Alan Wilkinson thought New York would be fun. He was lucky to get out alive
New York in January? For pounds 159? You bet. I could call a few editors and try to sell the account of my recent bike-ride across the Great Plains and then fulfil my ambition to visit the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.

I'd got through most of the winter without catching `flu, but fell ill just as I left home. So I stopped in my friends' Brooklyn apartment for the first couple of days but it didn't help.

Hey, Superbowl Sunday, they said, that'll do it. Eight hours of beer and salty snacks surrounded by chain-smoking Green Bay Packers fans sent me to bed shivering and shell-shocked.

Monday, day four already. I had a date at Penguin books. The short subway ride took two hours, thanks to a burst water main flooding the track; and then there was a hike across lower Manhattan gulping in damp air chilled to 22 degrees F. The man had more to say about Ellis Island than my account of pedalling across the windswept prairies - namely that it was shut until March.

Day five I huddled in bed - a kind of put-you-up which I shared with the resident pooch. I listened to classic rock, watched the living-room clock tick away precious hours, and tried to figure out why the heating went off in the day time but throbbed merrily through the small hours. Already my sole ambition was to get home alive. New York could go to hell.

Day six I cracked. My lungs refused to hold more than half a breath, they hurt like hell, and I was shaking with fever and fear. "Gotta see a doctor," I gasped.

At home there's a sense of relief in arriving at casualty. Someone capable will take over. What I met in this Long Island hospital was a receptionist who looked at my British passport and asked: "So what language d'you guys speak?" Welcome to the real ER.

After I'd been X-rayed, grilled about my diet, drug habits and level of sexual activity, I was put on a drip and left with my fellow sufferers: one junkie, due for the detox trip if she ever came round; a frail Hispanic woman in a bathrobe, handcuffed and guarded by two huge cops; a man with a foot split down the middle; a hero on crutches with pus oozing from a bullet-wound; a woman screaming vengeance on the sonofabitch who'd stabbed her thigh.

The doc told me I had pneumonia and wasn't going anywhere. Then he turned to the handcuffed woman. "Open up. Show me your legs."

"Aaaargh! Cover that bitch up!" The junkie had woken to see two blue hunks of meat, grotesquely swollen, streaked white and red. "You think it's safe to touch her?" the doc asked his colleague.

They got me a bed at 1.40 the next morning. My room-mate expectorated for around 40 minutes in every hour. Otherwise he wailed about his pain. Well, so would I if they stuck needles that big in my groin.

But as the antibiotics kicked in I looked on the bright side. I might have missed my flight, lost a week, and developed a life-threatening illness, but when I staggered to the end of my bed, what did I see, dimly outlined against a mucus skyline? The Statue of Liberty. No need to bother with that in future.