On a New York tip: part 1

I went to New York in December and only just got round to posting anything about it


Day 1 (19th December)


An alarm buzzed. Minutes later, another. Then one in the hall, ensuring one of us would have to get out of bed. Measures like these are necessary when you’re getting up at 1am, a time that should only be experienced pre-sleep, not having already been to bed. You need a good reason to get up at such an ungodly hour. Going to New York? Yeah, that’ll do. Me and my good lady were off to spend five nights in the Big Apple.

At 2:30am we arrived at Glasgow Airport, which resembled a location from a zombie film. Not being full of bloodthirsty subhumans (that’s Glasgow city centre) but abandoned and eerie, as if everyone was waiting around the next corner. We were so early that even the pubs were closed (a pre-flight pint is a Scottish institution). Next stop: Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.

We landed at Schiphol with five hours to kill before flying to JFK. Schiphol is huge; walking from the airport’s centre to certain gates can take up to 20 minutes. Airports are mostly grey and interchangeable, but here small stems of Dutch culture had broken through the steel and concrete facade. In the waiting areas sat colourful chairs bent in bizarre ways; loungers offered a relaxed view over the runway accompanied by signs gently asking for quiet; a piano was available to the public. I imagined Glasgow Airport having a piano and how it would be used by drunken neds trying to play Basshunter songs.

The eight-hour flight to JFK passed quickly due to regular feeding and a good selection of films on our personal TV screens. I didn’t think I could appreciate a film on a blurry six-inch monitor but I thoroughly enjoyed X-Men: First Class. Green Lantern, however, is a film best avoided, regardless of screen size.

We touched down at JFK. Arriving in New York provided an irresistible momentum. We rushed off the plane and down a corridor, where our momentum came to a screeching halt. Ahead of us waited a huge queue for security, so long we could barely see where it ended. During this trip I’d visit the Empire State Building, Top of The Rock and wait for a table at the incredibly popular Serendipity 3, but nowhere did I queue longer than here.

Two hours later (two hours!) we were almost at the security desk, close to escaping this hellish place. Ahead, an old woman who couldn’t speak English arrived at a desk. Soon she was shooed out of the line. Not sent anywhere, just told to leave because of communication problems. In the centre of the area staff waited to deal with just these kind of linguistic barriers, but this woman wasn’t sent in their direction, she was just told to leave. America’s mask of politeness was already beginning to crack.

Imagine arriving in a country where you don’t speak the native language and being told you can’t enter. You’re not given any solution, just to go away. Admittedly the woman only had to wander around for a few minutes before an airport employee noticed she looked lost and got her to the right people. But those few minutes must’ve been frightening. America is a country founded by foreigners, not that JFK security staff seemed to care.

Escape! We finally got through security and raced out of the airport – our enthusiasm quickly returning – and into a taxi [checklist: get a New York yellow cab]. To Midtown, old chap, and don’t spare the horses. I had imagined that arriving in Manhattan would be signalled by a sharp jump in the height of buildings. So I got carried away. Any time I saw a few tall buildings together I claimed them as proof we’d arrived. After being wrong a few times and mocked, I opted for silence. But when we did near Manhattan I was too stunned to say anything. No matter how ingrained those iconic skyscrapers are on the collective Western conscious, nothing prepares you for the overwhelming feeling of them rising around you. We were surrounded by giants.

At our hotel we were disappointed to be told that our room was on the tenth floor. We had requested a high floor, all the better to overlook this fine city. Asking to be relocated was considered, then dismissed. Thankfully. Our view was perfect, looking down and through Times Square. Times Square was seductive, its neon lights winking cheekily. When you overlook Times Square at night, the idea that NYC is the city that never sleeps feels so true. We’d been travelling for a day, but neither of us could resist the gravitational pull of those bustling streets, our feet soon took us to Times Square.

I’m a hip-hop and basketball fan, so New York is my cultural mecca. As we headed towards that most touristy of places I wondered if I would experience any of that culture. Am I destined to arrive in the city of Biggie and Wu-Tang and miss all the hip-hop bits, taking the front door into New York while hip-hop takes the side? As we turned a corner onto Broadway a man with the dress sense, accent and attitude of Flavor Flav was handing out flyers. Across the street some kids freestyled and b-boyed. I was home.

Day 2 (20th December)

Early the next morning – without a hint of jet-lag – we were out the door for breakfast at Grand Central Terminal. But first, bus tickets. Buying a three-day bus pass was an inspired idea (I wish I could say it was mine). The bus tours let us see sites we wouldn’t have otherwise and helped us get our bearings. They were also handy just as transport; most tours are hop-on hop-off, and soon we were ignoring the guide’s info and using the bus for commuting.

Grand Central was the first iconic building we saw. It’s impressive, though more for the celestial detailing of its ceiling than its apparent size. There we also saw our first crazy New Yorker. A man sat in a seemingly catatonic state, occasionally sipping his coffee while staring into space. Then he burst into laughter, letting out a high-pitched girly giggle, before resuming his previous  pose.

Then onto the Chrysler Building and our first embarrassing tourist moment of the trip. We stopped on a corner, checking our map once again. The Chrysler was nowhere in sight. I walked round the corner and still couldn’t find it. As I was about to ask someone for directions I spotted the building in question looming above us. The building we couldn’t find is a thousand-feet tall. We somehow hadn’t noticed it from a distance and then had our view obscured as we got closer.

The Chrysler’s detailing is that of its cars, but what must look like hood ornaments up close resembles gargoyles from ground level. The building looks classy and ominous simultaneously, with a similarity to Dana’s building from Ghostbusters (which exists a few miles further north but looks far less impressive in real life).

Speaking of Ghostbusters, our next stop was the New York Public Library, the place where Venkman et al encountered the ghost librarian. Kind of. Kind of, because the films interior shots were filmed in LA. The shot where they burst out of the front doors screaming, however, was filmed at the NYPL. I’d gently criticised the film a few months before going to New York, and felt strangely guilty about it, as if I’d insulted the city by association. Despite some filming taking place elsewhere, Ghostbusters somehow reps hard for New York.

My main ties from fiction to NY are the films 25th Hour and Made, and the TV show Rubicon. 25th Hour is one of my favourite films, but its locations are less important than the general NY feeling that permeates it. Some of its more memorable scenes take place in Carl Schurz Park, which is further north than we decided to venture. I ended up seeing five locations of Made and Rubicon, four of which were accidental. My little geek heart sang at every one.

The Flatiron Building was next, intriguing because of how strange it looks. It’s like a pyramid knocked onto its side; starting wide, then narrowing as Fifth Avenue and Broadway intersect. In my mind I’d narrowed its tip even more, and had a mental picture of its point being small enough that one could hug it (if one was predisposed to hugging buildings). The Flatiron added to the weirdness of the surrounding area. Across the street is Madison Square Park, its greenery out of place with its commercial surroundings. Beside that people posed in a bubble decorated for Christmas and filled with artificial snow.

From there we headed back uptown for a few bus tours. The first took us through the famed 125th Street of Harlem. The guide (a black guy) tried to politely explain that white people (like us) probably wouldn’t get murdered here. As if to disprove his point a man in the street, alone, started screaming for no apparent reason.

After the tours we headed to the Empire State Building. On the way we found one thing New York has in common with Glasgow – shit pizza. We entered Empire, hoping that our queue-jump passes would cut down on the wait to reach the top. We didn’t even need them, the place was mostly empty. Our only wait was for lifts to arrive, and soon we were 86 floors high.

The view over Manhattan at night is a wonderful reminder of just how insignificant your life is. Links blink in the distance, stretching out for mile upon mile. There’s a person with a story for every one of those lights, and even a New Yorker will never meet 99% of them. People who think differently than I do, and probably aren’t considering some Scottish tourist imagining what their lives are like, and don’t even care that my pizza was rubbish. They all waited obliviously, below me, as parts of a blanket of twinkling lights.

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