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“IN 1970, when I was 18 and had finished my first year at university, I did what so many students of my era did and worked for a paltry sum, in a menial job – in my case, quite extraordinarily, as an assistant salad chef at a kosher hotel in the Borscht Belt in the Catskill Mountains in New York State.
It was very much the standard thing in those days. People hadn’t heard of travelling along the Silk Road or hiking to Katmandu, all the things that subsequently became the default post-student experience. But when I was young, the British Universities North America Club was the gateway to America for a generation of students. For a modest sum you could get a return flight, a student visa, the promise of a temporary job and a Greyhound bus pass, which let you travel anywhere, day or night, for $99 a month.
I had never set foot in America. In fact, it will surprise no one born in the 1950s to discover that I had never flown. When I presented myself at The Flagler Hotel, I realised I had a great deal to learn. This feeling was sharpened when I discovered I had paid the penalty for being among the last students to arrive for the summer and had landed the position no one else wanted, dogsbody in the kitchen. I had to report for duty at 6.30am, while most of my student colleagues were still asleep, and work all the hours that God gave you. My boss was a fearsome Chinese-American chef from New York who couldn’t understand a word I said, and I couldn’t understand a word he said. By sign language he communicated that my first job each morning was to delve into a hellish soup to fish for pickles.
It was a brutal immersion into an entirely new world, but wonderful nonetheless. And when my time at the Flagler came to an end, I embarked, with three other students, on an epic meander into the Deep South, then westwards to the Pacific, north again to the Canadian border and back across the northern plains and badlands to Chicago, and eventually New York. We slept on the bus, mostly, to avoid paying for hotels, and got a feel for America’s diversity and vastness.
Just before I left the United States, this photograph was taken by a friend on the Staten Island ferry as we chugged back across the harbour towards Lower Manhattan. I treasure it because it encompasses all my excitement at first seeing New York. I also find it incredibly poignant because behind me are the twin towers of the World Trade Center, little more than half built, and I can’t help looking at them and remembering 9/11.
In subsequent years I came to know New York well and have close friends there, so the fact that these two symbols of optimism are gone, destroyed in the most terrible circumstances, still shocks me terribly. If you were in Midtown and looked down Seventh Avenue, the twin towers were what you saw. To see them removed, like a missing tooth, still evokes very raw feelings.
America today feels like the country I first stepped into. On the surface it was full of confidence, but you didn’t have to look far to realise it had been polarised by the Vietnam War, race riots, the assassinations and deep poverty. There have been highs and lows in almost every American president’s term, but there has been nothing so profound as the twin events of 9/11 and President Trump’s election. They were game-changers.
While Trump says he will make America great again, that he can recover some lost spirit, he is actually the emblem of a country that remains very divided. There are those who will never abandon him, who believe his unorthodox behaviour is worth it because he’s shaking up the system. And there are others who believe he’s an international embarrassment. Bridging the gap between those groups will be extremely difficult.
I have lots of lovely photographs, but this is a flashback to a particularly happy time. It also encapsulates one of my favourite cities, and the highs and lows it has known.”
James’s book, On The Road: American Adventures From Nixon To Trump, is out now (Simon & Schuster, £20).
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