A June 2005 trip
to New York by Idler
Quote: Greg may have wanted a new video gaming system for his 15th birthday, but instead we gave him the world by taking him to NY.
Hotel | "The HIlton Garden Inn, Staten Island"
Little was I to know that to get to the ferry from the hotel involved a 30- to 40-minute trek (depending on traffic) through a not-particularly-attractive section of Staten Island. Or that once we got to the ferry, it was a bit of a procedure to park. (In fact, the parking ticket machine at the lot closest to the ferry requires five dollars in quarters. Say whaaa-aaat?!?) Plus, I’d somehow overlooked the fact that it was Fleet Week, so the ferry was jam-packed coming and going with a festive mix of sailors, tourists, and locals.
So, long story short, it took us between 1 1/2 to 2 hours to get to central Manhattan or back, which was far more time-consuming than I’d expected.
Other than that major miscalculation, this is a perfectly nice Hilton. Had we been visiting Staten Island rather than Manhattan, it would’ve been a wise choice. Set back off a major thoroughfare, it’s simple to get to from I-95 via the Staten Island Expressway. Although I’d forgotten to bring my AARP card, the understanding desk clerk cut me some slack and let the AARP rate stand, then obligingly gave us directions to the ferry. Later, when we had trouble connecting our laptop to the free Internet, a technical help person responded promptly, so I’d give the staff an overall thumbs-up.
We were given a handicapped room, although we hadn’t requested one. Since the room was significantly larger than others, perhaps this was by way of an upgrade, but we really weren’t sure. The room was unremarkable, other than its size – nicely appointed, clean, and featuring a small refrigerator and microwave we never used and a coffee/tea maker that we gave a workout.
Truth to tell, we didn’t spend much time in the hotel, heading off immediately for Manhattan, returning late, then heading out again first thing the next morning. Even the Birthday Boy, who can normally be counted on to investigate the pool and exercise facilities in any hotel we stay in, was too tired to explore.
One thing that could be improved upon is the lobby. It’s a somewhat cluttered affair with partitions and a small sitting area near the main desk. I think the hotel does a fair number of weddings and other functions, so perhaps some of the clutter in the lobby had to do with something going on that weekend.
In short, next time we go to Manhattan, we’ll stay in Manhattan. The money saved just doesn’t compensate for the schlep.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on June 30, 2005
Hilton Garden Inn New York/Staten Island
1100 South Avenue
Staten Island, New York 10314
We’d come to Chinatown on a mission: to find a ‘dragon incense burner’ for our son. He’d seen one on the Internet and had decided it was THE thing for his birthday, so off we went to Chinatown, in search of his elusive object of desire.
We didn’t find it (though we did find a quite nice dragon-ish one), but we did find a restaurant that Jose Kevo, had recommended, the Excellent Dumpling House. We weren’t sure of the restaurant’s exact location, but the first shopkeeper we asked about a "dumpling restaurant" simply pointed down the street, and sure enough, there it was.
The front window of the Excellent Dumpling is plastered with restaurant reviews, which is often (though not always) a good sign. Inside, we found a no-nonsense dining room: simple linoleum-topped tables and diner-style metal chairs. Harried waitresses bearing trays of steaming food scurried between tables.
What the Excellent Dumpling may lack in ambience, it makes up from in bang for your buck. Big time. I had not one but two appetizers – a shrimp Shanghai eggroll and a bowl of eggdrop and corn soup. Both came in a flash and cost a grand total of $3. Jack started with a bowl of vegetable seafood soup, a savory combination of shrimp, straw mushrooms, scallops, snow peas, and carrots. The birthday boy chowed down on one of the Excellent Dumpling’s signature dishes, fried pork dumplings. All the food came surprisingly fast, along with a large pot of green tea and an array of sauces that taxed the space limitations of our small table.
No sooner had we polished off the appetizers than our entrees appeared. Servings were quite large, and one serving would have probably done for two people. Unfazed, we greedily cleaned our plates. My cashew chicken and shrimp featured thin slices of tender chicken, large succulent shrimp, broccoli, green peppers, and plenty of cashews in a savory sauce. Jack had a spicy seafood dish featuring a surprising amount of celery, as well as seafood – odd, but it didn’t deter him from polishing off all but the red chili pods in record time. Greg had "Excellent Squid," but this was the one dish that proved a bit of a disappointment. The squid were "dry-sautéed" (whatever that means), and I think he had been expecting them to be deep-fried. Never mind... Jack happily ate the leftovers.
Based on this single experience, I’d say that the best bets here are the eponymous dumplings and the soups. They’re the cheapest items, too. In any case, the total bill for the three of us was under $40, which we paid in cash, as credit cards aren’t accepted.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on June 30, 2005
The Excellent Dumpling House
111 Lafayette St. (between Walker & Canal Sts.)
New York, New York
My first visit was on a quiet weekday. I walked myself silly up and down the length of the park and from east and west, and still there was more to see. For the second trip, the park was the setting of an informal IgoUgo member get-together set up by Jose Kevo.
After a hearty breakfast at The Red Flame with members Jose Kevo, zabelle and her husband Al, Ishtar, and Chuckk, Kevo and I took the subway up to Spanish Harlem, his old stomping grounds but a whole new world to me. He steered me to a corner eatery featuring all sorts of mouthwatering concoctions (too bad I’d just eaten), and we bought humongous take-away drinks, both of us opting for tamarind juice.
Thus equipped with something to sip on our perambulations, we headed toward the park. En route, Kevo pointed out the Graffiti Hall of Fame. On the corner of 105th and Park Avenue, the walls surrounding a junior high school serve as a display space for murals done by young local artists as well as well-known graffiti artists from around the world. Some have called this unpretentious open-air gallery the "Metropolitan Museum of Art" for graffiti aficionados. During our visit, the murals were providing a backdrop for a group of teens playing pick-up basketball, seeming oblivious to the eye-popping colors and larger-than-life stylings just yards away.
Then we strolled over a few blocks to Central Park, entering at the Conservatory Garden, one of my favorite areas in the park. This formal European-style garden is made up of several large "rooms" done in the English, French, and Italian manners. Here, pastel pinks, blues, and violets prevail, set against countless shades of green.
On a previous visit, I’d entered through the imposing wrought iron gates originally built for the Vanderbilt mansion at 58th and Fifth Avenue. Just through the gates, a large fountain is set on a pristine lawn, while behind it rises a great pergola built in a semi-circle, supporting luxuriously growing wisteria. But my favorite part of the garden is a circular area planted in tulips in the spring and formal bedding plants the rest of the year. In the center is a bronze fountain of three maidens dancing in a circle, each captured in a moment of carefree abandon. Water cascades down upon the trio in droplets catching the sun’s rays. I strain to hear faint echoes of girlish laughter but only detect distant traffic and the odd songbird nearby.
After strolling through the English-style Secret Garden, we made our way over to the benches in a shady alleé formed by two rows of venerable crabapple trees, their branches forming an arch above us. We sat on a bench and chatted, and all too soon it was time to make our way south a mile or so to the Conservatory Water (not to be confused with the Conservatory Garden). It was there, just outside the Boat House, that we were to meet up with other IgoUgo members for an afternoon get-together.
As we made our way along the paths leading southward, I couldn’t help but remark what a different place Central Park was on a weekend than a weekday. The park was filled – though not unpleasantly so. Everywhere there were people out biking, roller-blading, sunbathing, playing baseball, pushing baby strollers, walking dogs, tossing Frisbees, and generally enjoying the fine day. The Conservatory Water was a lively scene, with model boat enthusiasts plying their miniature craft by remote control across the great pond. We had some trouble spotting our fellow IgoUgo-ers among the throng – in fact, Brian Spencer spotted us first - but soon we were ranged along a low wall chatting with him and ssullivan, who had come up all the way from Houston for the weekend. Not long after, zabelle and Al arrived, and I lobbied vigorously for us to find a place to go sit on the grass. (My feet were killing me!)
Boats on the Conservatory Water
Once again, the time flew all too quickly, and people began drifting off in their separate ways. I rendezvoused with Jack and Greg, who, it turned out, had been right there among the crowd of people around the pond. Greg had been sailing one of the rental remote-control boats for well over an hour while Jack sat reading at a table at the boathouse café. Though the afternoon was getting on, I still wanted to explore Central Park a bit more. Kevo had mentioned something that sounded quite appealing – a gathering of roller-skaters and roller-bladers that met every Saturday and Sunday afternoon nearby. "You’ve got to see it to believe it," is basically how he described it. Well, how could I resist?
Hosted by the Central Park Dance Skaters Association, a Skate Circle is set up in the middle of the park near the bandshell, not far from the 72nd Street transverse of the park. Before we got to the Skate Circle, we could hear it – a persistent beat pulsing in disco tempo. And then we saw the skaters.
If ever I’d seen people enjoying themselves more, or in a more high-profile style, I’d be hard pressed to name it. The Skater Circle attracts all types, but mostly it attracts what I quickly identified as "rink rats" – people who live to skate. I’d been a rink rat myself, back in the days when I lived in Chicago and iceskated four, five, even six days a week. Being a rink rat is not just about skating; it’s about hanging out with other rink rats and strutting your stuff. And right there in Central Park, a congregation of rink rats was taking it to the limit. Decked out in every conceivable type of garb (though designer jeans and muscle shirts prevailed), the skaters were in a communal groove. There were people of every age, race, and skating ability, plus a few non-skaters dancing near the center of the rink. Ranged around the Skate Circle there were even more onlookers than skaters, and it was clear that the skaters were enjoying (and accustomed to) the attention.
We edged closer to a spot just across from the center and Kevo pointed out the skaters that he was familiar with from the days he’d lived in New York. Perhaps the most striking were two men I mentally dubbed "Mr. Clean" and "Rastaman." Mr. Clean had to be six-foot-eight, easy, and had a hairless bare chest with six-pack abs. He sported wraparound sunglasses and a gleaming shaved pate. He was wearing what looked like saffron-colored harem pants, sports gloves, and long sweat bands up both wrists. Skating along with a nonchalance that went way beyond cool, he had the bearing of a man who knew that no matter what he was going to be as inconspicuous as a rhinoceros in a rose garden, so he might as well go for it, playing it for all it was worth. He skated effortlessly, balancing a water bottle on his head or gliding backwards into smooth arcs that bespoke countless hours skating.
He was joined by a fellow I mentally dubbed 'Rastaman,' sporting lavish dreadlocks and outsized sunglasses. Like his friend, Rastaman wore billowing harem-style pants, but topped them with a bright marigold yellow caftan. His headgear was similar to an 18th-century woman’s nightcap, and, like his friend, he had multiple sweat bands up both forearms and fingerless sport gloves on his hands.
Rastaman had a signature style which involved skating in slow motion. He and Mr. Clean did a routine moving in synchronization v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. This may sound easy, but actually, slowing down like that while skating is quite difficult – forward momentum helps maintain balance.
I could easily have stayed at the Skate Circle for hours, listening to the hypnotic rhythms of the music and watching the antics of the skaters. But Kevo had a train to catch and we were headed south to Chinatown, so off we set again, through the Sheep Meadow filled with sunbathers and guitar players, past the twinkling lights of the Tavern on the Green, and finally exiting at the southwest corner near the Metro stop. I looked back and made myself a promise: I’d be back. Soon.
In fact, it’s me who is being dragged, as both my son and husband have heaps of stamina when it comes to art museums, whereas for me, well, 40 minutes is about my limit. I like to choose a target, zero in, then get the hell out. No regrets about not having seen all there is to see or not having gotten my money’s worth. (In the case of the Met, it’s a not inconsiderable $15 entry fee.)
At the information booth, we meet up with a friend we haven’t seen since Greg was a baby. Marianne is one of my very favorite people, but I haven’t seen much of her since years ago when we lived in England. She’s been living in New York since last fall, renting an apartment and enjoying what seems to me to be the best of retirements. Now she’s about to leave for a summer in Colorado Rockies, but generously has offered to be tour guide for the day while we’re in the city.
She’s got a few suggestions up her sleeve for the Met, too. The first stop is the rooftop garden, with views out over the city and Central Park. I hadn’t even known about this the last time I was at the Met and make a mental note to come back one evening when the martini bar is set up. Meantime, we look out over the Manhattan skyline, as well as taking in a rooftop exhibit of sculpture by Sol LeWitt entitled, "Splotches, Whirls, and Twirls." It’s tempting to stay up on the roof and simply chat with Marianne, catching up on news, but the guys are champing at the bit. Off we go to look at modern art.
Last time I’d been at the Met, I’d seen only Asian and Ancient Near Eastern art, but this time I’m in for a heavy dose of 20th-century painting. I’m surprised to find that the museum allows non-flash photography, and Jack and Greg set to work photographing one favorite painting after another with their newest toy – a digital SLR Nikon. We pass through room after room of paintings that seem familiar, though we’ve never seen them in anything but reproductions: Picassos, Pollacks, Matisses, Lichtensteins, Wharhols, Miros, Klees… virtually every artist of importance in the past 100 or so years is represented. One particular painting by van Gogh, a gently humorous work featuring peasants, draws chuckles from Jack. There’s a retrospective on Max Ernst, which pleases Greg, and some landscapes by Georgia O’Keeffe, which get my vote of approval.
Marianne and I are deep in conversation and at first don’t notice that Jack and Greg have slipped away. We find them sometime later, and it turns out they’ve been in a gallery upstairs. "You’ve got to see this, Mom!" Greg says, momentarily allowing a bit of enthusiasm through his veneer of teenage nonchalance. We head for the stairs, but before we ascend, I hear boomings and moanings emanating from the gallery above.
The room above is filled with one enormous image, a suspended blob of fire – or is it a face? – caught in a swirling maelstrom of projected reds, oranges, and yellows. Whatever it is, it’s talking, a stream-of-consciousness rambling dialogue that periodically escalates into roars of primal angst. This is Tony Oursler’s "Climaxed," representing (as best I can tell) an explosion.
BOOM! BOOM! BOOM! screams the fire/face, its eyes widening in horror and mouth writhing, a projection of a misshapen head that seems part humanoid, part high-energy being from another planet. I’m not entirely sure what the point of this is, but it’s almost humorously macabre. We watch the pulsating blob and listen to it rant for a good 5 minutes:
"I'm killing you -- slowly -- I'm killing you by wasting your time. I'm killing you...".
The next room contains one of those "it makes sense if you know what it refers to" pieces of art, also by Oursler. It’s entitled, "Studio: Seven Months of My Aesthetic Education (Plus Some)," and also features video projections. I later read that this entire installation references Courbet’s "The Artist’s Studio: A real allegory of a seven year phase in my artistic and moral life" but that Oursler has placed his objects in a three-dimensional studio, each of which corresponds to something in Courbet’s painting. In place of Courbet the artist, however, Oursler portrays himself as a green Nickelodeon-esque blob with a dozen or so eyes set at haphazard angles. Watching the eye blob is almost mesmerizing, but closer inspection pays off as the mind strains to relate it to the other objects in the room. I later learn they are images of people who have visited Oursler’s studio, his wife, his son, and pop icons as diverse as David Bowie and Leonard Nimoy.
Tony Oursler's Studio: Seven Months of My Aesthetic Education (Plus Some)
Let’s just say it’s a little different, shall we? All your Courbet fans out there can have a field day comparing the original and Oursler’s version. As for me, I’m getting hungry. With some difficulty, Marianne and I pry the Nikon-wielding art boys from the museum by dint of extravagant promises. Who’s up for a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge after sampling "the best pizza in all of New York?"
"Oh, drat!" exclaims Marianne. "Wouldn’t you know it?" She’s the only one sensibly clad in a rainproof jacket, but Jack, Greg, and I stoutly maintain that "a little rain never hurt anyone", and so onward we march the six blocks or so toward Grimaldi’s.
Our ardor is dampened (literally) when we round the corner next to Grimaldi’s and see the line to get in the place. It’s long, and it isn’t moving. Grimaldi’s reputation as being the best pizza parlor in New York has certainly brought out the pizza fans, and they’re a dedicated lot. That pizza must be something pretty special, I tell myself.
Standing huddled across the street under an increasingly drippy tree, we deliberate. How long will it take to get through the line? How wet will we be by that point? Is this just a passing shower, or is it going to get worse? Rain trickles down the back of my neck, and I begin to shiver.
Finally, we decide to check out the place directly across the street, next to Grimaldi’s. Looking inside the window, though, it’s clear that it isn’t the sort of place four rain-bedraggled patrons would really fit in. Wine glasses sparkle in the candlelight, and an aura of sophistication prevails. Buy, hey, we find that the awning outside this mecca of fine dining is keeping the rain off us. With more conviction than I feel, I declare that the rain seems to be slackening, and we wait.
When the shower subsides to a trickle, we join the line outside Grimaldi’s. It takes us about 45 minutes to reach the door to the inner sanctum, and we pass the time by watching people come to retrieve tantalizing-smelling take-out orders of pizza. The line grows still whenever this happens, and we can practically hear people’s stomachs growling.
At long last, it’s our turn. We’re led to a small booth and cram in, cheek-to-jowl, with the people on either side of us. To our left, a trio of college students is demolishing a pepperoni pie, while to the right, a family from Pittsburgh is waiting for their order.
No one but me in our group seems enthusiastic about anchovies, so I cast my lot with Marianne’s suggestion, which is a white pizza with garlic and plenty of basil, while Jack and Greg order a traditional cheese pizza. Service is brusque, as befits a New York pizzeria (or so I tell myself). We’re speculating how they’ll fit the pizzas on the table when the white pizza arrives and is set on a stand that hovers about a foot above the table. When the second pizza arrives, our plates are practically overshadowed by the two pizza stands, but no matter. No one here is subtracting presentation points.
So, after all the hype, is this the best pizza in New York? I seriously doubt it, though it’s pretty darn good. The key to Grimaldi’s pizza is the excellent cheese and freshly made sauce. Where the pizza is less than stellar – at least on this particular occasion – is the crust. I like thin-crust pizzas, but this crust is also a little tough, rather than flaky.
Of course, I readily admit I’m biased. No pizza will ever compare to the distant memory of a thin-crust pizza baked right before me in a traditional wood-fired oven in a small town in Umbria, lo some 25 years ago. That pizza must (and will) remain my Holy Grail of pizzas, for it’s gone beyond Pizzadom. It has become a symbol of all that was good back when I was young.
Those of you unencumbered by such emotional baggage might very well think Grimaldi’s makes the best pizza in New York. Go right ahead.
Our stomachs full and our clothes almost dry again, we step out into the cool night air. Marianne, still acting in her capacity as gracious tour guide, leads us on to our next culinary tasting ground: The Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. Here again, grandiose claims are made about this being the best ice cream, etc., etc. We get in line and make our way slowly up to the counter. There are about eight flavors on the chalkboard menu, but we find out that in fact they’re out of all but two flavors: strawberry and vanilla. Actually, they’re running out of strawberry, too, but manage to scrape together four servings’ worth for our benefit.
Personally, I’m a soft-serve fan, but this ice cream has us all nodding happily and not saying much of anything until the last bite is finished. As ice cream goes, this has a better shot at being "the best" than the pizza that preceded it.
To cap off this quintessentially New York experience, we then make our way to the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Grimaldi’s and the ice cream place sit practically underneath the bridge, so this is a matter of just going a few blocks inland to access the stairs leading up to the pedestrian walkway.
Like the free ride on the Staten Island ferry, this is one of New York’s great freebies. On my last visit to New York, I’d stood in line and sweltered for several hours waiting to go to the top of the Empire State Building, fool that I was. My advice is instead to head for the Brooklyn Bridge, which presents the city not from on high but laid before you like a glittering diamond necklace. Then, too, there is the romance of the glistening dark river below, for New York is defined not just by its buildings but also by its waterways. Add to that the rush of traffic just beneath you (for pedestrians walk above rather than alongside the roadway), and you’ve got one unforgettable New York experience.
It’s our last night in New York, and when we ask Greg what he’d like to see, he doesn’t hesitate: "Times Square."
As I’ve never actually been there myself, I’m more than willing to go along with the plan. Jack, toting his new digital camera, is all for going anyplace offering a photo op. We get on the subway down in Chinatown and head north
It’s dusk when we emerge at Times Square. The subway station spits us out into a heaving wall of humanity, and we use elbows and shoulders to make our way to a patch of pavement offering a bit more breathing room. Even before dark, the barrage of lights is impressive. Looking around me, I see that virtually everyone is looking up, like would-be extras from the final scene of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Ever the realist, I think to myself, "What a great place for pickpockets." I check the snap on my purse, then allow myself to take it all in. So this is Times Square.
To my generation, Times Square is synonymous with sleaze- porno shops, down-and-out types, and all the flotsam and jetsam that surface in a big city. But that was before the great clean-up of the 1990s, before Giuliani’s campaign to clamp down on crime and make the place presentable.
I knew this, but somehow I’d still been expecting something out of a William S. Burroughs novel. Frankly, I’d been looking forward to having my middle-class sensibilities rubbed the wrong way.
Instead, Times Square has been given the Disney treatment. It feels more like the Electric Parade at Anaheim than it does anything else. Immense neon signs pay homage to dozens of corporations, but above all, they promote of the Latest Big Thing in entertainment. "Cinderella Man" is the sensation du jour, so there's Russell Crowe hulking over us, larger than life.
What, I wonder, would Marshall McLuhan make of it all?
Aw, what the hey. I kill the analysis and give myself over to the moment. Times Square is like some great cosmic porch light, and we’re all moths to the flame. All around us, people from 100 nations are taking in the immense marquees, the stories-high neon signs, and the sheer thrill of being swept up in the parade of humanity.
"Can you take our picture?" Sure. No problem. None of these people (save the cops) seem to be New Yorkers, but it makes no difference. We’re all tourists here, in a strangely democratic leveling of the playing field. Everyone's an Out-of-Towner.
"Where do they drop the ball?" Greg wants to know. I haven’t a clue; it’s been years since I stayed awake to watch the New Year’s Eve ritual, but soon he spots it on his own. That, I realize, epitomizes the glamour of Times Square for him. My version would probably seem laughably quaint to him, encompassing the end of World War II and V-Day, with service men tossing their hats in the air and couples – complete strangers moments before – exchanging passionate kisses. I see ticker-tape parades, top hats, and actors such as Yul Bryner starring in "The King and I" on opening night on "The Great White Way."
They say it’s the "Crossroads of the World," and perhaps it's true. Whether you buy that or not, it’s certainly the epicenter of corporate promotion. MTV, Disney, Virgin Records, Coca-Cola, JVC, Morgan Stanley, CNN, Heineken, and Sanyo mark out territory from on high. Perhaps the seedier, rough-around-the-edges (if not just plain old rough) Times Square is gone, but to look at the expressions on the faces around me, no one seems to care.
We walk up 42nd Street, the neon lights serving as a plausible substitute for broad daylight. After a spell ogling the billboards, we set out toward Rockefeller Center. I’m still looking for a bit of romance from yesteryear, and I find it when we round a corner, and there’s Radio City Music Hall.
Trouble is, Greg hasn’t the foggiest idea what a "Rockette" is. He looks perplexed as I try to explain. "There are these women, see, and they can kick real high in a chorus line, all at once… Everything they do is in unison, and they all look alike."
He’s similarly unimpressed by the Art Deco extravagance of Rockefeller Center. "In the winter, this area is all an ice rink," I say, gesturing at the sunken plaza before us. "There’s a huge Christmas tree." This doesn’t elicit any reaction from him, so I try again.
"You know that scene from ‘Home Alone 2?’"
Finally, I think to myself. We’ve shared a New York Moment, courtesy of Macaulay Culkin.
I’ll settle for it.