New Jersey and Pennsylvania 2019
Updated: Oct 16, 2020
In May and June 2019 I worked in North Eastern USA, just at the time that Spring's sunshine was beginning to replace levels of rainfall that are more appropriate for the UK. The BA long haul flight from Heathrow was very pleasant, passing over mid Wales and then Wexford, Limerick and the tiny Aran islands before striking out over the Atlantic. Six hours later we were bouncing in the turbulence over the Green Mountains in Vermont and descended into a very wet Newark. One yellow taxi journey later I was settled in a hotel just outside Princeton, New Jersey.
Princeton is a lovely town, dominated by the university whose campus is beautiful. I spent hours wandering around the campus and the tree-lined streets, the architecture ranging from domineering chapels to quaint pastel-coloured clapperboard houses. One definite recommendation is the university art museum which has thousands of treasures and some excellent art by Warhol, Monet, Cezanne and many others, as well as antiquities from Egypt, Greece and Rome. I took a free tour which was really interesting.
My first week of work was in Raritan, a pleasant smallish town about 40 minutes away from Princeton by car. The Raritan Music Centre was run by really friendly people and I was based in a lovely studio equipped with two baby grands and situated next door to a Cobbler’s shop. A few doors down was a small supermarket which did fresh sandwiches and wraps to order and sold cheap coffee and there was a bar next door to the music school for a welcome end-of-week catch up with my new colleagues.
Friendliness and willingness to chat is a common characteristic amongst Americans and I had some really interesting conversations with work colleagues, Uber drivers and fellow guests at the hotels. Many asked me about Brexit and sometimes the answer led to involved discussions about our respective countries’ political systems - I learnt a huge amount about the American system one evening over a Budweiser or two with a very erudite Texan called Jim. One of the hotel staff was a refugee from Lebanon and told me about her plight, particularly as she had lost her green card and cannot leave the US to visit home for a year - frustrating now that Lebanon is a bit easier to come and go from. One of my Uber drivers was talking about how he saw 9/11 unfold in front of his eyes from his recently rented apartment less than three blocks away from the WTC. Quite a range of topics.
Proximity to New York City was a real plus, and on one of my first days off I went to New York by train from Princeton Junction on the NJ transit - about a 75-minute ride into Penn Station which is right underneath Madison Square Garden. I took the backstage tour at MSG and saw all corners of the venue including the Knicks and Rangers locker rooms as well as lots of Billy Joel-related things as he has played well over 100 shows there.
After that I took a number 2 subway train to 135th street to meet with Ryan, a very charismatic tour guide, outside the Schomberg Centre for Black Culture in Harlem. The two-hour free walking tour of Harlem (booked online - just google 'New York walking tours') took in some really interesting locations and lots of very interesting history of the area from its first Dutch inhabitants (it’s named after the town Haarlem in Holland) to the times of Alexander Hamilton, the influence of MLK and Malcolm X (who both have streets named after them) and other possibly less known to us but equally important figures such as Marcus Garvey and Adam Clayton Jr. Ryan picked out the best soul food restaurants, music venues such as the Apollo Theatre, churches, street art and other significant places. After that I had dinner with an ex-student of mine who is now working as a dancer and choreographer in New York.
After Raritan I had a week of work in and around Princeton at two venues. One was part of Rider University (Princeton’s second university) called Westminster Choir College and the other was at a private house just outside the town with a barn converted into a music recital room. At the end of the week on a rare day off, a Saturday, I left the hotel at 6 am to catch the train into Penn Station and from there out on the Long Island Railroad to Farmingdale, the home of Bethpage Black Course and my first experience of a golf major. The sun shone and I found myself part of a 50,000 crowd at the course, all marshalled very efficiently from the train station at Farmingdale onto shuttle coaches that took us to the course. I got my bearings and found Phil Mickelson practising on the driving range, then set up for a bit by the 5th green and watched a few come through, including Justin Rose who I followed for a few holes. I also saw numerous other 'big names' - Speith, Koepka (who won), Fleetwood and McIlroy to name just a few.
After nearly two weeks of rain the weather was suddenly becoming swelteringly hot. I had two days in a new work location - an exclusive Steinway Piano seller near Trenton with a beautiful array of pianos on display. The owner, Randy, gave me a tour of the showroom and carte blanche to play any piano I wanted - which of course I did. They even had one called a Spirio which is like a player-piano - it links up to an iPad and recreates exactly to performances from the great pianists from Horowitz to Lang Lang, exactly as they played it, with keys moving and everything. I had my last night at the Princeton hotel so I bade farewell to Lisa in the restaurant, Phil at the bar and Kevin at reception, since I had got to know them all rather well!
My new hotel was in East Brunswick, nearer to New York City, and my large room was complete with fridge and microwave, sofa and plenty of space though the hotel was a little shabby. Dinner on the first night was at the Italian Restaurant over the road which, it turned out, was owned by a lady from Hackney. Work for the next couple of weeks was at a music studio in a shopping parade only about 10 minutes' walk from the hotel, and right next door to an all-you-can-eat for $10 Chinese buffet place. Work was challenging, not only for me but for the studio staff who had only just moved into the unit and were having to deal with inoperative air conditioning, little sound proofing and leaky ceilings, but the friendly, accommodating support was never lacking and I enjoyed working with them.
On my next rest day I got a bus from East Brunswick into Port Authority bus station in New York - right on 42nd street just down from Times Square and only a 45 minute trip. I walked through Times Square and up 7th Avenue, past Radio City Music Hall and the Rockefeller Centre, until I hit Central Park. Then I continued through Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum of Art where I spend a very pleasant few hours looking around the exhibitions, including a really interesting one on the history of Rock 'n' Roll. From there I got the subway to 33rd and went to the top (86th floor) of the Empire State Building to drink in the fantastic views all the way up and down Manhattan Island. A great way to see all of the New York sites without too much traveling around.
I met up with a good friend who used to work with me in the UK and now lives near the Hudson on W65th (also called Sesame Street). We had a beer and I met his new Golden Retriever puppy who was still not finished with her jabs and had to be carried everywhere. Naturally we attracted a lot of attention walking through the streets holding this little golden ball of fluff. Our beer was right on the Hudson near the spot Sully landed his plane.
After my last day of work in East Brunswick I returned to the city for the evening to see Billy Joel. As you can imagine this was quite a special night, and I had a great seat not that far back from the front of the stage. Billy didn’t disappoint and Madison Square Garden is a great venue.
The next day I picked up a hire car for the final week of the tour and drove the 100 miles or so to my next stop, Coatesville, Pennsylvania and a hotel pleasantly situated amongst the woods next to a highway, settling into a lovely room on the top floor looking out over a stream and trees at the back of the hotel. I found Pennsylvania very green and full of farms with a pace of life a lot slower than New Jersey.
The day after arrival was a rest day so I drove to the local station to catch the train into Philadelphia. It was a great ride on a very old fashioned train that stopped at the tiniest stations - I felt like I was in a Michael Portillo series. In Philly I walked all the way up Benjamin Franklin Parkway from City Hall to the Art Museum, where the famous ‘steps’ scene from Rocky was filmed (there’s a statue of Stallone there) and visited the Impressionists exhibition. Then I walked from to Eastern State Penitentiary, which was a prison from the early 19th century up to 1971 that famously housed Al Capone. Now it’s a museum and affords a really good look at the history of American incarceration and the kind of conditions the inmates had to endure.
I had four days' work at West Chester University, situated in a nice university town with a laid back feel to it that reminded me of Princeton. One of the days was a half day so on a whim I phoned a nearby golf club to see if I could have a round, having always wondered if US golf clubs are much different to UK ones. The staff at Honeybrook Golf Club, which is in the heart of Amish country, were really welcoming and sorted me out with a spare set of clubs, as well as teaming me up with three other golfers who were happy to have me tag along. Everyone uses golf carts so we belted round the course in one of those. The course was in lovely condition and there isn’t really any rough like the kind we get in the UK - if my drive wasn’t straight it wasn’t too hard to get back in play. My playing partners were good company - a guy on his own called Mike and a father-son duo called Bill and Brian - Brian happened to be a student at West Chester and we had a beer together after the game.
After my final full day at West Chester I made the 3 hour drive North to State College, including a beautiful stint in the light of the setting sun up US route 322 which follows the Susquehanna River past Harrisburg. This is the town where Penn State University is situated and though it was a long way for one day’s work it was a lovely part of the world and the trip up was stunning. Before I knew it, I was making the same trip in reverse, all the way back to Philadelphia airport for my flight home.