It’s been two years since I’ve been to New York City - Christo and Jeanne-Claude drew me last time to see their wrapping of the gates in Central Park - so when a friend suggested we meet up there I said sure, why not, what could be better.
(Well, maybe sometime other than February, which, as Christo and followers know, can be frigid. Think we can move President’s Day? Thank goodness for street vendors selling hats, scarves and gloves.)
Still, every time I get ready to return home, I think the same thing: what took me so long to get back here? There’s a whole world to visit but there’s only one New York City.
Not that arriving late Friday afternoon is the best plan. Tumbling out of a roomy and comfortable Amtrak car into Penn Station - even with minimal luggage - then merging into a Manhattan crowd on 8th Avenue, more like a rapidly moving escalator on a sale day at Macy’s, before having time to adjust to the pace, is, well, challenging (despite the live Baroque music that filters through the announcements of train changes).
First impression? Not much breathing room. Piles of slushy snowdrifts and unattractive bulging black garbage bags at the curbs, common to Manhattan in February, don’t help.
Other than that, NYC is really quite simple. Put away your keys (I haven’t touched one in three days). Forget maps (“Excuse me, which way is uptown?” or “Um, is west this way or that way?”).
Open your ears.
“That sounds like a live band right in front of us,” my friend said as we headed downtown (two choices - up or down).
And it was - though we didn’t know how true that was until we were right in front of it. An Andean group with all manner of stringed instruments and bamboo pipes. Complete with hand-warming devices.
Open your eyes. Walking head down against the wind I see manhole covers “Made in India.” I’d think it was a mistake if I didn’t see it three and four more times.
Looking up on 6th Avenue I see the Millinery Center Synagogue squeezed between two high-rises, not far from a bead shop, a button shop and a sequin shop.
Looking over on 44th Street I see the sign - then the lobby - for the fabled Algonquin Hotel. Maybe next time I’ll stay there although no one was too anxious to quote me their rates. At the desk I heard $259 a night “though they vary.”
Maybe I’ll just drink coffee in the dark-paneled, elegant lobby, which I did Sunday, when I read the paper and tried to conjure up Dorothy Parker, Harpo Marx and Edna Ferber. But how much time do your spend in your hotel in NYC, anyway?
This time, counting our shekels and following the recommendation of someone who lives here, we chose the nearby Americana Inn on West 38th Street in the fashion district. For $75 a night, we get a compact 8-by-12-foot room on the fifth floor, bathroom down the hall, next to a kitchen, windows that open and close with no effort. Clean, clean, clean (though not so quiet, but, hey, it’s a city of 8 million give or take a few).
“I prefer to travel as inexpensively as I can,” said a gentlemen from Tacoma, Wash., as we rode up together in the tiny, tiny, elevator to a lobby filled with all classes, ages and nationalities of people.
On the same block we find the Havana U.S.A., a friendly Cuban restaurant, across the street the Olympic restaurant, a lively Israeli spot, down the street a coffee shop with Manhattan’s quintessential toasted bran muffin, a few blocks away Junior’s, where Jerry Seinfeld’s picture hangs in the bathroom and the perfect Reuben sandwich awaits you in the 50’s style restaurant.All this without a guide book or the internet.
And that’s another surprise. I’m so used to going into coffee shops or restaurants where everyone is online, plugged-in and tuned-out. Oddly enough, the randomly available (and free) signal is hard to find.
People seem to prefer to talk to one another. Imagine that.
Since smoking has been banned in many bars, there also is not a matchbox to be found. Remember matches? The closest I found in an upper west side restaurant turned out to be a note pad.
Well, that can be helpful.
This time, in addition to a play - “Spring Awakening” - we spring for the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center - “Janufa.” $95 for two tickets. A dark, brooding Czech opera written in 1903 (same year the Algonquin Hotel was built) with a stark and stylized set and the voices of angels. I didn’t fall asleep once.
The next day we take the E train to MOMA’s P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens. Talk about a great conversion of an empty school. Talk about edgy art.
In one room - a former kindergarten room perhaps? - we walk into a room of scattered oranges (1,000, we read), which we are invited to peel, eat and pitch, while a video plays of orange vendors from Ghana.
Another artist uses peanut butter and jelly and/or chocolate to create images. Another exhibit, entitled “Not For Sale,” included pieces of work the artist, for one reason or another, said he or she would never sell.
So little time. So many choices. And none of them bad.ƒnƒç
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