Better late than never, I’ve decided to write down some stuff about my recent trip to New York. To make it all make a bit more sense, I’m posting each day’s blog under the date the events actually took place.
New York was always the next place on my list. As a born and bred Londoner, I feel at my most comfortable in big cities and after Tokyo, I’d been looking to explore New York for some time. When my friend Liam, who works in travel, suggested a short, cheap trip I couldn’t say no.
It was a very early start as we made our way to get the first Tube train of the morning, sharing the mostly empty carriages with a few shift workers and fellow air travellers. I was really impressed with Heathrow Terminal 5, the newspapers were full of reports of long queues and worries about not being able to cope with the Olympics, but we went through security in no time. I particularly liked the clear-as-day, as-if-talking-to-a-child signage at the security gate which in some situations would be incredibly patronising, but for a stressed, tired passenger is exactly what’s needed. After breakfast and a quick drink at the bar, it was time to board the plane.
The flight was really good, it was the first time I’d traveled with British Airways and I was impressed. Until my wine-soaked flight home from Tokyo, I’d never really drunk on planes, but this time decided to have a couple of vodka and oranges. Exactly like that bit in the first episode of Lost, the stewardess decided to give me an extra mini bottle. I watched the wonderful Muppets film and Chronicle, which helped the flight go quickly.
Arriving at JFK, things didn’t run so smoothly. The wait at passport control was around 45 minutes. I’d been prepared for a bit of an interrogation, so when I did get to the end of the queue and stepped forward, I was a bit surprised for the only question to be “You’re here on holiday, right?” as I had my fingerprints scanned in.
We’d traveled light, so there was no need to pick up any luggage. So, it was straight to the excellent Airtrack train service to Jamaica Centre to get the subway. Queuing up at the station to get a weekly travelcard, I saw my first slice of New York City life, as a probably-homeless guy tried to sell a used ticket to everyone lining up. When the woman in the ticket booth told all of us to ignore him, he was pleading with her not to stop a brotha sticking it to the man. Or somesuch. Not sure I’ve ever felt so painfully English, but I did what we do best – queued up and ignored every happening around me.
We then went down to catch a train on the E line (while noticing a sign for the two other lines at the station – J and Z, hmm…) and traveled through Brooklyn, under the East River and into Manhattan. The New York Subway has always had a bit of a bad reputation, on film and television it’s always looked like a scary place with muggers around every corner and the occasional river of pink slime. While it’s admittedly one of the grottier, dirtier systems I’ve used (yes, even more so than Paris) and the map wasn’t the easiest I’ve used (two different lines using the same colour? express and local trains?), as soon as I was on board I felt perfectly at home. The rules seemed to be the same as London here – don’t make eye contact and you’ll be fine.
Despite getting this far, I hadn’t quite felt like I’d had a sense of place yet. Not until we emerged from the station at 51st Street. Everything was so… well, so tall. My neck strained to see the beautiful, gothic flourishes at the top of the skyscrapers all around us as we walked to the hotel. There were yellow cabs everywhere. Hot dog vendors. Steam rising from manhole covers. Honking horns. The relentless pace of city life. This was unmistakably New York. I’d never been here before, yet everything was instantly familiar. As I’ve gone to various places around the world, I’ve had my preconceptions shattered time and again and been surprised to find reality being a little different to my expectations, but not here. The New York in my head was identical to the New York I was walking around.
We checked in to the hotel, which was a pretty swanky one we managed to get a great price because the lobby was being refubrished. The room was great, and it was in a really good, well connected part of the borough. We went out to get some lunch at a Five Guys across the road. I honestly think I might have had the best burger I’ve had in my life there. Which, for someone who has had as many burgers as me, is quite an accolade. It was a really simple place, with a simple menu – burgers and fries and a seemingly endless list of toppings. I prefer my burgers to be as simple as possible, so just asked for onion and ketchup. The delicious taste and my hunger after a long flight combined to make one of the greatest meals of my life. Seriously. That good.
It was time to start being a tourist and get a good look at this city. First stop was Grand Central station, very close to the hotel. It’s always been iconic building, seen in countless films from North By Northwest to Madagascar, and it’s grandiose main concourse is an impressive sight. But it was the less familiar parts of the station I was most amazed by, the tunnels leading out of the concourse, like a complex maze of marble-clad caves.
From there, we walked to Times Square, which was where I got the biggest feeling of de ja vu – I really did feel like I’d been there before, everything was so familiar, it was as if I’d stepped into a film set. I took a moment to just take in the neon and LED all around. It might be, like Piccadilly Circus, a place you can simply see and then leave, but it’s hard not to be impressed by the way that absolutely everything – even the signs for the subway and the police station – are drenched in neon. From there, we went to see the famous Radio City Music Hall in the Rockefeller Center, where we were going to get tickets to the Top of the Rock but were told by the person in the ticket office that there was no point going up there as it was so overcast. When the person whose job it is to sell you tickets tells you not to buy one, it’s a pretty good sign that you should wait to go on another day.
We took the subway to Bleecker Street. In that way that people always try to impose the geography of a city they know upon a place they are visiting, we decided that this was sort of the Camden Town of New York – it was the place to be in the 70s, has seen better days, but still pretty cool with lots to offer. We had a look through Bleecker Street Records, a famous record store full of some great old vinyl, before stopping for a drink at a bar called 1849. Sat on stools at the well-stocked bar, we chatted to the barmaid who was something of a character, just as opinionated about which drinks she didn’t like as which ones she did. When I ordered a Brooklyn ale, she correctly predicted that I wouldn’t like it and suggested a much nicer Yeuling for my second drink. One of the highlights of the bar was the Wall of Shame, an entire wall full of fake IDs, the sort of thing that I’d only imagined as existing in 1990s teen movies, not in the real world. Some girls turned up and asked for a cocktail – the barmaid said “I’ve never heard of that before, but I’ll make the best one you’ve ever had”. Not wanting to stay for too long in the same bar, we headed around the corner to another called Off the Wagon. It was studenty, they played good music and there was a bit of a livelier crowd there. I was still getting used to how to tip, basically following Liam’s lead, but ultimately the drinks were so cheap that even when you include the dollar bill you have to leave for each one, it’s not as expensive as London.
We then went to the High Line, which is a fantastic idea – an old disused elevated railway line which has been converted into a long, thin park. It’s a fascinating walk, the path widening and narrowing along the way, moving left and right past beautiful flowerbeds, wild plants overgrowing remaining railway tracks, artworks and various other things that make it an unpredictable journey. It also gives great views of the city, with one intersection having raked seating overlooking the traffic and pedestrians below, an “urban theater” where you can sit and watch the world go by.
From there, we travelled east to Williamsburg. If Bleecker Street was Camden, then this was most definitely Shoreditch. We took the L train to Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn’s hipster central. We’d done plenty of research on bars in the area, and worked out a few places to go, starting with one called The Leevy. When we walked in and Pulp were playing on the jukebox, we knew it was a good place. Small and cosy, they had an especially cheap offer on a Bud and a shot, bottles of cider, which I was happily surprised to see, and all sorts of other interesting drinks on offer, including tequila and Gatorade, which we decided against trying. Plus, we were presented with a free big bowl of cheesy puffs! From there, we walked down to a bar called Spike Hill, which didn’t have quite as friendly an atmosphere, it was perfectly fine but with all the choices in the area I’d probably not go back. There was something a little cold about it, compared to other places where we were treated like locals. Quite hungry by then, we went to a place that did pizza by the slice. It looked like your standard white-walled, slightly dirty takeaway place, but the pizza totally hit the spot, the enormous slices not remotely fitting on the paper plates they came with. Walking further south, we were somehow still quite hungry and came across a place called Crif Dogs. It was a great little place, with a chalkboard listing the “Cheap Ass Specials” and the guy behind the counter fighting a losing battle against the CD player behind the counter which was constantly skipping. And the hot dog I had was amazing, easily the best I’ve had.
We then walked down to Barcade, a fantastic bar. The ambience and the drinks on offer would make this a great place to go anyway, but the real joy here was the couple of dozen old school arcade machines, each with a little shelf to put your drink on as you played. I fed a few quarters into Gauntlet and Paperboy, great old games which bring back so many childhood memories.
After this, we walked around, not quite able to find the next place on the list, before deciding to head back to the hotel. It was late, much too late to get the Tube home if we were back home, but the real magic of the New York Subway is that it runs all night long. Probably more due to the travelling than the drink, we both fell asleep on the train, fortunately both at separate times, and at least didn’t miss our stop. Phew.