The Day I Played Tourist (or Traveller) in Manhattan

I only had three days in New York this trip, and most of it was, for me, uncharacteristically free-form rather than driven by some cultural site-seeing agenda. Between a general fatigue and malaise, and the chance to see friends I hadn’t seen in a long time, site-seeing just didn’t seem as important. But on the final day, a Monday, my schedule was wide open, and I decided to make the most of it.

While in New York I had been making my own rather inadequate nod to dressing at least presentably, as my Pacific Northwest home is a sartorial disaster area, but that Monday I dressed for maximum comfort, in jeans and a sweat shirt, not caring if I looked like a tourist but in truth knowing that I would actually fade into invisibility, my favorite strategy as a traveller. (I always prefer thinking of myself as a traveller than as a tourist, the former implying purposes a bit more serious than buying a Hard Rock Cafe tee-shirt…though, lacking a shirt and not having time to do laundry, I did buy a Yankees shirt, because even though I hate the Yankees I love the interlocking N and Y symbol.) I set out from the hotel in Chelsea early, walking east on 23rd to get to the subway station on Park Avenue. As I came to Broadway a beautiful old office building loomed, one that looked familiar but that I hadn’t expected to find right there; I thought, “That looks an lot like the Flatiron building, but it isn’t, is it?” It was. The only other time I had seen it was coming down Broadway at night many years before, so having it towering over me threw me off at first. One of the magical aspects of being a stranger in a city as photographed and filmed as often as New York has been is the all but Magical Realist sense that you’ve been to these places before without having actually been there, as if revisiting memories you’ve never actually had.

I took the subway downtown and got off at the City Hall stop, as I wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and back again. I saw it in the distance, but couldn’t see how to get to it on foot, so I asked a doorman to one of the nearby banks, not caring that the employee chatting with him chuckled when I said I wanted to walk across the bridge. I’d been to the bridge once before but didn’t cross it; that time I got no farther than the Manhattan side pediment, and until that time I never gave the bridge more thought than being the punchline to a joke about naïvete, but in person it is a beautiful structure, so that even aside from its historical importance it’s an amazing piece of work, performing its difficult job with grace. Besides the nice view of the Manhattan skyline it provides, and the distant view of the Statue of Liberty (which I had never seen before from any distance), what most struck me on crossing the bridge was the reminder that NYC is a port town, an ocean town. The day was clear and there was a strong onshore blowing so that I could faintly smell the salty sea, probably a not so common scent in that part of town anymore, but the whole walk made me think of what the area could have looked like to Melville or Whitman, not at all the reaction I would have anticipated.

From there I went uptown to Grand Central Station to look at the renovation of the main terminal. I was quite moved by that room. Unlike cathedrals, it seems surprisingly human-scaled for such a tall-ceilinged place. Instead of dwarfing the people, it warms to them. I’m not exactly sure how this happens, but the ticket windows ringing the room, the easy-sloping staircases at either end, and the golden light all serve to make it welcoming. For the first time ever I had a feeling of dislike for cathedrals for being so brutal to their human occupants, even though I understand they are designed to make parishioners feel small and humbled. And compare Grand Central to the dehumanization inherent in airport terminals, even one as justifiably lauded as O’Hare’s United terminal. Does anyone feel welcomed by an airport terminal? How did we go from the beauty of train stations to the crassness of airports?

From Grand Central I walked west on West 42nd Street to the Public Library, another building that a friend of mine told me I should visit while in New York. Unfortunately, the Library is closed on Mondays, but I was surprised by adjoining Bryant Park, until then just a name to me. Small and elegant, it seemed almost Parisian to me, but that might have had as much to do with the delicacy of the iron chairs and tables that ring the park as anything else, because midtown’s surrounding overachieving buildings aren’t Parisian at all.

From the park I saw the gaudy sign on top of 4 Times Square, the relatively new home of all the Conde Nast magazines, and on a whim I decided to cross the street and go inside. After all, I figured that was one way to get in The New Yorker, so why not? It amused me, standing in the lobby in my chilly day, designed-to-be-anonymous “casual wear” while all the dressed-to-kill glamorous magazine ladies bustled past the security gates to their offices upstairs. This was the only famous media headquarters I actually went inside that day, though later on I recognized the CBS black cube near MoMA and saw the Simon and Schuster and McGraw Hill buildings in all their charmless anonymity. I liked the confectionary quality of the Conde Nast building.

Which leads me to Times Square proper. Can’t miss it. I’m sure many New Yorkers still mourn the disappearance of the old sleazy Square, but I don’t. In ’98 it appeared to still be in transition from peep show alley to what it is today, and I prefer its new quasi-Shibuya district (Tokyo) look of neon and plastic. It’s reveals the crassness that – sorry folks – lies at the heart of New York, beneath the tattiness you find everywhere outside of midtown, and often even there, that we all pretend is a badge of gentility rather than mere wear and tear. New York, lovely New York, is more than a bit of a dowager.

As I passed Rockefeller Center I saw a sign for the observation deck on top, something I didn’t know existed, and on a whim I decided to check it out. It was a clear day, after all. Since it was still early, there weren’t many people there, and I had the elevator ride up to myself…which was good, because since the ceiling of the elevator is see-through, you can see the long shaft as you ascend, and I found myself leaning in the corner, something I maybe wouldn’t have wanted to be seen doing. The deck itself, parts indoors behind glass, parts outside, provides the “breath-taking” views you’d expect. Quite unbelievable, actually. To the south, the Empire State Building stands straight in front though far enough away to provide a comprehensive view of that beauty. My favorite building in Manhattan, the Chrysler Building, is to the left and half-hidden behind a dowdier building. In the far distance, the Statue of Liberty. To the right, once again, the hard to escape 4 Times Square.

I’m not familiar enough with the old skyline to have precisely placed the missing WTC, but I thought of the attacks more than once while I wandered around the top of Rockefeller Center, even once wondering how I would get to the bottom if a plane hit the side. I remember being in the WTC plaza during my last visit in ’98, on a Sunday, having a bagel in the Borders in one of the auxiliary buildings, and, standing outside and looking up at the towers, thinking of the attack in ’93, the plan then being that one building, its foundation blown to pieces by the truck bomb in the parking structure, would topple into the other building. I actually was considering that scenario that day in ’98, looking up and thinking what a catastrophe that would have been had they succeeded.

Looking from the north on the Rockefeller Center deck, one can see the whole of Central Park, where I had just walked the day before from the 90s to MoMA through Easter Sunday crowds. What would New York look like without the Park? It’s amazing that such a relentlessly commercial city would have ever set aside so much valuable real estate for a park.

Back down the elevator (again leaning in the corner) I walked around the inside of the building, and as NBC studios are there I kept having deja vu from all the years of Letterman shenanigans from his older, better show on that network. I kept expecting Larry “Bud” Melman to jump out and interview me. Instead, the closest I got to being on television that day was seeing the Today show set being broken down, and I had a momentary wish that I had gone out early that morning to watch the crowds yelling for Matt and the soon-to-depart Katie. (She sort of amuses me, actually. Almost everyone I know dislikes her, and yet I find her “too smart to be a cheerleader” not-quite-covert nastiness to be kind of funny. When the Today show located itself in Asbury Park to hype the release of Bruce Springsteen’s “The Rising” album, they had a long shot of the band on a balcony, nearly a dozen of them all dressed in black, lazily waving to the clamorous crowd below, and Couric said that it looked like a revival of “Evita,” which made me laugh out loud. It takes a lot of chutzpah to mock Bruce Springsteen in Asbury Park.)

By now it was still only about ten in the morning, so I walked over to MoMA and stood in line for my second visit there in two days and proceeded to wear myself out in the galleries for four hours. The new MoMA building has good points and bad points: good in that it doesn’t draw attention away from the art in the manner of a lot of contemporary museum design; bad in that it has the feel of a crowded department store, especially around the centrally located escalators. I missed the old museum, especially the room with natural light where Monet’s “Waterlillies” used to hang. Certainly the staircase hanging of Matisse’s “The Dance” detracts from the painting by obscuring the sightlines, as if the staircase were the object being shown rather than the art work. Bad move.

As for crowds, it seems that every museum everywhere is so crowded with people that you can’t even see the art anymore. Is it elitist to wish ticket prices doubled in order to thin out the crowds? Broadway junk costs far more than museum tickets, and no one says that the commercial theater is elitist. Let’s say fifty bucks for a MoMA ticket, with a 75% discount if you bring in a sketch pad and turn in a recognizable copy of something in the museum. Same with the Getty in LA, which I’ve all but given up on going to, it’s gotten so crowded. But, again, I had an hour or two before MoMA got too filled up, so I scurried through the core collection in relative peace, now finding those familiar canvases (like Pollack’s “One Number 31, 1950″ and Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles”) to be like old friends. I ended the visit on the top floor, looking at the (stiflingly crowded) Munch retrospective. I was tired and crabby, my feet hurt, and I had seen about as much art as I could make sense of, so it’s not surprising, I guess, that I found Munch’s preoccupation with death and his fear of sexuality to be annoyingly adolescent; this was the first time I saw a retrospective that made me less sympathetic to an artist’s work rather than more.

I took the subway back to my room in Chelsea to rest for a while, but, as it was my last day in the city, and I had no idea when I might be back, if ever, I very soon was flipping through my guide book, looking for an area of town I had never been to before for some quick early evening exploration. I decided on TriBeCa, figuring I might catch a glimpse of Robert DeNiro’s film studio. I took the subway downtown a few stops and, when I emerged from underground (this may be one of the reasons I love subways in all cities: the emergence from below ground into the air is inherently dramatic, a grand entrance into reality totally absent in the act of getting out of your car in one more suburban parking lot), I was surprised at the human scale of the area, the cobblestone side streets, the low buildings. I began wandering and quickly lost my way, as the streets zigzag, but I did eventually find FDNY Hook and Ladder 8, a tiny red brick building housing a fire company that played a key role – and paid a heavy price – on 9-11. There is a commemorative plaque that I quickly read and just as quickly turned away from. I never did find DeNiro’s studio. I think it was covered by scaffolding, but I’m not sure. I walked along the riverfront, quickly seeing that this was an even ritzier part of already ritzy Manhattan. In a small park crowded with children and nannies, I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many white babies being cared for by so many overworked-looking black and Latina women; you’d have thought it was the Antebellum South rather than 21st century New York, but there, in the shadow of Wall St., I can only guess that those kids have parents too rich and too busy to look after their own families. Maybe these parents feel they don’t have a choice, but the inegalitarian politics of the social arrangement I saw in that park made me uneasy.

I still had the modest adventure, the next morning, of getting myself and my backpack from Chelsea to the Avis desk at LaGuardia, but TriBeCa was the real end of my visit to New York.

Everything I’ve written about my visit carries an undercurrent of dissatisfaction and complaint, but that may have more to do with the genre of travel writing in English as a forum for irritability than with my actual feelings, because almost as soon as I arrived I felt at home there. Vacations are often occasions for fantastical thinking, but I’ve always wished I had the chance to live in New York, even if only for a year, and the feeling intensified this time. I doubt you could be an American who loves culture in any of its forms and not feel at least a little homesick for Manhattan. I loved the looks of the people, and I felt at home amidst so many unashamedly “ethnic-looking” folks, because even though I’m a Californian, my families are eastern and southern, and I’ve never entirely belonged amongst the button-nosed, cheerful blonds of the west coast. The only other place I’ve felt more among my tribe was a too brief two weeks in Italy. In any event, New York seemed more American than any place in America, which neatly turns the accepted wisdom on its head, namely that the “real America” is found in homogeneous rural areas or in SUV-infested suburbia. Of course America isn’t found in just one place, but heterogeneous and heterodox New York is the closest I’ve seen the wild mix of everyone from everywhere actually seem to work. Take the careful reluctance of New Yorkers to meet your gaze on the subway as an acknowledgment that it’s possible to respect one anothers’ privacy and way of life rather than as an indication of unfriendliness or lack of concern. Only in New York are you still in close enough proximity to other Americans that a conversation with a stranger is not only possible, but even likely. By comparison, the rest of the country is just downright lonely.


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William Johns lives and works in Portland, Oregon.

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