Thursday, April 02, 2009

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.