Tuesday, November 06, 2007

A bite of the Big Apple

Part of the Manhattan skyline seen from our cruise boat

Back from a hectic 9 days in New York and I still cant decide if I would love to live there or run screaming at the very thought. It's so crowded and most important of all, SO expensive! A tiny shoebox apartment rented by my cousin's husband in Manhattan cost something like $2000 a month! Perhaps it would be nicer to live outside the city – in Danbury, Connecticut, for instance, which is where my brother lives, and which is about an hour and a quarter’s driving time away from the big city’s bright lights. Again, though, Pete says he couldn’t live in Danbury as it is too unfocused, as in there’s no specific “town centre”, and he couldn’t live anywhere without that community “feel” to it. (Oh well, he’s a small town boy after all).

I liked Danbury, though. It has a wide-open aspect, a feeling of large, open, uncrowded space that appeals to me. And oh, the fall colours there were gorgeous. Everything is bigger in the US, more colourful, more emphasised, larger than life - as I might have observed before. This includes the trees, which soar to dizzying heights (and I haven’t even seen giant sequoias or other over-large specimens yet) and blaze with colours ranging from fluorescent yellow to blazing reds and every shade in between… Yeah, I could live in Danbury. Not that I’m going to get a chance to do so, not with Pete being so firmly averse to living in the States. Still, why let that stop me making decisions about imaginary lifestyle changes, right?

New York is an assault on the senses – all the senses. Especially sight. And sound. Very often smell too. Times Square is a perfect example of this – so many flashing lights from soooo many giant hoardings on even more giantly buildings. Here’s a fact I learnt recently – you can make more money renting the outside of buildings to advertisers than you can from having the building occupied. If you’re lucky enough and rich enough to own an entire building in Times Square, that is. I’m told – and I believe it – there’s a building which is entirely empty for that very reason. There are no occupants. No occupants = no insurance required. No insurance = very large amounts of money saved, and even larger sums of money earned from advertising. This can only happen in New York, I’m sure. Or at least only in America. And what’s more, the law is that all buildings in Times Square MUST be brightly lit up. So they are.

The crowds on Halloween night had to be experienced to be believed, but my sister assured me that it was nothing compared to the masses of people that heave their way into Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Apparently, the one time she and her friends did the New Year’s Eve thing, it was freezing or below and yet they kept coming across people who were clad very lightly. Since my sister and pals had layered themselves up into waddling spheres to combat the cold, they were sort of surprised. But when they got to Times Square, they realised why – the people there were so heavily packed together that it was enough to keep them warm. So warm, in fact, that quite soon they had to shed several layers or suffocate. Now there’s an experience I could do very well without, no matter how iconic an experience it might be to watch the ball drop in Times Square at midnight on Dec 31.

However, back to Halloween and the Parade. It was glorious! Everywhere we went, houses were decorated with pumpkins and lanterns and ghosts and ghouls and whatnot, and all along the way, on the train, on the streets, in pubs, shops, restaurants, you name it, people wore the oddest clothes. Some of them were in full costume with the appropriate make-up but plenty of others signified willing merely by donning a silly cap or hat while still wearing business suits. Strange sights indeed, but there were stranger sights still. It’s amazing just how seriously the Americans take Halloween – or rather, how enthusiastically they celebrate it. Here in the UK (I mean my locality in Shrewsbury) you only have the neighbourhood kids dressed half-heartedly in pathetic costumes, coming around just for the free sweets and chocolate. Sure, Halloween is an American import, but if you intend to celebrate it, it ought to be done with more style, rather than just adopt the greed part of it and leave the costumery and general fun and frolic well alone. That’s just my take on it, of course.

The Parade itself was fantastic. The weather was perfect for participants and observers, too – just cool enough. (We had PERFECT weather all week - no rain, just pleasant, cool, crisp, sunny autumn days.) I don’t know how long people had been waiting at the barriers by the side of the roads, but by the time we got anywhere there, they were standing, packed four deep. You had to be a Croatian (very tall, in other words) if you wanted to see more than the tops of waving flags and pennants! Still, with some determined but discreet wriggling, my mother, sister and brother eventually manoeuvred to a point from where they could see the parade. Pete had found a vantage point – a somewhat raised part of the kerb – so I joined him there and watched him video the best part of the parade. I didn’t have a camera and I wouldn’t have been able to take photos of the paraders anyway – sometimes even being 5’8” tall just isn’t enough!

If I’m able to be in NY next year at Halloween time, I intend to take part in the Parade too. It just seemed like such fun! You could see how much time and effort people had put into the sets and floats and costumes. There were company-sponsored floats which would obviously have had plenty of money spent on them and the people in them, but there were hundreds of others who were there just for the fun of it. Private paraders, as I think of them. My personal favourite – and believe me when I say it was difficult to choose – from the floats was a group of zombies who synchronised their moves to the music of “Thriller” – good fun to watch and a very, very slow way of getting from one place to another! My favourite private parader was a guy that we saw on the subway who was wearing a large ribbon-wrapped gift box – the gift tag on it said “From: God, To: Women”. He was reasonably cute too!

But the cutest, most adorable participants were of course the babies and young children – at various points I saw the world’s littlest policeman (complete with belt and the various fixings that cops in that part of the world wear), a baby elephant, a baby teddy bear, a bunny, Batman (or is that Batbaby?), the sweetest little Devil all in red, with a trident and horns, no less… I could go on. The teddy bear baby was actually so small in its mother’s arms (plus she was holding it in a rather casual manner!) that at first I thought it was a stuffed toy… but the baby bear was just asleep and quite human. Which was amazing enough in all that noise (the sleeping part, not the human part). The only drawback to watching the Parade were our wickedly aching feet at the end of the day, for there was literally no space to sit down anywhere along the route. Oh the crowds!

The last time I was in New York, we didn’t get to see Grand Central Station. But this time we went there quite a few times (mostly to take the train back to Danbury) and each time it was a breathtaking experience. Built on the noble, massive lines of a cathedral, the main concourse is fantastic, with a huge, very high domed ceiling and attractive soft lighting. You almost wanted to speak in whispers, rather like you would do if you were in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Or St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

The entrances to the various platforms had beautiful doorways, looking like they belonged in a palace. So when you stepped through them, out into the stuffy, smelly and unlovely platform to get the train, it was a solid reality check... from the almost sublime to the definitely banal. The food hall in the station's basement has a name as grand as the station itself – it’s the Dining Concourse, no less.

You do get a huge variety of food stalls and there’s a reasonable amount even for vegetarians. I don’t know what misfiring neuron in my brain urged me to ask for a pretzel – I’ve had them before and they’re ok, but not madly fascinating. And then, to compound that order, I foolishly nodded when the stall guy asked me a question, even though I hadnt quite understood him. Very dumb thing to do, because my pretzel arrived absolutely smothered on one side with large salt crystals (THAT was what he’d asked) which I then had to brush off before every bite of the pretzel... which was pretty much tasteless... because I’d brushed off the salt...

Heartburn and blood pressure must be rife among the New Yorkers if plain salted-encrusted pretzels are a favourite! In hindsight, I should have had the jalapeno pretzel. Or not had a pretzel at all, come to think of it...

The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art is closed on Mondays. We found that out only after Kumar, who had painstakingly driven us all the way into the City and deposited us outside the museum, had driven off to look for a parking spot for the car. Did we have a phone between us that actually worked? Nope. We had to mooch around outside on the steps, waiting for him to come back, before we could give him the good news. So rather than get the car back out and do the whole depositing-parking-waiting thing again, we took two taxis to the Museum of Natural History which, luckily, was open. Why two taxis? Because we were five, and the normal taxis only take four passengers. You do get the larger kind of taxis which can take 5 people, but those are few and far between.

The Natural History museum was pretty cool, but the Metropolitan was what I'd got on my list as a "must-see". We did get to it later in the week, and it was worth the wait. We had an hour's guided overview tour of the museum, which was informative, and after that we were let loose to wander around by ourselves. I liked the Egyptian section and the South and South-East Asian sections, but the African one didnt quite grab my interest. (Perhaps it was just a case of information overload.) The exhibits all had little informative cards, but it was a lot better with the audio set and headphones. You had to rent an audio kit, and if you came across anything that excited you, you keyed in the number of the display and listened to the soothingly male voiceover your headphones, giving you more details about the item. Pretty cool.

My favourite section of MoMA was the medieval paintings - which turned out to be also the preferred destination of about half the geriatric population of the USA. That meant having to delicately elbow your way through the throng, earning yourself a few rheumy but nevertheless fierce glares. That, or you had to resign yourself to moving at the rate of 2 inches per 10 minutes from painting to painting. Luckily there werent too many that I wanted to admire in close-up (and by "too many" I'm thinking of the Vatican Museum, where there are SO many gorgeous paintings that it made me dizzy and despondent at the same time - so many things to look at, so little time!), so I could pick and choose my battles with the elderly enthusiasts. It was fairly tame on the whole, although one of the dear ladies came close to skewering my foot to the floor with her cane. (I managed to side-step it.)

Another trip that I crossed off my list was the Circle Line Sightseeing Tour - we took the 3-hour trip, since the day was so sunny and clear and bright. It was also windy, as attested by my hair seen below.

Slightly windblown me, with that attractive
dragged-through-a-thorny-bush-backwards chic

We saw the Statue of Liberty fairly close up (personally I thought she looked a bit grumpy, but I could have been mistaken) and went all the way around Manhattan Island.

More Manhattan skyline

That full round-trip was especially nice because we'd been warned beforehand that if the currents were strong, the boat might not go all the way around. I'm glad it did, because we got to see the back of Manhattan (I mean the northernmost part) which is a wonderfully thick forest. Nobody lives there, nobody's built anything there and nobody will. It's an indication of how the island would have looked 300-400 years ago, and it's going to be preserved that way. Actually the amount of greenery in the middle of New York is amazing... and heartening.

I would have gone for The Beast speedboat ride, but I found out about it too late. Besides, nobody wanted to accompany me - or, rather more importantly, nobody would agree to wait for me while I checked it out. That's one for the next trip, methinks.

Our guide on the tour was a lovely old gentleman called Jim. He had a gentle sense of humour and was very pleasant and patient - two attributes that do not describe most New Yorkers... and sure enough, he's actually a Texan. You dont get to hear Please or Thank You anywhere much from anybody in NY, and smiles are at a premium as well. It certainly makes you appreciate the courtesy with which you're treated most everywhere in the UK.

One of the nuggets of information imparted by Jim is that there are over 80,000 restaurants or eateries in New York. And over 125 different kinds of cuisine. We sampled Vietnamese cuisine in Danbury - BIG mistake. Perhaps it was just that restaurant, but I'm in no hurry to give the cuisine another go. We tried the Dragon, a Szechwan Hunan restaurant, which was fantastic. Penang, a Malaysian restaurant, which was pretty darn good. (Pete sweated bullets but loved the dishes all the same.) Don Pedro, a Cuban-Caribbean fusion restaurant, another HUGE hit with Pete. It was a bit short on vegetarian dishes, but between our helpful Mexican waiter and a friendly chef, we got by with salads, beans and rice. Watan, the best eatery in my opinion (I'm biased towards Indian food, so sue me), a pure-veg Gujarati place... you got an unlimited thali for $25 a head, and the sort of food that made you wish you had three or four stomachs to fill. The last restaurant we visited was a Mexican grill (I cant remember its name), but I really dont know how authentic it was - the food was ok but not noteworthy. And not particularly Mexican. I mean, a Mexican restaurant that cant do simple nachos with cheese...??!!

Reserved for the next trip is a visit to Dawat, Madhur Jaffrey's restaurant.

If you're in New York, you gotta see a show in Broadway. So we did, a treat from my brother on my sister's birthday. We got to watch "Wicked", a brilliant musical that is an "alternative prequel" to The Wizard of Oz. It's about Elphiba, the wicked green witch of the west who really wasnt wicked, and Glinda, the Good Witch, who's very blonde and wasnt quite good but wasnt quite wicked either. The girl who played Elphiba had the most glorious, clear, soaring voice that sent shivers down my spine - I wish I could remember her name. The show was a bit slow in the first half, but the second half was brilliant. All in all, it was a wonderful experience, all the better for having excellent and very expensive seats. All thanks to my generous little brother.

The trip back home was uneventful until we reached the English coastline. I had a window seat and a beautiful view of everything below as it was a crystal clear night with not a hint of cloud. It was absolutely amazing to see the lights of cities and towns... they looked like delicately filigreed gold ornaments scattered over with beads, flung carelessly on a velvet background. And then as the aircraft came closer, I could see lots of flashing, winking, colourful lights popping off all over the place - almost like the camera flashes you see at a concert. They were puzzling for a few moments, until Pete suddenly realised that it was Guy Fawkes Night - and the pretty popping lights were fireworks going off. They were fantastic to look at as we dropped towards the runway, and I have to say that the fireworks seen from above were SPECTACULAR!

And after all that, although I'm glad to be home, I still cant help wondering what it would be like to be a New Yorker - the jury's still out on that. I guess I'll need a few more bites of the Big Apple to make up my mind!


brinda said...

verry nice indeed! so that's the yew yes yay taken care of. where's yourope? (yeah yeah, some people -- never satisfied!) :-)

Diane said...

I was a New Yorker for 4 years, and it gets in your blood. When you live there you do different things than when you visit. It's just as much of an amped-up life, but not as crazy or as assaulting. It's very, very appealing. I lived in a quiet neighborhood on the upper west side, and I didn't go into midtown all that much as I found it overwhelming, loud and crazy. Basically, I just went there for MOMA.

What I do remember: Shakespeare in the Park - long summer Sundays reading and snacking while waiting in a loose line of picnikers to score one of the tickets to the event; free appetizers at a dive jazz bar in alphabet city - back in the 80's when that area was really rough and they were trying to draw people in; Feeling like I was living the contemplative life while strolling in the cloisters on a winter weekday; running in Riverside Park, looking out over the park on one side and the beautiful palisades on the other; taking the subway an hour to Astoria to eat good Greek food; taking a subway 1.5 hours to eat even better Russian/Georgian food; subway musicians; carrying large boards of foam core uptown on the subway; the smell of hot pretzels from the pushcarts; the twinkly lights in the trees along the 116th street stroll on Columbia University's campus; listening to readings at Symphony Space; watching Holly Hunter and John Malkovitch off-off-Broadway when they were unknown stage actors; arguing with cabbies; arguing with friends; eating pizza the proper way (bent in half, out of hand, with a bit of the grease running down your chin); strolling under the Verazano-Narrows bridge; building a BBQ in a community garden...

So much. I mis it still, although I am happily settled in California, and having lost my NY edge can never go back.

CW said...

I can't wait for your review of Dawat!
So the Croatian 'logue still in draft stages eh?? ;-)

Kamini (Tales of South India) said...

Enjoyed reading this very much. You have a lovely style of writing.
I am a New Yorker, have been one for about 15 years now, and the only other places I would not mind living in are Madras (my hometown) and possibly London. I agree with your husband on Danbury: having lived in places like that (far too many, and for far too long), I'm glad to be living in Manhattan now. The prettiness and perfection and soulless-ness of these places can get to you, particularly if you are a city girl like me! Yes, it's horribly expensive (but the dollar must have worked in your favor), it can be rude (although that is one of the urban myths of New York), noisy, crowded, annoying...like life, isn't it?

bee said...

j lived pretty close to danbury for five years. i love nyc. that's my kind of place. danbury is where jai first saw each other.

Linda said...

Next time you're headed for this side of the pond and the east coast, let me know and I will make the trip down and meet you in NYC. I do love it there, for a visit -- don't think I could live there. Great write up and sounds like you had a fab time. Glad to hear you saw Wicked -- that is my daughter's positively FAVE musical. We've seen it twice already, first in Chicago (also worth a visit, if you haven't been) and then in NYC. Gotta catch it up here in Boston, too.

As far as NY eateries -- sushi hand rolls to walk around greenwich village -- that's my pick! ;)

Ramya said...


I love NY City! I live in Jersey and I jump at every chance I get to visit NY.

Change is the most constant thing in NY City. Every time I visit NY, it is new. The window dressings change, the advertisements change, well, even the pretzel shops move across the streets!

Next time when you are planning a visit, let me know. There are some good restaurants in NYC and I can recommend them.

"Yaam Petra Inbam Peruga Ivvayyagam"