Possibly the best day ever? A visit to Queens, New York, May 2012

3 Oct

Thursday May 17th – I get myself kitted out for the day and hop on the ‘International Express’: the 7 local train to Queens. This subway line runs east from 42nd Street, Manhattan, straight into the immigrant heart of Queens. Numerous migrant groups have turned this corridor, pretty much delineated by the 7 train, into their home over the years. From Irish, Indian and Pakistani to Dominican, Chinese and Puerto Rican, there are loads of little neighbourhood ethnic enclaves that are home to a vast swathe of New York’s immigrant history. My plan for the day is to pay homage to Pops at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, and then walk my way back through some of the other neighbourhoods in Queens.

Most of what I knew about Queens as a kid, I learned from Eddie Murphy in Coming to America. He’s a rich, naive African prince who needs a bride, and where else to find one but a place called Queens…? It sounds like a thin premise, but god the movie was funny! He arrives in Queens and gets a dingy apartment with his manservant, who is shocked that things are so run down. That was the 80s, of course, and some things have changed since then, I think!

I get onto the front carriage of the subway train and the first thing I notice is that there’s a window right at the front of the train. Whaaaaat!!! I’d never seen that before; usually there’s a little cabin there with the driver in it, no? I rush over and take up prime position; I am thrilled by the fact that I can see where we’re going, plunging straight into the subway tunnels in a way that I’d never seen before – usually the view is just out the side windows and onto brick wall, but this way I can see right down the tunnels and see exactly what’s coming!!! Ah, simple pleasures for simple minds…!!! My joy is amplified when we reach Queens and the train goes above ground – I see us approaching stations, crossing bridges and floating through the landscape on our elevated track. Who would’ve thought one could have so much fun this way! If you ever head to New York and are inspired to catch the 7 train, I definitely recommend giving the front carriage a whirl – what a ride!

I was enjoying the journey so much that I decided to just stay on the line right until the end instead of getting off at Corona like I’d planned. I really liked seeing all the neighbourhoods and all the people. When I eventually disembarked at Flushing, a Chinese lady stopped me. I had noticed her eyeing me along the way, but I figured she just thought I was nutso, staring out the front window with a silly grin plastered across my face. I thought maybe she was going to ask me if I needed a ride back to the hospital, but no – she actually wanted to say that she loved my sandals and wanted to know where I got them from! She complained that it was hard to find flat, functional, comfortable sandals that a) didn’t dig in next to your big toe like flip-flops, b) didn’t make you look kind of butch and c) were not hiking sandals. I TOTALLY understand where she was coming from… it took me years to find the right sandals – the kind you can wear all day without getting blisters or sore feet, and still feel pretty enough to wear into the evening. For the record, I was wearing a pair of Gisele Bundchen’s Ipanema sandals, and I STILL love them.

Anyway, after that nice little exchange (like finding a soul sister in an unexpected place!), I got straight back on the Manhattan-bound subway; I figured that Flushing (apparently a great place for good Chinese food) could wait until another day. I got the subway back to 103 Street – Corona Plaza, went down to street level, and started the walk to the Louis Armstrong House Museum. The first thing I noticed was that everyone around me was speaking Spanish. I mean, EVERYONE. And most of the posters in store windows were in Spanish, too. And looking around, yup, I was in a very small minority. Wow. Kind of nice, to feel like you’re in a different country when you’ve only travelled about 40 minutes out of Manhattan. I followed my nose, trying not to look at my map too much, and noticed a funeral home with a cop car parked outside. Hmmm. Different.

The neighbourhood itself was kind of nice; lots of small homes lined up, and the side streets were leafy enough. There were lots of families out and about with pushchairs and ice cream cones. The houses were mostly older, but well-kept; kind of like a working class neighbourhood with pride in its appearance. I liked the feel of the place. I eventually made it to the Louis Armstrong House Museum, and was immediately surprised by the house: it fit in perfectly with the rest of the neighbourhood, and was not at all ostentatious; a red-brick, fair-sized home, not at all what you would expect from a super-famous jazz musician. I later learned that Louis Armstrong (also known as Satchmo or ‘Pops’) loved the neighbourhood and the people so much that he didn’t feel the need to leave, even when he was making lots of money; he stayed there until he died, right there in his own bedroom.

On arrival I learned that it was not possible to walk around the house by yourself; you had to go as part of a guided tour. So, to that end, I found myself lumped in with a trio of late-middle aged, dour, joyless Germans who asked the stupidest questions, and seemed to be disapproving of everything. “Did he have air conditioning?” was, I think, one of the dumbest things I’ve heard. Honestly! It wasn’t the bloody stone age ferrchrissake, it was the 60s and 70s. “Oh, he had an oven?” What?!? How they even made it out to Queens by themselves was a mystery to me, and they really didn’t seem to give a shit about Louis Armstrong at all; they were more interested in real estate prices and traffic down the street. Come to think of it, maybe they were just real estate investors who were thinking of buying in the area and figured they’d just drop in.

Anyway, weird Germans aside, I personally had a great time at the house, and anyone who’s even a mild fan of jazz or has even HEARD of Louis Armstrong would probably find it worth the trip out to Queens. It was a fascinating window into the life of this lovely man and his wife and how they lived and loved. The house has been kept exactly as it was after Louis passed away and his wife left, right down to the grey shag carpet and the 70s décor. The only exception is some protective covering on the main paths that the tour groups tread, and little buttons on the wall, which you can press to hear recordings of Louis talking or playing music or whatever. Apparently he was an avid recorder of everything, and had reels and reels of music and conversation stowed away in his archives, so they used some of these recordings to add life to the museum. The house is an average 70s house: crazy colour schemes, odd little knick-knacks, plastic covering on the sofa and a brightly-coloured kitchen. You sort of think, hmmm, this guy lived so modestly considering his fame… and then you step into the bathrooms. WOW! It would seem that, despite their modest size, these rooms were Louis’ one concession to his fortune, the one place where he just went all-out and enjoyed the fruits of his labour, to an almost extreme degree. We’re talking mirrored walls, gold-plated sink, speakers built into the walls… incredible. It looked more like something you would expect from Liberace than Louis Armstrong! I loved it… turns out that the bathroom was basically Louis’ favourite room, and that he had a real thing for laxatives (!) so he spent a fair amount of time in them…!

I particularly liked Louis’ little ‘man cave’, his office. On the wall is a painting of Pops done by Tony Bennett, and the view into the street was really nice. I lingered as long as I could, imagining Satchmo sitting in his chair behind his desk, like time had stood still. And honestly, listening to his recordings in there and hearing his voice come from the walls, it was almost like time had done just that.

After the tour, I went into the little museum and store that they had on ground level and had a little poke around and chatted to the staff, who were so wonderfully passionate about Louis and his music. Plans are afoot to build another, larger visitor centre across the road; maybe one day I’ll have the chance to go back and see what becomes of it. I spent a little time in his garden, enjoying the sunshine and the trees, and took what is possibly my favourite picture of myself EVER using a self-timer. I guess it was not only how I looked in the picture, but the memory of the time and place and how I was feeling, that I really love about it.

I finally tore myself away from that lovely atmosphere and that lovely street, and started the walk back towards the 7 train. I passed the funeral home again on the way home, but this time there were people milling around outside, and now there were two cop cars parked opposite with a small handful of officers standing nearby. I looked closer at the people and the situation, and listened to some of the conversation, and I realised that I had basically stumbled upon the funeral of a young gang member, and all of his fellow gangsters were standing around outside looking very upset and very angry – I guess the funeral had just finished, and the cops were there to keep the peace in case someone from another gang turned up…? Holy shit. As soon as I realised this, I made a point to move much faster through the crowd that had now amassed, and did not turn to look back. Some other peoples’ realities are just far too real for me… I considered myself lucky to be able to just keep going, when there were others there who just had no choice but to stay there and live it.

I made a mental note to leave out THAT part of the story when I told my mum about my day. I had already decided not to tell her I was visiting Queens until after it happened, because I knew she would worry otherwise! But I guess now she knows…!

I made my way back onto 103rd Street and then started my walk along Roosevelt Avenue, following the tracks of the International Express back towards Manhattan. Wow, what a walk. I passed through a number of different continents just on one street; I started in South America, where everyone spoke Spanish and my instinct was to say ‘gracias’ when someone handed me a flyer on the street. One guy bumped into me and called me senorita, which I didn’t mind one bit. As I kept walking, I found myself in continental Asia, surrounded by Indian and Pakistani faces, languages and food. I stopped for lunch at a little food truck that was selling momos, which are basically little Tibetan dumplings. The guy who ordered just after me was fascinated by my accent; he was Tibetan himself and wanted to know if I’d ever tried momos before. I had, a few times, at a market stand just outside Brisbane, and he was surprised that there was a Tibetan population there. I told him it was small, but that Australia was a pretty damn multicultural place so you’re likely to find pockets of people from just about every country there! The guy who owned the truck (also Tibetan) joined our conversation, and I had a lovely time munching my momos and chatting. We were only interrupted by some asshole Indian guy yakking on his mobile phone right up to the second he walked up to the truck and snapped, “Hey you! I want a dozen momos to go, NOW.” I looked at the guy who was working there and mouthed, “Do you know this guy?” He shook his head to say no. Butthead kept talking on his phone – loudly – in a manner that told us, “I am a very important person with very important business to attend to and you are all inferior scum.” If looks could kill, that man would have been writhing on the ground in pain, burning from the hatred I pointed at him with my eyes. He was handed his dumplings, and then stopped his conversation again to say, “Chilli sauce.” No eye contact, no please, no thank you. He took the bottle that was offered, squeezed it over his dumplings, put the bottle on the counter, and made to leave. I stopped him. “Uh, thank you?” I said, gesturing first at the asshole and then man behind the counter. Buttface looked at me quizzically and told his mobile phone to hold on. “What?” he said, and I repeated my request. He finally caught on. “Oh yeah, sure. Thanks. Thanks a lot.” And then headed off on his day, probably bitching to his friend about this weird chick he just got accosted by at the momo stand. “See, that was easy, right?” I said to his departing back. To the two guys at the truck, I was a hero. Ha ha ha ha ha!

God, I hate rude assholes like that. It really doesn’t take much time or effort just to say thanks and acknowledge the other human being that just fed you.

Anyway, I hung around for a little while before continuing on my walk. I cheated a little and got the subway between 74th Street and 50-something, looking out the window at the Irish and (allegedly) Swiss/German neighbourhoods and walking through a bit of Sunnyside before again getting the subway back to Court Square, still in Long Island.

Across the street from Court Square station, down a little side road, is an abandoned warehouse complex that is now called 5 Pointz, also known as the Institute of Higher Burning… to you and me, it’s something of a ‘graffiti museum’. It’s absolutely massive, and graffiti artists come from all over the world to share their talents. Nowadays, you have to have permission to paint, but back when it started I think it was just a collection of people doing graffiti on an empty building, and it grew into something bigger. At the time I visited I think they were in the middle of trying to get funding to turn it into a real museum; I’m not sure how far they’ve come. I wandered down the street, under the subway tracks, and once again I thought, “Oh my god, if my mother could see me now she’d have a freaking heart attack.” As I approached the building, two guys in a truck were pulling out of the complex and waved enthusiastically, and I could see that there was activity going on in a small side room near the driveway. I could hear a radio blasting that Brazilian superhit, “Ai Se Eu Te Pego”, and I felt right at home, ha ha ha! I wandered further in and oohed and aahed at the exterior walls; there were five storeys of scattered drawings. I wouldn’t even know how to start describing them! There was everything, from your usual tags to a post-apocalyptic street scene, a magic-mushroom inspired Tweedledee and Tweedledum, dragons, and a bunch of portraits. I wasn’t brave enough to venture inside by myself, as I didn’t know what the regulations were and if it was even allowed (and even if it was allowed, did I really want to be wandering around an empty warehouse by my onesy?), so I just kept my scouting to the outside… and really, I enjoyed that enough. There was a man across the street doing a sketch of the building, so I stopped to watch for a bit before heading back to the subway station.

As the subway pulled up, the driver in the front carriage goggled at me and gave me a big, theatrical wink. I laughed… until he wound down his window and tried to talk to me! I was like, “Um, don’t you have a train to drive?” He seemed sweet enough though, and it was hardly threatening; I hopped on the train and before I knew it we were headed back to Manhattanland.

I got off at the subway at Times Square, and decided to take a short walk down 7th Avenue! I stopped at Baked By Melissa to pick up half a dozen muffin bites, which were delicious, then again at Hale & Hearty Soup for a chicken and corn bisque to take home for dinner, before hopping back on the subway to 18th Street. I went home and made sure to really have a good stretch of my legs after all that walking, before I ate dinner, wasted time online and went to bed.

What a day. Possibly the best one yet, I think… simple, but fun.

Thanks for stopping by,

Tara.

The Stonewall Inn, Sticky Ice Cream and Pick-ups with Pianos, New York, May 2012

19 Sep

Wednesday May 16th – I wake up to find a news report online that actor Nick Stahl has gone missing; I find myself overly occupied and strangely perturbed by this news. I’ve always been a fan of his, and at one stage during my teenage years had a small crush on him.

…Okay, no, let’s be honest and make that “I had a WHOPPING BIG crush on him.” Ha ha ha! I’ve always kept half an eye on his career; he’s about the same age as me and seemed like he picked interesting movies, like Man Without A Face and In The Bedroom. I actually really liked his turn as John Connor in the much-maligned Terminator 3 – which was universally hated until the big pile of cinematic poop known as T4 came out, after which time people didn’t seem to have such a problem with T3! His disappearance left me uneasy, and pleas from his wife asking for any news of his whereabouts were sad to hear, to say the least. I would just like to say here and now that despite my big fandom, I did NOT have him locked up in my cellar or anything like that! Ah well. Time will tell where he is, I guess. (Addendum: it was later discovered that he had gone on a giant drug bender and turned up only when he needed more money for drugs. He then went to rehab, left rehab, went missing again, and at that point I started to care just that little bit less…)

After breakfast at home, I wandered down 7th Avenue to the Village, to get a closer look at the Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street. When I was a teenager in the UK and my mum was away on business, I used to stay up late and watch all these ‘unsuitable for teenage audiences’ late-night movies on Channel 4. One night they had a movie about events at the Stonewall, and although I must admit that I was so young I didn’t fully understand everything that was going on (one scene where a man heard about the death of Judy Garland and then killed himself left me particularly perplexed at the time… “Why would you kill yourself over Judy Garland?” I thought), it did leave a fair-sized impression on my psyche. I must remember to seek out that movie and see how much better I understand it now, at this age! Anyway, later research revealed parts of the real story. The Stonewall Inn was a gay bar, which in the 60s in America (and a lot of other places, for that matter) was a big no-no. I believe that, at the time, it was also illegal to be LGBT or a cross-dresser, too. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

Anyway, in the late 1960s, after years of suppression and now in an era of civil rights activism and liberation, tensions were, I suppose, at an all-time high. In June 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, looking to arrest ‘deviants’, and after excessive use of force (not to mention the basic injustice of the whole situation) was observed, there was resistance… then a crowd gathered outside, the bubble burst, and the next thing you know there’s riots on Christopher Street. These riots continued over a number of nights, the riots turned to protests, and this turn of events was basically the catalyst for the gay rights movement and gay pride. Quite something, eh? From little things, big things grow. The Stonewall Inn now is kind of a non-descript place, a little hole-in-the-wall bar, but it proudly bears a giant rainbow flag across the front wall. Across the road there’s a small park that holds statues of same-sex couples, commemorating the events at the Stonewall. I personally find the statues a bit ugly (they’re all white and just a bit robot-looking), but the idea behind them is a good one. The park is pleasant and usually filled with a small handful of curious tourists, people scarfing down sandwiches from nearby delis and the odd guy asking for change.

I left Christopher Street and took a circuitous little toddle around the Village. I passed the narrowest house in New York at 75 ½ Bedford Street (2.9 metres wide, apparently), previously home to a selection of writers and actors. It was on a beautiful street, but to be honest, if I had the money they had I’d probably pick somewhere a bit more spacious, despite the novelty of being able to claim the narrowest living room EVER!!!

I eventually made my way to Bleecker Street, where I stopped at Cones Ice Cream Artisans for a quick snuffle at their selection. I had heard that the ice cream was almost chewy, which piqued my interest. As I approached I shared a smile with a guy who was sitting outside in the sun, and he followed me in – turns out he was working there. I tried a whole bunch of delicious flavours, from ginger to lemon to corn (according to the sign, it is ‘Brazil’s favourite’, but it was a bit weird for me, even as someone who loves corn), but in the end I opted for the chocolate. And, true to the rumours, the ice cream was – and I can’t explain how – a bit chewy, but not substantially so… kind of like cotton candy after you’ve had it in your mouth for a few bites and it bunches together briefly before dissolving. And it was yummy to boot, so I was a very happy girl. I wandered past Murray’s Cheese Shop, once more resisting the urge to go inside and go nuts like the proverbial bull in a china shop, only because I didn’t want to carry around cheese all day only to come home and find it had died a smelly death. A few steps down the road I was greeted with a confusticating sight. A ute (a ‘pick-up truck’ to our North American friends, I think) was parked on Bleecker Street, and another ute had pulled up alongside it. In the back of each vehicle was a man in a beret playing a piano. Real pianos. Big pianos. And both of these guys were singing and laughing like loons. Did I just drop acid without realizing it? No camera crews or anything that I could see, just two guys playing piano in berets on Bleecker. Nice.

After a nice long walk, I eventually found a subway station and went up to the Uniqlo on 5th Avenue. When I had gone in the other day I had discovered that they do FREE alterations on their jeans, which to a shortass like me is a godsend! Even the ‘short’ length trousers in stores are usually too short for me, so I always end up spending a buttload on tailoring (if I don’t just let the extra couple of inches drag on the ground)… when I saw that Uniqlo did it for free I was like, “JEAN FRENZY!!!” I picked up my new, fabulously-fitted jeans and then walked north until I hit the south-east corner of Central Park, passing those poor stinky carriage horses, and then took a walk along Central Park South.

Wow. Talk about a case of ‘how the other half lives’. Swanky hotels and apartment buildings with smart awnings, and doormen who eyed me suspiciously if I veered too close to the doorway. I passed two or three people hailing cabs, all of whom were wearing beautiful cologne. The views of the park and northern Manhattan from any one of those hotel rooms or apartments must be simply stunning. I started to imagine what it would be like to live there, but my reverie was interrupted by a man shouting into his mobile phone outside a very, VERY expensive-looking building. He had one foot in a giant black car and looked just like one of the head honchos from the Godfather; slicked-back black hair, striped long-sleeved collared shirt, big gold bling necklace and rings… Mafia? I think so. As I passed, he was yelling into his phone (sounding dangerously like Robert De Niro in Goodfellas), “YOU WANNA COME HERE MOTHERFUCKER?” I made sure to give him a wide berth and keep moving VERY QUICKLY.

I made it to Columbus Circle alive, and then got on the subway. It had been my intention to get off at 18th Street and go home, but instead I stayed on til 14th and went to the Chelsea Market. On the way, I passed a fried chicken joint called Dirty Bird To Go… I must remember to give it a try some time! Once at Chelsea Market, I dropped into Anthropologie and browsed around, drooling at all the beautiful clothes, and by the time I came out the food places at the market were closing up. I walked home along 8th Avenue, passing two guys who were freestyling just for the fun of it, one-upping each other with their rhymes.

I dropped off my jeans and looked around for dinner, feeling terribly indecisive. Nothing really appealed, and I had forgotten to pick up my book at the apartment so I didn’t really want to sit at a restaurant and stare into space. In the end I found myself in front of my apartment again. There was a police officer standing, as usual, in the door of the cop shop across the road; he waved hello, and then a police car pulled up in a spot just in front of him. Next thing I know, the cop in the car uses his loudspeaker to shout at his friend, “WHY YOU BEIN’ SO LAZY?” I snorted with laughter as cop number 2 got out of his car and they had a friendly tussle. It’s nice to see that there’s a sense of humour in there.

I eventually decided just to go to the Garden of Eden market to pick up a few things for dinner (they have a great hot food and salad selection), and then came home to read. I tried turning on the TV but really it was such bad reception that it wasn’t worth it, and it just looked like Law & Order on every channel so I gave up and went back to my book. After eating, I wasted time on the internet. The connection was dropping in and out, and when it was working it was terribly slow, kind of like the shitty internet you get if you forget to pay a bill and they put you on dial-up speed. I was worried for a moment (“Would Annie have forgotten to pay the internet bill? Surely not…”) but decided not to give it any more thought; it was time to be disconnecting and getting to bed anyway!

Thanks for stopping by,

Tara.

A Sudden Urge to Study, Dylan’s Candy Bar and the Carnegie Deli, New York, May 2012

13 Sep

Tuesday May 15th – Well-slept and raring to go, I made my way to the New York Public Library – the famous one, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 41st Street. I’d like to say that my love of the building comes from a deep intellectual place, but if I’m honest I have to say that I love it because I grew up loving Ghostbusters. That opening scene with the old librarian… classic! Not to say that I don’t love books, of course (I am a nerd, after all), but my glee at seeing the place was really not that cerebral! I ran up and down the stairs out the front, trying to get a good look at the two lions, named ‘Patience’ and ‘Fortitude’ (what else?), which stare regally over the heads of us plebs. I then made my way through the huge entryway, past the massive Lego versions of the lions (quite impressive, really), and up the stairs to poke through grand reading rooms and enticing small annexes. The highlight for any visitor, though, has to be the Rose Reading Room upstairs. It really is like the place you wished you could study in when you were at school; a place where you could chew the end of your pencil and gaze artfully out the window without feeling like a poser (well, not too much of a poser, anyway!); a room to best Belle’s library from Disney’s Beauty & The Beast; it’s reading nook heaven. The big, bright arched windows and the stacks of books, complete with a balconied gallery level, were beautiful enough; the sunset-cloud mural with gilded edging on the ceiling left me gaping open-mouthed, eyes wide. It almost made me wish that I was still studying, just to have an excuse to rock up and look all scholarly.

From the library, I made my way further up Fifth Avenue to get a taste of how the other half shops. I dropped into H&M, passed a number of other mainstream stores, and peered in the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue (which was nowhere near as interesting as I might have imagined). I had a wander in Uniqlo (the t-shirts were a bit young for me but they have some great basics), and kept going up Fifth Avenue until I reached Henri Bendel, near 56th Street. It had the air of being one of those old stalwarts that had been on 5th Ave since the 50s, but I suspect it’s actually much newer than that. The windows were what I was really there for: apparently, they were designed by Rene Lalique, who was famous for his glassworks. I don’t know a huge amount about the Lalique brand, but I remember hearing his name bandied about a fair bit in the 80s so I figured the windows would be worth a squizz. And… well, they were. Not quite the colourful stained-glass mosaic I’d imagined, but actually quite a bit nicer; just an understated pattern of flowers marked into the glass. I decided to have a look inside the store; it looked pretty sophisticated and out of my price range, but I figured a look round couldn’t hurt.

The first thing I noticed as I walked in was that they were playing ‘Goodbye Horses’ by Q Lazzarus – a song which, in my head, is irreversibly connected to THAT scene in The Silence of the Lambs with Buffalo Bill prancing about in his silk dressing gown. I was in the middle of thinking, Oooh, wierd choice for a girlie store like this’, when BAM! I was accosted by a series of ladies, one after the other, all of whom seemed intent on smearing something on my face and/or body. I felt like a hapless camper batting away mosquitoes: “Can I put some makeup on you?” “Check out our new summer shades!” “Do you want to try our new self-tanner?” “Perfume?” And, my personal favourite, “Can I fill in your eyebrows?” Uh, fill in my eyebrows? I didn’t realise my eyebrows needed filling!!! That was not the only blow my self-esteem took in that store; the makeup lady seemed disgusted that I wasn’t wearing any in the first place, and when I told the eyebrow woman that no, she could not fill in my eyebrows, she actually wrinkled her own brows and said, “Uh, really? Because it looks like you need it.” Uh, THANKS. Less than three minutes after I walked in, I walked out again, feeling slightly shrivelled and less confident than when I entered. Bloody hell. I’m sure they didn’t mean to be raging, judgemental bitches, but that sure is how their actions came across!

I kept on keepin’ on along 5th Avenue, and the fog got thicker and thicker. By the time I turned the corner to head east, the middles of the buildings were barely visible, let alone the tops. I made my way to the Lipstick Building (aka 885 Third Avenue) and was thoroughly underwhelmed. Maybe it was the weather. I don’t know what I had been expecting, but previous reports of ‘stunning architecture’ kind of fell short. I mean, it was pretty (shaped like – you guessed it – an oval lipstick tube, and pinky-red in tone) but I certainly didn’t get the same feeling of architectural awe that was inspired by the roof of the Rose Reading Room, for example. Still, I didn’t regret it. I had finally seen a part of NYC that I’d never been to; this part of the east side had never been on my radar before. It’s definitely business-oriented. Lots of little delis serving fast food, print shops and shoe-shine places, and lots of stressed-looking guys in expensive suits and women in power heels yammering urgently into mobile phones.

I kept wandering up Third Avenue, making a small detour off the street and into the massive Bloomingdale’s department store on the corner of 59th Street, resisting the urge to buy one of those famous little brown bags. The flourescent lights were quite violent on the eyes after the dim, foggy light outside, and the store was full of stuff that I could probably get elsewhere at a better price, but it was nice to see the fully-restored inside. The last time I went in, it was 2002, and I had snuck in just to use the loo (one of the very few free, keyless, not-attached-to-a-restaurant bathrooms I had found up to that point), and I’ll be honest – the place was a mess. I don’t remember much about the shopping area itself but the toilets had insulation exposed in the walls and wood scaffolding hanging around, and half the locks didn’t work. Going in this time, everything was sleek and glossy and ultra-modern glaring white. Definitely an improvement. I did not revisit the bathrooms, but instead wandered past the Magnolia Cupcakes stand (which definitely piqued my interest) and exited at the northern corner of the store back onto 3rd Avenue, pointed straight at my afternoon culinary target: Dylan’s Candy Bar.

Oh my. Shining like a vivid, multi-coloured neon beacon on the corner of 3rd Avenue and 60th Street, Dylan’s Candy Bar looked like Santa’s Workshop, full of the stuff that dreams are made of. Candy stripes line the walls and giant plastic lollipops spray out from the ceilings; huge gumballs and giant chocolate rabbits appear everywhere, in corners and on walls. God forbid anyone should take LSD and pay a visit; it would be like pop rocks going off in their brain. I walked in and found myself wishing I could just go all Augustus Gloop on the place, shoving my mouth full of all the various goodies on the shelves until I found myself drowning in a fountain of chocolate. Three stories of sweets, chocolates and sugar-related indulgence awaited me in this brightly-lit nirvana. I resisted the candy-printed towels, the giant jugs of jelly beans and the old-school sweet selection, but I definitely got my hands dirty by buying my cousin a frozen chicken lollipop and going mental on all their custom chocolate bars. I was halfway through salivating over my choices when I noticed that the music playing in the background was, in fact, the theme from the Gummi Bears. I smiled like a loon and sang along to childhood memories, and as I continued to listen I realised that all the songs were sweetie-related. Awesome! I ended up buying ten (count ‘em, TEN) chocolate bars that day… I tried not to eat them all at once, even though it was damn hard! Their selection includes all kinds of interesting flavours, but in the end I went for the following: Brownie Batter, Caramel, S’mores, Toffee Crunch, Dark Raspberry, Banana Cream Pie and… oh my god, I’ve eaten them all and now I can’t remember what I had!!!! *sugar hangover*

After spending most of my budget for the day on sugar, I realised that it was time to eat some real food… or at least, some semblance thereof. To that end, I got on the subway at the diseased Lexington Ave./59th Street station, which honestly looked like it had the plague. The walls were dripping, there was wierd green, yellow and brown ooze everywhere… I couldn’t wait for the subway to arrive, and I just tried not to breathe too deeply! Of course all subway stations have their varying levels of grossness, but I actually felt like I could catch consumption in there just by looking at it!

I got off at 7th Avenue station and walked to 854 Seventh Avenue: home of the Carnegie Deli. I figured this was about as close as I was going to get to Carnegie Hall (I’m not a huge classical music fan and that’s all they seemed to be playing there at the time), and it is a bit of a legendary establishment… a bit like Katz’s in the Lower East Side, running since ‘the good old days’ and servicing old-timers, theatre stars and new bubble-gum pop celebs alike. I went in and was shown to a table at the back, near the toilets, next to the only other lone diner in the place. We gave each other a commiserating glance as I sat down: the ol’ “stick ‘em by the bogs” routine, hiding the undesireables, how lovely. I know I should have ordered one of their smoked-meat or pastrami sandwiches (they’re famous for it, and it would have given me a chance to size them up against Katz’s), but after much deliberation I just went for bacon and eggs for dinner! As my food arrived, my neighbour decided to launch into conversation with me… and really, I didn’t mind. We got round to talking about what we’re doing in New York, and he casually mentions that he’s here for a meeting with some network executives. I thought, “Oh dear god, not some wannabe TV actor,” and I skirted around it. Then later we got to talking about what we do for a living; I told him I was an English teacher and asked him what he did. He gave me an odd look as if to say, ‘You don’t already know?” He then said that he had a TV show, but when I asked the name, he said not to worry, that it was really crap and that I would lose IQ points just watching it…! Turns out he’s the host of Storage Hunters, or Storage Wars, something like that. It’s a TV show where they open storage boxes and auction off the goods… I think! I had only heard of it because my cousin in Vegas had seen an ad for it while I was there, and incredulously asked, “They made a TV SHOW out of THAT?!?” I didn’t tell my companion that, of course! His name was Sean Kelly, and he was a very, very nice man. He spent some time in Europe while growing up, travelled a lot, spoke fluent German, and really had a healthy view of who he was and what he was doing. I have this image in my head that all reality TV stars buy into their own bullshit and are generally airheaded, self-centred asses, but this guy proved me wrong. He was proud, but not a shit about it, and humble to boot. It was good fun to have some interesting company over dinner… even if we were right next to the toilets, ha ha ha! I googled him later and found out that he spent some time working for the US military as a translator in Iraq, and that he does a lot of charity work. Pretty cool for a chance encounter!

After polishing off my ‘breakfast’, I decided to give the cheesecake a try. The Carnegie Deli is reputed to have some of the best in New York, so I figured I’d give it a whirl and see if it held up to other competition I had yet to come across. The slice was MASSIVE, but the base was nice and crunchy and the cheese part was creamy, if a bit dry. It was so big, actually, that I had to get more than half of it to take away, to be squirrelled away in my fridge and eaten later. I hadn’t tried the other famous cheesecakes of New York at this point, but I reckon there’s got to be something out there that’ll beat this one, as good as it was.

By this point it was about 9:30pm, and time to move on. Sean and I said goodbye, never to meet again, and I walked down 7th Avenue towards Times Square, which was even shinier than usual with the fog diffusing all the light far and wide. I walked past Ellen’s Stardust Diner, a 50s-style burger joint that looked full of life, and got the subway down to 23rd Street. I still wasn’t ready to go home, though, so I had a peep at the schedule in the window at the cinema at  West 23rd Street and 8th Avenue, and found that a screening of Dark Shadows, the latest Johnny Depp offering, was due to start at 11pm. I figured, “Well, it’s 11pm on a Tuesday so I’ll probably be the only sad-sack in there, but it’ll be fun.”

I bought my ticket and walked upstairs, and was shocked to find the place was thrumming with activity, even that late on a weeknight. Ah, New York. The theatre I was in was chockablock, and I was lucky to find a lone seat at the end of a row. The lights went down and the trailers came on, and then just before the movie started one of the young guys working there came out, introduced himself and, in person, reminded us to please switch off our mobile phones. He then said that he hoped that we enjoyed the movie, before making a swift departure. I thought that was actually a really nice 50s-style touch, if not for the anachronistic mobile phone reference! I settled in and watched the movie, which was a good ol’ fashioned piece of mindless comedy fluff, with a few standout jokes. Johnny Depp is never a waste of time! :)

After the movie was over, I walked the measly three blocks to my place in about 5 minutes, and again gloated to myself about the incredible, wonderful location of the apartment; I was still so excited to be where I was, and I loved living so close to everything. Little moments of triumph! I snuggled into bed a happy woman.

Thanks for stopping by,

Tara.

Manicures and Mexican Food, New York, May 2012

13 Sep

Monday May 14th – Another one of those days where I wonder to myself, “Did I waste it by doing nothing?” but eventually come to the conclusion that as long as I was doing what I wanted, it was not a day wasted. No point going at 100 miles per hour every day just because you feel that you’re expected to do so, right?

I woke up very, very late after an equally late night of reading, and it was raining, raining, raining. I pottered, I procrastinated, and I finally dressed. I walked out into Chelsea and decided to get some photos printed to send to friends overseas. It would seem that the rain brought out the ‘wierd’ in the people of Chelsea; some of the conversation snippets I heard in passing were thoroughly bizarre. One man that I walked past loudly questioned his companion, “So, are we doing fantasy tonight?” While I was still reeling from the mental imagery that created, I heard two women fighting about something… as they got closer, one snapped at the other, “I would DEFINITELY be in Hufflepuff!” Wow. Talk about an argument happening a few years too late!

I went to a nearby Duane Reade and went to their self-service kiosk, where I spent ages helping a professional-looking young man figure out how to get his pictures printed; for some reason, he just couldn’t get his head round the interface. At the end of the process he was highly frazzled but very grateful – happy to be of service, sir! Ha ha ha. I then put my own pictures in to be done, and decided that, while I was waiting, I would have a manicure. Now, please understand that I’m not the kind of girl who just goes for a manicure as a matter of course; for starters, in Australia they’re still quite expensive, and it’s never something I’ve had much time for. But I had made a vow to myself before leaving for the States that I would put more of an effort into my appearance, at least in token ways (I can really be quite a scruffbag on a daily basis, especially when travelling), and I figured that this would be at least a small way to start. So, being something of  manicure virgin (with the exception of a couple of times in Singapore where I was barked at and told exactly what to do and where to sit from the get-go… which is exactly what I needed!), this was actually kind of a big deal. I crept into the first manicure place I saw… which happened almost immediately, considering that they’re liberally scattered all over 8th Avenue and basically every other street corner in New York! I was amazed by how cheap it was (relatively), so I decided to go the whole hog and go for a pedicure/manicure combo. Thankfully the Chinese girls working there were pretty bossy when I walked in (“What you want? You want mani-pedi? Okay, you pick colour you sit down you wait, okay?”) so I didn’t have to go through the embarrassment of asking about the process. I picked my colour (fire-engine red, what else?) and had my feet and hands soaked, buffed, rubbed and painted, and left feeling like a million dollars. I decided then and there that, while I was in New York at least, I would get my nails done every couple of weeks, just for the heck of it.

After that, I hunted for dinner and found a great little Mexican place called the Rocking Horse Cafe on 8th Avenue. It was a little bit ‘upscale’, but I figured I’d give it a go. The waiters seemed to see me as an object of pity, what with me being on my own (“Really? Just you?” the greeter said), but they gave me a great table by the window so I decided not to get all snot-nosed about it. The lighting was very atmospheric (read: tea light candles and not much else, so your food was largely in the shadows), but the food was amazing!!! I went for a couple of starters instead of one main course; the standout was this odd little concoction called a ‘Tamale de Camarones’ (shrimp tamale); the menu described it as a ‘steamed sweetcorn-masa dumpling, shrimp, chipotle butter and avocado pico de gallo.’ I’ll tell you what it really was: a mushy bundle of yum, wrapped in a big leaf. Deee-lish.

After eating, I was going to finish the chapter I was reading, but I noticed the waiters hovering like moths around a flame and realised that I was taking up valuable table space in hoppin’ Chelsea. I felt terribly noble when I dragged my ass out of that seat, I can tell you! I walked back to the Duane Reade on 8th Avenue to pick up my photos and had a bit of a blow-out on toiletries, moisturiser and the like, and a couple of other things I had forgotten to get for the house when I first moved in. Then I scuttled back home in the rain to admire my freshly-painted toenails and to Skype Arun, who by this point was smack-bang in the middle of coursework for his degree while I was gallivanting in New York! Ah, life’s a bitch, ha ha ha!

I stayed up stupidly late again, for no good reason, I think, other than the fact that I was just enjoying being alone and having no schedule to keep to. Sweet freedom!

Thanks for stopping by,

Tara.

Nerd Heaven, Broadway, SoHo and a Glorious Peanut Butter Overdose, New York, May 2012

10 Sep

Sunday May 13th – Not having those freight-train snorers in the room with me meant that I slept like a baby, straight through the night and well into the morning. I must have needed it; I was zonked until nearly midday, and I woke, stretched and felt like a queen.

I took my time in the shower and dressed (in my own bathroom! Which I didn’t have to share with hundreds of other gross backpackers!), and then set off with a mission: to find the Forbidden Planet comic book store. I had stumbled across this Mecca of dorkdom on a previous trip to New York, and I had felt right at home. This time, I was on the lookout for a card game that Charlie had pointed out in a comic store in Philadelphia; something called ‘Munchkin’. Back story: on another trip, in another country, there were two guys I met called David and Darren. They were just lovely, and one sunny afternoon at a rooftop bar when they produced a dorky card game called ‘Citadels’, I knew we would be very, very good friends. After hours of competitive scheming and stealing of each other’s ‘gold’, they mentioned that they were always on the lookout for more fun and games. Well, when I saw Munchkin, I knew that it would be the perfect thing for those gents, but I didn’t want to have to carry it all the way to NYC from Philadelphia. However, now that I was IN NYC, and not going to have to move any time soon, I decided to find Forbidden Planet and pick up a copy to send to David and Darren in the UK. I remembered that the store was south of Union Square, somewhere along Broadway, so I figured that I’d start with Union Square and follow my nose from there. Besides, there were a couple of things I wanted to check out while I was there, anyway.

So, off I hopped, and when I came out of the subway I saw, much to my delight, that an unexpected street market had popped up on Broadway, and thus not only were there delicious smells to be explored at food stalls, but the whole place was closed to traffic. There were people lazing about on the steps in the sun, and some intense games of chess were going on too. First things first, I looked around Union Square to see if the Virgin Megastore was still open, and was not surprised to find it had disappeared; another sign of changing media times. So instead I plunged into the markets and paraded down Broadway, unhindered by cars and traffic lights. I put my blinkers on as I passed Max Brenner (“I will NOT be swayed by chocolate indulgence this morning!”), but did give in when a girl from a stall offered me a large cup of delicious kettle corn (which I believe the rest of the world just calls ‘buttery popcorn’!). Yum! Some of the food stalls looked really amazing; there was one stand called Fortunato, that advertised the “best cannoli, imported from Brooklyn”. I suppose there are some Manhattanites that see Brooklyn as altogether another country…!

I found an old shop that was the most amazing space – high ceilings, more like a theatre with a balcony around the top, old-school giant mirrors on the walls and tattered wallpaper; everything seemed to have gilded edges. The store itself wasn’t much cop – it was closing down and just had clothes dumped over tables everywhere – but I could really imagine someone getting hold of that space and doing something awesome with it (I will try to pretend that it isn’t just going to be turned into a Starbucks or something similar…!).

I finally fell upon Forbidden Planet, and handed over my bag to the guy at the entrance, as is the custom there. (Nerd thieves! Really!) I made a huge effort not to browse. Two storeys of nerdvana, filled with toys, comic books, t-shirts, games and the like… too much temptation for this girl on a budget. So I asked the security guy which way I should go for Munchkin, went straight upstairs, and made my purchase as soon as possible to avoid falling in love with some random geekcessory. The girl behind the counter was really helpful, telling me how to find two-player instructions for the game and other ways to approach it, but I could not be upsold into anything else and ran for the door as fast as my little legs would carry me, making sure my wallet stayed well and truly closed!

After exiting the store, I took a breath and admired my Munchkin box; I couldn’t wait to post it to David and Darren. Then, of course, I had no idea what to do with myself. The whole of New York at my feet and I was short on inspiration! Unbelieveable. I wandered for a bit, found the nearest subway, looked at a map, and decided that today would be as good a time as any to have a look at the cast-iron district. I pointlessly jumped on a subway to Prince Street (not far at all; it would have been just as fast to walk from where I was, really), and then mooched around SoHo (SOuth of HOuston Street) along Mercer, Greene and the surrounding streets.

I’ve always been a bit critical of SoHo, especially that area of it, because I just saw it as a pointless area filled with housebunnies with endless budgets and no brains shopping in designer stores, but I have to admit that giving it a closer look, it was a really nice area. Lots of beautiful old buildings with great views along the street straight downtown to the new World Trade Center tower; most of the buildings had old metal fittings and old-fashioned fire escapes (of the kind made famous by West Side Story!), which I suppose is the source of the moniker ‘cast-iron district’…? And it wasn’t just designer stores; there were independent boutiques, too, and some more mainstream chain stores. I guess if you’re into shopping, it really is a pretty great area to be. I personally just enjoyed walking around, people-watching and looking into strange shop windows. I stumbled across a piece of street art that had been on my to-do list; a subway map made of metal rods and inlaid into the tarmac on Greene Street, between Prince and Spring. Little lights embedded into the map represented stations, and I have to say that at, nearly 100 feet long (I think), it was pretty impressive. Mental note to self: come back at night to see the lights on!

I kept wandering, and visited the Top Shop on Broadway. When I was living in the UK I swore by Top Shop… their socks and underwear were particularly excellent, and it was an affordable way to get hold of nice, good-quality clothes. However, I think it’s lost something in translation with its expansion to the North American market; they’ve approached it more as a high-end designer label, with ‘London fashion’ as a major theme. Gone are the awesome wardrobe staples; gone are the socks and undies and funny little toys at the check-out; instead the items seem totally fashion-based and, for what it is, it’s quite overpriced. I went in hoping to top up on socks and maybe grab a new pair of jeans, but there were no socks and the selection of jeans was pitiable; it was all about animal prints and other wear-them-once-and-lose-them-at-the-back-of-your-wardrobe couture items. Sigh. Well, I’m sure someone will enjoy it… but that someone will just not be me.

I turned back around and realised that my stomach was complaining quite loudly. It was time to eat. So I made straight for 240 Sullivan Street, NoHo, to knock a culinary must-do off my list: Peanut Butter & Co. If you love peanut butter, you have just entered heaven. I read an article about this place a while back and was fascinated: really? A whole cafe just for peanut butter lovers? But I tell you what – it was DELICIOUS. I mean, we all love a fancy meal in a swish restaurant but sometimes you just want your basics, and this place does it in spectacular fashion. The whole menu is based on peanut butter sandwiches, snacks, cookies and shakes; you’ve got everything from your standard PB&J to your ‘fluffernutter’ (peanut butter and marshmallow fluff spread), but I was here for the Big Daddy of all peanut butter sarnies: The Elvis. Oh yes. Peanut butter (smooth or crunchy, your pick), banana, honey and bacon, grilled to perfection, and served with a handful of carrot sticks and a small packet of crisps. I could almost feel my veins clogging with every bite I took, but DAMN it was good. I ate it down to the very last bite, greedily licked my fingers afterwards, and issued a happy sigh. Afterwards, I perused their collection of take-home goods; they really have an amazing range of peanut butters. There are, of course, your normal crunchy and smooth varieties, but they also have more exotic flavours like dark chocolate, maple, honey, cinnamon raisin, white chocolate and some sort of spicy chilli concoction too. Overwhelmed by choice and clutching my bloated belly, I decided the best path of action would be to leave empty-handed!

I opted for a nice long walk home. It’s funny, because when at home I would never bother if given the choice between that and a quick public transport ride, but in New York there’s always something to see and do while walking. From Sullivan Street I walked west to Sixth Avenue, and then turned west onto Greenwich Avenue for a wander through Greenwich Village, by which time it was dark. I found a small September 11 tribute that I had first seen on my first trip to New York in 2002: a collection of small, hand-painted tiles made by schoolchildren all across the country (and, indeed, the world), hung up on chickenwire fence, sending love and best wishes to the people of New York. In 2002 they had been shiny and brand-new; now, 10 years later, they are slightly faded and weather-worn but (whether for better or for worse) nobody has made any move to remove them. I wonder if any of those kids, now much older, have ever passed by here to see that their tiles are still around and still being read by passers-by.

From Greenwich Avenue I turned on to 7th Avenue and headed for home, where I stayed up way too late, pottering, reading and dawdling. The whole ‘having space to myself’ thing was not getting tired at all! And that was me for the day.

Thanks for stopping by,

Tara.

Moving into the Neighbourhood, the Garden of Eden and Graceland, New York, May 2012

10 Sep

Saturday May 12th – Today’s the day! The day I had been waiting for! For years and years, I had dreamed of having my own little apartment in New York City; enjoying the luxury of a bedroom, a bathroom and – most importantly – a kitchen of my own. The chance to go to a supermarket and buy whatever I wanted because I had a fridge and the tools to cook with; the chance to order in take-out food and have it arrive at my door; a chance to really settle in, get into a rhythm and really get a feel for life in my neighbourhood and in NYC. After years of dreaming and planning, I had managed to finally do it. Using the brilliant AirBnB holiday rental service, I had found a tiny apartment on my favourite street in Chelsea that was within my budget. I had to spend the previous two weeks in the hostel to balance out the budget, granted, but it was worth it. For the next 6 weeks, I would be staying in my own little studio apartment on 20th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenue), free as a bird to do as I pleased, and I could play at calling New York “home”. I was so excited! Now of course, I understand that to REALLY experience life as a New Yorker, I would have to work a bazillion hours a week just to pay my rent, and I wasn’t going to be doing ANY work while I was here, but… you know… I guess it as as close to the true experience as I wanted to get, ha ha ha!!! I saved for nearly two years, and now here I was, living the dream.

And so it was, on my last morning in the hostel, that I got up, washed up, packed up and dragged all my luggage downstairs to check out before enjoying my last free bagel breakfast at the cafeteria. I sat around and played on the laptop – very uneventful – before I finally hoisted half of my worldly goods onto my shoulders and dragged the other half along behind me, and made my way out to the subway station where (once again) some lovely stranger helped me down the stairs with my bags. I made my way to West 20th Street, to the address I had been given, and rang the bell. There was no answer but I waited patiently until a portly lady, who I recognised as my host Annie, came trundling up the street carrying some large bags. We got on like a house on fire, and we chatted as she cleaned up the apartment from the last guests. She showed me how everything in the apartment worked, arranged to get in touch before my departure so we could hand over the keys etc, and before I knew it, I was alone in my new abode. My own place! I was as happy as a clam! It’s hard to explain the sense of relaxation and excitement that came over me.

The apartment was small but functional, and in order to settle in and feel at home as soon as possible, I spent the next hour or two unpacking my stuff and finding just the right place for everything. I stood and enjoyed the view for a little while first; there was a traditional metal fire escape out the window, and the window overlooked the goings-on in 20th Street. I played with the TV (never a clear picture to be found on any channel, but not a problem as I was not intending to really ever watch it), the iPod dock and the radio, and I cleaned the toilet (yes, obsessive compulsive, but I wanted to know it had been cleaned properly!), and then made a list of things I would need. Then I took the list and wandered just around the corner to my favourite hub of gastronomy, the Garden of Eden Gourmet, and went wild. I bought chips and dips; I bought challah bread and cream cheese spread with chives; I bought a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream and a packet of something called Boardwalk Crunch (buttered popcorn, marshmallows, nuts and salty pretzels all covered in milk chocolate… a new addiction to add to my ever-growing list)… I had a blast, like a kid in a candy store, only I was wheeling my trolley around the aisles of my dreams! I also bought functional stuff like cereal, milk, handwash and tissues, the doing of which filled me with an inexplicable glee. I suppose that my aim to ‘get a feel’ for life in New York meant not only doing all the touristy things I’d ever wanted to do, but also doing the more banal, everyday activities that are part of life, like having to buy toilet paper and walk the dog, or whatever, just for the experience of doing that in a city that’s not normally home. I ran through possible ideas for my first night in my new place – what did I want to do? And I realised that, after 2 months of being on the road already, all I really wanted to do was have a quiet night and go to see a movie. Just sit in the dark, relax and watch a good film, then come home to a good night’s sleep in a room that I didn’t have to share with a bunch of strangers who snored. Bliss.

I finished my grocery shopping splurge and went to the cashier. Note to the manager of the Garden of Eden Gourmet: if you’re really going to call yourself a ‘gourmet’ food place, and play classical music and strive to be hoity toity upper class, then you really need to train your cashiers with some manners. Not your food counter staff , who I’ve always found to be helpful, but your cashiers. The kind of moneyed customers you normally get (scrubby backpackers like me notwithstanding) probably don’t enjoy getting treated like shit when they’re paying top dollar for their groceries. Perhaps the women at the cashier treated me like shit because they could see I was out of the norm, I don’t know, but either way they were rude as hell and perhaps a few choice polite phrases in English might have improved their service skills. First of all, refusing to break their conversation in Hindi (or perhaps Urdu? Tamil?) to acknowledge a customer approaching – not good. After unloading my little trolley onto the counter and politely waiting a reasonable amount of time for them to finish what they were saying, still no acknowledgement. I got out my wallet, and kind of waggled myself around expectantly… still no go. Finally, I had to interrupt with a ‘hello’. Two of them rolled their eyes, and the third, right in front of me, stared daggers. If looks could kill, I’d be toast. “What?” she demanded. I gestured to the groceries and tried not to stab her with a banana. Sighing loudly, she passed my goodies over the scanner one by one, piling them on the other side of her. When I dared to ask for a bag she actually tutted. When she’d finished scanning, she just held out her hand, palm up. No word, no total given, just hand out. I was so appalled that I did nothing but stare for a few seconds. “Give me it,” she says. There was no way I was handing this harpy my cash card, so I shuffled round and inserted the card into the machine myself. Of course, I had to sign because my card is an overseas card, which caused her all manner of huffing and puffing. The machine spat out the receipt and she  dangled it before dropping it on the counter, where it rolled and slipped onto the floor. By the time I had bent to pick it up and righted myself again, she was right back to chatting with her coven. And so, to the manager of the Eden Gourmet in Chelsea, I say this: invest in some business English lessons and customer service training for your people. I mean, these poor women are, after all, minimum wage slaves who come from a place where, perhaps, customer service is not quite as prized as it is elsewhere. Don’t fire them. They need their jobs. But spend a little time training them so they are worth something to you, and so they have skills they can use elsewhere.

Apart from the fact that she was a badly-behaved raging bitch and probably deserved my hatred, just a few polite words or phrases from her could have soothed the savage beast and made a much more pleasant experience for everyone involved. Maybe it’s my stuffy obsessive English-teaching self coming out. Does everybody get as frustrated as I do in a situation like that one? For me, I see it as a lack of desire to actually learn the true meaning of the words. Sometimes students just don’t understand the culture of language. “Could I please have the ____?” is so much less offensive than “Give me the ____,” even though they mean the same thing. Some students want to learn this difference, and others don’t give a stuff, and then wonder why everyone they speak to is rude to them… when in fact the native speakers are just reacting to the student’s rudeness in the first place. For my own satisfaction (and for the reference of any non-native English speakers who are reading this and looking for a job in customer service), this is how that conversation SHOULD have gone (please feel fee to skip this next bit if you’re not a mind-addled English language extremist):
Harpy: Hello.
Me: Hello!
Harpy: (scanning items) WIll you be needing a bag?
Me: Oh yes, please, that’d be lovely.
Harpy: (smiles while scanning)
Me: (smiles while packing)
Harpy: That’ll be $50, please.
Me: (hands over card) Here you go.
Harpy: Thank you. Debit or credit?
Me: Credit, thanks.
Harpy: (swipes, waits) Please sign here.
Me: Okey dokey.
Harpy: Here’s your receipt. Take care, bye.
Me: Thanks, bye!
And everybody walks away feeling happy, with a total lack of murderous desire to smush hummus in a certain cashier’s face.

Rant over. I was tempted to say that I would never go back to the store, but I would have been lying if I’d said that. I knew I couldn’t stay away… but in that moment, I did decide to go there a bit less often, and maybe try out a few other delis in the area to see what they had to offer instead. And as it turns out, I DID find a better place, complete with smiley faces… but that is a tale for another time.

I was making the short walk home (“home,” hee hee hee!) along 7th Avenue, hands full of shopping bags, when a stupidly handsome man coming in the opposite direction gave me a good long look up and down, and threw me the Joey Tribbiani classic: “How YOU doin’?” I was so flustered I didn’t know what to do but keep walking, but he gave me a cheeky wink and a winning smile before making his departure. Not used to that AT ALL. Wibble! I passed all the trendy bistros on 7th Avenue south of 23rd Street – my favourite one to watch was ‘Il Bastardo’, where the menu looked pretty standard but the patrons were fascinatingly shallow-looking… and of course, the name is a total winner. I got home, unpacked all my loot, and worked on my cinema idea.

Somewhere in all my planning, I had heard of a place in the Village called the IFC Centre. It’s a fabulous arthouse cinema, where they play all manner of independent films and documentaries, and I knew that sometime during my trip they would be playing a handful of documentaries I was interested in seeing. So, using the WiFi at the apartment, I checked their schedule and found that tonight, they were playing one I was particularly interested in – ‘Under African Skies’, a retrospective documentary on the making of Paul Simon’s ‘Graceland’ album. And who doesn’t LOVE the Graceland album?!?

I was back out the door in a flash. Stepping out of the subway in the Village, I stopped for a while to watch the basketball players in the caged courts at 6th Avenue and West 4th Street – apparently some of the most competitive players in Manhattan.  Just watching them was making me tired; there was some serious ass-kicking going on. I just love the idea – an open space, meant for sport, on a busy, busy street corner. It’s so quintessentially New York, I love it.

I crossed the road, fascinated by the hot dog stands and bawdy adult shops next to the cinema, bought my movie ticket, and went into the lobby where the smell of popcorn was too tempting to resist. I asked for a small packet and then… and THEN… the guy behind the counter poured melted butter all over it! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!? As if my day couldn’t get any better!!!! YUM!!!!! I love visiting cinemas in different parts of the world; no country has the same cinema culture. I love seeing all these little differences that make each cinema experience unique. The food, the people; they’re all different. In Australia the audiences are pretty silent; they come to really watch the movie. In England, there’s always the shitty little chavs up the front chucking popcorn and getting shushed by everyone. In Singapore, it’s like a medieval feast, where they’re all shouting at the screen and yakking to their friends and talking on their mobiles. In Hong Kong, they revel in a zillion different colours and flavours of popcorn, from butterscotch to cherry to chocolate. In Vegas, you can have nachos and hot dogs with your popcorn. In Australia, pizza is a snacky possibility. In Thailand, after the trailers and just before the movie starts, everyone has to stand while a song plays in honour of the king. I LOVE it. It’s always a surprise. Lots of tourists don’t want to go to movies while they’re travelling because they think it’s a waste of time, and something that they can just do at home. I get that, especially if they’ve only got a short time in a given place, but for me it’s just a great way of looking at the country you’re in and a different way of seeing the people who populate it. The cinema is their space (unlike a lot of tourist attractions, which belong to the tourists and not to the locals). As the guy behind the counter handed over my bagful of buttery goodness – something you wouldn’t get in Australia – I was thrilled by this reminder of our subtle differences.

The IFC Centre is an old place, filled with odd little turns and staircases covered in ratty old carpet. Still, for me this is always a sign of an interesting cinema…! I went up the stairs (studiously ignoring the sensation of my shoes getting stuck on old crushed popcorn and gum) and was promptly lost; I couldn’t see any signage for the screen I wanted. Luckily, a young man with a prodigious beard emerged from an unmarked grey door and pointed me in the right direction. I was surprised to find that the cinema was pretty much full, and I managed to squeeze into the last single seat at the end of a row.

Before the movie started, there was a very short film on bike theft in NYC. The filmmakers held experiments to see how many people would ignore a thief nicking a bike right in front of them. They used a white guy, a black guy, wire cutters, a crow bar and even a power tool to mix it up a bit, but the lack of reaction from the general public was almost laughable. If you’re interested in seeing it (it’s only 3-4 minutes long), I found it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/13/opinion/bike-thief.html?_r=0

The main feature that I’d gone to see, “Under African Skies”, was simply amazing, captivating. I’ve always loved Paul Simon and I grew up with the Graceland album as a common soundtrack at home. For those of you unfamiliar with it, it came out in 1986 and was a huge hit (by the way, if you really don’t know it, go out and buy a copy. NOW. And listen on repeat!). Simon’s work with South African musicians created an album that sounded at once both alien and familiar, and the sheer joy and catchiness of all the songs was a delight for the ear. It’s funny, though, that for all my love of the album, I had never known about any of the controversy that surrounded its creation. It is this subject that is the basis for the documentary; a restrospective on how the album was made, following Paul Simon’s return to South Africa 25 years later, but also a focus on the problems it caused for the musicians, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and for Paul Simon himself. After Simon’s previous album had been a flop, he basically had a bit of room for artistic freedom, as nobody was expecting much from him. After hearing a random recording from a South African band (who he actually ended up working with), he went to South Africa to meet them. Simple, right? No.

South Africa was, at the time, under the brutal regime of apartheid, where citizens with black skin were treated as little more than animals by a white government. A cultural boycott was in place, meaning that artists, musicians and so on were requested not to travel to South Africa for tours or whatever, in order to put pressure on the government to end apartheid. By going to South Africa at that time, Paul Simon was going against the boycott. I found the documentary interesting because it gave both sides of the argument clearly and fairly; Simon’s argument was, “I’m an artist. Why should politics have control over art?” And, as it turned out, many of the musicians did well internationally, which would not even have been a possibility before they collaborated with Simon. The album also brought more attention to South Africa, and focused an international eye firmly on the government there. The other side of the argument, though, is that Paul Simon collaborated with musicians, going against the UN boycott and the wishes of anti-apartheid activists in South Africa who were struggling hard for their cause. The musicians he worked with were labelled pariahs and criticised for their lack of solidarity, and activists sincerely felt that Simon was weakening their cause by ignoring the measures that had been taken to help them. I don’t think Simon really expected the media storm and criticism to hit him quite as quickly or as hard as it did. The documentary raised these and other issues without really taking a side; if any of the music, people or politics involved interests you even in the slightest, I highly recommend giving it a watch. In the end, though, the music was what stood out the most, and the message was one of joy and triumph over adversity. When the end credits rolled and Simon’s music started to play, the audience applauded, loudly and long. I left feeling uplifted and energised (and quietly giggling over the applause, which is not common in cinemas in Australia).

I stepped outside the cinema and looked around. It was a Saturday night, around 10pm, and in this part of the Village there were people everywhere, on the move. I really wasn’t ready to go home yet; it was far too lovely an evening, so I thought I’d walk home rather than catch the subway. I started heading north, first following a group of young hipsters, and then coming across the groups of lesbians that I had noticed were missing from Chelsea, a supposedly gay-friendly area where I’d only seen gay men, but no women. So THIS is where they all were – in the Village! Mystery solved. I kept walking. The night was crisp and still, despite the human traffic, and I made my walk under the watchful eye of the Empire State Building. Thrill, thrill, thrill; here I was, walking along 6th Avenue, heading home after a movie, with one of the most recognisable landmarks in the world keeping me company along the way. I spotted good-looking delicatessens and markets that I wanted to try, and a slew of Duane Reades that I didn’t need to try, because of course they’re all the same.

I walked at a comfortable pace, stopping only to peer at menus at little spots like the Waverly Restaurant (a cosy-looking diner with an old-school neon sign) or to take a closer look at a fenced garden or mural here or there.  I crossed the road at an odd little triangle at Greenwich Avenue, where the criss-cross of the skew-whiff streets of the Village bump up against the straight-as-an-arrow 6th Avenue and the rest of the Manhattan street grid. Somewhere around 18th Street, I saw a large old building that looked like it had been converted into a shopping centre, and was filled with suburban chain stores… so much for that large controversy at the Time Warner Centre. This one had snuck in without even a sniff of trouble. I passed churches and boutiques and banks, and by the time I reached 20th Street, I was enjoying the walk so much that I didn’t want to turn off 6th Avenue to go home. So… I didn’t. I just kept on going. The neighbourhood became less hipster, more yuppie. More Starbucks, more tourist tat, and then I passed Macy’s and Herald Square, and then Bryant Park. At this point I realised that I’d walked another 20-odd blocks without really thinking about it, and – finally – my feet were starting to feel it. So I turned westwards on 42nd Street and walked across to Times Square, where I allowed myself to be dazzled by all the lights from the sports stores and billboards for a while. It was surprisingly quiet for a Saturday night; I must have come in that lull between the Broadway shows starting and ending, when everyone’s still indoors. Or perhaps all the tourists had already gone home for the night, I don’t know. Anyway, I drank my fill of false daylight, walked across to 8th Avenue, and then got the subway back down to 23rd Street.

I made my way to 20th Street, and passed a man walking his dog (I ended up seeing the same man and dog many a time, both of us always up late at night for whatever reason). I spotted a police officer standing in the doorway of the cop shop opposite and stopped to say hello, which amused him no end. He even waved and laughed to himself before indicating that I should go through my front door; “I’ll watch to make sure you get in alright,” his gesture seemed to say.

I let myself in and walked up to the third floor; my apartment was dark and empty of people… perfect. I flicked on the light, dropped my bag and went about the standard business of getting ready for bed. I had a whole heap of fun leaving the bathroom door open while having a shower and getting changed, and experienced unadulterated glee just from walking around in my underwear (things that I hadn’t been able to do in a loooooong time, thanks to the fact that I was always sharing bedrooms and/or bathrooms!) Ah, the simple pleasures!

I grabbed my Kindle for a quick read, and tucked myself into bed. Lyrics from an old Blur song come to mind when I think of that moment, snuggled under the sheets: “I feed the pigeons, I sometimes feed the sparrows too, it gives me an enormous sense of well-being.” Well, at that moment, I felt like the guy from Parklife; I felt an enormous sense of well-being. I was in New York, and the next part of my adventure had just begun. And what an adventure! The city was my oyster, and I had six more weeks to enjoy it. Tomorrow would be another exciting day. Yay me!

Thanks for stopping by,

Tara.

A Zig-Zag Through The Park, Rubbing Shoulders With The Stars, and Jelly Roll Morton, New York, May 2012

7 Sep

Friday May 11th – And so, with Calvin and Hicham gone I was once again in the company of strangers at the hostel, so I allowed myself the luxury of sleeping in. I haven’t mentioned it in the last couple of entries, but rest assured that four of my five room-mates were still snoring their heads off all night long, and I had to keep track of my teenage-pig bunk mate’s food spillages to minimise the return of our mousey little friends. I still heard scampering once or twice, but I just tried to ignore it. So… yeah. I had a good, long sleep after my room-mates had departed for the day, and rushed downstairs just in time to grab my bagel before the canteen stopped serving breakfast.

After a peep out the window in the common room, I realised that I had just slept through one of the most beautiful mornings I’d seen since arriving in NYC, so I raced upstairs to shower and throw some clothes on before heading to the subway. I still wasn’t exactly clear on where I was going, but I knew I needed to be outside! It wasn’t til I was on the subway headed downtown that I decided to visit Central Park. It was sunny and it was beautiful, and I didn’t know how many more days like this I would be lucky enough to have! I whipped out my map and discovered there was an entry to the park on 72nd Street, and so that’s where I hopped off.

Emerging from underground, I found myself at the intersection of Broadway, 72nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue, surrounded by stately apartment buildings and well-dressed types. Right behind me was a Gray’s Papaya hot dog joint, and I figured that today was as good a time as any to start my “Who has the best hot dog in NYC?” research. Gray’s Papaya has a couple of locations in New York where they churn out hot dogs 24 hours a day and are frequented by a bunch of die-hard loyal enthusiasts. Major competition comes from some of the other ‘Papaya’ chains (so named for the papaya juice and other fruity concoctions that they sell), and more specifically from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs and Ruby’s Hot Dogs at Coney Island. I figured I’d have to keep it constant to be fair between the contestants, so I ordered it fairly plain, with onions and cheese only. I’m not really a massive hot dog fan, to be honest, and this one didn’t do much to change that. The bun was great and the sausage was nice, but the onions were in a sloppy tomatoey sauce and the cheese was – not surprisingly – squeezed out of a can. Still, at $2.45 I guess a person could do worse for lunch!

Feeling slightly queasy, I started walking eastwards along 72nd street towards Central Park. Wow, what a street. There was stuff going on everywhere – lots of colourful human activity and people singing and shouting. I was actually quite surprised – I mean, the Upper West Side is more known for its gentrified money magnates and stuffy conservative types than its raucous soul, isn’t it? I stopped to enjoy the sight of an old man playing a great rendition of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ on his saxophone, and smiled when I saw a man and his blind friend sitting in the sun; the man was reading a book aloud to his friend, and the friend was snorting and guffawing at events in the narrative. I briefly considered getting myself a (hippy hippy) shake from a juice bar which was packed with people, only to discover that all the shakes were made with soy milk, none of them contained any fruit I actually liked and (third and final nail in the coffin) I was still feeling a bit iffy after the hot dog, so I just enjoyed the sight and gave it a miss. I stopped at a shoe shop window to admire a pair of high-heeled shoes that I would NEVER be able to pull off (or, indeed, stand upright in), and nearly jumped out of my skin when a shout rang out nearby. A VERY large African-American woman with purple hair and electric blue sparkly leggings (with matching jacket, no less) had spotted another woman nearby in a sexy summer dress. “CUTE OUTFIT!!!!” she screamed, with an approving wink, “GO GIRL!!!! GO ON WIT YOUR BAD SELF!!!!” With a flourish of her wrist and a wave of her hand, she disappeared into the throng, and I was totally charmed. The woman she had been addressing looked a bit befuddled before realising she’d just received an awesome compliment; she smiled with more than a hint of pride, adjusted her dress, and kept walking.

I turned from this nice little scene, and not long afterwards found myself face-to-face with a building I knew very well, but had not remembered was on this street: The Dakota. Ugh. Like a dark little troll, it squats on the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. Look, I know that lots of people yammer on about its brilliant features and its late-1800s wicked-ass French architectural influences and yada yada yada, but quite frankly, I think it’s ugly. It looks like somewhere the Wicked Witch or the Evil Stepmother/Queen would live. Not only that, but it also happens to be the place where John Lennon lived and (more famously) died, right in the front entry way. For me, it’s hard to separate the event from the place. Ugh. Apparently, though, Yoko Ono still lives there; I’m not sure how she does it, every day passing by the place where her husband was shot by a nutso fan. Apparently the building is on some National Register of Historic Places; it’s one of the oldest buildings – if not THE oldest – in this part of Manhattan, built when New York life was still pretty much focused on Lower Manhattan and the area around it was basically empty. It’s been home to the elite rich and famous since it was built. Whatever. It gives off evil vibes and I don’t like it! I walked past the entrance as quickly as possible, unable to stop myself from rolling my eyes when I saw a South American couple taking smiling pictures of each other in the doorway where Lennon was shot. Good lord. I can see them sharing the pictures when they get home. “So this is me LAUGHING in the spot where a man was brutally gunned down in COLD BLOOD, isn’t it awesome?!” Lovely.

I came out from under the shadow of the beast, crossed the road, and before I knew it I was in the sunshine in Central Park. Yippee! This area of the park, closest to his home, is Strawberry Fields – a memorial garden for John Lennon. It was designed in a tear-drop shape, and its most popular attraction is the ‘Imagine’ mosaic. I’d seen it once before, towards the end of a long day of walking. The sun was going down and nobody was around, so I came, I saw, and I ran back out to the safety of the street. This time was a very different story, however. I came upon the mosaic seen at its best: dotted with dappled sunlight streaming through the leaves above, surrounded by people, and decorated with flowers, pictures, fresh strawberries (!), stuffed toys and other memorabilia left there by fans and friends. The afternoon was presided over by the self-proclaimed Mayor of Strawberry Fields himself, a Mr Gary “something”, who told the assembled crowd a little bit about himself and John Lennon. Apparently Gary’s been decorating the mosaic and talking to crowds here for years and years, making his living through tips from tourists. There was a group of bored-looking teens, obviously on a school trip from some country backwater; one or two of them looked interested but the majority looked positively catatonic, staring at their feet or their phones or anything else rather than listen and look. I was about to get all indignant when I realised that Lennon died nearly 20 years before some of these kids were even born; they have their own pop icons to be interested in, even if I don’t really find any of them particularly good. Is the music of John Lennon still relevant today? Does the message of ‘Imagine’ still resonate? Well, with me it does, but that’s not necessarily the case for everyone, especially for kids who missed the whole phenomenon. I suspect they were in Central Park because their teacher wanted to be there, and that they would much rather have been out misbehaving in Times Square or shopping on Fifth Avenue or just chasing members of the opposite sex around their hotel corridors.

…But then again, what kind of heathen Philistine ratbag doesn’t like The Beatles? Scum! ;P

I had a little tootle around the hills and dales of Strawberry Fields, enjoying the feeling of the sun on my skin, and watching locals and tourists alike lolling on the giant stone karsts that stick out of the park landscape at various intervals. I then pushed further into the park, crossing the main peripheral road and skirting the bottom of a lake. I climbed around the edge of Cherry Hill before making my way to the Bethesda Terrace, resplendent in the sunshine with its beautiful centrepiece fountain. You would probably recognise the fountain from the zillions of movies it’s been in (everything from Enchanted to Elf to Home Alone 2) – a great big angel in a circular pool, surrounded by a large red brick terrace. The lake was full of rowboats; so very, very corny but so very, very awesome. Central Park has got to be one of the most stunning man-made green spaces in the world; on a clear day, the crisp, sharp edges of the surrounding skyscrapers contrast beautifully with the greenery and the open space. It’s amazing. I dawdled on the terrace, enjoying my little bit of people-watching. A TV crew was doing vox-pops with randoms as they passed; I lingered to find out what was going on and was surprised to find they were asking some rather graphic sexual questions. Even more surprising was how willing these random people were to just answer those questions, seemingly without a moment’s hesitation! Ah, the power of TV. I wonder how many of them regretted their honesty later!

A young boy played his guitar, and an old fella on a rickety tricycle clattered past, his boom box (strapped to the rear of his trike) playing Tina Turner at ear-splitting volume. A newly-married Japanese couple came to pose for pictures in their bling, and I went to the water’s edge to get a closer look at the rowboats (mostly filled with couples) and the boathouse on the other side of the lake. I know that a scene from When Harry Met Sally was filmed out there, but I didn’t really feel like traipsing to the other side of the lake just for that, so I satisfied myself with a photo instead. I followed the edge of the lake to Bow Bridge, a beautiful old span across the narrow point of the lake, floored with hard wood. I was watching the boats slide past and enjoying the view of the city when I noticed a very odd couple in one of the boats near me. She was dressed in a stunning mango-coloured minidress; he was very handsome in his sky-blue shirt and charcoal trousers. Both were Indian, or perhaps Anglo-Indian. A little bunch of flowers sat on the bench next to her while he rowed. They would cuddle and nuzzle and stare adoringly at each other for a few minutes, and then bicker fiercely while she criticised his rowing technique and he told her off for being a bitch before asking her if she could do a better job. Then they’d go back to staring lovingly, gazing into each other’s eyes, him cupping her face and her laughing and arching her back, before launching into another round of apparently spontaneous arguments. I was so intrigued that I moved along the edge of the lake with them, following their progress, until I spotted a photographer taking snaps of them. Aha. When they got close enough, he shouted a few directions; turns out that they had just got engaged and he was taking pictures of them for the wedding invites, or something similar. Bloody hell; in between poses, they were tearing each other to shreds! When I caught the photographer’s eye, he gave a theatrical sigh and rolled his eyes heavenwards, gesturing at the two of them, whose faces were contorted with rage and spite once again. Hmmm. Well, what lovely memories they’ll have of that day… not!

I went back to the terrace, passing the guy on the trike again (still playing the same Tina Turner number… he must have had it on repeat), and entered the Lower Passage. This tunnel, fronted with stunning archways, cuts underneath the main road through the park, and leads to other areas of the park. Inside, it’s decorated with incredibly ornate tile work on the ceiling (in shades of blue and gold), painted with patterns on the walls and lit with a beautiful orange glow. Awesome, considering it’s just a passage from one place to another! I wandered through it until I came upon another open space, topped by the Bandshell. I had been hoping to find the legendary Disco Skaters here, but instead found a group of young boys on their skateboards. They seemed to be having a good time, so I sat and watched them for a while until I was distracted, first by a girl on a tightrope and then by a man teaching a little boy how to make GIANT bubbles with two wooden wands, a piece of string and a large bucket of soapy water. At first, the kid kept getting a faceful of exploded bubbles, but he eventually got the hang of it. I soon noticed that I had a fellow spectator – a rather lovely-looking man in a business suit. It wasn’t so much the suit that impressed me, as his hairdo; his hair was cut very short, and an intricate swirling pattern had been shaved into it. It’s not often that guys in business suits have the balls to do anything of that level of interest with their hair, so this guy definitely stood out from the crowd.

I left the bandshell behind and walked along The Mall, a great sweeping line of trees. I admired a couple of the statues before doing something of an about-turn, looking for the Sheep Meadow. It’s basically just a large, treeless expanse of grass which used to be – you guessed it – a sheep meadow. I walked the length of it from north to south, soaking up the sun and enjoying the views of the buildings behind the park. I saw dads spinning their kids around, teenagers hanging out in little gaggles, intense games of Ultimate Disc (frisbee, to the uninitiated), loners reading their books (I figured that that would probably be me at some point!) and about half a dozen guys in their early 20s nursing their hangovers together, falling asleep in the sun.

I then cut westwards again, and made for the Tavern On The Green. I think I mentioned it before on the day Hicham and I went to the UN, but I’ll mention it again: when I was a kid, one of my favourite books was ‘Remember Me To Harold Square’, by Paula Danziger. It follows the adventures of three kids on a scavenger hunt (nerds, just like me) in Manhattan. I remember the kids meeting for the first time – in the company of their parents, of course – at The Tavern On The Green, and I had always wanted to go there. I also remember Rick Moranis in Ghostbusters, being pursued by one of the rhino-like hell-hounds (Zuul? Clortho?) and running into Central Park, pressing himself up against the window of the Tavern, begging for help from the snotty diners who basically ignore him and go on with their dinner. I think it was also host to a scene from the excellent, EXCELLENT mini series ‘The Tenth Kingdom’ (if you haven’t seen it yet, go forth and watch it!), where the insatiable Wolf tells a confused waitress, “I want my lamb rare, and I mean rare! Like, just let it look at the oven in terror, and then bring it out to me!!!”) Anyway, suffice to say it’s played a large part in my pop culture references for New York! I was sad to find that the restaurant had actually gone bust, but had been bought (by Donald Trump, I think) and turned into a visitor centre for the park, which is not a bad end, really.

Parked outside the building were a couple of food trucks, and one of them was just what the doctor ordered after a warm day of tootling around the park in the sun: an ice cream van! However, this van was no ordinary ice-cream van. This was a Van Leeuwen ice cream truck, ladies and gentlemen. I wandered up to the window expecting to find the usual sorry list of flavours (soft-serve vanilla, soft-serve vanilla with a flake, soft-serve vanilla with chocolate topping…), but instead found the most mouth-watering and intriguing options I’ve ever seen in ice cream. Hazelnut, Espresso and Pistachio were accompanied by Balinese Palm Sugar, Ceylon Cinnamon, Gianduja and Earl Grey Tea, along with a couple of others I can’t remember. I really was spoilt for choice, but in the end I chose one scoop of Ginger, and a back-up scoop of Mint Chip in case it all went horribly wrong with the ginger. Luckily, I was not at all mistaken with my choice and there began an obsession with ginger ice cream such as the world has NEVER BEFORE SEEN! The mint chip was a real winner – some of the best I’ve ever had – but the true star was the ginger. Creamy, slightly custardy, but a little spicy, you could taste real ginger in it, but it wasn’t too overpowering. It literally left my mouth watering for more, and for a good ten minutes I had a fierce internal debate, but I just couldn’t do it with a clear conscience. Instead, I asked the guy behind the counter if he could supply with me some water to drink, which he kindly did, and I forced myself to turn around and walk away from the van empty-handed. BE IMPRESSED WITH MY WILL POWER!!!!! Mmmm, just thinking about it now makes me salivate…. in the following weeks, I tried a helluva lot of ginger ice cream from all over the place, but I truly reckon that the Van Leeuwen was the best. NOM NOM NOM!

Tickled pink with my new culinary discovery, I decided to make my way out of the park. I walked past the baseball fields, filled with kids playing serious (and some not-so-serious) after-school games, and I found the spot where, about 10 years ago on a previous trip to New York, I had been taught the finer points of baseball by an old Jewish gentleman from Brooklyn. I had hired a bike for a whirl around the park on a Sunday afternoon, and had stopped to watch a game played between two groups of adults, all of whom looked like they were maybe Puerto Rican or Dominican. The old man had struck up a conversation with me, and when he found out that I was British (which was where I was living at the time), he decided to give me an education on ‘America’s sport’. He complained that ‘the players these days’ didn’t have any manners in the game, and almost as if to punctuate his remark, the batter in the game we were watching started screaming his head off. He had had three strikes against him, and instead of retreating gracefully he argued with the umpire, threw his bat violently into the air, slammed his hat in the dirt, yelled some more, tore his bright orange team shirt off and threw it on the ground, ran around in circles shouting and then roared with fury before stalking back to the sidelines after a physical threat from the umpire. I still remember the vein across his shaved head bulging, and how the other team members rolled their eyes. The old man said, “See? Told you.” Apparently the old gentleman used to be a baseball coach, and then an umpire himself. His wife had died some years previously, and so to pass the time he spent his weekends hanging out in Central Park, watching any game that was being played. He seemed lonely; he was 82 at the time and I wonder now if he’s still alive. Such a nice man.

Anyway, after my trip down memory lane, I kept walking south, holding my nose any time I passed the horse-drawn carriages that seem to be unavoidable in the park. I get the fact that a horse-drawn carriage ride is fun, nostalgic and romantic, and that in particular a horse-drawn carriage ride in Central Park is basically an iconic thing to do in NYC, but honestly… the STENCH. Those horses absolutely reek. I can’t imagine trying to get cuddly with someone in a carriage when my primary instinct would just be to retch from the smell of horse poop and generally sweaty horsiness. Pew. Poor horsies!

I exited the park from the south-west corner, at Columbus Circle. A frenetic centre of energy, people, traffic and noise, the Circle is also home to a statue of Christopher Columbus (of course), Trump Tower (with its giant steel globe – talk about an 80s icon), and the relatively new Time Warner Centre. I can’t say for sure, but I seem to remember that when plans were first made for the centre, there was a lot of controversy. People didn’t want a shopping centre in Manhattan; they were worried that it would ruin the traditional ‘feel’ of the shopping scene, which is basically made of of storefronts on the street in most parts of the island. There was concern that it would lead to a swathe of shopping centres, and that New York would become an endless swathe of strip malls and megamalls like the rest of the States, ruining the ‘neighbourhood’ atmosphere. Now, I don’t know how much I agree with some of these arguments (assuming that my memory is serving me well and that I’m not just making all this up in my head!), but I understand the concern. Part of New York’s charm is places like Fifth Avenue, and little enclaves like the West Village, where even the chain stores have a little bit of individual pizzazz and independent boutiques flourish. The Time Warner Centre does look pretty impressive, though, perched there on the corner, and along with corporate offices it seems to have gained quite a few high-profile (mega-money) stores including Armani, Hugo Boss and Swarovski, to name a few. My interest in it, though, was for one reason only: Jazz At Lincoln Centre.

So, for all you music lovers out there, Jazz At Lincoln Centre is AWESOME. ‘Curated’ by Wynton Marsalis (yes, of the ridiculously talented Marsalis clan, which includes Branford, Ellis, and Jason, to name but a few), the JALC programme runs loads of jazz concerts and talks throughout the year. They even have children’s programmes, to encourage their interest in music, and singalong sessions. Totally. Freaking. Amazing. Before coming to New York I had salivated over their programme, whittling my list of potential visits down to about 5, and then narrowing that down to one concert – an evening of The Music of Jelly Roll Morton, who was a New Orleans jazz musician. He died in 1941 but his notoriety lives on – he claimed to have invented jazz music (!) and was totally up his own ass, by some accounts, but his back catalogue of music is a rollicking ride of brilliant toe-tapping ragtime and catchy bum-wiggling tunes. I had it penned in as ‘DEFINITE’ on my list of things to do in New York…. and then I saw the price. Tickets were around $90, if I remember correctly, and with all the other things I wanted to do, all the shows I wanted to see, and a budget that had to stretch for two more months, I realised that I just couldn’t do it all. Sadly, after much self-torture and hemming and hawing, the Music of Jelly Roll Morton was out of the question for me.

And so it was that my eyes scanned Columbus Circle as I exited Central Park, skirted around a busking drummer (who sounded strangely more like a tap dancer) and fell upon the sign for Jazz At Lincoln Centre above one of the doorways at the Time Warner Centre. I had forgotten that some of the venues were not at the Lincoln Centre proper, and were in fact here instead. I also realised that the concert was tonight, in a matter of hours. I stared wistfully at the sign, and tried to convince myself that I could afford that $90 (plus taxes), but to no avail. Still, I thought that maybe I could wander in and, you know, just LOOK at the ticket booth…

Celebrity Interlude: Pulling open the doors to the centre, I slammed headfirst into Tim Robbins’ chest. I looked up, realised that I was staring at Mr Shawshank Redemption himself, and gibbered. He glanced at the Scary Crazy Lady (TM) in front of him, apologised, smiled nervously, checked that I was righted, and scurried away. I gibbered to myself a bit more, scaring a few passers-by, then kicked myself for not asking him to marry me, and went through the doorway.

Where were we? Ah yes. The JALC ticket booth. I loitered around, and thought that maybe, MAYBE, with a magic wand or something, an angel of the Lord had magically changed the ticket prices between now and the time I’d checked the prices on line. I went to the window and asked the lady how much tickets were. No, there had been no divine intervention. They were still $90. I stood there, dithering, doing some maths to figure out if I could cancel something else or shuffle some money around, or maybe not eat for a few days… I must have looked really, really disappointed and pathetic, because the lady behind the counter softened suddenly. “You don’t have $90?” No. “But you really want to see the show?” Yes. “Hmmm. Well, I guess I could… wait a second.” She disappeared for a couple of minutes. “It’s just you, right?” Yes. “Do you have $10? I can give you a ticket for tonight for $10.” Honestly, I was so shocked and excited that I nearly peed my pants. I wanted to leap over the counter and give the woman a giant hug and blubber gratefully all over her shoulder, but lucky for her there was a glass barrier between us.

And that was that. I emerged from the Time Warner Centre clutching my very own ticket to The Music of Jelly Roll Morton at Jazz at Lincoln Centre for Friday May 11th, dazed and confused and terribly delighted. I don’t know if they do that as a matter of course (I guess it wouldn’t be unusual to sell discounted tickets on the same day as the show, just like the Broadway shows do), but either way I felt like I’d just won the lottery. I checked my watch, and I had just enough time to race home and clean myself up before returning for the show.

When I got back to the hostel, I quickly showered and changed into my girly dress, slapped on a bit of lipstick and inspected myself in the mirror. One of my room-mates, the Brazilian guy who was travelling with his girlfriend, came in and asked what I was all dressed up for; I told him that I’d got $10 tickets for a show and he was suitably impressed. He asked if he could get such a deal, but when he found out that it was jazz he suddenly lost interest…!

I got back onto the subway, feeling real purty, and went back to Columbus Circle. There was a crowd of people down by the ticket booth waiting for the lifts up to the concert venue – it took a fair while to get everybody up there! Well, up I went along with them, and had just enough time to grab a (stupendously overpriced) bottle of water before it was time to sit down. The Rose Theatre was basically full. It looked just as I imagined – a terribly sophisticated concert hall with all sorts of acoustic features that I could never begin to understand, decorated in muted tones of navy blue, brown and pink uplighting. It was actually a fairly small room, probably designed specifically to create an ‘intimate’ atmosphere.

The musicians came out to raucous applause (I was delighted to see Jason Marsalis was the drummer), and the leader, a blind pianist called Marcus Roberts, came out last. I’m not much good at describing music, particularly when it’s largely instrumental, but WOW. Kickass New Orleans rolling jazz. I was bouncing in my seat (along with a large part of the audience), clapping along and just generally having an awesome time. There were two Korean girls sitting next to me; they sat through the first half still as stones, left at the interval, and never came back. Bizarre. Speaking of the interval: as I left the theatre, two old blue-rinsed ladies wearing white gloves pointed, tutted and gave me filthy looks. I looked down to see what they were pointing at, thinking that maybe I had a run in my tights or (God forbid) had tucked my skirt into my tights at some point, but could only see my shoes. Then I realised that, according to them, the problem WAS my shoes. Apparently ankle-high black Doc Martens are not the appropriate shoe of choice to go with a super-girly black and red flowered dress. At least, not according to the Ladies Who Lunch Brigade. I modelled my shoes for them, pointing my toes and giving them an evil cheeky smile; I stopped short of poking out my tongue, but they were appalled and scuttled off, shaking their heads and tutting some more, probably about the state of youth today. Silly old bats. Let’s see how well THEY’D manage their wardrobes if they could only take what they could carry! (Plus, as a side note, I bet these are the same old hags who tut over the lack of music appreciation in youth today, and bemoan the fact that nobody comes to enjoy live instrumental music any more. Well, perhaps if young folk were welcomed a bit more – and criticised a bit less – by old farts like them, they would feel inclined to try out these sorts of concerts more often!)

Anyway, the intermission was almost as eventful as the main event. A Brooklyn band called the Red Hook Ramblers was playing a lively turn of New Orleans jazz, ranging from toe-tapping high-speed numbers to slow, bluesy, naughty ditties; people were even dancing on the spot. It’s nice to see a jazz audience that aren’t all a bunch of stuffy socialites intent on one-upping each other with pretentious name-dropping (those old ladies notwithstanding, of course). A real scene with real people who really love it; I was happy to be there.

The second half of the main show was every bit as good as the first. My seat was in the back of the auditorium, but I could still see the performers’ faces perfectly. We all swayed and soared with the music. At the end, I clapped until my hands were sore, then wandered out through the empty corridors of the Time Warner Centre and crossed the road into Columbus Circle. It was late and I was tired, but not ready to head home right away, so I sat on a bench in Columbus Circle for a while enjoying the spray of the fountains, the lighting, and a bit of people-watching. There was a guy slooping around the obelisk on his roller blades and a family taking photos and letting their kids dip toes into the fountains; a man of about my age sat reading his book. For a moment I wondered what he was doing out there by himself reading – didn’t he have a home to go to? – but then I supposed that the same question could have been asked of me… and his answer was probably the same as mine. It was too nice a night to be indoors alone. After a good half an hour of just breathing, I finally decided to call it a night. I hopped on the subway and before I knew it, I was curled up in bed for my last night at the hostel – tomorrow I would be in new digs, and truly living on my own in New York.

Thanks for stopping by,

Tara.

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