North America 2013: New York

New York was one of the main attractions drawing me to the US on this trip—probably not a surprise to many of you, but it had barely been on my radar until the last few years when a combination of popular culture and a number of friends raving about placed it front and square in my awareness.

So, from Montreal it was time to head south across the border. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning, as the train was delayed and we all queued up the middle of the station while all around us everything else (the non-Amtrak trains) ran on time. Meanwhile, a gentleman behind me muttered how typical that was, how poor these trains were unlike in the golden days, and so on. No-one had much idea what was going on either; we all had our luggage, but periodically an Amtrak employee would walk up and down the line, mumbling something about reserved seating while looking away from us. My gentleman friend said absolutely no way was he going to try and find his luggage in central station, he wouldn’t trust them as far as he could throw them and he was holding onto it thank you very much.

Eventually I found a seat. “May I sit with you?” said a young lady behind me. Of course I replied; “Great! Could you put my bag up in the rack then please?”. I think I was used! Conversation after that was quite pleasant, coupled with nice views of autumnal colour through the countryside, and luckily since the journey was around 10 hours! She was a manager from a software development shop in Finland, which instantly gave us some common ground. At one point she asked about my chromebook and I was half-way through mentioning that I’d turned it into a passable development environment, before reflexively halting… even today, “Linux” isn’t that well-known. I needn’t have worried: Linus is a national hero in Finland!

Finally we disembarked, bleary-eyed and weary, into the cacophony of central station. My new Finnish friend was returning to New York, and kindly guided me to the subway I needed. A saxophone and bass busking pair were playing a driving rhythm at ear-splitting volume. It was almost hypnotic, but we had to keep moving. Even with guidance I still somehow jumped on the subway in the wrong direction, before realising several stops down and changing direction. Eventually I found the hostel (complete with a fellow Tasmanian in my room!), had a late-night taco from a truck nearby, and crashed.

New York attractions on the cheap

New York has a deserved reputation for being expensive, but while all the museums, galleries, buildings etc aren’t individually expensive they quickly add up just because there’s so many of them! If you are travelling on a tight budget it is possible to save significantly here though:

I did none of this (I never even made it to the cable car at all, which I am disappointed about). Instead, I bought a city pass book of tickets, which saves you $80 over 6 attractions, if you go to them all. Why would I do this? Because it also means you can jump a whole lot of queues (not all of them; there’ll still be a wait for the security check, etc). I was already well and truly over queuing, and the prospect of an entire week more of it easily made me open my wallet! Later walking past MoMA while the queue for free admission stretched around the block was enough to validate my decision.

Seeing New York

I had roughly two types of days in the city. Some days I just cruised different neighbourhoods, wandering around soaking up the place, checking out restaurants and cafes, and doing a lot of walking. Then there were the days I spent at various capital-A Attractions. New York has a lot of these, but as I hinted above, I found the queuing, the security checks, and so on all rather exhausting and border-line dehumanising at times. I’m definitely glad I made the effort (perhaps my recollection will be better than the experience!), but at the time I enjoyed the on-foot exploration much more.

It is certainly not news, but I’ll repeat it here: New York is a fantastic city to explore on foot. It’s always my favourite way to explore and experience a place, but some are much more suited to it than others. The subway goes everywhere, and often (random stoppages aside), the footpaths are nice and wide. Perfect.

Day 1 was all about exploration. Subway to Union Square to pick up a US SIM card, then walking past all the brownstone to a spectacular lunch at Momofuku. Off to a good start! That was followed by an espresso and (because I couldn’t pass it up) a nitro cold brew—this is exactly what it sounds like; a cold-brewed coffee, served from a nitrous keg so it looked like Guinness, and tasted exceptionally creamy to boot.

After a walk through Central Park I wound up at The Met, where I only had a short amount of time which was probably perfect for not over-doing my non-art-appreciating brain.

Highline Park

Don’t ask me where I’d heard about it, but I was really looking forward to the Highline Park. At the time I had the impression it was a bit of undiscovered secret, but by the time I arrived it had most definitely been discovered! The highline is a stretch of elevated railway, previously abandoned and now converted into a park and walk-way, with great views along the way to boot. The beautiful weather and popularity at least ensured there were plenty of lunch vendors available.

That afternoon I hit up the MoMA. I really enjoyed this; for some reason I do seem to have more of an affinity with (some) modern art. The lower floors also contained a lot of applied and industrial design, milestone computer artefacts (including an annotated print-out of the first Pacman code!), sound art, and so on. The upper two floors were more of a strain: this is where the big names reside, the Picassos, the Van Gogh, the Warhols… and apparently nearly all the visitors, screaming and running from piece to piece to take a picture with their iphone or ipad and running on to the next. I did not last as long on the top floors.

With the sun down the next stop was the Rockerfeller Centre. It’s not as tall or possibly as famous as the Empire State Building, but everyone says the views are better and I won’t dispute that.

Brooklyn, 9/11 Memorial, Empire State Building

There was a simple plan for the day: walk the famous Brooklyn Bridge, have a quick look at the 9/11 Memorial and make my way north on foot.

The first step was a success, and the bridge is a great walk. Unfortunately, I naively completely misunderstood what was going to be involved in a “quick look” at the memorial, and this consumed a lot more time than I realised. Even finding it is not simple, with many paths blocked off due to construction and no signage anywhere, and lots of coalesced groups of people that looked confusingly like queues to somewhere. Proving that capitalism was not defeated in the attacks, however, were swarms of people hawking commemorative booklets, tea-towels, and so on. Once it had been found… of course it involved more queuing. Lots and lots of queuing, and lots and lots of security checks, and at least two points at which your donation was strongly encouraged. The memorial itself is in fact a great and somber tribute to those who died, but after all that I did not stay long.

Naturally, I had to make it up north for more queuing! This time, it was for the Empire State building. Great views, but by this time I was done and after a late lunch and drink to unwind I turned in early.

Wall St, Central Park

If yesterday was all about crowds and queuing, the following day was going to be all on foot! Starting by walking from the hostel through hipster Williamsburg, then catching the subway down south to Wall Street in order to walk north. Up through Chinatown, Little Italy, NoLita, a late lunch at Mission Chinese. I did fit in an hour or so at the Natural History Museum, which was probably ideal to fit in the dinosaurs and meteor exhibits. It has been a while since I’ve thought more than passingly about dinosaurs—I felt like a kid again, staring in amazement! Being able to touch a massive lump of iron metal that fell from the sky, characteristic crystallisation and all, was also very cool.

Dinner was at the famous Katz’s Delicatessen. This was a recommendation from a friend, but of course it was also “where Harry met Sally”. I was completely unaware of this, until I realised that there was a large arrow sign at the table diagonally across from me, pointing down and telling everyone that’s where it all happened (amusingly, it had a solitary girl looking rather bored). It is a chaotic place and the ordering system takes a little while to figure out. For a start (this is not obvious!) there are multiple queues, and if you are there for the famous pastrami-on-rye (as you should be), you have about 4 to choose from. You give your order (and pay on the way out, based on the ticket they’ll write on), the cutter will get to work, first giving you a taste while he works, you tip him a couple of dollars, and off you go with a veritable mountain of unctuous meat! It wasn’t long since an equally large lunch so I was rather nervous about the quantity, but that’s what I train for!

Walking in the wrong direction for a while afterwards gave me another chance to explore a rather swanky area.

River Cruise

There was one attraction left in my City Pass book; a river cruise. I had mixed expectations about this, and was rather underwhelmed (by way of example, we stopped by the Statue of Liberty for a while, while the guide rhapsodised at length about “freedom”—a concept people from outside NY are not expected to understand apparently—without once mentioning France. We passed the One World Trade Centre and he complained that it used be called the Freedom Tower, but it’s all about making money after all and not everyone appreciates freedom so we hadda change it. And so on).

From here it was back on foot, through the Chelsea Markets, and down to Greenwich Village. This is an incredibly funky area still, and as a music fan it was amazing to stare at the who’s-who list of artists who have frequented Cafe Wha?.

Another meal at Momofuku rounded out my final day in the big apple!

Mark Hepburn 18 January 2014
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