Me versus NYC

Tom's RestaurantI finally did it. New York City. Four days in the greatest city in the world. My flight was an early one with US Airways, but even the connection in Philadelphia went off without a hitch. I tried not to think about the fact that I was flying into New York City on September 11th, two years to the day after the attack. When I got to LaGuardia airport, my friend wasn’t there, but she called within minutes to let me know that she was en route, in a cab.

The city didn’t feel like… well, anything. When I was younger, and my family would go to the States on vacation, or even Toronto, there was a feeling about passing into the new, metropolitan space. But now I was feeling nothing; nothing, in New York City. There had to be something wrong with this.

My friend pulled up and after a nice hug I threw my stuff in the back of the cab and we headed back into the city. And into traffic. It was about 11:30am, and we were jammed in with thousands of other cars, crawling along and hemmed in no matter which move the cabbie made. It took almost an hour to get back to her apartment on the Upper West Side. (Is that supposed to be capitalized? It seems like everything in New York should be.)

Some of the things we did:

Bleecker Street Fire EscapeSoho is named after the fact that this area is located South of Houston street. And that’s pronounced “Hows-ton,” not “Hyoo-ston.” Yeah, whatever. Other areas are picking up on this idea, including Noho (North of Houston), and Soha (South of Harlem). Anyway, Soho is a cool little area that, like Vancouver, has become so overrun with people wanting to be cool that it is no longer the coolest place to be. Still, there are lots of cool corners for people watching, intimate out-of-the-way restaurants and trendy clubs (not that we went to any of them). Greenwich (“Gren-itch”) Village is right beside Soho, and the main NYU campus is situated there. After avoiding getting hustled at chess in Washington Square, my friend went to class and I had a budget lunch in Dojo-something restaurant (forgettable, but popular with the students).

Food was a high priority for this trip. (I should mention, gratefully, that my friend was kind enough to treat me at meals in exchange for me buying the plane ticket. Thank God.) Places we ate: some sushi place at West 81st and Amsterdam (delicious but pricey), Grace in Tribeca (tasty and reasonable considering the atmosphere), Grimaldi’s Pizza in Brooklyn (formerly the famous “Patsy’s” before some conglomerate bought the name), and most notably, Balthazar in Soho for brunch on Sunday (fantastic food and atmosphere, and even after calling ahead and pushing our reservation an hour later, and then arriving 45 minutes late for that reservation, we were seated right away during their busiest meal of the week). My friend was really excited for me to try an authentic New York vendor hot dog, and while I appreciated the sentiment, the sorry truth is this: New York hot dogs are garbage. The weiners are boiled, and sit stagnant in lukewarm water until ordered, at which point they are slapped on a tiny stale bun and shoved at you gruffly. I asked for onions. Don’t do this. New York onions are fried and then coated in some ketchup-esque substance. Not appetizing, but at least I finally had what I believed to be an authentic New York experience.

[Editor’s Note: This experience may not be typical of every single New York hot dog vendor, but after considerable observation, it is damned likely. By contrast, a vendor hot dog in Canada is grilled over a flame, either when you order it or mere moments before. The buns are fresh and large enough to hold lots of garnishes. Onions are white crunchy vegetables. Fried onions are these same vegetables, made soft by frying in butter or oil, no ketchup added. Vendors will call you “buddy,” or “my friend.”]

The GuggenheimThe Guggenheim Museum was a great experience, until I got stopped by a security guard for taking pictures. I was shocked; I’d seen dozens of cameras clicking away, and seen no signs, which I told him (after I apologized of course… I am Canadian after all). He pointed to a small sign a dozen feet away. Even from here I could see a tiny camera inside one of those “don’t do this” red circles with the line through it. Damn. The guard explained that you were allowed to shoot from the main floor of the building, but not from any of the circular halls. Ah. Sensing an opportunity to show off my digital camera, I offered to erase the picture. He smiled and told me not to bother. Damn. Apparently the “no pictures allowed” policy is more of a “no pictures allowed unless you’ve already taken them” policy.

Cabs are a wonder to me. One piece of advice I have about NYC: unless you are going to the airport, never take a cab. Cabs are everywhere, and people invest large amounts of time trying to hail one. You stand in the middle of the curb lane, waving, and then just as one approaches, somebody steps off the sidewalk twenty feet ahead of you and poaches your cab. It’s madness. I could understand all the fuss if the cabs were faster than the subway, or more comfortable, or cheaper, but they are none of these things. What would’ve been a fifteen minute subway ride to Balthazar took one hour because we decided to hail a cab in Sunday traffic. Subways can be smelly and bumpy, but cabs are no better, and often worse: my friend almost got motion sickness from the guy driving us to brunch. It’s true that cabs are reasonably priced, but nowhere near as cheap as the subway, since I already had a MetroPass for the entire weekend. People, don’t take cabs in New York City. Seriously.

Ground Zero was an experience in pain and exploitation. There is a huge hole in the ground, surrounded by a fence bearing historical references, names of victims, flowers, signs for loved ones, and signs banning any kind of merchandizing or solicitation out of respect for the victims: this is a sacred place. Yet every twenty yards was a person with magazines and postcards (“Tragedy!”) spread out on a piece of foldable cardboard, ready for a hasty exit. One of New York’s finest patrolled the grounds on the other side of the fence, chastising these vendors like something out of a 50’s black and white movie. “Hey you, beat it! Scram!” He walked up behind one woman and whistled. She almost jumped out of her skin. “Get outta here!” he said. “What the hell’s a-matta wich you? Ain’t ya got no respect? Animals… heathens…” he muttered. Heathens. That reminds me of where I am, and which god is number one here. This shouldn’t be a matter of religion, it should be plain old common sense and respect. But I imagine that all big cities can turn the smallest people into parasites, unfeeling and desperate. And following a conversation I had with my friend about the US and NATO, I find it hypocritical for these police to be preventing the greatest American pastimes: opportunism and capitalism. Start small selling postcards, branch out into something larger, create a deniable monopoly, accumulate power and then enforce your will on those weaker than you. If it’s good enough for the country as a whole, why deny it to the common citizenry?

Hook and Ladder 8Enough of that. I didn’t take any pictures at Ground Zero because I didn’t see anything I’d want to show to anyone else. However, I did see a moving moment when the firefighters of Hook and Ladder 8, mere blocks from Ground Zero, were leaving their station on another call. I wonder how many they lost two years ago.

We did lots of oth
er touristy stuff: Central Park, the Met, Columbia U, Times Square. Saying goodbye to my friend was hard, but not saying goodbye to the Big Apple. I want to love this town, but I don’t, and I can’t pinpoint the reason. Too much TV familiarity, perhaps. Or maybe if I wasn’t a cash-strapped student I would’ve felt better about being in the centre of capitalism’s black heart. Maybe if I had more time to stretch out I would’ve appreciated the incredible diversity and opportunity that New York offers. Maybe if I had something tying me to the city, like a job or a year of school, I would feel more like a cog in its wheels and less like a wrench. Regardless, I came away without awe or inspiration, but rather a simple, grudging respect.

[Editor’s Note: Flying home, US Airways had the foresight to call me before I had even reached the airport to let me know that my flight was delayed, which might cause me to miss my connection in Philly. Over the phone, they rebooked me through Pittsburgh to ensure I got home. That was great. But my first flight sat on the tarmac for an hour before taking off. That sucked. The only reason I made my connection was that the Pittsburgh-Ottawa flight was delayed as well. Oh the drama of local commuter travel. Next time I’m flying Air Canada direct.]

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