Thursday, April 02, 2009

The Month That Was - March 2009

The Month That Was - March 2009: The highlight this month was a trip to Manhattan, but it was for work so it barely counts as travel. Still, the tale is below. No pictures this time. I really only had one full free day so I didn't even bring my camera. I did eat like a pig with a tapeworm and for weeks to come I will be doing penance for that at the gym. To go with it you get travel rewinds from two previous Manhattan trips one from '04 and '05. I am slowly clearing out the travel section to your left and incorporating anything of value, however minor, into blog posts so I can let that damstore site expire.

There are two ongoing consumables art-wise that I am going to hold off letting loose on until they are complete. One is the AMC original TV series Breaking Bad. Many, if not most, TV shows fall flat in their sophomore season, but Breaking Bad has kicked up to an even higher level. I'll have a lot to say it about it when the season ends, but for now I'd say it's got a shot at sub-pantheon status. Two is that I've completed the second of what I have decided to be 10 Nero Wolfe novels, this one, The Golden Spiders, was a joy. It seems I can plow through several chapters of Rex Stout without a hint of fatigue. Nero Wolfe will be my go-to for escapist lit for the foreseeable future.

Under the heading of ongoing projects, I got the photos from last year's Death Valley excursion up on SmugMug. I was one of my favorite trips and one of my best sets of photos. By next month I should have Business As Usual available for Kindle.

What to do After High School
Manhattan Mange
Blinding Me With Science
Flick Check: Quantum of Sense
Flick Check: 1408
Book Look: Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy
Detroit in the News
Car Crazies
Travel Rewind: How We Do It in New York (2005)
Travel Rewind: A New York Minute (2004)

What to Do After High School

What to Do After High School: "One word: Plastics." Of course, the contemporary version of that is probably Nanotechnology, or maybe Bankruptcy Law. But the open question that has hit everyone at age eighteen since World War 2 is, Now what? For most the answer is college but, the fact is, that is likely just accepting a default. Most 18-year olds don't have the slightest idea what they want to do and undoubtedly don't have anything resembling a plan -- this is not a criticism, I certainly didn't. For Mom and Dad, this makes for a minefield; one wrong step and you have an undergrad who's changed her plans during her sophomore summer and you're looking at paying for 6 years of college.

Unless there is some sort of extraordinary clarity of vision on the part of the child, the advice I generally offer is: Don't go off to a four-year undergrad program at the most elite college that will accept you. Just don't do it. Get a full-time (or almost full-time) job and go part-time to a small college or community college. Make sure your job is very social (restaurant work is a good example), have a million friends and stay up all night drinking and talking and whatever. Meanwhile, you knock off a few underclassman credits that, with appropriate planning, will transfer to whatever school you end up at for your degree.

The lessons learned in this period can be far more valuable than a free ride in the dorm courtesy of Mom and Dad. You will learn what it means to pay rent, and you'll learn how much cable TV costs, and you'll discover that unlimited phone plan may not really be essential after all. You'll figure out how to separate good friends (the ones who pay their share and don't use your stuff without asking) from bad ones (the ones who stiff you for the security deposit and invite their no-account friends to sleep on the couch). Then there's always the difference between gross pay and net pay to come to terms with. You'll get a lot of practice making smart decisions about the opposite sex (to put it delicately). Broadly speaking, it's really your first chance to encounter the wider world beyond school and family. It's a hugely important time, and the perspective a young person gains from this can completely change their character. For obvious reasons it's better if this happens before you're parents are out 50 large for a Bachelor's degree.

All my wisdom works very well in theory, but it's contingent on one thing: once you are done with this extended exercise in real world education, you come out of it knowing what you want to do. That is far from a foregone conclusion. You could find yourself exactly where you were when you started only with the ability to drink legally. And that's the ultimate problem with my plan. It's really just a minor deferment. If you don't know what you want, at some point, you gotta pick something and go with it for better or worse or else you'll find yourself trying to keep a straight, 35-year old face when you explain to your date you still live with your parents. If that's going to be the case, well, why not pick that something now and get your undergrad degree over with as quickly as possible?

Obviously, all this is coming up because My Darling Perfect Miss Anna Banana, the little girl who was scared to run in the ocean surf when she was three feet tall, is now facing that issue. She just wants to find a school where she can have fun, no idea what she wants to study really. Her mom is pushing for standard 4-year-degree-and-start-a-career path. Me? Well, I completely undermine her by suggesting Anna take the cruise-and-have-fun for a couple of years approach. That makes me an ass, yes, but does it make me wrong?

It's really a roll of the dice as to whether a two or three years of undirected sub-adult life will be fruitful. Of course, I should shut up either way, shouldn't I? Yeah.

Semi-related: The brain-in-a-vice website Overcoming Bias has a roundup of commentary as to whether university prestige matters.

Blinding Me With Science

Blinding Me With Science: The two big scientific revolutions of our lifetimes are the understanding influence of evolutionary biology on behavior (and the reverse) -- which will upend the current social landscape in one way or another -- and the general acceptance of quantum entanglement (nonlocal or spooky action at a distance) with its implied rejection of Special Relativity (i.e. nothing can travel faster than the speed of light) -- which will upend our current understanding of existence, causality and reality.

Scientific American has an article on the latter about what an exceedingly bizarre place the universe is. Beyond the imagination of just about anyone but a madman.

In the former, a hot topic is something called Signaling Theory, which is covered decently at Wikipedia. Now author William Fleisch has produced a book entitled Commupance: Costly Singalling, Altruistic Punishment and Other Biological Components of Fiction (linked over to the left), which attempts to explain how humans can become so emotionally involved in stories that are known to be fictions. The practical applications are obvious for any writer (or filmmaker). Obviously, this is coming up fast on my reading list.

I point all this out not only because it is interesting but because -- cross referencing the above NYC post -- this is the sort of thing the American Museum of Natural History should be developing exhibits on, not rehashes of maudlin, malaise era, PBS pablum.

Manhattan Mange

Manhattan Mange: This trip to The Apple turned out to be primarily about stuffing my face. I was officially there for a workshop arranged by my day job, so all week the evenings were filled with big family style dinners for roughly 12-15 colleagues at some of the tastier places in and around Manhattan, such as...

• Rosa Mexicanos. From the name you'd think it was a standard issue frijoles and burrito spot, but the food was a cut above, highlighted by fresh guacamole made at our table. Good Margaritas, natch.

• Becco. In restaurant row on 46th, killer pasta and lots of it. This is where you want to load carbs before your marathon. Not to mention a deadly dessert called Zabaglione con Marsala di Florio. Que Bella!

• China Grill. Not terribly original but still tasty. I managed to secure a bit of Sake, which is always a treat. Good lobster pad thai. I've eaten at the China Grill in Vegas and this was basically the same. Excellent professional service. Good quality food, but nothing all that memorable. Overpriced but fun and reliable.

• Bar Americain. I was on my own for this one, so I just did my usual travel dinner thing and snagged an appetizer at the bar. This is one of Bobby Flay's places, and while most serious foodies sneer at Flay, I find his twists on everyday dishes to be excellent. I settled on the shellfish cocktail sampler -- the traditional shrimp got a tasty tomatillo sauce, the crab cocktail came with a creamed corn (better than it sounds), and lastly a lobster, avocado and egg cocktail. Seriously good stuff.

Naturally, once the workshop was over, I stayed on and was able to get a full day of Manhattan time on my own. Now off the company expense account, that meant street food and cheap eats. I typically try to hit the Hidden Burger Joint but unlike back in '04 when I could just waltz into the place at will, it's become quite the tourist target and I haven't been able to get near the place in the last few years. That's fine; in the end, tacky-fun atmosphere aside, it's still just a burger and fries.

Better than that, the Halal cart guy on 53rd and 6th whips up an awesome gyro for $4 and you can sit on the steps of nearby building and look downtown at the Radio City Music Hall sign, or east to the Museum of Modern Art, or uptown towards Central Park and just get that rush of energy that you can only get in the center of the universe.

I finished the evening with a nightcap at the well-known Oak Room in the Plaza hotel. The Oak Room has a long and storied history and is generally thought of as an old-school throwback to the days of sophisticated New York drinking. It has plenty of wood and comfortable furniture and hand painted murals all over the walls. But it's just a veneer. As bars go it is strictly run of the mill. I got a decent sidecar, but it's not like it came from some old-time world-weary bartender. It was just a cocktail from a twenty something with other things on his mind. And the place was loaded down with loud drunks. And tourists (I was expecting silver-haired bluebloods). And it smelled (truly it did). A better choice for the long lost drinking experience is Bemelman's Bar in the Carlyle.

The main new experience this trip was the walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Wise folks claim the way to do this is to make the walk from Brooklyn into Manhattan so that the more pleasing Manhattan skyline is the in view for your walk. True enough, although the walk itself is not that long. It's hair over a mile so it's fairly trivial to walk back and forth from Manhattan. I had extended plans so I took a morning subway ride into Brooklyn to the base of the bridge. The subway let's you off a short walk from an area known as Dumbo (meaning Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) where there are some cafes, shops, bars, etc. A good plan for the future would be to walk over from Manhattan, grab something to eat in Dumbo and stroll along the East River before re-crossing back into Manhattan.

My one way trip was a stunning as expected. Views of the Statue of Liberty, the imposing buildings of the Financial District, the tall ships in the Seaport: awesome. It was the one time I regretted not bringing my camera on this trip. I did get stopped about five times to take snaps of other folks. Next time I'll bring my camera and try to get there for early morning light and maybe sunset too.

Exiting the bridge I made a bee-line to Chinatown for it is there that my ultimate NYC cheap eats exist: the Bahn Mi. Specifically, the Bahn Mi at Saigon Bakery. If I lived in Manhattan, I would eat Bahn Mi pretty much constantly, and the dude at Saigon Bakery -- which is in the back of a jewelry store on Mott St. -- prepares an awesome one. $3.75 and my favorite meal of the trip. (Serendipitously, Gridskipper recently posted on Bahn Mi in Manhattan. For Saigon Bakery click number 2.) Ann Arbor needs Bahn Mi desperately.

Tummy full, I made for the Upper West Side for a visit to the American Museum of Natural History. I gotta say this place is a huge disappointment. It is presented as a science museum, but the actual science is getting more and more out of date. The origin of the universe and the story of human evolution are right out of convention wisdom from the '70s. Much of what the place is devoted to is science mythology and dogmatic environmentalism -- they have spent plenty of time and money putting up plaques with scary missives about global warming, or maudlin quotes of third word folk wisdom, but there is very little actual science here. There were holding some kind of water conservation festival -- a children's band was going to perform songs about how it is important to preserve water in a multi-cultural manner. Or something. The AMNH is a tiresome place with messed up priorities. Give it a miss.

My last day I rose and checked out of the Hilton (this is the one on Sixth Ave.) where they have policy of charging you to store your bags for the few hours until your flight leaves: $3.50 per bag. This is the only hotel I have ever encountered that does so and it is, quite frankly, below them. Shameful. One of the few times I have been really disappointed in Hilton.

I went for a morning walk up Madison Ave and made my way to the Metropolitan Museum and caught a clever photography exhibit and a bite to eat. The Met Museum doesn't disappoint, but it had been a long week and after trolling around a bit, I was ready to go home. I had eaten everything in the universe and was tired out in that terrific way Manhattan has of tiring you out.

Of course I exited to what was probably the first real Spring day of the year, not just a less cold than usual for Winter day. The sun was out; everyone was walking their dogs; the inline skaters and Frisbee jockeys were showing off; musicians of all sorts were on every corner. I stopped for a small bag of toasted almonds and sat on a bench to watch the world pass for a few minutes. Sure enough, 10 minutes in Central Park moved me from ready-to-leave to wanna-stay.

But that was not an option. I had to get to Newark Airport. And therein lays a rant.

The cab fare from Newark Airport (EWR) into Manhattan is fixed at $55 plus tunnel/bridge toll which is another $8. So $70-$75, with tip depending on how smelly your driver is. It's a lot, but acceptable in my mind, especially since my company was paying for it. The cab fare in the other direction, to EWR from Manhattan, is metered (about $70 from Midtown), you still have to pick up the toll (another $8), and they pile on a $15 surcharge only because it is illegal to beat you with a tire iron. Bottom line, the ride back will cost you well over a c-note. Even with access to my company's deep pockets, I refused to pay that. I have no doubt a healthy percentage of that is going to Tony Soprano anyway.

There's a cheaper alternative. Take a cab to Penn Station ($10, with tip); hop the NJ Transit train to EWR ($15 -- leave every 20 minutes, no reservation needed); catch the Air Train from the train station to the terminal (free, with your NJ Transit train ticket).

It's a pretty sweet deal and it works well until you get to the Air Train portion. In all my travels I have never ever see anything as fundamentally fubar'd as the Air Train at EWR. You arrive and stand at a platform waiting for the Air Train, which is really just a monorail shuttle of the sort many airports have. And you wait. And you wait. Meanwhile more and more people are pouring on to the platform. You wait more. When the train finally arrives, you are told that you will have to exit at the first stop and then another Air Train will take you to the terminal. Meanwhile, so many people have been waiting on the platform that it's eat or be eaten to actually fit on the Air Train. A good third of everyone waiting couldn't fit and was facing another interminable wait. Finally the Air Train whizzes off toward the terminal with the blazing speed of a sloth in molasses. Halfway there it stops for no reason, or perhaps it's just to extend the sardine experience that much longer. It literally took longer to cover the mile or so to the terminal than the cab ride and train trip from Manhattan to the airport.

When you finally arrive at the stop -- the one where everyone is supposed to get off and hop another Air Train to the terminal -- it's utter bedlam. One employee is laconically giving instructions on a PA system that nobody can hear. Voices are raised as everyone starts asking everyone else if they heard what they were supposed to do. Everybody is worried that it's going to take another half-hour for a train to arrive. Finally folks move in a lemming like fashion outside the station and across some scary airport roads in a brave overland exodus to the terminal rather than go through another nightmarish ride.

Un-frickin-believable. This barely qualifies as a form of transportation. How hard can it be to move people the mile or so from the train station to the terminal? Why not just run a couple of busses back and forth? I would suggest the Air Train authorities should be ashamed of themselves but no one with any sense of shame would associate with such a disaster to begin with. The lesson I take from this: It's OK to fly into Newark if you get a really cheap flight, but never fly out of Newark. Again, I'm sure Tony Soprano had a hand in the contracting for the Air Train.

One day, I will get an NYC trip exactly perfect. Then I'll be able to die happy. Until then, I'll have to keep going back.

Flick Check: Quantum of Solace

Flick Check: Quantum of Solace: How is it possible that, after kicking out a action gem like Casino Royale the subsequent rebooted Bond effort could be such a turkey. What a bizarre mess of a movie this is. It starts out with Bond after a certain evil villain, but he ends up chasing a different evil villain and the first one is just sort of dropped from the plot (did I miss something?). While I don't look for realistic plots in Bond films, I do like a minimal amount of cause and effect continuity, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out why anything was happening. Near as I can tell, Bond kept killing folks in the line of duty and M kept telling him he had to stop and threatening him with various bureaucratic sanctions but then kept backing off because "he may be on to something". Uh, what?

Mid-movie a Bond girl with the moniker Strawberry Fields appears. She and Bond show pretty much zero attraction to each other but then out of the blue we see that he's bedded her. Then the evil villain drowns her in oil for no reason. This is perhaps the most pointless and most derivative use of a Bond girl in history and that includes the worst of the Roger Moore era.

Worst of all, the action scenes are unfathomable. Rapid cuts with no context to them. Every hackneyed trick in the book from stop action to shaky cam. Just awful. It's like the whole project was run by Michael Bey's dumber brother.

Next time, how about a Quantum of Sense?

Flick Check: 1408

Flick Check: 1408: I have no idea what possessed me to watch this. In fact, I didn't really watch it so much as have it on while I was doing laundry. It is a hackneyed bore about a haunted hotel room. It's based on a Stephen King story so that gives you an idea of the level of originality we are working with. I can't think of anything to recommend it. John Cusack stars and Samuel Jackson has a major role. It's odd to imagine either of them as hard up for work, but who knows? Maybe it's just that hard to tell how a movie will turn out from the reading the screenplay.

There are good good horror movies, good bad horror movies, and bad bad horror movies. 1408 is none of those. It's not even bad; it's drivel.

Book Look: Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy

Book Look: Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy: What a strange and disturbing book. Budai gets on a plane heading for a linguistics conference in Helsinki and falls asleep. When he wakes up, the plane has landed in a very strange entirely urban nation whose denizens speak an indecipherable language. Pushed along with the multitudes into a hotel, his money is exchanged for the strange local currency, his passport is taken, he is given a room, and then he is on his own. He can't get anyone to understand that he needs to get back to the airport. The telephone offers no connections outside the city-state. He can't get anyone to understand anything he is trying to get across. Frustrated and angry, he struggles with the basics of finding a food and figuring out how to find his way around and get someone to comprehend him. He grows more aggravated and annoyed as his efforts to communicate and get home continually fail.

He eventually figures out how to ride the metro and is able to explore a bit of the sprawling, chaotic city. Much of it is familiar in the way that all huge cities have similar rhythms but nothing seems to get him closer to getting home or even to the airport. He attempts more and more outrageous things to get someone to understand him, eventually spending a night in jail. He makes agonizingly slow progress in understanding the inscrutable language, but after a few weeks has only mastered a couple of words. He makes an emotional connection to woman and actually seems to be progressing a bit -- then he runs out of money, gets kicked out of the hotel, and whatever little progress he made is lost. He manages to get some itinerant work but is basically left living on the street and teetering on the verge of madness where he stumbles into what at first seems to be some kind of political revolution.

We never see Budai get home, but at the very end we are given some sort of hint that he may escape, or least that he still has hope.

In Europe, Metropole is considered something of a classic. Karinthy was a well-known and popular Hungarian writer (as was his father), and it's clear that his experiences behind the Iron Curtain (Metropole was written in 1970) strongly influenced his portrayal of Budai's nightmare. The links to Kafka are indisputable. The sense of alienation and loneliness and hopelessness in the face of unfeeling injustice run deep. But the thing that really makes Metropole hit hard is the sense that you could do no better than Budai. Accept the premise of being caught in such a place; what would you do to get out of it? This is almost certainly the question every reader will ask himself and you'll be hard pressed to find an answer. That's what makes it so disconcerting. The book is similar to a horror movie in that you feel compelled to identify with the victim and you find yourself in complete sympathy with Budai's pain and desperation. And like a good horror film, reading Metropole isn't exactly a pleasant experience, but you can't look away.

Detroit in the News

Detroit in the News: I took last month off from Detroit bashing, which worked out well because others took up the mantle. An article in The Atlantic speculates on the effect the financial meltdown will have on the future landscape of America and uses Detroit as a rust belt representative:

Perhaps no major city in the U.S. today looks more beleaguered than Detroit, where in October the average home price was $18,513, and some 45,000 properties were in some form of foreclosure. A recent listing of tax foreclosures in Wayne County, which encompasses Detroit, ran to 137 pages in the Detroit Free Press. The city's public school system, facing a budget deficit of $408 million, was taken over by the state in December; dozens of schools have been closed since 2005 because of declining enrollment. Just 10 percent of Detroit's adult residents are college graduates, and in December the city's jobless rate was 21 percent.

To say the least, Detroit is not well positioned to absorb fresh blows. The city has of course been declining for a long time. But if the area's auto headquarters, parts manufacturers, and remaining auto-manufacturing jobs should vanish, it's hard to imagine anything replacing them.

When work disappears, city populations don't always decline as fast as you might expect. Detroit, astonishingly, is still the 11th-largest city in the U.S. "If you no longer can sell your property, how can you move elsewhere?" said Robin Boyle, an urban-planning professor at Wayne State University, in a December Associated Press article. But then he answered his own question: "Some people just switch out the lights and leave--property values have gone so low, walking away is no longer such a difficult option."

Perhaps Detroit has reached a tipping point, and will become a ghost town. I'd certainly expect it to shrink faster in the next few years than it has in the past few. But more than likely, many people will stay--those with no means and few obvious prospects elsewhere, those with close family ties nearby, some number of young professionals and creative types looking to take advantage of the city's low housing prices. Still, as its population density dips further, the city's struggle to provide services and prevent blight across an ever-emptier landscape will only intensify.

Eventually concluding:

Finally, we need to be clear that ultimately, we can't stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try. Places like Pittsburgh have shown that a city can stay vibrant as it shrinks, by redeveloping its core to attract young professionals and creative types, and by cultivating high-growth services and industries. And in limited ways, we can help faltering cities to manage their decline better, and to sustain better lives for the people who stay in them.

But different eras favor different places, along with the industries and lifestyles those places embody. Band-Aids and bailouts cannot change that. Neither auto-company rescue packages nor policies designed to artificially prop up housing prices will position the country for renewed growth, at least not of the sustainable variety. We need to let demand for the key products and lifestyles of the old order fall, and begin building a new economy, based on a new geography.

It looks like the outrageous view (with which I concur) regarding Detroit -- that it is a Lost Cause and must be allowed to die -- is moving from the outskirts of crankdom to the mainstream. Even the blue-haired old warhorse Time magazine has a slideshow going on called, Detroit's Beautiful, Horrible Decline. Maybe it is still possible for the world to face facts.

Car Crazies

Car Crazies: As I write this, the Gummit has pretty much taken over General Motors and Chrysler. There's not much to say about this other than it's effectively the end of these companies. The only hope we can have at this point is that they don't end up being taxpayer supported dead weights in the economy for the rest of our lives. The plan is that Chrysler either becomes Fiat's problem or it goes in the dumpster. GM is more scary. I can easily see it running on forever, pursuing whatever goals the utopian campaign contributors and self-entitled lobbyists value, instead of getting off the taxpayers back. Electric cars and free day care for all workers first, self-sufficiency and customer focus last -- all financed by you.

Aside: How smart does Ford now look for not taking bailout money? If I were younger and willing to take more risk in my investments, I might throw some money at Ford stock now. Their two domestic rivals just became eunuchs. They have to benefit from that, don't they?

For an insightful recap of how the former Big 3 got to where they are, I suggest another article from The Atlantic from back in December. It starts off explaining how the initial government loans were dependant on the companies becoming viable by March 31, 2009. To which the author says:

There is no way that the auto companies will be financially viable by March 31st. They haven't been financially viable for 25 years.

We have a winner. Although it wasn't really a long shot, was it? The entire article is good, but here are the two money paragraphs:

In the early 1950s, for various reasons Detroit developed a cozy three-way oligopoly. The UAW developed a cozy monopoly on supplying labor service to that oligopoly. In some ways, the UAW helped sustain that oligopoly. If you're a big company whose quality suffers, you have problems. But if you have a union making sure that labor quality cannot vary across the industry, you don't need to worry that your competitors will make a better car. Detroit competed on styling and power, not reliability or price.

During those years of oligopoly, the Big Three's first loyalty (after their loyalty to management) was loyalty to the union. The worst thing that could happen to a Big Three manager was a strike. Making a car that is reliable is only partly a matter of engineering; it's mostly a matter of extremely tight control over the assembly process. That tight control is necessarily less pleasing to the workers than looser rules. The unions could severely hurt a company with a strike. Whereas the customers? The customers could only go to another company where the same union was negotiating the same loose work rules.

And we have another winner. Thanks for playing, Rick Wagoner; you get a multi-million dollar payoff and copy of the Carpocalypse home game.

More recently a NY Times op-ed from David Brooks, which begins:

Some companies are in the steel business, some are in the cookie business, but General Motors is in the restructuring business. For 30 years, G.M. has been restructuring itself toward long-term viability.

For all these years, G.M.'s market share has endured a long, steady slide. But this has not stopped the waves of restructuring. The PowerPoints have flowed, and always there has been the promise that with just one more cost-cutting push, sustainability nirvana will be at hand.

There are many experts who think that the whole restructuring strategy is misbegotten. These experts think that costs are not the real problem. The real problem is the product. The cars are not good enough. The management is insular. The reputation is fatally damaged.

But if you are in the restructuring business, you can't let these stray thoughts get in the way of your restructuring. After all, restructuring is your life. Restructuring is forever. Restructuring is like what dieting is for many of us: You think about it every day. You believe it's about to work. Nothing really changes.

Here's what's interesting about that quote. Replace "G.M." with "Detroit", "restructuring" with "rebuilding", and "cars" with "quality of life" and you still have an accurate assessment. Coincidence?

Travel Rewind: How We Do It in New York (2005)

Travel Rewind: How We Do It in New York (2005): (In keeping with the NYC theme, here is the second of two Manhattan trip reports from a few years back.)

I stepped out of Penn Station, lugging my overstuffed bags in that sweaty, roasting city heat that radiates as much from the pavement as the sun, and lodged myself in a depressingly long line at the cab stand. The line was populated by idiots who had managed to snake themselves around in such a way that they ere strung across one of the busiest sidewalks in Manhattan. The equally idiotic cab attendant did nothing to correct this. In time, a couple of women with extraordinarily loud voices began shouting at the idiots, informing them that they were in fact idiots and instructing them in how they should line up out along the side of the street out of the way of pedestrians, noting that "this is how we do it in New York!"

The idiots just ignored the obnoxious women which, apparently, is also how we do it in New York.

Serendipitously, the New York equivalent of a rickshaw appeared -- by that I mean one of industrial strength tricycles -- with the driver soliciting passengers. He was working hard on an older couple in the cab line who were clearly afraid of a scam and were averting there eyes as if he was some sort of panhandler. I attracted his attention with a sharp "Yo!" (which is how we do it in New York), and climbed aboard with my frighteningly heavy bags.

For a ride of just a few blocks, this probably cost me double what a cabbie would charge. But having had the experience, let me just say you could ride no roller coaster more bloodcurdling than barrel-assing through midtown traffic in the back of an industrial strength tricycle. You remember that video game, Frogger -- the one that was featured in that episode of Seinfeld? Well, I was living it. Remarkably, we suffered only one minor collision with a parked delivery truck that didn't even cause my driver to slow down, although he did offer a genial wave of apology from afar. I count myself lucky that we didn't leave a path of mangled cars and bloody limbs in our wake. But it sure beat waiting twenty minutes for a cab. It is now my new favorite way to get around for short distances.

The Times Square Hilton (a good spot; actual hotel size rooms instead of the usual storage-locker-with-a-bed) did not have my room ready -- no surprise at 1:30pm, so I dropped my bags and hit the streets. Did I mention that it was hot? It would in fact get even hotter over the next couple of days, so I was actually lucky to be on my feet on the coolest day of my stay, the one day the temp didn't cross into the mid-90s.

As Captain Obvious might say, the Times Square Hilton is located in Times Square -- technically half a block East -- so I had but to click my heels three times and find myself at Broadway and 42nd street, the metaphorical center of the universe.

Here in Ann Arbor, we set aside a few days in the summer months for something called Art Fair. The streets are closed off and throngs of people come from all points to wander around in confusion, pay outrageous prices for crafty stuff that approximates art, and alternately suffer through sweltering heat and torrential thunderstorms. In return for this they get to spend a day in Ann Arbor which, quite frankly, is probably worth it. During this time, the city is packed to the gills; you cannot drive anywhere and walking times are tripled at best. When I first came out here I would attend regularly, now I avoid it like the plague. It is just too frustrating to get stuck behind these people when trying to get anywhere.

I told you all that for background. You see, the crowd on a typical day in Times Square is about the same, yet for some reason, instead of driving me up a wall, I find the Times Square crowds exhilarating. Maybe it's because as a visitor I don't have to take them too seriously. Maybe it's because, as opposed to special event crowds, these folks are purposefully dodging stragglers and teasing traffic as if it were second nature; crowds are just another aspect of existence instead of an avoidable nuisance. It's the same way with cars. These guys are constantly on their horns to absolutely no end. A cabbie pulls out slightly into traffic interrupting the flow, other drivers honk virulently at him. He pays no attention, just continues negotiating with his potential fare. Eventually the fare gets in and he pulls out into traffic unfazed while the cars previously honking just slip back into the flow without any display of anger by the discommoded drivers. Just a very strange and fascinating juxtaposition of hostility and serendipity.

Strolling down 42nd street, I made stops at a couple of tourist landmarks. Grand Central Terminal for one, with its classic architecture. It's easy to see why "under the clock" has the acceptance of locals as the location everyone knows when you need to meet up with someone. In contrast, the Chrysler Building is pure and paradigmatic art deco. Why don't they go to that kind of trouble in buildings construction anymore? Take some pride, why don't cha?

A left on Lexington to 53rd and another left down just past 5th brings you to the still relatively new Museum of Modern Art. The first thing you notice about MoMA is how expensive it is. Yeah, in the great scheme of things, $20 for an adult ticket is not a big deal, but it's a bit of sticker shock for regular museum goers. And another thing, most museums have mediocre cafeterias attached with marginally overpriced fare. While the MoMA has a couple of cafeterias (I can't speak to their quality), it also has a full-service hyper-stylish restaurant called The Modern, which is deadly expensive. The good news is that both the restaurant and museum are easily worth the cost.

As for The Modern, I'll let New York magazine describe it. As for The MoMA, it is a remarkably cool place. Spacious, multi-leveled, and structured such that there seems to be no direct plan for you to walk from points A to B to C in a certain order; the MoMA is a great museum for discoveries. The galleries run the gamut from movie posters (including much anime), to surprisingly original and unconventional sculpture. Most modern art, especially painting, leaves me cold, but MoMA has the best of it including plenty of classics: Van Gogh's Starry Night and Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy, assorted Hopper's, etc. (Is it wrong to call modern art classic?) MoMA is a top notch place to spend an afternoon. I could spend a weekend just going back and forth between MoMA and The Metropolitan Museum, which would probably bore the living daylights out of most folks.

The next day was reserved for lower Manhattan. The first step in this journey was to be my first ride on the subway. A trivial exercise for the most part. The famous subway tokens are history; you now pay $2 for a little card that has a magnetic strip that you slide through a reader to enter (no more turnstile jumping). It works with less than perfect consistency. The routes are reasonably well presented, but you have to watch out for the express vs. local distinction. I got on an express by accident and ended up two stops further than I wanted to be.

Riding an urban train is pretty much the same everywhere -- whether it is the subway, or the "El" in Chicago, or the DC metro. You may get a seat, or you may have to stand next to an odd smelling person; your train will likely be on time, but there are occasional delays; you can't understand a word the conductor says over the PA system so you have to be aware of what the next stop is.

The NY subway is not as dirty or graffiti laden as I expected, but the cars are all run-down and beat to hell. It serves its purpose as a relatively inexpensive and reliable foot saver, but it is not the same quality league as the DC Metro, never mind the Toronto underground. Manhattan is a big island, though, and for the explorer it's probably the best and, depending on traffic, quickest way to cover large distances. This is how we do it in New York.

The subway dropped me off in Greenwich Village, West Village specifically, a few blocks from NYU. The Village consists of streets full of little shops, restaurants, art galleries; in many ways it reminded me of downtown Ann Arbor, although much larger of course. It was mid-morning and the various stores were just getting started, it seemed a decent place for a stroll and I'm sure there were a ton of good nice spots to eat, but I had a lot of ground to cover so I paused only for a few minutes in a shady spot in Washington Square Park with a bottle of water (did I mention how hot it was?).

Next up, a dash eastward and then south on Mott street, which took me through Little Italy and then into Chinatown. Little Italy, it turns out, doesn't much exist other than as a romantic memory. There are a handful of standard Italian restaurants, but they are surrounded by Chinatown sprawl. This is not surprising; there's very little left of the great Italian immigration of the early 20th century to assimilate. There's no mass population of Italians that have not become completely Americanized. Little Italy has outlived its purpose.

Chinatown, in contrast just explodes with color and smells. Mott Street was like a great outdoor farmers market; it was a treat for the nose that's for sure. And for the eyes; vibrant primary colors applied in the typical Asian squared-slashing all up and down the street.

Towards the south end of Mott I stopped for lunch at a restaurant called -- and I am not making this up -- Big Wong. Actually, this restaurant is a favorite of Kinky Friedman, renowned mystery writer and lead singer of that great country band, the Texas Jew Boys. I can confirm that it is good cheap eats in that way Chinese restaurants have of plying you with mounds of stuff. Interestingly, at Big Wong, if you wander in on your own and there are no empty tables, they'll just seat with some strangers. Not a typical practice at most places in the U.S. (we like to claim property rights over our tables -- don't tread on me), but nobody bats an eyelash. The folks I was plopped down with never even acknowledged me or broke their Chinese dialog, I returned the favor. Tasty stuff, good barbeque duck, fast service -- ace for a quick lunch. One shortcoming: no t-shirts. I would have paid top dollar for a "Big Wong -- Chinatown, NYC" t-shirt. I think the Big Wong himself, if he exists, is missing out here.

Back on my horse, now heading for points south, into the financial district, which is much livelier than I had expected. Lots little restaurants and bars, some blocked off streets for the sake of shopping; although I understand that after dark things get really quiet. One of the more curious sites is Trinity Church. Smack in the middle of these enormous skyscrapers stands this beautiful gothic church, you can't help being struck by the contrast.

Strangely, Trinity church, and the entire financial district for the most part, was infested with clowns. I don't mean regular people behavior stupidly; I mean people dressed like circus clowns. And, as you might expect, they were handing out pamphlets. But I confess I didn't expect them to be pamphlets for the Billy Graham Crusade. Now, as all right thinking people know, Clowns Are Evil and if I were Billy Graham, I would not want my crusade associated with them. This is not how we do it in New York.

About the only place in the area that was clown free was Ground Zero. Not only is it clown free, but it's also street vendor free, and generally garden variety New York moron free. At the moment, ground zero is a big hole in the ground surrounded by a tall hurricane fence. There is not much to see, which is as you'd expect. There are a couple of memorial plaques and indicators. It was reasonably crowded with folks taking snaps of themselves and their friends against the fence. There is much hubbub about what should eventually stand in that spot. Personally, I'd be grateful if they just put up a plaque and made it a clown/vendor/moron free zone for all time.

Back up in Midtown, I met up with Miss Kate and HRH Miss Anna who had just fought the traffic up from DC. We set to trolling midtown for an appropriate dinner place and settled on St Andrew's. Great spot -- under the radar of any guide or listing I've ever read, but quite yummy.

The following day started with a visit to the trendy world of NOHO. Technically part of the East Village area, NOHO (NOrth of HOuston street) has robbed a good deal of boutique shopping juice from the West Village. Miss Anna is currently mad for vintage clothing stores, so that's where we headed. It is a very strange sensation to see these crappy, previously-worn '70s t-shirts (that I remember from the first time around) and old canvas sneakers suddenly becoming stylish, although I have to admit there is a certain campy appeal to them. There were racks of bell-bottoms and hip-huggers. Remember the brass bendable bracelets engraved with Viet Nam era POWs? I do, from junior high. The modern version is the colored wristbands that started with Livestrong. Are these things on a timer or something? Let's see, that means the 80s are up next -- pink power ties, leg warmers, suspenders, cropped jeans...please, God, spare us the parachute pants. Miss Anna eventually bonded with Yellow Rat Bastard, sort of faux-vintage-skater-style clothing. Confirmed: I am old.

Back on the subway. Here's a perfect NYC moment. We're waiting for the train when a man and his daughter ask if they could see our subway map. Sure. Conversation ensues.

"Are you from here?"
"No," replies Kate, "We're from Washington DC. How about you?"
"No," replies the daughter.
"Oh, where are you from?" queries Kate.
"The Upper West Side."

Apparently in the Village the Upper West Side is as not "here" as Washington DC.

Next stop, a long stroll through Central Park. Despite the heat, there are people everywhere, all doing the pastoral things that you would never expect to do in the middle of the city -- playing volleyball, walking the dogs, having ice cream. We managed to end up on a path that led us to the boathouse section, a spot I had never been before. A very hangable place. A cooler day and I would have been tempted to rent a boat. Instead we continued west, stopping at all the little pond lookouts and eventually exiting the park in...The Upper West Side.

Since our dinner reservations weren't until late, we stopped for a quick bite to eat at another fine restaurant, Isabella's. It is truly amazing how many good restaurants there are in NYC. Like most visitors, I check out the guidebooks for ideas, but I've never been disappointed by just stopping when I got hungry, looking around and picking a spot that looks promising.

Another thing about dining in NYC is that, despite the reputation, it's not really any more expensive than other places. NYC is theoretically one of the most expensive places in the world, but in my experience, that is confined to two things: shelter and parking. Hotel rates and real estate are unspeakably high. Parking is almost certainly prohibitive, but you'd have to be nuts to be a regular driver in this place. Beyond that, stuff is about the same cost as anywhere else as far as I can see. In fact, restaurants may be in over supply considering there was a promotion going on throughout the city for a three course, prix fixe lunch for $20.12 (in honor of the now lost bid for the 2012 Olympics),which included some places with classy and trendy reputations. [update -- more than a few $20 cocktails later, I have revised this evaluation]

Oh, and Broadway shows are monstrously expensive. Yeah, I know there are all sorts of tricks -- waiting in line for last minute cancellations and cast tickets and so forth -- that would be fine if I lived nearby and could check every night. The TKS booth is OK provided you are not after one of the top shows in town. But if you only get a couple of chances to see a show each year and you have to do it on a limited schedule, you don't want obstructed views and you need certainty. To get that, as Doyle Brunson might say, you're going to have to pay the man off. You'll have to buy marked-up after-market tickets. If things go wrong, you can't just whine for a few minutes (and maybe publish a cathartic rant on the web) and get on with your life. You have to get it right. Paying the man off for a bad play can approximate the loss of a small non-essential extremity.

Well, for ace seats to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels we had to pay man off. And I'm glad we did. Not only are my limbs intact, but I can't think of a more entertaining way to spend an evening. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels deserves a separate review, and it will get it, but let me summarize that it is a raucous, guffaw-laden, high-energy affair that contains some truly great songs and brilliant performances. Spamalot won the Tony this year, but it's hard for me to imagine it was more fun than Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. I'd verify that in person if the price for Spamalot tickets would dip below the cost of a small SUV.

One last meal, this time at Bistro Du Vent, the latest restaurant from Mario Batali, who you might recognize if you watch the Food Channel. Pretty solid French-ish fare, no complaints really, other than I expected a bit more from a renown celebrity chef. But like I said, there are great restaurants on every corner in NYC. [update - Bistro Du Vent closed after 15 months. Supposedly it had something to do with employees being very naughty after hours. - dam]

The next day brought an unexpectedly crowded drive back to the DC area (Baltimore specifically) from hence I'd fly back home. I think I'm finally getting a grip on how to stay on top of the Big Apple. Great show. Didn't wear through the soles of my shoes trying to get around. Maybe I got lucky this time. Or maybe I'm starting to figure out how we do it in New York.

Travel Rewind: A New York Minute (2004)

Travel Rewind: A New York Minute (2004): (In keeping with the NYC theme, here is the first of two Manhattan trip reports from a few years back. This was one of my very early trips to The Apple.)

A man is standing on 55th street between 7th and Broadway staring forlornly into a building that is clearly going to be a hotel someday, once they fill the place with furniture and windows and other such niceties. On the sidewalk next to him are two pieces of carry-on luggage. People are passing by without giving him a second glance in that manic way New Yorkers have. He is greatly exorcised and is talking very fervently on his cell phone, loud enough to be heard over the New York rush hour traffic. Suddenly one of the the pedestrians sneaks up behind him and yanks down the man's pants then runs off cackling with glee.

I am that man and that is actually how my NYC trip started, except for being pantsed -- that was metaphorical.

But let me start at the beginning.

We start in DC where I have a short, mid-week business conference. Rather than dash there and back, I decided to extend the trip for an extra long weekend. And rather than hang out in the DC area, where I have spent more time than gerrymandered congressman, I figured it would be a good opportunity to make a run up to The Apple. Rather than drive or fly, this time I rode the rails.

The Acela Express runs numerous times daily from DC to Boston and back, with a few stops along the way including Penn Station in NYC. Having taken this train I can think of no way in which this is not superior to flying for a short trip. Not even time-wise. Flying from DC to NYC you'll want to be at least an hour ahead of time to the airport. Then probably an hour and 15 minutes on the plane once you figure in loading and unloading and sitting on the tarmac. Then another 45 minute cab ride from JFK or LaGuardia to your hotel in New York. Figure three hours if nothing goes wrong.

The Acela Express takes about three hours of travel time. You get to the departure station maybe 10 minutes ahead of time and you have a ten minute cab from Penn Station to your hotel. Do the math.

Then consider the following:

• No security line or baggage check
• Plenty of arm and leg room
• Plenty of carry-on space
• AC outlets for your phone or laptop
• About 90 decibels less noise (you can carry on a normal conversation)
• A cafe car where you can get food and drink at will
• More comfortable seats, bigger tray tables, and foot rests
• No seat belts and no restrictions on leaving your seat
• No restrictions on or the use of portable electronic devices
• Plenty of bathrooms, with enough space to actually turn around
• Big windows with actual landscapes (although some you wouldn't want to look at)

You would have to have some sort of cerebral dysfunction to prefer flying in those circumstances. I don't know how other rail lines would compare, but when it comes to the Acela Express, Amtrak done good.

Above mentioned cab ride from Penn Station gets me back to where I started, on the street.

I made the reservation with Dream hotel, a new designer/boutique hotel, with the full knowledge that they would have just opened for business when I arrived. As a designer/boutique hotel I knew to expect an entertaining combination of quirks and luxury. As a brand new hotel, I expected there to be service breakdowns. I did not, however, expect to find myself on the street.

To their credit the folks at the Dream hotel were effusively apologetic and unerringly helpful to the point where, despite the snafu, I wouldn't hesitate to give them another try once they are actually open. I had booked the reservation through Travelocity and the general manager of Dream took the time to meet me out on the street and assist me in calling Travelocity and trying to get things cleared up, then hail me a cab to get me to where I had been rebooked.

But here's the issue. Travelocity rebooked me into a Howard Johnson's.

Now, here is the description of Dream from

Float away on a cloud at Dream - and wake up to an entirely new hotel experience...a mind-enhancing lobby and three separate bars inspired by fashion surrealist David LaChapelle...sleek, modern black floors and gaze up into the vaulted, mirrored ceiling reflecting blown glass flames sitting atop decorative antique bar serve as a welcoming concierge desk and cappuccino bar...1940's style seating and hand-carved lion heads greet guests upon check-in...the tone throughout the public spaces is at once luscious and austere - intertwining fantasy and luxury. Guests are privy to numerous amenities including, for the first time in any hotel, digital cable provided by Time-Warner (2005)...hundreds of channels and On-demand movies are at your fingertips...aglow in an otherworldly blue light and filled with the most modern gadgets available including such exclusive perks as a wall mounted 37-inch Panasonic Plasma TV and an Apple iPod preloaded with ambient sound and connected to BOSE stereo speakers.

Allow that to sink in. I am in NYC and I have been relocated from a place with the above description to friggin' HoJo's. I will now set myself on fire.

OK. I check into HoJo's because I have an open mind and sometimes budget hotels can have really nice properties in certain cities. Also, because I have seen The Out-of-Towners and I don't want to spend the night sleeping under a rock in Central Park. HoJo's on 51st is not an exception. It is essentially a roadside motel that happens to be in mid-town Manhattan; peeling wallpaper, screaming redneck families in the next room, an unidentifiable liquid covering the elevator floor -- you get the picture. It's the same sort of place I would stay at when I used to drive the length of I-75 to Florida in my youth with little more than $20 in my pocket and I had to stop somewhere in the deep south, usually a place where the over/under on a number of teeth in the proprietor was three. This is what I have in exchange for Dream, with no decrease in price because it is Manhattan and, frankly, if you don't like it there's rock in Central Park with your name on it.

Great Bloody Hell. Back on the phone to Travelocity. After a 30 minute wait on hold, in the lobby because I could not get a signal in my room, I get a response. According to Travelocity, they show I approved of the rebooking. I count to ten, ask the woman if she may have recently arrived from a different dimension because there is simply NO WAY IN THIS UNIVERSE THAT I WOULD APPROVE OF BEING RELOCATED TO HOJO'S IN NYC. You may as well claim that I had a reservation at the Super 8 Motel in Las Vegas. NOT GONNA HAPPEN. This is a world gone mad.

I tell them they need to book me somewhere better. After getting passed around to a couple other Travelocity reps with different titles, but no greater ability to solve the problem, they tell me to book myself somewhere better and check out of HoJo's, but make sure they don't charge Travelocity any kind of minimum fee because Travelocity will charge me, in turn. BASTARDS. They mangle everything up and turn around and tell me to make sure to sort it out without it costing them anything. I repeat: BASTARDS. [[update: to this day I have never again used Travelocity. They remain dead to me over this. - dam]] [[update to the update: Wow. Shortly after posting this I got an email from Travelocity customer service apologizing for this bad experience from way back when and offering me a pretty generous coupon for my trouble. More on this next month, but needless to say, Travelocity is back from the dead and gets my next booking. Just wow.]]

I quickly make for an Internet kiosk and book MYSELF in a room at the nearby Hilton. Why Travelocity couldn't do this for me I don't understand. I'm told they have on occassion made some travel arrangements for people in the past. Meanwhile, I have to behave like I'm about to kill and eat the better portion of the housekeeping staff to get the manager of HoJo's not to charge a one night cancellation fee. What an ass. I worked in the hotel business long enough to know what a load of crap that cancellation fee is. Luckily I also know that in a public place that depends on service, threatening to make a scene is often the only way to get justice.

Finally, I check into the Hilton and can start my weekend in New York. I quickly ditch my bags and hit the street to re-orient myself and grab some dinner. Up 6th to 54th where I dash into Le Parker Meridien, a fine hotel that happens to contain the mysterious Hidden Burger Joint. Completely out of character for the hotel d‚cor and hidden behind a curtain with no indication that it exists is a genuine burger joint. It's the kind of place where the menu consists of Cheeseburger, Hamburger, Fries, Soda, and Beer, scrawled on a little board in front of the cash register. Sadly, I did not see Bill Murray sweating over the grill, but I did have an awfully good cheeseburger and fries.

Back out on the street; it's getting dark. I walk over to Broadway and up to Columbus Circle at the edge of Central Park, then back down to Times Square. And now I am OK. Now I am in New York City.

There are people who are awed by the Grand Canyon; people who are mesmerized by the lush greenery of the tropical rainforest; people who thrill to the sight of the snow-capped Himalayas; people who are enthralled by the barren Mojave. To me, Times Square at night along with the Vegas Strip are the most beautiful sights I've seen. This, no doubt, stems from my deep appreciation of civilization and all its Byzantine complexities and motivations. The lights of Las Vegas are similar, but whereas Vegas is certainly civilization's greatest monument, New York City is its home base.

Now fully acclimated, and with the harrowing events of the late afternoon in their proper place, I ambled back to the Hilton, sat in the wonderfully comfortable Bridges Bar with a Marker's Mark and watched the baseball playoff while writing up the events of the day, which became more comic when described in the past tense.

In some ways I don't consider these articles about my travels as traditional travel writing. Pick up any of the leading travel magazines and you will not read anything about the actual travel, you'll read about the destination. You will get desrcriptive discussions of the "feel" of a place and of the sights and sounds; most travel writing is very impressionistic. Rarely will you get in-depth personalized scoop on hotels and restaurants and museums and shops and attractions. You will almost never get stories about the hassles of getting there or back home.

There are two reasons for this. The big one is space limitations. A magazine writer will have a word count limit and often the best you can do in the allotted space is present an accurate overall impression. The other reason is that travel writing, in many ways, is about fantasy. People who read a piece about the Maldives or Tierra Del Fuego are unlikely to actually go there, but they enjoy the thought of being able to go and what a great adventure it would be. Commentary about annoying layovers, surly hotel employees, unexpectedly closed attractions, or lousy meals do not enhance the sense wonder and fascination in the reader that a good fantasy needs to provide.

Obviously my travel scribblings are not for the fantasy seeker. I do have a penchant for paying outrageous prices for pointlessly luxurious hotels, but apart from that I'm not a big spender. I don't generally go to very exotic or distant places; often, my travels are just extensions of business trips. So what does someone get from my travel writing? My "impression" of a place certainly, but also a sense for what it is like to travel there instead of just be there.

Most people don't travel all that much; once or twice a year and often repeat visits to a familiar destination or for a stay with remote family or friends. Much of the activity of travel is a black box to them. So when a decision is made to go somewhere new and unfamiliar, there is a certain amount of anxiety. What happens if my flight gets cancelled due to bad weather? What do I say to the rental car agent when they try to make me pay for gas up front? How much of a certain attraction can I expect to cover in one day? What do I do if I am standing in the middle of midtown Manhattan and I find out the hotel I booked is not open for business?

Some of this is simple consumer advice and recommended practice: "This Mazzotta character seemed to enjoy [insert experience here], so let's give it a try." Some of it is entertainment: "Can you believe this clown got pantsed by Travelocity?" But for the most part I hope it provides a certain amount of comfort that, when your trip requires more effort and fortitude than your standard stroll-around-and-drink-in-the-beauty travel piece would suggest, you'll realize it's just par for the course and you won't be dismayed or take it in poor humor. It's the yin that goes with the yang of seeing and doing new and interesting things and it is probably the most fundamental aspect of travel. Once you take it to heart only a real disaster can make for a bad trip.

Now after saying all that I have to confess that most of what I have to write about New York City is impressionistic. Somehow, coming away from NYC I can't think of the trip as the sort of chronological series of judgable events that I usually provide.

I continue to be overwhelmed by NYC and that is not something I say lightly. I don't mean that the city intimidates me (I actually find it very inviting); I mean it is just so impressive to be there. You can see NYC a million times on TV (and most people probably have) but being in the midst of it is very different. The sense of activity at any time of the day is amazing. I've been in plenty of busy places in my life but there is something very different about the teeming throngs in NYC--they are incessant. In most other settings such crowds can be maddening, but in NYC their inevitability forces you to just accept. Behavior from other drivers that would warrant a savage middle finger in the Midwest simply don't seem to matter so much because it's just the way it is. Life's tough, get a helmet. I have found that New Yorkers are not especially rude despite their rep. Perhaps this is why.

To recap a few events that stand out for me, let's start with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Excellent: especially notable in the architecture of the place and its focus on clever themes for displaying ancient art. From there a walk through the Upper East Side with stops to appreciate the attempts to bring nature to skyscrapers and to check out the genuine magnificent swank of the Carlyle and vow to see Bobby Short next time.

My friends Kate and Anna were able to drive up from DC and we managed to get over to Rockefeller Center and then out for dinner and a show. Despite a valiant struggle, we could not manage to score tickets to Wicked, which happened to be the hottest show at the moment, so we ended up at Dracula, the Musical. The play itself held no attraction for me, but HRH Miss Anna (age 12) is mad for vampires, and there is very little in this world more fun than going to a musical with Miss Anna. She completely loses herself in the story; jumps at the shocking moments, predicts what's going to happen next -- I love that.

My final moments in NY were filled with a stroll through Central Park and through the Upper West Side past stylish restaurants and little outdoor artists booths and back to Lincoln Center and on home.

All that's left for me of New York City is the blur -- the tumbling through the 24/7 light and sound show, the center of mankind flashing by in a New York minute. There is nothing in NYC you haven't seen or read about but being there makes all the difference.