18 October 2007

Eastern Promises

Photos from last night's premiere red carpet outside the Leicester Square Odeon, for the new David Cronenberg film, Eastern Promises.  Viggo Mortensen wasn't around, but Naomi Watts was there looking fairly fabulous.  Also in attendance, film director and former Python Terry Gilliam, former supermodel Elle Macpherson and Martin Freeman from The Office and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. 
It was fairly dark, so the pictures are a little blurry - my little camera can't cope with the dim light and long ranges.  Colin Firth was there too, but didn't linger for pictures... sorry ladies.

14 October 2007

USA part 3

Sunday 2 September – They’ve all come to look for America

In the morning we drove by Whole Foods to gather some breakfast and supplies for my coach ride to New York that afternoon. Then R & P dropped me at the downtown Greyhound station in DC, and I had to say goodbye. It was certainly sad to bid them farewell after such an enjoyable visit. What legendary hosts and prime examples of traditional American hospitality.

I hopped the non-stop Peter Pan coach to New York, which may have left 45 minutes late, but at least I got a window seat this time. During the four hour drive there was an ‘in-flight’ movie: Will Smith’s passable The Pursuit of Happyness (sic.) – passable in that it was commendable as a rags-to-riches real life success story, but rather grim in that the film focused entirely on the gloomy hard times. Obviously you can tell where the story’s going, and you know Smith’s character will be the one unpaid intern who wins the coveted stockbroker job at the end of the movie. But this begs the question: what about the other 19 people who completed the internship, only to be designated a ‘failure’? Well, for a start they didn’t get movies made about them.

Soon enough the coach passed Newark Airport and weaved its way through the New Jersey traffic, with long lines of cars returning to the city at the end of the weekend. Then out the right-hand window the tall buildings were framed by exponentially taller buildings on the horizon, and as I craned my neck to get a better view between the cars and trucks, I realised that I was finally seeing the magnificent Manhattan skyline after all these years of waiting.

Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
They’ve all come to look for America…
(‘America’, Simon & Garfunkel, 1968)

Entering New York by the Lincoln Tunnel, the coach quickly slid into the basement of the Port Authority bus depot, and spat out its passengers into the low-ceilinged diesel fume-ridden underground garage. Donning my pack and clutching my daypack closely like generations of new visitors to unfamiliar cities, I followed the stream of travellers to the adjoining 8th Street subway station, a rambling mess of interconnecting tunnels and stairways like some contemporary vision of an M.C.Escher drawing, clogged with hundreds of New Yorkers, each taking their own personal speed-walking tangent through the confusion. Having eyed up a ticket machine, I purchased a US$24 Metro card, which gave me the liberty of the city’s public transport network for a full seven days. (The same ticket in London costs me ₤43, about three-and-a-half times as much). Naturally I conducted the electronic transaction with one firm hand on my wallet and a wary eye on all within a 20 metre radius, knowing full well that in the movies it’s always the green newcomers who are sized up for a robbery by the canny New York swells. Proper New Yorkers probably laugh at people like me, because they know that New York is actually very safe, with a relatively low crime rate.

Having had the coach ride to prepare myself, I knew where I was going, and once I’d obtained the Metro card I made my way purposely through the subway network across Manhattan and a few stops southwards to East 27th Street. My steely gaze must have radiated an impression of helpful knowledgeability, because within minutes of taking a seat on a New York subway train for the first time, I had already been asked for directions. (More on the subway later).

A couple of blocks from the subway station I found my hostel for the first three nights of my stay in New York – the funky Gershwin Hostel, all decked out in bright primary colours and Warhol-esque pop art. The downstairs common area features a ballroom painted bright red, adorned with beach loungers and neon palm trees. The Gershwin’s owners have a canny promotional sense: the website advertises its normal dorms, and then there’s a separate category of dorms for aspiring models. (A brightly painted fire door bore a gold-etched warning: ‘Occupancy by more than 100 models is illegal and too beautiful’). Not that I noticed anyone particularly stunning in the hostel, mind. My six-bed dorm had its own bathroom and a booming air conditioning unit next to my bed. Trusty earplugs to the rescue yet again.

Quickly dropping my bags, I headed out to get my bearings. It turned out to be a great location: while midtown is not the most exciting part of town, it’s handy for everywhere. And there’s a certain luxurious cachet in being able to hang a right up Fifth Ave, admire the Empire State Building four blocks to the north, then stroll west along 42nd Street to the buzzing outdoor cafes in Bryant Park. A crowd of people were congregating on a closed-off section of Sixth Ave for a Brazilian Festival – ticket-holders only, sadly. Yellow football jerseys were everywhere, and samba beats rolled over the throngs.

Every few blocks I was reminded that New York is the centre of the world’s fashion scene, not because I know anything about fashion, but because I kept spotting improbably beautiful women who must’ve been models; they possessed that rare skill of being far too skinny but not actually appearing anorexic. Some sort of conjuring trick, presumably. One rail-thin six foot tall pouting goddess waiting to cross the road had the look of someone whose (tasteful, expensive, minimalist) clothes just happened to occupy the same space as her, as if the body and the cloth had wound up together purely by accident.

Soon enough I was meandering through the hectic nexus that is Times Square, bright lights burning and flickering in storm of neon and flashbulbs. Walking on London’s Oxford Street is all about avoiding the slow-moving tourists staring at the shops or gawping at their fold-out maps, but exploring Times Square, particularly at night-time, is all about avoiding everyone who’s looking up – which is just about everyone. Everything is lit up. There’s the obvious neon advertising signs like Coca Cola, Hershey’s chocolate bars, Corona beer, plenty of theatres staging shows like A Chorus Line (still!), Wicked, and even Legally Blonde. Then there’s bright neon for concerns you’d not expect: Ernst & Young (a massive 20-storey name in lights); the police station; the Army recruiting office. (Hey kids! See a Broadway show, and then why not sign up for a tour in Iraq?). The lights are remarkable when seen in person, and no amount of TV and film visits can afford the same spectacle. Piccadilly Circus is a mere stripling by comparison. I suspect you’d need to visit Tokyo for a fair comparison with this gaudy radiance.

Before it got too late I walked back south down 7th Ave, admiring a bright neon sign in a shop window advertising ‘Psychic Tarot readings’. A psychic tarot reading must be at least twice as good as a regular tarot reading, right? In looping back to E 27th Street I passed street vendors selling Orthodox Jewish religious texts, Lebanese falafel trolleys, and even a movie director’s New York stereotype: ten young black guys gambling by throwing dice against a brick wall, with the winners executing a victory jig on the sidewalk.

Before I got back to the hostel I’d already been asked for directions a second time. This purposeful striding thing must have been working out.

Monday 3 September – Labor Day

Having been fully air conditioned overnight, I got up around eight for a bagel at the nearby Dunkin’ Donuts. While enjoying this and reading a free copy of the local printed edition of The Onion (what a city!) I was sure I heard a guy at the counter ask for a coffee that was “really sweet, y’know, like 12 sugars in there”. Wouldn’t it have been cheaper for him to just buy a cup of sugar?

Collecting my camera, I walked westwards along 42nd Street to western Manhattan. At Pier 83 I took the 9.30am Circle Line ferry tour that circumnavigates the whole of Manhattan Island in three hours – an ideal way to get your bearings and see most of the city’s best known sights. The ferry’s tour guide was the sort of loquacious chap who would’ve fitted in on the Love Boat, but there was no trace of insincerity or blandness – he was just a guy with the gift of the gab and a deep collection of Big Apple stories. (Although no-one in New York actually calls the city ‘the Big Apple’, much like no-one in San Francisco calls it ‘Frisco’).

Motoring anti-clockwise around Manhattan, the ferry swung out into the Hudson River and soon passed the site of Ground Zero, then swung out into the channel to pass Ellis Island and Liberty Islands (more on both of which later). Then we swung back towards Lower Manhattan and took in the stunning views of the world’s capital city: our host intoned “take it all in folks, you’ll never see the likes of this again”, and yes it was corny, but yes he was right too. The sight that inspired generations of immigrants entering the harbour to begin their lives in a new land is still a stirring prospect – the sheer dense verticality of it takes the breath away.

Then the ferry cruised up the East River, passing under the famous trio of bridges: the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, and the Williamsburg Bridge. On the midtown shore of Manhattan we passed the Kubrick monolith that is the United Nations, all austere and jutting. We skirted the Brooklyn shore on the right, and heard about the old tram cars that used to cause the locals to jump and dodge out of their way, thus bestowing the name of the famed Brooklyn Dodgers. But in a bittersweet reminder that sports in America is foremost about hard cash, Brooklynites still rue the dark day in 1957 when the Dodgers were bought out and jetted off to Los Angeles to reside in treasonous sunshine. Then on the right, the sliver of Roosevelt Island, which is crossed but not served by the 59th Street Bridge – the one referred to in Simon & Garfunkel’s '59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)'. Until 1969 when the subway finally arrived, the island’s residents had to commute to Manhattan by aerial gondola.

Further north past the Upper East Side and Spanish Harlem the East River narrows and narrows again, and the domain of the Yankees looms on the right. Yankee Stadium, ‘The House That Ruth Built’ (i.e. Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat) is a focal point for the Bronx, but it’s soon to be demolished, to be replaced by an even bigger stadium. Baseball fans are missing the old stadium and its multitude of legends already. As the river became more of a shipping canal, the ferry passed the occasional fisherman trying his luck in the murky waters. One black guy was fishing from the passenger seat of his car, letting the rod do the work; when the ferry swept past and took his hook with it the Korean guy fishing 50 metres along the canal shouted “Thank you! Thank you!” to the ferry captain for seeing off his rival while he slapped his knees and just about killed himself laughing.

Ambling back down the Hudson to the pier, the stunning views of the tall tree-clad cliffs of the New Jersey shore are known as the Palisades. They appear today pretty much as they did when Henry Hudson first explored the river in 1609 – but only because a gang of mega-rich New Yorkers including John D Rockefeller decided to club together and buy the entire view to prevent it ever being developed.

Back on dry land, I used a shiny New York payphone to call cousin Winnie in Brooklyn to arrange to catch up that evening. In the meantime I did some more exploring, including spotting Liberty Re-chained on Broadway (pic), and grabbed a cream cheese bagel from a 7/11 to keep me going. I loitered in Madison Square Park to watch a bit of the US Open tennis from Flushing in the New York suburbs, while New Yorkers sunbathed on the grass amidst the skyscrapers. I took a quick detour to photograph the iconic Flatiron Building too – my guidebook quoted Katherine Hepburn as saying in an old TV interview that she hoped she’d be admired as much as that grand old building. While Hepburn isn’t around anymore, the Flatiron is still there – bookend thin and full of elegance.

Next I hopped back onto the subway and grabbed an ‘F’ train out to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where cousin Winnie lives with her husband Bjorn and their two children, Ruby and Max. (Good New York kid names, those). I’d not seen Winnie since she showed me around Wellington during my first visit there in the mid-90s, so there was a lot of catching up to do. We went for a walk in the vast open spaces of Prospect Park a few blocks from their apartment, enjoying the sweeping views and the happy buzz of people enjoying a late summer afternoon on their day off. Didn’t manage to see a chipmunk though. There were plenty of squirrels around to compensate, and you can never have too many squirrel sightings, particularly if they’re in a hurry, because the bobbing tails are hilarious. There’s extra points if you see one mid-meal too.

Bjorn and I went to collect dinner from a nearby Italian joint, and Bjorn discreetly pointed out that one of the diners at the small restaurant was Morgan Spurlock, the writer and director of Super Size Me. Back at the apartment we enjoyed a nice bottle of Californian rosé and a superb tiramisu. There’s no better way to round off a pleasant evening of good company.

Tuesday 4 September – Bright lights, big city

I devoted Tuesday to well and truly pounding the pavements of Lower Manhattan to get a better idea of the architecture and the history. Starting off at City Hall, I swung past the airy gothic bulk of the Woolworth Building (1913) and paid a brief visit to the site of Ground Zero, although I didn’t linger because there’s little to see: tall barricades hide the vast construction site where the twisted glass shard of the Freedom Tower will stand, but at the moment there’s little to show.

There was time for a short detour through New York retail institution Century 21, a department store where I tried on a US$1100 jacket to see how the other half live. Next, I perused the 18th and 19th century gravestones in the yard of the Trinity Church, dwarfed by a palisade of tall buildings. There I admired a memorial to the prisoners of the British during the Revolutionary War. A middle-aged local man approached and asked to see if my Lonely Planet described the British cruelty to prisoners during the war – they were locked up in prison hulks in the harbour and many died of virulent contagious diseases. I think he’d decided to hang around the churchyard in case any Britishers (or look-alikes) ventured in. Despite this, he was perfectly polite. I guess he just didn’t have anything better to do.

Leaving the churchyard, I walked down narrow Wall Street (the site of the 17th century New Amsterdam fort wall) to see the heavily guarded New York Stock Exchange and Federal Hall across the street, which is built on the site of New York’s original town hall, where Washington took his oath of office in April 1789. Heading towards the southern tip of the island, I enjoyed exploring leafy Battery Park, full of memorials to early settlers, the punctured chrome sphere from the plaza of the World Trade Center, and collections of chancers painted green and dressed as Statue of Liberty, on the lookout for tourist dollars.

A quick subway ride to midtown later, I checked out Washington Square Park, where a trio of busking musicians played complex free-jazz rhythms, despite no-one asking them to. Then it was up to Grand Central Station to admire the huge vaulted ceiling and solid neoclassical stonework, and hop across Lexington Ave to peer inside the opulent art deco foyer of the Chrysler Building (1930), its ceiling decorated with a stylish mural of Depression-era high technology, including the Ford Tri-Motor aeroplane.

As the sun crept lower I headed back to City Hall where I’d started the day, and set out to walk the pedestrian footpath on the Brooklyn Bridge (1883), to admire both sides of the East River in the lowering light. The sun dodged in and out of the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan as I walked across, casting dramatic shadows and throwing the intricate suspension wires of the bridge into soft relief as the homeward-bound traffic rumbled below.

After photographing to my heart’s content, I zipped across town to Times Square for a quick meal and a gawp at the Ferris wheel inside the Toys R Us store, and then ended the day back at the Gershwin sorting through the day’s pictures.

Wednesday 5 September – The business they call show

When I was planning my visit to New York a month before I’d decided to stay in two hostels, to get a feel for different parts of the city. So after an early breakfast at a small McDonalds (where the counter guy couldn’t understand a single word I said) I packed up my stuff and checked out, storing my bag for later that day. I reached Battery Park in time for the 9.30am ferry to Liberty Island. The main objective of the morning was to visit Ellis Island, but the ferry stops at Liberty first, so visitors might as well take in the statue, despite the security nuisance of frequent queuing, pat-down searches and chemical sniffers.

I spent an hour or so on Liberty, taking a quick look at the museum that explained its construction in Paris and looking around the base of the statue and enjoying the morning sunshine. But most of my time on the island was spent trying to extract my daypack from the electronic lockers that the security restrictions insist you use. Assuming my passcode would allow me to access the locker, I’d quickly forgotten the actual locker number. There were 64 to choose from. After 10 minutes the attendants freed my bag and I scampered off, vowing never to return (rather than vowing to improve my memory or be better prepared next time, of course).

The ferry soon took me to Ellis Island, which for decades was the gateway for the steerage passengers arriving to populate the rapidly expanding American cities and chase the dream of a better way of life for their families. Now a museum to the millions of new Americans who passed through its halls, Ellis Island is a fascinating focal point for the immigrant heritage of the nation. The displays and audio guides stress the more humane approach taken at Ellis in the 20th century, while give scant mention to the corruption that was rife in the 19th century, but overall it’s a fascinating place. The multitude of stories and voices of immigrants was particularly rewarding:

“They asked us questions. ‘How much is two and one? How much is two and two?’ But the next young girl also from our city, went and they asked her, ‘How do you wash stairs, from the top or from the bottom?’ She says, ‘I don’t go to America to wash stairs!’”
(Pauline Notkoff, a Polish Jewish immigrant in 1917, interviewed in 1985)

After returning to Manhattan, I had burritos for lunch (in honour of the DC Cobra girls) on Pier 17 overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge, and then hurried to the half price ticket booth to get a ticket for a Broadway show for that evening. I ended up with a seat at a new musical comedy called Curtains, starring David Hyde Pierce, who played Niles in ‘Frasier’.

In the afternoon I collected my bag from the Gershwin and took the subway north to the Jazz on the Park hostel on the Upper West Side, half a block from Central Park. I wondered what I’d landed myself with, because the two-bunk dorm I was placed in was absolutely tiny. Oh well. I consoled myself with a long walk through the quiet winding forest paths of northern Central Park, taking in the pretty lakes (pic) and avoiding the super-fit joggers and cyclists.

Back in Times Square to eat before the show, the cashier greeted the lady in front of me in the queue with a rather familiar “what you havin’, sexy?”, although in the interests of accuracy I can confirm that he was being rather hyperbolic. Times Square was buzzing outside. A street cop paused to consult his black notebook with all the three-numbered police codes in it, as if to say “a 312? What the hang is a 312 again?” Over by the brightest lights of 42nd Street a coupe had knocked a pedestrian down and she lay quietly on the pavement while the cops questioned the driver and the thousands of tourists and New Yorkers parted on either side of the incident as if nothing was out of place.

Eight o’clock soon arrived, and I filed into the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, on West 45th Street, for the performance. The story: a Boston musical theatre company is performing a Western show, but one by one the performers and management of the show are being murdered; Hyde Pierce’s stage-loving detective lieutenant arrives to lock down the theatre, find the killer, sweep the ingénue off her feet, sashay his way through a few dance numbers, and rewrite the Western play to knock the socks off old Broadway. Some of the jokes were a little thin at times, but there was no faulting the talent of the actors, the lavish sets and the choreography. The writers had added deft touches too, such as the opening scene in which the off-key diva is poisoned, which the audience views from ‘behind’ with the actors facing the imaginary audience at stage rear, or the introduction to Act Two, which as a small surprise was sung by the orchestra conductor after he’d finished leading the overture. Hyde Pierce was unsurprisingly likeable as the Kennedy-vowelled gumshoe, having demonstrated his comedic talents for years on Frasier. His big starry-eyed dance number with the belle of the show was an expert impersonation of someone completely incapable of dancing footing it with one of the best.

Thursday 6 September – A little culture

The Jazz afforded a lousy night’s sleep, with a smokers’ courtyard just below the dormitory window, with excitable Europeans yammering their jetlag away until 4am, including one German girl with a piercing laugh that smote my eardrums through the windowpane and my firmly embedded earplugs. I took off from the hostel as soon as I’d grabbed a bagel for breakfast, and walked east across the width of Central Park to reach the Metropolitan Museum of Art just after it opened for the morning. Sure, US$20 is expensive for a museum, but the collections are truly overwhelming in scope and quality: gallery upon gallery of ancient statues, the cream of the world’s art both old and new, venerable swords and armour, suites of entire rooms from Renaissance dwellings, and complete Egyptian tombs uplifted from the Aswan floodwaters and rebuilt. There were too many treats to list them all, but some highlights included:

• Paintings of garlands from the wall of a Roman villa, circa 50BC
• A beautiful hammered gold Colombian funerary mask from the first millennium BC
• Hans Holbein the Younger’s amazingly sharp portrait of an Englishman from the Wedigh family, with his steely stare and well-kempt bangs peeking out from under his silk cap
• Pieter van Laer’s 17th-century self-portrait as a necromancer, caught summoning the devil through eldritch rites – his face is a study in terror as he looks to his left where the wickedly barbed claws of the devil himself can be seen reaching into view (pic)
• A completely intact suit of cavalryman’s clothes from a thousand year old burial in the Caucasus
• A collection of round flat stones from Israel with artistically incised parallel lines… from the 7th millennium BC

Taking it all in took five hours. New Yorkers are lucky to have the Met on their doorstep – well, the New Yorkers with twenty bucks to spare, anyway.

I crossed the park again, happening upon the twin of London’s Cleopatra’s Needle, with the plaque recording its journeys through the centuries, to the point at which it rests now, a rendezvous for joggers and a few curious tourists:

This obelisk was erected first at Heliopolis, Egypt, in 1600BC. It was removed to Alexandria in 12BC by the Romans. Presented by the Khedive of Egypt to the City of New York it was erected here on February 22, 1881, through the generosity of William H Vanderbilt

Taking the subway downtown to Sixth and 43rd, I visited the International Center of Photography to enjoy the selection of exhibits, including a portrait gallery of black political and cultural leaders, a photo montage of the rise and demise of pioneering American aviatrix Amelia Earhart, and some strangely affecting on-the-road pictures from the 1970s – backwater motels, truck stop breakfasts, rundown strip malls and abandoned cars, all bathed in an eerie fluro glare.

Next stop: the Top of the Rock. The Rockefeller Center, that is, the skyscraper soaring above Rockefeller Plaza, next to Radio City Music Hall. You pay your money, step in the lift, and in 45 seconds you’re whisked to the 67th floor. If you’re holding onto the walls you can even risk a glance at the transparent roof of the lift, where each of the floors has a blue neon light – they stretch on up into a vertigo-inducing eternity. The rapid change in altitude threw my inner ear into turmoil, but in a few minutes I got used to it, and proceeded to explore the Manhattan skyline. Visitors to the Top of the Rock are treated to an easy progression of viewing options, from completely indoors, to outdoor viewing with sturdy railings and nine-foot solid glass panels, to the topmost floor where it’s just railings. Don’t worry though: the top level is smaller than the others, so there’s nowhere to fall except the viewing deck one floor below. It’s an odd sensation to be 70-odd floors up above New York with the wind in your hair and the faint traces of traffic noise filtering up through the canyons of commerce. Of course, the 360 degree bird’s eye views are tremendous. Central Park dominates the northern prospect, while the architectural glories of boom times rule over lower Manhattan like graceful giants.

The trip up to the Top of the Rock improves on that more popular tourist option, the trip up the Empire State Building, in two ways. First, there are almost no crowds to worry about, and no queues. Second, when you’re up the Empire State, you can’t take pictures of the Empire State!

I stayed up at the top admiring the views and taking loads of photos until just after the sun set behind the thick layer of clouds over New Jersey. Then I left by the Radio City Music Hall exit, and as I did I couldn’t help noticing the heaving crowds of onlookers gawping at a red carpet set up across the street for the Fashion Rocks show at the Music Hall. There must’ve been half a dozen camera crews and a dozen or more photographers present, so I assumed it was worth joining the masses to wait to see if any celebrities turned up. They soon did. I snapped away from across the street as Jessica Alba angled her perfect cheekbones to catch the paparazzi flashgun light just so. Then pop-tart Ashlee Simpson showed up, Tommy Hilfiger (okay, someone shouted out his name, otherwise I’d never have known him), Mischa Barton, and comedian-turned-TV star Dennis Leary. Not a bad haul for a quick trip to town.

Friday 7 September – Going underground

After a tolerable night’s sleep, I took my morning bagel up to the bench in Central Park where I’d eaten for the past two mornings, and watched the New Yorkers exercising their dogs in the open lawns. Then it was time to loop around the jogging track that circles the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, the largest lake in Central Park. The far shores of the reservoir are fringed with a backdrop of parkland trees with an immediate backdrop of the cliff-like apartment buildings of the Upper East Side. I arrived in time for the opening of the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum, more commonly known just as the Guggenheim. While the dramatic spiral of the museum’s grand atrium is stunning, unfortunately many of the galleries were closed for refurbishment and the installation of the post-summer exhibitions. Only about a third of the museum was open for business, but on the plus side, at least the entry price was half price. As for the collections, while I’m generally more of a fan of traditionalist artworks, I certainly enjoyed the series of Kandinskys on display.

Next came an abortive detour out to grimy, studenty Williamsburg in Brooklyn, to find a Brooklyn Industries clothes outlet, which turned out to have closed down. But I did enjoy nosing around the tiny stores near the overhead subway tracks running through the middle of the place (pic), including Bencraft Hatters, a shop in which old men can buy old men’s hats. Borsalino, Stetson and Antonelli, they’ve got them all, including a special on a Greek Fisherman number for only $20.

Momentarily thwarted, I returned to Manhattan to walk up the Bowery to check out the intersection of Bowery and Bleecker, the former location of legendary punk and new wave music venue, CBGBs. Closed by developers earlier in the year, the tiny venue that kick-started the careers of the Ramones, the New York Dolls, Blondie and countless other scene-setters is no more, locked up behind rock solid security. Partially bereaved, I sought solace in retail when I found a Brooklyn Industries shop nearby and scored some drainpipe trousers at half price.

My last tourist stop for the day was out at Borough Hall in Brooklyn, where I descended into an out-of-service subway station that now houses the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s New York public transport museum. The old station was taken out of service long ago when subway trains were lengthened and it was discovered that the stations were too close together for trains to stop at the platforms and queue in the tunnels between stations. Now it’s a museum telling the story of the very fine New York subway network, which benefited from the lessons learned from the London Underground experience when it was designed and built in the first decade of the 20th century.

It’s worth mentioning the many qualities of the subway system, particularly when compared to the London Underground. The wisest decision of the New York city fathers was to build the tracks and tunnels on a wider gauge than the narrow London model, so now a New York subway train has wide aisles with plenty of room to strap-hang in, unlike the cramped confines of the Underground. And while the summer heat and smells of the big city are sometimes powerful when passengers wait on the subway station platforms, once on board the swift-moving subway trains the airconditioning is relentlessly powerful, instantly cooling passengers to a comfortable shirtsleeve temperature. New York also dug plenty more tunnels so it can run express trains up the lines, leapfrogging the slower stopping services.

The MTA museum tour was led by an enthusiastic young black guy who admitted to having a model train set in his apartment. Aside from the standard exhibits on the methods of construction used, the real highlight of the museum is the old station platform, where more than a dozen historic subway cars have been restored and exhibited. Most are still used on scenic weekend runs out to Rockaway Beach, even the old wicker-seated vintage carriages from 1913, which are decked out with period advertisements inside, like the pre-female suffrage placard for dish-washing liquid: ‘Every woman will eventually vote – for Gold Dust’. In another more modernist powder blue carriage built in time to run on the 7 Line (Flushing Local) for the World’s Fair, I realised that these very seats would have carried frenetic teenagers out to Shea Stadium for the scream-fest that was the Beatles’ famous 1965 performance. Aside from a few other museum visitors, the most active exhibit was the station cat, a pretty grey girl called Sadie, who leapt around the subway carriage interiors like a subterranean ninja monkey.

A short interlude ensued, as I visited the Borough post office to buy stamps before the staff headed off for the weekend. I ended up in a massive queue in front of Internal Monologue Man, giving voice to his delay-related frustrations – lucky he wasn’t Tourette’s Man I suppose. In front there was a tall young chap from West Africa who decided to call his main squeeze and conduct a lengthy conversation with her with his mobile switched to loudspeaker so everyone else nearby had to listen. To speak, he twisted the phone up to his lips and spoke with an exaggerated lip motion that was quite like a giraffe selecting the juiciest leaf to eat. It'll probably catch on.

Duly armed with stamps, I went up to Prospect Park to write postcards and conduct another futile chipmunk hunt. Then it was time for dinner and a good chat with Winnie & Bjorn, who will soon be packing up their lives and moving to New Zealand.

On their tip-off, I ducked out to a local sporting goods shop and purchased a t-shirt proudly bearing the MTA logo for their neighbourhood: the F Line, 7th Av Park Slope.

Saturday 8 September – The final countdown

The day started with an even earlier breakfast up in the park – 7.30am this time – as I realised there was so much to fit in before my flight back to London that evening. I started with a subway journey a couple of stops south down the line to pay a quick John Lennon-related visit to the Dakota Building and Strawberry Fields (which was thronging with a Quebecois tour party). Having had a look and taken a few pictures, I then sped to the massive Whole Foods organic supermarket on Union Square to buy a hearty lunch, and browsed in the equally massive Strand Books (“18 miles of books”) and purchased some New York themed books, including Rich Cohen’s excellent Sweet and Low, the story of his grandfather’s Brooklyn company that grew into a multinational empire selling Sweet ‘n Low sweetener. The company was riven with corruption, and the family was torn apart by bitter internal rivalries and petty arguments that led to Cohen’s branch of the family being completely disinherited. It's got a great cover too.

Anxious not to miss out on the legendary collections of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), I joined an impressive queue for entry – damn, that’s right, it’s the weekend. Like the Met, entry was US$20, but again it was truly worth it. The amazing collections included van Gogh, Picasso, Mondrian, Leichtenstein, Pollock, Rothko and plenty by somewhat over-rated old Mr Warhol too. There was van Gogh’s The Starry Night from 1889, the one that inspired Don McLean to write 'Starry, Starry Night'. Apart from the superb painting galleries, I also enjoyed the design section, which featured the coolest and grooviest mod cons and luxury designer must-haves of the past century; pride of place was held by a lusciously curved Jaguar E-type. A photography exhibit displayed the crumbling grandeur of Soviet architecture, all abandoned factories and towering rocket launch gantries. And both inside and outside MoMA in the courtyard there were the giant iron vertical wave sculptures of Richard Serra, as if by magic a dozen ocean freighters had been carved up and formed into a rusting maze to delight and confuse the many patrons.

I had a delicious gelato in the sculpture garden (pic), then made tracks to collect my bags. At Pennsylvania Station I had to wait 45 minutes for the supposedly more regular train service out to Newark airport. (Another example of the efficiency of Amtrak?). On the way out I sat next to a young family with three kids, the eldest of whom – about seven or eight – fell asleep and emitted the most remarkable old-man size snoring despite his tender years. The rest of his family giggled at him and searched for their cameras.

After a security search of all my bags by the brusque airport staff at the airside perimeter, I had an hour or two to wait for the Gatwick plane. Finally I boarded and the 777 sprung into the darkening eastern skies, bound for London and a return to the real life of employment, regular shaving and flat hunting. I felt lucky to have had such a tremendous time in America. And I didn’t even get murdered or meet any Republicans. What a superb holiday.

USA part 2

National this, American that

Thursday 30 August – Culture vulture

John F Kennedy once said that Washington DC boasted a unique mix of ‘Southern efficiency and Northern hospitality’. As far as a sense of character goes, DC’s spirit is shrouded in imposing imperial edifices. It’s a city of sweeping architectural significance, with mammoth parks strewn with monuments and statues of impressively-dressed Presidents and stern-jowled war heroes, girding rows upon rows of neo-classical edifices containing the National this, the American that. (The Australians loved the impersonal approach too, and built Canberra along similar lines).

DC is not built for people to live in, although plenty do and many enjoy it; it was built as a testament to the kingly reverence with which the Founding Fathers held George Washington. Later on, it was augmented by the application of the vast wealth of what became the world’s richest nation, to show the rest of the world that the US had gravitas and restrained style on the largest possible scale.

My hostel was less than grand, but it was in a good location, and boasted an odd sort of breakfast (far too many things with sugar in them) for a mere dollar. On the downside, my dorm housed a thirty-something quantity surveyor from Nevada with a god-awful window-rattling snore, and the criminally-overpowered air-conditioning rendered the whole floor icily cold, despite the 30-degree night-time heat outside. I must’ve been the only guy in DC who slept with a jersey on that night!

I set out for a day’s exploring, strolling the kilometre to the fence ringing 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a.k.a. the White House (pic). Unless you’re on a tour, it’s definitely a long-distance view from between the railings, all the time eyed up by numerous law enforcement types. The only sign of movement is a change in shift in the special forces snipers on the White House roof – decked out in tan fatigues, rifle-bags slung over their shoulders, pistols strapped to their hips.

As the day warmed up and the temperature rose and rose, I admired the neoclassical architecture of the various federal agencies nearby, including the clean lines of the stone masks guarding the Environmental Protection Agency, and snapped a photo of a stray butterfly feeding on a wavering flower (pic) beside the busy Constitution Avenue thoroughfare that runs along The Mall from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial. Then I took advantage of Washington’s greatest asset – one of its many free attractions, the National Museum of Natural History. I would’ve loved the dinosaur skeleton exhibits when I was 11! Nowadays I preferred other exhibits like the stunning National Geographic animal photography, and the minerals exhibit including the famous Hope and Tiffany Diamonds.

Next I visited the broad halls of the National Gallery of Art, or at least the west wing of it. It holds a world-class collection of European and American art, but it was certainly odd to see people taking flash photography of Rembrandt self-portraits – this is one of the few art galleries I’ve been to that permits the use of a flash. But I couldn’t bring myself to fire a strobe at a masterpiece, no matter what the rules. So instead I soaked up all the centuries of artworks:

• the beautiful chalice of the Abbot Suger of Saint-Denis, a pre-Christian era cup set in a stunning 12th-century silver mounting
• a detailed wood relief of the Holy Kinship from 15th-century Franconia
• an imposing 16th-century bust of a Knight of Santiago
• a regal bronze of Louis XIV from circa 1700, depicting his luscious locks and swirling cape to good effect
• a stately portrait of Madame Moitessier from 1851 by Ingres, which I had seen in a 1999 exhibition at the National Gallery in London

After lunch I paused briefly at the National Archives to pay a visit to the impressive hall with a high domed ceiling, in which the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are displayed. Off to one side sits a lonely 1297 copy of the Magna Carta. More entertaining are the Archives collections of letters sent to US presidents over the years, like the one seeking Ronald Reagan’s assistance to declare a child’s bedroom a disaster area, or the friendly hand-written missive from a 12-year-old Cuban boy to President Roosevelt introducing himself and requesting a US ten dollar bill in return. The young boy’s name was Fidel Castro.

As the afternoon ebbed into early evening I explored the sculpture gardens, and was most impressed by a bizarre yet seemingly accurate fibreglass model of a typewriter eraser that happened to be five metres high. By then I was feeling peckish, so I detoured up Louisiana Avenue to Union Station for an excellent burger in the long tiled foodcourt.

Friday 31 August – The final frontier

Another sleepless night led me to extract myself from the hostel as soon as possible in the morning. Walking south to the Mall past Ford’s Theatre where President Lincoln was shot in April 1865, I crossed the grassy Mall to wait for the opening of the huge National Air & Space Museum – the most visited museum in the world. While the Natural History Museum was interesting, the Air & Space was definitely my sort of place. I ended up spending four hours poring through the many exhibits and ogling the many multitude of aircraft and spacecraft hanging from the roof of the vast building, including Lindberg’s Spirit of St Louis, the first aircraft to fly the Atlantic non-stop, Amelia Earhart’s bright orange Lockheed Vega, the original Wright Flyer from 1903 with its massive 12hp engine, and the pint-sized but epoch-making Apollo 11 Command Module. And the museum featured a selection of material from the closed-for-refurbishment National Museum of American History, including the original R2D2 and C3PO suits from Star Wars, President Lincoln’s top hat, Kermit the Frog, the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, the Lone Ranger’s mask from the 1950s TV series, and Seinfeld’s ‘puffy shirt’ (pic) from a well-known 1993 TV episode. This section displayed a section of a cafeteria counter and four stools: these were the famous seats in which four black youths staged a sit-in at a “whites only” Woolworth’s café lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, in 1960, which later sparked similar sit-ins all across the segregated South.

Having taken my fill of wonderful aircraft, I then partook of more lofty entertainment by visiting the east wing of the Museum of Art, which was designed by I.M. Pei, the chap who would later erect the stylish glass pyramid in the central court of the Louvre. I particularly enjoyed the Museum’s modern art displays of some of the world’s most celebrated artists: Mark Rothko’s bright swathes of colour (pic), Jackson Pollock’s wild outburst of chaotic splatters, Jasper Johns’ stylised American flags, Piet Mondrian’s angular abstracts, Roy Liechtenstein, Picasso, and more. I also went a bit mad photographing the sweeping steel walls of the museum underpass, which took my fancy.

Taking a spell in the powerful afternoon sunshine, I wandered behind the Capitol Building to see the imposing Supreme Court Building, and explored the ornate interior of the old Library of Congress Building (pic). Then I took the Metro westwards to Foggy Bottom and walked down to see the Lincoln Memorial and admire the view along the length of the Reflecting Pool, past the Washington Monument to the Capitol Building, about 3.6 kilometres away. I walked back eastwards the length of the Mall, taking in the solemn black marble Vietnam Memorial (pic) carved with all the names of the US dead, the circular WW2 Memorial with its jetting fountains, and the towering spectacle of the Washington Monument, the 169 metre marble obelisk that dominates the city skyline.

At the conclusion of the day’s epic trek I staggered back up to the hostel, footsore and weary, to write my postcards and plan my next excursions.

Saturday 1 September – Rockin’ the Galaxy

I was able to get a decent night’s sleep because the snoring guy must’ve fled back to his evil lair, so it was a slightly later start. I booked a place for the Capitol tour in the early afternoon, then went to the nearby Postal Museum to pass an hour or so before lunch. It would be stretching the truth to describe the museum as exciting, but at least there was only a relatively small section devoted to stamps. Most of the collection was designed to tell the story of the US Postal Service, which is actually kind of interesting given the history and the scale of the operation. I particularly enjoyed the sections of the museum that showed how the postal service helped knit together the young country, and the story of the Pony Express, which lasted less than two years but still left an indelible mark on the American psyche. The museum also displays the keys from the Titanic’s mailbags.

The Capitol tour was led by a keen young chap called Trip (or was it Chip? or Biff?), who rattled through the potted history of the grand rotunda, the old Senate chamber (now littered with umpteen statues of politicians donated by the states – including the Vermont war hero Ethan Allen, and the Louisiana payola hero Huey Long), the old Supreme Court room in which the first ever telegram was sent by Samuel Morse in 1844, and the crypt designed to hold the tomb of George Washington. Unfortunately the spot is empty because Washington died in Virginia and the state refused to allow his remains to leave the state!

The afternoon sunshine was even more punishing than usual – even the sliver of shade afforded by a slender lamppost at a pedestrian crossing was worthwhile. I slunk into the cool domain of the National Portrait Gallery, which has more than its fair share of paintings of wealthy middle-aged white men from the 19th century. More interesting were the photographs of the wedding of Tom Thumb to a similarly minuscule lady during the Civil War in 1863 (apparently it set off a media frenzy at the time).

In the early evening I met up with Ruth and Phil and Ruth’s sister Adair, with the plan of seeing their friends’ bands play later that night. We went for a nice glass of wine in trendy Adams-Morgan, and followed it up with an Ethiopian dinner in a nearby eatery. Then we took our places in the indie-scene local music venue the Galaxy Hut, where the star attractions of the evening were Ruth & Phil’s friends in Victor/Victoria, supported by band-within-a-band Cobra In A Cash Register (which is a Simpsons reference). The support act consisted of two spunky Tegan and Sara fans on keys and lead guitar, sporting big chords and sweet singing, and gracing the performance with their signature tune, (Do You Like) Burritos? Then the Cobra girls were joined by a funky drummer, an Amazonian girl bassist, an elegant cellist and the star of the show, Victor herself. The band wore tuxedo t-shirts, and the lead singer… well, it’s not every day you see a drag act dressed as Amy Winehouse. Quite convincing it was too, although the faux-English accent might’ve been a little fishy. The 80s covers that Victor/Victoria jammed on were top notch, attaining a peak of authentic excitement in their cover of Sisters of Mercy’s 'More', in which the relentless cello refrain instilled a frantic sense of immediacy and drama. Victor’s lead vocals impressed too, reminding me of Brian Molko from Placebo.

After the gig finished and a bit of chatting in the bar, we retired to Ruth & Phil’s friends’ place in nearby Clarendon, and I managed to get to bed by 1.45am, ears still buzzing from the lively gig.