New York City is huge. Whereas most European cities can be easily navigated using the spires of a cathedral as reference points (or an equivalent landmark such as Edinburgh’s castle or Paris’ Eiffel Tower), the buildings of New York are so uniformly high that its highest — One World Trade Center (104 stories high) — is rarely visible, even when you’re only a few of blocks away. As such, you have to take a pretty big step back in order to appreciate it — heck, just to comprehend it. Otherwise it’s hard not to feel like a rat in maze.
I thought this might be acheived from Central Park — itself a mind-boggling size at 843 acres — hence our visit two days before, but even from as far in as the reservoir Paul and I couldn’t see past the first line of skyscrapers to Lower Manhattan beyond. It became a running gag that throughout our stay we hardly ever saw the Chrysler Building — itself a fair size, being the forth largest in New York at 77 stories high — but spent the first two days squinting from every vantage point we could, unable to find what we were looking for until we scaled the Empire State Building. No, we would have to leave the island altogether if we were to comprehend its full scale.
There are no subway stations on the waterfront at present, so in order to reach the pier we would have to go on another walk, from one red hand to the next. Thankfully, we could leave Fifth Avenue behind for once and veer off into new territory; today we would be tackling Hell’s Kitchen, recently repopularised thanks to Marvel’s Daredevil, taking 10th to West 42nd Street. Don’t get me wrong, I felt no more intimidated here than anywhere else in New York, but there’s no denying that in the past the city has had a less than savory reputation, and for the first time I could imagine its famed criminal underbelly. It was a little surreal given the short distance we had walked, but already the comforting sight of otherwise pervasive brands was now conspicuous for their absence. We hadn’t passed a Starbucks in minutes!
We had, however, passed more UPS delivery trucks than I could conceivably keep track of. Royal Mail are a familiar presence on most UK high streets, and their red vans are not just ubiquitous but famous thanks to Postman Pat, but if you saw half as many driving along a single street in Britain you’d start to think that something was amiss. They were everywhere; suddenly rivalling yellow cabs for the most common vehicle on the road. I soon noticed that each van seemed to be missing a door, and given how cold it was outside I couldn’t begin to imagine how uncomfortable it must be for the literally hundreds of drivers crisscrossing New York as we walked past their offices on 43rd and 11th. It was bitterly cold, Baltic even, and I began to worry that it might be too cold for a two-hour boat trip around the island.
We had the choice of three different Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises with our CityPASSes, each differing in direction and duration. Handily, the 40-minute Liberty Cruise was first up, in just over half an hour’s time, so mindful of how much else we had to squeeze into the day we settled for the shorter of those on offer, picked up our tickets and set off in search of some breakfast. I had been working my way through my New York food bingo card, having already blotted out pretzels, pizza and cheesecake, but I still needed bagels for a full line. I had hoped to kill two birds with one stone with a peanut butter and jelly filling, but opted instead for cream cheese when I saw that it wasn’t an option. We’d found a small cafe inside a sleek apartment complex on 42nd Street — Think Coffee, I think — and I duly claimed my prize: twenty minutes of warmth and a snatch of free WiFi. I had set up an Instagram account especially for this visit and was happy to see that it was already doing pretty well.
By this point we knew the drill, and as we returned to the pier I prepped my bag for the requisite search as we posed for the inevitable photo against green screen. I’d by now made my peace with the higher security, though what damage they thought I might be able to do with a boat was unclear, but the photo opportunities were starting to grate. Not only had I come all the way to New York, but I’d specifically walked to these select attractions with the express intention of seeing them for myself — and photographing them for myself, too. Why would I want to be superimposed onto a backdrop that was about to become my own background, for real? This would be the last time we would pose, instead choosing not to waste the photographer’s time (let alone our own) and to avoid the awkwardness at the end of the experience (or in this instance, during) when the photos were finally flogged to visitors.
Moments later, though, we were aboard and ready to embark, watching as New York simultaneously shrunk behind us and honed into view — finally reaching a size our brains could actually perceive. You could suddenly get a real sense of its shape and size, without the vertigo or neck-ache you inevitably incur when trying to do so from within, whether down below or way up high. The captain’s insightful commentary helped even more to make sense of what we were seeing. We hadn’t been able to find the time for a walking tour, so a few words from the crew went a long way to simplifying and explaining the city before us. We learned that Manhattan used to be a very hilly place, and that the city’s few, incongruous curved streets lie where those hills once stood. Mostly, however, the commentary concerned the 2009 crash of US Airways Flight 1549 and the role Circle Line vessels played in rescuing the survivors. It was a story that I was vaguely aware of but knew embarrassingly little about. I had been at university at the time, and most likely too hungover to pay it the attention it deserved.
We sailed over the Lincoln and Holland tunnels, past the Frying Pan and Chelsea Pier, and out to Ellis Island for a closer look at the Statue of Liberty. We’d had to choose between a cruise and the ferry, but I was now certain that we’d made the right decision; as impressive and unmissable as the Statue of Liberty undoubtedly is I noted that most visitors to the island weren’t looking up but out at the cityscape that still dominated the scene. Looking back I don’t have particularly vivid memories of Lady Liberty, though photographic evidence suggests I spent a good stint studying her, as I too struggled to snatch my attention away from Manhattan itself. By now One World Trade Center was looming large, and it drew the eye like no other building in view. The commentator tried his best to point out other points of interest in the landscape, trying to direct our gaze between skyscrapers using other skyscrapers as touchstones, but One World Trade Center kept me in its thrall. Not for the first time, I started to wonder if the effect would have been double if there were still two of them.
We had used just about every mode of transport going over the last few days but, disembarking, we decided to check out the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum while riverside for a quick bonus round. Paul wanted to have a good long look at Concorde, as unfortunately our cheapo CityPASS tickets didn’t gain us entry to the cabin, before we set off on a whistle-stop tour of submarine USS Growler and aircraft carrier USS Intrepid, with its crowded flight deck containing everything from a Lockheed A-12 to a E-1 Tracer. The submarine was a lot less cramped than I expected, particularly having queued past health warnings and answered questions on phobias, but then I was only inside for a couple of minutes. After a few weeks I’m sure I’d have started to feel a little claustrophobic, as I imagine would most people. It was then back above water for the aircraft carrier. As impressive as the jets and helicopters and missiles were, though, they paled in comparison to a LEGO model of the Intrepid itself housed below.
We had glimpsed Brooklyn Bridge from the boat, but Paul wanted a closer look (and to spend a few minutes in Brooklyn, too) so we took the subway across town and under the East River to check it out. It goes without saying that you can’t get any meaningful sense of a place in such a ludicrously short space of time but we had to do the best we could with the few days that we had. I would love to have spent more time on Long Island — not just in Brooklyn, but Williamsburg, Queens and Coney Island too — but to do so would have meant sacrificing other parts of New York that I wanted to see even more. I had been waiting for this trip for a very long time and there were certain things that I wanted to do or experience more than any other. That said, we did have time to stop off for coffee and that long-awaited peanut butter and jelly sandwich at Cranberry’s on our way back to the bridge. It was only when we arrived that Paul realised he had been thinking of the wrong one — he had been meaning the Manhattan Bridge, the next one over, but we crossed where we were regardless.
Having got what I had come for, a taste of wholesome if somewhat unhealthy America, I let Paul take the lead once more as we went in search of his preferred lunch: a Joey sandwich, of the type the character might have saved from a backfiring car on Friends. For this we had to journey north through Chinatown to Little Italy. I wasn’t particularly fussed about this part of New York, so I stopped off for gelato while Paul went about the business of finding an establishment capable of producing the perfect meatball sub. We both left disappointed, however; me with a tasteless pistachio ice cream and he with an inferior sandwich he had panic bought at the first deli he went to. I don’t think Big Italy has anything to worry about, anyway. Lunch over, we returned to the subway and to our itinerary, this time in the direction of the American Museum of Natural History. I say that because we overshot it by some distance on our first attempt, having taken an express train by accident, but eventually found our way back to the museum I was most excited to see.
We entered via an underground entrance leading off from the subway after finding the main entrance closed to customers. It seemed that there was some sort of function set to take place in the main foyer, which meant that many of the exhibits made famous by Night at the Museum would be out of bounds. This didn’t matter too much, as there were plenty of other exhibitions upstairs that were still open to the public. I’d watched a David Attenborough documentary on the BBC some months before detailing the discovery of a new titanosaur estimated to be the largest dinosaur of them all, and was delighted to discover that the museum had an exhibit devoted to the find. Everything in New York is massive, but even three days of skyscrapers, 18′ pizzas and aircraft carriers couldn’t prepare me for the size of the skeleton before me; it was so big that it couldn’t even fit in the room provided, its neck protruding through the doorway so that you had to enter beneath its skull. I may not have travelled all of the way to America for it, but seeing that skeleton in the flesh (for want of a better phrase) could easily have justified the trip.
Before leaving we made our way to the IMAX theatre (because OF COURSE the American Natural History Museum has an IMAX theatre) for a screening of MacGillivray Freeman’s National Parks Adventure. Presented by Expedia and narrated by Robert Redford, the film features a dizzying number of American national parks as a group of extreme sportsmen complete a number of breathtaking feats, from climbing Devil’s Tower to biking the impossibly smooth rock-faces of Arches National Park. Having by now walked extensively throughout Scotland, completing two long-distance footpaths and trying out many more, Paul and I considered ourselves seasoned hikers, and after all of the stopping and starting in New York I could feel my feet itching for something a little more adventurous. I caught Yellowstone’s gaze, transfixed by overhead shots of its unblinking supervolcano, and vowed that I would return to America and visit as many of the parks featured in the film as possible. Washington DC and the National Mall would at least get me started in a couple of days time.
Afterwards we went for dinner, had a drink at a Scottish-themed pub and then took off for a walk through the streets at night. Passing Columbus Circle on 8th Avenue Paul spotted a sign advertising free wine-tasting, and I followed him inside. I felt immediately out of place at Oak and Steel, having always preferred to buy my wine at supermarkets like Tesco or Asda where the majority of the staff likely know even less about body and finish than I did. I quite like wine, but with no real education on the matter apart from what I have gleaned from my mother over the years all I know for sure is that Australian wine is delicious and French wine isn’t, apparently — despite having quite enjoyed a few cheap bottles of Bordeaux from Carrefour on a recent trip to Nice. When Paul got waylaid by an assistant eager to learn more about Scotland, then, I found myself speaking to the resident connoisseur about the three varieties on offer. I cannot for the life of me recall a single thing that he told me, mostly because I was so paranoid about sounding stupid that I spent the entire encounter trying to draft the best bullshit responses I could come up with. It was all I could do to avoid describing the red as “grapey” or inadvertently asking for a rosé instead of the second white.
Yes New York is huge, but as I wandered back to the hotel that night — surprisingly tipsy after three sips of wine and a pint of anything-but-Tenants — I felt I was finally getting to know it a bit. That said, I desperately wanted another slice of cheesecake and couldn’t for the life of me remember the way back to Carve. Luckily, Paul had at some point assimilated his Google map and guided the way with ease. We still had one day left in New York before we moved onto Washington DC, and I knew that if I wanted to really understand the city I would have to do so on my own terms, without a natural navigator to keep me right. Having explored and supposedly mapped much of Manhattan it was time to get lost again — not a huge ask for someone with a sense of direction as bad as mine. It was time to use some initiative and test myself — like a person in a maze.