Retail heaven and hell

I’ve gritted my teeth, the day has arrived. I’m going shopping. Hopefully I will be mugged on the way and I can spend a relaxing day in casualty being looked after by nurses. In case you haven’t guessed I’m not usually a good shopper. I’m hoping that the week long mental run-up will set me in good stead.

The destination is SoHo which in a cartographic flight of fancy all too common for New York comes from a street name abbreviation – South of Houston Street. There’s also a NoHo – no prizes this time. Interestingly and irrelevantly, locals pronounce Houston Street as “Howston Street” which seems odd as they pronounce Houston Texas as “Hooston”.

The temperature is up ten degrees on yesterday and I dodge an early shower by sitting in my beloved Amrita until late morning. Lunch and a yoghurt smoothie (they do know how to do a smoothie here) at the perimeter of Greenwich Vilage and Soho and then the retail extravaganza commences.

Soho contains more headline brand names than you can shake a credit card at. You just traverse the streets and it’s one name after another. I have never been that blown away by the more established global names (Armani, Gucci, Versace, D&G, etc, etc) but there are some sensational native New York and American retailers, including Ari of New York. I love almost everything I see in this store – especially a jaw droppingly gorgeous leather jacket that I discover is listed at $1400. The shop assistant is raving about my Pac Man T-shirt (Burton – £8) and I consider suggesting some kind of swap deal.

Although it pains me to admit it I have fallen for this area because there is so much choice within such a small area you just move on if you don’t like the styling or pricing of the store you are in. I’m actually enjoying the whole shopping experience and before long I am clutching bags from Lucky Brand and Banana Republic just like the next retail whore. On every street corner I expect to see a photo poster of some female shopper last seen in the area weeks ago, missing presumed still shopping. It’s not just about the acquisitive buzz however. It is also very much an area to be seen in and expensively dressed people are obviously desperate to be seen by other people as they saunter in and out of the most laughingly extortionate shops. The irony is that I seem to be getting a lot of attention today from people admiring my Pac Man T-shirt! Who needs Paul Smith?

Soho Street - before it got busy

It looks innocent from the outside (apart from the two sales guys wearing nothing but trunks and the girl in just a bikini) but Hollister on Broadway – a kind of Fat Face for American Jamie Olivers – serves up the scariest retail experience of my life. Let me try and explain; it’s going to be hard to do this justice…

Walking into the store is like entering some kind of nightclub after having consumed industrial quantities of alcohol. There is almost no lighting. I don’t mean it’s dim I mean there are areas where it is simply black, so you just head towards areas with the dim coloured spotlights, some of which flash disconcertingly. The store is a labyrinthine warren of small rectangular rooms containing beach clothes. Each one is packed with stock and just to prevent easy transit from room to room (for those with night vision goggles) they have left an assault course of large pot plants and furniture in the passageways. In a final assault on the senses they pump music around the entire store at near nightclub volumes. The overall sensation is like being drunk in a Laser Quest assault course in the bowels of an ocean liner without stabilisers.

Hollister yesterday
Hollister yesterday

I see a top that I like affixed to a dummy but I can’t see the item on the shelves, although technically I can’t see the shelves. I yell at a shop assistant to ask where I can find the top and he shouts back that he has seen a pile of them somewhere but can’t remember where. Fine then, I’ll just stick with the green T-shirt I have in my hand, at least I think it’s green, and I’m fairly sure it’s a T-shirt. Where are the tills? He points skyward and shows two fingers which I take to mean the second floor. If anything things get worse in the stair well. There are hordes of lost customers milling around interspersed with scantily beach clad sales kids but you can see the stairs because they are lit from beneath. Unfortunately you can’t clearly see the edges of each stair and people are tripping up all over the place. They may be screaming for all I know – you just can’t hear yourself think. Holding onto the hand rail I edge my way to the second floor and soon I’m lost again in what could be the ladies section or possibly the stock room. Everywhere looks the same. I find a supervisor and ask them which direction the tills are in. They look a bit puzzled and slowly turn 360 degrees before telling me that they think I should go right. Two rooms to my right is a dead end and I eventually find the tills simply by following somebody else. I’m not making this stuff up!

Goods paid for and exit eventually found it occurs to me that such a place would never be allowed to operate in the UK. Never mind DDA infringements but able bodied people are at risk in there and if there was a fire people wouldn’t know how to exit. I can only imagine it’s exempted from Health and Safety regulations because the FBI take terror suspects there for disorientation now that Guantanamo is on the wind down. Funnily enough I recount my Hammer House of Hollister ordeal to a supervisor in another store (one that now seems so well lit, spacious and customer friendly) and she rolls her eyes and tells me she always order from them online even though they are just across the road.

Postscript: I checked the website myself. You can chose the playlist to listen to as you surf their stock. Enough said.

My newly found shopping addiction reaches its peak in a store called UniQlo. That seems wrong even as I type it but that’s what it’s called. Perhaps that was the only domain name left. Just don’t ask me to pronounce it. The stock appears to be western styles aimed at Japanese customers. Basically it’s fairly simple well designed but unbranded gear at fairly low prices. Think Primark with a little designer input, stir in a touch of Manga and multiply by 10. The bottom line as I exit the store after some considerable time is that I’m straining under a weight of bags I never expected to be carrying in a sweat inducing street, hot and sticky with the sun and traffic fumes. My intention to go directly onto the Brooklyn Academy of Music café for a free gig tonight is no longer practical, which is a shame because I had been looking forward to it but now I just want to get fed and showered.

Chinatown joins onto Soho so food won’t be a problem. How many shops selling tourist tat can an area like this sustain? The answer is “a great many”. There are also a plethora of herbal stores, massage parlours (legit I think) and fresh seafood stores. It’s an intense mix of sights/sounds/smells, only a shame the close sticky evening air is making life uncomfortable, although it’s still not in Hong Kongs league in any of these respects.

Fresh seafood in Chinatown
Fresh seafood in Chinatown

Where to eat in Chinatown? Conventional logic would be to find the venue packed with Chinese people and go there. Instead I squeeze myself onto a table for one in an otherwise deserted restaurant. This because (a) it has a recent positive review posted in the window and (b) it has air conditioning. The place next door was packed with sweaty looking tourists and the myriad of glowing reviews were dated from 1998 to 2003. Maybe the last good food they produced is now seven years old?

My order of soup, dumplings and sea bass will not be too much for one person my waiter assures me. Turns out he was wrong (or maybe he thinks I AM Pac Man) and when my order arrives the half dozen unoccupied serving staff are all looking over at me and laughing in a way that is intended to be discrete but fails, making it really blatant. The dumplings are superb and the bass is great too. The soup is OK but mostly untouched. By the time a very modest bill arrives the place is half full of people who look like they have been here before and not been deterred from returning so I’m feeling vindicated.

Evening plans scuppered by my earlier extravagances it’s the B-train home for an urgently needed shower. Tonight’s subway entertainment: the snappy MTA official who told me my week long metro card didn’t work because it expired on the 8th but eventually let me through when I explained that not only had I only bought it on the 8th but I had successfully used it two hours ago. She was really having a bad day. Also, the shifty looking dude in my carriage with a sports bag, surreptitiously folding up a huge wad of money who suddenly realised that everyone sat nearby was watching, then got really edgy and almost ran off at the next stop with his bag of drugs, erm, I mean sports items.

Sorry for short changing you today on the photo front. There’s only so many pictures you can take of shops. Besides, they don’t tell you the full story.

Night’s a delight but day’s OK

Up late and with a slightly sore head. I hardly drank anything last night – what do they put in the beers here? Barely yards out of my hotel and the party has started this cool and breezy mothers day morning. There’s a formative Mexican parade celebrating – who knows what.

Mexican dudes
Mexican dudes
Carnival queen?
Carnival queen?
Paraders prepare
Paraders prepare

Briefly detained it’s back on down to Hells Kitchen to check out a flea market which turns out to be more flea than market, so onward further to Chelsea where there are categorically no fleas allowed. This is the classiest neighbourhood I’ve visited yet. There’s money here and it shows, although it’s classy confident money rather than shouty bling money. Chelsea Market is a warren of wonderful food stores and eateries and out of duty I grab as many free tasters as humanly possible before begrudgingly paying for the most up-market Mexican burrito on record.

The three storey Apple store is packed full of people drooling over the dozens of iPads on display. Yesterdays (almost literally) craze the iPhone sits almost ignored the other side of the store. Compelling though it is I’m going to hold out until they release the iCare.

A hundred yard stroll leads me to one of the few “must do” things on my NYC action list. The HighLine is an old disused raised city railway line that has been (and is still being) converted into an long heavenly garden. It is an imaginative and inspiring re-use of what would otherwise be rotting old infrastructure.

High Line garden
High Line garden
Railroad to nowhere
Railroad to nowhere
View from the High Line
View from the High Line

Judging by its popularity I’m not the only one impressed by what is being done here and I would implore you to visit this unlikely urban oasis if you visit the city. You can make time – just skip that show you could see in London anytime.

I’m leaving the area when I overhear three people at a crossing talking excitedly about an underground gallery they have heard about and think is in the area. Zen navigation instincts tell me to follow them and they disappear into an unheralded door in a large brick warehouse structure that turns out to be the Seven Eleven Gallery which is so new that if you click on the link there is no website content yet. Inside is a semi-deserted space that a collective of artists have occupied to showcase their works.

Turtle Tower
Turtle Tower

It really is most enjoyable and substantially more engaging in my view than many of the installations on display at the Guggenheim.

Nature abhores a vacuum
Nature abhores a vacuum

There is humour, creativity and ingenuity in spades.

I want these
I want these

Curiously there is almost nothing for sale and the attendant explains they just wanted somewhere to set out their art but it seems everybody now wants a piece of it.

Roll on the evening and a loop of Brooklyn on the open top bus. I go to pick up a muffin but it’s two for one which is going to help my imaginary fitness drive no end. Temperatures are unusually low today with the remenants of the high winds that caused problems across the state yesterday so there are few on board for the trip and I myself am mummified in four layers plus a scarf.

Wrapped up for the night loop
Wrapped up for the night loop

It’s just about enough to keep out the cold. A favourite tour highlight for me is the iconic Flatiron building, as featured in numerous films.

Flat Iron building
Flat Iron building

Atop the building stands a human figure – one of many in the area installed by British artist Anthony Gormley. Following numerous alerts from the public the NYPD now know to ignore phone calls reporting somebody about to jump!

Watcher or Jumper?
Watcher or Jumper?

You really get a sense of the scale of Manhattan from Brooklyn.

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge
The sky's the limit
The sky\’s the limit

By the time the bus returns to base it’s getting dark and the multimedia sensory overload of Times Square really comes into play.

What now? It’s 8pm on a Sunday and I can go anywhere. Hunger – moderate. Energy – low but holding. Capacity for cheap thrills – high. Chinatown promises to deliver kicks aplenty.

Eastern promise
Eastern promise

A pit-stop at the appropriately named Dumpling Palace for … dumplings and hot and sour soup. As it happens the dumplings are inferior to those I have had in London’s Chinatown and the soup a poor relation to that from my local takeaway but both suffice and I can’t fault the lightening pace of delivery. The minuscule bill comes unprompted just as rapidly and once paid the chef stands opposite my table looking at me just to make sure I feel uncomfortable enough to sod off so he can pack up and go home. Todays diet really doesn’t bear thinking about.

A lot of stores are closed but there are enough open to indicate a return visit here and to Little Italy next door would be worthwhile another day. The subway journey back to the Upper West Side is crowded and colourful and I’m reassured by a local student who tells me she travels it regularly and the theatre of it all never wears off. That I can believe.