Friday, January 08, 2010

I ? NY

For those who bother to read the normally lengthy accounts of my travels, here’s another. For those who don’t care, skip ahead to whatever bullshit follows.

Okay, here we go.

I have longed to visit NYC for a long, long time (a lot of longs). Proof of this longing: I have a travel guide published in 1993 which I purchased in 1996. I was supposed to go with Travis D. and Mike K. from the old Aspidistra days. This is back when I was a heavy drinker without a penny to my name, as opposed to the man I am today (don’t ask). Each and every trip has fallen through, until now. I made a point of making this trip happen and bought tickets for a musical my girl wanted to see. The tickets were not cheap, so there was no other option but to go east, young man.

Perhaps I have subconsciously thwarted my past attempts to visit the Big Ass Apple for fear that it would (a) not be the grand Mecca of urban culture that I envisioned, or (b) that it would be so amazing I would abandon my beloved Chicago. Whatever the reason, the trip took a long time to happen. But happen it has and here I am back in Chi ready to dish on NY. How to begin…
Okay, let’s talk pizza. Obviously New York has its famous thin crust, cut pie style instead of in squares like we do here in the Middle West. Chicago boasts the deep dish, a meal in a slice. So which wins? I vote for Chicago. While the slice I had at Ray’s on Prince (allegedly the original location, but who can tell?) was pretty good, it did not blow my mind in ways that a good, thick, messy hunk of Lou Malnati’s has in the past. The Midwest pizza has its problems (too much cheese, not enough sauce, doughy crust especially in the middle), but these problems are easily solved. The NY pizza parlors I hit (admittedly only three) were all well and good, but I did not have the life changing pizza experience I hoped for. Chalk it up to over-expectation after years of hearing so much hype. As Chuck D. said, don’t believe the hype.

The knish I had was rather good. I could go for one of those right about now.

But that’s just food. NYC has other things to offer, right? Sure. The biggest expectation I had, even more than good pizza, was in regard to books. I have always heard about what a great book town New York is. All the major publishers are located in Manhattan and there are many colleges, and, presumably, many bookstores. Of the many, the one that people laud most is The Strand. Well I saw the Strand and I can safely say that of those 18 miles of books there were a whopping three that I thought worth buying. Not to say that The Strand was a total bust (Cassandra found more books than I did), but I was not impressed. Sure, it’s big, but big is merely big, not good. Ron once said that the place, like so many other famous bookshops, lacks personality. I concur. The Strand is impressive looking, but without the heart, the quirks, the charm or the selective appeal of a particular niche, it is little more than the used book version of Borders.

In a sense, that was how I felt about New York that first day (last Saturday): it’s big, it looks imposing and inviting all at once, it has the reputation, but ultimately it’s empty, heartless, packed with the duped and the dopes. It’s resting on dusty laurels. It’s worth a visit but who would want to live there?

I should add that the first day we spent in New York was somewhat miserable. It was cold and the wind tore through our skin in ways that made me long for a Chicago snow storm (be careful what you wish for). While freezing and walking the posh streets of Brooklyn’s Park Slope area, I decided that it looked like Wicker Park or some such other trendy area of Chicago, only without alleys. Trash was not scheduled for pick up until the following Tuesday, so the bags were piled indecorously on the sidewalk. At least it wasn’t summer; I can only imagine the stink of trash cooking under the August sun.

Day one was also the day when I attempted to sort out the labyrinthine train system that would take us from the Brooklyn Zoo (shout out to ODB, RIP) to Manhattan. Easy enough from where we stayed, but, of course, our train (the 3) was out of commission for the weekend. A substitute was offered, but all of the advice from our host went out the window when I had to figure out how to ride the 4. Not a big deal, really. I actually prefer the 4—it goes to East Manhattan and the parts of the island I ended up liking and is cleaner than the 3, but still… I was temporarily flummoxed. I remembered Xtop’s words: this city works against you.

After lunch at a sushi/Thai joint in Brooklyn, we bought some provisions and sought out Manhattan. Somehow we ended up in Times Square, which is not the best place to start off a Manhattan voyage. Have you been? Good, than you know what a nightmarish part of town that is, right? Crowded and garish, it’s a fitting symbol for the city, but I felt suddenly like the ultimate tourist walking through the most famous and least interesting part of town.

We got the fuck out of there and headed south down 8th Ave. After the wind and the cold became unbearable, we hopped a cab to the before mentioned Strand. From there we hit a Whole Foods that was populated with approximately 30 assholes per square inch. With little effort we found the 14th Street train home, right there by Union Square. That would be our landmark for the days to come.

I should also add that our flight that morning was early and neither I nor my lovely companion had much sleep. Imagine trying to sort out the behemoth that is NYC on no sleep. Suffice to say: I was in a better mood the next day and far more awed by the sights and sounds of the self-appointed greatest city in the world.

Sunday arrived. We slept in and had a meager breakfast before heading out to the upper east side of Manhattan. After a side trip to CVS and Starbucks (familiar chains have a calming effect), we went for a walk down 87th street to 5th Ave. Along Central Park, we walked until the Metropolitan Museum of Art revealed itself. I wanted to visit this museum and the MOMA and the Guggenheim, but the Metropolitan Museum was the only one we took in. It was worth it for many reasons, but, for me, it was nice to see the sight that inspired one of my favorite Bongwater songs, “Obscene and Pornographic Art.” Little did I know that it would be a Bongwater day for me, as, after the museum, we hopped a M1 bus that snaked down 5th Ave to 8th Street, dumping us in the East Village near Tompkins Square Park (Bongwater fans will recognize this landmark). In the East Village (maybe my favorite part of Manhattan) we found Little India and upheld the tradition of eating Indian food on vacation (living where we do in Chicago, it is easy to eat Indian food all the damn time, but there’s something about doing this on vacation that has become rather important). Cassandra netted some Bollywood DVDs and soudtracks and I marvelled at the junk stores and agreeable level of hipness that throbs from the very streets. We walked west and find Greenwich Village where everything looked closed. (I thought this was the city that never sleeps?) A walk down Christopher Street, the gay part of the Village, I’m told. There were a few shops selling small dogs and a rainbow flag somewhere, but otherwise it was hardly flaming.

Not a bookstore to be found in the Village. Alas, this hip neighborhood was a true bust. Before hightailing it out of there, we stopped at a CD shack on 8th Street off of 6th Ave. (keeping the streets and avenues straight proved cumbersome until the third day) where Cassandra was exposed to the sounds of Soca. The charm of that dirty, dubious store was pretty much what one would expect from the New York entrepreneurial spirit. The city was beginning to become interesting.

Back to Broadway and up to Union Square, then back to Brooklyn for wine and cheese before bed. On the platform we see a rat. Many spotted the dirty bastard, but one unfortunate woman didn’t. She trips over the rodent, sending her in a panic, though the rat was oddly unaffected and continued his slow crawl. These hardened city rats don’t fuck around.

All the walking Sunday was merely preparation for Monday. We took the 3 (back in action) to the familiar 4 and stopped at Bowling Green for a transfer to the Staten Island Ferry. Free of charge, it offers a peek at the Statue of Liberty without having to endure the five hour wait for a guided tour and a jaunt up the insides of the old dame. At Staten Island, we turn around and head back to Manhattan. We were planning on hoping back on the 4, but instead walk a bit down Broadway and through the lower Manhattan area, past the WTC site and through TriBecca into Chinatown. Then we wander through those streets buying boxes of tea and chopsticks, getting lost (not really) among shops and smells that take us back to Taipei (sort of). Then Little Italy (quite little) and a wine shop (cheese sold elsewhere, per state law). A half pound of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a bottle of white in tow, we slip toward Soho via Prince St. where Ray’s Famous was (allegedly) born. A slice and a half deep, we walk it off through Soho marveling at the architecture and trying to piece together which parts of town After Hours took place.

What do I find in Soho? Lo and behold, a goddamn indie bookstore! McNally Jackson on Prince, to be exact. This is a new book store, but they have what I consider to be the correct manner of shelving the stock (namely the fiction): by region. I peruse the Latin American section and look for new authors. Then the poetry section. I find the new Bolaño translation, Monsieur Pain (a week before scheduled release—god I love New Directions) and take down a name for future investigation (Haroldo de Campos). Finally, a decent bookstore, albeit with new books only. Still, I’m pacified.

From there it’s a trip to 6th Ave to 18th St. to 3rd Ave to 15th St through Union Square to 6th again. And then we find the 3 train home. The day was good; I am ready for the next.

And the next came so soon. I could’ve used some more sleep, but we had much to do, so much to do. We start by heading back to 86th St., then up to 125th and Lexington, through Harlem to St. Nicholas and then down to Central Park. We walk down Central Park West (the title of my favorite Coltrane song) until the static sight of trees to the left and high-rise life to the right gets to be too much. A quick block west to Columbus and things get interesting again. Stores and pizza joints and cafés, oh my. From there we go down, down, down to the end of the park and pick up on Broadway with a quick detour to Lee’s, that art supply place where Pitt and Jolie take their many kids. Down Broadway we wander until we find the Eugene O’Neill theatre where we will be seeing a show later that night. Content to have walked a fuck load that day (we’re at 49th street now) we poke around the Times Square area without walking directly into the belly of that electric beast. Without trying, we find Rockefeller Plaza and stop for coffee right where the NBC shows are filmed. No, I didn’t see Tina Fey or Alec Baldwin.

After a bit of lingering in the area, we head back to the theatre too early to be seated. We kill time in an Italian joint and order wine. The Eastern European women who work the place, under the stern direction of the short, aggressive owner, are nice enough to us and the bartender—sensing that I, with my lovely girl, will not be ogling her and thus must work another angle—buys us an appetizer of bread, cheese and olives and pours us a free glass after it looks like we are done for the night. I reward her with a decent tip and thank the staff for their hospitality.

We take our seats and ready ourselves for Fela! The show is astounding. I hate musicals and ignore most theater, but I am awed by the production. It doesn’t hurt that the band is so tight and solid you could strike a match off their riffs. The music, by Fela Kuti of course, is incredible. The story is compelling. The acting and dancing is wondrous. It’s a great night and perhaps the only way I could ever enjoy a Broadway show. I can’t imagine any other show working such magic on these cold, hard, theatre loathing eyes.

We walk through the neon inferno that is Times Square and head back to Brooklyn. There will be no sleep that night as we pack and get ready for a 4:00 AM cab ride to LaGuardia and a 6:00 AM flight to Chicago. We get home, sleep, get re-oriented to that place called home. I have had a wonderful time, but it is good to see Chicago again, even with an impending snow storm.

New York worked its way into me, sure, but there’s no replacing Chicago, at least not for the time being. I still love the feel of this city. Each trip away is a delight, but it always feels good to be home. I have heard Chicago called “New York done right.” I might not argue against this, but I do know that the two towns (oddly competitive these days) are so very different that it is not worth comparing them (despite my having done so). With that in mind, I will cease my rambles and get back to the work-a-day world. Hoo hum.