Friday, November 9, 2012

New york city (part one of four)

First impressions

The first thing Til and I saw when we landed in America was a jail.

Well, actually, a Starbucks at the airport. But when we got on the airport train there was a jail right there, which was weird. Same with the actual abandoned warehouses on the way, straight out of the movies, a sensation that characterised our trip. It's strange being in the place where all the TV and movies come from.

Supermarkets of plenty 

We were a little scared of the concept of tipping when we first arrived, and our stomachs were skittish after airplane food, jetlag and two weeks of mistreatment in England, so we strolled down Broadway looking for the least threatening thing to have for dinner, which turned out to be our customary French feast of cherry tomatoes, cheese, bread, hummus and carrots from the Westside Market. Oh my God. Now we know why Americans are so fat. Their supermarkets are nothing short of breathtaking, bounteous cornucopias! They overwhelm the senses! Produce is displayed so attractively, in such quantity, with such variety, it whips you up into a consumerist frenzy and you just want to buy and eat everything.

A wall of different kinds and combinations of nuts and lollies.

Drinks as far as the eye can see.

Look at how much cheese there is in this picture. Multiply it by at least four, and that's how much cheese this supermarket had.

Straight from the chocolate mines of New York.

We've struck chocolate!

'Suddenly with a strained sound Daisy bent her head into the [PRODUCE] and began to cry stormily. "They're such beautiful [PRODUCTS]," she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. "It makes me sad because I've never seen such—such beautiful [PRODUCTS] before."'

We conjectured that this was the result of a city populated by eight million people – supermarkets have high enough turnover that they can afford to display food like this. But when we conveyed our amazement to our local friend Jill she said it probably had more to do with how wasteful America is: 'It wouldn't even be a consideration that they wouldn't be able to sell it all', she said. 'Just throw it out and put more in!' She also laughed because the Westside Market is a small supermarket with a limited selection by American standards. Jaysers.

New york breakfast

Our accommodation is a little box of a private room in the Broadway Hotel and Hostel with a window that looks onto a dingy alley, so there's not much light and we woke up late the next morning thinking it was early. We went directly up Broadway to procure ourselves some of 'the best bagels in New York', from Absolute Bagels. And they were delicious. They're like the chewiest, thickest, doughiest bread ever, smothered in cream cheese.

'Uh, I lived in New York, Troy, I know what a baggle is.'

When I come home I'm setting up a bagel and pasty shop. Australia has been deprived of them too long. I'm not gonna lie. An embarrassing percentage of my excitement each morning was about the prospect of the meals I was going to eat that day.

Day at the museum

The weather was kind of crappy, that day, so we reasoned we should do something indoorsy.

'We're going to The Museum of Natural History'.

Despite being aimed more at kids, the museum was great. There was one hiccough, though. There'd been an awful lot of cream cheese on the bagels we'd had for breakfast, and we'd had them on completely empty stomachs at some point between 11am and 1pm. I was fine, but Til couldn't handle it and started to feel ill at one point. We searched frantically for a bathroom and found one just in time for her to throw up into a toilet as opposed to a potplant in the hall! Unfortunately for her, this put her 'off' bagels for the rest of the trip, though I continued to enjoy them.

Also, we did think the museum was going to be free, but it turns out to be more of a mandatory-voluntary donation type deal. As in, you need to have a ticket no matter what you pay and, unless you say otherwise, they assume you are going to pay the suggested donation of $19, which kind of pressures you into paying.

'And you think that people are going to pay you $4.50 even though they don't have to? Just out of the goodness of their ...? [laughs] Well, anything you say! Good luck, lady, you're gonna need it!'

 Giant Mexican stone head replica.

 Creepy shrunken heads.

Dramatic diorama.

An absurd lemur. 

Red fox in a North American forest diorama. 

A gigantic sequoia which began growing in 550 and was felled in 1891 (with markings indicating how big the tree was at different times, along with what was happening in the world during that year).

 A diorama of a chipmunk crapping itself as it is sighted by a bobcat.

 The famous life-size blue whale.

Dolphin pod diorama.

Sperm whale and giant squid diorama.

Take that, Creationism. Also, I wish we still had deer that tiny.

Political science

But seriously, it's actually interesting contemplating the politics of museums like this, especially in the American context. Or, more accurately, the politicisation of museums. Walking around I couldn't shake the feeling that any American Fox News viewer would denounce it as a hotbed of leftist pinkos complicit in the mainstream media's liberal bias/socialist conspiracy. There were video presentations enjoining viewers to act on climate change and other environmental issues; there were obviously no concessions to Creationism or Intelligent Design; and there was even this quote on progressivism from Theodore Roosevelt on the wall:

But what I meant by distinguishing politics from politicisation is that there is nothing inherently political about the contents of the museum, presumably. Presumably, it contains the findings, messages, and lessons produced by disinterested scientific enquiry. What makes it political is the outside world, the current cultural milieu, the fundamentalist Christians being pandered to by Republican politicians, the big companies in whose interest the country is run.

15 miles to the shaaaaaaaaake shack

(Shake Shack yeahhh).

After the museum we headed down the Atlanta Highway. I mean, we headed to another highly recommended eatery, Shake Shack, for veggie burgers, milkshakes and fries.

Shake Shack, baby, Shake Shack.

The line going out the door.

This place is way popular. The bigger one in Times Square pretty much has a constant queue going out the door all the way down the street, dwarfing the one in the picture here. Folks are literally linin' up outside just to get down. It's really good, but I don't know if it's that good.

Book finds

Despite our aching feet, we decided to walk back to the hostel rather than catch the subway, the better to observe the neighbourhood. On the way back we chanced upon an amazing little nook of a bookstore, Westsider Books, absolutely toppling full with used books.

Til ended up with JM Coetzee's Slow Man.

Me with the hardback copy of Junot Diaz's Pulitzer Prize–winning The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao I picked up, which may or may not be signed by the author and addressed 'a Paulina'. 

Lara Croft just hangin' out.

Times square and the broadway bomb

The next day we toured some of the city's major sights, starting with Times Square.

Us on the giant streetcam.

Coolest name for a store ever.

Til gave this guy a dollar 'cause he had a good story. His sign says he lost his job and is working out non-stop to prove that he's ready and able.

I also got photobombed by some random dude who mocked my, in retrospect, less than enthusiastic arm spread in a photo.

Our visit happened to coincide with the annual 'Broadway Bomb', in which thousands of skateboarders claim the streets for the purposes of a race. It looked less like a race and more like separate packs of 15 to 45-year-old boarders roaming randomly around the streets and causing mayhem, but this might be because the race was 'thwarted by heavy police presence'.

A pack in full flight.

An attempted thwarting by a police officer.

 A victim of the mayhem.

Grand central station and the whispering gallery

From Times Square we headed to Grand Central Station, which was impressive. I wish Sydney had anything like it.

A characteristic flourish of American flags in the foreground. Those things are everywhere.

Cool constellation roof theme.

Til's Lonely Planet guide (aka, the bible) informed us that one of the more unusual features of the station was 'the whispering gallery' beneath a certain bridge. Supposedly if you stand in opposite corners of this chamber and whisper to the wall, the acoustics are such that you can hear one another. Unfortunately the chamber currently looks like this:

Which was very inconsiderate. We still tried it, feeling like idiots, and so did another couple while we were there, but it didn't work with that giant cube of hoarding disrupting everything. (It seemed everywhere we went things were under construction or closed for repairs; the first disappointment had been at the Museum of Natural History, where the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall had been closed). 

Picknicking in bryant park

For lunch we went to the Grand Central Market and put together another picnic to eat in Bryant Park just down the street.  

An old lady Til opened the door for. 

Some pigeons hanging out on the corner of East 42nd and Madison Avenue.

Bryant Park.

Strange, these foreign parks that don't seem to feature any grass … Although it was 'under construction' as well, with a massive central section cordoned off while they assembled what looked to be an ice-skating rink, so maybe there was grass under there.

Australians: the friendly fresh food people?

The trees and the sun were beautiful, even if the food was less delicious than it looked. The cherry tomatoes weren't fresh (I don't think we in Australia appreciate how good we have it in terms of freshness – I rarely had any fruit or veg that were really fresh, although they always looked appetising), we really needed dip to moisten the bread, Til's strawberry lemonade was undrinkably foul, and the Brie was effing weird. That last one could've just been my uncultured palate, though, 'cause it was supposedly actual French Brie. From France. 

The cosmetic tomatoes in question.

And the other thing we definitely don't appreciate in Australia is our customer service. I already knew it was crap in Europe, but it was generally brusque in America as well. Whatever you've heard about their absurd tipping system encouraging good service is a myth (I can't for the life of me figure out why they don't just incorporate the cost of service into the price of food; it'd all be much easier, even if the wait staff would have to pay more tax; and, as was pointed out to us, if you tip between 15 and 20% based on the quality of service you receive, you're basically an ass because you're choosing whether that person makes below minimum wage or not).

And while I'm on the subject of wait staff, they seem to have such a rigid hierarchy over here! At first we kept on asking for menus and cheques and stuff from busboys instead of waiters and they would just give you this petrified look as soon as you addressed them. It kind of feels like some dystopian corpocratic future à la Cloud Atlas where everyone is designated a socioeconomic stratum based on their job and any violation of the code is unthinkable. In Australia you just grab any recognisable passing employee of the place you're eating and ask for whatever you want, whether mopper or manager, at least in cafes.

Sex and the city and the new york public library

Next up was the beautiful Beaux–Arts building of the New York Public Library. I cannot imagine that being my local library. Crazy. That is the library of a culture that really values (or valued, at least) the place of knowledge and learning and literature and books. 

Front steps.


One of the two lion statues that sit outside the library. This is Patience, the other Fortitude.

In a free, surprisingly interesting exhibition within the library about the culture and history of lunch in New York, my inner Linguistics Major was treated to a viewing of both an early (1841) edition of Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language, his own personal copy complete with handwritten annotations, as well as a 1755 edition of Samuel Johnson's seminal A Dictionary of the English Language.

Meanwhile, my literary side was satisfied by a second draft typeset of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, also with notes by the author. In case you're wondering about the relevance of these works to the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit, the dictionaries showed the changing meanings of the word 'lunch', while Kerouac's novel opens with Dean and Marylou eating at a Hector's cafeteria, which was a popular eatery for beat writers and, indeed, Kerouac himself, and the menu was displayed contiguously.

Walking out of the library while we were admiring the magnificent marble stairwell and elaborate roof finishing and painting, we overheard two girls in front of us oohing and aahing in a similar fashion, but over something altogether different: 'This is where they shot some of the scenes from the Sex and the City movie', one said to the other in an awed tone. I believe the appropriate expression is, 'facepalm'.

Top of the rock

After that it was on to the Rockefeller Centre, America’s first commercial-residential complex, built by the eponymous family during the recession (and where the show 30 Rock is set, to emulate those two girls in the library).

A pretzel stand on the way.

Absent: Australian flag (it was relegated to the periphery).

All I think when I look at this is Ayn Rand and rampant capitalism, even though the statue predates that awful book. Still kind of spoils it for me, though.

For our stay in New York we both purchased NYC Passes, which give admission to all the museums and the Statue of Liberty and Empire State building, etc. One voucher was for redemption either at the Guggenheim or the 'Top of the Rock' (the top of the 30 Rockefeller Centre building with spectacular views of the city). We were going to opt for the Guggenheim, but ended up going with the Top of the Rock instead since it worked out to be more value for money and we were already going to all the other museums. 

After a little video presentation about the profound significance of the centre not only to America, but to the entire world while we queued, we were whisked up in an elevator to a viewing platform offering a 360 degree vista. We took a buttload of photos, then discovered there was an upper viewing platform, so we went up there and took a whole bunch more. Then we discovered ANOTHER tier, and ascended once more to take another thousand. Here is a very small selection:

Over Central Park.

Over Hudson River.

Item number four that was blocked off from view was St Patrick's Cathedral across the road from Rockefeller Plaza, which was completely obscured by scaffolding, but which at least was spewing out Catholic New Yorkers dressed up in formalwear and tuxes at the moment we walked past.

New york pizza

For dinner that night was yet another highly recommended meal – 99c pizza, which was amazing. 

Our first bites of New York pizza. So good. Took us straight back to Venice

We also wanted dessert and, after consulting the bible, we found reference to a diner called Sarge's nearby which was supposed to be like something out of the '70s (vinyl seats and all) and which did 'pornographically good' strawberry cheesecake. We couldn't resist. And it was pornographically good, if humongous.

The long and tedious tale of new york iced coffee

The iced coffee I had was less enjoyable. This was not my first attempt at American iced coffee. I kept buying them against my better judgement and Til's advice out of hope, but being disappointed. I'd been craving a good one for a while and the night before I'd been sitting in the hot, stuffy hotel common room using the crappy wifi while Til was crashed out upstairs, jetlagged, when a guy came in with an iced coffee from Dunkin' Donuts across the road that looked so good. I kept looking at it enviously, thinking it was too late for such a caffeine hit, getting hotter and more uncomfortable in that room, getting more annoyed about the unusably slow internet, fantasising about a big delicious iced coffee and maybe a donut on the side while I used DD's speedy free wifi to watch the latest episode of Survivor, until I couldn't resist any more and went out to get one. I ordered a small in case it was gross and assured the guy that, yes, I wanted milk and sugar. I took a sip and felt like I'd been slapped in the face it was so sweet! Like absurdly, disgustingly sweet. And watery. 

'So watery. And yet there's a smack of ham to it.'

And to make matters worse, they were out of donuts and were closing early. So no wifi OR donut OR delicious, refreshing iced coffee. I decided the solution to this conundrum was to head down to our old friend, the Westside Market, for a delicious pastry of some kind from their buckets of muffins and cinnamon scrolls, and some milk to add to the coffee to simultaneously correct the milk–water ratio and water down (or should that be milk down? Milken down?) the sweetness. 

I was confounded in the milk aisle by labelling that didn't make it clear whether it was full cream milk or just cream, but I ended up taking a stab on the smallest bottle, which was a whopping $4. At the register I forgot to put my pastry down on the conveyor belt and, I presume because I was still holding my Dunkin' Donuts cup and she thought it was from there, the checkout chick didn't charge me for it. 

On the way back to the hotel, I fumbled with my various purchases, spilling milk and coffee all over myself in the process, tipped out some of the coffee and replaced it with milk. It did nothing for the taste. Maybe the milk was cream, afterall. It was in a small bottle and cost four dollars … I threw the coffee in the bin in disgust, thinking I'd keep the milk/cream for later use. As I continued walking, though, I couldn't get the thought of the disgusting milk/cream and coffee concoction out of my head and threw it out at the next bin, too. Such a failed venture.

After this I gave up on any hope of iced coffee for the rest of the trip. All their coffee, for that matter.

(To be continued.)

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