Thirteen Things We Learned on a Trip to Manhattan

The Cheese Fry spent 17 years in Los Angeles (we lived in Pasadena for a few years, then hit for the Hollywood cycle - West Hollywood 1999-2004, Hollywood 2004-2009, North Hollywood 2009-2012), but only last month did we find ourselves visiting the Other Coast when a work conference landed us in the Marriott Marquis right in the heart of Times Square in New York City.

Below are a few things we learned.

1. The Empire State Building seems impossibly tall.  We were doing the tourist thing at Rockefeller Center and noticed the Empire State Building towering just south of us.  It seemed so close, we figured we'd just do a quick walk down there for a few pictures.  Turns out it looked close because it's a hundred stories tall.  After 20 minutes of walking, we finally got to the front of it.  Craning our neck up, we couldn't even see the spire on top.  Somehow, maybe because it's stone and brick, it seems more intimidating and impressive than the taller glass and steel of One World Trade Center.

2. New York pizza is pretty good, but we probably would still give the nod to Chicago deep dish.  When you take your first bite into a pizza in Chicago, it's unlike any pizza you've ever had before.  It's akin to a religious experience.  The New York pizza we tried in a little pizzeria on Seventh Avenue was good but hardly transcendent.  The toppings were top notch, agreed, but the crust was rather ordinary.  Bonus points, though, for what we can only assume is a genuine New York customer service treatment: grumpy and surly counter workers who seemed barely interested in our business  The three employees maybe said four words to us combined.

3. Times Square is like Hollywood and Highland in Los Angeles, magnified by a factor of ten.  The intersection of Hollywood and Highland is a garish, neon-lit tourist trap of high-end stores and restaurants packed side-by-side with cheap junk stores and street food vendors, all of it goosed by the presence of the historic Chinese Theater (the one with the sidewalk footprints), the famous Dolby Theater (where the Oscars are handed out), and the Masonic Temple where ABC's "Jimmy Kimmel Live" tapes every afternoon. It always packed with tourists of all ages, sizes, and nationalities and the streets are filled with tour buses (both the charter sort and the double-decker guided tour sort).  That's the vibe of Times Square, only bigger, louder, and with brighter lights.  When we walked out onto Times Square at 11pm on a Saturday night, it was elbow-to-elbow with people and lit up like high noon.  The giant, three-story video boards running advertising loops (our favorites were for Coca-Cola and McDonald's) were right out of the flying car scenes in Blade Runner.

4. The Statue of Liberty is way far away from Manhattan island.  Watching movies, you get this sense that Liberty Island is a quick hop from New York City, all alone in the harbor, bravely facing the wide expanse of the Atlantic Ocean and all those huddles masses yearning to be free.  The truth is not quite so romantic.  The Status of Liberty is essentially landlocked on all sides by dreary, industrial skylines.  Who knows where the actual entrance to the ocean is?  More disappointing, we walked all the way to the southern tip of Manhattan to see the statue.  It was so far away and so tiny we could barely even tell what it was.

5. You know that saying about "there's never a cop when you need one"?  That doesn't really apply with the NYPD.  Admittedly, we mostly visited the popular tourist attractions.  But everywhere we turned, there were groups of police officers gathered together talking, walking on patrol, or sitting in their parked cars.  Some even had assault rifles slung across their shoulders.  When Wikipedia reports there are 38,000 officers, we believe it.

6. The New York subway is just as old and quirky and crowded and you might imagine.  Here are some specifics:
* At one point, we walked down at least three stories to get to our platform.  These subway tunnels run deep.
* We saw a guy in a tuxedo playing the cello for money.
* A local confirmed that you can indeed see rats if you look down off the platform and onto the tracks.
* We witnessed one surprisingly clean-cut, well-dressed guy making a dramatic speech to the entire car about how he needed money to buy food.  He was ignored.
* We noticed a guy sitting across the aisle that seemed unable to stop staring at us in a most unnerving manner.
* On our trip down to the World Trade Center, the subway was mostly empty and quiet.  The trip back was another story.  Our car seemed already pretty full when we got to Penn Station.  But the word "full" takes on a whole other meaning when another 20 or so people shoved their way through the doors and filled every possible nook and cranny.  Lesser tourists than us surely would have experienced a claustrophobic panic attack.  Luckily, our stop was the next stop and we were close enough to the doors to surf the wave of shuffle-step disembarkation out to the platform.
* We saw no graffiti.
* Do your homework in advance so you know which subway going in which direction you want to get so you at least look like you know what you're doing.
* We giddily got to perform the stereotypical New York City subway move whereby you dart through the doors at the last possible instant, just moments before they blast closed.
* We saw people with grocery bags, clearly using the subway for doing to their personal shopping and errand running the way normal people use cars.

7. You step off the curb against the light at your own risk.  We didn't want to look like a rube tourist.  We saw everyone else walking when the light shined a red "Don't Walk."  Those people all looked local, bundled up with briefcases and earbuds, headed to work or home.  We wanted to follow their lead and fit in.  That's all well and good... just be sure to look both ways.  New York taxi cabs will not stop if they have the right of way.  And in our case, they don't even honk.  We walked against the light one afternoon and happened to glance to the left in time to see the front grill of a cab charging right us.  We stepped out of the way of the driver's side fender without a moment to spare like some kind of Manhattan toreador.  We like to think that he knew he'd miss us and that he would have hit the brakes if needed.  Right?

8. Broadway theaters aren't the kind of venues we expected.  We saw Wicked in Los Angeles at a huge, sprawling theater.  That's the usual Broadway regional touring venue.  But the New York City theaters are older and much, much smaller.   We saw Chicago at the Ambassador Theater, built in the 1920s and holding just 1000 people.  It's old and it looks old.  Cramped seating, worn walls, out-dated decor.  And concessionaires were right there in aisles selling soda, water, and candy out of big boxes on shoulder straps like they do at a baseball game.  The guy in front of us actually bought a giant Kit-Kat bar.  Whatever happened to the dignity of live theater, people?  (The New York City definition of a "Broadway theater," by the way, has nothing to do with location; it must seat more than 500.  The more you know.)

9. Careful framing by countless cameras over the years has given the wrong impression about the size of the Rockefeller Center ice rink.  It's tiny.  Standing there we realized how easy it is for camera operators to just, like, not show the front end of the rink when you're facing that gold statue, those flags, and the brick facade of Rockefeller Center.  If you don't show the front of the rink, then TV and movie audiences are likely to assume the rink just goes on forever.  The public rink at your local mall is probably way bigger.  Weird.

10. Good luck hailing a cab when you're lost.  We thought we knew where to find a subway station to catch a ride back from looking at the Statue of Liberty.  But we could not find it anywhere.  It should be right... here.  But nothing.  Our feet were tired, it was getting dark, our iPhone battery was down to 8%, and the lonely deserted side streets we were walking didn't have that same hubbub of tourist traffic.  If only we could hail and cab and just pay our way back to the hotel.  No cabs in sight.  Long story short, we made it back.

11. It's hard to understand the size and scale of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers.  Then you're in the plaza looking at the reflecting pools that fill the giant square footprints of the absent Towers.  Those building things were massive.

12. NBC's "The Today Show" covers their anchor desks with quilts between broadcasts.  We know because we peered in through those famous Studio 1-A windows at around 11am on a weekday.  The giant cameras are all there, slumped over asleep, but the desks are covered up.

13. The bronze bull statue on Wall Street is actually a tourist destination.  To us, that statue would be considered a rather obscure Manhattan landmark, likely not even cracking the top 30 on a list of New York City icons.  But there the people were, lined up probably 40 deep in front of the bull, patiently waiting a turn to pose for photos in front of the statue.

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