My New York Winter’s Tale – Part II

As anyone with even a passing familiarity with this blog will surely attest, having at some point scrolled through post after post about the various long distance footpaths I have undertaken across Scotland, either in part or in full, I bloody love walking. I could do it every day, and regularly do; whether hiking in the Highlands or strolling through city streets I can think of no better way to experience a place than on the ground, in a sturdy pair of shoes. You get to smell the roses, which is nice, but you also get to slip in the pigeon shit, which is normalising. It keeps things in perspective is what I’m saying.

Naturally, then, when Paul and I arrived in New York I was eager to pound the pavement — smack the sidewalk? — and slowly begin to map the city in my own mind. The day before we had enjoyed a quiet saunter in Central Park, through the meadow and half-way around the lake, and today sought to explore the concrete jungle that surrounds it. Paul and I had bought a New York CityPASS from the hotel shop on our way out of the building, and planned to walk between the various attractions included within. This, I thought, would balance the touristy stuff with a desire to see the real New York. After all, how big could it possibly be?

We hadn’t even reached the first stop on our list, the Empire State Building, however, when I realised I was already fed up. The thing I love most about walking is how little attention it requires; there’s no interpreting timetables or humouring taxi drivers, no making connections or watching fares rise, but simply the freedom to pootle, peruse or ponder in your own time, at your own pace, on your own terms. Not so in New York it seemed, where not only did unimaginable light, noise and olfactory pollution combine to overwhelm the senses but traffic lights at ever corner made it impossible to build any momentum or establish a rhythm. We seemed to be missing every green man. We were waiting, not walking.

To make matters worse, I struggled to make sense of the matrix of numbers flashing before my eyes. It should have been so straightforward simply to count your way to your destination — Sesame Street, for instance — but for whatever reason I kept losing track of how many blocks we’d walked and how many we still had to go. It’s a system better suited to spreadsheets and schematics than the human imagination, which uses narrative and other mnemonic devices to encode information in any sort of meaningful way. I wasn’t striding along such and such street to such and such square, then forking left until it crossed the river. I was playing Pacman, only the game froze every time I reached a traffic light. Eventually, however, the natural order reasserted itself and I started daydreaming anyway, leaving Paul to nudge me around corners and pull me out of the path of oncoming traffic.

We arrived at the Empire State Building minutes after it opened at 08:30, having been well warned that the only way to escape the queue was to visit either first thing in the morning or last thing at night. We aimed to do both, with the pass entitling us to two trips to the top so long as they were undertaken on the same day. I was hoping to get some good walking done here, vertically if not horizontally, as I had with the Astrological Clock in Prague or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, but after we’d queued our way through airport-level security we were simply herded into the first of two lifts and whisked effortlessly to the top. We didn’t even get to press the button. With nothing else to do I thought back to the X-Ray machines and the signage listing prohibited items. As a European I’m not used to seeing gun-related imagery like that, especially in such a public place, and it made me feel really quite uneasy. Mercifully, there hadn’t been any actual weapons on show, piled next to the coffee cups, water bottles and other confiscated items. But still.

Not that the thought lasted very long. Nothing can prepare you for the view at the top of the Empire State Building. It is one you have undoubtedly seen countless times before, on postcards and t-shirts and television shows and movies, but to which no artist, photographer or cameraman has ever quite done justice. (Regardless of what you might tell your friends, it’s not just the gale-force wind that’s making your eyes water.) Visiting in March it was impossible to stay out on the observation deck for any length of time, but between strategic retreats into the lobby to let the blood return to your eyeballs the sight of Manhattan island below was worth the numbness and bluster. I have already mentioned the water towers, and how they recalled a childhood spent reading Marvel Comics, but from the top of the Empire State Building I couldn’t believe just how many of them I could see on show. There were so many of everything; the building I was standing on alone had 6,514 windows. I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with that information.

Knowing that I’d be back later that night was the only way I could peel my eyes from the panorama — unparalleled in my opinion, as cityscapes go — and return to the lift. That and hunger, as I hadn’t yet eaten breakfast and knew that pancakes awaited us at the bottom. We retired to W Cafe on West 36th Street and ordered a stack each, one with sausages and one with bacon, but each with enough syrup for twelve. I have never been a particularly big fan of Scotch pancakes, or even of crepes, but American pancakes I could have happily mainline from one Shrove Tuesday to the next. We ate in silence, whether in awe of the spectacle we had just experienced or in respect of the breakfast we were in the process of devouring it was difficult to say, before pulling out our CityPASSes and trying to come up with a plan for the rest of the day. We had plans to meet someone — Alasdair, a fellow film critic on holiday from Scotland — that afternoon, which left a four-hour window in which to explore.

The idea was to walk to Ground Zero, to pay our respects at the memorial pools and to admire the new One World Trade Center overlooking them, taking in as many landmarks as we possibly could along the way — starting with New York Public Library. I have visited many churches, castles and cathedrals in my time but as far as I can remember this is the first time I’ve paid a visit to a library. It’s a beautiful building, however, and immediately recognisable thanks to its roll in Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, among others. (Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big married there in the first Sex and the City movie, lest we forget.) There didn’t seem to be many books on display but there was plenty to see; happening across a pair of public telephone booths I couldn’t help but reenact Jake Gyllenhaal’s frantic, half-submerged phone call with Dennis Quaid after the city is hit by a tidal wave. Thinking about it, maybe that’s why there weren’t many books on display, in case anyone should decide instead to homage the book burning scene later in the film.

Next up was Grand Central Station, as seen in Madagascar, The Avengers and Carlito’s Way (according to Paul, at least). It didn’t just trump St Pancras in London in terms of cinematic heritage, as surely it will presumably have its own ties to the Harry Potter franchise once Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is underway, but in the detail and design of the architecture. I couldn’t get enough of it, lapping the main concourse at ground level before taking the stairs up to balconies at either end. It was impossibly grand and beguiling, from the iconic information booth and its unmistakable bronze clock to the intricate astronomical illustration that adorns the ceiling above it. Not for the first time that day (nor the last) I went a bit snap-happy with my camera, switching it to manual and jiggling the settings until I got a photograph that was correctly exposed. Paul, meanwhile, rode the escalator a couple of times, lost in a reverie of his own. I had to admit, “Carlito’s Way” looked a lot easier than the Great Glen Way we had done six months before.

Leaving Grand Central we doubled back along Park Avenue, a pleasingly wide road that, having had our breath taken away twice already that day, finally gave us room to breathe. We walked first to Union Square where we cracked open a couple of cream sodas, and then on to Washington Square, where we were very nearly waylaid by a Colombian woman working with Oxfam. You might not be familiar with the name, but anyone who has ever watched an episode of Friends will recognise the square’s defining feature: the marble arch modelled on the Arc de Triomphe that can be glimpsed during the series’ opening titles. We had left Park Avenue with the express purpose of visiting (the exterior of) Monica Gellar’s apartment building on the corner of Grove and Bedford. Surprisingly there was nothing to signify that the address had any cultural significance at all, but the red-brick facade is so indelibly imprinted on the public consciousness that you know it the moment you see it. To be fair, however, if you marked every area of New York featured in a film or TV show they’d have about as many plaques as they do windows.

It felt a little jarring, perhaps even disrespectful, to go from reminiscing about a beloved programme to commemorating the fallen at Ground Zero, but both are dramas that we invariably watched unfold on television — after all, prior to our arrival the day before New York had just been that place off the TV. Like everyone else I will never forget where I was on the 11th of September, 2001, or how the images of death and destruction made me feel. I was fourteen at the time, and though I might not have fully understood the World Trade Center’s purpose as a building I immediately saw what it represented as an idea. I thought that thirteen years later the trauma might have healed — obviously not for those who lived through it but perhaps for an adult who had grown up across an ocean — but staring into the North Pool, and then the South, I realised that the shock hadn’t abated at all. As memorials they are magnificent; impressive in their own right, as feats of design and engineering, but also note-perfect in the way that they mark what they do. They are a spectacular scar in an area of sorry reconstruction.

It had taken so long to get to the One World Trade Center that there was no time to go inside, or to descend into the foundations of the original towers for the 9/11 museum, let alone to walk back to Midtown. Instead we took the subway to 50th Street, where it was just a short walk (in theory) to Ellen’s Stardust Diner, where we had arranged to meet Alasdair at three. Ellen’s Stardust Diner had been brought to my attention by Michael Portillo, a Tory MP turned TV personality, whose show — BBC Two’s Great British Railway Journeys — had recently spun off into America. It looked gimmicky as hell, a real tourist trap complete with singing waitresses, but it so beautifully encapsulated my preconceived ideas of what I diner should be that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to eat inside. I went in expecting to buy the biggest burger on the menu but changed my mind the moment I saw meatloaf was available. There’s no point chasing authenticity in a place like that, but it gave me a fairly good idea of what Americans might eat on a fairly regular basis — once again presuming that television is anything to go by.

Alasdair had a plane to catch back to Britain, so we left him outside the restaurant and set off for the Rockefeller Center, where our passes entitled us to one visit to Top of the Rock, another observation deck. We only had a couple of hours to kill until Wicked, Paul’s pick of the musicals showing on Broadway (Hamilton being sold out until some point in the next century and The Book of Mormon only being fresh to one of us), so there was no point trying to squeeze in a museum or boat tour before the show. Besides, it was nearly sunset, and as nice as it had been to see New York in daylight, and as nice as it would surely be to see New York at night, I also wanted to see it at dusk. What’s more, this time we’d be able to see New York with the Empire State Building in it, which is surely something every visitor must do before they leave. We waited for the first lights to come on in the city below, then beat a hasty retreat — half-compelled by the wind.

I think I was expecting more from Wicked, or Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz to give it it’s full title, having naively equated popularity with quality, something I long ago learnt not to do with feature films. The performances were strong, particularly in the case of the two leads, but the story sagged in places and with the exception of Defying Gravity none of the songs made any immediate or lasting impression. Still, it was a very nice theatre and a glitzy production so it duly passed a couple of hours, and the audience was much better behaved than the one we had watched Gods of Egypt with the night before. It was perhaps our usher who stole the show, however, so efficient was she at intercepting customers and corralling them to their seats that I don’t think I saw her speak once. After the tipping fiasco at the hotel and the hyper-enthusiasm of Ellen’s, it was refreshing to be seated without a word, a smile or even the slightest trace of respect or recognition — like being back home. To her I decided to dedicated at least half of my applause.

The only thing keeping me awake by the final curtain was the cold, so to ensure I remained awake for the walk home we decided drastic measures were in order. We had one last coupon to redeem that day, so we flew back up the Empire State Building like cold wind up a trouser leg and re-entered the vortex at the top. I was keen to ride it like a house in a hurricane, ideally all the way back to the hotel, but alas it wasn’t to be. We were going to have to walk it. I cursed under my already clouded breath and stepped out into the gale, my hood instantly whipped from my head and my hands returning to their now natural frozen state. Oh, how I bloody hate walking.

And to think, the next day was going to be even colder! Hell’s Kitchen was sounding more and more inviting by the minute.

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