Tuesday, November 10, 2015

New York City, Fall 2015

It came to pass that we had the opportunity to spend 48 hours in Manhattan, wandering around and enjoying ourselves.

And so we did.

Manhattan is so big and complex that it would take months, years, perhaps your entire life, in order to really understand it.

But we didn't have that; we just had 48 hours.

So we had to concentrate, and pick a few things.

It so happened that we arrived in New York fairly late in the afternoon. By the time we had checked in to our hotel, it was already dinner time, so we went down to a nice (although quite busy) little restaurant in the East Village (just off St Mark's Place) for a nice meal.

After dinner we got back to the hotel, but we weren't quite ready to call it quits, so we went up to the 48th floor, where the revolving rooftop bar made a delightful location to have a drink before bed. It's a great experience; a fun touch is that the cocktail napkins are printed with a circular "skyline map" identifying all the buildings that you see, so that as you rotate around you can make sense of what you're looking at.

Assuming you're brave enough to actually look out the window, that is, and aren't just clutching your table and chair as tightly as possible (really? did I do that?)

Originally, we were planning to take a boating cruise in the morning; there are several of them which circumnavigate Manhattan, and it seemed like a relaxing way to see a lot of New York City (from the water). But the cruise was cancelled and so we didn't go; in retrospect, this was probably to our benefit, as the weather that day was misty and with very low clouds, so much of the city would have been hidden in the haze.

Instead, we made our way down to Battery Park and Castle Clinton and took the ferry to Liberty Island and on to Ellis Island. Although the weather was indeed gray and misty, in a way this rather enhanced the trip, as Liberty Island emerged from the clouds to our great delight.

We didn't have the fancy tickets to climb up into the statue itself, so we contented ourselves with walking around the island and looking at the statue from ground level, which was quite enjoyable.

Then we returned to the ferry and proceeded on to Ellis Island. Although it doesn't have the Statue of Liberty on it, Ellis Island is in many ways a much more interesting place.

Over the last few decades, the Ellis Island facilities have been converted to an immense and extremely well-organized museum, telling the story of immigration and how it built the United States of America.

The main building is 3 massive stories tall, and nearly all of it is museum. Even though many of the exhibits are straightforward, and we made an effort to move through in a lively fashion, it was well over an hour to see what we saw, and I think we saw barely half of what there was to see.

The ferry returned us to Battery Park, and after some wandering around, and some lunch, the weather had cleared nicely, and we made our way up to Central Park.

I was very interested to see the John Lennon memorial in Central Park, and I wasn't disappointed. It is quite nice, and it was filled with people like myself, stopping to look and think a bit before moving on, all of us quietly part of a shared experience.

The weather was glorious, so we walked around Central Park for several hours. We moseyed across from Central Park West to Central Park East, stopping at places like the Bethesda Fountain, the Hans Christian Anderson statue, the Model Boat pond, and the Alice in Wonderland statue.

Every so often we would wander out of the park, but the surrounding areas weren't as nice, so we just kept wandering back into the park, walking up and down the tree-lined paths, marveling at all the different things to see.

After a while we were tired, so we found a nice spot on the Upper West Side to sit for a while and rest and talk; when we were restored it was already getting on to dusk, so we made our way down to Lincoln Center to see the fancy theaters.

Later we made our way out to Rockefeller Center, which was already all lit up for the holidays. We tarried for a while, watching the ice skaters in the ice rink, and wandering through the enormous Lego Store.

It was dinner time, and my plan had been to find one of the up-and-coming Indian restaurants in the so-called "Curry Hill" neighborhood near 28th and Lexington, but instead we ended up at a very nice spot a little bit farther north in Murray Hill, where we had a fine meal.

The next morning, we popped out of bed again and headed back downtown to the 9/11 Memorial. Although we were both well-acquainted with the events of 14 years ago, neither of us had been to Manhattan since, so we wanted to make a visit to the memorial part of our trip.

This is an extremely dramatic and moving place, obviously, and the memorial accomplishes its task(s) well, I thought. The overall presentation is quite remarkable: from the street-level entrance you make your way down, down, down. The farther you go, the more dramatic and powerful the experience becomes, until you reach the very bottom, where the bulk of the exhibits and memorial materials are located.

I was pleased to see that, for the most part, the memorial lets the facts speak for themselves, and focuses its attention on the people who were most directly affected: those in the towers, on the planes, and at the Pentagon, as well as the emergency personnel who responded to the events.

The displays are physical and immediate, incorporating objects from the buildings themselves (the stairs, the foundation columns, the slurry wall, the steel girders, etc.) as well as objects from the people involved (equipment, personal effects, etc.)

The memorial uses multi-media EXTREMELY effectively, playing actual clips from television broadcasts, 911 recordings, cell phone messages, interviews with witnesses and survivors, etc. A particularly dramatic and moving exhibit tells the remarkable (if by now quite well-known) story of Flight 93, moving back and forth between air traffic control recordings, voice mail messages, and other information to let the actual participants in the story tell it, speaking from the grave as it were in some cases. I glanced into that room for just a moment but was instantly captivated, and 10 minutes passed before I could breathe.

We hadn't expected to spend long at the memorial, but before we knew it we'd been there more than 2 hours, and had to drag ourselves away and on. Although upon leaving I felt like I hadn't really learned anything I didn't already know, I still felt like my visit was valuable and I don't regret going for an instant.

We both really enjoyed wandering around the various Manhattan neighborhoods, and I think we could have done much more of this if we'd had time. Some are rather straightforward, like walking through the Financial District or down the canyons of skyscrapers mid-town.

Others are still full of personality and character, like Greenwich Village, SoHo, the East Village, Murray Hill, or Chelsea. We got just ridiculously lost wandering around Greenwich Village: one of my personal goals had been to visit the Village Vanguard, but we ended up abandoning that quest and moving on; later, looking on the map, I realized that we had stopped in a falafel shop that was, quite literally, across the street from the Village Vanguard, and hadn't even known it.

New York is definitely quite expensive, and eating and drinking there was not cheap by any stretch. However, the food was remarkably good, much better than either of us had expected, full of fresh and good ingredients, well-prepared, well-presented, well-delivered. If I could afford it, I could easily spend all my time just wandering around Manhattan, eating and drinking and looking about...

Another very nice surprise was how successful we were at taking the subway all over the island, even with very little advance preparation and zero experience with the things that it often turns out you need to know about a city's transit system.

The hardest part of using the subway turned out to be finding the stations from above-ground. Once you were in the station, though, everything was well-marked and easy to find and in remarkably good condition given the astonishingly heavy use that the New York City subways receive.

Trains ran regularly, loudspeaker announcements and display signs were clear and accurate, the system as a whole seemed to be basically clean and safe, and all in all it was much better than I had anticipated.

That said, the subway was certainly not as nice as Seoul's subway, which is perhaps no surprise because Seoul's subway is brand new by comparison. As compared to the London Underground, though, I thought that the New York City subway system was at least as good, and certainly not as complex.

If you find yourself in La Guardia Airport, and want to get into midtown, the NYC Airporter is just fine, and certainly a bargain compared to airport-to-downtown options I've used elsewhere.

If you want a place to stay, and are looking to be part of everything, the Marriott Marquis is right smack in Times Square, in the middle of the action, but once you duck into your room and close the door, it's peaceful and welcoming as can be. And boy is it convenient to get to anywhere else in Manhattan from that location!

Oh, and my wife got to go see Kinky Boots at the Hirschfeld on Saturday night, but you'll have to ask her about that (I was in Port Chester at the time, as we've already discussed).

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