Abandon Your Daily Hell: Oddities and Odysseys in the Empire City

January 25, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

An early morning departure from Union Station in Washington, DC began our four day venture into legendary New York City. Rising at zero-dark-thirty, we didn't take time to eat breakfast at home. After arriving at the train station, my son Sam and I meandered through the departure area searching for those familiar golden arches. Locating them at the very end of the hall, we opted for hot java and the #5 Big Breakfast with Hotcakes. We had time to sit in the eating area of this charming establishment, so we found a booth and began drizzling our artificially flavored maple syrup packets over our hotcakes. We took a few sumptuous bites and then realized that the woman seated directly adjacent to us was delivering a very long lecture concerning the historical significance of lesbianism in the Catholic church over the last dozen centuries. She made a seven minute departure into the significance of sailors who left their women behind for long stretches of time, emphasizing the essential role of the wife left behind to protect her nether regions from strange men. It was much like being in college again as she was droning on and on in a serious demeanor. However, no one was sitting with her, and no one, other than we, was actually listening. Except for the ladies room custodian, who gave an occasional nod as she passed the table, the lecture was noticed by no one in particular. We were courteous and listened for a good five minutes, actually picking up some well-buried facts of religious history. We then noticed another woman across the room in another booth who was holding herself in a fetal position and rocking back and forth. Sam and I quickly understood that we were the only people in McDonalds that morning who were sane, or mostly sane in Sam's case. We snatched up what was left of our hotcake stack and headed for our departure gate. It never ceases to amaze me how many travelling couples dress in twin outfits. Sitting across from us were Mr. and Mrs. lavender shirts and denim pants.  A few seats from them were Mr. and Mrs. North Face/South Butt carrying matching camouflage backpacks and motorcycle helmets. There were more odd twins, but I will spare the details here.

The 3.5 hour train ride to New York City is generally rather uneventful. We pulled out our David Baldacci novels and began our escape into our respective mysteries as we enjoyed our wide, cushy seats. I brought my ipad to catch up on some old Sex and the City episodes. One has to mentally prepare for New York. I suddenly caught something odd out of the corner of my eye. The couple seated across the aisle from us were clinking crystal champagne glasses and we heard the loud pop of the cork as they poured and toasted each other. All this on the quiet car no less. This seemed rather sweet, but as we rode on down the tracks passing Baltimore and then Wilmington, their celebration continued. The woman had neatly arranged a large wooden cutting board with a six cheese wedge display surrounded by sliced apples, red Chilean seedless grapes, and three varieties of wine crackers. Their snack delights were making us hungry. Personally, I am a steadfast baguette and baguette alone kind of consumer with my cheese but we were duly impressed of their careful avoidance of the overly prevalent garlic and herb crackers which appear all too frequently on cheese boards. As we arrived in Newark, the celebrating couple had switched to tasteful wine glasses, ditching their champagne stems and had begun the dessert course consisting of chocolate truffles, strawberry tarts, and a healthy portion of dripping baklava. On the window ledge, they had perched a miniature fondue pot filled with warm chocolate.

Time had elapsed, and pressing on down the tracks, we finally arrived at New York's Penn Station. Feeling satiated from the odiferous four-course lunch of our fellow travelers, we decided to skip lunch until we had checked into our hotel. We ascended the escalator from the station into the brisk, exhaust-filled air of New York City. We could smell lilacs, and garbage and expensive perfume all at once. Bumping our suitcases down the hectic street, I started taking photos of all the crazy things I saw along the way. Sidewalks were jammed with Caramel Macchiato carrying locals who appeared to be dressed for some type of office environment, but were not in an office. My first thoughts were that these people do not work in an office; the skyscrapers are just for decoration. Their offices were in places like Dean & DeLuca, or Starbucks, or the Shake Shack. Even the red metal tables and chairs on Times Square were occupied by men and women diligently "working" on their laptops. In this city, no one talks to anyone, but they talk to everyone online.

After 45 minutes of continuous walking, we arrived at our historic hotel, the Warwick, very close to Central Park. After securing an internet bomb scare sale, the Warwick proved to be a reasonably priced hotel for New York, and we were awarded a secluded interior room. There is absolutely no street noise in an interior room and the view from the window is a solid brick wall. We felt honored, though, that our quiet interior room was only 3 doors down from a room where Elvis had stayed in 1964. There was only a couple of drawbacks to this beautiful old hotel. Other than the $60 breakfasts, the toilet flush strength was not up to par and we successfully clogged our toilet in the first 15 minutes of room occupation. We instantly alerted two maids passing by in the hall, the housekeeping staff via telephone, and two front desk clerks at reception. This bold move on our part to let all the staff be aware of our problem resulted in a combination of seven different plunger wielding workers visiting our room over the next 2 hours.

We decided to venture further afield after ruining the hotel's plumbing so we headed to Times Square for the evening to see all the illuminated insanity. One of the most memorable street performers we encountered was the Times Square Baby. He is an adult man, fully waxed of any body hair, who dances wildly in an oversized diaper, light up running shoes and dons an enormous latex baby head that resembles the Chucky doll on crack, China Blue, or some nasty combination of the two. His skin tone uncannily matches the latex head so he appears as a freak of nature. He also wears a bib around his neck with the embroidered words "Little Blue Sailer". Over our shoulder was a 6 foot, 4 inch Batman strutting briskly, cape flowing. We continue only 20 steps and were greeted by a gaggle of furry, blue smurfs, one very short Hispanic Mini Mouse, two 7 foot tall Statues of Liberty (obviously suffering from a pituitary gland disorder), and one very large and unfriendly Chewbacca. The streets were glowing with reflections from the yellow taxis, stretch limos and a few men dressed as M & Ms, (two yellow and one green). A salesman hocking comedy tickets shouted to my son that he has a beautiful wife. I think to myself "My retinol cream is working!"

As our stay in New York was brief, I was on an uber mission to photograph as many oddities as possible and in particular, street scenes and people. There is no want of good photo ops in this magnificent city. Our next day was delightfully spent with good friends who live in Ridgewood, Queens. We travelled via subway from Rockefeller Center on the last elevated train in New York, which afforded fantastic views of the city along the way. Ridgewood is the up and coming New York nabe filled with diverse ethnic cafes and shops, with beautiful homes. We were treated to a fabulous Albanian lunch at Pravue. During our visit, the lotto rose to $1.3 billion and two of the million dollar winners' tickets were purchased in Ridgewood. Sadly, we did not win. However, Sam did find a $50 bill on the floor of a bakery later that night, right by the cheesecakes.

One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to Madame Tussauds wax museum. I treat this special place like a party with mute celebrities who let you touch them. We find ourselves highly amused posing for the camera with some of the most famous people, dead and alive. I reunited with Golda Meir, Idi Amin and my dearest old friend Yasser Arafat. Sam had an intimate conversation with Earnest Hemingway about his last novel, and I played piano with Ray Charles. I kissed the Pope and did high kicks with Katy Perry. My best connection, though, was with Dorothy as we hooked arms and skipped down the yellow brick road. Unfortunately, I tripped on her red shoe and broke off Toto's left ear, but no one noticed.

A midday stroll through Central Park led to the discovery of a food kiosk called Waffles and Dinges which became a fast favorite of Sam's. We ordered the Throwdown Waffles, described as the legendary and glorious victor of the battle with the Great Flay. Smothered in spekuloos spread and whipped cream, it dazzles the beholder. We consumed these culinary treasures on a cold park bench in the blustery wind. With our laps covered in syrup and strawberry sauce frozen to our cheeks, we walked on to explore Literary Walk and the Balto Statue. The park was bare of leaves this time of year, but never bare of beauty.

Our final day of our visit, we explored the Lower East Side, including one of its most notable destinations, the Jewish deli called Katz's. This place is famous for many reasons, primarily its $20 corned beef sandwiches. Proclaimed as the greatest pastrami sandwich in New York City, it is famous for the movie "Where Harry Met Sally". I'll have what she's having, as it says on the wall. Located at 205 Houston Street, this deli serves 10,000 pounds of pastrami each week, 82 lbs of which was stuffed between my two slices of rye bread on my paper plate. There was an old Tom Lehrer song written in war time that has become the catch phrase for Katz's Deli. It goes, "Remember Mommy, I'm off to get a Commie, so send me a salami". We purchased several bagels to bring home to Virginia so we smelled of garlic and onions until we bathed the next day.

The Lower East Side is chock full of great photo ops. As Irving Berlin said "Everybody ought to have a Lower East Side in their life". There are old stores and shops on every corner, many with antique neon signs that are things of the past. Nostalgia runs high in the neighborhood, as it is home to the Tenement Museum which brings history alive through the restoration of a series of old apartments. Originally a working class area, the LES has, over the past decade, made vast improvements. In fact, the Trust for Historic Preservation has listed this neighborhood as one of America's Most Endangered Places.  Another cherished survivor remaining from the old Jewish stronghold is the specialty shop called Russ & Daughters. A peek inside reveals cases of Jewish foods including smoked fish, salmon, cream cheeses and Matzo Ball soup. There was also a series of kitchen supply stores that stacked industrial sized pizza dough mixers on the sidewalk, just waiting for a needy restaurant to adopt them.

We topped off our visit with a trip to see the Top of the Rock at Rockefeller Center. We soared 70 floors in a lighted elevator to the promenade with unobstructed 360 degree views of the city. Large Plexiglas screens keep the suicides under control, but you can take a small staircase to the very top with no Plexiglas obstructing the view. Jumping from that level would only allow a one story fall, so the highest level is for those who are only mildly depressed. This building is the site of one of the 20th century's most famous photos. You probably know the image: a group of construction workers nonchalantly eating lunch on a steel beam, feet dangling 69 stories above the street as they eat their bologna sandwiches. You can recreate this pose with your loved ones as you enter the Top of the Rock on a beam of the same width and a back drop of the city behind you. You can even pretend to shove your loved one off to his or her death. This makes for very special memories. In any event, this activity comes highly recommended. From any point of view, it's a good one.

Yes, New York City is one of my favorite places to visit, time and again. It is never the same twice. I encounter something unusual, weird, educational, fascinating, or wildly fashionable on every visit. From midnight marching bands of Scots in kilts playing bagpipes, to a man playing Chopin on a grand piano in the middle of Central Park, there are things that happen in New York that you would never see anywhere else. From the famous "no pants" day on the subway to the painted naked women on Times Square, New York is one of a kind. The city is effervescent and it thrives. When I'm in New York, I just want to walk the streets, take it all in, and envelop myself in its splendor. You can belong to New York as easily in 10 minutes as you can in a decade. It is bewitching. If ever in need of a destination, New York is always a good idea.

"I can't with any conscience argue for New York with anyone. It's like Calcutta. But I love the city in an emotional, irrational way, like loving your mother or father even though they're a drunk or thief. I've loved the city my whole life. To me, it's like a great woman."

  Woody Allen


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Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! `I wonder how many miles I've fallen by this time?' she said aloud. `I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth. Let me see: that would be four thousand miles down, I think--' (for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the schoolroom, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over) `--yes, that's about the right distance--but then I wonder what Latitude or Longitude I've got to?' (Alice had no idea what Latitude was, or Longitude either, but thought they were nice grand words to say.)

 

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