furry bloke with purple ears and a gold lame eyepatch. No problems then. Everyone would know exactly whom I was talking about and would have a clear and precise picture of the person in question. In fact, of course, apart from a faintly luminous fannish aura, most fans look almost human.

Anyway, Jerry Kaufman was there: curly-haired, Zapata moustached, gleaming eyes -- a great bloke for energetically following whims and sudden notions to their illogical conclusions. Occasionally this involves singing, but I suppose nobody's perfect. Suzanne Tompkins, in comparison, is a model of quietness, wearing a long dress and a wide smile. I bet she sings nicely, too. Gary Farber, slender, short, hair tied back, indulges in frantic bursts of energy interspersed with quiet periods of gazing unfocused into the middle distance. Never known to sing, but may do so mentally. Moshe Feder, thin, angular, and clean-shaven, talks rather than sings; fortunately his constant stream of chatter is enthusiastic, or New York fans would long ago have fled to the hills. By contrast, Stu Shiffman, last of the group that I now found myself with, is neither lean nor angular, and his speech is extremely exact and purposeful. He has a look of high decadence about him and probably possesses a secret collection of paisley cravats and velvet smoking-jackets. Too urbane to sing.

Meanwhile, the car outside the airport was all that I could've wished for: an all-American limousine of vast dimensions, air-conditioned and padded. This monster was on loan to Stu Shiffman -- I didn't ask too closely about his connexions. Doesn't do to get too involved with people who drive cars like that. I ought to have worn a raincoat and a fedora to get into that car, and with a violin case instead of a rucksack. Studs Shiffman and the mob.

We left the airport. Cruising in an American car with American fans in America -- bloody hell. The American fans chatted amongst themselves in American accents. I was grinning till I ached. This is Brooklyn, said a back seat voice. Bloody hell. American trees, American grass, American concrete. This is Manhattan Island, said another voice. Bloody hell.

And so we reached Washington Heights and I stood around grinning like a fool and probably forgot to say thank you or anything else except bloody hell, and we went up in an elevator to an apartment in a block and I felt like yelling out something about America, but I couldn't think what, and Rob who'd gone in Joyce Scrivner's car, and Joyce is a large, long-haired young woman in a constant fluster, was already unpacking Mayas and things, and Dennis Somebody was there from Philadelphia and didn't say much, and everyone swarmed about and tried to show us things and told us how good the party which we'd missed the previous night was and had we seen the FAAn Awards on the shelves and this was the kitchen and sorry for the lack of typical New York cockroaches but it was very unusual for them to disappear and everyone looked desperately for cockroaches and Stu gave me some Flushing in 80 stuff and Jerry gave me a Spanish Inquisition and Gary gave me a Tweek and Moshe gave me a Placebo and everyone got Mayas and we all found out the secret of flushing the toilet which was playing up and we admired the nudes on the shower curtain and you could see the Hudson River from the balcony and everyone was thinking of breakfast and we all bundled out again into the sunshine and someone shouted 'You eight get into Stu's car!' and Dennis and I went into Joyce's car for a change and we all set out to eat.

We arrived at IHOP, the International House of Pancakes, and commandeered two tables. I opened the menu and it was full of all those things that you've always heard about Americans eating and more besides. The waitress came up and said 'Hi, I'm Jean,' and I didn't know whether to introduce myself or just smile vaguely. And we all got ice-water which turns out to be solid ice that's melted a bit around the edges and is extremely American and I was getting all excited again and grinning so much I couldn't focus on the menu. I took a deep breath and calmed down slightly. Then we all ordered a confusing assortment of odds and ends and it turns out that Americans eat some disgusting things for breakfast, which I'd always suspected. I joined in and ordered coffee, and an English muffin, which I've always wanted to try, and some cheese blintzes which Jerry Kaufman recommended; they sounded an absolutely repulsive way to start the day, but since I was confused by the travel and time zones and everything, it wasn't really a proper, waking-up, empty stomach sort of breakfast, and the blintzes turned out to be really nice. The English muffin was just a sad-looking crumpet which nobody felt like eating.

Outside again the heat almost bowled me over. I gasped my way to Stu's air-conditioned car and Rob, Jerry, Suzle, Gary, Moshe, and Stu followed swiftly. We were intending to drive back to the apartment where Rob and I would get the briefest of rests before heading straight off south to Washington. I hadn't made any such plans actually, but Joyce, Rob, and Gary were driving down to Suncon and there was room for me, so I said why not. This was roughly the level of my planning for the whole trip. I like to think of it as seizing opportunities, rather than simple drifting; but looked at objectively, the latter is probably more correct. Basically I get into a strange mood when travelling and live in a perpetual, unhindered 'now'. Plans, routes, and timetables I can't abide; note-taking, souvenir buying, thoughts of back home, thoughts of the future -- all get brushed aside as if they were irritating strings restricting my flow with the present. If I could have dumped my luggage and other such responsibilities, I would have done so gladly. I actually enjoy being free of a sense of security when I'm travelling. I revel in the fact that I haven't a clue what's going to happen next.

So anyway, we didn't have much time. I suppose it was about ten o'clock then and Joyce was planning to set off at midday. The New York fans, however, are proud of their city and we'd hardly left IHOP's before someone suggested that if we took such-and-such a route Rob and Peter would be able to see a famous landmark. So we started back via a scenic route and the detours and side-trips became longer and longer till everyone stopped pretending we were heading back to the apartment and we all sat back for a Sunday morning tour of Manhattan.

I don't know what we saw altogether. Moshe knew the name of every building we passed, plus its history, the name of the architect, and several interesting facts about its construction and design. We passed several thousand buildings. Moshe kept up with them all. He was sitting behind me to the right, and Stu, languidly driving, was sitting on my left. Stu was also calmly pointing out the various buildings, but never quite managed to beat Moshe to it. I'd watch Stu open his mouth and then hear Moshe speak first. It was fascinating and rather weird, like listening to some mildly out of phase stereo. Every so often we'd reach a traffic light and the car and Moshe would slow down and stop. There was a brief silence, then Rob, also in the front seat (it was that big a car) and edgy as ever, would shout out 'Green!' and Stu would look at him, look out at the lights, and, sighing resignedly, would start off again. Somehow we negotiated the maze of downtown New York City.

The tour, though brief and hectic, was fantastic. Remember that I wasn't just taking my first glimpse of the city itself, but also my first look at America. It wasn't just the buildings and the landmarks, therefore, that caught my eye; it was the people, the cars, the streets, the adverts, the whole atmosphere of mundane American life -- right down to those street corner fire-hydrants that you see in cop films. And as for New York itself, there were the skyscrapers. My god, those buildings are tall to the point of silliness. You have to get out of the car just to look at them -- and staring at those strange, unsettling objects and standing in their shadows is like being in some peculiar dreamworld or some half-understood fantasy film.

Eventually we returned to the apartment and made hurried arrangements to leave. Joyce's car was packed full of luggage, God knows how, and Jerry, Stu, and Moshe came out to see us off. As my official American agent, Jerry demonstrated a creditable attacking budgie dance and, to gratify Rob's photographic whims, also displayed a secret Fanoclast handshake which is complex and requires some acrobatic ability. We stood around in the sun and said farewell. It had been an incredible day so far, all 33 hours of it, and I was now about to head for Washington, Terry Hughes, and rumours of a party.

More of which, next time.