01 July 2010

Once upon a time in New York

Stitched Panorama

I began, in my second Chelsea spring, to take a vague sauntering interest in my neighbourhood, where the morning sun hung over the Masonic headquarters on Sixth Avenue with such brilliance that one’s eyes were focused downward into a scrutiny of the sidewalk, itself grained brightly as beach sand and spotted with glossy discs of flattened chewing gum.  The blind people were now ubiquitous.  Muscular gay strollers were abroad in numbers, and the women of New York, saluting taxis in the middle of the street, reacquired their air of intelligent libidinousness.  Vagrants were free to leave their shelters and, tugging shopping trolleys loaded with junk – including, in the case of one symbolically minded old boy, a battered door – to camp out on warmed concrete […]  The residents of the Hotel Chelsea also stirred.  The angel, hitherto trapped indoors by the cold, went out and about in new wings and created a mildly christophanous sensation.  March Madness lurched to its climax: the betting activities of the hotel staff assumed fresh vigour and complexity.

This passage from Joseph O’Neill’s excellent New York novel Netherland, goes some way to capturing the spirit of the city, certainly far better than I ever could, with its multitude of cultures, barely constrained chaos, and its capacity to surprise even the most jaded of its residents. 

I’ve been to New York once before - the best part of a week in September 2007 – and right away I knew that however much time I spent visiting and sightseeing, I would definitely have to return.  And so once I spotted a cheap return fare for early June before the temperatures scalded the Manhattan streets and made the subway platforms a soupy miasma, I knew I had to revisit New York. Particularly since I’d bought a new camera since my last visit!

DSC05630 The departure day finally came, but first there was some traditional British bureaucracy to endure.  The uniformed guard at the Heathrow departure gate tried to stop me from taking a picture of the plane out the gate window.  Dumbfounded, I resisted the temptation to point out that Boeing 777s were rather large shiny metal objects that flew in the sky, so it was hard to see what threat to airport security could result from my harmless snap.  Instead, I advised him that the rule, if it indeed existed and wasn’t just being made up on the spot, was a ridiculous one.  And then I just waited five minutes until the gate was busy and took my picture when he wasn’t looking.  It wasn’t the best picture I’ve ever taken, but it’s the principle of the thing, right?

It was a seven hour American Airlines flight to JFK.  There was definitely a step down in service quality from the usual Air New Zealand and Singapore Airlines standards I’m used to.  For a flight departing at 11.55am I certainly expected lunch earlier than 2pm – I was starving by the time they finally got around to dishing it out.  A glass of wine wasn’t complimentary, either – not that I’m a souse or anything.  And the in-flight entertainment pickings were as thin as Calista Flockhart on an H2O Diet.  While I enjoyed a few episodes of 30 Rock and The Office (US), and was pleasantly surprised by Me And Orson Welles (the Orson Welles aspect – Christian McKay is fantastic as Welles – not so much the Zac Ephron element), the rest of the offerings were dire and you couldn’t even pause or restart the programming.  Grumbles out of the way, I should reiterate that I was pleased with the fare, and as the flight wasn’t that long the service issues weren’t a big deal.

So to arrival at JFK, where it seemed that the US is still working on the whole airport experience concept, torn between the desire to be vigilant for a multitude of transgressions and a general bureaucratic malaise that seems to affect certain people when they don a government official’s uniform.  Not to be outdone by the legendary surliness of LAX staff, one of the first encounters passengers from my flight had was with an irritated-sounding border officer in the arrival hall, batting away passengers without a mandatory form by shouting ‘Back of the room!  Back of the line!’ at them.  Welcome to America, folks.  (I had the right form, but many other people didn’t).  After the agreeably speedy processing by the actual border official, it was the turn of the baggage dudes to snarl things up – the entire flight had to wait 45 minutes for the bags to emerge.  How hard can it be? 

SONY DSCEventually I emerged into the warm New York dusk, where I boarded the A train, not for Harlem but for the bright lights of Times Square.  It took about an hour to rumble through the suburbs, skirting Ozone Park, rumbling under Fulton St past Bedford-Stuy, kinking through Brooklyn Heights and then under the East River to Manhattan, past the greenback towers of the Financial District and Lower Manhattan to West 4th St Washington Sq.  There I switched lines, to the B or the F or the V or the T, and some random consonant in a bright orange circle whisked me up the island from 4th to 42nd St in four quick stops.  Emerging into the fragrant evening air at Bryant Park just opposite the International Center for Photography, with towering skyscrapers all around, I was truly back in Manhattan once more.

  It was only a two block walk to my hostel, where I would spend my first four nights of the trip.  The Big Apple Hostel is fairly small, but it has the preeminent advantage of being a mere half a minute’s walk from Times Square.  And sure, Times Square is a mess of gawping tourists, hawkers and corporate retail chains, but you know what?  When I’m in Times Square, I’m quite happy to be a gawping tourist too.  But for now I merely found something to eat and went to bed early, hoping to sleep off the jetlag and recharge my batteries for a busy week ahead.

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It proved to be a sleepless night.  It wasn’t traffic noise, often a problem in Manhattan.  Rather, the early-20s chaps in the room were the carousing sort, and returned to the dorm at 2 o’clock keen on staying up chatting to each other and playing on their laptops.  A basic breach of dormitory etiquette, naturally.  Hard to avoid these days though.  If only I could afford Manhattan hotel prices!

In the morning I headed out on foot to reacquaint myself with the heart of Manhattan, Central Park.  Which gives me the opportunity of repeating an old Paul Merton joke: old in that it was doubtless fairly ancient when he re-told it:

On my first day in New York a guy asked me if I knew where Central Park was.  When I told him I didn’t he said, ‘Do you mind if I mug you here?’

Of course there was nothing of the sort going on as I entered the park.  Long queues of hired horse-and-carriages waited for paying punters to shell out for a trot through the leafy park streets.  A six-foot tall granny in a leotard, out for her morning run, displayed a frankly alarming set of six-pack abs.  And the park squirrels busily scampered from nut to burrow, bobbing in and out of the luxuriant grass. 

In a broad stroll through the southern half of the park I came across an excellent trio performing Hot Club-style jazz, plenty of skaters, cyclists and a single roller-skier, and plenty of Manhattanites walking their beloved dogs.  (For a cramped city, it’s astonishing how many people have dogs; it must be a complete nuisance in apartments.  I suppose now that people know it’s an ideal ice-breaker, like smoking following the ban, part of the reason is the primeval urge to find a mate).

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Then following the purchase of a weekly Metro Card ($27) I sped down the island to the tip of Lower Manhattan.  Well, I sped after a long wait for a 6 train.  So long that a girl, who was presumably running late, asked me for the time and I was delighted when she replied with a very New Yorkish exclamation of ‘Oy…’ after I had told her. 

SONY DSCWhen I finally made it to Battery Park there were plenty of people out enjoying the warm weather.  After a stroll through the gardens I paid a visit to the nearby branch of the National Museum of the American Indian, which is housed in a beautiful building originally constructed for the US Customs Service.  Most of the museum was closed, and the parts of it that were open weren’t fascinating, particularly the rooms of the art collection, which were dominated by deeply pretentious post-modern pieces.  But the real treat was the building itself, which was constructed in the first decade of the 20th century.  Its spiral staircases and the superb oval hall at the heart of the ground floor, which boasted a grand domed ceiling covered in nautical paintings.

Stitched Panorama 

I walked uptown and paid a visit to my favourite New York shop, Strand Books, where I enjoyed browsing the aisles and dodging the gigantic industrial-strength electric fans dotted around the shelves to keep the air moving on hot New York days.  There I picked up a nifty little history of the early 16th century Magellan circumnavigation expedition.  If you ever get a pub quiz question asking the name of the first person to circumnavigate the globe, be sure to be a clever-dick and point out that it wasn’t Magellan – he was killed in the Philippines and never made it back to Spain – but rather Magellan’s slave and interpreter Enrique, who had been with the expedition since it left Seville but was originally from the South China Sea and therefore completed the first circumnavigation when the expedition made it to the Spice Islands.    

It was another relatively early night for me, but I did stay up long enough to take some night-time pictures in Times Square, and night-time is naturally the best time to enjoy the atmosphere, with the flickering lights blazing and the touts shouting out their wares to the visiting hordes.

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SONY DSC On my second morning I started by walking eastward several blocks to pay a visit to Grand Central station, a suitably impressive feat of architecture with a rich sense of history attached.  Soldiers in desert fatigues augmented the usual police patrols, reminding you that threat perceptions in New York are higher than in most cities.  Far above the bustling pedestrian traffic in the main concourse, several forlorn balloons bobbed helplessly against the domed ceiling. 

Then I retraced my steps and headed westwards to the Hudson shore to visit the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum.  The USS Intrepid is hard to miss: after all, it’s a 27,100-ton aircraft carrier that’s been moored on the Hudson and forms the core of the museum.  Alongside the aircraft carrier, the USS Growler nuclear missile submarine is parked in a pretend state of full alert, missile ramps raised and loaded with (fake) Regulus nuclear missiles.  And at the end of the pier, there’s a British Airways Concorde to explore too.  Impressive!

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SONY DSC I tackled the sub first, working out that its narrow corridors would get crowded once the tourist hordes descended later in the morning.  Growler was only in service from 1958 to 1964, because it was soon rendered obsolete by the development of ICBMs, which could be launched underwater.  This was clearly superior to Growler’s method, which involved surfacing to fire its short-range Regulus missiles, which had a trifling range of only 926km.  Crew accommodation was cramped but by no means inhumane; crews of nuclear missile submarines have always had more space to stretch out in than crews of the smaller attack submarines.  Growler’s crew particularly enjoyed watching the 1943 western, The Outlaw – mainly due to their interest in the famous scenes with the ‘well-proportioned’ film star Jane Russell.

SONY DSC The BA Concorde only required a quick visit, and I had already seen inside one at Duxford.  The interior passenger cabins remind you how slender the aircraft really is, with a 2+2 seating layout and a total passenger complement of only 120, which is less than that of a modern 737. 

Then it was on to the main attraction: the Intrepid itself.  It’s hard to grasp how huge the ship really is.  For starters, its full crew complement when it was in service was 2600.  Starting on the 266-metre-long flight deck, I admired the large collection of jet fighters on display, the highlight of which was probably the rare Lockheed A-12 Blackbird, which was an earlier version of the more well-known SR-71 Blackbird.  Its daringly swept-back profile and brooding black fuselage still have the air of the distant future about them, even though the A-12 was first flown back in 1962.

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[Pics clockwise from top left: A-12 Blackbird; MiG-21; UH-1 Iroquois & AH-1 Cobra; F-14 Tomcat]

SONY DSC One floor down inside the hangar deck there were several more aircraft, including a trusty Skyhawk familiar to many New Zealand aviation buffs.  There were also plenty of displays illustrating the carrier’s long career in WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam, and a mock-up of a space capsule to commemorate the Intrepid’s role as the principal recovery ship for astronaut Scott Carpenter’s Mercury 7 splashdown in 1962.  Further into the belly of the massive ship the aircrews’ flight briefing room has been preserved almost exactly as it was in the ship’s active service, with flight gear strewn on hooks along all the walls and a projector standing ready to show flickering films of targets to be bombed to smithereens.

Following my Intrepid visit I paused briefly to pick up a tasty blueberry bagel from a popular local bakery, and then I headed eastwards across town to the base of the Brooklyn Bridge, for the traditional walk across the East River to admire both the bridge itself and the city skyline.  The narrow wooden walkway was divided in two by a painted line, with pedestrians meant to keep to one half and speeding cyclists to the other.  I enjoyed the greeting shouted by one irate Brooklynite to a couple of blithe German tourist dudes who strayed onto the wrong side as the cyclist hurtled down the slope to Manhattan: not ‘Hey, excuse me’, but rather the traditional Brooklyn salutation, ‘'Hello!  Douchebags!’ 

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SONY DSCOn the Brooklyn side I ambled through the now-trendy streets of Dumbo, which stands for Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass.  At a riverside park I snapped some pictures of both the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges, which are quite close together and soar overhead, plunging their traffic into the depths of Brooklyn.  The park was evidently popular with wedding photographers, because several newly-wed couples were there having their pictures taken.  One Jewish couple, with the wife decked out in an explosion of silk and big hair, were being photographed and videoed at the same time and as it was a reasonably small park it was almost impossible to avoid them as they pretended to saunter idly down the winding paths. 

Stitched Panorama[Brooklyn Bridge (L) and Manhattan Bridge (R)] 

Later I met up with Anne and Cecil, my friends from Auckland who happened to be holidaying in NYC at the same time as me, and we visited the studenty Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (What?  Not ‘theater’?) for one of its excellent $5 comedy gigs.  Two young comedy troupes put on a series of sketch-based acts.  The first, Gorilla Gorilla, performed a number of sketches about the state fair visiting a hick town, the highlight of which was the daftly OTT chanteuse Doris Macgruder song medley dedicated to trains.  Then came the polished performers of Stone Cold Fox, whose Youtube satire (‘Drunk-Ass Betsy Falls Over’) and Skinny TV body-fascist lampoon were right on the mark. 

I walked back to my hostel through the theatre district, where many of the shows were approaching their big finales.  Outside one such theatre I witnessed a first; Perhaps it’s a New York thing.  I’d never seen a backpacker in a cocktail dress before.  (And we’re talking a full backpack, here).  Now that’s one classy backpacker chick.

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The next morning I headed northwards again, towards Central Park.  On the way I had another rare sighting.  Yes, loyal readers, I actually saw a middle-aged woman with grey hair in New York.  Never thought I’d see the day! 

After pausing to stock up on a box of Tim Horton’s Timbits (delicious doughnut-based junk food) I ambled through the park to the Upper East Side, where I revisited the tremendous Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In 2007 I had spent nearly six hours here, and for my second encounter I spent almost five hours, with the Timbits sustaining me in a frankly unhealthy pact with the forces of concentrated sugar.  The medieval collections are on a par with any of the finest European galleries, and when coupled with the superb collection of modern and historic paintings, a smattering of complete rooms from sumptuous European palaces, a vigorously polished arms and armour collection that’s particularly strong on plate armour, and a wide-ranging selection of artworks from classical antiquity, the Met truly excels.  The only challenge is maintaining sufficient stamina to do it justice, which is where the Timbits came in handy.

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[Pics clockwise from top left: The Little 14-Year-Old Dancer by Degas; 11th century ivory casket from Italy; Etruscan bronze chariot from the 6th century BC; French palace suite]

I ended my visit to the Met with an elevator ride to its roof terrace, which had been taken over by a peculiar and interesting art installation – a tightly-woven forest of bamboo shoots knitted into a maze-like forest, with a sinuous ramp winding its way through the shoots into the sky.  Luckily there was still plenty of space to enjoy the unrivalled views of Central Park and Lower Manhattan from the south side of the terrace.     

Stitched Panorama

I returned to Midtown near Bryant Park, where I had emerged from the subway on Saturday, to visit the International Center of Photography.  Like my last visit in ‘07, I enjoyed the Center, but couldn’t help feeling that the air of pretentiousness that sometimes accompanies the art of photography could do with being dialled down a bit.  The curators seem to approach every subject with a deeply serious bent.  Their exhibitions also stray into multimedia a little too often for my liking.  Given the relatively small size and prestigious nature of the exhibition space, perhaps it would be best if the Center concentrated on showing interesting photos.  Even its main exhibition on the American black civil rights struggle lost its focus on photography and showcased film and TV clips, adverts and toys displaying shamefully outdated racial stereotyping.  Certainly, these all help to tell the story of the black struggle for equal rights, but it’s meant to be a photo exhibition.  Oh well, at least the museum gift shop was as much fun to browse as I remember: I could easily spend hundreds in there on photo geekery. 

Re-entering the subway to continue my journey, I noted the terse and very New York-style instructions given by the Metro turnstiles.  Not ‘welcome’ or ‘enjoy your journey’.  Just ‘GO’.  The displays have plenty of room for a longer message, but I suppose they wanted to keep it simple.  It just struck me as a barked order from a sergeant major rather than a friendly hello. 

SONY DSC My next stop was the Bowery, where I was hoping to score a ticket for that evening’s gig at the famous Bowery Ballroom.  UK band the Futureheads were playing, supported by Californian girls The Like, which was formed by three daughters of eminent producers, including Charlotte, daughter of Mitchell Froom, the producer of Crowded House’s first three albums.  Unfortunately there didn’t appear to be a ticket office and I didn’t have easy access to the internet, so I missed out on that one.  Instead I wandered back to Midtown and spent some time trying to improve on my previous shots of the lovely Flatiron Building as the sun set slowly over the Manhattan skyline.

Returning to the hostel through Times Square I noted that the enormous Britney Spears billboard (tiny pink hotpants and bikini top) that marked my turnoff into West 45th St had been replaced by a swimsuit advert (tiny bikini).  I was unused to the clothing choices in America – never before had I seen short shorts in such numbers as were on display in New York.  They seemed a virtual uniform for the majority of young and some not-so-young women.  Of course, this is a country in which Tina Fey could be described as ‘average-looking’ (probably because she wears glasses), so there may be a few ‘issues’ to work through there… 

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I had enjoyed my stay at the Big Apple, particularly on my last night there, when my three roommates had all checked out and I had the dorm to myself for a blissfully uninterrupted night’s rest.  For the remainder of my stay in New York I’d booked to return to the dorm rooms at Gershwin, which was my favourite stop on my last trip.  It wasn’t quite so likeable this time around though – when I tried to check in mid-morning I was told this wasn’t possible because the room hadn’t been cleaned yet.  I explained that I didn’t care that it hadn’t been cleaned; I simply wanted to leave my backpack in there and claim a bed for the night.  (Beds are unassigned and if you arrive later in the day you’re bound to end up with the hated top bunk).  No dice, so I had to store my pack and return later; when I came back at 3pm the room still wasn’t ready so I had to wait another hour.  Hurry up – time’s a-wastin’.

SONY DSC After leaving my pack I shot uptown on the subway to 77th St on the Upper West Side to meet Anne and Cecil.  We rode the subway together a few stops further north to the neighbourhood of Harlem for a self-guided walking tour from my Lonely Planet.  First though we had to store up some energy for the walk, so we paid a visit to Amy Ruth’s cafe for brunch.  I enjoyed a tasty batch of waffles with strawberries, Anne had waffles without the berries, and Cecil went all out with massive industrial-sized hunks of meat slathered in what looked like engine oil, with a side of grits – basically so we could all see what grits actually are.  Whatever they are, they didn’t taste particularly good, so I’m glad I had the waffles!

We spent an hour or so on the walking tour, and while it was pleasant to see the Apollo Theater, where James Brown performed a famous October 1962 gig that was released as an album, Live at the Apollo, I have to say the streets of Harlem weren’t particularly fascinating from a sight-seeing perspective.  I admit that despite the LP map we couldn’t find the Cotton Club, but aside from that there didn’t seem to be that much to take in.  The most noteworthy event was the sighting of a note taped inside the back window of a parked and empty yellow schoolbus, indicating that the bus had been ‘checked for sleeping children’.  You can bet the New York school bus service has been on the receiving end of lawsuits resulting from the life-threatening trauma caused to little angels who’ve been accidentally left in buses while their pals go off on a school trip.  

Bidding farewell to Anne and Cecil, I returned to Midtown to pay a visit to the New York Public Library.  Unfortunately the grand facade with its impressive statues was completely veiled for refurbishment, but the interior was as impressive as I’d hoped, all marble and vast sweeping corridors.  There was also an intriguing free exhibition on the history of mapping New York’s shoreline – it was as if they’d known I was visiting! 

As the afternoon turned to evening the one bout of poor weather during my week in New York hit the city.  A substantial downpour turned the gutters into troughs and made me regret the untimely death of my feeble umbrella a few weeks earlier.  Avoiding torrents, I ducked from cover to cover, making my way back to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre for the first New York stand-up performance by British TV comedian Simon Amstell, best known for his stint hosting the popular Never Mind The Buzzcocks music quiz on BBC2, the highlight of which was his legendary Courtney Love joke that even managed to shock his jaded panellists. 

Amstell’s material delves into his deepest insecurities and is knowingly self-mocking, while avoiding the obvious temptation to name-drop celebrity gossip from his show-biz life.  While some of the angst was perhaps a too dialled-up for my taste, and some of the ribald gay humour sent me a little bit prudish, ultimately Amstell has a solid reserve of nimble wit to fall back on.  I particularly enjoyed his deprecating tales of growing up in backwater Essex and his seemingly off-the-cuff but no doubt well choreographed announcement halfway through, “Oh, I’m a Jew, by the way.  It was my manager’s idea”, which struck me as a sure-fire winner in a New York comedy club. 

SONY DSC En route back to the hostel I paused in a doorway to snap an archetypal Manhattan picture: the Empire State wreathed in ghostly mist.  On returning to the Gershwin dorm, I opened the door to a surprise: the bed I had made up had an Italian perched upon it.  He claimed that he had claimed it earlier – a claim somewhat unsupported by a lack of evidence, given that there were no bags on the bed when I selected it, and he hadn’t made it up.  To prevent an international incident I offered to make up the last remaining dorm bed for him to shift onto.  Here endeth today’s lesson in the joys of hostelling.

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By the next morning my decision to retain my bunk bed had proved to be foolish.  It was near both the main door from the corridor and the bathroom door, and the late-night transients were noisy all night.  Luckily I had a low-intensity morning planned.  I made my way to the Port Authority bus terminal and booked a daytrip on the Greyhound to Philadelphia, which would allow me a couple of hours to snooze on the way down.  Aside from a mildly inspiring view of West Manhattan from the Jersey shore at the beginning of the journey, most of the scenery was highway-related.  I certainly saw a lot of franchise-based retail along the way, much of which was afforded its own highway information signs: 'Best Western, 1.5 miles; Arbees, 3.0 miles’. 

W.C. Fields famously said ‘I once spent a year in Philadelphia.  I think it was on a Sunday’.  Luckily I only had half a day to test the veracity of his views.  I started in the historic core of Philadelphia, the birthplace of the American Revolution, which is a few blocks from the bus depot, and boasts a range of historic buildings associated with the early days of the Republic.  Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were debated, was full up with school parties, but there was plenty else to visit. 

SONY DSC Carpenters Hall, a guild headquarters that hosted the First Continental Congress, still has the original chairs to which the delegates entrusted their revolutionary posteriors, and a ceremonial banner from 1788.  Nearby, the National Portrait Gallery is a small collection based on a fee-based private gallery of worthies, with fine busts of Washington and Franklin.  The latter gent was also commemorated at his nearby former residence; although the house no longer exists, the site is dedicated to his memory and the print shop and post office on the streetfront remind us of his other trades aside from statesmanship.

 

SONY DSCMy last stop in Philadelphia was the Liberty Bell visitor centre.  As an artefact of revolutionary history the bell is revered and mythologised, but up close it’s a rather humble specimen.  And surely any sensible purchaser would have ensured an adequate warranty to deal with problems just like its very famous fracture?  Still, at least it’s nowhere near as impressive a cock-up as the Tsar Bell at the Kremlin in Moscow (the largest bell in the world) – now that’s a career-ender.

Heading back to New York I had to stand in a queue for nearly an hour at the Greyhound depot due to a late arriving bus, and then the journey was marred by being seated next to two excitable sisters who nattered to each other at the top of their voices for the entire journey with only a 90-second gap in which to draw breath.  The only saving grace was that they were talking in Hindi so I didn’t have to follow the conversation involuntarily. 

Later that evening while wandering near Madison Square Park I spotted what seemed to be a new art installation – a lifesize Antony Gormley bronze standing on 5th Ave, starting uptown towards the Empire State.  And when some Manhattanites stopped to stare at the new statue that had seemingly sprouted out of the pavement overnight, I was able to regale them with the name of the sculptor and a potted history of his work in England, giving them the impression that I actually knew about sculpture, when actually all I know came from once reading an article about Gormley.       

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SONY DSC On Friday morning I trooped across town to the East River shore for a tour of the United Nations HQ.  Despite distant memories of touring the UN ‘satellite campus’ in Geneva in 1997, I was excited to finally see inside the New York headquarters.  The guide taking our tour group was excellent, pitching his spiel both at the adults in the group and to the children.  There was a session in the main UN chamber, which was full of hundreds of diplomatic representatives, so we couldn’t linger to soak up the atmosphere, but it was a treat to see it first hand.  Apart from the expected figures and details of UN missions around the world, I also learned that the decision to site the UN on Manhattan was about the fourth or fifth choice, and was only decided upon after long and torturous negotiations due to Soviet hardball diplomacy.  And the land on which the UN was built was actually donated by John D Rockefeller Jr, which begs the question – if he hadn’t stumped up the cash would the UN have ended up in Jersey?   

In the early afternoon I had my only celeb sighting.  Whilst strolling up Broadway I passed an expensively-dressed woman in an ‘interesting’ bronze-coloured dress that seemed to be a cross between the Eiffel Tower and a corkscrew.  I thought she looked a little like Victoria Beckham, until I got closed and realised that that was because she was Victoria Beckham.  And that’s all that story consists of!   

SONY DSCLater that day I took my first ride on a New York institution, the Staten Island ferry.  For the princely sum of no US dollars and no US cents passengers can ride on the bright orange double-decker ferries, taking in the views of Manhattan, Jersey, Liberty and Ellis Islands, and the busy maritime traffic of the harbour.  It was a brilliant sunny afternoon, just right to enjoy the fresh air and the scenery.  If only there was something interesting to see when you alight at the other end on Staten Island – but the only sight worth seeing appeared to be the fishtank in the St George ferry terminal.  Oh well, it was lucky that the journey back was as pleasant as the trip out.

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It was one of my missions to see a show during my week in New York.  I duly ventured down to the half-price ticket booth at the South St Seaport (the Times Square one being too busy for my liking).  Unfortunately nothing was on that fell into my price range – there were shows I was slightly keen to see but not at an expensive ticket price.  So instead I relied on my trusty copy of Time Out New York, and delved into the Off-Broadway and even the Off-Off-Broadway columns.  My eyes chanced upon an interesting-looking listing, and it was only $15.  Score!

And that, dear readers, is how I came to see the musical comedy My Boyfriend Is A Zombie.  Before you leap to conclusions, perhaps thinking that a cheap ticket means a cheap show, I should point out that it was brilliant fun and the staging of William ‘Electric’ Black’s musical at the Theater For The New City on 1st Ave was excellent.  Set in 1958, ‘Zombie’ is the heart-warming and toe-tappin’ tale of a high-school gal who finds a fairly unlikely date for the school prom in the form of a handsome yet brain-munching member of the undead.  Unable to communicate other than through blood-curdling growls, our heroine Paula Pearlstone names her zombie beau ‘Grrr’ and soon falls in love.  But the prom is spoiled when Grrr is whisked off to Hollywood to star in horror movies, breaking Paula’s heart.  Can there be a happy ending with true love saved and without teenage brains being chewed?  Well, naturally, and there’s some frightfully catchy tunes along the way too.  Aside from Paula and the nimble-toed Grrr, played by Nicole Patullo and Jamaal Kendall, I particularly enjoyed the performances of Erin Salm as the smugly prim class president Zelda and Macah Coates as the strutting, minxish Tina.  Final word goes to Paula:  

Yeah, he knows how to make chicks scream.
He’s kind of shy,
Doesn’t drink or smoke
And always slurs his words.
Who could ask for more
From the creature I adore?
Does that make me somewhat disturbed?

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My time in New York was almost at an end.  Luckily there was one final chance to catch up with Anne and Cecil before I departed, and we met for breakfast at the somewhat unimaginatively named Manhattan Diner on the Upper West Side near their hotel.  I wolfed down the pancakes on offer and savoured the atmosphere of a busy New York diner.  Our waitress, who had earlier engaged us in some rather forced bonhomie, carefully reminded us that service was not included, with the understanding that it was strongly recommended! 

SONY DSC After bidding the Armstrongs farewell I strolled back through Central Park, taking in Strawberry Fields near the Dakota Building where John Lennon lived and died.  Then I proceeded to zip through a fairly disjointed day, filling in the gaps of my rough itinerary.  I stopped in briefly to check out the shop at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and spent a short while admiring the rugged old tenements that housed so many poor migrants in the days when New York was filling up with new blood from Eastern Europe and Jewish ghettos. 

SONY DSCThen I paid my first visit to the splendid collections of the Brooklyn Museum, which is off the beaten track for most visitors to New York but is thoroughly worth a visit due to its impressive collections and lack of tidal waves of tourists clogging up the exhibits.  The Egyptian collections were particularly strong.  I also enjoyed the programmed fountain out the front, which was the scene of joyful chaos as loads of local kids leapt in and out of the jetting sprays, cooling down on a hot Brooklyn Saturday. 

SONY DSC[Pic: Princess strumming a lute, Egyptian, c.14th century BC; above, museum internal courtyard being prepared for a dinner function] 

I finished my stay just like I started it, by relaxing in Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan, resting my weary feet while contented city dwellers ambled through the gardens or enjoyed casual conversations over coffee or a chess game.  I spent a pleasant hour watching the world and drinking in the atmosphere – after all, who knows how long it will be before I’m able to return to New York?  But I certainly concluded that despite all its foreign-ness and the challenges faced by people who make it their home, I would love to live here and experience it as a local rather than as a fleeting tourist.    

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Although maybe I wouldn’t fit in there.  Certainly the pressures of big city life were evident on the subway ride back out to JFK.  First there was a 20 minute wait for a subway train on a hot day (and remember, it’s the trains that are air-conditioned, not the station platforms).  Then said train was packed with Puerto Rican football fans whose kids were screaming at the top of their lungs and jumping up and down on the seats.  And finally I had to share the subway train out to the airport with a bunch of would-be hard-man boy rappers who spent the entire journey rapping (badly) along to the rap tunes (also bad) rattling tinnily from their mobiles.  I decided that digging my noise-cancelling headphones out from my bag and wearing them might’ve been considered unwise provocation or at the very least, unwanted musical criticism.  I sat through it.

So, farewell then, New York!  Your suburban youths may be every bit as deluded as London’s, who believe that the world is desperate to hear their adenoidal vocal ramblings in public places.  But I still love ya.

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