I don’t know if flying within the US is always so systematically fraught with disruptions or whether my wife and I have just had bad luck, but what with re-routings through different airports on completely different airlines than the ones we’d booked, getting bumped off a flight that had been overbooked (en route to our honeymoon no less) and waiting days for mishandled baggage (not to mention my wife’s suitcase that British Airways once managed to lose completely), every trip I’ve made Stateside has been interrupted to one degree or another. And this, my fifth visit, started no differently, though to be fair the day ended with a much happier arrival into North Carolina than the one we were preparing ourselves for.
Making a two hour international to domestic connection in Newark is probably a bit optimistic at the best of times, and the late departure of our morning Continental flight from Zurich didn’t make it any easier. Entry requirements for foreigners at Passport Control had been beefed up since my last visit to the US in 2008, as in addition to the face photograph and index finger and thumb scans I’d been accustomed to, I now had to submit all my fingers for digital prints. The procedure itself was brisk though, and the immigration officer was quite friendly and jocular – it’s amazing how much more polite and easy going the Department of Homeland Security personnel are to me when I’m travelling with my American wife when compared to the automatic suspicion I get when we fly separately. It was really only the long wait for security in the next terminal that dashed our hopes of making our connection, and we sprinted down the concourse for our domestic flight to Raleigh-Durham to find the plane still attached to the aerobridge but the gate had closed.
While this first portion of the trip was partly for me to see where Katie had gone to university, mostly it was a rare chance for her to see some of her friends from that era of her life who had continued to stay on in the region after college, and she was disappointed we’d now miss most of the evening she had timetabled to spend with a friend in Durham that she had not seen in six years.
As I was returning to Switzerland a week earlier than Katie all our flights had to be made on separate bookings, and this complication conspired to work to our disadvantage. I was immediately re-booked onto the last available seat on the next flight for Raleigh-Durham leaving Newark at 7:20pm (over four hours later than our original connection) and Katie was moved onto a still later flight at 9:05pm. When we noticed the different flights on our new boarding passes we asked the Continental representative if we could switch our flights around so Katie could take my seat on the earlier flight and get at least some time with her friend Elena before it got too late. The lady was reluctant, advising us that there was already one person on stand-by for the 7:20pm flight, and in the time it would take to move me off it that person would automatically take my seat before Katie could be added. Instead, she added Katie to the stand-by list and tried to reassure us that due to a lot of bad weather further north there was a chance enough people would get stuck up there that we’d both make it onto the flight.
We sat around in the terminal making time pass as quickly as we could, until I noticed with some dismay on the departures screen that the 9:05pm flight had been cancelled. Trundling back to the airline service desk again the rep gave us the bad news that the plane intended to operate that flight was stuck in the bad weather and would not be making its inbound flight into Newark at all, that there were no further flights to Raleigh-Durham that night and all flights there for the next day were fully booked. There was at least some good news, Katie had been moved up to first on the stand-by list for the 7:20pm flight. I was prepared to camp out in Newark overnight and try and get onto a flight to Charlotte the next day, so when we again asked about Katie taking my seat we were told to sweat it out until the 7:20 flight was boarding, and only switch in the event that everyone else showed up for the flight.
To our great relief one seat did open up and we were both able to make the 7:20pm flight, arriving into Raleigh-Durham together only five hours later than originally anticipated. We picked up our hire car and fairly easily found the house Elena shared with her husband Tim, managing to spend an hour chatting with them before we all went to sleep.
With work interfering with more catch-up time for Katie we were at least able to play with Elena and Tim’s 10 month old twin boys for a little while before we too got on the road. Our first stop was Winston-Salem, a ninety minute drive west of Durham.
Winston-Salem’s wealth over the last century came largely from the profits of tobacco manufacturing, with Camel cigarettes the most globally well known brand. In the 1950’s the descendants of the city’s richest tobacco baron R J Reynolds moved Wake Forest University about a hundred miles from the town of Wake Forest to the grounds of their family estate just north of the centre of Winston-Salem, and it was here Katie did her undergraduate degree.
Like much of our lives before Katie and I met, our university experiences were very different. I only applied for entry to the single university in my state, continued to live at home with my parents, largely spent time on campus only for classes and spent as little time in the library as I could get away with. Basically my mindset was that I was only there in order to attain the necessary piece of paper I needed in order for prospective employers to take me seriously when the time for job hunting came. For Katie, this was just one of multiple universities she applied to, was an eleven hour drive away from her home town, she lived, studied and socialised almost exclusively in the small bubble world of the campus and, like most Americans I’ve met, continues to have a much greater attachment to her university than I will ever really understand.
The Wake Forest campus was certainly a lot prettier than mine, I’ll give it that. But with the tuition for each and every one of her four years costing around two and a half times more than the entire sum of my five years, it ought to. Each of the administration halls, academic buildings and residential dorms were built in a uniform Georgian style, and inside, Katie showed me around formal lounge areas that were comfortably fitted out as if they were each foyers of a large business hotel. Her university is also a lot smaller than mine, with less than 5,000 undergraduate students in total, which gave it a nice village feel, and the well kept grounds were certainly a nice place in which to enjoy the pleasant autumn sunshine.
Speaking of autumn, the changing of the leaves is also something Katie has fond memories of from her years in North Carolina. As almost all native flora in Australia is not deciduous, every autumn in Switzerland I never fail to be wowed by the hillside and parkland riot of yellows and browns as the trees get ready to shed their foliage for winter. Meanwhile, Katie just shrugs and says the view is not complete without the vibrant red colours of the eastern US. In order to prove her point, we drove further west towards the Tennessee border to the small town of Blowing Rock, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I was happy enough just to have left the efficient but oh-so-ugly Interstate highway system, with the repetitive cookie cutter clones of major hotel chains and clusters of fast food joints that congregate around the exits, far behind. But then we got onto a tiny section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a purpose built 750km two lane scenic byway that snakes through the North Carolina mountains and into Virginia, and I was completely enamoured.
With only the leaves of the trees at the very top of the ridge lines above us beginning to change we were weeks too early to see the autumn show at its peak, but I saw more than enough red to acknowledge that Katie was right, there really would be more variation in the colours here. And while it was still too early this far south, in a week and a half we’d be further north in Massachusetts, where our timing to see the leaves would be closer to perfect.
During our drive Katie had wanted to take me to the Grandfather Mountain State Park, but the steep admission price posted at the front gate would only be worthwhile to pay if we had all day to enjoy the hiking. As it was already mid-afternoon and Katie’s crammed schedule only really allowed an hour’s walk or so, we turned the car around back in the direction of Blowing Rock and along the way walked a little along a track outside the State Park that began directly by the road. I thoroughly enjoyed what little time we had here, and would absolutely love to come back and see more – preferably at the height of autumn of course.
We were due to end the day in the city of Charlotte, and arrived not long after Neeta, Katie’s best friend from college, finished work. It had only been a few months since she had visited us in Switzerland, but it was still nice to have the chance to see her and the city she only recently moved to. Neeta was living it up in a super nice place in the heart of the downtown, with a supermarket at the bottom of her apartment building and plenty of entertainment options within walking distance. It may have had a lot to do with her great location, but I really liked the city centre of Charlotte a lot. It was modern and there seemed to be enough restaurants and bars to give the place some life outside of business hours, avoiding the virtual no-go zone that plagues the centres of other big Southern American cities. There was certainly a lot more vibrancy and verve here than the slightly tired looking downtown area of Winston-Salem, no doubt helped in part by the fact that Charlotte is currently the second biggest banking centre in the US.
Habitat for Humanity, a non-profit organisation dedicated to building houses with volunteer labour and selling at cost price to needy families, is a cause close to my wife’s heart, and she wanted to make the most of being in the US by doing something to help out. She and Neeta had found a project where Habitat was presently building six homes in an inner-city Charlotte neighbourhood, and the three of us spent a good half a day there. It was a busy worksite with at least forty or fifty people purposefully buzzing around and, despite Katie’s reassurances to the contrary, I was at first a little dubious that we could just turn up unannounced with no skills, no tools and do something other than just get in the way of people who actually knew what they were doing.
My fears were not completely unfounded – my building abilities rival only the diplomatic skills of North Korea in their clumsiness – so it was with some relief that a site foreman immediately put me to work in causing destruction rather than construction. I spent a happy hour or more in two adjacent houses ripping out some temporary timber needed only during earlier stages of putting the frames together, safe in the knowledge that as long as the houses stayed up I couldn’t bugger things up too badly.
After finishing that task, my confidence grew slightly and I joined Katie and Neeta up on the roof. I pretty quickly got in the groove of nailing down rows of thin asphalt shingles along previously marked chalk lines, so much so that I no longer noticed the police car slowly driving by on patrol every 15 minutes or so (protecting the building materials…or us? I couldn’t help wonder). I was quite disappointed as midday approached and we had to make our leave, as we were due back in Winston-Salem for another of Katie’s all-American college experiences – attending a football game.
We were staying the night with Katie’s freshman roommate Karissa and her daughter ZaKaiya, and my filthy clothes immediately made themselves far too at home on their nice clean furniture. With what we thought would be plenty of time before the game, the four of us headed out into what became ever worsening traffic the closer we got towards the university. The stadium was not on the Wake Forest campus but fairly close to it, and the gridlock of football goers was compounded by extra traffic as people also headed for the Dixie Fair at the adjacent showgrounds. Katie had organised for us to tack on to a pre-game ‘tailgate’ (a series of barbeques and parties in the car park of the stadium in the hours leading up to the game) with a circle of other former students she knew, though, by the time we managed to snag a parking spot and waited an age in a snaking queue for a shuttle bus over to the stadium precinct, we were scrambling to make it to the ground in time for kick-off let alone a little pre-match tipple.
The tailgating would have to wait for half time, but fortunately the game was only a minute old by the time we climbed high into the bleachers and found our seats on a cool but comfortably still evening. Wake Forest were hosting Georgia Tech, and the 36,000 capacity Groves Stadium (or BB&T Field as it is currently branded in this age of character crushing naming rights sponsorships) was at least two-thirds full. It staggers me that a university with an enrolment of under 5,000 undergraduate students can generate enough supporters to have infrastructure of this size – and Wake is not even known as a football school. Far more beloved is the basketball program, with the adjoining indoor arena accommodating 18,000 hoops fans – and even then tickets for non-students during basketball season are as easy to find as Osama bin Laden.
Katie was hoping only for her Demon Deacons to avoid annihilation to the Yellow Jackets on the night, and with Georgia Tech unexpectedly losing the previous week she was convinced there was no way Wake could avoid a drubbing to their more fancied conference rivals on the rebound. Her fears were initially unfounded, as the first two quarters contained a lot of stoppages and not much action (on this display it beats me how Americans could ever possibly think that cricket is dull and boring), and despite the home side losing two quarterbacks to injury early on the score was tied at 3-3 at the main break.
After ducking out for a quick beer and snack under Katie’s friends’ marquee in the car park (a pretty involved setup but nothing compared to the couches and flat screen TVs of some of the other tailgaters present), the third quarter was much more eventful on the scoreboard. With fireworks overhead announcing the end of the evening’s entertainment over at the Dixie Fair, Wake headed into the last quarter with an unlikely 17-9 lead. But the celebratory sky show was premature. Georgia Tech hit back with a touchdown and an unusual two point conversion to level things at 17-17. Wake Forest countered with a field goal of their own, and with two minutes remaining in the game it looked like the Demon Deacons would pull off an unlikely 20-17 victory.
But over the next series of plays Georgia Tech finally decided it was time to stop toying with their prey, effortlessly steaming down the ground for a series of first downs. Ignoring the safer option of kicking a field goal and forcing the game into overtime, with fifteen seconds left the Yellow Jackets scored the winning touch down and subsequent one point conversion to totally dash the home fans’ hopes, taking the game 20-24.
My first American football experience was certainly a good one, and I’m convinced nobody does the pomp and ceremony of bands, mascots and cheerleaders at sporting events quite like America does. ZaKaiya was so hyped on the way home she insisted there was no way she could go to sleep once we got back to their place, though inevitably about halfway there she completely zonked out and her mum carried her slumped body out from the car and into bed. I think you can safely take that to mean that fun was had by all.
Come morning and we were on the road again, and to my great joy we initially kept clear of an Interstate freeway. It was a much older two lane highway that carried us north-east from Winston-Salem through a peaceful semi-rural area lined with gracefully sagging double storey weatherboard homes and more humble single storey lean-tos, before we hit the dual carriageway of US route 29 and motored north out of North Carolina.
Crossing into Virginia I was immediately struck by three things. Firstly, judging by the quantity of patrol cars around, the Virginia State Troopers were eager to try and catch their monthly quota of speeding highway motorists very early in the month. Secondly, considering the number of mobile home sales yards by the roadside, buying mobile homes must be a fairly popular choice of residence (and an admittedly great first step for those of us still yet to climb the bottom rung of the property ladder). Finally, judging by the proliferation of churches (many of which looked recently built) and all with cars parked out the front of them this Sunday morning, we had entered the Bible Belt. Even as a Christian I found that last one the most striking – I didn’t realise the Deep South ran so far, well, north.
Just before Lynchburg there was a turn-off to Appomattox (cue thoughts of some dastardly disease that once so decimated the local populace someone decided to name the town after it), and Farmville (cue thoughts of three hundred million Facebook users squealing in delight “It’s REAL?”). From the passenger seat I kept my eyes peeled for some of the stray black sheep or lonely brown cows that Farmville (rather carelessly, if you ask me) so often lose that might wander onto the highway and cause a virtual accident, but fortunately US29 was much less cluttered than my Facebook News Feed, and we arrived without incident in Charlottesville.
Our hosts Mark and Amanda, exactly like Neeta had done in Charlotte two days before, knowingly took us to a Mexican restaurant for a meal immediately on arrival. Katie craves Mexican food in much the same way I do South-East Asian, and she loves nothing more than to get her ‘fix’ while in the US (though she’s particularly picky that it’s not overly Americanised in much the same way I detest the greasy goop loaded with MSG that passes for Asian in much of Europe). And when it comes to dining out in America I love Mexican too. For a start, they bring you free corn chips and homemade salsa as soon as you sit down, which taste infinitely better than the congealed crap in jars available in the supermarket. And when you’ve finished snacking on that, someone replaces them with another serving. And, if you plough through that one too, another. I happily pig out on as much salsa as I can before my main meal arrives, eat what I’m able to of that, and then walk out with three quarters of my chimichanga, enchilada or fajitas in a box for later. It’s two whole meals for the price of one, and it’s utterly brilliant.
Secondly, and even more my style, the more authentic Mexican restaurants have service levels that, compared to the American average, could only be described as minimalist. I’m not enamoured with being on first name terms with a server I’ve only just met and who is pretending to be my best friend only for the next hour or so (or just until the table needs to be turned over for later diners and subtle hints are made to encourage me swiftly out the door). I’m not swayed by the chatty recommendations of what dishes are really good (which I take to mean they have too many in the kitchen and just really need to offload some so as not to throw them out, but I can read the menu for myself and I’ll order anything I like the sound of), and I especially don’t like it when they break up a conversation to lean in and fill a half empty water glass without being asked to. I realise the American system is built on terrible hourly wages for waiting staff and they need to earn good tips in order to make a living, and when I’m in America I’ll totally comply with that expectation (or, more correctly, leave that responsibility to Katie who more obviously recognises what the appropriate gratuity should be), but when I go to a restaurant I want all the emphasis to be on what my tastebuds think. The rest of whatever makes up the so-called ‘dining experience’ should be left to me and whomever I happen to be eating with. And I don’t feel guilty in saying all this, because I overhear Americans complain about the poor level of service when they’re in Europe often enough, so I feel it’s only fair to point out it works both ways.
A ‘real’ Mexican restaurant has staff with a level of English that does not extend to sparkling repartee (equally, neither does my Spanish), so it’s a simple procedure of delivering the menus (and salsa), returning after a time to take the order, deliver the drinks and main meals, clear the empty plates and then lastly bring over the bill without feeling the need to entertain or otherwise continually vie for all the attention of the table.
On this occasion a great meal was had as I got to know close friends of my wife in a far more relaxed and convivial environment than the blurred first time I’d met them at our wedding, the food tasted good and the waiting staff earned a nice tip for their efficient and unobtrusive service. Everybody kicks a goal.
As well as being the current home of Mark and Amanda and another couple who went to college with Katie who we’d see the next day, Charlottesville also happens to have been the home to the third, fourth and fifth presidents of the then fledgling republic of the United States. Of those three, Thomas Jefferson is the only one I am at all familiar with (the others are James Madison and James Monroe), though the homesteads of all three are popular tourist sites. Mark and Amanda took us quickly by Monticello, Jefferson’s monumental (and more than a little eccentric) residence, and then to nearby Carter Mountain, a vineyard and apple orchard where many visitors were enjoying the sunshine dappling through the rows of trees while picking their own fruit.
With a bag eventually filled with fresh apples, though not all four of us managed to remain on our feet while manoeuvring the long-handled grabber tool to pick them, Katie turned her attention to a large number of pumpkins on sale. Halloween was still a few weeks away and we’d both leave the country well before it rolled around, but I was still able to get another all-American experience under my belt on this trip: Carving a Jack-o’-Lantern.
In my formative years pumpkin was a disgusting backyard grown vegetable we were forced to eat boiled or baked with unfortunate regularity, and the plants of which I’d quite happily run over with the lawn mower if they dared outgrow the confines of the garden and trespass onto any of the grass I was cutting. So once back at Mark and Amanda’s I was only too willing to be able to help scoop out the insides and take a knife to the pumpkin knowing its only purpose was for decoration rather than sustenance. When it comes to trick or treat, that was a big enough treat for me.
Katie and I are now well used to our English dialects containing often quite different vocabulary, and sometimes the same phrases can mean entirely opposite things. To ‘luck out’ for her means to be ‘in luck’ for me, rather than unlucky in the sense I would use it. When she ‘could care less’ I have to remember she means that she ‘couldn’t care less’. And then of course there’s the unintentional hilarity when an American refers to ‘fanny packs’ around non-American English speakers.
We spent the morning ambling around Charlottesville’s compact centre, where the Downtown Mall reflected the meaning of the word ‘mall’ that I was used to (a pedestrianised main commercial street), as against the norm elsewhere in the US where the malls are what I would refer to as a suburban shopping centre. And what a lovely mall this one was too. Main Street had been blocked off to vehicular traffic for a good seven or eight blocks, and the red pavers were lined with low-rise historical buildings, expansive mature trees and street furniture. The old style Paramount Theatre’s classically lit façade advertised an upcoming presentation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, while outdoor tables with timeless red and white checked tablecloths offered al-fresco dining options at adjacent local restaurants. Admittedly it was a little nippy for eating outside, so we ate a superb early lunch in an independent diner located under street level in the basement of a solid old brick building, where I tried my first ever wedge of Key Lime Pie. In short, the mall had character in spades, and I enjoyed the time here infinitely more than I do at a sterile indoor shopping centre. I can easily see why Charlottesville scores so highly in lists of America’s most liveable cities.
Though, having said that, the place was responsible for dashing one of my childhood visualisations. Whenever the words ‘soda fountain’ appeared in American books my mind always took them quite literally, imagining how ice cream parlours could take a base syrup for any desired flavour and mix it on request with some kind of impressive, crowd pleasing contraption gushing jets of carbonated water. (I also did much the same with ‘ice cream sandwich’, thinking Americans completely mad for happily choosing, as some kind of treat, to eat ice cream between two slices of bread. My miscomprehension on that one has a much happier ending.)
At the very least I thought a soda fountain would be bigger than the home soda stream machines that were a bit of a brief fad in Australia at the time of my childhood in the mid 1980’s, and at their most impressive might contain a pool of fizzy water big enough for kids to jump in and paddle or splash about in. So when a Downtown Mall drug store hoarding proudly advertised an old-time soda fountain in the back of the pharmacy, I just had to go in. I found people sitting on stools eating their lunch at a retro marble counter right out of Happy Days, but try as I might, I couldn’t spy any kind of soft drink machine. It was then that Katie burst my bubble, explaining that an ice cream parlour or lunch counter didn’t even need a fountain of soda water in order to be called a soda fountain.
Close by the mall was Court Square, the site of which has played host to some pretty big legal developments for the colony of Virginia while they struggled against the British in the 1760’s and 1770’s, before we spent the remainder of the day with Katie’s friends Ellen and Neal. They had had some pretty big developments themselves since I had first met them when visiting us a year earlier – mostly in the form of their eight week old son.
Our drive from Virginia back down to North Carolina had been uneventful, and we arrived at Raleigh-Durham airport and dropped off the hire car in very good time. But the flight gremlins were at work again. On checking in, the Continental staff told us if we hurried straight through to security they could put us on an earlier flight to Newark. It meant we wouldn’t have time to get some lunch beforehand, but as we’d arrive in New York earlier we readily agreed.
The flight was less than a quarter full as we taxied out towards the apron, whereupon the engines were cut and the pilot announced that we had lost our landing slot for Newark and would be sitting on the taxiway for about an hour. That left a certain number of the passengers visibly annoyed, though the hosties were great at serving out more drinks and packets of pretzels than I would have ever asked for. After the allotted time the turboprops of the Dash 8 started up again, and this time we were informed that before taking off we would be returning to the terminal to pick up some more passengers (I can only assume the remainder of those booked on our original flight). This was fine by us, though as we had been previously encouraged to spread out through the empty cabin in order to distribute the load more evenly, there was a fair bit of fresh argy-bargy as some of the new boarding passengers found people already sitting in their assigned seats. This ‘earlier’ flight finally left the ground later than the one we had booked to take.
I’m not at all trying to whinge about how hard done by we were, we arrived safely into Newark and the disruption didn’t interrupt any of our bigger plans for the day. It’s just an observation of how the more accessible flying becomes, the more complicated and fragile the web of airline management, flight crew, ground staff, airport owners, air traffic controllers, security operations and the myriad of contracting companies working in between. And how once regarded not so long ago as an experience of wonder, flying now is more and more likened to being herded like cattle, and our attitudes and patience levels reflect that whenever the flimsiness of this complex logistics structure is exposed.
But on to more exciting things: New York City! The prospect of spending a few days exploring here sent my inner travel bug into bouts of wound up hyperactivity. I had been here before, although I mostly told people that because it wound Katie up something shocking. For our first Christmas together I had come over to America with her in order to meet her family. On Boxing Day (or more correctly, the day after Christmas Day, seeing as how that doesn’t exist in the US) we flew from her brother’s place in Boston to spend New Years with her Dad in Memphis, and had a four hour layover in Newark enroute. Being so close to New York was nothing special for her as she had been enough times before, and while in high school had danced in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (which I’m told is a pretty big deal). But there was no way I was going to idly sit in a transit lounge for that length of time with one of the world’s great cities so close, so I convinced her to take the train with me into Manhattan.
Unfortunately the timetable was hardly what I would call frequent, and after the train pulled into the terminus at Penn Station I found out the only train we could possibly take that would get us back to the airport in time for our next flight was the very same one we had just gotten off, making the return journey into New Jersey ten minutes later. But in those ten minutes I at least got a taste of the essence of Manhattan: impatient yellow cabs, billowing steam vents and the exterior of Madison Square Garden.
Fast forward five years, and we’re on the same route from Newark to Penn Station. But this time I had finally made it for a legitimate visit, and once out of the rail terminal we headed straight towards the subway in the crush of evening peak hour.
What better way to spend your first night in New York than by taking in a live show? No, I don’t mean the subway, though judging by some of the folks I came across during our visit that might count. I’m referring more to a big budget musical on Broadway, a slightly edgier off Broadway play or the taping of a TV show. But with musicals not really taking my fancy, and I’m no real fan of David Letterman or his ilk of late night talk show hosts either, so I was off to a slightly more obtuse venue – a converted warehouse in the Gowanus area of Brooklyn.
By the time we climbed up from the subterranean world of the R train at Union Street it was dark and quite deserted. The footpaths were cracked, the gutters were full of rubbish and we walked past the occasional vacant lot with tumbledown wooden or metal fencing. Although it was authentic New York, there was to us a hint of the less safe period before its current renaissance, and Katie and I were both relieved to make it to our nearby hotel without any issues.
There was just time for a quick bite at a cheap and cheerful Italian joint just down the street, where a professional looking couple a bit younger than us (and not incidentally, given all the people from Katie’s university we’d met on this trip, it transpired they were also graduates of Wake Forest) assured us that this area of old and empty warehouses was completely safe, with the gentrified Park Slope and Carroll Gardens neighbourhoods just a few blocks either side, before Katie went back to the hotel for a deserved early night and I slightly less nervously walked alone through the abandoned industrial zone.
I arrived at the Bell House, the previously mentioned warehouse turned live music venue, excited to see the Hoodoo Gurus, one of my all-time favourite bands. For whatever reason I naturally tend to like predominately Australian rock/alternative music, which has made catching live gigs of my most loved artists more than a little difficult since leaving Australia in 2004. So it was with some exhilaration a couple of months before this trip when I found out the Guru’s New York concert during a whistlestop US tour of seven cities would coincide with my first night here. At the very least, it would make up for the disappointment when I last tried to see them, in England in 2008. It was a week after they had played at the famed Glastonbury festival and were winding up their UK visit with a small gig in the southern seaside city of Brighton. I was working 100km west in Southampton, and had a few things to finish up before I went on holidays for a couple of weeks. I couldn’t find out what time they were starting and I made it to Brighton at what I thought would be the comfortable time of 9:00pm, only to discover that not only were they already playing, but I was in time only for one and a half songs of their set plus the encore. It was a disappointing journey back to Southampton, to say the least.
This time I had made it to the venue even before the support act came on, and easily found Atul, one of my friends from Sydney who had recently moved to New York. I was expecting the crowd to be made up of a hundred or so ex-pat Australians like us, but by the time the Gurus came on the stage the main room was crammed with perhaps five hundred people or so. Somewhat curiously, we were the only two southern hemisphere accents I heard all night and we were definitely at the youngest end of the age spectrum – it seems like there are still some rusted on fans from when the Gurus made it onto the radar of the American college scene back in the 1980’s (whereas I didn’t really latch onto them until my later teenage years in the mid 1990’s). The gig was everything I could have hoped for, there was a good mix of tried and true tunes and tracks from their newest album, and they even played a couple of audience requests of some early B sides that I’ve never heard at shows in Australia.
And with bills announcing the Dandy Warhols were set to play at the same venue the next week, perhaps my choice of live show at the Bell House was not atypical for a New York night out after all.
I kiss the ground on which you walk, I kiss the lips through which you talk,
I kissed the city of New York when I first met you.
Like Wow – Wipeout! by the Hoodoo Gurus.
Our stay in Brooklyn was designed purely to make getting to and from the concert logistically simple, and our first task of the morning was to get back on the R subway line and move our luggage into Manhattan. We’d spend the next three nights with Atul, who was more than happy to roll out the welcome mat to visitors – possibly because after only three months living in New York he hadn’t yet been inundated with other freeloaders eyeing a free sofa bed in a studio perfectly located on the edge of Greenwich Village. He had gone all out for us, his very first guests, by buying curtains specially. And though it was cosy with three people in his studio (though no more crowded than whenever I had guests in my Geneva studio the first two years I was there), Atul and I did have more personal space than when we went to the Caribbean island of Grenada for the 2007 Cricket World Cup when the two of us shared a double bed for two weeks.
With our bags in Atul’s place just before he headed off to work for the day, we got on the 6 subway line at Astor Place and got off two stops later at Brooklyn Bridge for no other reason than that was where the line terminated. While trying to figure a way out of the fenced enclosure of City Hall Park, a young guy approached us and asked if we could spare him a moment. I was extremely guarded at first (who on earth approaches strangers in New York for a chat unless they’re complete nutcases, right?), though before I could come up with some feeble excuse he showed us an image of album cover art on his iPhone and asked us if we recognised it. We replied, truthfully, in the negative, whereupon he claimed the cover belonged to an album of his own. When he next stated he was going to be the support act for Jack Johnson on a forthcoming American tour, I ventured that if this was true then his future in the music industry was probably well assured irrespective of our ignorance of his work. Time may well prove we had just had an encounter with a chill-out genre superstar of tomorrow. Not that we’d have the faintest clue who this bloke was, even if he did hit it big.
It was a beautiful sunny day just perfect for walking (and we were ridiculously lucky it stayed like this for our whole visit), so even though we were heading straight back to the same outer borough we’d just left this morning, it seemed an opportune time to walk across the East River’s most famous span.
From there we followed the rejuvenated foreshore of former docklands that now supported the expanding Brooklyn Bridge Park, found a way to cut under the noisy traffic of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and soon found ourselves in the peaceful neighbourhood of Brooklyn Heights. The rest of the morning was happily spent wandering the pretty leafy streets of these classic brownstone terraces that felt a world away from the noise, sirens and bustle of Manhattan only a short distance away.
Lunch was a giant sandwich from a deli on Clinton Street, served by an intense guy of Italian ancestry with a full-on working class Brooklyn accent and FDNY t-shirt, before I suggested to Katie we take the subway to transit under the area we’d already seen the previous night and come up again at Prospect Park.
I was interested to see Prospect Park mostly because back in 1866 its creators reputedly found it superior to their previous project, a quite well known little parcel of green space in Manhattan going by the name of Central Park. With plenty of baseball diamonds, ponds and wooded areas, this park certainly had many of the same features as New York’s most treasured backyard, though it was clear that the same amount of money wasn’t going into Prospect Park’s upkeep as parts of it did look a bit tired and forlorn.
One thing I noticed during my time in New York was that, given its focal importance in the rise of such a colossal empire, there haven’t been many great 19th century central squares built to show off American military might, such as you easily find in the great cities of Europe. Perhaps the local versions have been mostly reserved for the capital, Washington DC, but I’m still surprised there is no ostentatious New York traffic circle like London’s Trafalgar Square, Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate or Paris’ Arc de Triomphe that celebrates, say, victory for the initial thirteen states over the English in the War of Independence or the later conflicts that expanded the US to its present size.
Though on exiting Prospect Park at its northern end, we did stumble on one notable exception: Grand Army Plaza. Just apart from the large fountain of mythical characters (including a comically chubby representation of the water god Neptune), there rises a great ceremonial archway topped by the statue of a woman in a horse-drawn chariot. Dubbed the Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Memorial Archway, it is dedicated to the victorious northern forces in the American Civil War – a potentially divisive landmark if there ever was one, considering nearly a hundred and fifty years later my southern wife says the conflict is still called the War of Northern Aggression down where she is from.
Perhaps where New York really shows off its empirical might is its skyline, with the towering skyscrapers of the twentieth century doing all the boasting needed to demonstrate the power of this great world city. From Grand Army Plaza we were down in the subway to head over to Manhattan again, re-emerging to street level at New York’s most acutely symbolic location of the last decade – the site of the World Trade Centre.
Like millions of people around the world, I was horrified by what unfolded in those few hours on 11th September 2001. It was 11pm Sydney time and I was about to go to bed when a neighbour called my flatmate and I and told us to turn on the TV quickly. Every channel was taking live feeds from various US networks in the immediate aftermath of the first plane flying into the North tower. The anchors were reporting on what little information was known when live footage of the second plane hitting the South Tower was shown, which amidst the alarm and confusion was naturally mistaken by all in the studios as freshly sourced footage of the first plane. For the next half an hour or so I watched, stunned, as the gravity of the situation began to sink in – a decade after I had enjoyed the challenge of flying a Cessna or a Learjet between the twin towers in the computer game Microsoft Flight Simulator v4 (and sometimes getting it wrong at full throttle and crashing into one of them), people had hijacked commercial flights and done the same thing for real. When reports then came in that a third plane had crashed into the Pentagon in Washington DC I wondered when the madness was all going to end, and I was still in utter disbelief as both towers collapsed and the fourth hijacked plane crashed in Pennsylvania. I dared not go to bed until after 3am my time when it seemed like nothing further would happen, and I did next to no work the next day as everyone in my office continued to struggle to comprehend the reality of what had just occurred.
But in the ensuing years I became frustrated at the very mention of “September 11” or “9/11”. I’m still dismayed at the way the US government and their complicit western counterparts (especially Australia) used this dreadful event as a tool of fear against their own citizens, and as justification for the deaths of civilians in other countries – not to mention the deaths of their own military personnel – in the bumbling, revengeful pursuit of a mysterious and largely unknown enemy target. I’m certainly not saying that the people of America and other countries shouldn’t have been shocked, upset or outraged by this immensely gruesome event, just that the clumsy (and seemingly never ending) attempts at vengeance in Afghanistan and Iraq aren’t exactly making things any better.
I also became sceptical of all the conspiracy theories. While I’m sure the intelligence agencies are not being completely honest with the public over what they knew about the events, I find it extremely difficult to believe that US authorities would knowingly allow, or worse, orchestrate themselves, such acts of bastardry on their own territory, even if the official death toll just happens to be far less than the tens of thousands initially feared. I’m left to think that the full murky truth will never really see the light of day.
But then last year, on the 8th anniversary of the attacks, I watched an exceptionally well crafted documentary that re-focussed my perspective. It was a collation of different home videos and news helicopter footage from New York of those eventful hours, shown in real-time, with audio from the home videos intertwined with emergency services radio conversations between operators and the so-called first responders – the initial NYPD and FDNY teams that arrived at the scene and began climbing the towers’ stairwells. With no narration or other voice-overs to hinder the intimate viewpoint, it chillingly showed the confusion, fear and panic on the streets of lower Manhattan as the events unfolded, with haunting radio exchanges between the emergency crews as they fought the fires in the towers as the buildings collapsed. It made me realise that, whatever the origins and political repercussions of September 11, I should not forget the event itself was a catastrophe that gruesomely and needlessly ended the lives of so many innocent people.
With that outlook fresh in my mind, Katie and I entered St Paul’s Chapel, a 1760’s church directly opposite the WTC construction site. In the immediate aftermath of September 11 the church became a barracks, mess and counselling centre for the army of volunteers who came to comb through the rubble for possible survivors. It remains a memorial space, affixed with the photos and posters of office workers, cops and fireys put together in the days immediately after the attacks by family members desperate to find some trace of their loved ones. It certainly reinforced to me the human loss, of regular people just doing their jobs, who for all intents and purposes just disappeared from the face of the earth that day without a trace.
Heading back out into the church yard I tried to imagine in vain how two 110 storey towers would have looked up close in this densely built up part of lower Manhattan. And then, perhaps inevitably, I was struck by how miraculous it was that the headstones of St Paul’s, the chapel itself, and indeed almost every other structure beyond the World Trade Centre site had not been completely obliterated as the supporting structures of these two soaring skyscrapers gave way. Not that I’m in any way insinuating the towers toppling straight down into mushroom clouds of dust was a tightly controlled demolition job, rather than an unforeseeable freak accident not even envisaged by the plane hijackers.
Across Vesey Street from the churchyard there was an indoor exhibition space which, in addition to looping footage of the plane crashes and tower collapses, contained a model of the new glass towers that are in the midst of construction on the site. Incorporated into the design is a memorial, with two square water features marking what were the footprints of the twin towers, trailing down into the former basement levels. I’m not trying to sound offensive or disrespectful at all, but to me it’s unfortunate that such an important public space of reflection looks like two giant, enclosed urinals.
But over recent months there has already enough fresh controversy even without me weighing in with my two cents worth, with plans to build an Islamic community centre two blocks from Ground Zero being seen in some quarters as disrespectful. But a month before my visit I had seen an article in the New York Times pointing out that, not only had Muslims working in the World Trade Centre been amongst the victims on September 11, a Muslim prayer room had existed on the 17th floor of the south tower and the stairwell between the 106th and 107th floors of the north tower was used for prayers by Islamic staff of the Windows on the World restaurant. It’s also been suggested that there would be less dispute had the location chosen been five or ten blocks away from the WTC, but even so it’s difficult not to interpret opposition as a form of discrimination against New York’s resident Muslim community – as if the ‘War on Terror’ is by extension a ‘War on all Muslims’.
But enough of the World Trade Centre and on to another new Manhattan building project with a little less controversy slightly further uptown. In the mid twentieth century, the Meatpacking District was exactly that, a row of abattoirs by the Hudson River crammed between the West Village and Chelsea. By the 1980’s when the industry had moved out and the area fell into neglect, the area’s name retained just as much relevancy as the hang out for transvestite prostitutes. But all the recent gentrification in New York has not escaped this area, and the long disused elevated railway line that once served the meat packaging plants has been renewed into the High Line, a landscaped public walkway with a difference.
With the sun on the wane, Katie and I climbed up to the High Line’s southern end at 14th Street and soon found some wooden lounge chairs facing the river sunset. And there we met Cindy, yet another of Katie’s college friends, who was meeting us after finishing work. Cindy was getting married in three days, and her wedding was the whole reason that made this trip to the US possible. It was nice to get to know her a bit outside of the wedding day itself, as the only other time I had met her and her husband-to-be was at our own wedding, which for me was a bit of a blur of new faces. It was even nicer Cindy could make the time just to see us so close to the impending nuptials, and she seemed remarkably relaxed for someone with the usual final wedding preparations to do – which three days later went off without a hitch. Held in a leafy and charming part of the New Jersey commuter belt, and though I didn’t know too many people there, it was one of the most enjoyable weddings and amazing receptions I’ve ever been to.
It was time to see the Lady. We’d seen her from afar already of course, from the Brooklyn Bridge, the foreshore of Brooklyn and Hudson City Park in lower Manhattan, but it was time to get up close and personal with that special French gift. And what a stunner! Her fine copper features scrub up just as well under close scrutiny as from far away, which, let’s face it, is pretty hard for any person to pull off on the attractiveness scale. Not that I’m completely shallow – what’s on the inside is very important too. A much under appreciated reason for the Statue of Liberty’s continued good looks over 120 years is due to the mostly unseen network of internal supporting iron trusses that were an innovation for its time. The designing engineer went on to make sure his graceful, lightweight system of reinforcement would play a far more visible part of his next project a few years later. The engineer in question? A certain Gustav Eiffel.
Even before the Lady, I’d already been impressed by a very clever and poignant sculpture located just offshore from Battery Park while waiting in line for the ferry out to Liberty Island. The Merchant Mariner’s Memorial was inspired from photographs taken by a German U-boat after it sank an American merchant vessel during the Second World War, and of all the statues in Battery Park it caught my attention the most. Three men appear temporarily safe on the listing bow of their sinking ship, with one reaching down in vain to try and grab the outstretched arm of a fourth crewmate in the water. Their fingers don’t quite meet, and as the harbour’s flow continually washes over the drowning man’s head, the scene looked so real I almost expected the statue to cough, splutter and struggle.
From the Statue of Liberty it was on to Ellis Island. Katie has no family connection with this immigrant processing centre (from what we know about her genealogy, ancestors of both her parents sailed from Europe to New York way back in the 1660’s when it was still New Amsterdam – two centuries before the sandbar out in the harbour was developed), but I was still very much looking forward to seeing the great registry hall that handled thousands of new arrivals every day for over 50 years. I’m not sure why exactly, but perhaps it’s because Ellis Island has a feel good notion attached to it, as the entry point of a booming global power enthusiastically embracing people from so many other lands to participate and share in a better life. That idea has probably become ridiculously romanticised over time, but it sure makes for a more uplifting tale than the current prevailing attitudes to asylum seekers and refugees in the media in western countries right now.
Looking out from Ellis Island across the harbour, I was struck again by the statement of pre-eminence inherent in New York’s skyline. Seeing many of the same buildings in mid-town Manhattan and Brooklyn that would have been the dominant landmarks of 60, 70 or 80 years ago, it’s hard not feel some of the wonder and optimism that must have been present when the new arrivals had completed their long sea voyages, been accepted to land and were about ready to start a new life.
From our vantage point here, modern additions in the form of concrete and glass skyscrapers were mostly visible only in the Financial District and over on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. The latter in particular looks like it’s only just been discovered by property developers, as if Jersey City and Hoboken were completely dormant during New York’s real glory years. The clusters of newly built towers of dazzling reflective glass now make this part of New Jersey look like Dubai, Shanghai or any number of other rapidly rising cities striving to be world financial hubs. And given the historical clamour for land on Manhattan and the intimate geographical proximity of this edge of New Jersey to the heart of New York, I can only wonder what took so long.
Katie and I then split up for different parts of the ‘new’ New Jersey and ‘new’ New York respectively. After returning to Battery Park she went over to Hoboken to visit yet another college friend, while I headed for the Financial District. The aura of Wall Street presented itself well before I reached that fabled avenue, in the form of the massive bronze bull statue plonked down opposite Bowling Green. Instinctively, given the less than stellar market conditions of recent years, I looked out for a similarly proportioned bear statue closer to Wall Street, knowing at the same moment that no-one would allow such a pessimistic omen. I did find something close though – a man standing on the footpath on Broadway dressed up in a panda suit.
Once I found myself in the Financial District proper, amongst the concrete and glass monuments of capitalism, some evidence of ‘old’ New York remained. There was the 18th century Trinity Church and the mid 19th century Federal Hall, on the site of the original City Hall where the United States Congress first convened and George Washington was proclaimed as the first President in 1789. That surprised me, as I thought nothing sentimental would ever survive in the cut-throat precinct of the almighty dollar.
Beyond the New York Stock Exchange, the plush foyers of banks and high-end boutiques and one of Donald Trump’s signature towers, sat a large office building on Water Street proudly announced as the home of ratings agency Standard & Poor’s. When times are good, Standard & Poor’s is a highly unfortunate name for a company of any kind. And when times are not so good, like when investors rely on an AAA estimation of bundled sub-prime mortgages that soon turn toxic and cause a global house of cards to tumble, it sounds morbidly apt.
From what little I know of high finance, it seems a funny old place. When the bull is charging and the profits are good, the banks are screaming at regulators to back off and let them conjure up more and more obtuse means of squeezing out further dollars at whim, all in the name of shareholder returns and executive bonuses. But, as the folly of the risky derivatives have recently been exposed and the bear has bitten back – and bitten back hard, the banks were screaming out to governments to bail them out on the basis that they’re “too big to fail”. If only the rest of us had such liberties from personal responsibility.
And I find it so ironic that the country that most appears to regard the word ‘socialism’ as if it’s a great moral evil needed government funds to rescue private enterprise so badly that the US currently has one of the most socialised banking sectors in the world. I’m certainly not raising a banner for socialism as the answer to the world’s economic woes (the evidence for that just seems to change the identity of the profiteers from business executives to political executives), but it’s sure hard to see unfettered capitalism as a proven better solution. Surely there can be compromise somewhere that balances business freedom with some enforceable protection from greed?
But enough of all that. It was time to see what the ‘free’ market could do for me, and the most obvious answer was to ferry me to Staten Island and back. It was worth the (free) admission just to get another look at the robed Lady, though now with the end of the daylight getting closer, Liberty was using her torch to set fire to the sky, turning the harbour around her a wonderful glittery gold.
I’d have liked more time to explore New York’s quietest borough but, as there was another complimentary event to come, a quick walk around the Richmond Terrace foreshore was all I could manage before getting back on a Manhattan bound ferry. A couple of Atul’s workmates had won (or otherwise managed to wrangle) an hour’s free drinks at a bar on East 41st Street, and he had very kindly invited me to tag along. It was one of those after work venues that can’t decide whether it’s supposed to be a bar or a nightclub – the music’s so loud you’ve got to shout right into someone’s ear to make conversation, but no-one’s dancing because it’s too early and there’s plenty of tables and no dance floor – which isn’t really my kind of establishment (give me an intimate and cosy pub any day). But I’m not going to complain, I imagine quaffing two free beers in New York is a pretty rare thing. And Brooklyn Lager is not a bad brew – it’d even be worth paying for.
After Happy Hour, Atul and I walked around the New York Library and Bryant Park to Times Square. I imagined this to be much like Piccadilly Circus in London, a wall or two of neon making a landmark of an otherwise busy but unremarkable intersection. But of course this is America, and midtown New York at that, so nothing is understated. A long strip of flashing neon trailing down the teeming footpaths of 42nd Street announced we were in the general area long before we were actually there, and then we reached the mega sized TV screens of Broadway and Seventh Avenue which glowed bright in another corridor all the way from 42nd Street up to around 51st. I’m old enough to remember Times Square carrying a bad reputation for some rather unseemly operations, but there was something quite diverting about the area in its current incantation. With multiple blocks now closed off to vehicles allowing for an expansive pedestrian zone, the greatest concentration of cops on the beat that I’ve ever seen anywhere outside of a special event (though, to be a little unkind, most looked like they wouldn’t be able to outrun a bad smell), coupled with the novelties installed into flagship stores for products like M&Ms, I can see why tourists want to cram into Times Square. I don’t know what it’s like during the day, but at night the whole show was buzzing and I haven’t been on any other street quite like it.
Since the untimely demise of the twin towers, the Empire State Building has reclaimed the mantle of best New York observation point. But to my mind, there is just one problem with that – you can’t admire the view over to the Empire State Building itself. I had been tossing up where and when to get a bird’s eye panorama of the city, and after wandering around the bright lights of Times Square, Atul suggested we could go to the Top of the Rock – the 70 storey high observation deck of nearby Rockerfeller Centre.
It seemed like a great idea on two fronts, it was getting quite late so there were no queues to get in, plus in his short time living in NY Atul had not yet been there either. Apart from a slightly chilly wind on the open deck it was the perfect time to look downtown to the static illuminations of the Empire State Building, the Williamsburg, Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges and the steady stream of landing lights approaching JFK and La Guardia airports. Not to mention Times Square, which was bright and brash even from this far up, which formed a drastic comparison to the virtually blacked out rectangle of Central Park slightly further uptown – which I was really looking forward to strolling through tomorrow.
Fifth Avenue is synonymous with high-end shopping, which is hardly an indulgence of my preference (I tend to blow significant amounts of cash on airfares instead). But as we walked by sharply uniformed doormen under the awnings of the classy apartment buildings on the posh streets of the upper 50’s, Katie assured me that the retail establishment she most wanted to take me to would be very much to my liking. She was right, of course, as she had chosen the toy shop FAO Schwarz. Most browsers are taken by the giant US$250,000 floor piano played by walking on it. Some potential shoppers must be enchanted by the almost life size plush toys of tigers, elephants and giraffe. But I, on the other hand, was most taken by the lollies/sweets/candy selection and by the fact that this was the only store in the world where you can buy a custom made official Muppet. Wocka, wocka, wocka!
From there it was just across the street to the south-east corner of Central Park. The serenity of New York’s backyard was not immediately forthcoming, the swarming touts trying to get us to take a horse and carriage ride into the park and the steady stream of buskers made sure of that – though one percussionist banging away on a gas bottle, a saucepan and some large plastic buckets using wooden off-cuts for drumsticks was exceedingly talented. Maybe if he hung around City Hall a bit more he too could get in on the action supporting the likes of Jack Johnson.
One of the stereotypical New York things I had really wanted to do in the lead-up to this trip was to grab a hot dog or two from a street vendor. But up until this point all the carts and roadside vans I had seen were all serving up Mexican tacos, Indian curries or Middle Eastern kebabs, and I had thought I was perhaps one or more migration waves behind what was currently happening on the New York streets. Fortunately, to capture the ready tourist market for schmucks like me, there was no shortage of vendors on the boundary of and within Central Park. With a couple of hot dogs loaded up with onions, sauerkraut, relish and mustard soon in my grasp, and the scenic tranquillity of the city’s most famous greenbelt to enjoy devouring them in, I was a contented man.
We happily ambled for some twenty two blocks through the wooded areas, little league baseball diamonds, playgrounds filled with excited children and spotted turtles by the ponds before jumping on the subway to take an express trip from 81st Street up to Central Park’s northern perimeter on 110th Street. At this end, on the edge of Harlem, the tourists had all disappeared and I really enjoyed exploring the upper reaches of the park in more solitude than was possible down in midtown.
Katie and I continued south through the park, rounding the massive Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. A water reservoir seems an extremely odd thing to name for a former First Lady, but based on her husband JFK’s philanderings she must have been a forgiving type. After many hours in Central Park we were foot sore and weary and hadn’t by any means discovered it all. Though the name ‘Central’ is a little misleading given the park lies on swampland that was well beyond the northern urban limit of the city at its conception in the mid 1800’s, it’s a big credit to the authorities over the decades that such a spacious parcel of land has escaped the clutches of property developers as this crowded little island has grown outward and upward. And long may it remain so.
For our final night in New York (the next night we’d be in New Jersey, and thereafter in Massachusetts) I wanted to venture out to Queens, one of the two remaining boroughs I had not yet ventured into. Atul, Katie and I took the R train out to Jackson Heights, where I was hoping for some good ethnic food. We found a nice Korean restaurant by the subway station to enjoy steamed fish, eggs and kimchi. It was probably no cheaper or more authentic than those eating places found in the Koreatown enclave in Manhattan near Penn Station, but it was still a pretty good way to while away my final night in New York with good company.
It was my last morning, and yet after three days at my usual full tilt, it still seemed like I had barely scratched the surface of this magnificent city. With Katie wanting to spend a relaxing morning getting all dolled up for Cindy’s afternoon wedding, I chose to do what I do best – get out on the streets, stick my head down and power walk with former Australian Prime Minister John Howard style (un)co-ordination. Only here, that doesn’t look so out of place. Which leaves me to ponder, if I’m evading dawdlers and gawkers on the footpaths of New York City like they’re delaying me on a piece of my own turf, where on earth can I go where I’ll be intimated by the urgency of other pedestrians?
Atul lived close to Broadway, so on my final walking tour that was my natural starting point. Though previously the mention of this iconic street to me immediately encapsulated the Theatre District around Times Square, I had on this visit learnt that there is so much more to Broadway than that. For a start, it’s old, dating as a main thoroughfare way back to the Dutch colonial days (when it was known as Breede Weg). And it’s not just broad – it’s long. Very long in fact. This one boulevard stretches from Bowling Green at the very southern tip of Manhattan, has somehow survived the orderly grid plan of 1811 as it angles awkwardly across the otherwise neat lattice of most of Manhattan, glances the south-west corner of Central Park and then hugs the western side of the island to its very northern tip. Approximately 20km from its starting point, Broadway continues over a bridge (the Broadway Bridge, of course) into the Bronx and some 5km beyond that reaches the very end of the numbered street system at 263rd Street. Arguably, it continues on further even from here as a combination of South Broadway and North Broadway for another 25km or so. That makes walking the length of Broadway in a morning a little difficult, to say the least.
I happened first on Union Square and then along to Madison Square Park, with the narrow sliver of Broadway and Fifth Avenue occupied by the most famous of all the Broadway enforced architectural innovations – the rounded triangle of the Flatiron Building. And what was impressive was that recent efforts had been made to make the intersection more appealing for non-motorists by closing off part of Broadway and installing greenery and tables and chairs outside the boundary of the park and onto the asphalt. Despite the traffic noise and exhaust fumes, people were appearing to enjoy sitting there with their takeaway cups of coffee.
There I left Broadway and instead walked up Fifth Avenue to the block of 33rd and 34th Streets to look up at the granddaddy of all skyscrapers, the Empire State Building. Modelled on an office building of the Reynolds tobacco conglomerate back in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (the links to Wake Forest never end on this trip) it carries a name of some significance to match its stature. The Empire State Building was so influential to New York’s status as a world city that during the Cold War, Stalin had a whole series of similarly designed towers plonked all over Moscow to try and impress people of that city’s greatness.
Though at the time of construction, it was hardly the only local New York contender vying to wrest the tallest building in the world mantle (which, incidentally, seems an exclusively masculine, chest-thumping type of triumph to aim for if you ask me) away from the Eiffel Tower. During this ‘empire era’, there were at least two other designers aiming to compensate for personal inadequacies by claiming the title of world’s biggest erection. This would be remarkable enough even if it wasn’t during the financial doldrums of the Great Depression (human greed, take another bow). During construction in 1930, 40 Wall St was winning the challenge on paper until a secret spire raised through a false ceiling of the Chrysler Building just edged it out. The very next year the Empire State Building trumped them both, and held on to the title for forty years until it was eclipsed by the first of the World Trade Centre towers (though the Empire State is still temporarily the tallest building in New York until the new World Trade Centre and its flushing urinals are completed).
I didn’t get beyond the foyer of the Empire State Building but, while giving some fleeting consideration to joining the queue for the observation decks, what I saw was enough to happily note that renovators had not been yet been called in to update the interior, so the original 1930’s marble, aluminium fittings and period murals remain as imposing as the exterior. Yet another New York icon that did not disappoint me.
Though it must be said that the Empire State Building is not exactly beautiful. Striking, yes. Majestic, definitely. But far too sombre and austere to be really considered beautiful. The Chrysler Building is much, much more pretty, a comparison I could only really appreciate while seeing both in person. But both still look confidently adequate even as the world’s tallest building trophy has moved on to erections in other muscle-flexing empire cities – first Chicago, then Taipei, Shanghai and now most recently Dubai.
Just a few streets west from the Chrysler Building sits another of midtown’s great early 20th century monuments, Grand Central Terminal. The long distance locomotives have long since pulled out for the last time, but the main hall remains a stunningly impressive station for the suburban commuter rolling stock which still operates on the lines underneath. It was everything that is right with public transport hubs – hushed, spacious, bathed in natural light and welcoming – and the complete antithesis to the grimy, poky, windowless and ultimately forbidding venue that is the 1970’s Port Authority bus terminal we were soon to use to get to the wedding in New Jersey.
I had time to make just one more landmark, and that was the headquarters of the United Nations. This was the one New York icon I wanted to see that ended up looking much smaller than I imagined in real life. And judging by the building directories nearby its footprint also didn’t seem to spread beyond the one 39 storey tower. In contrast, at the European headquarters in Geneva the main building housing the General Secretariat is low rise but sprawling, and separate buildings for related agencies under the UN umbrella (World Health Organisation, World Trade Organisation, etc) dominate the immediate vicinity. I worked in this area between 2005 and 2008, but never had any desire to do a guided tour of the Geneva main building because none of the really sexy stuff happens there. The General Assembly and Security Council, the epicentre of international argy-bargy, both sit in New York and I wanted to experience the air of being somewhere, a place where everywhere you look you just get the vibe “I’ve made it”. But a tour inside the NY UN HQ was a logistical impossibility as my morning had almost disappeared, and I needed to head back to Atul’s and get ready for the event that allowed me to spend some time here in the first place.
As I began to head back in the general direction of Rockerfeller Plaza and the subway, I realised I didn’t need to go inside the UN to feel like I’d been somewhere important. Crossing the wide open space of Second Avenue, soaking in the skyscrapers rising up to the blue sky as far as I could see all around me, I got it. New York itself was that somewhere. Just walking its streets and feeling the energy gave me that “I’ve made it” moment. It was all there from Brooklyn, to Liberty and Ellis Islands and of course it was anchored in Manhattan. The homage of anthems from the likes of Frank Sinatra and Jay-Z sub-consciously entering my head made perfect sense. Quite simply, New York epitomised everything I had thought the whole of America would be like but, until now, I had not found.
So to my final reflections on what was certainly my most enjoyable trip to the US yet. It was great to spend time with friends of Katie’s dating back to a time years before our lives first crossed paths, within the region of the US that she shared her university days with them. Not to mention my last days spent with her brother and his family outside Boston. In between, it’s fair to say this kid hailing from the Apple Isle found my first little bite of the Big Apple very much to my liking. Though of course, after only a few days, there’s plenty of fruit still uneaten – I just hope one day I get the chance of another bite.