My intention was to keep a mini-journal of our six-day trip in New York last summer. I even bought one of those Moleskine city guides as the perfect notebook for my observations. Sadly the day-to-day busyness and exhaustion put paid to my plans. But I’ve still got that notebook for a return visit, and I’ve had the benefit of a few months to distill the experience into thoughts which are better off here than stuck in my head, unarticulated.
Wednesday 26 May
It’s when I see the yellow taxis lined up outside the Terminal 4 arrivals hall that it hits me. We’re really in New York! It’s a little after noon, our flight having touched down at JFK an hour ahead of schedule, so we take time to get our bearings before leaving on the Airtrain to connect with the subway.
It’s on the E train to Manhattan when I make my first error, suggesting we get off somewhere before the East River crossing (I later find out it’s in Long Island City) to switch trains, hoping to avoid crowds in the city. Bad move: the connection is street-level, and requires us to haul our suitcases up an iron staircase to an elevated platform in ridiculous heat.
I send a text to Twitter: “Somewhere in Queens, waiting on the subway to Grand Central. THE subway! Holy crap!” I’m not feeling quite so chipper as the message implies.
But this isn’t Ireland, and a train comes minutes later to take us into the city. Before we know it we’re rolling our bags along 42nd St, stuck dumb by the scale of the place – the buildings, the colours, the noise. I buy a Snapple at a street corner newsstand to quench our thirst. The air’s so think you really could cut it with a knife.
Luckily the hotel isn’t far away; we check in swiftly and zoom up the lift to our room on the 38th floor. It’s big, dated decor but clean, with a view directly on the Chrysler Building. And air conditioning! I’m liking this very much.
We cool off for a couple of hours before heading out to Flushing for the Mets game. But first some food at Five Guys on 3rd Ave. Their burgers really are delicious, believe me! While there my Mets shirt invites conversation from a fellow diner, a bike messenger sort who doesn’t rate their chances against the Phillies tonight. I’m not used to that kind of thing, strangers starting conversations out of the blue. It’s not bad, just odd for me.
The subway to Citi Field doesn’t take too long, but it’s crowded, and still ridiculously hot. Suddenly the stadium springs into view – I’m sure it’s nothing to the locals, but it looks spectacular in the summer evening light. Literally moments later we’re inside and on the hunt for water.
We have tickets for the nosebleed section but we end up watching most of the game from the bottom level; there’s a rail with cupholders behind the back row of seats, plus it’s close to the toilets, food, etc, and the view of the diamond is very good. Bee’s off in a queue when Reyes scores the only home run of the night (but it’s replayed on TV screens everywhere).\
It’s a good game but fatigue sets in before the final hour; it’s after 2am Irish time. We leave before the ninth inning to beat the rush, but the subway’s still crowded (and I almost fall over giving up my seat for someone else).
In the city, the night brings lower temperatures; it’s still humid as hell, but I can live with it. Back at the room the air con goes on full and I’m konked out before Letterman gets to the Top Ten List.
Thursday 27 May
Up at 5.45am. Apparently I have not adjusted my body clock. But I’m so tired from the day before that I manage a couple more hours’ sleep.
Breakfast/brunch at 696. There’s just nothing like this in Dublin; the choice is so wide it’s paralysing. And it’s just one example of hundreds the city offers. We will return.
Then, to the American Museum of Natural History.
Up close with numerous dinosaur skeletons, and the famous blue whale. Not impressed by the dioramas, however; I don’t want my museums to look like a zoo. Later, at the Rose Center, Bee and I joke about bumping into Neil deGrasse Tyson. What would we’ve done if it actually happened?
We postpone our visit to the Met for a late lunch in Central Park. It’s very green, and smells strongly of ‘park’. The space is so vast, it’s impossible to get a proper bearing on our location. After some wandering we find the Bethesda Fountain (under renovation, covered in scaffolding) and take a load off on a nearby grass verge, munching on chili hot dogs and watching a trendy earth-mother type do weird stretching exercises while her young son plays with a Tonka truck. That’s juxtaposition for you.
Rest stop at the hotel before we go downtown to Trader Joe’s on 14th St (for room snacks; I recommend the chipotle hummus) and then to Little Italy for dinner at Lombardi’s. We hit the busy 8pm rush, squashed into the bar to await a free table. I regret not booking ahead. But the crowd soon starts to thin out, and we don’t wait too long (maybe 20, 25 minutes) before being seated.
We already know what we’re having: two 18-inch pizzas, one each, with a pitcher of root beer on the side. The pizzas arrive on enormous elevated platters, taking up most of our table. Bee is astonished to see the woman seated behind me literally turn in her chair and gawp open-mouthed at our dinner. I’m more amused than annoyed by the tactlessness, and dig in regardless. Of course we finish less than half before we’re stuffed – the remainder goes in a doggie bag for tomorrow’s breakfast/lunch/whatever.
Back uptown to the hotel at a reasonable hour, via the Gristedes on 40th and 2nd for soft drinks and snacks. I’m disappointed in the chocolate selection; anything that looks different or vaguely interesting is ruined by the presence of peanuts or peanut butter. But I do discover a new favourite cola in Diet Pepsi Wild Cherry. I sigh at the paucity of cherry-flavoured soft drinks back home.
In our hotel room, I gaze out the window onto the streets and buildings below. The city glows at night. The Empire State Building is lit up red, white and blue for Fleet Week. The Chrysler Building stands majestic, a real work of art.
Friday 28 May
Awake early again, 5.45am on the dot. My body clock is alarmingly precise sometimes.
First things first, to the drugstore! We need painkillers, and generics are very cheap here (a few months’ worth of ibuprofen costs less than $20). All of the big pharmacy chains here – Duane Reade, Walgreens, CVS – seem to double as convenience stores. I scan the candy section for something interesting; again I’m let down. So many different brands and wrappers, but it’s mostly the same old shite. Margin note: What is it with Americans and their obsession with peanuts?
Breakfast/brunch at Chelsea Market, which is a disappointment. We expected something more along the lines of the English Market in Cork, a vibrant open space with a wide variety of stalls. What we find is a long stone corridor lined with quiet shops, and only a handful of places to sit and eat. Maybe it’s better at the weekend. We resolve to try the Union Square Greenmarket next time round.
Post-brunch, we take the 1 train to Battery Park for the Staten Island Ferry. The terminal’s full of noisy schoolkids and sailors on shore leave. We decide to wait for a quieter boat, which turns out to be a great idea.
Out on the water it’s overcast and cold – a refreshing change. Disappointingly the ferry doesn’t go as close to Statue of Liberty as many people imply, but it’s still a nice view.
Back to Manhattan within an hour to visit MoCCA, a little gem of a museum hidden away on the fourth floor of a nondescript office block. Bee is in comic heaven. And it’s fun for me too; I spot an original Tom the Dancing Bug on the walls.
Back on the street – the traffic at Broadway and Houston is crazy. Despite our sore feet, we walk to lunch at Katz’s Deli. But it’s worth it: Bee’s more than pleased with the renowned pastrami, while my turkey sandwich is a whole leg’s worth of meat, so tender and flavourful, with just a little mustard. I add some pickles from the side plate to top it off. Sandwich perfection. Wish I’d taken a photo! Next time.
We grab a seat by a photo of Bill Goldberg (a random happy accident) and take a few to people-watch and consult our guidebooks. The map shows we’re not too far from Economy Candy. Another missed photo opportunity: the shelves are heaving with sweets like Willy Wonka’s private stash. Finally a candy store with choice! After some humming and hawing, I walk out with a case of Junior Mints. Another spot marked on the must-return list, that’s for sure.
Last activity of the day is an evening at the Met. Outside it’s covered in tarps and scaffolding, and the contents inside similarly fail to impress. Bee and I both liken it to the Centre Pompidou in Paris – a lot of style, but the substance is lacking. And the security staff’s attitude leaves a lot to be desired. But it’s not all bad: any opportunity to see a Van Gogh up close is one to savour, and there’s a Rothko that seems to change colour before my eyes.
Two-bus journey back to the hotel. We’re too bushed to eat out, so we grab sandwiches from the corner deli for dinner. Just enough energy left to fill a bucket from the ice machine on the 31st floor, then my shoes come off for the night.
I find I have no real sense of the altitude we’re at. We’re higher than the tallest building in Ireland, but it might as well be the ground floor. I think of Paris again: the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower, the expanse of the vistas from those iconic views. Looking out the window in our room, there’s so much density, so many other buildings just as tall or taller than this, my eyes simply don’t register the distance to the ground.
Saturday 29 May
A quick brunch at Dunkin Donuts on 40th and 2nd before we brave the crowds at Times Square. Very disorienting; it takes a few minutes walking around to sort out left from right, north from south. A compass would be handy! My closest frame of reference is Piccadilly Circus and its environs, but even there the sights are more immediately receivable, and comprehendible. My brain needs more RAM to process the scene.
We take refuge in Toys R Us. First question that occurs to us: where’s all the Lego? Sure, there’s a large branded Lego section towards the back of the store, but there’s no variety. Just shelves upon shelves of the same thing, mostly film tie-in rubbish. Where are the Mindstorms kits? Hell, where are the basic sets? It’s the illusion of choice – and a thinly veiled one at that.
Upstairs is better, however, as we finally discover some proper yo-yos (you wouldn’t think a yo-yo is something that’d be hard to find, but we’d been searching in Dublin to no avail).
Back outside, we pass a demonstration of some sort – seems to be protesting the Arizona immigration laws – and nearby we find Broadway has been partly pedestrianised, with benches and chairs in the middle of the street. It’s much calmer round here, and we gladly take the opportunity for a sit-down.
Next, to Midtown Comics a couple of blocks away. Another mecca for Bee; I browse the magazines and look for that one old Marvel comic I own (X-Factor #6, the first proper appearance of Apocalypse; published in ’86 but purchased in the Eason’s at Heuston Station at least two years later). We both notice a mint copy of X-Men #1 on the wall; it’s a steal at under $2,000.
Onwards to Madison Square. We briefly consider Shake Shack for lunch, before we notice the enormous queue snaking around the park – must’ve been 150 deep at the very least. We’re hungry, but we’re not that hungry! Instead, I snap some bad photos of the Flatiron Building (shooting into the sun; I really need to learn the manual controls on this camera) and we go to nearby Eisenberg’s for lunch, where I try my first egg cream. It’s an unusual taste, but not unpleasant.
Late afternoon now and the heat is taking its toll. In Rockefeller Center we rest in the cool conditioned air. Briefly consider Top of the Rock, but it’s expensive for a view that’s little better than the one from our room; maybe next time. The plaza outside is thronged with tourists. Is this where the skating rink goes in the winter? It doesn’t look nearly big enough.
Later, when night falls and the heat dissipates, we venture to Union Square. I’m on a mission to find a Taco Bell, and Google tells me there’s one around here, but I get confused by the streets and give up the search. Next time.
Luckily the Strand Bookstore and Forbidden Planet aren’t so hard to find. I pick up four books in Strand – including two recent Austers – for $20. In FP, Bee almost finds a book she’s looking for: it’s on their system, but not on the shelves. Online it is, then.
Walking back to the subway, we pick up dinner from the buffer bar at Whole Foods: chana masala for me, something Asian for Bee. It’s a nice store, like Marks & Spencer (everything’s own-brand but high-quality) yet much bigger. Wish I had the luxury of time to explore a bit deeper (it’s after 10pm when we visit). Interesting colour-coded queueing system at the checkout, too; seems slightly daunting at first impression but it’s actually pretty simple and efficient and very well implemented.
I feel bad about not taking enough photos, and not taking the ‘right’ photos. I wanted to have a more tangible record of my experiences here, something to attenuate the failure of memory, but it’s not really happening. I suppose my discomfort with the camera – when to get it out, when to shoot, what to shoot – is getting the better of me.
Sunday 30 May
Happy birthday to us! B&H Photo in the morning. It’s an A/V geek’s paradise. And another interesting check-out system here, too. You hand over your items at a counter on the main shop floor and take a receipt while they send them downstairs in a plastic crate. When you’re ready to pay and go, you take the receipt to the tills on the ground floor – your goods are there, already bagged and ready to go. How efficient! Apparently it’s a common system in Germany, but I wonder if the Germans also provide free pretzel bites and kosher cola (with real sugar, not corn syrup like everything else).
We take the F train to Coney Island. Blimey it’s hot – and far too crowded. We queue an hour at Nathan’s for hot dogs, and get chatting with a Kenyan woman who’s moving to South Africa later in the summer – small world, etc. Eventually the food arrives; the hot dogs are lovely and all, but really not worth the wait. Then we struggle along the boardwalk to the aquarium – only to see a crowd 20-deep at the entrance. What a disappointment! I guess that serves me right for dragging us out here on Memorial Day weekend. But we get sno-cones on the way back to the subway, so it’s not all bad.
Back to Manhattan on the D train. Soundtrack provided by a young boy with headphones singing the chorus to ‘Beat It’ on an endless loop all the way through Brooklyn.
The sheer heat of the day has sapped our enthusiasm by now. It’s a good idea to stay in air-conditioned Grand Central for a while. We head down to the dining concourse to find a birthday cake – we go for a baked cheesecake from Junior’s – and pass through the whispering gallery. I thought everyone knew about this but there’s only us and a few other visitors around. We consider ourselves lucky.
Dinner at Wendy’s across the street. For fast food, the grub is pretty good, reminding of Steers in South Africa. We decide it’s unfathomable why any American would choose McDonald’s over this. More observations: we like the conveniently placed condiment stations; and the radio’s playing Built to Spill, which is incongruent to me.
Back at the hotel we try the cheesecake, which is fantastically rich – too rich for this heat.
Just before sunset we run down to 42nd St (passing the UN Headquarters on the way) to see Manhattanhenge – along with 30 or 40 others, cameras at the ready. My own amateurish snap doesn’t really capture the beauty of it. Note to self: Prepare to be more spontaneous.
Monday 31 May
Last day. We spend the morning packing before check-out. The cheesecake is too much for breakfast; we end up leaving half of it in a bin near the Brooklyn Bridge – which a landmark probably best appreciated from a location other than on the bridge itself. It’s way too sunny and hot, with far too many tourists crowding the pathway. Chalk it up to experience.
Back uptown to the New York Public Library – yet another landmark obscured by scaffolding. It’s closed for Memorial Day, so I miss the exhibition on Mapping New York’s Shoreline. But at least we see the famous lions on the steps outside.
Sixteen blocks or so further up Fifth Ave we find the Apple Store. That big glass cube should be a greenhouse on a day like this but it’s surprisingly cool inside. We make a bee-line for the iPads – it’s the first time we’ve actually seen one. In the wild everyone’s using Kindles. My verdict? It’s nice, but underwhelming. Really, it’s just a big iPod Touch. It’s heavier than I expected. It’s too expensive. And it crashes a lot.
Next door is FAO Schwarz. Again let down by the homogeneity of the merchandising, but it’s got one over on the Toys R Us by virtue of the Muppet Whatnot Workshop. I wish we had a spare $120 to spend! Luckily we find some cheaper but very well-made puppets in the back behind the escalators, and adopt one for ourselves – a chef named Alfredo.
To Grand Central once more, for late lunch/early dinner (pulled chicken from Brother Jimmy’s BBQ) and one last look at the beautiful ceiling of the main concourse. A newly married couple are having their wedding photos taken on the stairs.
An hour or so later, wheeling our bags from the hotel to the subway, we run straight into our second demonstration of the week, this time a very noisy rally by busloads of Hassidim. They’re protesting over the Gaza flotilla, it seems, but we honestly can’t tell which side they’re on. The whole thing annoys me, actually. I’m flustered and tired and hot and I just want to get going.
Engineering works on the E train line mean we must get off a few stops early and catch a bus to the Airtrain. Confused by the mislabeling of stations in the subway car, I unload us a stop too early. Luckily a passer-by on the platform, a genuine Woody Allen-type New Yorker, stops to help – if we go on one more stop we can catch the Q10 bus, which goes direct to the airport. Thank you!
The bus ride through this part of Queens is interesting; seems to be a strong Bangladeshi community along much of the route. Forget Manhattan – this is the real New York for a whole lot of people.
Despite the driver stopping off for groceries along the way – that really brings out New Yorkers’ sense of humour – we make it to the terminal in plenty of time. Then I remember how much I hate airports. JFK is no better or worse than any other I’ve been to. I hate the endless waiting, the lack of communication from staff, the dearth of eating and shopping options, not to mention the seating (airport architects/designers really need to get out of the business class lounge).
Getting on the plane, Bee notices something odd: the seat-back monitors are already switched on. She suspects there’s something funny going on, and there is – a storm near the airport has caused a departure backlog, and our flight is stuck in a queue for the runway. The captain says it’ll be an hour before we leave the gate, then another 45 minutes in a staccato procession before we take off. What?! You can imagine the gasps and groans throughout the cabin. And the pilots must have heard us, because 20 minutes later the delay has suddenly shrunk to a mere half-an-hour. Anything to avoid a mutiny.
Some time in the night during the mercifully short flight, I flip through my notes and lists to see how many sights went unseen and doings undone. We didn’t do too badly, all things considered. Besides, the leftovers will feed into a new list of things to see and do next time. Whenever that is.