First We Take Manhattan…

1st July 2005

There are more than eight million people living in New York City with over a million nestled on the island of Manhattan alone. With inhabitants originally hailing from around 180 countries NYC is perhaps the best example of the United States being the great melting pot. Everyone that strolls the sidewalks and breathes the city’s air has their own story to tell so…

Okay, I didn’t come in search of an overall better life, but rather for at least five better days than I would have spent at home. Also, passing through immigration at JFK airport wasn’t as much of a trial as stopping off at Ellis Island was prior to the 1930s. (Mind you, whilst no rubber gloves or delousing was involved thanks to US security measures my index fingerprints and mugshot sans spectacles are on file.)

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In a rare flash of cash I’m staying at the Waldorf Astoria, which is home to Paris and Nicky Hilton when they are in NYC (I don’t get to see any celebrities during my stay let alone the party-loving sisters; I narrowly miss seeing Hilary Duff in performance). I’m frankly appalled at the exterior of the Waldorf, but the interior is something else (I learn the next day that I have entered the via the ‘back’ entrance – the Park Avenue side is the one to see). The reception is dimly lit and has the look of an exclusive gentleman’s club; portraits of the hotel’s prestigious former owners (not Paris and Nicky though!) hang on wood-panelled walls; and green uniformed bellhops stand alert and in search of a tip.

Even though I was on the tourist trail I’m a firm believer of the ‘When in Rome…’ maxim so after dumping my bags in my room I hunt around for the ice bucket. On a shelf underneath the television is I spot the familiar faux leather covering of the US hotel ice bucket…and an N64 controller.

It’s a third-party model rather than the real deal, but I’m intrigued nonetheless. Flicking onto the hotel’s own television channel I find out that I can play a selection of N64 games…for a price. I’m not in the mood to pay and play nine-year old games that I already own, but I wonder…here I am on the twelfth floor; does it get better as you go up? I mean is there a Gamecube on the 20th and, perhaps, a Game & Watch on the fifth? Enough! It’s time to hit the streets.

Manhattan is divided into blocks with large Avenues (up to eight-lanes wide) leading North and South crossed by smaller Streets that take you East and West. As long as you can count and know the difference between left, right, up and down you can’t really get lost.

At the corner of 50th Street and Lexington Avenue, just outside the hotel entrance, I can see the Chrysler Building reaching into the sky; the Art Deco stylings of the spire are still clearly visible in the azure of the early evening. It’s a magnificent sight. In fact, everything is magnificent. The yellow cabs that zip past leaving an afterglow of red tail light; the hot dog stands complete with parasols and pretzels; the people walking really small dogs; the women in white tight-ass pants; and even the newspaper vending machines. It’s all so goddamn beautiful to me I feel like lighting up a cigarette and heading to a bar for some whiskey and jazz.

However, I don’t since I’ve more mundane tasks to accomplish first such as confirming my ticket for a tour bus. Having no change and having no real idea of the call charges I buy a ten-dollar phone card, punch in the number into the nearest phone and…hold. Instantly forgettable music plays whilst a cheerful yet authoritative voice tells me that my call is more important than the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. I still hold. A synthetic rather than sympathetic woman interrupts the line and tells me how much I have left on my card. She also cuts me off. I try again. I’m annoyed by the return of cheery guy, but more so by the man that decides to hold his cell phone conversation less than six feet away from this open air phone kiosk. So as the music starts up once more and I’m revelling in my importance I’m hearing “Tom? This is bullshit! Tell them the deal’s off.” Or possibly not – I do watch a lot of movies after all.

It’s a given that I’ll never get through so I hang up and decide to chance it at the ticket office the next day. Stepping away from the phone I learn another lesson – like most sharks everything keeps moving in NYC and this applies to its storm clouds too. The sky is now steel grey and darkening and before long it’s raining.

Everything is better and bigger in the US as this storm proves. Drops of rain thump down on the visor of my cap and if it’s inadvisable to wear jeans in wet weather then it’s idiocy to complement them with a denim jacket. Within minutes I’m soaked through and thanks to the state of some of Manhattan’s roads my trainers have taken a bath too. Ever wondered why NASA explorer robots traverse the craters of Mars with ease whilst the European counterparts fail? It’s because the US machines are programmed by New York cabbies – it takes some skill or else madcap driving to avoid all those potholes, dips and bumps.

Eventually, I take refuge in a Subway (yes, the sandwich bar) and too tired, too wet and too down to do anything else I decide to have a steak sandwich dinner – something I could have had in the High Street back home.

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You would somehow expect Ground Zero to be quiet if not silent even in a place as bustling as Manhattan. And it is; the vast space seems to funnel away the sounds of the city and even the crisp snap of a lone flapping Stars and Stripes seems very loud. There’s nothing to see and yet plenty of people have come here to look. You have to imagine…it was something I found I couldn’t do.

What seems funny in a vulgar sort of way is that directly opposite the World Trade Center (the twin towers were just two of a number of buildings that form the Center) is a discount designer-label department store. I bought a new pair of trainers. If they weren’t so comfortable I would have hated myself. (Incidentally, whilst some leave their heart in San Francisco I left my shoes in Battery Park; I dumped my old trainers in a bin before visiting the Statue of Liberty.)

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Aside from Liberty, the most obvious tourist attraction in NYC is the Empire State Building. It’s not the prettiest skyscraper (that’s got to be the Chrysler), but after 11 September 2001 it is once more the tallest building in the city. Height is its only attraction; there is nothing to see inside especially since you have to stand inside two elevators to reach the observatory on the 86th storey. The view is spectacular though. Assuming you know your geography you can see all five boroughs (The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and, of course, Manhattan). There’s Liberty; that’s the Brooklyn Bridge; the unmistakeable Flatiron Building; and the green of Central Park.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I didn’t experience at the Empire State was the Skyride, an effects-driven ‘tour ride’ film of the city like the sort you would queue to see at Disney Land. The interest lies in what you don’t see though. Apparently, one segment of the Skyride has been cut – a simulated plane crash in Wall Street.

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Even with the ‘hop on, hop off’ nature of the tour buses there’s still a lot of walking to do in the city. In fact, it’s the best way to get around and see the place at the same time. As I already said: New York City is always on the move. Pause on the sidewalk and you’re immediately known as a tourist – you don’t even need to have the telltale sign of a camera. New Yorkers are always moving and many of them with the added drive of having an iPod in their hand. There’s no hiding these white dynamos in coat pockets or bags like in the UK – they’re badges of confidence over here.

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American television is fantastic. I don’t watch TV at home, but there’s something mind-numbingly comforting about US programming; I can escape from the world. This is mainly because the news coverage (even on the international programmes) is almost entirely focused on domestic issues. (Not going online and only reading US papers meant that I had no idea what was going on in the UK or anywhere else throughout my stay.)

However, the best things on TV are the adverts. On my first visit to America I was overjoyed to see commercials advertising the relief that comes with haemorrhoid ointment and frank discussions on the discomfort of vaginal yeast infections. On this occasion I was delighted to learn that men with erectile dysfunction needn’t fear that "special moment" of intimacy with their partners – there was a product just for them! Even better was the legal list of possible side effects, which revealed to ladies that after a night of passion their man might end up soiling the bed and suffering a heart attack.

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Times Square should really be experienced at night, but even during the day it is a riot of coloured neon. You have to multiply Piccadilly Circus by 100 to get just an idea of what it’s like. Everything from Coca Cola to the latest Broadway shows are advertised here either in massive billboard or electronic sideshow forms. It comes as no surprise to see a US Armed Forces recruitment station slap bang in the middle of the square. It pays to advertise.

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Manhattan is perhaps the place to shop. Uptown Fifth Avenue is arguably the purest hit available to designer-label junkies. Clothes, shoes, handbags, diamonds and breakfast (at Tiffany’s, of course!) Window-shopping is perhaps the most sensible option for those of us who aren’t affianced to Wayne Rooney.

A block away from the Empire State Building is Macy’s, the world’s largest store. It tells you this fact on a billboard the size of your local branch of Dixons and which is plastered onto the side of the building. Macy’s is one entire block in size and has eight shopping floors; inside you can find fair-sized branches of McDonald’s and Starbucks. Perhaps the greatest thing (from a non-shopping perspective) about the store is that it still uses wooden-step escalators. There’s no danger from fire though because the police would shoot you if you smoked indoors. Probably.

There is much to entice the gamer (and infuriate those from the UK) in NYC too. Almost every block houses a discount electronics store and in the windows there is almost always a shiny Sony PSP. Invariably perched beside it is a sign written in marker pen that screams “In Stock” yet the world’s most desirable handheld only has to coyly whisper: “Buy me.”

But New Yorkers weren’t listening. On the weekend I was in the city another new pair of Jordan trainers hit the market; sports stores were packed to bursting and there’s a section of Manhattan where there’s a branch of Foot Locker on every block.

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So my sojourn is over; my suitcase is packed more tightly than when I arrived (with a somewhat Communist era Eastern Bloc mentality it’s filled with blue jeans) and my camera is full of badly taken photos. I’ve seen a lot, but by staying in Manhattan only a fifth of what NYC has to offer. I can see myself coming back…I still haven’t seen Paris.