21st – 27th July 2014 (Graham)
A Walk in the Park
Week 48 found me waking once more in sunny Brooklyn. By now I’ve found my feet and I’m really getting a feel for this vibrant and energetic city. Monday was quite a slow morning, but the weather was good and ripe for exploring.
I decided to continue my steady progress northward up Manhattan – this time I took the A-Train to Columbus Circle, on the south west corner of Central Park, with a view to walking the length of this most famous green space.
The park on a Monday is brimming with people enjoying the sunshine, walking, jogging, cycling, paying good money to the rickshaw drivers. The ice cream sellers are doing a good trade. Central Park is typical nineteenth century urban space though of course on a grand scale at 843 acres. It has formal gardens, sports fields, naturalistic rambles, paths, lakes and cafes, and unlike many continental European parks, sitting on the grass is not discouraged!
I wandered up through the glades and past the somewhat surprising rock outcrops (surprising only in that they are quite spectacular but rarely feature in umpteen movie scenes shot in the park from which one draws one’s preconceptions).
A path takes me to Central Park West, near the Dakota building, on whose steps John Lennon was gunned down. Opposite this place an area has been named Strawberry Fields, and is dedicated to Lennon’s memory, one which is perpetuated with a memorial mosaic and the presence of buskers and their enthusiastic renditions of Lennon classics.
Back across the Park again, past a body of water creatively titled “The Lake”. In the centre of the Park is the Ramble, where the topography becomes more substantial, rising and falling and eventually topping out at the Belvedere Castle, from where views stretch to the north. The landscape, though formalised, offers a glimpse of the underlying rocks, hills and woodlands which once dominated the entire island, but which now lie mostly hidden under buildings and streets.
Passing behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I step outside the park walls to admire the iconic architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, with its monochrome spiral stunningly contrasting the Beaux Arts grandeur of the apartment buildings that surround it on Fifth Avenue. At the time of its construction in the 1950s, the stunning design polarised architects and artists, and it can be argued that the building itself is capable of overshadowing the art which it was built to display.
Returning to the park, my trail takes me along the shores of the large Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir, and into a quieter, northern part of the park, where families are enjoying the large open air pool complex, while others sun themselves on the sweeping lawns.
Exhausting the green space, I cross Central Park North into Harlem, continuing north for a while and then cutting west, climbing towards the heights upon which sits Columbia University’s imposing campus. It’s quiet among the ivy clad quadrangles and College police lurk at the entrance, on the campus where I work back in Perth we are thankfully free of the need for armed patrols. The famous alma mater is neatly presented and clearly takes pride in it’s significance among US Colleges. Striding across the campus, it is not long before I find myself back in the hustle of the city, grabbing a bus back downtown for the slow and scenic rest I’ve earned after a day in the park.
Slammed in the Sidewalk
By Tuesday, days of long walks have worn me out, and I spend a day kicking back and enjoying Netflix and all else that can be gained by an internet service that, like most we’ve encountered, leaves Australia’s rotting copper contraption languishing in the 20th century. Sigh.
But not for long. In the evening I’m out again – back to the East Village. The destination this evening is the Sidewalk Cafe, which is hosting something quintessentially New York – a poetry slam. A slam is a sort of performance poetry competition, and this one will exhibit some up and coming spoken word artists from New York, New Jersey, Boston and around, battling it out and testing their work on a live audience before the National Slam later in the year.
It’s dark and atmospheric, yet friendly inside – I had no idea what to expect, but found the place full to the brim and expectant when I arrived a little early. This isn’t an obscure local band jamming away on an empty Tuesday night, but seriously well supported local artistry. I queued for a while and persistence paid off – handing over my $10 bill I sat down in the last available seat, squeezed up close virtually on the stage, with my $3 beer parked right next to the battered laptop from which the producers were running the show. I thought this might be awkward, in the edge of someone else’s spotlight, but it was the best seat in the house.
There followed an evening of great entertainment, wit and word-mongering. Some performers rhymed in teams, others spoke to the crowd from behind a single mike. Subjects were political, personal, disturbing, poignant, angry, funny. Following a ‘neutral’ poet’s ‘calibration’ performance, all others are scored by volunteer judges, giving rise to good natured whoops, whistles, groans and moans from the performers and their crews as they resume their seats.
The slam is over before I know – hours gone by – a lot of laughs, claps, knee slaps: a great time. Team Urbana, the ‘home team’, is the winner, but all present have been treated to a great night. As I sit munching fried chickening at a local fast food joint down the road, I vow I’ll have to bring Prunella back here some time – she’s a big fan of Sarah Kay – a famous New York spoken word poet – this evening would be right up her street. Thoroughly recommended.
The week’s moving along at a real clip. On Wednesday another late start, but eventually I got myself together and I took the train up to Penn Station. This old terminus, unlike Grand Central, was swept aside by the developers back in the 70s and squashed underground, beneath a forgettable New York skyscraper. I use it merely as a jumping off point to explore a little around the area, my main objective one of the few gaming shops (and I mean real RPG/miniature gaming) in the city, ‘The Compleat Strategist. This turns out to be quite average, once more proving that by some stroke of fortune we have in Perth the world’s best known Friendly Local Gaming Shop, Tactics.
I head south, stopping for while in Madison Square Park, and then bus it south again. At the Staten Island Ferry Terminal I meet Dirk, and we jump on the free ferry heading south across New York Harbour. As it passes Governor’s Island, we toast our good fortune with a can of Bud – tonight we are in NYC and heading out to watch that most American of sports – baseball. Eschewing the online scalpers and their $80 Yankee Stadium tickets, Dirk has the inside tip on New York baseball: to catch the game as the locals enjoy it, head across to Richmond County Bank Ballpark and stump up $16 for a US sized seat four rows behind the batter.
We sip our Buds, and watch the evening skyline slip by. Disembarking, it’s but a short walk along the shore to the stadium, where our tickets are waiting at the ‘Will Call’ window. We drop into our seats just as the pre-show entertainment is finishing. From this spot the view is across the stadium and out over the harbour, where Manhattan itself forms an impressive backdrop. Soon the game is underway – tonight the Staten Island Yankees are taking on the Hudson Valley Renegades in a mid-week New York-Penn League game.
It’s an absorbing game – but most interesting is the baseball culture around us. In the seats in front a group of talent scouts are hunched over in a huddle, analysing various players – complete with laptops and radar detector to measure pitching speeds. Out in the right field bleachers some middle-aged super-sized New Yorkers hurl themselves around the terraces in an unseemly fashion to grab any foul ball they can reach. There are beers in plastic cups and generous portions fried food of all varieties. A storm approaches from the west, a colossal black tower of cloud that blots out the humid evening sunset and strides over New Jersey on legs of lightning…
The weather outlook looks grim, but there’s still time for an innings or four, each with its own entertainment at the change over. The crowd cheers a trio of runs in for the home team, and I catch a t-shirt hurled into the crowd. The Yankees have gained a clear lead by the time the rain pelts down, sending the players to the dugouts and the pitch crew rolling out the covers. We duck under the roof and hang around chatting with the locals as the game’s future waits in limbo. Another beer and it’s clear that this weather is here to stay.
As we run for the ferry home, making it just before the giant doors are slammed on the boarding ramp, we’re chuffed – only saw half a game, but it was the full All-American experience.
Through the gateway
Thursday I’m up early and out on the train again. A ride to Manhattan, then a stroll across to the Hudson shore. At the World Financial Center Ferry pier, I catch a ferry across to Liberty State Park on the Jersey shore. In my hand is a ticket to New York’s most famous landmark – the Statue of Liberty. In fact my main aim is to visit the neighbouring Ellis Island, the famous gateway to the “American Dream”, but you can’t buy a ticket to one without the other.
Googling around, I discovered that the best option is to access the sites from Liberty State Park in New Jersey – as most people get the ferry over from Battery Park in Manhattan, so queues are longer. The Liberty State Park option leaves from Liberty Landing, or rather a temporary departure point constructed in the damaging wake of Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed the landing jetty from where it normally departs.
As the sun climbed over Manhattan, we set out for the short trip, arriving first at a mostly empty Ellis Island. Despite much damage from the aforementioned ‘Super Storm’, Ellis Island Immigration Museum is up and running and, although many of the artefacts have been removed for temporary storage, there are informative sign boards an evocative photos to create a picture of the harrowing life of those who arrived on the US shores from 1892 to 1954.
The large hall, once the scene of queues of hopeful arrivals being screened for disease and financial well-being, echoes with those times. More poignant still is the decaying and inaccessible extension to the island where ill arrivals were quarantined, some never making it back to shore.
Those anxious arrivals who escaped the vaguely sinister coded chalk marks indicating ‘further screening necessary’ were reunited with their luggage and sent on their way, often helped to establish their new lives by local charities who are also remembered. The museum’s display ends with a survey of where the arrivals ended up – scattering west to take up jobs in industry, mining, agriculture or feeding the needs of burgeoning cities.
The experience obliquely recalled my own family’s decision to uproot and leave the UK for Australia – our somewhat pastily winterised English family were among the last to pass through a soon-to-close Migrant Reception Centre in Western Australia in the summer of February 1984.
A lone visitor, I was able to deftly manoeuvre my way through the crowd and board a departing ferry as it cast off for the Statue of Liberty. Encircling the colossal statue, we tied up at the smaller more popular Liberty Island. My ticket allowed me to proceed through the park and climb the steps inside to the top of pedestal. From here there is a spectacular view of the harbour, stretching away in skies now clear of last night’s storm, far to the giant suspension bridge which spans the Narrows forming the main entrance to New York’s sweeping harbour.
Like the city, the harbour never sleeps, even now it has handed over it’s mantle as the eastern seaboard’s major freight port to neighbouring Port Newark. In another direction, pleasure boats of sail and motor cut through the water, while among them the Staten Island service plods back and forth. Overhead, helicopters bring a different kind of tourist for a view of the monument, and everywhere airliners ply the trade once the exclusive realm of the steamship.
Down inside the pedestal there’s a comprehensive museum of the Statue and the world beneath her copper robes, a functional existence of steel struts, beams and stone pylons. A display of models and concept drawings demonstrate the evolution of ideas into the pose with which we are so familiar. The assured Monsieur Gustav Eiffel – he of the Paris Tower – contributed with a steel structure design, and labourers, craftsmen and activists took up the challenge of building and funding the project to completion.
One last circuit of the Statue, then it’s back to the boat, and a lazy voyage back to Manhattan.
Four down, one to go?
On Friday, my days here running low, I head out to Times Square. Ten minutes is all I need among the tourists, the touts and the trillion-watt billboards. I slink off, heading to midtown meet Dirk after work for a visit to Queens.
Adjoining hip Brooklyn, Queens is itself starting to feel the effects of gentrification as people recognise its own close proximity and good connections to the bright lights of Manhattan. We stop in to a barely marked ‘speakeasy’ where the lights are dim, the booths are cosy and the drinks are cold (if a tad pricey) preserving the Prohibition-era tradition of the ‘hidden’ bar.
A little further along Jackson Avenue, a modern Japanese restaurant serves up classic sashimi and beef rice bowls washed down with dry Japanese beer. We stroll back into Brooklyn over the Pulaski Bridge, as the lights atop the Empire State Building glitter away, catching the 10.30pm subway from Green Point Metro – the last train for six weeks as the line closes for post hurricane Sandy ‘Fix and Fortify’ repairs.
A pleasant evening’s excursion to Queens – that’s seven days gone this week and four out of five NYC Boroughs visited.
Wind in the Wires
On Saturday, it’s my last full day in the US of A and I decided to head out of the urban jungle. With a little trepidation, I’ve rented a car. My hesitation arises not out of a fear of driving overseas – I once drove the length of South Korea, through the night, in the pouring rain, unable to read a single street sign – but out of a morbid fear of US lawyers. Testing the contract law of a US car hire company without cast iron travel insurance in the event of an accident scares the bejesus out of me.
In the event some good solid groundwork yields an unspectacular Nissan Sentra hired from an office in Greenwich Village. We pick up the car, fortify ourselves with breakfast and coffee and then motor up the length of Manhattan along the Henry Hudson Parkway.
An hour later we’re cruising along the Hudson Valley, its rolling hills and thick green forests a welcome relief from the concrete vistas of the last week. Our destination is Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome, near Red Hook – a tiny upstate town half way to the state capital Albany. At Old Rhinebeck, a group of enthusiasts has, since the 1960s, carved a landing strip out of the woods, there to build and fly aircraft of the pre-World War 1 era to the ‘Golden Age’ before the Second World War. This weekend it’s their regular ‘Meet the Fokkers’ day, and the focus of the displays will be their collection of World War 1 collection.
We arrive early in a slight drizzle, but the sun soon arrives to dry things out. Some aircraft have been dragged from their hangers, and sit glistening in the morning sun, resplendent in their dazzling colours. The strip is entirely grass a mere few hundred yard long, a far cry from the two mile concrete strip I encountered back at RAF Fairford. We wander through a hangar or two where aircraft restoration projects past and future await their possible return to the sky, or slowly fade to cobwebs and dust, each one telling a story of early aviation pioneers and fighting flight. In a hangar, a group of enthusiastic pilots are holding a lecture on the various attributes of two or three different Fokker Triplane replicas, bantering away supremely confident and utterly American.
Outside again, back through the trees and across the car park, a crowd has gathered to watch the show. We are treated to a curious mix of historic vehicles (“see the penny farthing!”), confected pantomime drama (“Watch out for the crook, recently escaped from nearby penitentiary!”) and genuinely fascinating flying. Deep respect to the pilots who ‘hop’ a replica Bleriot Monoplane along the strip. They barely get airborne in a fragile contraption of wood, linen and wire, in an aircraft susceptible to the merest breath of wind. It is staggering to think of the mix of courage, technical optimism, and sense of adventure in Louis Bleriot who nursed such a plane thirty-odd miles across the English Channel one summer morning in 1909, completing the first of many aviation feats in a hundred years.
Other aircraft follow: a Hanriot monoplane, which resembles a rowing boat with wings; a complicated Curtiss pusher; a Caudron G.III – each showing incremental progress of the pre-war years. Here wing warping, there a precarious fuel tank, wicker seats and wooden rods. Carved wooden propellers claw the aircraft into the sky.
Next is a show from the Golden era – a Tiger Moth, a Piper Cub, a stubby looking Aeronca C-3. The crook makes an appearance and ‘steals’ a plane. It bounces down the strip, zooms up and flops around the sky. Staged keystone cops hilarity ensues.
Finally the stars of the show take to the air: a Fokker Triplane, made (in)famous by Manfred von Richtofen, the ‘Red Baron’; a Fokker D.VII biplane – zenith of German air arms in that terrible conflagration; a lumbering Curtiss Jenny; a SPAD VII, fast and solid and powerful gun-platform for France and fledgling US Army pilots. The aircraft are zoomed around in a well-rehearsed mock dogfight, trailing smoke and causing gasps as the drop below the tree line. Relief follows as they emerge back into the sky, to glide in for a sedate landing, and the show concludes with a polite round of applause.
It’s a good day – something different, quite entertaining and a window on life up state. We drive back into the city, top off the tanks in Yonkers (that’s the Bronx: borough number five – only just!) and park the car around the corner from the rental office. It’s closed by the time we get there, but I’m not driving it back to Brooklyn – it can wait on Bleecker Street under a shady tree for me to come back and drop it off in the morning.
Farewell NYC (for now)
On Sunday I’m up early for one last look at the city. I take the train in and drop off the car, which has made it through the night without a scratch. Breakfast is surprisingly tricky to find this early on a New York Sunday, but eventually I find a place for scrambled eggs and coffee on West 11th Street. Suitably filled, I walked back across town to Union Square, and all the way down Broadway to Battery Park.
They say New York never sleeps, but it’s taking its time waking up today. As I catch the subway back to Brooklyn for the last time, I reflect on my visit. I feel like I’ve really had (and taken!) the chance to get to know the place. There’s a million more things I could do, museums to visit, skyscrapers to climb, parks and pubs to chill in. I’ve eaten sliders and sushi; I’ve sipped some great Brooklyn beers and swigged plentiful strong coffee.
Most of all I’ve caught up with a old friend, taken in some highlights and strolled the streets. I just about set foot in all five Boroughs. Years ago I picked up a good travel maxim: “Let the Others Rush”, and I’ve kept that in mind these last two weeks.
That afternoon it’s off to the airport, leaving New York in the afternoon sun – my adventuresome family waiting for me on the other side of the Atlantic and, as a New Yorker might say, carrying a ‘whole bunch’ of memories in my head.