Monday, August 15, 2011

Taking a bite out of the Big Apple

So much has been written and said about New York that I really don’t know where to begin. I was apprehensive as I waited to check in for my flight. There was no turning back now. My flight had been booked, and my hotel room awaited me in New York. Getting there was a journey in itself. After checking my over packed bag at the front, there was the TSA screening process. I thought almost three hours was too soon, but the lines were long at Hobby, an airport I hadn’t flown from in ten years.
Surprisingly the lines moved fast and the process wasn’t really all that bad. As I sat and waited for my flight, I cracked open The Lost City of Z, David Gramm’s account of his quest to find what happened to Fawcett, who disappeared into the Amazon never to return again. I didn’t expect to find any lost cities, but I hoped to at least return in order to tell everyone of my adventures or lack there of in New York.
Time passed quickly and the waiting area filled with others on their way to Newark or points beyond. I could have flown into La Guardia, but Southwest had no direct flights there. For now I planned to fly in at Liberty International and hop a shuttle into Manhattan. On the trip to the airport that morning, I remember commenting to my mom about how big the thunderheads were. As I lined up for my flight, they had become ominous dark clouds.
As our plane taxied into the gate, the skies opened up and delayed us further. Finally we were able to board our flight and after another delay, I was on my way. I napped a little, read some more, listened to my MP3 player and made small talk with my fellow passengers. Before long, I had arrived in Newark and it was time to kick this adventure into high gear.
I grabbed my suitcase, still damp from sitting out on the tarmac during the rain delay. In spite of that, I dragged it out to the front where I found my way to a waiting shuttle. The first thing I noticed is I’d arrived during rush hour, but traffic wasn’t so bad until the Holland Tunnel. I stepped off the shuttle at Bryant Park because it was closest to Midtown East, where I’d be staying.
The second thing I learned is that I’d arrived in the city during the cab driver shift change. Getting a taxi would be impossible I thought, but I walked up to Park Avenue and got a car to take me to my hotel. Surprisingly, my mouth wasn’t agape in awe that I was in New York City. It was just like being in any other city that I’d visited.
I looked around online for a good hotel to stay in New York. Somewhere that was affordable, but still close to everything. More or less a place to lay my head because I knew I probably wouldn’t be in my room very much. I looked at places near the airports, in the boroughs, but nothing stuck out at me. Then I looked at rooms in Manhattan and I found some rates a little outrageous.
As I narrowed down my choices, I looked into hostels and even the YMCA. Finally I found a good compromise in the tourist hotel. What it amounted to is I had a room to myself and there was a shared bathroom down the hall. I looked further into the concept and found it was something I could live with. Finally I booked my room at the Hotel 17 in Midtown East. It appeared from the pictures to be on a quiet street.
Nearby were Gramercy, the Villages, SoHo, Hell’s Kitchen, and the Lower East Side. Union Square was a short walk away and there was a major subway hub there. I could go to uptown, downtown, Brooklyn, or Queens. When I finally arrived at my hotel, it was everything that I expected from reviews I read on the internet.
The unassuming building stood eight stories high and very narrow. Inside the lobby was small, just big enough to access the elevator and the stairwell. I checked in and found my way to my room on the sixth floor. The elevator was barely big enough for two people, but it served its purpose. I found my room down the hall to the left. Sure enough there were two bathrooms on the left and all the rooms were to the left.
My room was small enough that I could have fit it into my efficiency apartment back home. It was deep and narrow with a bed, a window unit, and a wall unit that included a desk, shelves, and a place to hang garments. I put down my bags and decided that I would visit the Rubin Museum of Art, which housed Tibetan and Buddhist artifacts. The added bonus is that Friday nights were free, and it was only a short walk from my hotel.
What I didn’t realize until later is that the streets that run east to west usually change direction between Broadway and Fifth. I walked up and down East 17th Street looking for an address that was actually on West 17th. Luckily a waiter at the nearby Gramercy Café were able to point me in the right direction.
While I was there I sat and had something to eat since all I’d had were cheese crackers and a soda on the plane. Not only did I get a great pasta dish for a reasonable amount of money, I also got a complimentary glass of wine with my meal. I was about to set out again when the skies above opened and unleashed a torrent of rain.
As I sat and finished my meal, I watched as water filled the gutters. I wanted badly to leave, but the wait staff were kind enough to let me ride the storm out there. Finally I was on my way and this time in the right direction. I found the museum near 7th Ave. Luckily they were open late on Fridays and I was able to see the collection.
The best way to see the collection was to take the elevator up to the sixth floor and follow the spiral staircases down from there. Each floor was dedicated to different aspects of Buddhism, but I also found other religions represented there as well. One exhibit was dedicated to pilgrimages in different religions from Christianity to Islam. I was fascinated by the collection and I found it hard to pull myself away from there.
Finally I found myself back on the ground floor. The café was busy with those having cocktails or waiting to see the film that was about to start. That theme was pilgrimages, and that night’s selection was The Razor’s Edge. I chose to skip it this time and move on to the next thing. Walking out to 7th Ave., I looked to my right and I could see bright lights ahead of me. I headed in that direction and soon found myself at Madison Square Garden and Penn Plaza.
Before long I’d reached the bright lights and found myself in the middle of Times Square. The atmosphere was carnival like is the best I can describe it. Restaurants and shops surrounded the perimeter of the square. In the middle were pedestrian plazas with the streets crisscrossing in different directions. I found every chain restaurant and store imaginable in one place. Electronic billboards turned the night sky into broad daylight, and the smells from the various street vendors wafted through the air.
I wanted badly to turn and run the other direction. My goal here was to avoid doing too many touristy things. Then I stopped myself and I realized I was at the Crossroads of the World. I chose not to go into any of the stores because I wasn’t here to shop. My goal was to explore the city and get a feel for it so that I knew what do expect for the next time I visited. I ducked into the Toys ‘R’ Us to get a glimpse of the Ferris Wheel, and while I was there I snapped a couple of photographs.
Back on the street I found the smell from the food vendors permeated every corner of the square. Barkers on the street hocked tickets for an upcoming comedy show, and each of them had a unique way to get people’s attention. Some gave out passes for the topless bars while others handed out different forms of literature. I strolled along and took it all in as I walked around the square.
In the restaurants lines formed for tables, and tourists were weighted down from goods they’d found at the various stores. What I found hard to believe is that it was eleven o’ clock at night and this place was still crowded. I snapped a few photos, but I didn’t make myself obvious by carrying a camera around my neck. Instead I had a digital point and shoot tucked into my bag, and I could stick that in my front pocket. After wandering around for a couple of hours, I hopped on the subway back to Union Square and walked back to my room.
Day one in New York was in the books, and I had a couple of places in mind that I wanted to see, but I wasn’t sure how this would work. After I took care of my morning routine when I woke up the next day, I hit the street again. I went in search of a place that specialized in smoked salmon for breakfast, but instead found myself at the front door of Katz’s Delicatessen.
Back in Houston there is a Katz Deli, but this was the real deal. This place had been open for over a hundred twenty years. I already knew what I wanted before I walked in. The door person handed me a ticket and I walked up to the sandwich counter to start my order. If I wanted to, I could have gotten waiter service, but this was more convenient. At each station my ticket was marked and then I found a seat. The temptation was there to sit at the table where Harry met Sally, but I chose to sit at the back of the room and observe.
Saturday morning business was brisk and already I felt like a local. The food was great and it was perfect for the day I had planned. Originally I wanted to see the galleries at Dumbo in Brooklyn and visit the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. My plans went awry somewhere and I ended up where I wanted to, but nowhere near the galleries.
I scoped out the area and found myself between the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. Since I’d messed up, I made the best of it. I climbed the stairs to the walkway and trekked across the Brooklyn Bridge. The weather was still nice out since it was about midmorning. The first thing I learned is if the pathway is marked for pedestrians on one side and the other is marked for bicycles, stay in the pedestrian lane no matter what.
I enjoyed my walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. To my right was uptown Manhattan and to my left was downtown. I stopped and snapped pictures of the towers and took in the sights. The green speck to my left I soon realized was the Statue of Liberty, and the building under construction ahead of me was the Freedom Tower.
Finally I reached the terminus of the Brooklyn Bridge Promenade and landed at City Hall Park. Queens was a ways away, and I wasn’t sure if I would make it in time to see the exhibits at the Museum of the Moving Image. Instead I looked up Central Park to see how far the train was to get there. A couple of blocks up was where I could grab the C train to my destination. As I wandered around, I realized that I was on Church Street, and then I looked up again and realized Ground Zero wasn’t that far away.
I had already shot my itinerary for the day, so I walked ahead and soon reached the Freedom Tower. As I approached the site, I heard the roar of a crowd about a block away. The streets were lined with charter buses from around the state and the number of people in red shirts increased. As I walked around the perimeter of the Freedom Tower, I realized that these were members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They’d gathered to rally for a new contract.
I was about to go through the Financial District and see Wall Street, but then I turned around. Central Park is where I wanted to go because I knew at least there I’d find some shade. I also knew that I could find water there seeing as how my bottle was almost empty. The subway station was hot and I was never happier to be on the train, which was at least air conditioned. I realized at 14th Street I’d jumped on the wrong train and transferred to the one that would take me to my destination.
The one thing I enjoyed about the subway were the mosaics in the stations. At the stop where I got off there were dinosaurs and other creatures indicating I was at the American Museum of Natural History stop. From there the park was just across the street. A jazz trio played as I walked through the park and tipped them a couple of bucks. Mostly I wandered through the park and took in the different attractions.
My favorite was the Belvedere Castle, which resembled something out of a fairy tale. I also enjoyed walking through the Ramble and seeing the sailboats on the Conservatory Water. The best view of the city was from around the reservoir. The Bethesda Fountain I didn’t see until the next day, but I loved it. It was nothing to see people there posing for their wedding pictures. One thing I’ll say about Central Park is that most of the water fountains worked, and I was able to stay hydrated throughout my visit.
Saturday night I hit the town, starting with dinner close to my hotel. I wandered down 7th Ave. until I reached Christopher Street. My first stop was the Stonewall Inn, to see where the gay rights movement was born. On the paneled walls hung pictures from that night some forty years ago. I soaked up the atmosphere a little and wandered around the village and took in the nightlife while I was there.
Sunday I wanted to see Washington Square Park as I knew it was close by. I mostly wanted to get pictures of the arch, but on the way I wandered through the campus of New York University. Chess players gathered at the game tables and engaged in a friendly game or two. I regret that I didn’t stop and learn a few moves. For sure I’ll pack a lunch next time and sit down to learn about the game.
I walked through Greenwich Village and searched for a place to eat. There were lots of different places, but for some reason, one place in particular stuck out to me. There was a restaurant on the corner that looked like it had been there for quite some time. Inside I got top notch service and a wonderful meal.
I went back to my room later and freshened up for another night on the town. That night I dined at a place on Union Square. Then I went back to the West Village and took in more of the nightlife. I wandered out of the bars sometime after last call, my stomach grumbling. Luckily I’d spotted a Gray’s earlier on 6th Ave. that was open all night. For about five bucks, my hunger was satisfied and I walked back to my room.
For my birthday the next day, I wanted to see the Empire State Building. I figured I’m here and I should at least do one touristy thing while I’m here. For about twenty bucks, I rode to the 86th floor observatory and looked out over the city. From here I could see almost entirely around the city. This made the trip here worth it, and I hoped that someday I would get to return.
I shopped at Macy’s Herald Square just to say I went. Then I decided I’d have dinner someplace simple. I chose a diner in Chelsea that I’d heard about once before, but I found that it recently closed and then opened under a new name. Sadly the food was a big disappointment, but hopefully that will change in the future.
I soon found myself back at my hotel and reluctantly packed my bags. My last night in town and I wanted to do something a little different. I stopped in at one place that I wanted look into and found a dance club in the basement, and a piano bar up on the street level. My last night in New York was spent sitting around the piano enjoying the music and the camaraderie with the locals.
I wandered back to my hotel and took in New York one last time. Back at Union Square, I ducked into an all-night deli and grabbed a bite. I carried my spoils back to the steps of the square and looked around one last time. The steaming sculpture in front of me intrigued me as I ate my sandwich. I didn’t know what it meant exactly, but I found myself looking at the filling. Inside was the essence of New York between two slices of bread. Pastrami, corned beef, and slaw pressed together in one sandwich.
Here were all these people sandwiched together on this island and they somehow managed to get along. At least from what I could tell while I was there. On the square people skateboarded, they raced their gas powered remote controlled cars, or they just took in the city as I’d been doing. I made my way back to my room, checked out, and got a cab. As the driver made his way to Penn Station, I hated to leave the city. I had a feeling though that I’d be back again soon.

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