From June 29 to July 2, 2001, my sister and I went to New York in what was, at the time, the most complex trip away from home we’d ever attempted. This is a full debriefing of our experiences, from the stunning to the exasperatingly trivial.
Like most insane projects, my Summer’2001 trip to New York started with idle chatter.
Flashback to early May 2001, lunch time at work. Three of us were in a colleague’s office, bemoaning the prospect of a long boring summer. Even our local travel freak wasn’t going anywhere, already being booked for a Fall outing in Spain. Looking at her world map loosely speckled with past and future destinations, I pointed out that hopeful target New York was barely a few hours away by car, and could easily be visited over a long weekend and a (relatively) ridiculous amount of money.
Fever gripped the office, and before I knew it, I had agreed to go with them to New York. Not a very binding commitment, as it was obvious to me that like most brain fires around my office, this was quickly going to burn out and that none of us would end up going. Sure, whatever, I’m in.
They invaded the downstairs travel office, badgered the agent on duty, demanded brochures and giggled all the way through. (At least that’s how I imagine it.) The idea and the brochures spread around. For a brief moment, it looked as if half my workgroup was going. I remained sceptical.
I took a look at the Ottawa Valley Tours brochure and began to be tempted. As with with most of the world’s population, I became fascinated by The Big Apple though movies, from KING KONG to MEN IN BLACK, all the way through fifty years of various odes to New York, New York. Then factor in the books, the music, the reputation and the City had always hovered in my mind as a definite destination. But always somewhere in the future, along with London, Rome and Los Angeles.
But this was Summer 2001. I was 25 years old. Symbols have a way to drill down your consciousness and proliferate. Why not *do something* that summer and go to New York? Maybe.
I came across an older New York travel guide at a used book sale and picked it up. Then I started reading. The list of interesting destinations read like a shopping list. That finally bowled me over; I was in.
According to the brochure, a single booking would cost 760$Can. On the other hand, two people would have to pay 500$ each. (Four or more would pay even lower; 360$C) Hmm. By that time, none of my (mostly female) colleagues had definitely committed to the trip. But they informed me in no uncertain terms that in no case would they contemplate sharing a room with me. (“It’s not personal” said one, understandably enough; as one friend pointed out, it would have been far more disquieting to hear something like “We won’t go unless you share a room with us!”)
Besides the blow to my self-image, this had another beneficial effect; forcing me to plan independently. I phoned up my stalwart sister Karine, always ready for a trip and still somewhat bitter that we never got to tour Canada from coast to coast in summer 2000. (Buying a house will do that to your travel budget.)
Lo and behold, she liked the idea and could manage to liberate the funds. We booked our trip 45 days in advance (paying cash, to the travel agent’s temporary surprise), getting a further 4% discount.
What did our 460$ get us? A bus trip to (29 June) and from (July 2) an Hotel in New Jersey, plus a shuttle to and from New York (June 30 and July 1), as well as a 4-hour guided tour of the city on June 30. A quick glance at hotel prices in New Jersey alone was enough to convince us of the bargain.
In order to put myself in a proper NYC state of mind, I scoured MP3 sites, downloaded oodles of “New York” tracks, carefully selected the most representative and came up with the following soundtrack, which you might find useful or amusing:
Part One: From the dreams... 01- Lovin' Spoonful - Summer in the City 02- Frank Sinatra - New York, New York 03- Pet Shop Boys - New York City Boy 04- Manhattan Transfer - Boy From New York City 05- Ronnie Fray - Going To New York 06- They Might Be Giants - New York City Part Two: ...to the melancholy... 07- U2 - New York 08- Mel Torme - New York State Of Mind 09- Sting - An Englishman in New York 10- Playground - New York 11- The Butch Ross Band - New York 12- Tad Robinson - Raining in New York 13- Simon & Garfunkel - A Heart in New York Part Three: ...to the streets of New York City 14- Big Ugly - New York Gritty 15- Raekwon - Live From New York 16- Lost Boyz - New York City War Call 17- Gang Starr - New York Strait Talk 18- Onyx - Walk In New York
While my colleagues did their best at effectively not coming along, my sister and I did our homework. We borrowed travel guides from other colleagues who had recently visited the town, drank deeply in their fountain of knowledge and finally ransacked the local library for all available travel guides to New York. Though their most recent copy of Fodor’s wasn’t available, we still managed to borrow five books about The Big Apple, bringing our reading total to eight books.
We dove in. In a few days, we became remote NYC experts, almost more cognizant of the city and its history than its own citizen. Our list of things to see was drawn up and roughly highlighted on a photocopy of Rand-McNally’s New York City map. If ever you’re planning your own outing, keep in mind that the most interesting travel guides at that stage were Let’s Go New York and Frommer’s New York.
Meanwhile, Karine and I established a few ground rules for our visit: No tours (too rigid), no museums (too time-consuming), no high-rise visits (ditto), no theater (again, too time-consuming while we could visit so many other places) and above all, no cinema (or any other experience we could easily replicate in Ottawa). We made our luggage.
We couldn’t expect our reaction to the city. We had concerns about crime. We doubted our ability to navigate the streets. We were sure we had forgotten something. We were jittery.
And, in case you couldn’t see that coming, none of my colleagues ended up going to New York.
Day 1: June 29, 2001
At last, the day came. Taking a rare day off work, I woke up around 5:15 (or, more accurately, stopped pretending I’d be able to sleep) and after the requisite shower and breakfast, look a long look at my personal haven of peace -my library- and wondered one again what had motivated me to embark on such an uncharacteristic enterprise. I don’t usually travel and often doubt my ability to enjoy it. I’m a big fan of cocooning, a guy who loves routine and is really reluctant to do new stuff. In any case, that was pretty much my lowest moment of the whole experience; sitting down in my basement, luggage in hand, wondering why the hell I was doing this.
Well, strike that. The really lowest moment of the trip came in the last few minutes waiting for the coach bus to pick us up in Ottawa, where all my doubts multiplied the usual fears about the bus never showing up. But the bus showed up, right on time.
We boarded, got our names tags (“Remove them in New York City” helpfully added our tour director) and met our fellow voyagers. Two of them we knew, sort of. My sister glanced at the nametags of a couple in their early forties and wondered if they weren’t the quasi-legendary uncle and aunt of one of our best friend. They were, showing once again that the old seven-degree-of-separation concept is more like three-degrees when considering Ottawa.
Four other passengers made an impression on us, alas negatively so: Francophone women, somewhere in their thirties, obviously good friends. Obviously idiots, too: They chattered incessantly about the most inane subjects. They couldn’t come up with a single insightful comment. They talked loudly. They were, of course, sitting right behind us.
The rest of the bus population is quickly fading away in my memory. The “colonel” (looking exactly like a Civil War military stereotype) and his young wife. The two loud women at the back. The Portuguese sisters. Mister know-all-but-really-doesn’t. The chain smoker. The small quiet mustached guy who looked exactly like all the other serial murderers you remember seeing on the evening news.
My sister and I were the only ones under thirty on the whole busload of thirty people. But as the travel brochure thoughtfully mentioned “our tour director is certified in CPR for your added safety”, well, we knew what to expect going in.
Our tour organizers (Pat and Ron, with Marcel at the wheel of the bus) gave the impression they knew what they were doing, foregoing Nazi-like exactitude for a more comfortable casual approach. (We later learned that Ron had served in the military and later as a navigator for Air Canada. He also mentioned something about the Avro Arrow project, but -damn it!- we couldn’t hear the rest very well.) Their approach worked well, and would continue to do so for the rest of the trip.
We left Ottawa proper at about 7:30. Direction south, toward the 1000 Island Bridge. I tried to sleep, a week’s worth of early wakeups just screaming to catch up with me. I was unsuccessful. Remnants of adrenaline, no doubt, even though for the first time that day, I felt adequately relaxed. A good thing too; for the next ten hours, I’d essentially be going along with the bus driver.
Our first stop was at 9:00, at a service center called Mallorytown a few kilometres away from the border. Some leg stretching, some time in the washroom (sudden lack of stress loosens the urinary tract) and off we went again.
After sort-of-stopping at a duty-free shop (why would you stop there going out of the country? About half the bus agreed with the assessment and also stayed inside), we finally crossed the border at around 10:30. No problem, no checks, no passport verification, no delays save for our Irish passenger, who had to go sign something in the customs building. (I was starting to idly wonder about whether they’d shoot him escaping when he came aboard the bus. My fantasy life once again proved far more eventful that the real one.)
A boat was making its way under the Canadian 1000 Island Bridge as we crossed it, providing us with a great photo opportunity. Was it truly, as our know-all neighbour claimed, owned by finance minister Paul Martin? Who knows?
So my sister an I entered a foreign country for the fourth time (our first, in 1986, was a three-hour trip across the border whose whole purpose was to smuggle illegal immigrants in the States -long story-, the second in 1987 was to visit said immigrants -now naturalized- in Philadelphia, during which we might have glimpsed a faint glow of New York on the way back. Our third trip out wasn’t taken together and is of even less interest to this essay than the rest of this extended parenthesis.) It all looked so… ordinary. Aside from the barbarian practice of labeling everything in imperial units (ack, ptui!) and the shameless display of American flags everywhere, North-East America is depressingly similar to Ontario and Quebec. Oh well.
Our first culture shock hit us on the highway south, when our bus repeatedly sped past several military vehicles. The Canadian Armed Forces are so small as to be invisible, this was a not-so-subtle reminder that we were quite literally in another country. (And yet most definitely not in Kansas anyhow, Toto.)
But as shocks went, this one was laughable compared to the rest of the weekend.
We had a more severe one when we stopped for lunch in Greenville, at the local Ponderosa steakhouse. Buffet-style; pay up (equivalent to $11 Can.), grab a plate, fill up and sit down. Leave the drink receipt on the table and the waitress delivers the goods without being asked. Done properly, you can be digging in chicken wings in a minute and a half. Quick and efficient, as one French-Canadian character has been known to remark; “The Americans, they’ve got the business!”
First culinary challenge; the caffeine-boosted American Mountain Dew (55mg caffeine), practically undrinkable after being accustomed to the caffeine-free Canadian version.
First exercise in discretion; not expressing total dismay at the appearance of the non-Canadian clients. Take up a dozen rural American clichés and you’d come up with the denizen of the Ponderosa at that particular intersection in time; mullet-haired rednecks, oversized mothers with vacuous eyes and turbulent children, leering military personnel barely out of their teen years… it was almost as if a “go home!” sign had been put up just for us.
Oh well. Onward.
I managed to doze off soon afterward, lessening an impression of impending cold (heaven forbids!) and a low-grade headache. (Psychosomatic, both; I got better as we drove south.)
I had brought two six-hundred-pages books with me as reading material, but what with sightseeing, conversations with my sister, listening to our tour guides’ chatter and just generally vegging\dozing, I managed to read barely two hundred pages of the first book that first day. Meanwhile, my sister laughter her way through Bridget Jones’s Diary and made serious headway in another book. But mine was written in smaller characters.
My sister had brought along her trusty CD player, and so we were humming Frank Sinatra, Mel Thorme, Jimmy Reed, Pet Shop Boys and Manhattan Transfer for a while.
We stopped once more at a tourist rest stop in New Jersey after a brief transit though Pennsylvania. (Is there any way to go anywhere in the States without crossing at least two state lines?) Not much to report there; we were pretty much alone on the road, with no landmarks to see.
The Imperial system bites back: All distances were in miles, which upon cognizance suddenly required a complete re-evaluation of our ETA. (Plus: Don’t the Americans realize how silly it is to display distances with half fractions?)
All in all, we made excellent time toward our destination, even at one point looking as if we’d make it to the hotel by five o’clock. (!)
But then, just as we saw our hotel in the distance, we hit traffic. It wasn’t the first time (some construction previously choked the interstate from three to one lane) but this was by far the worst. How bad? How about essentially an hour to make ten kilometres? Horrid. What didn’t help were the lousy jokes that our tour instructors told in an effort to lighten up the atmosphere. All it did was to bring to mind some saying about a frying pan and a fire.
Meanwhile, our custom-made New York soundtrack was well into its gangsta-rap last third. That had to mean something.
At last, we finally turned the bus around (due to the spaghetti-like configuration of New Jersey roads, going to our hotel somehow required crawling along to nearly the George Washington bridge, not taking it, doubling back and driving to the Marriot Glennepoint. Hey, Marcel’s got to know what he’s doing, right?
(As a side-note, let us state that even if the Washington bridge was less than five kilometres away from our hotel, we never took it, rather always going south to the Lincoln tunnel straight to Port Authority)
We finally arrived at the hotel shortly before six o’clock.
Good surprise: Our hotel rooms were very good. $350-375 US good, if we’re to believe the sheets taped to the back of our room’s door. Large beds, decent accommodations, in-room bathroom… Excellent stuff. Nothing to say. (Well, they did disable the pay-per-view movies, but at least we still had HBO and CNN)
We strategically regrouped once settled in our hotel room, breaking open the luggage, generally enjoying the good accommodations, unwinding a bit and reveling in the user-adjustable air-conditioning. I used this moment of respite to unload the day’s photos off the digital camera using the laptop carried over in my luggage.
Our tour guide had mentioned the possibility of taking the New Jersey Transit Authority bus to New York that very same evening, as long as we didn’t mind paying $2.55 both ways.
Did we? My sister and I looked at each other and grinned.
It wasn’t as simple as jumping on a shuttle and stepping off in Manhattan signing Sinatra, of course. Finding the bus schedule was a challenge and finding the bus stop was another one (a rather personally humiliating challenge at that, as I wasted ten minutes by not listening to my sister). Then, waiting for the bus became worthy of Samuel Becket when said bus failed to show, finally deigning to present itself thirty minutes late (which is impolite when running only once every hour).
More and more surprises: The NJTA buses are motor-coach types, not city type buses. Utterly comfortable, which is pretty much a must when most of their routes have no other purposes that to take oodles of people to New York under horrendous traffic conditions.
As it was, there was a moderate amount of traffic on our way in (our tour guide had thoughtfully warned us that taking the 6:10 or the 7:10 wouldn’t make more that ten minutes’ difference at the end due to traffic woes. Looks as if he was right.)
There was a superb view of the New York skyline just before the Lincoln tunnel, but nothing could prepare us for the sheer exhilaration of stepping on the streets of New York for the first time. “Multimedia” will remain a hollow buzzword until it manages to produce the all-out sensual assault of your first few moments in The City.
Granted, we didn’t pick the place of our immersion; New Jersey Port Transity Authority is a three-story-high bus terminal that takes up a whole city block. “It’s run like an airport terminal”, to quote our tour director. Right on. And given its function as a main transit point, you can be sure that everything surrounding the place is designed to immerse passengers in the New York experience as quickly as possible.
You step out. The first thing you feel is visceral, hitting you all at once; the terrible heat, the sticky humidity, the constant background hum punctuated by car horns (which I’d nominate as the official sound of NYC). After the antiseptic Ottawa, the rich organic smell of New York is shocking. Open your mouth and you can almost taste the carbon particles, the sweat, the rotting foodstuff lying around on the sidewalk.
And the sights… I won’t bother you with the usual descriptions of high-rise canyons and neck-stretching sights. But the visual chaos of two million people is even more pervasive that the silent skyscrapers. Everything is moving, and often at terrifying speeds.
Welcome to New York City.
And then we were off. Our first destination; Strand at 828 Broadway, “the biggest used-book store in the world”. That gave us a perfect occasion to go through midtown Manhattan by walking down the city’s main artery.
We immediately took to the typical New Yorker walk; heading somewhere as if you knew where you were going, exhibiting little regard for close contact and jaywalking like crazy. (Given the narrowness of the streets and the fact that most of them are one-way-only, this is ridiculously risk-free)
Our short walk from Port Authority to Strand was an exercise in continued jaw-dropping. We saw, in quick succession, Macy’s, Board square, the Flatiron, Union Square… Movie scenes pop up, song snatches bubble up… face it; you already know New York before going there. It just remains to see how much you like it.
One thing I understood on my way to Strand is the New Yorker’s fascination with the Empire State Building. You see it on pictures and see nothing but an ugly squarish building. Compare it with the Chrysler building and it’s even worse. But once in New York, you realize that the Empire State Building can be seen from almost anywhere in the city. After dark, it’s even lit up for your added convenience, making it even more impressive.
As an exercise in excess, Strand ( www.strandbooks.com ) is hard to beat. “Seven miles of books”, says the documentation, but from the inside, it’s like a giant paper blender. There is so much stuff that you can go crazy trying to find what you want. And what will really make you bonkers is the certitude that what you want is somewhere in the pile. (Their web site even mentions that they sell books “by the foot”, to fill movie sets and for-show libraries)
That, and the heat, of course. Oh my. The store isn’t air-conditioned and there are an awful lot of people in there. Granted, there are fans, and a water fountain downstairs, but even then… Browsing for books while water runs down your forehead isn’t the easiest thing.
But the selection, the selection… The SF section alone is a wonder. if the prices aren’t exactly mind-shattering, the selection of recent titles will relegate any other used bookstore you know to a lesser status. In face of such immensity, my mind snapped and shut down. I ended up giving up and getting out of the store with nothing in hand. (Though not before hearing a particularly vicious argument between a clerk and an alleged shoplifter. It ended with a round of applause for the clerk.)
We headed back, stopping by Forbidden Planet (big!) and the Virgin Megastore (BIG!). Forbidden Planet in particular had the best selection of high-end action figurines I’ve seen so far. As for the Virgin Megastore, well, its graphic novel selection alone made me drool, not not mention the rest of the CDs, DVDs and other books…
(A side note; to a somewhat prude Ottawa-area French-Canadian, the relatively easy availability of pornographic material in almost every outlet is something of an oddity. Not only is porn\erotica shelved casually, but at the Virgin megastore, there was an impressive selection of adult graphic novels in the clearance section. Casually-available porn is one thing, but cheap remaindered casually-available porn is something else entirely!)
Our last stop of the day was a biggie: Times Square at ten o’clock.
Even though I can’t have any idea of what I’m saying, I’ll just say that there is no other place like this in the world. None. There can’t be. I refuse to accept it.
Billboards, animated displays and high-tech screens dominate the landscape, easily dwarfing street-level sights that would be impressive in their own right. Look, and you’ll see the NASDAQ screen. Look, and there’s another, even bigger Virgin megastore. Look, and there’s a scrolling marquee for ABC. Look, and there are movie posters that could easily cover your house. And you can’t help but look, because this is such an extraordinary sight that you’ll be afraid to blink and miss part of it.
(As a science-fiction fan, I’ll make the controversial statement that liking New York is a lot like reading good SF. Suddenly, you stumble upon a concept, an execution that is so vertiginously awesome that your mind blows up trying to come to grips with its very existence. You can barely pack it all up again than -boom- something else triggers another mind-blowing sight.)
All that goodness had a price; coming back to Port Authority, we missed the 10:30 bus back to the hotel and had to wait for the next one at 11:30. This allowed us to peruse one of the local alternative newspapers (and marvel at the pages of color “escort service” advertisements) as well as experience a fully automated ticket machine.
Total mileage for the day: 700KM on wheels, 5KM on foot (est)
Needless to say, after such emotions, we were pretty much beat by the time we got back to the hotel. I unloaded the latest batch of photos and went to sleep.
Day 2: July 30, 2001
This was to be the day! After three different alarm bells (the wake-up call, the hotel’s alarm clock and our own alarm clock, for good measure), we were on the bus and ready to go by 7:30. The weather prospect wasn’t very attractive: High humidity, high heat, and to top off everything, we could only see heavy fog everywhere we looked.
We picked up our tour guide, Adrian, not far from port authority, a local history teacher who seemingly picks up extra cash touring visitors. Hey, good way to spend your Saturdays, right? He proved to be quite knowledgeable, if sometimes needlessly patronizing and at least once guilty of atrocious bad judgment. Keep reading for details.
The tour, in general, was most useful as sort of a general introduction to the city, a quick way to hit the highlights and an occasion to see what we didn’t want to bother seeing later on foot. (North and West of Central Park, mostly)
We went around the city in a roughly clockwise fashion, first seeing the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space museum (a decommissioned aircraft carrier with a bunch of airplanes on deck, plus a destroyer and a submarine on the side), the enormous tourist cruise ship docks, the television studios of the West Side (“so you’ll be able to say to your friends that those glamorous TV shows are filmed in dumpy warehouses” said the guide) and -boy, oh boy- the apartment building that served as the main exterior in ROSEMARY’S BABY.)
We stepped off the bus to take a walk in Central Park, down in the shore of “The Lake”. An interesting place, mostly due to the contrast of the high-rises (shrouded in mist) and the pastoral lake.
Going back from the lake to the bus, we had to face a slight problem: Suddenly, there was a steady stream or runners jogging down the lane we had to cross to get back to the edge of the park. “We’ll have to make it through” said Adrian. Wait! I thought, why not give them five minutes and wait for the larger gaps at the back of the pack?
Well, things didn’t work that way. Our tour director and guide neatly disrupted a few joggers going through and then stood on the other side imploring us to cross. It was a steady flow of joggers; no gap in sight for… wait… there was one coming up! By then, I was at the forefront of the huddle and quickly realized that if I wouldn’t cross, someone else would. Hey, peer pressure is a terrible thing.
So we jumped in the gap, made it through the runners on the eastern half of the road-
-only to hear “HEY!”-
-see two roller-skaters zooming down on our group-
-straighten up as quickly as possible-
-and feel the roller-skaters WHOOSH past us in front and back.
That’s when I decided that the tour guide wasn’t getting a tip. (Well, okay, I did later put a “Thanks for your effort, you marathon-breaking moron” 1$ bill in the envelope.)
And that, ladies and gentleman, was our most dangerous moment in New York. No muggers, no rapists, no crazy taxis or glassy-eyed hobos. Just a stupid tour guide, a pair of roller-bladers and a marathon of a few thousands.
The rest of the tour was less exciting in a primal oh-my-god-I’m-going-to-die sense. We made our way to the upper West side (staying long enough to realize that if it was a pretty good place to live, there wasn’t much to see there), marvelled at the ten-story-high Saint-John-the-Divine Anglican cathedral and awww-ed a bit at Columbia University.
Then we crossed the tracks to Harlem.
Ooh, pure danger. Like curious humans staring down at a natural preserve, we looked down on Harlem. Truth be told, yes it does look more run-down and grittier than the rest of New York, but not unsafely so, and with moments of pure American big commerce. The Apollo Theater, for instance, now sits safely in front of a couple of big-box shops like the Disney Store, Old Navy and a Virgin superstore. Progress marches on, often using dollar bills. Still, as white French-Canadians we didn’t see all that many interesting sights in Harlem (“Oooh, Malcolm X’s mosque”) and that simply confirmed our lack of interest to tour the area on foot.
We went down Fifth Avenue, indulging in pure celebrity-hunting as our tour guide pointed out where various Famous People have apartments. The contrast between the East side of Fifth and the west side, Central Park, was typical of the sights you can only find in new York. We saw an appetite-whetting glimpse of FAO Shwartz, Tiffany’s, Bulgari and then drove on down to the south of the city.
As we also visited the financial district the following day on foot, I won’t discuss it too much, but our vantage perspective on the bus allowed to have a better view of the streets of New York, with their narrowness and griminess we can scarcely relate to the image of New York, capital of the world. Even in its most celebrated and rich areas, New Yo
rk can’t be bothered to be as nice as a good little Canadian capital.
We stopped once more at the World Financial Center, a newer, modern waterfront development that featured washrooms (a precious public commodity in New York, as we’d been warned and would soon find out by ourselves) and an ATM machine. I had a mild moment of concern when said ATM rejected my card. This was going to be a long hungry trip if I couldn’t manage to add to my initial forty-five dollar fund!
From Battery Park City, we crossed the financial district a second time and slowly made our way north, getting a good glimpse of Chinatown in the process.
The next leg of our trip was to take us to the United Nations complex. Friends had warned us that the UN wasn’t worth the trip, which made our mandatory visit all the more precious. While it’s not as frightfully boring as forewarned, once you’ve taken pictures of the administrative monolith and the interesting sculptures in the park, it’s time to go away, because it doesn’t get more interesting. Be certain, however, to take a look at the Brooklyn skyline from the vantage point overlooking the East Driveway.
The rest of our bus ride was essentially a return to Port Authority, during which we could just look outside the windows and let midtown Manhattan, in all its glory and madness, wash over us. (I know people who could be driven bonkers by Diamond Street.)
And then we were out on the streets, ready to do whatever we wanted for roughly six hours. To adequately prepare us country yokels, Adrian thoughtfully led us, Pied Piper-like, to the Times Square visitor’s center, which allowed all to get precious information and some to buy transit passes. Karine and I withdrew a cool 100$US from the ATM machine which, fortunately, accepted our cards without any problem. Great stuff when it work, this global financial network…
This being taken care of, first things first; we craved sustenance! At the tour director’s suggestion, we tried out Applebee’s, a restaurant on 42nd street that was supposed to offer prices comparable to Ottawa’s. Of course, this being New York, this didn’t turn out so.
(a small parenthesis about prices in New York: It’s a given that the Canadian exchange rate at the time of our trip was roughly 65 Canadian cents to the American dollar, or more meaningfully to the traveler, 1.52 Canadian dollar to the American dollar. From the onset, any Canadian traveling in the states must keep this number in mind. A meal costing 10$USD really costs 15.20$ Canadian. But! There is no such thing as a frictionless exchange rate, and so transferring money from one currency to another will in fact cost you a variable rate set by your currency exchange if done at a bank, or an additional fixed rate if done at the ATM (There are usually two fixed rates in the case of an ATM transaction: The one from the bank that put the ATM there, and another one from your bank for communicating with the other bank. To these basic travel considerations, New York adds two complications. First, there is a 8.75% sales tax in New York state, which while not as bad as the Ontario/Federal 15%, must still be taken in account. Secondly -and most importantly-, you have to consider that New York (Manhattan) is an unimaginably expensive city. The whole island is a tourist trap, and the locals are either ultra-rich or homeless, which drives the prices of everyfreakingthing to levels comparable to Canadian prices. We saw this most clearly in bookstores and record stores, where quick calculations quickly revealed that comparable prices weren’t cheaper, and in most cases were even higher than Ottawa. As a rule of thumb, we usually doubled the price of everything we saw before deciding if it was a bargain or not.)
Appleby’s was a good restaurant, worth recommending for anyone who just wants a safe franchise experience. I ordered an “Applebee Burger”, which set me back $11 USD but tasted exceptionally good. Karine ordered a “Quesa Grande with Chicken”, sort of a gigantic tortilla stuffed with chicken, tomato sauce and all. Service was quick and courteous, at one exception; at the end of the meal, I went to see the waitress who had seated us and asked about washrooms, only to be told that there were public washrooms two door down. I sat back at the table and was just mentioning to Karine that she’s just mistaken me for a non-client when said waitress came to our table, apologized profusely and pointed us upstairs for the washrooms. The travel guides had effectively mentioned something about washrooms being a scarcity in NYC, and this incident was emblematic of the mindset.
Our plan for Day Two was to visit everything north of 42nd street, leaving the rest of the island for the following day. Hey, it was a plan.
We finally hit the streets at 14:00, fully refreshed and ready to bite in the Big Apple. Our admirable determination was quickly dashed by the pounding sun and the unbearable humidity. While our visit to the Intrepid air carrier went well, our energies were sapped by the time we reached the Lincoln Center. Karine used their public washrooms while I stood in the cool air-refreshed air and refilled my water bottle for the first time of the day.
(Surprisingly enough, you can quite easily get cold water everywhere in New York, if only by sticking to the parks, each of which having at least one good public fountain. Fortunately so, otherwise our bones would be sun-bleached by now.)
After that, we took over Central Park. Our first destination was Strawberry Fields, the John Lennon memorial. Our reaction was pretty much “that’s it?”: It is a small round mosaic in the asphalt (barely a meter wide), surrounded by benches. Our reaction may have been tempered by the difficulty we had finding the site and the fact that by that time we were already running ragged. No photos were taken, partly because it didn’t deserve one and partly because it seemed a bit crass to do so with all the Lennon-freaks surrounding the area. The mosaic itself was covered by a few flowers, and a lit candle, despite a sign which stated that the mosaic is cleaned morning and evenings, so that any object found there would be discarded.
(It was midway through Central Park that the sight of a street vendor -of massages services, no less!- triggered a thought; New York is a city that, left to itself, would implode, collapse and burn. New York -and you may reduce this to Manhattan alone if you wish- is home to the very obscenely rich and the very struggling poor, but it has evacuated its middle class elsewhere, creating an enormous void where most of the economic activity should take place. This place has been taken over by the tourist class, all thirty million of them per year who come by for a few days, spending almost as much each as a normal citizen would. This keeps New Y
ork going. On a less coldly materialistic level, it also forces the most extreme city of the world to be acutely self-conscious about itself. If you think New York was vain and arrogant, imagine if it didn’t have to worry about the visitors!)
We crossed Central Park more or less diagonally, stopping at the fountain and the reservoir to snap pictures (notice the water theme running through?), all the time heading toward the Guggenheim museum. We pretty much hit our lowest point during that walk, heat-exhausted and still unsure if we’d have the time to do everything we’d set out for. We ended up refreshing ourselves on a bench in an isolated wild area of Central Park, simply sitting down in the shade and drinking our park-temperature water. It was a curiously quiet moment; for a while we were finally alone in the middle of New York. A squirrel jumped on our bench and we reacted like typical New Yorkers: “Hey, back off, little fella”.
(A note about taking pictures, since I just mentioned it: I used a Kodak DC-215 digital camera during our travels, and I must say that I was pleased by its performance throughout the trip. Small enough to be unobtrusive and easily slipped in a pocket, the camera also sported 16MB of memory, which allowed for roughly 55 high-quality pictures on a single “magazine”. All pictures were downloaded when we came back to the hotel at night, so we could cheaply take almost as many pictures as we wanted. The digital viewfinder was also a marvel, instantly allowing us to preview the framing of each pictures and discard them if needed. Over the weekend, I ended up taking roughly 235 pictures, the “best” of them gracing this report. The biggest annoyance about the DC-215 were a default “automatic flash” setting -which often isn’t practical- and a slow 10-second dead pause after each picture during which you can’t snap another. I had other problems transferring the pictures to the laptop and being unable to preview them on a 16-color system, but that should be blamed on the older laptop, not the camera.)
This being said, Central Park ranks as a must-see area of NYC, an oasis of green in a desert of grey. It’s not hard to see why it has survived so long in an area where any city block reclaimed from it could bring zillions in the city’s treasury. To see, at the same time, thousands of New Yorkers playing in the park and wooden areas where it’s possible to doze of five minute without seeing anyone, well, that qualifies as a bona-fide marvel. And, to a semi-rural kind of guy like myself, it almost looked like home. Why don’t they work on expanding the park some more? Reclaim more city blocks!
All this trek finally resulted in a picture of the Guggenheim museum, at the same time marking the northern-most extremity of our footpath through the city. I don’t think it was really worth it for the museum; I think it was worth it for crossing the Park itself.
In any case, we headed back south on Fifth Avenue for some shopping. Well, window shopping: Due to the financial considerations exposed above, and the fact that shops near Fifth and Fifty-Second can require an extra mortgage just to browse, we were definitely not heading out to buy anything.
On our way south, we saw oodles of expensive apartments, the magnificent Metropolitan Museum of Art and plenty of trees, which by that time provided a welcome shade. Karine swears that she saw actor Vin Diesel sitting on a bench, accompanied by a bodyguard. I turned my head and saw a bald guy in a yellow top looking away from us, though I couldn’t really disprove her conviction. (After all, Diesel is from New York. If he wasn’t in LA doing films or promotion for THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, it’s quite possible that he was around.) In any case, that will do as our only celebrity story of the weekend.
FAO Schwarz is another sight to behold in a city that already has so many. You enter the store to be greeted by scores of stuffed animals, some quite cute, some very cute and hideously expensive (A life-sized deer, for instance, will set you back $7,000 USD. We didn’t check for the rhino.) The rest of the store is set up in zones, from an amazing collection of special Barbies (Cher, I Dream of Jeannie, Scheherazade, Hippie, Wedding Gown, Elizabeth Taylor, etc…) to a full STAR WARS toy room, to a computer game room, etc… Maybe not as many toys as your closest Toys’R’Us, but exceptionally well-arranged. The only problem with toys stores, as we were quickly reminded, is the number of kids running around, and often straight into you.
We then stopped by Bulgrari, the New York outlet of one of Europe’s most celebrated jeweller. It resulted in the following conversation between me and a clerk:
(Clerk:)–Hi, may I help you?
–Ah, I’m here to look around. One of my colleagues threatened me with bodily harm if ever I didn’t come here during my trip. Would you mind if I took a photo?
–Unfortunately sir, we can’t allow you to take photos here. For security reasons.
–Glad to hear it before rather than after I took the photo. Erm… do you have a business card I could bring back to her?
–Would you like having our catalog, sir?
–Oh, sure, if you don’t mind…
–Not at all. (Wrapping catalog in official Bulgari bag) So, do you work in jewellery?
Just after Bulgari, we hopped over to Tiffany’s on the other side of the street. While the merchandise sold there is expensive enough to make you feel guilty for even looking, there was scarcely any shame to be there along with another hundred people dressed in T-shirts and shorts. The salesperson and elevator attendants looked used to it.
Our next objective was the MetLife/Grand Central Station block. We went south on Madison avenue, seeing yet another side of New York, the non-nonsense executive area, probably bustling with life during the week, but empty of workers, tourists or vendors during the weekend. The confusing pedestrian circulation (only one light at each intersection) probably has something to do with it.
(This would be as good time as any to mention that to us, the two single most valuable travel guides to carry around in New York City were Frommer’s New York, as well as an ultra-handy pop-up map booklet called Knopf’s City Guide: New York, which allows you quick and easy reference without making too much of a fool of yourself on the street. Though for people slightly more used to the city, a standard subway map is probably enough.)
The Metlife (ex-Pan-Am) building is impressive enough in a pure skyscraper sense, but Grand Central Station brings big to a very human scale. The main area of the Station is a massive open space dominated by the mass of people and a blue ceiling with a painted starscape. Awe-inspiring. (Alas, I later found out that I couldn’t get a decent photo of the place.)
One curious thing about skyscrapers is that the worst place to see them is directly at their feet. That’s why, coming out of Central Station, we got our best view of the Chrysler building and didn’t need to go any closer. Which was fine by us; our original plans included the United Nations, but we felt there wasn’t anything fresh for us to see after the morning visit. So we proceeded to our next objective, the New York Public Library.
Alas, we reached the Library a few minutes after six o’clock, the closing time for the whole weekend (These opening hours also being shared by the neighbouring Mid-Manhattan branch of the Library) While we generally managed to do everything we wanted during our weekend in NYC, browsing the New York Public Library is one thing we’ll have to pencil in for our second visit.
We still managed to stop by Bryant Park, catching our breath (No way! There’s a “Nikola Tesla corner” at Sixth and 40th!) as we pondered the rest of our day. We stopped by Entertainment Outlet, an used-CD store, both to discover that it had nothing on Ottawa-area stores, and that their DVD selection had interesting oddities such as bilingual Chinese/English Region 1 disks. (I still bought three CDs; a new Apollo 440 CD that was slightly cheaper than its Canadian import equivalent, a rare MC Hammer first album for kicks, and Will Smith’s Willennium, again slightly cheaper than anything seen in Canada.)
Given that there was quite some time left before we had to head back to Port Authority terminal for the bus back to the hotel, Karine and I made a dash for Macy’s, the legendary ten-story department store. It’s far from being as impressive as you might think. There is a rather good fine china display on the eighth floor, but otherwise it’s a bland, boring store of little interest unless you’re a label-clothing freak.
There remained another essential American delicacy to sample, a product from the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream parlour chain. Karine took a (rather small) triple caramel crunch that set her back $3.15 USD while I splurged on a banana\pineapple smoothie that was much bigger, but more expensive at $4.50 USD. As with many other foodstuff we bought in NYC, it struck me as decent food, but a less-than-optimal value. Of course, in the heat and the humidity we couldn’t scarcely care less. Mmmm, coolness…
Estimated mileage for the day: 13 KM on foot.
By eight, we were more than ready to go back to the hotel. Once there, we unwound, tore though some cheesies, drank Pepsi and watched CNN. Karine washed her long-suffering hair while I downloaded our photos (a full 59 photos, no place left on the memory cartridge) and started writing this report. We were surprised by an unexpected -and somewhat impressive- fireworks show in New York, fortuitously visible from our hotel room; weekend fourth-of-July celebrations, no doubt. In any case, it doubled as our Canada Day fireworks. Karine went to sleep at ten. I stopped typing at about fifteen past midnight.
Day 3: July 1, 2001
Canada Day didn’t start all that well for us. I was woken up by Karine saying “It’s eight-thirty!”, which gave us thirty minutes to wash up, get dressed, clean up and make it to the bus. We did it with a few minutes to spare, but no formal breakfast for us.
The plan for the day was to explore south of 42nd street. Naturally, any self-respecting visit to New York has to include walking across the Brooklyn bridge, so our first order of the day was to navigate the subway to get to Brooklyn, and then walk across the bridge to get back to Manhattan.
Overall, the subway proved to be a singularly featureless experience. We knew where we were going, there weren’t all that many people around and the platforms were mostly clean. But keep in mind that we traveled Sunday morning; your experience may vary.
Walking across the Brooklyn Bridge is probably the only decent way to make a grand pedestrian entrance in Manhattan. Few of the jaded joggers, cyclists or power walkers running around us seemed excited about the prospect, however. Still, the bridge proves to be an exceptional place to take good pictures of the Financial district on a limited budget, and provides a curiously satisfying experience. If you try it, please make sure to do it early in the day like we did, so that the sun is behind you and reflects on the Manhattan skyscrapers.
The bridge lands a few dozen meters away from City Hall, which proved to be our first purely land-based sight of the day. The building having been erected a while ago, don’t be surprised if it’s remarkably small compared to the size of the city it’s running. Most of the real city offices, of course, are dispersed in the enormous high-rise buildings spread around this area.
Then we headed toward Fulton street, where our travel guides had indicated the presence of another Strand used bookstore. By then, we were curious to measure ourselves once more against the might of a gigantic biblio-nirvana. We waited until it opened its doors… and once again departed empty-handed after a few solid minutes of browsing. The good-but-not-stunning prices, selection and overall lack of air-conditioning helps to explain our victory. Book per book, you’d get a better deal in Ottawa bookstores than in New York. Unless you find something unavailable up here!
(If you’ll just allow me to gratuitously break from this narrative for a purely hormone-driven moment, I’ll simply point out that the density of cute chicks on the streets of New York City seemed abnormally high. I could probably do a fair statistical model of how New York attracts half the Beautiful People in the United States by hopes of modeling and acting careers, but just take my word for it, guys; NYC babe-o-thèque. Back to our unisex essay.)
We dawdled along the Fulton Market for a while, looking at a few tall ships, walking under the shade of the expressway to finally enter the city again on that most famous landmark: Wall Street. It is, like few things in New York, less impressive than you might think. A narrow, twisty passage like many others in the Financial district (itself an unimaginably claustrophobic collection of concrete canyons that instil deep unease after the square simplicity of the streets-and-avenues system), Wall Street is, well, quite unlike the bustling commerce Mecca you could imagine. The New York Stock Exchange itself faces another street! During our next trip to New York, we’ll try to check out the area during a weekday, and see the difference.
We eventually made our way across the various construction sites and reached Broadway (again; that avenue can’t be ignored). Ironically enough, there seemed to be more construction areas in the Financial District than anywhere else in the City. Heavy steel plaques seemingly took the place of half the pavement and orange fences required trickier navigation to get around. Even in retrospect, it’s not clear whether we were surprised to find out that even at the financial epicentre of the world, the road system still pretty much sucked.
(Everything south of 15th street, however, is like that. Haphazardly built during the early days of the original colonies, the old town didn’t have to contend with Hummers, SUVs and stretched limos. Bless the memory of the city planners who decided to be unimaginative and impose the streets-and-avenues system.)
Going south, we saw more Duane Reade pharmacies, the Post office, a Bronze Bull being fondled by tourists and eventually found ourselves in Battery Park. Obviously the most densely touristy area of New York, the Park bustled with buskers, including “Millennium Man”, a guy dressed in tinfoil with silver makeup who imitate the jerky movements of a robot. No pictures; I don’t want to encourage those looking for daily trips in ambulances for heat exhaustion.
We finally reached the southernmost edge of our walking tour with a foggy distant view of the Statue of Liberty. Unwilling to waste at least an hour, we marched on back north through a slightly different route, headed toward the World Trade Center. Fortunately, we had already agreed to forgo any type of travel toward the statue of Liberty, and the hideous lines did nothing to change our mind. (Though they attracted hucksters like flies, seeing as they love captive audiences.)
The World Trade Center was an exercise in bland brushed steel. We went through/under one tower, snapped a picture and left. Once again, they’re most impressive as part of the skyline, not straight up from the ground.
From there we zig-zagged through the Financial district, with the intention to lunch in Little Italy, passing through Chinatown for kicks. We giggled a bit at the pictures of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney pre-eminently displayed inside federal buildings, wondered about the piece of modern art in front of the Federal Courthouse, were astonished by Duane Reades standing, of all places, on Duane and Reade streets, and eventually reached Chinatown.
English is optional in Chinatown, and sometime even absent. All the travel guides mention the divergent fates of this area and Little Italy (Italians gladly integrating themselves in American society while Chinese keep their distances; the results being a shrinking Little Italy and an expanding Chinatown. The same thing is happening in Ottawa.), but it’s another thing entirely to see the process from up close. The transition between the financial district and Chinatown is especially abrupt, going almost instantly from high-rise to colourful banderols.
Call us bigoted, but we had our stomachs set on Italian fare rather than Chinese food, and so we quite literally picked an Italian restaurant at random (“Hey, this looks nice”) and settled down for a classical oven-baked pizza at Florio’s (www.florios.com, we found out later). Given that modern pizza was brought to America near this area, it seemed an appropriate choice. Though thin on the toppings and quite expensive (Ottawa pizzas are double the stuff for half the price), our choice certainly satisfied our hunger and gave us some spare energy to burn.
Leaving Little Italy was tough, but we *had* to see a bit of Soho and the Village, so we headed toward Washington Square. We didn’t have time to play chess, but we still ooh-ed a bit at the Arch and started north on Fifth Avenue.
Walking north the Fifth Avenue. That gave us the chance to photograph the Empire State and the Flatiron building again (incidentally finding out that this is where famous SF&F publishing house Tor Books “lives”) and stop by two Barnes and Nobles, where I picked up a book (Mark Leyner’s The Tetherballs of Bougainville) I knew wasn’t easily available in Canada.
We were coming across Rockefeller Center when rain started pouring down, drenching the city with a healthy cool layer of water. For the rest of the day, it would rain intermittently, effectively putting an end to any elaborate plan we might have had. Don’t cry for us; by that time, we were bone-tired and had seen practically everything we wanted to.
We still made an extra dash to Carnegie Hall (finding it only after we’d given up, thanks to a bad map or a bad reading of same), passed one last time through Times Square, visited the nearby Virgin Megastore (Karine bought a copy of the second Harry Potter book), tried to use the Internet access at the Time Square Visitor’s Center (only to be bumped off by a lady who had “temporarily” gone to help a guy two computers away and was now claiming her place; I wasn’t meant to check my email that weekend.), visited the Warners Store (not much there) and made it to Port Authority with roughly two and a half hours to spare.
We took a few photos, ate our requisite hotdog from some street vendor, watched New York cope with the rain and passed the time semi-successfully until we boarded the charter back to the Hotel.
Total mileage for the day: 17 KM on foot (estimated)
Once back in our room, I downloaded the day’s full load of photos, we finished the remaining Doritos, watched the local news -learning about the Central Park Canada Day concert and confirming that the temperature in NYC had hit near 40C with the pre-rain humidity- and crashed down to sleep. Weird, loud knocking noises were heard on the ceiling at around midnight, but by that time, even Poltergeists couldn’t keep me from slumber.
Day 4: July 2, 2001.
Return trips are always dull; returning over known ground when you’re tired beyond belief is an invitation to slumber and introspection, and so there isn’t a lot to mention here. I tried to doze off (unsuccessfully), did
some reading (managing to finish the 600-pages book begun on Day 1) and even squeezed in some writing on the laptop, mostly a first draft of this report’s Day 2 and Day 3.
We stopped to McDonald’s for breakfast, Arby’s for Lunch, a visitor’s center for washrooms, the duty-free shop for vice (mine was a last-minute bottle of American Mountain Dew, and yes it’s still as harsh as the one from our first day, though by now I can see how you could come to like it) and the Mallorytown center for a final break. Aside from the extra-long stop at the duty-free shop, we made good time and arrived at the Ottawa Marriott at five-twenty.
I’ll let a few pictures do most of the talking.
Total Expenses (as far as I can obsessively remember):
|1.00$ Can.||Larousse New York Tour Book|
|464.55$ Can.||Ottawa Valley Tour New York Package (929.10$/2)|
|13.79$ Can.||Black’s, Passport photo|
|60.00$ Can.||Passport Office: New Passport|
|15.00$ Can.||Various Snacks for Trip (Chips, fruits, soft drinks)|
|7.43$ US||Lunch: Ponderosa: buffet + Mountain Dew|
|5.10$ US||Tickets from/to Teanack/New York (2.55$ US each)|
|1.00$ US||Tour Guide Tip|
|15.00$ US||Lunch: Applebee’s: Applebee Burger + tax + tip|
|24.87$ US||Entertainment Outlet: 3 music CDs + tax|
|4.50$ US||Ben & Jerry’s Pineapple & Banana Smoothie + tax|
|1.50$ US||Subway token|
|20.00$ US||Lunch: Florio’s: Sauce-Sausage-Mozzarella Pizza + tax/tip|
|12.99$ US||Barnes & Noble: 1 book + tax|
|3.00$ US||Supper: Street Vendor: Hot Sausage + Welch Pop Can|
|1.00$ US||Snack: Hotel: Pepsi Pop Can|
|1.58$ US||Breakfast: McDonald, Chocolate Milk Shake + tax|
|5.50$ US||Lunch: Arby’s, Swiss Cheeseburger + tax|
|1.00$ US||Snack: Duty-Free Shop: Mountain Dew Bottle|
|4.00$ US||Driver / Tour Director tip|
|1.60$ Can.||Ottawa/Orleans Bus Ticket|
555.94$ Can + (108.47$ US * ~1.50 exchange = 162.70 $ Can) = 718.64 $ Can.
Add to that an inevitable 25$ in inevitable bank charges and other silly costs I have probably forgotten, and you still end up for a darn fine trip to New York for less than 750$, which stands for pretty good deal. If you’ve got a passport, won’t buy useless books or CDs and can effectively plan a weekend’s worth of snacks, you can get by with much less.
- Broadway in general, Times Square in particular
- Central Park
- Grand Central Station
- The intersection of Wall St and Broadway
- The skyline from the Brooklyn Bridge
New York is an amazing town. Everything is bigger and more expensive than anywhere else I’ve seen so far. The density of cultural landmarks is remarkable, and the sights are truly exceptional. Even if our lighting weekend visit most probably didn’t give us a good feel for the working, living New York, we saw enough to get a good feel for it.
By the same logic, though, New York is one city that’s despicably overstuffed with people. While we’re told that things have improved, the heat, grime, humidity, rotten odors and overall feel of claustrophobia can quickly annoy; it’s no accident if we found our peace and quiet in Central Park, and stopped at all the other parks we could find. Fabulous place to visit, but there’s no way you’re going to convince me to live there.
This being said, it’s a certitude that I will eventually go back. While I don’t feel particularly concerned about missing the Statue of Liberty or not climbing the Empire State Building, we did miss out on several astonishing museums that, if we believe the guides, could easily gobble up a day’s worth of time each. It’s also a shame that we couldn’t get inside the New York Public Libraries, but that’ll just give us another reason to go back. On that second visit, I’d probably also like to spend some more time walking through the neighbourhoods (Upper East Side and Greenwich Village spring to mind), preferably during the week rather than the weekend.
(I didn’t come across any deep understanding of Americans during the trip, though I might have had an epiphany of sorts while stuck in the traffic and staring as a religious sign; the reason that Americans have embraced religious fundamentalism might not be a function of how they were attracted to it by itself as much as it is a reaction to other opposite violent extremism. Remove “the filth of the world”, and fundamentalism becomes hollow. Canadians, probably through a more homogeneous ethnicity from the beginning, have seldom had to deal with irreconcilable differences. That’s why most Canadians tend to be deeply committed to a center political ideology without excesses. Americans, unfortunately, tend to polarize the debate and paint alternatives as either-or. How many Democrats exist solely in opposition and reaction to Republicans, and vice versa?)
I should probably take a moment to pat Karine and myself on the back for a job well-done. We embarked on this whole adventure with a clear idea of what we wanted to do and see, and by and large achieved everything we’d set out for. We did our homework, didn’t make many stupid mistakes, didn’t spend too much money, slogged on like troopers even though we were often bone-tired and managed to get along famously well with each other -almost non-stop- for four days. Whew!
Needless to say; if you’re reading this and haven’t yet been to New York City, well, what are you waiting for?