Reflections on the water

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?

Not forgotten
Not forgotten
Inside every fat van...
Inside every fat van…

Noise is pretty much a constant in the city. Only Central Park & my hotel room provided a retreat.

Sound advice
Sound advice
Playing together
Playing together

There are many free papers on street corners including very local neighbourhood publications, minority mags and The Onion!

Brief encounters
Brief encounters
Fleeting fame
Fleeting fame

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 only way is up
The only way is up
Sign of trouble
Sign of trouble

The media are very political on the whole. I don’t think most locals realise just how bad it is.

Parallel existence
Parallel existence
Eye of the needle
Eye of the needle

Advertising really treats people like they are stupid. Marketing campaigns play heavily on people’s fears.

Across the pond
Across the pond
Up in lights
Up in lights

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.

Thanks MTV for...
Thanks MTV for…
Giving it all
Giving it all

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?

Over the water
Over the water
Hand made
Hand made

The civil reporting phone number 311 enables citizens to report complaints and public issues to the authorities.

Standing proud
Standing proud

You don’t see that many “fat” Americans in Manhattan.

It's hip to be square
It\’s hip to be square
Half baked idea
Half baked idea

People don’t assume that the British accent means you are a tourist because so many nationalities live here.

Tim the troll
Tim the troll
On reflection
On reflection

The Sky’s the limit

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).

View north - Central Park
View north – Central Park
View south - midtown
View south – midtown

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.

Bottom on the Top Of The Rock
Bottom on the Top Of The Rock

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.

Lovely Bryant Park
Lovely Bryant Park

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.

Relaxing in Bryant Park
Relaxing in Bryant Park

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.

Battery Park outside Skyscraper Museum
Battery Park outside Skyscraper Museum

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.

Tim and bar dude at McSorleys
Tim and bar dude at McSorleys

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.

Ukraine folk dancing
Ukraine folk dancing

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.

Ukranian ABBA
Ukranian ABBA

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.

Liz, Eileen and seedy guy
Liz, Eileen and seedy guy

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.

American Grafitti
American Grafitti

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.

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.

Dumbo – it makes perfect sense

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.

Archetypal Williamsburg street
Archetypal Williamsburg street

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.

A moving service just for Top Hats? That's posh!
A moving service just for Top Hats? That\’s posh!

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.

View from Williamsburg shoreline
View from Williamsburg shoreline

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.

Ghosts of times past in Dumbo
Ghosts of times past in Dumbo

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?

Dumbo - there's life in the shadows
Dumbo – there\’s life in the shadows

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.

Manhattan Bridge
Manhattan Bridge
American steel
American steel

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.

What view? It's all about the ice cream.
What view? It\’s all about the ice cream.

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.

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge

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.

Jacko could never do this
Jacko could never do this

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.

Guys pulling off different kinds of moves
Guys pulling off different kinds of moves

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.

Bud Light. Has it come to this?
Bud Light. Has it come to this?

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!

A walk on the wild side

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.

Tim about to flypost the Sidewalk Cafe
Tim about to flypost the Sidewalk Cafe

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.

This sign is actually on the ceiling
This sign is actually on the ceiling
Mission accomplished
Mission accomplished

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.

East Village attitude
East Village attitude
This, surprisingly, is a functioning bar
This, surprisingly, is a functioning bar
East Village shop front
East Village shop front

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.

The infamous McSorleys Ale House
The infamous McSorleys Ale House

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.

OMG
OMG

My life span diminishes slightly in the face of a processed meat and cholesterol overdose but what the hell.

Katz Deli
Katz Deli

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.

Drinking to Liberty

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.

Ferry terminal - but where to?
Ferry terminal – but where to?

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 green lady
The green lady
Tim's all at sea
Tim\’s all at sea

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.

World Trade Centre site
World Trade Centre site

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.

Typical Tribeca street
Typical Tribeca street
TriBeCa life
TriBeCa life

A short bus hop north up Hudson Ave brings me to leafy Greenwich Village.

Greenwich Village
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.

Mmmm - Honey Cake
Mmmm – Honey Cake

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.

Graduate graduating
Graduate graduating

A block along and the street is thronging with purple clad grads making a big day of the big day.

Grad alley
Grad alley

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.

Easy like Monday morning

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.
Apollo Theatre - Harlem
Apollo Theatre – Harlem
  • 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!

I'm not skating - promise!
I\’m not skating – promise!

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.

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.

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.

On the buses

I may be up and out by 7am but it’s noon back home so it feels like a lie in. Today’s weather is forecast as hot and sunny but there’s colder and wetter weather on the way. The great outdoors it is then. But not before bacon, eggs and pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast at my local subterranean eatery one block up. When in New York…

Emerging from the subway at Times Square is like walking through the cupboard into Narnia. I have walked onto a film set. The streets teem with purposeful striding New Yorkers dodging in and out of the yellow taxis, and tourists – faces upturned at the vertical infinity of glass and stone monoliths that compete for daylight in this urban jungle. So it’s true then – New York City actually exists – and within an instant I have fallen for its brash charms.

Signs of the Times
Signs of the Times

I spend half an hour wandering, watching and absorbing the heady sights and sounds. You really do feel an energy here. Then almost inevitably there is a bomb scare and a few blocks get cordoned off by the omnipresent NYPD. I do the sensible thing and get as close as I can but there is nothing to see.

Bomb scare = fire service = glut of donut sales
Bomb scare = fire service = glut of donut sales
Bomb scare keeps the NYPD busy
Bomb scare keeps the NYPD busy

Onto a hop-on hop-off bus to be introduced to the delights of downtown from the open top deck, as recommended by numerous people. There’s a continuous stream of information and wisecracks from the tour leader. A lot of it is to do with the countless notable buildings and personalities that have found a home here but there are some historical gems thrown in for good measure. I’m pleasantly surprised by the number of birds that fly between and presumably nest upon the high rise buildings. Eventually we pass through Wall Street and emerge into the greenery of Battery Park adjoining the mighty Hudson river. Lured by a promise of a view towards the Statue of Liberty I stroll through the trees to the waterfront.

Taking liberties
Taking liberties

The green lady is visible but a long way off. More of her another day. It has turned out to be a glorious day and many people are enjoying the sights and street performers in the midday sun.

Predictable but fun
Predictable but fun

Seated again on the top deck we head up the Lower East side with views across the river to Brooklyn and the still incredible Brooklyn Bridge. There are fleeting impressions of Chinatown, Little Italy and East Village which all warrant a return visit on foot. Buildings here have a 6 floor height restriction making the area unpopular with property developers and this thankfully has effectively resulted in the preservation of older charismatic housing stock.

Chinatown
Chinatown

At the United Nations building the bus turns west across town, past the Rockefeller centre and the southern extent of Central Park. This mornings bomb scare has caused traffic chaos and with the bus unable to head south we end up on 9th Avenue in Hells Kitchen. The name alludes to a dark history of feuding nationalities but now the battle is purely commercial. A kaleidoscopic diversity of ethnicity has spawned the countless cheap and colourful cafes and bars that characterise the neighbourhood. The only “hell” is in choosing where to go for lunch. Thai eventually wins out.

Thai Noodles in Hells Kitchen
Thai Noodles in Hells Kitchen
Luckily everything here is new to me
Luckily everything here is new to me

Feet rested I stroll down 9th Ave to take it all in. Why locals bother with TV is beyond me. It’s all here on the street- drama, entertainment, art, farce – a pop video for the making. My plan of walking down to Chelsea Market is short lived as I begin to appreciate the scale of the city. What looks like a 10 minute walk is probably 40 so I decide to head west inland again past the colossal central post office and Maddison Square Garden.

Without warning the gargantuan Macys department store materialises and I head inside. I manage to spend $50 within the first 50 yards and figure that based on total sales floor area it would be a financial catastrophe for me to walk any further.

Macys will take your money!
Macys will take your money!

My map tells me that the Empire State is very close but I can’t find it. Stupid? Not so. Imagine looking for a giant redwood when you are standing in a dense forest of connifers. Turns out I am stood outside it and I have to walk half a block away to see it. They really should have left the ape on top to make it easier to spot.

Empire State and a stuff neck
Empire State and a stuff neck

Grand Central Station is my next destination – note “destination” and not merely conduit for travel. To enter for the first time is a sensory delight. You can actually see people physically gasp when they enter this massive stately building with its chandeliers and acres of marble. A visit to see the food court in the basement including the famous Oyster Bar merely serves to reinforce the grin already chiselled onto my face. This city just keeps on giving!

Grand Central main hall
Grand Central main hall
Grand Central chandeliers
Grand Central chandeliers
Grand Central Oyster Bar
Grand Central Oyster Bar

Onto the packed rush hour subway where there is a feeling of “schools out” this Friday evening with people impatient to leave the working week behind. I have travelled numerous underground networks but Manhattan’s is physically different in that there is a lack of concealment of its workings. Elsewhere you might navigate through clean lined tunnels onto a defined platform perhaps serving a single line. Here there is wrought iron on show everywhere and you can see the intersecting lines through the floor and ceilings. It feels robustly cobbled together by mechano – a far cry from the stately grace of Grand Central above, but it gets the job done.

I’m tired and back at my digs so not up for much this evening. Café Amrita sits at the Cathedral Parkway 3 blocks north and it attracts the intelligencia with a cosmopolitan appeal that my lifestyle demands. And WiFi and beer. Problem solved.

Postscript: If todays experiences had left me with any doubts about New Yorks pedigree then the joyous discovery of Bread Pudding on sale at the local supermarket on the way home truly clinches it

Manhattan Transfer

Today is the day. I don’t mean the election. My postal vote was in the greasy mits of John Snow a week ago. Today is the long awaited day I set out on a journey to unravel a myth.

There is a popular belief perpetrated by the media and backed up by a series of eye-witnesses of varying credibility that New York actually exists. It never occurred to me that this might be true – the facts as they are presented are a little hard to swallow, a bit like the moon landings – but 6 months ago I sat in bed with porridge and tea and booked today’s excursion via my netbook. I struggle with the notion that I can reserve a flight and hotel on the other side of the Atlantic from my bed (even with the aid of porridge) so I guess I’m starting to sound like a cynic but here I am writing this journal from a train on the same netbook and soon the truth will reveal itself. Of course if it turns out that there is no booking or no New York I then have to consider whether this is solely due to this morning’s absence of porridge. Is porridge the enabling factor?

I’m rambling. It’s what happens when you have 18 hours of travel time to try and mentally occupy. I love travel. It’s a place in itself. I don’t mean the head-down-got-to-get-to-work variety. I’m talking about the kind of expedition where you resign yourself to the pre-ordained schedule and drink in the surroundings. It’s a tune I will doubtless change once I’m 6 hours into a dull flight sat next to somebody I wish was in the baggage hold.

My pan-continental voyage started with a leisurely taxi ride to the train station. My driver was a charming middle aged Indian gentleman who spoke intelligently about today’s general election until he veered off into conspiracy theories, as demanded by his licence. Apparently the election result has already been decided by the CIA, FBI and (surprisingly) the FIA. It seems Bernie Ecclestone has a long reach indeed.

Not sick of travel yet
Not sick of travel yet

Plenty of time for a cappucino at the station. I’m served by Barry who hands me a weightless carton of milky froth – no liquid – with a misplaced smile of a job well done. Things will be different in Manhattan where they don’t stand for this kind of thing. My train arrives and that wonderfully English panorama of misty fields rolls by with calm certainty. I discover yet another compartment in my labyrinthine new rucsac. It’s a cross between Hogwarts and the Tardis and I can’t help wondering what other secrets it may yield in the coming week.

Virgin Voyage
Virgin Voyage

The flight – well it’s unremarkable. It amounts to a 7 hours cinema sitting with Virgin Atlantic’s video on demand. Sherlock Holmes turned out better than expected although the back-of-seat screen doesn’t exactly make for ideal viewing. On entry to the US the flight attendant issues a stern warning that any food brought into the country can result in a $10k fine. “Define food” I muse. The queue to customs is full of people stuffing their faces in order to avoid prosecution. Myself no exception. A gorgeous sunny day lifts my mood on the rail journey to Penn Station and I’m checked into my Upper West Side hotel overlooking the top corner of Central Park. It’s the culmination of a 16 hour journey and while my body clock tells me it’s midnight the clock says differently so I walk a few blocks in the warm darkening night air. People seem to just hang out on the street.

The 'hood
The \’hood

There’s a community basketball game, late night hairdressers and Korean takeaways every hundred yards. It’s sometimes loud and in your face but it feels safe.

Shootin Hoops
Shootin Hoops

That’s it. I’m dead beat. But it’s still too “early” to sleep so I find a channel with the BBC election coverage and try and stay entertained for another hour. Then a wonderful deep slumber, interrupted at 1:30pm by a lady who is trying to dial out from the hotel. The area code is 212 and my room number? You’ve guessed it. Is this what they mean by “The city that never sleeps”?