The Herald on Sunday's new columnist, TVNZ's new US correspondent Jack Tame, has survived a kidnapping, a surprise assignment in LA and bewilderment in his chosen city. He reports from New York.
Chloe burst in. She was wearing a black woollen beanie like a burglar in a Disney movie and brandished a neon water pistol she must have bought from the $2 Shop.
"Shut up!" she giggled. "Shut up or I'll pop you!"
Matt, her co-invader, filming on Chloe's iPhone, told her to "Shut up! SHUT UP!"
I'd never been kidnapped before. I knew my friends were planning something, a final gesture before I headed to the airport and a new life in the Big Apple. But not this.
Matt bound my hands behind my back with industrial masking tape and plunged a pillowcase over my head. First stop was the Auckland Harbour Bridge. Then Silo Park, then the hipster cafes of Ponsonby Rd. Matt and Chloe took photos of their prisoner and force-fed me pick'n' mix lollies. They sprayed silly string on my face.
I'm Jack. I was born and raised in Christchurch, the eldest of four. I turn 25 this week. I have eclectic interests, artistic and sporting. I'm a TV journo and I've worked for TVNZ for five years. I started reporting near the end of the Bill Ralston era, on Breakfast with Paul Henry.
I did three years in the Christchurch and Auckland newsrooms, covering the David Bain retrial, the Christchurch earthquakes, the Pike River disaster and the Rugby World Cup. I've reported from Antarctica, China, India and Australia. I love my job.
About a year ago, my friend and colleague Tim Wilson, TVNZ's US correspondent, told me he was almost ready to move back to New Zealand. So I told him, without being unreasonably aggressive, that I wouldn't half mind his job.
By the nature of news, the work is inconsistent and unpredictable and you often work late into the night. It's a job for the keen, the lean, the un-mortgaged, the unattached.
It's as selfish an existence as any other Kiwi OE. It had my name on it and I wanted to give it a crack.
At Auckland International Airport I ditched the pillowcase and flirted impressively with the lady at the check-in desk. "A Business Class upgrade?" I asked, with what I hoped was a melting smile.
"No. Here's a ticket for row 42G." Cheers.
I was at the departure gate when my boss popped up on screen.
"Oh, hi. Thought you'd gone. Might get you to stop in LA," he said.
"Whitney Houston's died. You can have a good sleep on the plane and be good to go when you land, can't you?"
In row 42G?
"Yeah, a good night's sleep shouldn't be a problem," I said.
By the time I hit American soil I looked like I'd been in a fight. Not in an SBW-after-knocking-out-a-fat-guy kind of way. More like what a fat guy looks like after being KO-ed by Sonny Bill, then hit by a people mover.
But we got there. Eyes hanging out and words slurred, I filed. It was my first story as TVNZ's US correspondent. And then I boarded for the city I'd dreamed of joining.
New York is the sort of place where kidnapping your friends for a laugh isn't such a great idea. I don't think Tim Wilson's friends did that to him when he left.
By Grey Lynn standards the city is a colossus, an 8 million-person Mecca, a vortex of culture and cultures. It is the finest jewel of the empire that has dominated the West throughout the past century, grand and macabre, home to the filthy rich and dirt poor.
It is contrast. It is everything all mixed together, the centre of the world. And, really, for a guy born into suburban, middle-class Christchurch, what could be more exciting?
Last time I visited, three or four years ago, I stayed at a Harlem backpackers which has since been raided by the police and shut down. Other things have changed, too. America is a different place. Since I was here, it has endured an age-defining economic collapse, a slide for which some of the finest suits in New York's tallest, shiniest skyscrapers were at least partly responsible.
For many thousands of Americans, the ones who don't live in flash Soho apartments, it meant repossessed homes, redundancies and tough living. Yet the woe benefits me to almost 30c more in every dollar I exchange than when I last stepped foot in JFK Airport.
My arrival this time was less dramatic. This time, I didn't take an unregistered cab. I actually had an address for the place I was staying. This time, I knew to have a wad of dollar bills, waiting to be peeled off to avoid the blush and fumble of the unaccustomed tipper.
My base, my hotel, was adequate, at least when compared to the Harlem backpackers. But it was the sort of place where you'd expect to find a thick film of used plasters and face-down bodies floating atop the pool. Except it didn't have a pool. It didn't have cellphone reception either. Or internet that worked. In fact, it didn't have much.
I'm not complaining though, because neither did I. Truth be told, in my first few days here, I was a wee bit lost. I was no one, identityless, with nothing but a passport and a room key. And even that needed constant reviewing.
A proud, shiny plaque near the hotel lift informed guests the hotel was an active participant in something called "Operation Nexus". Every time I stepped inside the doors, a gruff doorman, squeezed into an overcoat that couldn't bridge his gut, would demand to see my room key.
"Sir, you're not to cross this line until you present me with your key," he'd say, even after he came to recognise me.
Perhaps he was stopping thieves. Perhaps some New Yorkers had kidnapped their friends. Wouldn't budding terrorists choose a hotel with cellphone reception and internet that worked?
I hired a rental broker called Mark and we tramped the one-window studios of the grey Upper East Side.
"I know you are who you say you are," said Mark.
"And they will, too. But don't think your references or your passport or your visa or your employment letter are gonna get you anywhere. It's money that talks in this city. Money and nothin' else."
He was cynical, perhaps, but he was right. After three days of searching I was offered a dim, poorly located, unfinished one-bedroom wardrobe, with just one hitch. Because I was not an American, the landlord would require a little extra security - US$15,000 ($18,000).
In the end, I've taken on Tim's old dive with Tim's old furniture and Tim's pet cockroaches creeping about the floorboards. I know very little about Spanish Harlem but Wikipedia says it has the poorest supply of fresh food in all New York.
The apartment itself is pretty hellish. It's above a little fruit store, where the woman behind the counter speaks to her customers in Spanish (which I love) but, by New Zealand standards, it's only moderately acceptable for human habitation. That's probably why Tim chose it.
It's nothing like Friends but it's five minutes to the subway, 10 minutes to the park and I'll only pay US$1400 a month which, for New York, is pretty cheap.
In New York, everyone is always straining for significance, which in practice means everyone strains to be heard. In cafes, the staff yell for customers. The customers yell for coffee. A quiet bite? Good luck.
In cabs, the drivers yell into Bluetooth headsets. They speak like the person on the other end of the line is calling from a scratchy line at the South Pole, yet they don't flinch in their tone or volume when turning to chat to their passenger.
The street meats are delicious in taste, smell and ubiquity. They sizzle with saturated fat and salmonella.
I want to experience the different things that make up America.
I want to experience its people and its politics, the rush and power and characters and cash in a presidential race. I want to experience ultimate diversity, the extremes of wealth and poverty, the lonely early days of alien life and the enthralling, exciting days that follow.
Experience came through work. Tim, to my initial surprise but his immense credit, threw me in the deep end. He helped me set up a semblance of a life then let me do the stories to pay for it. Romney took Santorum in one poll; in the next, Santorum took Romney back. The world buried Whitney.
"You're in America now. Just do as Americans do," joked Tim.
I took his advice. I self-medicated. Sleeping pills will do wonders for jet lag. I've done other things, too. Pleasurable things, that will make life in this city so rich and exciting.
I've been to the opera. I've played football at Chelsea Piers. I've started wandering the streets and pretending to be a local, speaking unnecessarily loudly on my cellphone and only looking one way up one-way streets. I've tried to blend in at subway stations.
I walk really fast and sigh impatiently at tourists who aren't familiar with escalator etiquette. I've hailed cabs, eaten bagels at delis. I've tolerated the coffee and even bought something called a "Cookie dough fudge brownie".
Americans love identity, and I'm slowly getting one. A bank account, a phone, a place to live. This week I should have all of those things. So far I've had a week and a bit in the centre of the world, and I'm certainly getting experience. Good and bad.
Am I a local yet? No way. I'm still new to New York City and right now, I still feel a bit like I've been kidnapped.
Jack Tame will file his first column from New York next Sunday.