And so I’m back in Blighty, carried on wing and ash. Much has been packed into the last 10 days – my first visit to New York and indeed America – and some of it has been documented here. I wanted to get a feel for the place and not just to rush headlong through a set of guidebook recommendations. Discovery is something you can only do for yourself.
Here are some final words and images born of the last ten days…
All police vehicles display the following message – “Courtesy, Professionalism, Respect”. This in response to public perception that they were rude, unprofessional and disrespectful?
Noise is pretty much a constant in the city. Only Central Park & my hotel room provided a retreat.
There are many free papers on street corners including very local neighbourhood publications, minority mags and The Onion!
Some people have personal space issues and don’t like to travel on public transport. I noticed some women get really edgy about sitting next to poor people!
The media are very political on the whole. I don’t think most locals realise just how bad it is.
Advertising really treats people like they are stupid. Marketing campaigns play heavily on people’s fears.
Tipping is a very common practice but the rules are simple enough to pick up. Sometimes it is used as a status symbol – for instance in bars somebody might leave a huge tip just for show.
A lot of people keep small dogs (because they live in apartments) but I never saw any dog crap. Has selective breeding got this far advanced?
The civil reporting phone number 311 enables citizens to report complaints and public issues to the authorities.
You don’t see that many “fat” Americans in Manhattan.
People don’t assume that the British accent means you are a tourist because so many nationalities live here.
Hooray for the weekend! Is it really? Every day here has felt a little bit like a weekend and now it’s here for real. A quick pit stop at my 108th corner deli for tea, WiFi and fruit and I’m city bound.
Top Of The Rock is the name given to the observation desk atop the 80 year old Rockefeller centre on 5th Avenue. It is one of the tallest buildings in Manhattan at 70 floors and it is accredited with the best views over Central Park and Midtown. Nowadays it is best known to the average American because Saturday Night Live is filmed there. The lift journey takes 43 seconds and there is a light and sound show on the way that leaves me recoiling with flashbacks to Hollister (see yesterdays blog entry).
The views are commanding even with todays slight haze. It is a worthwhile trip but if I’m feeling a little underwhelmed it is because you are so high that it all seems unreal. Nothing is close enough to allow you to feel vertigo.
It’s the same “show” on the lift down which is a pity because it is begging for a Monty Burns voiceover: “Smithers, release the hounds. Throw these peasants off my property”. It does leave me with that churn them in, throw them out feeling although really they are just being efficient and everybody makes you feel welcome.
Fifth Avenue is closed to traffic for a street market and it’s unclear whether some thing is being celebrated or whether they do this every Saturday. It provides a pleasant enough stroll south if you don’t mind the developing sensation of walking through a cartoon chase sequence. It’s the same dozen stalls repeated ad-nauseam on each block.
Lunch in the cool green oasis of Bryant Park is regenerative. It provides a soothing contrast to the surrounding monolithic madness that can’t fail to capture your heart. Sure, you can still hear the traffic horns but you can also hear birds and the sound of water flowing from the park fountain. A carousel takes kids for a ride. Men play boules beneath the shade of the trees. It’s a magnet for anyone wanting to escape it all and prams, picnic rugs and newspapers set the tone here.
The park hosts numerous events throughout the year including outdoor cinema and fashion shows. I almost sit in a free chair next to a chain smoking middle aged woman. This would have been a mistake. The next guy comes along and sits there only to be subjected to her life story including tales of her monsterous husband, a guy I increasingly like the sound of. This is the time for that legendary NY rudeness. “Look lady, quit your jibber jabber. I couldn’t care less.” – is what I want to hear the guy say. Truthfully you can’t feel snappy in a place like this.
I’m leaving when I see a guy with a laptop and I ask them if there is wireless connectivity in the park. “Sure, I sometimes work from here”. Now that makes me jealous!
One hop to Union Square where by chance there is another market – a more organic affair than on 5th with produce for sale. It’s a smaller space than Bryant Park and there is less only a thin strip of threadbare grass but it’s a people magnet all the same. There’s a queue in the NE corner snaking into the newly opened Nordstrom outlet that’s been hyped on local TV this week. They sell branded items at discount prices – presumably end of ranges, awkward sizes and the clothes the designers regret cobbling together at the end of a long day when they weren’t really concentrating. Being English I am conditioned to join the queue.
Feeling a little edgy. Tired? Dietary pay back? It’s crowded everywhere, there are slow people in my way and I would like to be rude to them but can’t bring myself to do this. Time for a change of scene.
Earlier this week I visited the Skyscraper Museum in Battery Park only to discover it was closed so I’m headed back now. It’s a C-list museum – small and inexpensive – so I don’t want to be too critical but it’s disappointing that it lacks narrative and engagement. You want to know the progressive history of high rise locally and globally, get insights into the iconic buildings, learn about the construction techniques and understand the cultural aspects of these mini-cities. A third of the display relates to buildings primarily based around Wall Street up to the mid 1900’s when the conurbation was growing and while this sets a social backdrop regarding conurbation growth and the drivers for supporting an increase in population density this isn’t really central to Skyscrapers, plus much of the material is dry and disjointed.
There are then some dated models and information panels regarding high-rise and skyscrapers which are more engaging but again it’s as if somebody has thrown together a bunch of material without any thought to structure or presentation. It’s still worth a visit if you are in the area and you do leave with a little more knowledge but it feels like an opportunity missed and this is clearly down to funding, plus the competition from a million and one other attractions here.
It is my last night, volcanic ash depending, and I can’t possible leave without visiting McSorleys. When I walked by one afternoon this week and looked through the window it was almost deserted but now it is packed. I ask the bar dude if it’s always like this in the evening and he says it’s relatively quiet. They serve just 2 types of beer – light & dark. It’s $5 for either and you get served 2 half pint glasses of ale with a liberal element of froth. CAMRA wouldn’t stand for that.
The dark ale is really fine stuff. This iconic pub has what amounts to a long and influential history in this city and I’m not going to attempt to do it justice here but if you google it there is a mountain of interesting information out there.
The street outside is closed for what turns out to be the 36th Ukranian Festival. I know this because a lady tells me her daughter is presently dancing on-stage. It’s a whole lot of community spirited fun with stalls selling wooden eggs, folk CDs and religious ephemera for the older generation – and there’s McSorleys for those a bit younger. I’m exaggerating a little. There’s a real sense of pride and tradition that spans all age groups – a glimpse of nostalgia for those who perhaps remember their former home and those who have just been told about it.
Now I’m confused. A guy is knocking out Robbie Williams “Let me entertain you” in Ukranian. There’s a girls duet that resemble the less hirsute members of ABBA but sound like the Venga Boys. It has all gone a bit Eurovision after a solid folky start to the music.
Hungry, but not in the mood for sauerkraut and dumplings. The away walk takes me back into Greenwich Village. I meet an interesting 60+ year old artist cum Forest Gump character called Rico Fonseca who tells me about his travels and bemoans that in 1965 he was kicked out of the UK when he tried to visit. He has many tales to tell and I’m sure he does tell them many times, with more than a dash of fiction most probaby.
Oh bugger, I’m back in my now-regular MacDougal street basement bar a couple of blocks away. How did that happen? I explain to Maria behind the bar that I’m not stalking her but I like the bar and I was genuinely in the area. She is a great ambassador for New York City. She hails from Russia, looks Asian, has a Spanish name and a native New York accent. We need more like her, if only to confuse the BNP.
Once again the bar delivers. Manhattanite Liz and best friend Eileen from New Jersey are funny and insightful company. Liz likes Mighty Boosh is overjoyed to find somebody else who has heard of them or understands them.
Then in a truly surreal turn of events a promotional guy (this time nicotine) tells me he spent 3 years living in Nottingham and used to work at the Old Salutation Inn and World Service restaurant – the former 50 yards from where I work and the latter physically adjoining my office. This bar has mystic powers.
Something has been bothering me this week. I couldn’t put my finger on it but now I might have it. People are so damn “nice”. I’m not complaining. I have met some wonderful genuine people (in this bar for instance), but where is the dissent? Where is the rebellious attitude? There is plenty of graffiti in the gents here for instance and much of it is amusing but none of it stems from reaction.
There is little inarticulate (or articulate) rage or mindless vandalism on display here or many places I have been. Look, I’m not trying to get knifed or share a needle with anybody but I would feel more secure if I felt a bit more insecure. I want to know that young people in a University district in a non-republican city are not swallowing what the media and society constantly ram down their throats. I get the feeling that many students here have had it all lined up for them – the career path, job at the end of it, social groups and expectations. After a few drinks when people are out talking in groups there is no shortage of insincerity on show on the streets. People should be talking about music, criticising local or world authorities, but there’s an awful lot of social posturing going on – carefully chosen words and manipulation of self image. Maybe that’s just how it looks here and now but I can only say what I see.
On the plus side the subway smells of piss. I congratulate the (presumably) gentleman who got away (or not) with this act in a busy public place. To further restore my faith in human nature the D-train serves up a girl with pierced everything, luminous green and black outfit plus six inch (I’m serious) platform shoes. She doesn’t care what the world thinks and so the balance of things is restored a little.
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?
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.
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.
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.
The sun returns. I have to pop my head outside to gauge the temperature because the repeating weather forecast on the NY1 channel quotes in Fahrenheit and I’m used to Celcius now. It has been a roller coaster of weather extremes this week and the confusion is evident on the street with some people in shorts, T-shirts and sandals while others are wrapped up in a couple of layers beneath fleece jackets. The former are in the know.
Williamsburg has been recommended to me. This laid back suburb of Brooklyn is the best part of an hours journey from the comfort of my Upper West Side hotel room, including a bridge crossing of the East River. Upon arrival I am greeted by wafts of pot from a guy walking by and that sets an appropriate tone for this middle class area. Things have a naturally slow pace here. People amble. The streets are generally narrow and residential with the townhouses generally 3 or 4 floors high – an antidote to the vertiginous silhouette of Manhattan.
First things first. I can’t continue this weeks consumptive catalogue of chaos, culminating on the Katz-tastrophe of yesterday. My digestive tract has filed for a restraining order against my mouth so I’m going to stick to recognised meal times and food groups starting with fruit and orange juice for breakfast.
Williamsburg is indeed a good recommendation (thanks Sarah). Life is centred around Bedford Street where cafes, book shops and boutiques line the way. People stop and talk on the street and it is obvious why folk want to live here. A detour to the East River provides a marvellous view of Manhattan that must add a significant premium to apartments in the new 20 storey development at the waters edge.
Local signage indicates that this is the site of a large former sugar warehouse. The Brooklyn Brewery is situated a couple of blocks north and they would presumably have been a major customer.
The G line south leads me to Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). It is a geographical oddity sitting as it does hidden in the dominating shadow of the imposing blue and white iron Manhattan bridge. Yet again this is another small distinct district, attracting edgy art galleries and small businesses to its warren of old industrial cobbled streets.
The galleries are so hip and informal you don’t always realise you are in them. I wondered into one ground floor warehouse unit to discover it wasn’t a gallery at all but a business meeting for The Economist. Business imitating art?
The small but fabulous Brooklyn Bridge Park offers uninterrupted views across to Manhattan with Manhattan Bridge to the right and Brooklyn Bridge to the left.
To fully appreciate the latter I reluctantly polished off a sublime ice cream courtesy of the Brooklyn Ice Cream Company who were shifting cones and tubs as fact as they could milk the cows on this sunny day.
The walk back across Brooklyn Bridge is mandatory and also packed. It’s not just tourists – far from it. Many commuters use the bridge and in the current rush hour who can blame them. Most of them appear to be yattering on blue tooth headsets, whether pedestrian, on bike or (yes) skateboard.
Back on Terra Firma there’s a crowd of people watching a collective of awesome street dancers bringing Michael Jacksons moves back to life, plus a few more he could never pull off. These guys are hugely talented and deserve all the money they collect from their appreciative audience.
That’s not the end of the street entertainment in these parts. I chance upon chess alley next to City Hall. Mostly old guys pit their considerable wits against each other and all-comers oblivious to the people striding by or the fearless squirrels that dodge between them.
It’s 6:30pm and I am desperate for a beer. Uncertain where to go in this part of town the subway to Greenwich Village beckons and it’s back to Douglas Street – the apparent epicentre of student boozing. The heaving “Off The Wall” delivers only promises of being served and after 5 minutes of inaction I’m back in Tuesday nights basement bar across the street for relative solitude and service. Unlike last time I refuse to be dragged into an all-nighter.
And – I’ve just been bought a pint by a very attractive Columbian girl. I just can’t help it. Technically she is handing out beers for a brewery promotion, and the beer is Bud Light (!) but deep down I know she can’t resist my Hugh Lawriesque English charms. We have a good old chat about the forthcoming world cup and she informs me that her country are shit now and she will be supporting Brazil. As for the Bud Light – well if it wasn’t free… she was almost apologetic in offering it when she realised I was English as she assumed I just wouldn’t lower myself to it. Turns out I am shallower than I appear.
My intentions of a Chinatown meal are being hampered by navigational problems. The problem in this town is that every intersection consists of two street names but how can you tell whether you are crossing to the North or the South? Two girls carrying a large poster promoting a Karaoke bar rested on a long pole suggest I stay in the area. I’m less inclined to ask why then to ask what they intend to do with the pole.
A long queue at Joes Pizza combined with the glowing reviews posted outside persuade me to find out whether the hype is true. It is very good pizza though I would doubt its “best in the city” claims. There’s a picture of Upper West Side resident Ben Affleck with the owner and he is quoted as saying it’s the only pizza place he will go to. Right.
Slices are a reasonable $3 each but a police officer next to me pays $6 for three whole pizzas. I’m not arguing. Attempts at conversation don’t really work – the NYPD have to hand in any sense of humour when they accept the badge but at least I avoid incarceration. That might not have happened a few years ago. I’m not joking – their record for social injustice is legendary but they are trying to tackle it. In a final “slice” of entertainment for the evening a lady introduces a “friend” to her husband on the sidewalk outside with world record levels of insincerity. She might as well have told hubby out loud “this is the bitch from work I’m always sticking the knife into when I get home”. I love it!
Not enough variety today? Want to know just that little bit more about the NY psyche? Here’s what I read about in a local magazine on the subway home – ladies you know you will all be doing this in 6 months time!
Why doesn’t my head hurt more? I’m not complaining. That said, I am a little run down and the rain is steadily dampening my enthusiasm to go anywhere.
Tea and a bagel at what is a populous Amrita this morning. The usual eclectic bunch of souls are here meeting up, working or breakfasting. I’m earwigging four people by the front door. There’s a Hollywood actress who I think I recognise but can’t name, plus a film director. They are probably C-list but its another indication of the mix of people who call this neighbourhood home.
The morning comes and goes. It would be easy to spend the rest of the day on a tea drip working my way through the cookie selection but the big city awaits and I hate to miss an appointment.
Fast forward to the early afternoon in a grisly damp Lower East Side. This is one of the older areas of Manhattan that provided squalid living to early immigrants coming into the city. Today the area still has a working class feel to it. There’s a mix of retail and dining in the area with a number of Jewish businesses in evidence and a puzzling quantity of hat shops. Amidst the more affordable shops there are some really exclusive boutiques selling high end clothes and accessories. The sort of places where if they sell a pair of socks the manager puts up the “closed” sign, locks up and jets off to the Bahamas for a week with the proceeds.
My stroll up to East Village has a subplot. You see I am on a rather curious and arguably pointless mission of sorts. Right up my street then. I home in on the Sidewalk Café which has a significant place in musical history as a focal point for the Antifolk movement. One of the noted performers during this period was New York musician Thomas Truax who is reknown for his unusual artistic style plus the fact he makes and plays a bizarre range of instruments. Here’s a sample of his genius on YouTube.
Thomas is based in the UK now and he is performing at the CogMachine charity gig in Derby on Friday 28th May with proceeds going to MacMillan Cancer Support (please do attend – there’s a genuinely amazing line-up and it’s going to be a great evening of entertainment – plug plug). Anyway, the notion of plugging his appearance at the venue where he cut his teeth appealed to my surreal side and so here I am on a wet afternoon in a semi deserted café/bar with a poster for the Derby gig.
The venue has real presence and I sneak into the back room where the stage sits and take a few photos, though I’m not really supposed to be there. Just for good measure I leave the poster on display on the piano on the offchance somebody is tempted to jump on a plane and see him in Derby.
Mission accomplished it’s back to the streets. It’s 3:30pm, I’ve only had an apple at noon and I’m ravenous. But if I eat now that’s neither lunch or tea. Dilemma! I resolve to poke around the streets for a couple of hours before eating and get a measure of the East Village. And what of this suburb? It is an area for music, artists and above all, attitude. I sense that much of the “attitude” on display is commercially motivated by businesses wanting to cash in on the local brand but there’s a few genuinely rough feeling punk shops and grungy bars.
In amidst the manufactured hype sits the real thing, tucked away down a side street. McSorleys Ale House is the most famous tavern in the city. This Irish drinkery has a long and notorious history and by all accounts it hasn’t changed from the old days other than reluctantly admitting women to the bar after a long enforced ban. Even the landlady didn’t used to be allowed in the pub during trading hours.
By now I have eeked out time long enough to call the next meal tea and I have another iconic New York establishment up my sleeve. This time it’s Katz’s deli (where they filmed “that scene” in “When Harry Met Sally”). It reeks of atmosphere despite being a major tourist draw and I have to submit to the classic gargantuan pastrami sandwich.
My life span diminishes slightly in the face of a processed meat and cholesterol overdose but what the hell.
It’s still grotty out and I haven’t the willpower to trudge around any more so a low key evening should enable me to catch up on the sleep I’m still owed from last night. The B train takes me all the way uptown and it’s an informative journey spent listening to a couple of MTA workers talking about the redundancies proposed by the city in a much reported bid to save costs. Public transport here is as educational as it is transportational.
Breakfast tea at Amrita on a cloudy but dry morning. There’s a young bohemian mum sat opposite feeding her two little impossibly sweet pony-tailed girls sat in plastic seats atop the table. It’s that kind of place.
The subway to aptly named South Ferry at the southern tip of Manhattan takes 30 minutes including a change at Columbus Circle and usefully brings you out at the Staten Island ferry terminal.
This free service provides a vital link to locals seeing as there is no bridge linking the two islands. The service runs every 30 minutes and with the rush hour over most of the passengers are tourists who like me line the outer decks straining for photos of the Statue Of Liberty.
The island itself has little to detain me today. Apparently there are miles of walking paths you can take around the island but that’s not on my agenda and after a brief encounter with the local pizza (which is different here but oh so scoffable) I’m back on the return leg which is a tortuous affair thanks to the sodding clown who has a captive audience for his loud unfunny balloon routine. I really hate clowns. A catastrophic ferry mishap today is something to be hoped for and I imagine the saturation news coverage “Cursed Staten Island ferry in another accident. One clown fatality”. Or maybe there’s a sequel here to Snakes On A Plane called “Clowns On A Boat”. Yes, I think that’s a go’er.
Next to the skyscaper museum which it turns out is closed today. Will try and return another day. The number 20 bus to Tribeca isn’t a long journey but it is informative as the driver fills me in on all the construction work going on at the World Trade Centre site. I’m his only passenger so he generously assumes the role of tour guide.
I’m a little underwhelmed by Tribeca (Triangle Below Canal Street). There’s a lot of transitional building work going on and the streets are very quiet. The area is typified by huge great warehouse buildings converted into stores and apartments. I’m guessing it’s an area you have to catch at the right time. Only last week it would have been different with the Tribeca film festival in full flow but today it feels like the morning after the party.
A short bus hop north up Hudson Ave brings me to leafy Greenwich Village.
This is another affluent residential area with some great independent retailers and retro/vintage stores. I’m lured into a coffee shop for one of their famous honey cakes. Pizza, cake; here we go again. I wonder whether I can prebook a defibrillator for my arrival at Heathrow on Monday.
The clothes shops draw me in and in one of them a farcical set piece ensues with me, a Jamaican customer and two shop attendants whereby we tried on a rack full of soccer zip-tops that never quite fitted and turned out to be ladies sizes. It was absurd, very funny and left me with one of those “what just happened?” feelings as I left the shop empty handed.
As I close in on Washington Arch it becomes apparent that it is graduation day at adjacent New York University.
A block along and the street is thronging with purple clad grads making a big day of the big day.
There’s a party atmosphere and it should be a fun filled evening. That can only mean beer – something I have largely been deprived of this week – so I seat myself in a basement dive bar on Douglas Street for a pint of lovely Belgian style Blue Moon ale served with a slice of orange. In no time I’m in conversation with a young journalist who is living in Brooklyn but hails from Wisconsin. Dave is a seriously interesting and engaging guy and it’s great to chew the fat with him on anything and everything as the drinks continue to arrive over the rest of the evening. In a freak incident it turns out that we are sitting next to a guy Dave knows from Wisconsin and hasn’t seen since school. Imagine bumping into somebody you used to be mates with in a place 1000 miles from home and you get the sense of the improbability we are talking about.
It’s gone midnight when Dave has to leave (work tomorrow). I have lost count of the pints and seem to have missed out on an evening meal. There are some universal truths and the post-drinking kebab is one of them. It’s raining now as predicted and with the subway service wound down to the basics at this hour I’m not back to base until 1:30am and I can’t help feeling there’s a hangover in the offing. Regrets? There will be none.
I did say that I wouldn’t be able to sustain this pace. My legs are telling me to ease back today. Manhattan is big. I mean really big. I have walked a disproportionately large amount of it so far without even consuming the medically recommended level of beer for such distances and as such I’m going to drop a gear and recharge the batteries a little.
Pretty much the whole morning is spent in Café Amrita. I’m really falling for this all day café/bar with it’s bohemian clientele and continuous stream of good music. This morning it’s Oasis, Rolling Stones and Moloko amongst others. Blogging and surfing courtesy of the free WiFi are the order of the day, or the morning at least. I appreciate this isn’t going to make for compulsive reading without pictures or a theme, so let me take the opportunity to try and paint a primitive picture of my locale and it’s musings.
In local (in a city with the population of some countries “local” can be relative term) news the story lines include…
A couple of days ago the Staten Island Ferry piled into the pier after it failed to stop. There were injuries and a public inquiry is under way as to the cause. Interestingly as I travelled North on the bus up Broadway yesterday the guy behind me was sharing his thoughts on the accident over the phone. He had been due to catch that ferry but had missed it. Turns out there has been widespread public concern for a while over the maintenance standards on the ferry (actually there are 6 ferries on this route).
The Apollo Theatre in Harlem (I walked past it yesterday) is opening a Hall Of Fame at 11am today to recognise the plethora of stars that have performed there and in some cases started there. Some of the names include Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson, James Brown and Smokey Robinson, to name but some. I can’t even get my head around this list – it’s just mind blowing that any one relatively modest venue should have played host to so many greats. Of course, the subplot is that most of these acts were climbing the ladder at a time when music by black artists was mostly listened to by black audiences alone, and the Apollo was THE venue for black performers and audiences.
The former home of Truman Capote has been put on the market. The Brooklyn property has been listed at $18m making it the most expensive residential property on sale in the city at this time
In the really big news a smoothie vendor just down the road from me on Central Park West is selling drinks that are blended by bike power. Customers have the option to pedal their own smoothie to their preferred level of smoothness.
What else can I tell you about the natives? The city has 8 million inhabitants plus 1 million visitors. I would guess approximately 73 of the locals cook. There are countless eateries and a great many do delivery. I’m not just talking takeaway Indian or Chinese that us Brits would identify with. Just about any café or corner store will deliver goods to your apartment. It’s something I have already become accustomed to seeing here – a delivery dude on a bike ringing up to a room for a delivery of mundane groceries. Based on what I have picked up there are people here that simply do not cook at all. I know back home there are those whose idea of cooking is to open a can beans and burn some toast but I get the impression that some people here don’t even do that and that eat-out or delivery are the stuff of existence.
After a healthy lunch on the fly I stroll over Central Park to the Museum Of The City Of New York on Fifth Avenue. It’s not one of the rich, expansive museums but it includes some real gems. There’s a first rate 25 minute film outlining the history of the city. It’s one heck of a history. There’s a small section on toys, including a fabulous dolls house hand made in remarkable detail over a period of 25 years by a lady called Stettenheim. She even got soon-to-be-famous artist friends to paint miniature versions of classic paintings to display in some of the rooms. There are also some fascinating sections on social planning, the automobile and a collection of early photos capturing the poor conditions immigrants used to have to live in. A temporary exhibition charts the works of Charles Addams, famous for his creation of The Addams Family but who made his name as cartoonist at The New Yorker for an amazing 55 years. Funny and illuminating also.
Back across Central Park 20 blocks south – just to see how it differs from the north park. There are more people for sure and this could be down to the proximity to Midtown or just to the re-emergence of the sun. I do have one criticism about Central Park. There are no signposts. It is a huge open area with paths, roads and a number of points of interest and there is no signage whatsoever to tell you where you are, where anything else is or even where the nearest subway is. Bizarre. Still, it’s a fine stroll and the relative silence of the park enables me to listen to the NYC podcast that I had previously been unable to hear when walking down the street! I learn that nearby Coney Island was originally built up as a tourist resort by a train magnate simply so he could sell rail tickets on his new line to get there!
Just in case you are worried that this picture reminds you of Cliff Richard in his Wired For Sound video let me point out that I’m not on skates!
In the evening I return briefly to Amrita before heading down Amsterdam Avenue in a doomed attempt to find a Vietnamese restaurant recommended in Lonely Planet. I did ask a local first and she was so helpful googling the venue on her phone and taking personal shame in her failure to locate the place. I managed to escape after 5 minutes and having signed a disclaimer that I would not sue her for not locating it for me. Unfortunately my guide book is out of date and the venue must have folded.
There are plenty of alternative eating choices on this section of Amsterdam Avenue and I take a chance on Hummous Place which turns out to be truly superb. On my scoffing menu are light as air falafel, outrageously moreish hummous with the most mushroomy mushrooms ever plus some kind of coriander salsa that I need to try and recreate at home, washed down with spot-on home made lemonade. To my mind it’s the kind of venture that you should be able to make a success of anywhere. The key is specialisation + quality. They might only do 5 entries, 5 mains (mostly hummous) and 5 deserts but they are fantastic. You might only fancy this kind of food 10% of the time but you will ALWAYS come here. Other eateries may offer more choice but they will most probably not be the best in their field and have no differentiating feature so you are rarely like to feel the urge to go. On my exit I spot the TimeOut recommendations plastered all over the window of this discrete and unheralded venue.
Not for the first time the advertised option has turned out to be missing or poor while an instinctive choice has shone through. It’s a reminder that travel is most enjoyable when you make your own discoveries and not when you just plough through a predetermined list of suggested highlights.
That’s my lot for the night and I let the number 7 bus take me back uptown. Today has been played out in a lower gear and tomorrow it’s back on the tourist treadmill.