Bloody Weather

It had started snowing last night as we holed ourselves up in the room. When I looked out later it was white-over on the roof tops and the sidewalks of Times Square also looked pretty white/slushy. Still the crowds thronged. By this morning the snow had turned to rain, and as it turned out hard icy rain.

Satellite view of NE USA

It was some time before we ventured out as we decided to indulge in the hotels breakfast buffet. Conscious of sounding cheap or otherwise obsessed by the cost of things, I’d just make the observation that we spent as much on breakfast as we’d have spent on overnight accommodation in some place (several times more in the case of Chesterfield Ibis!). Goes without saying that we didn’t walk away hungry – which is the point of the buffet style service, isn’t it?

We eventually stuck a toe out and set off, walking south along Avenue of the Americas to where it intersects Broadway and 34th Street, dropping $7 with a street trader for the privilege of an umbrella – here is as good an example of of the laws of supply and demand as you’ll ever find!

Macy’s is as good a place as any to spent a wet New York morning, not least as it has a Starbucks on (nearly) every floor. The ultimate bloke sitting venue. As I type, Kay’s coat, bags and soggy umbrella sit bayside me, along with her half drunk iced something. As I scan the horizon of multi coloured swathes of cloth, all carefully crafted into differing patterns of garment, I see no sign of my beloved. Oh well, that’s what iPads are for!

The Curious Case of the Missing Girlfriend!

New York Monday

We were out of the room by 08:00, but it was 09:30 before making it out onto the street. We went down to the lobby (which somewhat understates the scale of the eighth floor of this hotel) for coffee and internet. While Kay caught up with email, and news of a double family tragedy (though thankfully no-one really close) I addressed the plans for the last day & night of the trip. The decision is that we’re picking a hire car up from a nearby Hertz self-service facility for 24hrs, to be dropped off at JFK. With that flexibility, it opens up choices of the last night hotel, so I’ve booked the Fairfield Inn at Flushing. This has the double advantage of me knowing where it is from a previous stay, and what should be a simple 15 minute drive south on I678 early on Thursday. A significant part of the remaining time was spent scoping out malls in the Long Island area!

Plan for the day is a game of two halves: First part is a circuitous route via the HBO Shop on Avenue of the Americas (a.k.a. Sixth Ave), then on up Fifth Avenue, window shopping the premium stores. We did wander through ‘Saks’ where the adage of If You Need To Ask The Price… is in full effect. More modest brands such as GAP and Zara got singled-out for special attention. Luckily, all have the ‘bloke seat’ area.

Fifth Avenue is home to Best Buy and Barnes & Noble. There was a time when either of these fine stores would set the pulse racing and the credit card in danger of meltdown. Sadly, no more. A tanked exchange rate, NY sales tax and grossly overpriced merchandise combine to make browsing them less than inspiring these days. Oh, other than to add to an Amazon wish list, of course!

Time for brunch in the form of a diner called the Europa Cafe. A slight mix-up over the order, brought about by my inability to speak American, resulted in extra – free – toast, so sometimes speaking English has its benefits. Other than providing fuel for the morning, the experience was less than fulfilling.

Michael Kors

My retirement gift outside its spiritual home.

The Apple store doesn’t have a girlfriend seating area, so Kay sought refuge in the FAO Swartz Cafe (Welcome To Our World, Welcome To Our World, Welcome To Our World Of Toys. Repeat ad infinitum). Meanwhile I entered the hallowed glass cube. Actually, by comparison with the Grand Central store, the Fifth Avenue Apple store no longer seems so special, other than its unique architecture & location. [I sense a running theme of negativity here as I recount events, which doesn’t particularly reflect the true spirit of the morning!]

Apple Fifth Ave

So, part two of the day’s plans: Onto the subway (Jim’s comment about yesterday’s blog suggests that capitalisation can lead to confusion with a sandwich shop!) and south to 34th Street. A quick errand in the form of returning Saturday’s purchase to K-Mart (and associated fixture sitting while a suitable replacement garment was singled-out). At least the weather was somewhat more hospitable this time as we walked along 34th Street. Oh, and no drunken faux-Irish.

Time to draw a line in the sand.

Enough shopping, time for some sightseeing. We set off toward South Ferry with the plan involving the Staten Island ferry. Our determination to overcome all obstacles between us and Staten Island was evidently in short supply as we capitulated at the first hurdle – the 1 Train doesn’t go to South Ferry any more for some reason. We found ourselves back at street level at Rector Street, some way short of the ferry dock. (By an incredible coincidence, the first thing we saw as we exited the station was The Blarney Stone, an Irish bar which Paul Rogers had recommend but when he was telling me he couldn’t recall the address.  Of all the bars, in all New York…! ). Another reason why Staten Island, or at least the ferry, no longer seemed like a good plan was that it was bloody cold with, light snow starting to fall.

We wandered round the Wall Street area for a while, a hive of Monday afternoon activity as the evening commute was just getting started. We agreed it was afternoon coffee time, but inevitably the neighbourhood Starbucks was rammed full. Next door there was a coffee/sandwich shop called Cosi, which was half empty. An indictment of global brands over small businesses? To be fair, Cosi was more than acceptable and their muffins kept us going. (Why is it any sentence involving muffins sounds like a euphemism?).

CIMG8095

Back via subterranean public rail borne transport to Times Square and up to the room. After the dining excesses of previous evenings, we decided to stay in tonight. I braved the increasingly heavy snow and fetched McDonalds. Another order mix up – this time not accent related, a cock-up in the kitchen, bizarrely – which led to the manager comping us extra fries for wait. Free food twice in one day!

An evening in, watching “All New” How I Met Your Mother, Rules of Engagement and Two Broke Girls. We know how to live.

OK, so where was I?

Oh yeah, halfway over the Brooklyn Bridge trading insults (slight overstatement for comic effect) with a cyclist….

The further we got over the bridge, the busier it got. Most pedestrians walk over from the Manhattan side, occasionally beyond the western tower, before going back. The landward part on the Manhattan side was particularly congested. Still, it was sunny and many photos were taken (repeating views taken several times in the past, but that’s not the point of course!).

Brooklyn Bridge

There are a great number of boring duties performed by NYPD officers, I’m sure. On this walk we saw at least five of them. In Brooklyn there is a building which occupies a full block which has a goodly number of NYPD vehicles parked within its curtilage. However, the fact that the sidewalk all around is protected by ‘silver stumps’, and the two cross streets are blocked off with retractable ramp/gate barriers, with pedestrian traffic prohibited, suggests it is more than a mere police station. Each corner is guarded by an officer in a small booth – the three of which we passed looked bored witless. Then there’s the Brooklyn Bridge traffic detail. Each side of the bridge there’s a cruiser with an officer sitting in it, engine running ready to roll to anything which happens on the bridge, on either carriageway. Obviously, for much of the time, something spectacularly fails to happen. More intense boredom.

Back on Manhattan soil we passed City Hall. A large group were assembled on the steps and the local media were in attendance in force. Best we could work out was a candidate for mayor of Korean extraction was holding a rally, though there seemed to be some sort of counter-demo as well. There is an outer security cordon to City Hall and a somewhat firmer inner cordon with a security checkpoint involving metal detectors. As we passed by a group of half-a-dozen or so of the candidate’s constituents were admitted past the outer cordon by the cop on duty. However, instead of proceeding to the inner gatehouse, they took it upon themselves to move a barrier and let themselves through so as to join the demo sooner. To say the cops were apoplectic about this is somewhat redundant to report. There weren’t any drawn weapons, but there was a whole load of shouting!

Along Vessey Street and we happened across the 9/11 Memorial Preview Ticket Office & Gift Shop. Now, I know this is a sensitive subject, and nothing I express here should in any way detract  from the horror of what happened that day… but. The money to pay for the memorial has to come somewhere, and in the post-2008 financial crisis world in which we live, that’s always going to be a challenge. However, it is a really fine balance between raising funds for the memorial on one hand, and descending into commercial maudlin and self-pity on the other. I’m afraid I came away with the feeling the balance has tipped a little the wrong way. As an aside, something of a hot potato over here is a decision by the TSA to relax the rules on carrying knives onto planes. Their logic has some merit; spend the time keeping things that will go bang and actually bring down a flight off aircraft rather than worrying about penknives. Alright, except, as the story of United 93 on that day revealed, it was ‘box cutters’ that the terrorists armed themselves with.

CIMG8057

Back to the point. We headed back north on the Subway to drop bags in the room and relax for an hour before walking round to the Ambassador Theater on 49th Street. Showtime is 19:00 and we have to pick our tickets up from the Will Call booth. In order to reduce the likelihood of anything going wrong, I reckoned that going an hour in advance would be prudent. Turns out there was no line, no bureaucracy just give your name and get the tickets with a cheery “enjoy the show”.

This meant we suddenly had half an hour to kill before doors open, so we adjourned over the road to a convenient coffee shop, with a token purchase of a bottle of water, so as to sit in the warm in sight of the theatre. Actually the place was a “book cafe”, presumably with free WiFi, so all seats were taken by students with laptops looking like they were doing actual study. The upshot was we stood in the warm!

Chicago queue

A line began to form from about 18:20 and around 18:40 they started letting folk in. We joined the line and were in within a couple of minutes. The theatre is a little smaller and more intimate than I was expecting – though not nearly as small as where we saw Stomp last time.

Two things were exactly was we expected: The audience were a mix of the usual oddballs and eccentrics which make up the Great American Public (yes, we include ourselves in that sweeping slight) and secondly, the show was put on by a group of professionals who are at the absolute top of their game. I won’t go into detail, suffice to say that the story, the music, the staging, the performance and the logistics were all faultless from our humble perspective. We thoroughly enjoyed the  whole experience.

Afterwards, more out of convenience than anticipation, we went to a nearby Applebees for dinner. Unlike the theatre, our expectations were low, but like the theatre, they were fully met. Vastly overpriced average food. Back to the room via “Smiller’s” the convenience store we’ve now visited three out of four nights, at more-or-less the same time and bought more-or-less the things. I’m sure the girl who was serving recognises us now!

Coney Island

It has almost become a mantra, and I repeated it to Kay last night; “Nothing happens on Sunday mornings in the US”. Indeed, my experience has generally been that no-one ventures out before 10:00 and nothing opens before Noon. That proved to be completely false as far as New York is concerned. First warning something was up, was the sound of amplified music out on the street carrying up to the 20th floor and penetrating the double glazing around 07:00. Bleary eyed, I looked out. Where a street food trader had been positioned up to around 04:30 when I got up for the loo, the was now a modest crowd lining Broadway. Turning the television on revealed that the New York Half Marathon was due to set off from Central Park at 07:00. Indeed, seemingly not much later when I looked out, there were one or two runners passing through the glimpse we have along 44th Street, their arrival preceded by cheers.

Channel7 provided a live coverage of pro endings, and as we readied ourselves for the day, we checked on progress outside. The trickle of runners was soon a torrent, and by shortly after 09:00 when we got ourselves outside, the torrent was ongoing. Turns out Times Square is at the 7 mile mark. The winning man had recored a time of a little over an hour and the first woman was about 1:10, according to Channel7. This was nor over two hours, with six miles to go, so the fairest thing I can say is that the runners we saw were starting to feel the strain. Please don’t get me wrong; my new found tolerance for salad bars notwithstanding, I have no aspiration to begin to emulate what these people had accomplished just to get seven miles in two hours.

New York Half Marathon runners enter TImes Square en mass

What I’ve failed to mention thus far is that the temperature was around 30 deg. F. with a typical New York ‘canyon effect’ wind chill. Credit of course to the runners, but just as much so to their supporters who had stood out over two hours in those conditions. Credit also to two guys (I’m sure there were more dotted around the course) who were entertaining the crowds. This duo were a more than accomplished rock act – electric guitar and drums only, no vocals – and their renditions of rock standards were pretty damn good. 

Entertaining the runners & their supporters.

Yes, the drummer is wearing a mask. Against the chill?

 

 Having watched proceedings for quarter and hour or so, and as the tide of runners abated, we went down to the Subway to await a Downtown train. Turns out the platform was directly below the grating you see in the above photo, so we continued to enjoy the music as we awaited the fairly sparse Sunday morning service. Eventually an R train appeared and we boarded, knowing we’d have to swap to an N train at Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn in order to reach our intended destination – Coney Island.

I’d ‘sold’ the idea of Coney Island to Kay by billing it as NY’s equivalent of Skeggy. I don’y think I’m doing either place a disservice in that description. Except that when we got there – unsurprisingly – Coney Island was closed! Posters announced its reopening for the 2013 season as being 23rd March, so we’re only a bit early. Added to the fact is is still self-evidently winter here, is the fact that a lot of the infrastructure is still being repaired following Hurricane Sandy.

Nathan's Coney Island

 

Sandy banner

 

What was open, on the Boardwalk, was Tom’s and very welcome it was too. This is a very pleasant diner and even though it was Hobson’s choice, it suited us perfectly for brunch. Kay had an omelette and I had corned beef hash (declining the option of cabbage which was on offer for St. Patrick’s day), washed down with plentiful coffee. The perfect US diner experience.

Refreshed we walked about half a mile either way along the Boardwalk. It’s still cold but sunny so there were plenty of photo ops. By the time we’d done, there were a lot more folk about, but still not a lot open.

Classic Coney Island profile

Back to the Subway and quite a lengthy wait for an F train which took us through the suburbs of Brooklyn. Really interesting to see from the elevated position of a Subway train. Not sure I’d want to spend much time out on foot on some of the streets though. At Jay Street in Brooklyn we got off and went up to the street. To non-one’s surprise, even though it wash;t planned, we exited the station an almost immediately fell into a Starbucks at Metro Tech – a college campus on the edge of Brooklyn city center. It was moderately busy, but we were able to ‘belly up’ to the bar and enjoy our drinks, watching the barristas deal with the wide variety of customers and some fairly odd looking students outside (we think there was some sort of ‘cosplay’ event going on, as there was a lot of them wearing various strange costumes).

The reason for getting off at Jay Street, in addition to the much needed coffee, was to walk back over the Brooklyn Bridge. This is eminently do-able as there is a walkway above the traffic lanes. The downside is it is shared usage between pedestrians (read: camera toting tourists, for the most part) and cyclists. There are separate ‘lanes’ for each and woe-betide the unwary pedestrian who should cross this line as the cyclists show no mercy. I’d warned Kay of this fact, borne of past experience, but sods law says that the combination of a group of pedestrians coming the other way, me getting my camera out of my bag, and the resulting slight sway to the right taking my briefly onto the white line, should be timed perfectly for a cyclist swooping up behind me. He loved the fact it gave him an excuse to berate me. I responded in New York fashion.

 

Right I’m going to pause there and, as I’ve got WiFi where I’m typing, I’ll upload what I’ve typed so far. We’re off to see a Broadway Show now: Chicago at the Ambasador Theater. I’ll let you know how it goes.