Welcome to Harlem

This was the plan – hop onto the uptown bus loop nice and early and make it all the way downtown in time for lunch before the predicted rain arrives. This is what happened.

Breakfast at the Park West café & deli on 108th. It’s one block away and hence my local. I get seated, order a peanut butter & jelly bagel plus tea and then the heavens open. And I mean open. This could take a while. I get chatting to a couple of retired ladies from Glasgow. They flew out the same day as me and just beat the volcanic ash cloud. Next stop a cruise to Bermuda. Oh, and they are staying in my hotel. My can they talk, but what’s the hurry when it’s too wet to go anywhere.

Then I get chatting to an interesting girl who is visiting from Costa Rica. We share a few NYC tips. She works in the catering business and tells me she is attending a bartending course this weekend, with the emphasis on cocktails by the sounds of things. She is also staying at my hotel. Her name is Carolina – the same name as the lady who dialled my room by mistake 2 nights ago and woke me up at an unearthly hour. Oh – this is going to be fun, but I can’t help it!

Did you have a problem dialling out at around 1:30am on Thursday night?”. She is so apologetic but it’s very funny. And she isn’t the only person suffering from embarrassment this morning. The waitress forgot my tea order and I didn’t remind her for over half an hour because I was deep in conversation. She is mortified but we have a laugh about it and she brings me a slice of yummy home made chocolate brownie to say sorry. Result!

A few more amusing exchanges with the locals running in and out from the rain to pick up drinks. Most notable amongst these – the lady who asked for a plastic bag to protect her hair from the rain, proclaimed to her audience that she was 75 years old and didn’t care what people thought, and then proceeded to open an umbrella as she left. Somebody explain that one.

A gusty wind has blown the rain upstate and so the café incarcerates make a break for it into the humid sunlight. It has not turned out to be the morning I expected but it has been priceless. Just to cap things off when I return to the hotel to drop off my laptop I end up in messy and complicated conversation with the doorman as I try to explain my Dangermouse T-Shirt and in particular the meaning of the word “crikey”.

It’s almost noon and the rain has now cleared so I decide to get on the uptown loop after all and within half an hour I have alighted in Harlem.

Welcome to Harlem
Welcome to Harlem

My father warned me not to go there because apparently there are “funnies” waiting to perpetrate all manner of criminal offence against my person in this place, but I stick my neck on the chopping block and gamble that a 74 year old Devonian hasn’t got his finger on the pulse of Manhattans black cultural capital.

Harlem street corner
Harlem street corner
Aint nobody knows my troubles
Aint nobody knows my troubles

Yet again it’s different, lively, loud, colourful. The powder keg days are long gone and while the working class roots are there for all to see there are also hints of aspiration and a strong community feel. The proud old timers dress smartly and I wonder what people, events and changes they may have witnessed here over the decades.

Smothered Chops!
Smothered Chops!

Lunch at Sylvias is unashamedly inspired by Lonely Planet. I order a smothered chop with collard greens and sweet potato (which turns out to be extra sweet due to the apricot jam they appear to have added) and it takes me back to my childhood in the deep south where I used to work the fields from “caint see to caint see”. Or that’s the imagery conjured up based on James Lee-Burke’s depiction of Lous’ana. It’s an interesting and unassuming place catering to American tourists, students from nearby Columbia University and to middle class locals.

Spanish Harlem
Spanish Harlem

The sun is back in force now and so is the wind. I’m almost blown across Malcolm X Boulevard, Fifth and Maddison onto Lexington. The walk south runs through Spanish Harlem and the street music fades from rap to salsa, the groups from young black guys and girls to old hispanic gents in caps reminiscing in the shade.

Street Art
Street Art

I close the loop by heading back west across Central Park towards my hotel. A stretch limo pulls up on fifth and a film crew crowds around the door. I ask a bystander whether it is anyone famous and he laughs and tells me it’s his grand daughters 16th birthday. The car door opens and disgorges an implausible Benny Hill precession of teens dressed as if attending a wedding.

They enter Central Park for a photo shoot and it’s a guilty joy to eavesdrop on some of their conversation. That’s one thing I would love to bring to you on this blog – a succession of overheard conversations from locals that would really help you understand the vibe of this place. There is talk everywhere and it permeates your skin. After two days here I’m thinking about local affairs in a Nu Yawk accent.

Central Park’s moniker of the Green Lung of the city is well deserved. It is green, massive and a world apart from the dizzying neighbourhoods that surround it. Today is Saturday and the North Field area has become a shrine to baseball with a number of teams battling it out between the dust clouds thrown up by the occasional strong gust.

Pitching
Pitching
Hitting
Hitting

The colours of the Mets and the Yankees are well represented and both of these local teams are also in action today.

The whole ball game
The whole ball game

There’s a few soccer balls being kicked about and kites being flown but most of the activity today is courtesy of the stream of cyclists and joggers that fill their own designated highways across the park. I will go jogging one day. Probably.

It’s early evening when I’m showered and ready to head out again. There’s a bright descending sun as I head back east across Central Park towards the Guggenheim but the heat has gone out of the day. There is a 20 minute queue to enter the building but that’s merely licence to earwig more snippets of conversation from those around me. The building lives up to it’s billing with beautiful curved art deco lines reminiscent of some of the architecture I have come across in my travels to Berlin.

Guggenheim
Guggenheim

There’s only an hour before the gallery closes so I cherry pick the bit’s that interest me. There’s a lot of Picasso, a little Renoir, a few Matisse. Some I like and some I just don’t get. I am however universally impressed with Miro.

There’s also some contemporary displays in the wonderful corkscrew corridor that ascends the building. I’m particulary taken by the invigorating photo journal/plasticine re-enactment of a Canadian tree-planting holiday by Sarah Anne Johnson which is simply wonderful.

Guggenheim - but is it art?
Guggenheim – but is it art?

My first bus trip from Maddison up to Cathedral Parkway drops me conveniently outside Café Amrita for a bite and a pint of the local brew Sam Adams, which is a not at all bad IPA. Then I head to the 999 bar on Columbus and 106th where “Todd and friends” perform an accoustic folky set to a couple of dozen regulars. It’s a fun and quirky place that I spotted last night and vowed to visit. You can’t help but makes friends here and it’s great to talk with Kobi who is an actor. He has a key role in an upcoming Shakespeare production in the Upper East and bemoans the factory line of US model actors preferring the charismatic English set that are taking over Hollywood. His favourite actor is Alan Bates which is remarkable since Alan hails from Allestree, the suburb of Derby where I grew up. Small world. Speaking of small world the beers are served in Bass glasses and Bass is brewed 15 minutes drive from my house.

It’s been a long day and uptown has consumed all of my energy today so I bid farewell to Kobi, Lisa (Happy Birthday) and mad but impressive bartender Mel and walk home wondering if I can keep this up for another 8 days.

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