Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Travel journal: New York

One morning last week I came up to the street level at Foggy Bottom Metro and became instantly and acutely aware of the noises on the street. I think it began because a car drove by just then with the windows down and the radio up. Added to that were the competing calls of the Express ("Good morning! Post Express! Free paper!") and Examiner ("Get your Examiner! Free paper!") hawkers, and as I moved down the street aware from them, there was the sound of cars rushing by and the rumble of a shuttle bus idling at the curb. Then an amulance came around Washington Circle with its siren on, and a car playing music from the Spanish language station stopped at the light. More cars sped around the circle, and someone's cell phone rang behind me. A homeless man shook a cup of coins, and a helicoptor's propellors beat overhead as I was crossing K Street. A bus's breaks screeched and its doors sighed open to release passengers. It was constant noise, but everything was distinct.

On Friday, as I waited to cross the street at the intersection of Amsterdam and Broadway, I was struck by how much bigger the noise in New York seemed. Instead of noticing one noise after another, it was a constant roar. The roar wasn't everywhere, but in some places it was overwhilming. That constant roar sort of describes our trip to New York last weekend. There was so much to see and so little time to see it in.

We decided to spend some time walking around the Upper West Side after we'd checked in at our hotel. We had a tour of Lincoln Center scheduled, and plenty of time before that to visit the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which I love, but I wasn't sure about going there on Good Friday--didn't want to end up there during some sort of service. So we walked, in spite of the rain. We wandered through parts of Lincoln Center on our own and through the surrounding neighborhood, before taking the tour.

A little over a year ago I saw one of the chandeliers from Lincoln Center at an exhibit and San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. I loved it then and seeing several of them in the opera house made them even more stunning. The sweep of the suspended white marble staircases with their red carpeting captured my imagination. The exhibit at MOMA had been on glamour, and while I still love the sparkly burst of the crystal chandaliers, their glamour is nothing compared to the opera house itself. Unfortunately, a dress rehearsal made it impossible for us to see anything more than the lobby of the opera house. We did get to pick through the windows at a dress rehearsal for the opera Acis that was taking place in one of the other theatres. My only experience with opera has been student productions of Carmen and The Magic Flute at UCSC. The few minutes I saw of Acis were beautiful--the singing, the way the performers moved, the lighting, the music. After that we went to see Avery Fisher hall, where the symphony performs. The lighting in the hall reflects off the oak paneling in a way that makes the room feel candlelit. I wish I could have seen a performance there.

Lincoln Center light

We ate dinner that first night a Dawat, a restaurant that Madhur Jaffery has a hand in. When vegetarians want a nice dinner out with more than one or two options for entrees, Indian is the way to go. The food at Dawat is different from much of what we are used to eating at Indian restaurants--not your traditional curries. The flavors are rich and spicy, but not hot. The Husband requested a spicy chutney when the waiter came to check on us. He brought back a little dish and presented it with a flourish, saying only, "Sauce." It was bright red, and certainly made up for the lack of heat in some of the other dishes. I could only eat a little bit of it at a time, and honestly, I didn't need the sauce. Even though our dishes weren't very hot, they had plenty of flavor.

We took a cab through the crowded, rainy streets to see Avenue Q, which a couple of friends had recommended, when I was unable to get tickets for Wicked. I still want to see Wicked, but I'm so glad we saw Avenue Q instead. At first I thought it was strange to have actors carrying puppets on stage, but it wasn't distracting for very long. I have never laughed so much at a musical. And that's all I'll say about that, because I can't think of anything that wouldn't give too much away.

We had planned on taking a taxi back up to our hotel afterwards, but the rain had stopped and we were in such a good mood after the show that we decided to save money and just take the train. That went fine, except for the fact that we had somehow lost track of which subway entrance we needed to get back to our hotel.

So we felt a little lost, but it did mean we got to join the mobs of people around Times Square, which was exciting. The first time I was in New York, we stayed right on Times Square. I took a cab from LaGuardia to my hotel, and then my friend Mark met me to take me around town while The Husband was at work. Mark had told me how incredible Times Square was, but as we stepped out onto Broadway I was overwhelmed. I was a little more prepared this time and as we crossed from Broadway to Sixth I stopped in the middle and just looked up at everything that was going on around me in amazement.

Looking for the right subway station we did a lot of circling around (and finally just went into a station that wasn't right and got a map--genius!). After we had toured Lincoln Center and gone back to get ready for dinner and the show, I had changed into heels. (I had brought four pairs of shoes, after all.) Since I'm not used to heels, some of my good mood slipped away as we wandered around trying to figure out where we needed to be. We finally found our 1 train, and made it back home with less whining than there could have been, but more than I had hoped for.

When I woke up the next morning, I thought I might be getting sick, because I was way too warm. I figured out quickly that our radiator was on and all the way up. We had eaten sandwiches (panini from Zabar's) sitting in on the window sill the day before, and we must have jostled the controls as we climbed over the radiators, but I don't know why it wasn't already too warm when we got back from the show. We did our best to turn it off, but had to call the front desk and have them fix it for us. At any rate I learned (or perhaps simply had a refresher course) that The Husband should not have to deal with any discomfort or problems before his coffee.

The problem with having walked a marathon is that, even though that was four years ago and I haven't done serious walking like that since, I have this faith in my ability to get me places. And I also have the ability to sweep The Husband into my delusion. I figure eventually he'll learn, but for now he lets me drag him from Cleveland Park to Georgetown to downtown DC. On Saturday he let me drag him around New York.

After a quick breakfast of croissants, OJ, and coffee near the hotel (which improved The Husband's mood enormously), we took the train down to the Greenmarket farmer's market at Union Square. We wandered the stalls, admiring the flowers and herbs, lusting after the fruits and baked goods, and thinking of John McPhee's writing about the city's markets. We gathered together some goodies for a picnic later in the day, and grabbed some drinks and hummus to supplement our lunch at the Whole Foods. We grabbed a train back up to Grand Central (I had the decency to forgo doing those 30 blocks on foot).

I wasn't as impressed by Grand Central as I thought I would be. The main concourse is a huge space, with some excellent people watching, but I had somehow expected something more glamorous. I was much more impressed by the main branch of the New York Public Library. The lobby is beautiful and huge, with more marble staircases, and I was surprised to see such a beautiful space for a library. We visited a small exhibit of letters received by a young Polish woman who had been sent to a Nazi labor camp during the Second World War. I thought the exhibit was well done, with good explanation of the letters that offered personal details as well as a broader context. I think that history takes on new meaning when it is made so personal.

Main Concourse at Grand Central

NY Public Library

After resting for a bit on a sunny bench outside, we continued up Fifth Avenue with the mobs of tourists. The ice on the rink at Rockefeller Center wasn't doing too well in the warm sunshine, but there were plenty of skaters anyhow. I watched a young girl, maybe eight or nine years old, in a lavender skating costume pirouette slowly in the center of the rink, pulling her body in closer with each turn, while her pony tail spun out behind her. We left the rink to go visit Atlas and peak inside St. Patrick's Cathedral. We wandered through FAO Schwarz, where we saw two men dancing on the piano, just like in Big, and I got my picture taken with the toy soldiers out front.


St. Patrick's Cathedral

Me with the soldiers outside FAO Schwarz

From there we went into Central Park, where we watched some young men breakdancing and eventually found a bench where we could eat our lunch. We were shocked my the numbers of people flowing through the park, and I attributed the crowds to the beautiful day--it was on its way to 80 degrees. But it turns out that there was a festival going on, the Eggstravaganza. After walking by the bands playing at the bandshell and catching a glimpse of the Bethesda Fountain, we escaped from the park and took a train down to Greenwich Village.

Bethesda Fountain

We saw the stretch of Fourth Street where Bob Dylan was photographed with Suze Rotolo for the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (didn't take a picture, but should have--the cars are different now) and watched guys playing basketball. We wandered into Washington Square, humming the line from Diamonds and Rust, where we watched men playing chess. Finally we realized we were tired and thirsty and headed into a coffee shop near NYU where we settled down for awhile to have a cold drink and read.

There was more of the West Village that we wanted to see, but we decided to leave it for another trip, as we had planned to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge that afternoon and have an early dinner there. We took the train down to City Hall and then set out across the bridge, where I was once more amazed by the swarms of tourists (seriously, we were worse than Brood X, although with less buggy carnage). The views of Manhattan were beautiful and just reinforced my awe at the sheer size of the city.

Manhattan from the Brooklyn Bridge

We strolled through Brooklyn Heights, admiring old churches and brownstones and flowering trees. We sat down to rest in the sun on the Promenade, once more admiring the views of the city and the Statue of Liberty. We headed back up Montague, looking at cute cafes and shops. We wandered into Heights Books. The Husband complains about Kulturas, my favorite used bookstore in Washington, being too crowded for its little space, but Kulturas has NOTHING on Heights books, where even someone as skinny as The Husband has to suck in before slipping between shelves.

Brooklyn street

View from the Promenade

We ate dinner at Grimaldi's, as Mark had recommended (well, more like ordered, but he was right), lining up outside to wait for a table. They are efficient at moving people through, and we didn't wait terribly long, even though the line had seemed intimidating. We ordered a small pizza with sundried tomatoes and onions, which was excellent. The crust was delicious (although, sorry, not quite up to 2 Amys' quality) and they were not at all stingy with the toppings.

After dinner we walked back out toward the water and admired the night skyline. Finally we walked back to the subway and traveled over to Junior's for what my friend Tonjia assured me was the world's most fantastic cheesecake ever. Turns out that description is something of an understatement. I had the plain cheesecake, which had the nice, dry texture I love, and a crust that was more like cake. The Husband's chocolate cheesecake was also perfection, and I wished I had room for both, but neither one of us could even finish one piece. While The Husband was in the men's room, the manager walked by and told me that they had a clean plate policy and that I couldn't leave until I finished. I told him I would have to sit for awhile then.

"That's fine. We're here until three in the morning."

We couldn't quite bring ourselves to finish, though. Our next stop was the Empire State Building. I was pleased as we walked up to see that there was no line, so I wouldn't have to wait terribly long for my romantic views of the city at night. As it turned out, there was no line because too many people had already gone up, so they had stopped letting people in for the night. I was disappointed, as we had a 3pm train the next day, so I wouldn't get to see the views at night. We had planned to shower and go back out to hear some jazz afterwards, but we decided to give in to our tired feet and bodies and just go to bed. Fourteen hours of sightseeing and walking is apparently our limit.

Our plan for Sunday had been to go out to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, and basically take it easy. But since I had bought our ESB tickets online we decided we ought to use them and changed our plans. We waited in line for an hour and a half before making it up to the observation deck. It was clear and bright out, and the views were just amazing. I was glad that we had been prevented from going up the night before. I hadn't be carrying a sweater with me, as it had been 80 degrees during the day, and I would have been FROZEN. Sunday morning I had a light jacket with me, so the wind wasn't unbearable.

Manhattan from the Empire State Building

I didn't think we would have time to ride the ferry and make it back for our train, at least not without a lot of stress, so we decided to see more of the Village. We watched more basketball, which was fun. There were guys of all ages and races playing, and the game moved quickly. It was much more fun to watch than the day before when the guys spent most of their time arguing over traveling.

We meandered down Bleecker Street, looking for a place for lunch. An Indian place offering sandwiches on naan caught our eye, but we wanted to explore our options and finally selected Cafe Figaro on the basis that its brunch menu included French toast with mascarpone and berries. I couldn't just pass that up, and I'm so glad I didn't. The toast was nice and crisp on the outside, the cheese was rich, and the blueberries were juicy and sweet. There was even maple syrup to top it off. The Husband does not have my sweet tooth and had a boring meal of a spinach and mushroom omelette and a Sam Adams.

Enjoying the sunshine, although Sunday was much cooler than Saturday, we walked further along Bleecker and then down to Soho. Tonjia had said we would like Soho, but it hadn't been high on my list. I'm glad we didn't miss it, though. I preferred the jewelry and scarves and art being sold on the street to the high-end stores, although the stores were kind of fun to look into. We wandered into the gigantic Mac store, the only store we went inside, actually, where I drooled over iBooks and a geeky-cute employee with pretty blue eyes, and The Husband contemplated whether an iPod would work with his linux machines. (According the young man at the Genius Bar, it theoretically could, but they didn't offere the software that would let it happen.) Outside, I ended up buying a glass pendant from a young Spanish woman (well, I think she was Spanish. She was talking on her cell phone in Spanish and kept saying "vale," which as far as I know is only used in Spain, but I could easily be wrong), and then we took the train back to the Upper West Side to pick up our bags and some H&H bagels, and then catch our train back to Washington.


ouij said...

You cover a lot more ground than I do on a trip to NYC!

I didn't know "vale" was a Peninsular thing only; I remember using it every now and again as a kid in Honduras.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks! Having only been to Latin America once for a very short trip (and never to Honduras) I had no idea. I just know that it doesn't seem to be used among the Mexican-American kids where I grew up.

lynnerd said...

Hey! I'll have to finish reading your NYC blog later... I'll be there in about 3 weeks, but on business. It's time for the National Stationery Show, at which I am sharing a booth with 7 other women. Can you give me any tips on what to see when I'm dog tired in the evenings?

Brian said...

Hey there. Picked up your site from a comment on Amalah.com, and next thing I knew, had read through a few entries.

I especially liked this one. As a resident New Yorker for the past 5 years, it is easy to forget what a great place this is that I live in. It was so fun to read of the places that I frequent through another person's experiences. (I live just outside of Union Square.)

Also, I'm impressed by the amount of ground you and The Husband covered. Wow.

mica said...

Avenue Q rules.