Wednesday, 5 October 2011

At the Heart of the Empire - our week in New York

Remember Tom Wolfe's novel Bonfire of the Vanities? Movies like Wall Street, Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Godfather, King Kong, Night at the Opera, Moonstruck, Ghostbusters, Taxi Driver, As Good as it Gets ...?  About a million TV shows ( Friends, Sex and the City and Seinfeld are just the first few that come to mind). What about iconic locations - Central Park, Broadway, Madison Avenue, Brooklyn Bridge, the Guggenheim, Yankee Stadium, Wall Street, the Empire State Building, Times Square and of course that big green statue in the harbour. Songs. Fabulous collections of art and artefacts that everyone recognises. Larger than life characters; big stories of success, over-reaching, greed, idealism, extraordinary achievements and tragedy.

My point is that all of us in the western world already know this city, perhaps even better than we know our own. So, while our week in New York City was amazing and exciting, it was also remarkably familiar. The other way you know you are at the centre of the empire is the people. You walk down 5th Avenue and hear fifteen languages. There are sophisticates in designer clothes, serious powerbrokers walking like they own the street, women in saris, Hasidic Jews with black hats and ringlets, cool black dudes who may well be famous rappers, protesters about everything, bag ladies and gentlemen, you name it. Now that everyone talks to themselves on their cell phones, it's actually pretty hard to tell who the crazy people are. Anyway, nowhere we went was threatening or scary, it was just fascinating.

New York is an expensive city to stay in, particularly if you want to be in a safe neighbourhood where you can walk to at least some of the attractions. Expedia solved that one for us - the Hampton Inn on 35th was in the Fashion District, just a street away from the Empire State Building, and we were able to book six nights for about a third of the standard rate. It was great - clean, friendly and with those most important amenities, a hot bath and a really comfortable bed at the end of a long day of walking.

The other good investment was a New York City Pass, which gets you in to a range of the big attractions for about half price. There are several alternative passes, but we opted for the $79 one that gives you entry to six major attractions: the Empire State Building, river cruise, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Guggenheim, Natural History Museum and the Museum of Modern Art. If we had been staying longer, there is a card that gives you entry to about 50 places for roughly $200 and is really good value.

The galleries were sensational, though there are so many wonderful artworks that it can get a bit overwhelming. The Dutch masters were the highlight of the Met Museum for me, but MOMA had the best collection overall - Starry Night is there, of course, along with two of Monet's full three panel Waterlilies series. Some really beautiful Cezannes and my personal favourite, Chagall; Picassos that span his whole career, Dali's Crucifixion and Persistence of Time. I could go on and on ... and that's just the 4th floor! (Just a quick note - there was a case of Dadaist pieces too, including the famous fur cup and saucer from their first exhibition. And original pieces from the Bauhaus. And Frank Lloyd Wright's architectural drawings. And...). Once again, it's about NYC as a centre of western culture. Its major icons and artefacts from ancient Greek statuary to the next big thing are collected here, usually by extremely wealthy and influential people for whom art patronage and philanthropy are amongst the obligations of the seriously rich.

Of course New York is all about money, and part of what makes it so fascinating is the layers of commercial use that are still visible everywhere. Old buildings are converted to new uses, but the ghosts of 1930 advertising billboards can still be seen on their walls. In Macy's you can still ride the original wooden escalators. Trendy little restaurants spring up in low rent neighborhoods. Everywhere you walk is interesting and full of life and energy. The 'Occupy Wall Street' protests are part of this energy, I guess, though at the moment it's a pretty incoherent and unfocused protest. I've listened to dozens of protestors interviewed and none of them really seem to know why they're there apart from some general sense of grievance against someone - banks, governments, financiers, rich people. Maybe some sort of direction will emerge - it might influence the Democrats in the way the Tea Party has influenced the Republicans. Anyway, we decided to give the area a miss, just in case things turned ugly.

The cruise down the Hudson and East Rivers was well worth doing, offering a different perspective on Manhattan and its relationship to New Jersey, Brooklyn and to the other islands. The Liberty statue and Ellis Island carry such a weight of history for so many immigrants to the US, and it was also very sobering to see the famous skyline without the towers. There were quite a few sailboats about, but it would have been challenging threading through all the ferries, barges, tugs and other working boats - I'm glad we decided to bus it here instead of undertaking a very long sailing trip. Yet another perspective was the spectacular one from the top of the Empire State Building at night - it really is a city that doesn't sleep. A couple of moments to remember: I got crapped on by a pigeon in Times Square. Smart Arse #1: 'That means good luck around here.' Smart Arse #2: 'Yeah, it means you gonna get some new clothes'. Free handout boxes of awesome dark chocolates in Central Park, on condition that you share them with a friend and a stranger. 

We saw a couple of shows, Memphis which was fabulous, and The Perfect Crime which was a bit tired - the theatrical equivalent of a pot-boiler. There are so many restaurants it can be a bit overwhelming to make a choice. We ate at a good local Korean (there is a sort of 'little Korea' near the hotel), Chinese and various delis. Terry worked very hard on research for his beer blog (next update soon). On reflection, it would have been good to go somewhere special - maybe next time we'll head to Patsy's, Frank Sinatra's favourite Italian restaurant, or one of Anthony Bourdain's recommendations. And yes, we will go back. It's inexhaustible, and only limited by your own time, energy and money. This time around, we did the mainstream things that everyone does. There are layers and layers of stories here to explore.

So, now we're back on Common Sense in a marina that is pretty much deserted. It's getting cool quickly, which I guess it has to if you're going to fit four clearly defined seasons in a year. The Annapolis Boat Show is on this coming weekend and we have a few more bits and pieces to pick up there. After that, we'll head off on the long slow journey south, to sunshine and clear blue water.


  1. oh wow....thanks for this snippet of NY Carol, makes me want to go day...

  2. A great read Carol, I never really wanted to go to the USA but after reading your blogs I am starting to be interested. So glad you and Terry are having a ball, enjoy each day. May the next part of your adventure be full of love and laughter. Belinda