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99 channels and nothing on but embarrassment;FE focus

PASSING through immigration in New York state was no problem, but waiting for the baggage proved too much for one of our college party. Patricia's mum had made her some sandwiches, and Patricia began to get worried about importing foodstuffs.

"They gave me this leaflet on the plane and I've only just realised that I've got fishpaste sandwiches and a banana in my day-pack," she said. "What if they search me?" "I'm sure it's not a problem," I reassured her, surveying our fatigued party of 22 students and three staff who had set out from college at the crack of dawn.

"Is fishpaste a foodstuff anyway?" asked someone else. I think Patricia dropped her sandwiches guiltily into the trash can at our Manhattan hotel. It must be said that the trash can was one of its most modern features.

Having a few hours to orientate ourselves, my room-mate Colin from maths and I discovered something quite alarming on the TV: the "adult" Channel 99.

We informed Sharon, our colleague in the art department, and spent the rest of the first evening debating whether we should tell the students not to watch it, which was ridiculous because then they would. Or should we say nothing while informing the hotel management that we wanted it disconnected?

After a "New York City by Night" bus tour, we had decided to do nothing. Surely this was a mere trifle, a bit like getting worked up about contraband fishpaste, we told ourselves.

"Well, three days of art galleries and sightseeing," I said to Colin as we lay in our beds.

He punched the TV remote control up into the nineties. "Just out of interest," he said, hitting Channel 99.

"What kind of hotel have we booked into?" I said, looking up at a pair of hooks on the ceiling.

"A cheap one," said Colin, glued to an image of a naked woman trying to inflate a hot water bottle.

We walked the students miles from one art gallery to another, making a ragged crocodile through Central Park. It's amazing how long it can take to count up 22 student heads.

For nearly all the students this was their first visit to the United States, and some had never left Britain before. They felt like they were walking through a film set.

"That's the hotel from Home Alone."

"I saw that building in that Woody Allen film they made us watch in media studies."

"Wow, look at that!" said Patricia, coming to a sudden halt on Park Avenue, near Grand Central Station . . . at our hotel. It felt more bohemian and characterful after Sharon informed us that it was used by some of Andy Warhol's buddies in the 1960s. Those marks on the carpet were remnants of an expressionist experiment, a Happening perhaps, and not as I had naively thought, bits of pepperoni pizza.

After a last afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art, we all ate together at a Fifties theme restaurant on West 57th Street. It was pink and chrome, and the roller-skating waitresses brought us burgers in scooped-out cardboard Chevrolets, in between singing and forming human pyramids on the dance floor.

Just before midnight, I asked Patricia for her highlight of the trip: was it the Guggenheim, the Empire State, or catching a glimpse of Lisa Kudrow (we think) in Bloomingdale's?

"I've learned that washrooms are really toilets," she shouted over the opening bars of a Del Shannon number as the lights went down,then she beamed "but one thing I've really enjoyed is Channel 99."

Donald Hiscock is a teacher at an FE college

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