New York trip

27 08 2009

I was originally going to try to write a travelogue to describe my weekend in New York, but it wasn’t really an exciting enough narrative. So I will use the convenient list format instead.

Things I learned in, or about, New York:

  • It can get hot and humid there. When I landed, the city was in the middle of a heat wave: the temperatures were in the upper 80s, and there was lots and lots of humidity. I drank a lot of water – I mean a lot, about a lake or two’s worth. (Those of you complaining about a lack of hot weather in Toronto this year might not know when you’re well off.)
  • The best way to see the Museum of Modern Art is to get there early. The museum opens at 10:30, but the lineup for tickets starts forming before 10. By the time the doors are open, the lineup extends well out the door, and is at least several hundred people long. There are few better feelings than knowing that you are near the front of a very long line.
  • If you like Picasso, the MoMA is the place for you. There are all kinds of Picassos there. I’ve never been a gushing fan of his work, but boy could he draw. Some of his pieces look like he sat down, took out a giant hunk of some drawing implement, and whoosh! drew a perfect shape in one go without trying hard.
  • The MoMA has a wall-size Jackson Pollock that is really impressive. When you see reproductions of his work, they don’t seem to be all that much – what’s the big deal about paint splatters? But, in person, the splatters are so large and aggressive that they get right in your face. You cannot ignore his paintings – they’re too intense.

Sidebar about modern and postmodern art, and why it’s not a waste of time and/or money: The way an artist friend explained it to me is this – modern artists are experimenting with what makes something art versus not art. What does colour mean or shape mean? How does the human eye actually perceive things? This is why, for example, a giant painting of various shades of red (Barnett Newman did this) is art, and not just some dweeb flinging paint on a canvas and charging $4.7 million for it. What exactly is red, anyway? Sure, you think you know what it is – but what is it that you think you know about it?

Of course, some of these experiments might not be interesting to people who don’t know a lot about art, just like some of the more esoteric forms of jazz aren’t interesting to people who aren’t musicians. But if people are willing to spend large sums of money on things like investigating sub-atomic particles or trying to figure out what happened mere seconds after the Big Bang, there’s no reason not to spend money on trying to figure out what art is. End sidebar.

  • I was really impressed by the New York subway system. Clearly, they’ve put money into it since the days of clattering old graffiti-filled cars – every train I rode in looked relatively new and was clean and air-conditioned. The subway stations are sometimes less attractive, though – they clearly haven’t been renovated as much, and they sure hold the heat well. Some of them would make great sets for a movie that is set in a dysfunctional future and is featuring lots of ninjas.
  • Express subway trains rule. My hotel was right near an express stop on the 2 and 3 lines, which meant that I could get to Times Square in three subway stops, and to Penn Station in four.
  • Local trains, not so much. Instead of taking the 1 train downtown, I found that it was better to take the 2 or 3 train to the express stop that was closest to my destination, then switch to the 1 train from there. The one time I tried to take the 1 train downtown, there was a delay and it wasn’t running.
  • Times Square is like Dundas Square x 10000. Times Square is much larger, but the ambience is similar: large ads, chairs and tables to sit around, a certain quantity of bewildered tourists, and lots of shopping nearby. (Interestingly enough, both Times Square and the Yonge-Dundas area of Toronto used to be full of sex shows, body-rub parlours and the like.)
  • When you are flying over them, the forests of upstate New York look like a giant field of wild broccoli.
  • Flying into Newark is definitely the way to go. For only $15, the NJ Transit AirTrain whisks you from the airport to Penn Station in New York. You save a lot on cab fare this way. The only limiting factor is the amount of time you have to wait for an AirTrain – in off hours, it can be up to an hour.
  • Bryant Park is cool. It’s a small park in the middle of Manhattan, with plenty of chairs to sit on and a rectangular square of lawn to sit on too. There is the occasional homeless person, but not many – far fewer than in Allan Gardens, for example. (I was only asked for spare change about three times in my day and a half in New York. I get more requests than that when travelling a few blocks from my apartment to where I go to get takeout souvlaki.)
  • In New York, pedestrians and bicyclists pretty much ignore traffic lights. When I was walking along Broadway in the Upper West Side, pedestrians only stopped when they absolutely had to – i.e., when a car was coming. And I nearly got hit by bicycles twice in less than five minutes when I was crossing on a green light – it didn’t occur to me to look in all directions for traffic when I had the right of way.
  • Being able to buy beer at your local variety store and take it home to your hotel late at night when it’s humid out is way cool.
  • In New York, the dominant brand of bottled water is Poland Spring.
  • The TD Bank has a significant presence in New York. There was a branch right near my hotel, and one near 42nd Street and Madison. I had enough spending money with me, so I didn’t check to see whether my TD Canada Trust bank card would work in their ATMs; people tell me that, yes, it does work, and with no withdrawal fee!
  • I relearned that I’m not really a foodie. My guidebook recommended a bagel place and a pizza place near my hotel; I tried both. They were good, but not worth travelling anywhere for. If I go back to New York, it will likely be for the museums and attractions and general ambience of a big, big city, not for the food. Of course, I’m dealing with a very small sample size – there are probably some awesome places to eat in the city, especially in the boroughs. If I knew where to go, I could probably make my tummy very happy.
  • An exception can be granted for Katz’s Delicatessen, which was universally acclaimed as the best deli in the city. There’s always a lineup, though it was moving fairly quickly when I was there. Your carver gives you a plate with a few strips of meat to sample while he makes your sandwich; the thing to do, apparently, is to tip him while he does this. I did this, and the woman in front of me didn’t; I’m pretty sure my sandwich was bigger than hers. The sandwiches are very very pricey, and the restaurant is crowded, so I’ll never go back. But, my God, the pastrami was yummy. Like manna from heaven. And I don’t normally like pastrami, especially considering I can feel my arteries clogging as I eat it.
  • I am grateful that the streets and avenues in Manhattan are numbered, not named. I don’t think I would have been able to find anything if that wasn’t the case. As it was, I always seemed to go the wrong way when leaving a subway stop: for a newbie tourist like me, there’s no obvious way to orient myself, as there are tall buildings in all directions.
  • By chance, I happened to make it to Ground Zero – the site of the World Trade Center – at twilight. You can’t really see anything there – it’s all fenced off, and they’re planning on building something there eventually. (Of course, there may still be good reasons why everything is fenced off there.) I didn’t realize how far downtown the World Trade Center was until I got there – the site isn’t that far away from the various bodies of water that surround Manhattan.

Dumb tourist things I did:

  • When riding the monorail from the Newark airport terminal to the AirTrain station, I didn’t realize where the last stop was, and wound up having to go back one stop before I figured it out.
  • My digital camera fell out of my pocket. If it weren’t for a friendly passerby, who spotted it and gave it back to me, I wouldn’t have any pictures of the trip.
  • When I walked the Brooklyn Bridge, my original plan was to take the subway back from High Street, which is marked as the first subway stop on the Brooklyn side. It took me forever to find High Street, and then I couldn’t find the entrance to the subway – I found out later that it was inside a building. I’m not sure that the building was open on Saturday. I wound up having to walk down Jay Street to the subway entrance there; I almost missed seeing that. I spent more time in Brooklyn than I intended to.
  • The dumbest thing I did: when leaving a subway station, I wasn’t paying attention, and wound up going through an automatic exit that led to a door that was closed. Fortunately, all automatic exits are also automatic entrances; I just turned around and let myself back into the subway. If this hadn’t been the case, I would have been trapped there until somebody let me out. I probably would have made the evening news as the Dumbest Tourist Ever. Fortunately, nobody saw me do this.

I’m glad I went. I had never been to New York, and now I have. It feels like mission accomplished. I’ll go back some day, but it’s very expensive to stay there (even when you find a reasonable flight rate and a reasonable hotel rate, as I did). And I now need to save some money for a while!

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