Sunday, November 30, 2008

Random Impressions of a Hick in the City

Ah...home again, home again.

The house is redolent with the aromas of pot roast and warm bread. We are curled up in the living room in our comfy clothes, our pets at our feet. (Well, actually Molly is on her favorite perch atop the satellite box, while the dogs are out frolicking in pre-blizzard snow.)

There's no place like home.

There's also no place like New York City, for a visit. Here are some random thoughts gleaned from the past week.

Smells like NYC: I had been forewarned that the city had an odor all its own. And it does -- burning rubber and bus exhaust, with occasional whiffs of sewer gas. But it wasn't nearly as objectionable as I had been led to believe. Although it was with some relief that, emerging from the plane in Chicago for a layover on the way home, the smell had finally left my nostrils.

Let's get small: I don't think that we in rural America truly appreciate the spaciousness of our homes and yards and landscapes. In the city, I felt constantly hemmed in -- by other people's bodies; by our tiny hotel room; by tall buildings. Semi-Daughter-in-Law, a successful professional, lives in a studio apartment not much larger than a dorm suite. I'd been attributing the relative slenderness of New Yorkers to vanity and the forced exercise of walking everywhere, but I think lack of space is a real incentive to slimness.

Rude New Yorkers: I have to say that the vast majority of people we encountered defied the stereotype. Most of the sane people, and even most of the crazy ones, were friendly and polite, and even took the initiative to be helpful. The worst behaviors we encountered involved mothers who used their baby strollers as offensive weaponry, especially at the Macy's balloon-blowup extravanza next to Central Park Wednesday evening.

Crazy New Yorkers: I'm sure that the greater city is teeming with bag people, but they seemed to be few and far between in our travels; just a couple of truly sad looking babushkaed old ladies. One exception was a large woman aggressively panhandling outside the Staten Island Ferry building Friday evening. She was just studied enough, and just scary enough, to put the normally empathetic threesome of Fellow Traveler, Son #2 and myself into don't-make-eye-contact mode as we hurried past. She yelled after us. "Hey! Whattsamatta wid youse? I bet youse had a Thanksgiving turkey! Nonna youse look like you missed a meal lately, motherfuckers!" When I looked back she was engaging with a couple of Asian tourists who were handing her money; their expressions were less of pity than of an audience taking in an interesting sidewalk performance piece. Son #2 related how he used to save half his restaurant lunch once a week to share with a man who begged on the sidewalk outside the establishment. One day while Son #2 was handing over his takeout box, filled with most of a roasted chicken and sides, the street person erupted, "When the hell you gonna bring me some decent silverware and napkins?"

More amusing was Fellow Traveler's encounter with a stranger as we were stopped at a bank ATM in the financial district, on our way to the new American Museum of Sports -- we're not sure if this woman was crazy or just deeply moved. "Can you believe how the teachers' union screwed us over?" she asked FT as we emerged from the bank lobby. "I saw you at the meeting. You heard 'em too." Not missing a beat, FT responded, "I know. It's just terrible. But whatcha gonna do." The woman, encouraged, continued. "I'm gonna take my pension money all out and roll it over." "That's right," said FT. "You may as well hide it under the mattress." "Yeah. That's what I'm gonna do. I can't believe how the union sold us out." This conversation continued for a full minute, and even when we finally broke away the unhappy teacher was still cursing the sellout union bargaining team to anyone within earshot.

Taxi drivers: Our taxi and car service drivers were the best. Our favorite was a cabbie from Senegal; after we got into the taxi Fellow Traveler quipped that we were tourists hoping to get into the Cash Cab, to which the driver grinned and said, "I can play Cash Cab! I ask you a question, then you ask me a question!" So we did this for several miles. Whenever one of us got a correct answer we flashed the taxi light.

Crime: We did not allow ourselves to be paralyzed by fear of crime. And we're pretty street savvy -- especially Fellow Traveler, who in addition to her military experience has also worked in some of the more badass neighborhoods of Detroit. I'm not going to say that riding the subway home from Brooklyn at 11:30 on a Friday night with a gaggle of gang members sporting their colors wasn't a somewhat, um, anxiety-provoking experience, even with the buffer of other passengers. But during the week I was actually more worried about Islamic terrorists. I felt vulnerable in places like Grand Central Station -- even with all the heightened holiday security present. My crude but nonetheless effective mantra in all the crowded public areas of the city: Don't be afraid and let the bastards win.

Losin' my religion: It would be very easy to become irreligious in New York City. Oh, there are oases of spirituality -- I actually found St. Malachy's, across from our hotel, to be a welcome haven of quiet piety in the middle of Times Square noise and bling, and I was also amazed at how quiet and peaceful Central Park could be just a block away from the street -- but I had a very Lutherish experience at St. Patrick's Cathedral, which looked and felt like a gaudy circus of irreverant tourists, omnipresent institutional entreaties for money and a general lack of Christocentric focus. The terrorist seige in Mumbai, and the transit terror threat this week, have made me rather ill-disposed toward religious zealots of any kind, even the relatively benign group we saw in Grand Central Station urging passers-by to repent or else. Just shut up and leave us the **** alone, you freaks, I thought grumpily, mentally conflating their cautionary placards with TV footage of wild-eyed Islamist militants and screaming mullahs, and politically ambitious LDS homophobes and our own Bible-banging Outer Podunkian sidewalk irritants, and cross-waving backwoods white supremacists. On the other hand, I was witness to many random acts of kindness on the streets of New York that, as far as the eye could tell, had nothing to do with religion at all, except maybe per the prophets' generous and non-sectarian definition. Some days Buddhism looks awfully attractive.

My surprising favorite semi-fancy eatin' place: Fraunces Tavern, somewhat kitty-corner from Battery Park. I just loved this place. So did George Washington, evidently -- it's where he took his posse for drinks after his inaugural address. It has character. It's not that expensive. And it's fun; like Cheers with a more impressive pedigree. We also enjoyed ourselves muchly at Ruby Foo's, right down the street from our hotel, where we enjoyed our one fancy-dress-up meal with Son #2 and Semi-Daughter-in-Law; we had an absolutely delicious meal there, and also amused ourselves people-watching. Ditto our mornings at the Food Emporium, on the corner of our block; imagine a mini Whole Foods crossed with a specialty grocery crossed with a cafeteria. Every morning we'd get our bagels with schmeer, and fruit and coffee, situate ourselves at the streetside bar and just watch the pedestrians. This is much more interesting and entertaining than the current television season.

Law enforcement:I can now say that I was scolded by a New York City police officer -- not once, but twice; both on Wednesday night as our party struggled to maneuver through the madness surrounding the Macy's parade preparations and find Son #1 and his partner, who were working there. The first time I was simply trying to keep within sight of Fellow Traveler as we both straggled behind our younger and more agile extended family members, getting jostled by aggressive parents and rammed by strollers. "Slow down!" commanded an irritated officer. Later, when we found our way to Son #1 and Semi-Son-in-Law blocked, we tried to walk against the foot traffic and take a shortcut through a corner of Central Park. I somehow found myself at the front of the pack, where I was confronted by a young officer straight from Central Casting. "Yer goin' the wrong way," he informed me. At this point Semi-Daughter-in-Law -- a Brooklynite transplanted from Fellow Traveler's old stomping grounds in Ypsi/Ann Arbor, a young woman of elfin size and appearance -- stepped up beside me and began back-sassing the cop in true New Yorker fashion: "Well, the other officer over there told us we couldn't cross that street." "Well, you can't cross this street either." "Those people are walking up the sidewalk from somewhere. If they can't be on that street, then where did they come from?" "But you can't walk there." "Look -- there's people in the park. How'd they get in the park if you can't go across the street? Let us cross the street and go into the park." After several minutes of tough in-your-face negotiations, the worn-down officer, rolling his eyes heavenward and muttering, "Why do you people make my job more difficult?" shrugged and said, "Okay. You people can cross the street. Just don't move my barricade." We never did make it to our kids' workplace. Although I can now say I've walked through (a very tiny corner of) Central Park at night and survived. Fellow Traveler's very understated comment of the evening: "This has stopped being fun."

Coolest places: I enjoyed our museum trips. I loved the New York Historical Museum, which I think is somewhat undervisited and underappreciated. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was fantastic, even though the crowds were unbelievable, and even though we only had time to sample about a half-dozen exhibits. I'm not the biggest sports aficionado in the world, but I have to say that the new Sports Museum of America is very well done, and the exhibits and interactive features hold the interest of even a fairly sports-indifferent person like me. I especially appreciated the matter-of-fact gender equity of the exhibits, and the aesthetics of each room. I also enjoyed our trip to the United Nations, even though the idealism, like the building aesthetic and artwork, seems sadly dated; stuck in the 1960's. I found myself being guided through the tour, hearing all the rhetoric about international cooperation and aid, thinking, "I want to believe," but not really believing; I felt like an atheist sitting in church at Easter.

And -- count me among the easily amused -- I very much enjoyed the subway mosaics in the cleaner, more tourist-friendly subway stations.

Most overrated places I visited: I hate to say this, but -- after my first evening wandering around Broadway, I was pretty much over the showbiz and retail bling-bling. Shopping failed to impress -- other than the street vendors' cheap pashmina scarves I had no interest in any other wares the city had to offer. I also hate to say it, but I was less than impressed by Son #1 and Semi-Son-in-Law's favorite local eatery, a little hole-in-the-wall at the edge of the Village called Say Cheese that specializes in...toasted cheese sandwiches. I mean -- it's toasted cheese. We have toasted cheese sandwiches in Outer Podunk. I was far more intrigued by the tiny Indonesian satay place next door. Fellow Traveler's and my goal to eat boldly was pretty much thwarted both by our frenetic schedule and by our chaparones' preferences.

Where I'd go on my next New York vacation: We think we'd like to do more exploring in the Village -- we simply didn't have time last week. I might like to go to Ellis Island, if only as a small homage to my forebears. I'd like to visit more of old New York, whether the remnants of its colonial past or the vintage restaurants like Morton's in Times Square. We want to go to the Museum of Natural History, another destination that we simply didn't have time to visit. We'd like to go to a show someday when the plays and musicals are interesting and innovative again. (Ironically, even though we were literally surrounded by theaters, nothing playing there registered at all on our entertainment meters; the revivals were all "Been there done that"; ditto the Hollywood-to-Broadway stuff -- I mean, they're doing a Shrek musical, for God's sake.)

Well, that's what we did, what we didn't do and what we might one day do on our New York vacation. It was fun. But we're glad we're home. And reality truly sets in tomorrow.


toujoursdan said...

It's weird that NYC has a reputation for crime. It is one of America's safest cities. More than once I have gotten separated from a valuable item (Last time my cellphone dropped out of its holster while I was climbing stairs and I wasn't aware of it.) and people have tracked me down to return them. In all the time I have spent there I don't know anyone who has had trouble with crime. It happens, but unless you are connected with some gang organization or in parts of the Bronx, it's pretty rare. I wonder if the impression that NYC is crime ridden comes from TV dramas. You don't want to be stupid but it's much safer than Dallas or Detroit.

The smallness was one thing that really struck me. Even the aisles in stores are a tight fit.

I always tell friends, NYers aren't rude. They are impatient and blunt but not rude.

The baby stroller thing is fodder for many NY blogs. The neighbourhood where I rent a room in Brooklyn has had "stroller wars" where people with strollers have faced off with those who don't - both online and in real life. Some shops ban them and others welcome them in retaliation.

Glad you had such a great time!

mim said...

The New-York Historical Society, near the Museum of Natural History? Yes, that's a good museum. As are the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, the Jewish Museum, and the Pierpont Morgan Library, or if you're game to make the trip, the Cloisters.

And I too love the way they've beautified the subway.

Glad you had such a good experience in New York.

I'd like to leave some comments on your old posts about literacy from 2004 and 2006, so I hope you'll look there in about a week.

mim said...

Sorry, I meant 2006 and 2007.

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