And so, here it was, the final ticking down days of my failed escape. A series of milestones- A month till I return home, two weeks, a week… Feck me I’m landing in London in 5 days time.
But I brushed such thoughts aside as a load of irrelevance. I’d had a brilliant time, but it was time to return home, at least for a while. To touch base again with Englishness. And, in the meantime I had one of the most iconic cities in the world to try and enjoy. A tick list of sights, of things to do, that I didn’t even end up scratching the surface of.
Touching down in JFK I realised that I really had dropped a bollock by losing my fleece in Colombia. All around me, people swaddled in fur and winter coats, the occasional icy blast from the automatic doors of baggage reclaim a reminder that I was about to be cold. Bloody cold.
First though, a truth about accommodation in NYC. In my humble opinion, it really doesn’t matter much where you are. Midtown, Queens, Upper East Side. The difference is a couple of stops on one of the most extensive and reliable subway systems in the world. It’s swings and roundabouts, what you lose from your airport transfer becomes tacked on to your daily sightseeing, and if you’ve had a long schlep over onto Manhattan at least you’re closer to the sights.
I took the Skytrain to link up with the subway- A good, cost-effective transfer option. At the entrance you can buy a 7-day pass which, provided you’re planning to get about a bit and are in NYC for more than 4 days or so, is great value. I definitely saved $20 or so over individual tickets, and it saves faffing. Just don’t lose the thing. $31 for the pass, and $5 for the one-way Skytrain ticket.
I pitched up at East 23rd Street station in Queens, my accommodation the relatively new The Local NYC. One of the cheaper hostel options within the city, it saves you a few bucks over the more popular Manhattan options like the YHA. And it’s arguably a nicer place to stay, with a cool bar downstairs boasting some excellent craft ales. After months stuck out in the barren lagerland of South America I tucked in immediately, putting the free pint token to good use.
The Local’s much like any hostel, there are a few ‘types’ that you’ll always come across. In urban hostels you ALWAYS have at least 2-3 near-catatonic studying Asian teenagers in the corners. And then the chatty young European travellers.
It’s entirely possible to get fed of of casual travelling interactions after so long away, having the same conversations, the same “where are you from, where are you going”. This was definitely one aspect of travelling life that I was looking forward to ditching.
The next day, I got up at a leisurely time and kept my aspirations simple: Get a warm jacket, then get into Manhattan and find myself a few cafes and bars to absorb the city. The former was significantly more pressing than the latter, having come from the 30degree luxurious, dry heat of South Florida to the sleeting 3 degrees of NYC was a really big shock. As much ‘winter’ as I’d experienced in nearly 2 years. Chasing the summer round the world always catches up on you.
I threw on the sum total of my ‘warm’ clothing (Lowe Alpine thermal top, amazing, plus a couple of t-shirts and a thin jumper I’d procured in Key West) and headed out. Just keep moving, cold won’t kill you…
My first dining experience was in the spit ‘n’ sawdust atmosphere of Rosie’s Diner, around the corner from The Local, where I procured a bacon bap and coffee, sat at the Formica counter like I belonged. The Polish owner, Hispanic cook and customers of assorted ethnicities a reminder of NYC’s status as one of the great melting pots in the world.
I headed over one of the minor bridges in search of clothing. My hunt took me to a Thrift Store. Hey, don’t judge- Following the utter Brexit vote debacle the pound was seriously struggling against the dollar so there was no way I was paying £100 plus for a very mediocre GAP kagoule. $30 dollars later at the Thrift Store and I was walking out in a seriously chavvy, however undeniably warm, furry hooded jacket. Ecko, no less!
Down Midtown. Due to my lazy morning the day was escaping from me. Just a bit of light wandering, into a somewhat unfriendly posh little pub. Unlike the UK, most places have ‘systems’ for everything- I’m really not used to this ‘wait to be seated’ bollocks in mediocre pubs!
Day One also saw my other important task weighed off… Remember Isla Floreana? The postcard that I’d picked up from there needed delivering to someone in the Upper East Side. I love stuff like this. Sadly Lana wasn’t in, but the Building Super took it in for her, and I got a nice e-mail later in the day saying thanks for my delivery task. That postcard saw a lot of South America and the Caribbean!
Time and tides, NYC-style
New York’s a funny place when it comes to time. I fully imagined that 5 nights would be way too long and that I’d end up bored, but this thought couldn’t have been further from the truth. Just wandering around NY takes serious amounts of time. Taking it all in.
I’m not a great art buff but I do know what I like, and it’s pop art and contemporary stuff. So, I was utterly spoilt for choice. I managed to get into MOMA on Manhattan for free, as a part of their weekly free evening. The flipside to this is that the gallery is ABSOLUTELY PACKED. However, I reasoned that since I was around there anyway I’d give it a go, and if it all got too much, just to return on a non-skinflint day.
Wow. Just wow. I found it simply incredible being surrounded by so much priceless art. Hundreds of millions of dollars worth, in open galleries. Simply amazing. The MOMA is one of the most impressive galleries I’ve ever been to.
Not that these photos in any way do it justice of course. I really can’t get the hang of my angles trying to take pictures of pictures. Best not give up the day job.
Entry to MOMA, even on a free day, also buys you entry to MOMA PS2, a more cutting-edge and experimental gallery situated in Queens. Incidentally pretty bloody close to The Local too. Situated in an old industrial building and featuring some seriously wacky installations.
There’s even one, a huge room-filling one, with a life size and thoroughly authentic British motorway overpass. I generally don’t get the ‘message’ of pieces like this, but it doesn’t stop me appreciating the sheer amount of work that goes into an installation like that. And then there were loads of the archetypal ‘strange conceptual art’ ones with a beeping Commodore 64 in a corner, or a loop of a woman chanting station names or something.
The message is, if you can’t find something arty to see or do in New York you’ve failed at life really. It’s one of the world’s great artistic cities, and everywhere you can find aspiring actors practising their lines whilst guarding galleries or waiting tables.
Food, glorious food
Oh, good lord above. I wasn’t disappointed. After 6 months stuck on an Ecuadorian island where the height of haute cuisine was a pizza with more than 2 toppings, the depth and breadth of NY foodie culture was a revelation. I didn’t eat the same meal twice, and tried my utmost to cover at least a few of the multitudinous countries and cuisines represented. Queens in particular was brilliant for local delis, decently priced and good nosh. It’s definitely possible to eat cheaply in NYC but crossing the river really does help.
My first attempt at a Little Italy meal failed at the first hurdle. Being a Saturday afternoon it was intensely busy everywhere, and even the restaurants that would entertain walk-ins were quoting a wait of 2hrs. It was past 1pm and I was hungry. So, I retraced my steps to the swarming streets of Chinatown, past the clouds of fake designer gear hawkers and into the first decent restaurant I saw. Whilst an unassuming place much the same as every other one in appearance, this one’s door was festooned with stickers proclaiming its inclusion in the local restaurant guide. I’d give it a go.
The Excellent Dumpling House proved true to its name. Absolutely historic food, with an atmosphere to match. I fondly remember Wong Kei in London’s Chinatown, the multi-storey restaurant with famously brusque service where you get allocated a seat with other random diners. Sure enough, I managed to hop the queue since it was just me, and joined the last remaining seat at a table.
New York City has a reputation of being somewhat, er, brusque. On the whole I’d agree, but in this little corner of Chinatown my table mates were a friendly bunch- a couple from upstate NY and a couple from, er, somewhere in the ‘flyover’ states I think. A really nice lunch- Great food and chat with complete strangers.
I managed to return to Little Italy more successfully at the end of my stay- With a few ours to kill before my flight I grabbed lunch at Benito One restaurant. Absolutely spot on, with a brilliant value set lunch. A definite recommendation- The house wine is also seriously drinkable, although I was taking it somewhat easy in the face of a transatlantic flight within the next few hours!
My other food highlight came on the renowned Bleeker Street, Greenwich Village- home of the Big Gay Ice Cream Shop and other such culinary notables. I wasn’t in the mood for haute cuisine. I wanted curry, and there it was, a proper flock wallpapered delight of a curry hole, with unusually friendly staff and great food. A good end to my NYC experience.
Miscellaneous cultural wanderings
It’s largely pointless putting together a ‘must do’ list since I read most of those. The truth of NYC is that you simply can’t fit it all in, so you may as well concentrate on doing a few sights properly. I ticked off most of my list although sadly missed either of the ‘Skyscraper view’ experiences since it was so foggy that actually it would have been pointless. From what I can see there is little to choose between the Top of the Rock, Empire State Building and/or the World Trade Centre, they are all equally strongly priced. Some of the combined NY attraction passes include one or the other… Failing that, pick the one that appeals most.
An important day in your schedule. There are also guided tours of the museum which are very much worth doing. I found the WTC museum and attached memorial a suitably sombre yet interesting place, with none of the pro-American jingoism that I had expected, just an explanation of what happened, why and when, and art exhibits looking towards the future, as well as seriously affecting survivor testimonies.
On a lighter note, I don’t think there can be a bigger ‘fuck you’ to fundamentalist terrorists than the creation of the enormous Westfield shopping centre at the foot of the new World Trade Centre. A huge, Jewish-owned monument to capitalism. It’s also a fantastic piece of architecture…
Sorry, museum, but my advice would be to not bother. It’s undoubtedly a detailed resource run by dedicated, knowledgable people however I just didn’t find it terribly interesting. Currently housed close to Battery Park, the jumping-off point for the Staten Island Ferry, it’s in temporary accommodation below a hotel. Rather too dry for me, unless you’re a dedicated civil engineering geek I would give it a swerve.
BOOK EARLY. I faffed around far too much and as such couldn’t get a decent ticket. Basically there are varying levels of access to the Statue of Liberty, and it’s actually not much more money to buy the ticket which means you can climb all of the way up to her crown. So, faced with a fairly expensive ticket to just get on the island, I opted instead for the super-cheapo option of a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, for the princely sum of precisely, er, ZERO dollars! Hey, it’s a slice of NYC life, and you still get to see the famous lady from a different perspective. How much stuff is actually free these days?
American Museum of Natural History
Not properly doable in a day. This is the utter behemoth of NYC’s museum scene, occupying a huge 3 floors opposite Central Park. Simply incredible. Even turning up close to opening time, hitting the floors with incredible gusto and being shooed out by the security guards at closing time, I barely scratched the surface.
If you’ve ever watched the film Night at the Museum, you’ve seen this place. Gallery after gallery of priceless artefacts, dioramas for everywhere you’ve ever thought of, and then the majestic main halls filled with larger-than-life dinosaurs. This alone warrants the entry fee.
But then you’ve got all of the special exhibits to look round, too. When you buy your entry ticket they line these up for you, a schedule spanning the entire day. Knowledgable, chatty experts guiding you around the world of crocodiles, butterflies, space, in greater detail than you ever knew you needed, and standing on hand to answer questions.
So all in all one of my best NYC days. I virtually crawled out of the museum and onto the subway back to The Local, full of knowledge that I never expected to gain and with aching legs. This wasn’t going to be a Times Square night, just a curry from the neighbourhood deli and some much-needed sleep.
Er, yeah. It’s one of these places that, like Piccadilly Circus, gains fame and becomes a must-see destination for actually very little reason other than bright lights and lots of people. Go, don’t stay. I can’t think of anything worse than a pricey hotel on Times Square, battling the zombie hordes every time you want to go out, see stuff, eat a burrito. Sure, it’s bright, brash and very very American, and good for a look. No more, no less…
Museum of Sex
Just don’t. Really don’t bother. I was short of something to do one early evening so I thought I’d go in, in search of necrophiliac ducks and other hidden facts of kink. But it’s undoubtedly an hour of your life that you’ll never see again. Seriously, don’t bother. It was 20 bucks too. Jeez.
The necrophiliac duck stuff wasn’t even well explained, goddammit. But I will concede that the bicycle-mounted mechanical dildo was relatively amusing.
The end of the end
And then, it was time. Finally time, the end of the end, and adventures over for the time being. A bargain basement WestJet flight via Toronto giving me a chance not only to see some snow, but also to indulge in a Tim Horton’s burger before hopping off again. 7hrs of transatlantic non-sleep and the seriously stiff back that I always get from airline seats. And it’s done. Back to the funny little island full of people saying ‘sorry’ a lot, and back to a semblance of normality. In a way, the scariest adventure of them all… real life.