Not only does New York never sleep, it never works properly, says Amanda Foreman

One of the drawbacks of historical research is that it usually involves long periods away from home. I feel homesick north of the Watford Gap. I miss my friends, my garden and cooking my own dinner. Ideally, everything would be at the Public Record Office in Kew, failing that, the British Library or an attractive spa town. Knowing how much I hate being on the road, I could not have chosen a more insane project. For the next three years I shall be driving around America in a rented car, with a mobile phone and road map for company, in search of information about the British men and women who fought in the American civil war.

I have set up base camp in New York. It’s been a couple of months since I first arrived and the temperature has rarely dropped below 90F. The whole of the East Coast is suffering the worst drought for 100 years. Crops worth hundreds of millions of dollars have shrivelled up in the sun, including the more lucrative ones such as marijuana. The Food and Drug Administration estimates that street prices for New York state’s second biggest crop after hay will treble from $400 an ounce.

The heat feels like God’s punishment on the mammon-seekers. A hot day in the English countryside smells sweet and verdant. A hot day in New York smells worse than your dog’s breath. Three afternoons a week, New Yorkers pile their rubbish on the streets to be picked up at 6am the next day. The urban nightmare is not being mugged on a street corner, but breathing at the wrong moment.

The British love New York in the same wild-eyed way they love India. They visit for two weeks and come back blabbing about how the experience has changed them. Ask how they found the non-English-speaking taxi drivers and they will talk about the city that never sleeps, its vibrancy, its clamour, and all that silly, glossy magazine stuff which is to real life what the film Notting Hill is to London.

I am privileged, if that is the word, to be getting a full-frontal of New York from a local’s point of view. Natives here insist that you haven’t lived until you’ve run the rental gauntlet. London prices are indeed outrageous, but New York currently offers some of the worst value in the world. I checked the online rental listings today and the cheapest one bedroom apartment in the whole of Manhattan is a 350sq.ft, fifth-floor walk-up on the Upper West Side for $1,450 (£900) a month. The way people rent here is by going through a real estate broker. Like waiters, brokers generally do something else and this is their day job. They hate their work and they hate you. Rosa, our first broker, was really a scriptwriter whose vivid imagination made her ideally suited for the job.

To understand how desperate the housing situation is, you have to see the new Donald Trump Westside Tower. It is an isolated, wind-buffeted monolith next to the Westside highway. By next to, I mean there’s about a car’s width between the left-hand lane and the 12th floor. Terence, our second broker but really a catalogue model, showed me an apartment on the 14th floor. It was one of only four remaining. When I pointed out that the vibration from the cars made the girders whistle, Terrence gaily assured me that a good television drowns out everything.

Steve, our third broker, had been recommended at my boyfriend’s place of work. The lesson is: do not use brokers out of the Yellow Pages or the Internet. Steve was sweet, gay, and actually a real estate broker. He found us a place downtown, in Manhattan’s picturesque Greenwich Village. It is near the subway and just a block away from the second-best supermarket in the city Balducci’s. I thought then that our troubles were over.

The day after moving in it became clear that neither the fridge, the oven nor the washing machine were working. I had also failed to notice that there was no air-conditioning in the bedroom. The single biggest cause of heat-related fatalities in America is people baking to death in their sleep.

People have this idea that a service economy is the height of First World sophistication. I used to think that way until I came here, New York must surely be ground zero for the service economy boom. There cannot be anywhere more sophisticated or more geared towards the needs of the post-internet generation than New York. So why am I waiting, six weeks on, for my appliances to work!

New York is melting, not from the heat of the sun but from the heat of its own economic success. It is so sophisticated, so computerised, so compartmentalised, that Sears, the largest repair company in the United States, can’t fix the temperature control of my oven. It wants to, very much. All Sears telephone operators are scrupulously polite, no matter what you say to them; and over the past few weeks I’ve said plenty.

Somewhere.down South, where the Sears operations centre is located, Patty. Kelly, Tracy and Eugene have each reassured me that a home visit is in the computer booked between 9am and 1pm.

But this is where the service and sophistication thing breaks down.

The computer makes the appointment, but the human being who is making the repair also makes his own appointment, which he keeps to himself. It doesn’t matter what you want or what Patty promises: the human being with the van and tool kit will come when and if he likes. It took me a few weeks to realise this.

By then three non-appearances and one “don’t have the right parts” later we had cancelled a weekend and spent a Saturday waiting for the fridge and oven men to come.

Mr Oven rang at 8.30am and said he might arrive by four. I pleaded with him to come before 10, just as Sear`s customer relations had promised. While Mr Oven said he would consider it, I rang Sears’s customer relations and poured my heart out to Shelley. “There’s nothing in the computer,” she said in a kind, though matter-of-fact way. “Would you like to schedule a time?”

If I’m really, really lucky, and on good behaviour all day, do you think that Sears just might send someone during the allotted time, who will do the job?” I asked.

Mr Oven called back in the meantime and said he wouldn’t come at all because the part hadn’t arrived. He told me to let him know when it did.

This was the first time anyone had mentioned that I should be expecting a part. “How do you know it hasn’t arrived when I didn’t know it was coming?” I asked. “Because it hadn’t been ordered,” he replied.

Today Mr Fridge arrived. I had stopped making appointments with Sears 10 days ago. It was amazing: he just appeared on my doorstep and said he was here to fix the fridge. Naturally, I didn’t argue. Mr Oven returned this afternoon, a mere half a day late. For a brief moment, I thought that Sears was going to be out of my life for ever. But clearly this is one relationship that will run and run. Mr Oven came out from behind the stove after 45 minutes to say that the wrong part had arrived and that he’d call to reschedule. I shrugged and let him out.

If I`m honest with myself, I don’t really need an ovenuntil the autumn. I canget by with just the microwave for the time being. The fridge was much more urgent and that does now work. And I musn`t forget that I have a part-time washing machine, too. There is no point being upset any longer; it only makes me fret and turn to comfort-eating.

Instead, I have come to accept that I am witnessing the decline of the American empire. The system looks as though it works, people behave as though it works, but in fact it’s not working at all. Internal decay is spreading with centrifugal force.

During the Gulf war the Iraqi air force kept most of its planes on the ground because there were no trained engineers to fixthem. I thought it was extremely funny at the time – First World technology, Third World application. Now that I live in a country which has similar intent-versus-execution problems, I don’t find it funny at all.

The tail isn’t only wagging the dog, it’s giving us the finger.

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