A walk in New York
Kaye and SJ hit the streets of New York in an attempt to see and do everything. They can easily talk the talk but can they walk the walk?
The experts warn that New York is not America – but what they fail to say is that it’s far bigger than that. In fact, New York is not only not America, it’s the entire world – an edgy, energetic, crowded and joyful explosion of every race, creed and colour on the face of the earth. So how best to experience this huge panoply of sights and sounds, this overcrowded modern canvas, in just five short days? In the end the answer is simple. It all comes down to one four-letter word which really packs a punch. W-A-L-K! You get out of the coach, the train, the bright yellow cab, put one foot in front of the other and walk … The fun begins in West 44th Street. We are staying at the fabled Hotel Algonquin, the oldest continually operating hotel in New York. It’s seen them come and seen them go – the Round Table writers merrily led by Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, and a host of other legendary writers, performers, dancers and drunks, often found in the Oak Room Supper Club both before and after prohibition. Today the main star of the lobby is Matilda the Algonquin Cat, perched regally on her own tapestry chaise lounge, keeping a watchful eye on the ever-busy concierge.
It’s here in the lobby we meet the charming Benjamin Bean, an ex-serviceman from Michigan. Now ‘retired’, Ben leads an even busier life with many volunteer projects afoot. One of these is his role as a Big Apple Greeter, a local who will meet, talk, and walk with visitors for an hour or two or three to help get your visit to New York underway. I don’t know about the other greeters, but we have surely hit pay dirt with our Mr Bean. He chats us through the basics, shares maps, guides and free subway tickets and provides a brief overview of our chosen New York neighbourhood, Greenwich Village. Next, he guides us to the Times Square subway, shows us how to use our tickets and we are off, clanking our way uptown or downtown (remember, I still haven’t got my bearings) to the Houston Street subway stop.
In the Village we spend a fascinating two hours with this kindly man. Nothing is too much trouble. We walk and take pictures, Benjamin points out movie locations, shops, theatres and celebrity haunts and gives us all the insider goss we need to get the best deals in town. And all this for the princely sum of … well … nothing. Nope, no catch, the Big Apple Greeters are not paid, nor are they allowed to accept tips.
They are simply there to make sure you experience a friendly introduction to what is now one of the lowest crime cities in the States. Emboldened by our experience with Benjamin, we become subway junkies, but only to reach different neighbourhoods which we then explore in detail on foot. We decide that each day must include at least seven kilometres of pavement pounding and stick to this plan. SJ is in charge of the itinerary and it seems that she must have been a native New Yorker in some previous life as her instinct for the best breakfast diners, pizza restaurants and vintage clothing shops is unerring. On day one we do the rounds midtown. We breakfast in a diner opposite Grand Central Station, which has to be one of the most romantic edifices in a city not short of grand gothic piles. Inside the station we test the famous ‘whispering’ columns situated just near the Oyster Bar (regrettably closed at that hour).
To our delight, the columns work, and we giggle and clap our hands like children as our ‘secret’ messages are carried across the vast cavern full of rushing commuters. We head back to the Empire State Building to join queues, queues and more queues – and wonder if the extraordinary deco Chrysler Building isn’t even more stylish and much easier to view from the street. Back to Madison Avenue and here we browse shelves of vintage travel hardbacks in the wonderful Complete Traveller Antiquarian Bookstore. Further along in Times Square we are both slightly startled to see the naked cowboy, thrusting his pelvis and singing amidst the peak hour traffic. We recover our focus and head to the Marriott Hotel where half-price theatre tickets are sold from 2.30p.m. onwards for that night’s off- or on-Broadway performances.
Another day, and a few more dollars, sees us visit the financial district. It is the Fulton Street subway stop we need to reach Financier for breakfast – a pastiche of fresh berries and yoghurt, glistening pastries (no cholesterol worries with all this walking) and surprisingly drinkable coffee. Afterwards we wander around Wall Street and are interested to discover that the fabled bronze bull has been moved from the Stock Exchange a few blocks away, one of many post-9/11 security measures.
Our next stop is Ground Zero, disconcertingly noisy with building crews and cranes busily engaged in the next incarnation of the Twin Towers. On the advice of a Guatemalan postcard vendor we do not queue to visit the Memorial centre, but go instead to the second storey of the fast-food outlet opposite Ground Zero where we stare directly into the huge cavity where once stood two 400-metre towers housing 50,000 workers.
After this sobering reminder of mortality we catch the free ferry to Staten Island and back, a journey which offers the world’s best view of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Back on Manhattan Island what can two girls do, but head to Cortland Street, home to Century 21, the most amazing repository of designer chic. Two hours and four carry bags later we emerge, tired but triumphant. Well, the Aussie dollar was nearly on a par with the US currency at the time …During our stay in New York we have met a Moroccan poster seller, an Asian Vietnam veteran turned jewellery designer, a Greek waiter and an Ethiopian cab driver. They have shared their opinions, their hopes, their fears, and their exasperation with recent rent increases. They have welcomed us into their adopted hometown, and shared insiders’ tips on how to get around and enjoy an affordable stay. And, welltutored by our initial greeter, Benjamin, we have learnt that there’s no real need to go out searching for the ‘authentic’ New York experience. You just take a walk and it will come to you.
Our intrepid pavement-pounders were
Kaye and SJ Fallick.
Big Apple Greeter is a free service using volunteer greeters – but donations to the organisation are very welcome.
Hotel Algonquin offers history, charm and location and bucketloads of personality.
Mandarin Oriental New York offers five-star style and luxury with a view you will remember forever.
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