New York

It was snowing when we left London and it was snowing when we arrived at JFK airport seven hours later. We thought the terminal was rather small for New York, until we realised the whole terminal was just for British Airways. Not much later we were met by Wendy and Greg. There was a brief moment of confusion as I thought I was expected to drive, then realised I was getting in the passenger seat. Soon we were crawling along the ‘express’-way to Wendy and Greg’s apartment in the Bronx. Unfortunately the gloomy weather blocked the view of Manhattan as we crossed the bridge from Long Island to the Bronx so the only sights we saw were the rusting shells of Buicks in junkyards and a U-Haul whose sign was missing a vowel.

We woke early the next day and spent the next few hours trying to get back to sleep; a sequence that would repeat itself until our last day in New York when we finally adjusted to America time. The weather was very cold and clear with a bright blue sky and the remains of the previous day’s snowfall still dusting the ground. Wendy had taken the day off to go into town with us and we wandered past the battered squad cars of the 49th PCT station and along the massively proportioned and exuberantly laned Pelham Parkway to the subway. New York is infested with squirrels and along with the regular grey squirrel we saw quite a few very dark, almost black ones – ‘hood squirrels.

We emerged from the subway at the corner of 51st Street into the perpetual shade of Manhattan. Yellow cabs and Lincoln Town Cars rolled slowly through steam emerging from a manhole cover. Halfway down fifth Avenue we ducked into a Starbucks to get a coffee and a donut. Unfortunately, Starbucks is about the only option if you want a real coffee in New York and I’ve never been a fan. It’s mainly the ordering process that turns me off. There are so many drink combinations and made up jargon terms that they actually have these little booklets on the counter which tell you how to order coffee. Personally, I think you sound like a bit of a twat ordering a grande – skinny – half-caf – with room – with legs. They don’t know what to do if you just ask for a coffee. And then, once you have placed your order and paid, you have to shuffle along to the end of the counter where there is further confusion as the barista tries to match up the drinks he is making with the people milling around. And you have to put your own chocolate on the top of your cappuccino. Despite all that, I enjoyed nothing more than buying a cappuccino and donut and wandering along the wide New York streets. New York is a great city to just walk aimlessly in. While it is certainly massive – and I frequently found myself staring at an Avenue that seemed to disappear over the horizon – New York never felt crowded. The sidewalks are huge and the traffic moves in orderly one-way systems.

We spent the day looking in shops, including the massive B & H Photo Video on Ninth. This place is great and has an interesting bureaucracy. After queueing at the Digital SLR desk I was sold a very nice piece of kit. Clutching my invoice and trying not to look at the bottom line I then had to go to another counter to pay for it. Once this transaction was completed I went to the collecting counter. By this time my package had made its way along an aerial conveyor, chair-o-plane style, from the salesman’s counter on the far side of the store. It sounds like a lot of faffing around, but it’s a system that actually works well. It’s the same Starbucks mentality, only without the stupid names. And with conveyors.

We had lunch in Grand Central Terminal on 42nd Street, a fabulous building whose cavernous main concourse roof is covered in figures of the Zodiac. We also stopped by the New York Public Library, the largest marble building in America.

The reason Kathryn let me spend so much money in the camera store became clear the next day when we visited Tiffany’s. There was a shiny thing in there she wanted and, as I had been allowed to buy myself a toy, there was obviously no reason why I shouldn’t be allowed to buy her one, too. The credit card had a heart attack after running it through their machine, causing a couple of phone calls to the unhelpful Barclays people in London to prove we weren’t a victim of fraud. The upshot of all this meant that the block on our card would be lifted some time in the next few hours but they couldn’t say when.

So we walked across town to the
Intrepid Sea-Air-Space-Museum
. This is based around the USS Intrepid, a WWII era aircraft carrier which houses several military planes and helicopters including a Huey Cobra (complete with shark mouth), an F-14, F-16, A-16 and Concorde. You can wander around the carrier and go on a tour of a nuclear missile submarine, the USS Growler, moored alongside. I really liked it.

After collecting the little blue box from Tiffany’s we headed to the Empire State Building via Times Square. We got to the top at dusk and Manhattan was lit up like a little model around us. The Chrysler Building thrust upwards like a chrome-plated cathedral, gargoyles shaped like hood ornaments and radiator caps from a 1926 Chrysler. This building must be many people’s favourite piece of New York architecture. There used to be a businessman’s club at the top called the Cloud Club and the very top originally housed a private apartment for Walter Chrysler.

On Friday we visited the United Nations building. This is technically not part of the United States but is, in fact, a little piece of international territory. We went on a tour which was very interesting and got to see the Security Council as well as the General Assembly. Our guide was amusing because he clearly loved the UN but seemed to dislike people. Especially tour members who would not keep up.

We managed to score some cheap tickets to see Chicago at the Ambassador Theatre. And while it is actually on West 49th Street, I think it still counts as a Broadway show. It was a great show. I also thought the costumes were very nice.

On Saturday, while Kathryn and Wendy drove north to a giant factory outlet mall to spend more money, I headed into Manhattan and got off at 59th Street at the south-east corner of Central Park. The weather had been getting better and better each day and I spent the next few hours strolling through Central Park in gloriously warm sunshine. The park was busy with joggers, cyclists, roller-bladers and people just enjoying the beautiful weather. There were also a lot of ice-skaters on the Wollman Rink, an outdoor skating rink. Created in the 1860’s, Central Park is a huge oasis of calm right in the middle of the metropolis and has an ingenious system whereby five roads pass through it but they are lowered so they don’t interfere with pedestrians. Over Bow Bridge is a wooded area called the Ramble, home to thousands of squirrels and birds and about the only place you could get lost in Central Park. I bought a pretzel by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and wandered up to the Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir. Circling this huge expanse of (frozen) water is a running track with an almost continuous parade of joggers. It is so popular, in fact, that there are signs requesting runners run around the reservoir in an anticlockwise direction. I headed back to the Met.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art is fantastic. It houses two million individual objects including complete reconstructed rooms from French chateaux. It is sort of like the National Gallery, the British Museum and the V & A rolled into one. I wandered through the classical antiquities, an exhibition of European Terracotta Models, 1740-1840 and a small exhibition of Klee. As I was heading for the exit an amazing set of prints caught my eye and I was diverted for another hour by the Chuck Close exhibition. The good thing about the entrance fee (which is only a suggested donation) is that you can see anything in the museum including all the special exhibitions. After a couple of hours, museum fatigue started to kick in so I bought a NY Times from one of those vending machines and caught the subway back to the Bronx.

Sunday was the warmest day yet, and started with the four of us having breakfast at a real American diner in the Bronx. The portions were suitably outrageous. We then headed to Greenwich Village. The Village is a very nice place to walk and look in interesting shops for t-shirts, records and gay porn.

A ride on the (free) Staten Island ferry gave us good view of the Statue of Liberty and the financial district skyline. The World Trade Centre towers are missing from that view now. Rebuilding has begun on their replacement and in the nearby World Financial Centre there is an exhibition of all the designs submitted including the Foster and Partners submission which I liked. Catching the subway to Brooklyn, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan as the sun set behind the Statue of Liberty.

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