Thursday, April 02, 2009

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.