NEW YORK, NOVEMBER 2007
After a trip to East Anglia in May put us in the mood for calm places with a slower pace of life, we were delighted when later in the year came the chance to make a trip last to another tranquil backwater – New York.
Our daughter Eleanor and her ex-flat mate in London were on holiday, and ex-flat mate had moved across to the Big Apple, leaving a bijou apartment in Manhattan in need of a bit of minding while she was away. Christine and I gamely volunteered. We got a Delta flight from Manchester and landed one Monday afternoon.
The conventional wisdom is that you get a taxi into town from JFK, but that seemed far too simple, so we opted instead to take the subway. The New York subway is not quite as easy to use as London’s but you soon get the hang of it. And it’s not all like the chase sequence from the French Connection. The graffiti has gone and you are very unlikely to be sitting next to a pimp or a gangster as you ride the trains. In fact, for a mere two bucks a trip you’d be daft not to use it. And you do get into conversation with a lot of interesting people.
One thing that quickly strikes you is that New Yorkers talk a lot. Throughout one longer train ride the background noise in the carriage was the happy hubbub of chatter. Indeed, New Yorkers are very gregarious – they are also extremely courteous and friendly and are always willing to help. And of course the English accent helps.
The apartment was in a traditional brownstone house on the Upper East Side, about half way up Central Park and just off Lexington Avenue. Twelve steps took you up from the street to the front door and a further fifty five panting and gasping to the apartment. That said, it was an excellent spot and in a very lively neighbourhood. Every block down the avenue has a florist and at least one dry cleaner, and most have a nail bar. One block over though is Park Avenue, which has mile after mile of colossal apartment houses, occupied by millionaires. Lots of doormen but no shops.
So what did we do? A brisk 45 minute walk on our first morning got us to the Rockefeller Center, where – on a little stage outside – James Taylor was singing songs off his latest record for the morning TV show. The next morning we got the subway and walked all the way across the Brooklyn Bridge. The cityscape of skyscrapers around Wall Street had altered quite a bit since 9/11, but the twin towers still seemed an enormous presence even in their absence. Ground Zero was a building site. There is a canopy with a display of the redevelopment and panels with the names of the victims, but it does not have the feeling of any kind of shrine.
On our last morning we took the Staten Island ferry, which is a free half hour trip that gives a superb panorama of the tip of Manhattan and takes you past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. The good news is that you can get straight off the boat at the far end and get straight back on again to return, thereby avoiding the boring inconvenience of being stuck for half an hour on Staten Island.
One evening we headed for the Lincoln Center in the hope of seeing a bit of culture. We queued for rush tickets to see The Magic Flute at the Opera House, but just missed out, so trotted across the square and got in to see the opening night gala of the New York Ballet Company. The cream of New York glitterati was there, or so it seemed, all set for a couple of hours of balletic virtuosity, followed by a good feed under the gold covered ceiling of the massive foyer. The dancing was breath-taking – a series of short pieces which by turns astounded you with the speed dancers could spin and then mystified you by the way they could almost hang in the air and defy gravity.
The last piece was rather unsettling though. Over one hundred and fifty dancers, some looking about six, intertwined across the stage in white tee-shirts and black trousers or tights as a large black and white photograph of a brooding Lincoln Kirstein (the late founder) descended at the back. This huge ensemble then turned to the photo, stretched out their arms and sang happy birthday. It all had the feeling of the type of rally favoured by the kinds of people Lincoln and his colleagues had sacrificed so much to escape from.
Talking of looking young, I was sat next to a girl who looked about twelve and was evidently there on her own. During the interval I turned and said hello and said something about did she plan to become a dancer when she grew up. She replied that she was Estonian and was twenty one and danced for Circus De Soleil. I tried to dig myself out of this pit with a few other pleasantries but when the lights went down I’m sure she whispered something to herself which I can only infer was Estonian for “wanker”.
There were two selfish reasons for going to New York. The first was a particular type of American double-deck bus. 302 of these machines were built by General Motors for New York and Chicago from 1933 to 1938, and very few survive. For lots of reasons I won’t bore you with (but will happily do so if you click across to Yellow Coach Model 720 and Model 735 – Zavanak) I think these vehicles were the ancestors of the double-deck buses we see today in Britain.
One of the survivors is in New York and through a delicate lobbying process I got to see it first hand! My guide took me to a bus depot in deepest Brooklyn, set in a neighbourhood that looked like it formed the backdrop to Saturday Night Fever. Bemused but very hospitable transit authority staff gave me the run of the vehicle and I spent an hour inspecting it, drawing it, measuring it and photographing it.
And then they heaped me with presents as I left – a history of New York public transport, a cardboard model of a 1950s bus, a very nice pen, and best of all a genuine New York city bus driver’s hat! A true busman’s holiday.
The other selfish reason was to expand my DVD collection. In the UK DVDs are sold in region 2 format, but a lot of good films are only available for region 1, which is the one used in the United States. I’d already bought a second player and got illicit instructions off the web on how to hack it to play region 1s. Now it was time to buy some titles.
In truth you can buy anything you want off the web but it’s a lot more fun nosing around shops finding things on your list and making unexpected discoveries. I got hold of five DVDs including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor tearing each other to pieces in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and On the Town. This latter is a 1949 musical all about New York, New York, a helluva town (the people ride in a hole in the ground) and it was very pleasant to sink into a sofa and watch this after a hard day’s sightseeing.
The movie is a bit of a travelogue of old New York (it even has fleeting shots of my famous buses), and it’s interesting to see how places like Times Square have changed. These days the advertising signs are stupendous, with massive computer generated cartoons and giant news flashes. In the seventies when I first came to New York this area was extremely sleazy, but all that’s gone.
As I discovered, if you’re interested in porn you now have to head for the galleries. For example, the Neue Galerie near Central Park has an exhibition of the work of Gustav Klimt, who did “The Kiss” which you’ll remember from posters in trendy 1970s flats . This show included drawings of lots and lots of naked and semi naked young women, with titles like Young Woman Relaxing in Chair. You’ll just be admiring the pencil stroke work when you suddenly realise what this is actually a picture of – it would be a more accurate to say that many of these works are touching portraits.
Likewise the Guggenheim offered several 1930s Czech photos that were liberal in the extreme, plus a naked portrait of Brooke Shields when she was about twelve that would certainly be seized by the police if it were shown in this country. The Guggenheim also had a large exhibition of works by Richard Prince, many of which were huge canvasses containing the kinds of jokes told by comedians in the big hotels in the Borscht Belt in the fifties (look this up on Wikipedia if you don’t know what I’m taking about, it’s fascinating). I wasn’t over struck on the art, but I thought some of the jokes were funny:
We were in New York at Thanksgiving. It’s not entirely clear what Thanksgiving is all about, but the safe collection of the harvest has a lot to do with it, which makes it a very secular festival – saying Happy Thanksgiving isn’t going to upset or exclude anyone. The big event in New York is the Macy’s parade in which the floats include dozens of gigantic helium balloons based on various characters, such as Snoopy, Ronald McDonald and Shrek.
We queued for hours with tens of thousands of other people to see the inflated but tethered balloons the evening before. There was plenty of time to chat to people, including a family from Queens, the cheerful dad of which had been the pilot of a sightseeing helicopter which crashed and burned in central Manhattan in 1974. The plastic surgery on his face and his contorted fingers proved this was no tall tale.
Earlier on I saw two surly teenagers marching off ahead of their parents, who complained after them. I said to one of the mums, “Be nice to them. Remember – they’ll be choosing your retirement home”. She and her buddy collapsed with laughter at this saying, “That’s really good!”; so I think I can take credit for introducing this bastion of the UK bumper sticker into the USA.
The following morning we joined hundreds of thousands of people to watch the actual procession, seeing these enormous balloons veering unnervingly over the crowds on the slightest breaths of wind.
Then it was time to head off to Penn Station and get a very slow but comfortable commuter train up towards the Eastern end of Long Island to see our friends who lived there. Next to us sat a woman reading a book called Why stay single? who was just starting chapter four: “Advice on kissing frogs”. Talk about heart on your sleeve.
The suburbs of Queens were very depressing – if the mantra is that you can make it in America, why couldn’t they make look a bit nicer? However, by the time we got out to where our friends live the surroundings were much more pleasant – rangy spacious houses each set in about two acres of woodland.
Their friends and relatives were also there, and over a wonderful Thanksgiving dinner there was lots of lively conversation. If this was a representative group (hardly!) then Americans were much more preoccupied about Iraq than they are about China. And of course we got on to gun control. The first part of the Second Amendment reads: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of the state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed”. The anti-gun side will say that means gun owners must be part of a well regulated militia and attend proper practices and periods of duty. But the pro-gun lobby say that having people own weapons ensures that the militia (i.e. the police, the army, the state) is kept under some kind of control through the threat of an armed uprising. This bizarre reasoning will be put to the test in the Supreme Court next year apparently.
It was certainly a packed week, and I’m sure you haven’t the stamina to take much more of these witterings, so here’s a few snippets to finish:
So that’s a hearty recommendation to spend some time in the Big Apple. And if you like your planes old, packed and cheap, I could recommend no better airline than Delta – at least in 2007.
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