- Dates of travel: 8 May 2013 to 12 May 2013
- Location of travel: New York City, United States of America
- Original publication date: 2nd August 2013
Over the course of April and May 2013, I took a month-long meander across the USA. The main reason was to attend and report on the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California. The road to and from there was just as memorable. This is Part 3 in a series of 5 articles.
Third Bite Lucky
If you've been to the United States of America, the chances are you visited New York City. It might have been many times. The place is known as 'The Big Apple', but it should rather be 'The Big Well' - because it never runs out of ways to keep people coming back.
I was one of those repeat offenders, gripped by the city's magic twice in my life: as a tween in December 1999/January 2000, and as a teenager in July 2002. On both those occasions I was essentially a child; chaperoned by family and by no means in the driver's seat or holding the tourist map. If affects how you remember and perceive a place you've visited; the memories lie deeper in the mind. Not forgotten, yet still not fully-formed. Now it was time for a third bite of The Big Apple, and I was ready to truly taste it.
Those previous sojourns were jam-packed though, with visits to some big-ticket landmarks that every traveller has to experience at least once. I'm talking Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Central Park. But when you NY-see it for the first time as an adult, you realise how many opportunities are still out there, how much more can be explored in these five boroughs. The well must be refilling each time.
Aside from one flight (Los Angeles to Nashville), I had trekked across the United States entirely by Greyhound bus. Picking 'red-eye', overnight journeys ensured little time was lost for sightseeing during the day - but the flipside was also eight to twelve hours of almost no sleep. For the distances I was traveling between stops, it was a smart option on the tightest of budgets.
I entered the city through unfamiliar territory; our bus bringing us over the border from New Jersey through the Holland Tunnel, and into Chinatown. Waiting for me on the bustling streets was my final host. She was an American woman; our paths had crossed one and a half years ago at a music festival in my native South Africa. She had been visiting her younger sister then, who was doing a 'semester abroad' university exchange at mine. We had continued to keep in contact, and I made a mental note of her lucrative New Yorker status if I was ever to visit the city again. Thankfully she had a couch to spare for my last few days in the USA. Home was a two-bedroom apartment in Astoria, Queens - shared with her aspiring actress-roommate.
Like most large, global-hub cities, this is not a place where a car is needed. What is needed though, is an encyclopedic knowledge of its subway lines, mostly named by letter (A, B, C, and so on). If you have the time beforehand, learn these so you can talk the Noo Yawk lingo.
We took the first of many subway rides to her home at the end of the N line. The train we were on had electronic information boards, which inform you of how many stops are left to a particular destination. This was the most advanced system I had seen on all the subways I had used in the States. It would prove to be rather useful in the upcoming days navigating this maze.
I set up camp in the corner of her lounge and sunk into the couch for some much-needed rest. Awaking in the late afternoon, I joined my host for a stroll on a cool evening through her neighbourhood. Semi-suburban NYC is full of trees amongst the apartment-lined streets (at least in places in Queens like Astoria). It felt like walking through a shrunken, more peaceful Manhattan.
My introduction to Astoria began with a Black Angus beef burger at the proudly-local Petey's Burger (which gave Five Guys' heavenly bun a run for its money) before embarking on a bar-hop of sorts through Ditmars Boulevard and the surrounding streets. Everything was within walking distance, and I recalled my carefree time in San Francisco's Haight Street at the beginning of my trip.
A pitcher of rum-flavoured beer (?) from Astoria Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden provided a memorable end to my short tour of Astoria's drinking establishments. We returned home at a respectable hour, knowing that the next three days would involve a lot of walking and bucket-listing. I was already getting into that NY State Of Mind.
My host works in the theatre game, so due to her flexible schedule, I had a tour guide from start to finish for my first day out. We arrived in gloomy Manhattan, caught in the middle of a downpour. Although it was part of the plan already, we retreated indoors to the breathtaking Metropolitan Museum of Art to wait out the storm. With its pay-what-you-wish admission policy, it catered to the art student and arty alike.
The Met museum occupies 190,000m2, making it the largest art museum in the USA with some of the most significant art collections in the world. I was very much out of my depth as to what determines that significance, but my friend's extensive art history knowledge and the sheer grandeur of the place ensured me that I was walking amongst very hallowed pieces of art. Just don't touch anything.
My novice art appreciation status meant that we embarked on a whistle-stop tour of the place, cherry-picking sections that would like appeal to me. I'd recommend this approach if you're short on time but still want to get a dose of art and culture on your trip (a day or two could get swallowed up in here if you're not careful). My highlights reel included:
- A modern photography exhibit, tracking the influence of 'Photoshop' and other digital manipulations.
- The modern art section, where the likes of Monet and Van Gogh had my host captivated.
- The Renaissance painting section, where the level of detail was as astonishing as the size of some of these pieces (taking up at least five metres of width or height).
- A temporary exhibit devoted to the influence of the punk sub-culture on fashion, where Sex Pistols tunes blared out from a backdrop of bizarre works of fashion that would be a little unwieldy to wear on an everyday basis.
- The historical musical instruments, showcasing an assortment of lutes, harps, and other antiquated but ornate tools of the trade.
- The medieval armour and weaponry section, where you can admire some exquisitely-maintained battlefield equipment
The sun had returned from behind the clouds. We meandered through Central Park, and as I looked around me at all this verdant land, I was amazed how so much of it could be found in the middle of one of the largest cities of the world. There are multiple reservoirs and lakes, playgrounds, running paths, and even a zoo (which I vaguely remember visiting in 2002). Our destination was Shake Shack on the western side of the park, where we'd devour some delicious SmokeShack burgers in exchange for the hard yards we put in roaming the most beautiful part of the city.
Strawberry Fields For (An Afternoon)
Confession time: I was a late-blooming Beatles fan, only diving into their music in my second year of college. In the time between then and now, I've come to realise that yes, I probably have more of McCartney's optimism and perfectionism. Yet I continually admire and aspire for the soul and creativity of Lennon. I also came to know of the Strawberry Fields Memorial in Central Park. It has been a musical pilgrimage I have anxiously looked forward to, exacerbated by the fact that I had actually walked through Central Park as an unformed and uninformed teenager in 2002 - probably passing near to it.
The 2.5 acre section in the park is dedicated to John Lennon's memory, opened five years after his assassination outside Dakota Apartments (which is directly across the road). We first visited 'The Dakota', a place where John lived for the later part of his life, and where it was taken too soon on the night of December the 8th, 1980. Having read the official reports of his death, it was surreal to be standing on the very spot where my hero died, tracing his staggered steps to the security hut still in front of the building 33 years later. The experience was solemn and morbid, but gave some closure; a first-hand frame of reference to a tragic loss.
The lament for Lennon changed tune when we entered Strawberry Fields itself. Green benches surround the focal point of the memorial: a large stone mosaic entitled 'Imagine' (after one of John's most famous songs). The memorial is usually filled with flowers and tributes left behind by Lennon fans. As it had just been raining, we encountered a single tribute: a solitary flower, with a handful of fresh strawberries.
Both clad in Beatles t-shirts, we pilgrims sat down on one of the benches to take in the moment. My host got out her phone, turned the volume down low, and we quietly sang along to 'Strawberry Fields Forever' (from where the memorial gets its name). In that peaceful moment, at the heart of a serene woodland, I tried to reflect on what The Beatles and John Lennon meant to me; how I could grieve for a man I'd never met; how that man struggled openly with his flaws and his past to leave a positive, widely-impactful legacy at the time of his death. As a patron of peace, I'd hope John would've been happy with the tranquilty of his own memorial.
Falling Into An Encyclopedia
If you're in the area, it's worth making a quick stop at the American Museum of Natural History, a few blocks away from Strawberry Fields on 8th Avenue. Just like the Met, it has a budget-friendly admissions policy, is incredibly large, and is celebrated around the world for its variety of collections (which include specimens of animals, plants, fossils, rocks, meteorites, and human cultural artifacts). So no modern art, folks - this is natural art.
The museum was founded with support by Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. (father of the US President) and is a naturalist's paradise. We browsed the many natural history exhibition halls; the intricate, life-like dioramas leaping out at you like images from an encyclopedia page. As a space-geek though, I really had my heart set for the stars: the Rose Center for Earth and Space.
As a child, I was fascinated with astronomy; learning all the planets' names and filling my mind with nuggets of oft-unused knowledge. I still retain a sense of wonder about the cosmos, and this was the place to appreciate it in.
A show inside the huge Hayden Planetarium is a must-see (watching the formation of the universe as told by actor Liam Neeson is oddly soothing), and temporary exhibitions are likely to be quite lucrative. Ours was a compelling 'Full Moon', which consists of high-quality, lesser-known photographs from the Apollo missions to our lunar neighbour.
How Would You Like Your Song Done?
Who likes to sing a tune when having breakfast? Or have one sung to you? Breakfast at Ellen's Stardust Diner in Times Square is more than just a square meal; it's a front-row seat to a song buffet.
All the waitrons are aspiring Broadway actors and singers, and perform an array of show tunes whilst serving your food. My host's flatmate works there, and guaranteed us a fabulous show in addition to a hearty American breakfast. Her multi-tasking abilities were quite impressive; she made pouring a steaming cup of coffee whilst singing the lead part on a Disney classic seem oh-so natural.
The same could be said of the rest of the multi-talented and professional waitstaff. They were quick to remind us that many Ellen's employees actually go on to make it big in Broadway - such as the lead actor in 'Mamma Mia!' that was currently showing not far from the diner. With the day off to an entertaining start, I was left on my own to wander the streets of New York City, whilst my host headed off to work at another themed restaurant nearby: the spooky Times Scare.
The September 11 terror attacks of 2001 cleaved the New York City experience into two halves. Having visited pre- and post-9/11, I was a tourist who had been able to see the city before and after the disaster; when the Twin Towers still dominated the skyline, and when they did not. But as a child, the only change I can recall that affected me directly was the increased security checks whilst traveling in 2002. We didn't think to visit 'Ground Zero' then - a mere 9 months after the attacks - as it is located in the Financial District quite a few miles south of Times Square and the more 'touristy' areas.
But a lot had changed in a decade. The World Trade Center complex had seen the One World Trade Center building (or 'Freedom Tower') grow almost to completion, and a beautiful memorial develop over the bases of the old North and South Towers. This was my chance to pay my respects. I set off south down 8th Avenue on a gorgeous, sunny day; temporarily forgetting that miles are more than kilometres - a common mistake for metric travelers encountering the imperial system. Know your conversions, or tell Google Maps to do so.
The longer-than-expected walking route first took me past the legendary Madison Square Garden concert venue, and then through the leafy Greenwich Village. It is now mostly residental, but used to be a artists' haven in the late 19th to mid-20th century. The quaint, predominately-brick buildings contrast sharply with the statuesque pillars of steel and concrete that now define the New York City skyline.
Nearing the Financial District, the gargantuan prism-shaped One WTC building emerged into view, literally scraping the sky. It is so unbelievably tall that when I reached the WTC complex, I had to get down on my knees to capture it all in one portait.
A temporary tribute centre was located a few streets away, where passes were given out to the actual memorial. The centre contained numerous artifacts and literature on the terrorist attacks and the subsequent rebuilding, both emotionally and physically. All these will likely be placed in a museum on the WTC site, still under construction at the time of my visit.
As expected, a stringent security check was required before entering the memorial site, especially as construction is still ongoing for many of the buildings. Once inside, you'll encounter a serene plaza filled with trees, but your eyes will be drawn to the two massive building footprints of the fallen Twins. These empty pits have been turned into pools of water, with manmade waterfalls cascading down their sides. Gilding the edges are memorial plaques for all victims at the WTC complex: the majority from the 9/11 attacks, but also the lesser-known 1993 basement bombing.
The curators of the memorial space went above and beyond to ensure an appropriate arrangement of victims' names. I was intrigued to discover that a logarithm was used to place victims together who knew each other, also considering company affiliation, first responder teams, and personal requests from family members. In addition, cutting-edge pedestrian simulations were conducted to test the design of the site to simulate how visitors would utilise the space.
These logistical measures were by no means frivolous or fussy; there are over 3,000 victims memorialised here, and as I circled each pool, I saw groups of tourists, tearful families, and resolute servicemen in uniform - all gazing upon these thousands of names cast in granite. The pain still lingered for many, and the name of the memorial spoke a universal truth: 'Reflecting Absence'.
I reflected on my own family's near-miss with the 2001 tragedy; something which I've only come to fully understand the significance of in recent years. My father had been in New York City on a business trip a mere one week before the 9/11 attacks; he actually stood in the lobby of the North Tower, admiring the size and grandeur. He fortunately returned home a few days later - but after 9/11, many did not. Even if you didn't lose a family member or friend, a visit to this memorial puts the everyday trivalities of life into perspective. Reflecting presence.
A Lens At Liberty
For the brief window of time you are in a city as a tourist, you presume (and hope) that all the iconic landmarks will be open for you to visit. When Mother Nature decides otherwise - as it was the case for me and the Statue Of Liberty - you need to switch tactics. You might just find that all hope was not lost.
Due to the damage from Hurricane Sandy in late-2012, the island on which Lady Liberty stands was still under repair at the time of my visit to NYC. Ferries to and from it wouldn't be available for another few months. Bummer.
My initial idea was to find the closest point on Manhattan so I could at least get a peek at the famous blue-green statue - even if she was miles away in the middle of the Hudson River. Remembering my local insights from San Francisco, I approached a friendly New York City cop to ask for directions.
The response I got was better than expected; not only could I see the statue, I would be much closer than Manhattan. How was this possible? The Staten Island Ferry, which was:
- departing every 45 minutes
- as close as you could get to seeing the Statue of Liberty without setting foot on Liberty Island.
It turns out that The Strokes were wrong: New York City cops, they are quite smart. His advice was brought to mind a bit of traveler's wisdom from comedian Karl Pilkington: "I'd rather live in a cave with a view of a palace than live in a palace with a view of a cave." Standing on the deck of the ferry facing New Jersey proved this so; I was allowed some magnificent views of lower Manhattan, Ellis Island (formerly the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States), and Lady Liberty herself. My camera's 30x zoom managed to capture the famous face in surprising detail, I had a sea-breeze in my face, and I didn't have to set foot in a tourist trap.
Returning to Manhattan, I planned on meeting my host halfway up the long section of Broadway, which is the oldest north–south main thoroughfare in the city; an area best known for its theatre industry. She got off work in the late afternoon, and decided to take me on a trip down a nearby memory lane: to her alma mater.
The East Village is the student capital and home of New York University (NYU); a young, vibrant community that prides itself on its diversity and counterculture values. Starting the evening off with a Brooklyn Lager in a basement bar, we searched for a dinner option that would showcase this diversity; we found it in Japadog.
This quirky and fun takeaway joint - only found in Vancouver and NYC - sold Japanese-style hotdogs. You get the same proudly-American "bun 'n dog" as you'd find on most street corners, but the toppings were of another place entirely: teriyaki sauce, Kobe beef, shredded cabbage, even seaweed. The fusion of Japanese flavours with an American staple food was smartly done, and if you pay the New York branch a visit, make sure to get the deep-fried icecream bun to round off a weird and wonderful meal. "We love Japadog, and we love YOU!"
My final day in the United States saw me return to that bustling tourist hotspot, Times Square; a place I had avoided on my trip thus far - consciously or unconsciously.
More so than any other place in the city, this dense zone enclosed by Broadway, 7th Avenue, 42nd and 47th Streets is New York in the minds of many tourists. The square (or rather, polygon) teems with life and light, representing the glitzy capitalist excess so entrenched in the 'American Dream'. Having proverbially 'been there, done that' on my previous two NYC visits, this was non-essential territory, yet still worth another walkthrough.
It was Saturday morning, and the square buzzed with tourists and flashing billboards. For such a large crowd of people, it was uncannily weird to feel so alone. Traveling solo for almost four weeks meant many hours of self-reliance and self-reflection whilst sightseeing. I disappeared into the throngs of awestruck travelers, returning to points in my past where I too had stood, craning my neck upwards in wonder.
Springtime in New York has its fair share of unpredictable weather; however my lengthy walk up 7th Avenue to the Guggenheim Museum was perfectly timed between downpours. The walk might've been a bit extreme (it was over 40 blocks), but given my imminent departure, I chose one last stroll through Central Park rather than just another underground subway ride.
My budget-friendly luck had run out when I arrived at the modern-art museum though. After queuing for 15 minutes, I was informed that free admission was only from 5pm that evening, and not for the entire day like I had originally thought. Whether I had been misinformed or was uninformed, $22 was far too steep at this stage of the game. I dejectedly left the awe-inspiring atrium; its unique ramp gallery extending up from ground level in a long, continuous spiral. Coordinating visits to museums was more than just a walk in a park.
Returning to Times Square, I met up with a recent business associate of my father's for lunch. The South African-American gentleman was based in NYC, and graciously agreed to take me out for lunch at a calorie-stuffed Dallas BBQ on Times Square. Equal parts appetising and overwhelming, my meal of honey-glazed fried chicken, BBQ baby back ribs, and sweetcorn bread helped gloss over my recent traveler's miscalculation. After a bout of small talk and business, he suggested that we pay a visit to Harlem, a predominately African-American neighbourhood in northern Manhattan, where he had lived for his first few years in the city.
Harlem's reputation outside of the USA is mixed; although the area has experienced much social and economic gentrification in recent years, a stigma of crime and violence unfortunately still lingers. My lunch partner assured me that it was safe to visit; so we boarded the famous A train, referenced in many jazz and hip hop songs over the years.
Our visit was kept all-too brief, on account of a relentless downpour that was difficult to avoid. We were determined to reach at least one icon of the Harlem Renaissance though: the legendary Apollo Theater. The music hall used to see the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Michael Jackson up onstage, and concerted efforts have been made recently to restore the theatre and keep that legacy alive. The driving rain would've made a great rhythm section.
America The Beautiful
26 days on the road: more than just a conference or weekend festival, more than your employer usually allows you to go on vacation (if you have an employer, that is). More than enough.
By this point I had started to become one with The Cycle; of packing and unpacking my suitcase; moving every couple of days to another lounge or bed; of catching trains, planes, busses and cars, walking along an avenue of stars. But despite my brave face, the cumulative exhaustion had finally started to show. I had reached a point of habit, and for those who travel frequently or spend much of their lives on the move, you eventually break through and it becomes the new normal.
When I packed my bags that night for the final time of this trip, I was also dismantling the infrastructure I had built up over a month away from home. I had to find space not only for clothes, souveniers, and toiletries, but for memories, lessons, advice, and coping mechanisms. I had to make sure that this wasn't just a(n American) dream; that I had actually experienced what makes this country so bold and beautiful.
Part of it has come from writing these experiences down, solidifying them like concrete setting in a New York City skyscraper. The city that never sleeps keeps on building, and it's that sky-high ambition which keeps people returning, rebuilding, and revitalising. Having traveled the length of this land, from sea to shining sea, I found the core of this American dream (seeds included) in New York City: The Big Apple.