Saturday, April 25, 2015

New York City on More Than $5 Per Day

Not long after I returned from my Mexican adventure, it was time for my annual trip to New York City to see my old friend CB.  We’ve settled into a routine where I arrive on a Friday and for a day and a half, we hit some museums, perhaps go to a show, and sometimes do a little shopping. By Sunday, I’ve had enough of the city and my bank account has a large dent in it. New York is great fun, though each and every year I shudder at how money much I spend there. 

Since I’m not a fan of driving in general, and parking in NYC is a nightmare, I follow the lead of college students and the car-less and travel there on the Megabus. It’s a quite a bit different than the bus in Mexico.

In Mexico, I bought a paper ticket at the bus station. The bus pulled up right on time, I handed the paper ticket to the driver and the next thing I knew, I was in a spacious coach where the seat reclined just a bit too much. A couple of quick stops and I was at a large modern terminal in the city of Puerto Vallarta.
The Megabus has patrons buy tickets online. Instead of the bus station there’s the Walmart parking lot. When the bus arrived, more less than more on time, there was about 20 minutes worth of examining tickets and loading the bus. Americans seem to have WAY more luggage than Mexicans. While the driver loads steamer trunks filled with God knows what into the bowels of the bus riders try to find a seat in bright blue two-decker sardine can on wheels. I can’t imagine what Megabus seats feel like if you’re a big boy, but for me, they’re too small to be comfortable. 

Unlike the Mexican bus, Megabus has a safety video. I’d like to tell you about it, but once I realized that my seat cushion wasn’t going to become a floatation device and that in the unlikely event of a sudden cabin depressurization oxygen masks were not going to drop from the ceiling, I stopped paying attention. So, if there are any instructions on what to do in the event that the 15’ tall bus tries to go under at 14’ tall overpass, I missed them.

Once the trip starts you settle in for the five hour ride to New York City. Just as you feel that you’re making serious progress, the bus stops at a small truck stop (as opposed to a big honkin’ truck stop) in the Poconos. 

As soon as the bus parks 85% of the passengers make a mad dash for the john and then get in line to order epicurean delights at the truck stop’s Subway. This is what passes for truck stop cuisine in 2015, Subway. Whatever happened to hot roast beef or turkey sandwiches, smothered in gravy, green beans that have been cooking since the start of the cook’s shift, a Jell-O salad, and honest-to-goodness homemade pie? Perhaps they’re at real truck stops. Or perhaps heart disease killed all the folks who ate those meals. That could have happened. Whatever the reason, at Truck Stop Lite the choice is Subway and every variety of salty snack known to man.

I actually purchased beef jerky once. It was a long time ago, and for a performer at the Arts Festival. The performer loved it, but the public didn’t like the performer, and today he’s probably working in a beef jerky factory.  But back then, I think there were only manly flavors of jerky—plain, spicy, and hickory smoked. Today, I’m sure it comes in certified metrosexual flavors: free-range salted caramel, heirloom non G.M.O. kale, and mango with a hint of passionfruit.

The people who work at Truck Stop Lite are nice, but it’s a dismal place to spend 30 minutes with a bunch of people whose idea of getting dressed up is “nice sweats”. When the bus pulled out of the truck stop I noticed that there was a Mexican food trailer parked across the street.

I made a mental note for the next trip to skip the displays of Elvis branded tchotchkes and many different varieties of beef jerky to stop at the Mexican food trailer.

But eventually you get to NYC, though the last few blocks, from the end of the Lincoln Tunnel to the drop off point by Fashion Institute of Technology at 28th Street seem to take as long as the rest of the trip. The final stop couldn’t be more convenient for me since it’s just a few feet from the subway—as in the transit system. After a few minutes on the southbound Number 1 Train I’m where I need to go.

I had some time to kill on Friday afternoon so enjoyed one of my favorite urban pleasures: a shoe shine. My father was quite insistent on shined shoes—he even kept a shoe shine kit in his office—and I suppose some of that filtered attitude down to me. This shoeshine stand was in an actual shoe repair shop near Wall Street—the nice folks at Brooks Brothers directed me there. The now ubiquitous TV was tuned to baseball. I thought I might have to make conversation about the stinkin’ Yankees or stinkin’ Mets, but he wasn't chatty and English wasn't the shoeshine guy’s first language. I was relieved that I didn’t have to act as if I actually knew anything about baseball.

I also took the time to check out the Trinity Church cemetery, final resting spot of Alexander Hamilton, among others.

If you've gotta go, going in the midst of your usefulness seems as good a plan as any.

Friday night’s dinner couldn’t have been more touristy--Sardi’s, the theatre district landmark.  I won’t be the first person to say that people go there for the atmosphere not the food, though the food was perfectly serviceable. The atmosphere, that was fine too. The guys at the next table ordered steak tartare. My friend CB reminded repeatedly me that blob of raw beef the two guys were getting would have cost $3 at Weis Market. Even if it had been a $4 blob of ground beef I would have passed.

After dinner we took in a Broadway show, The Audience, starring Dame Helen Mirren, DBE as Queen Elizabeth II. The show imagines what happens when H.M. the Queen meets with her prime minister in their weekly audiences. The show covers the Queen’s entire reign, from her first P.M., Winston Churchill, through today's David Cameron. If you’re reasonably up on The Queen and British politics, it’s a great time. If you are looking for insights into what Princess Diana was really like or hoping for a cameo appearance by Austin Powers saying “Do I make you horny baby?” you probably should stay at home. I should probably be embarrassed about how much I know about the Royal family, so, yeah, I loved the show.

I was quite unprepared for the crush of people on the streets in and around Times Square before and after the show. I can remember when Times Square was filed with seedy sex shops and theaters. My favorite XXX theater was The New Bryant Sextacular, presumably named after a distant bough of the family tree. The New Bryant was the site of the 1986 Rick Bryant and Friends “Perversion Excursion” to see if a “live sex show”, as advertised in Screw magazine, really included “LIVE SEX”.

Yes, it did.

But for $4.99, the actual price of the show, I'm assuming that it wasn't top drawer live sex.

Interestingly enough, entrepreneurial working women in the theater offered patrons certain "value added packages" for as little as $5.00.

But I digress. 

Daniel Chester French did the sculpture groups outside the former U.S. Customs House.
Saturday morning I was up and at ‘em early to take a brisk walk around the Financial District (deserted) before taking the subway uptown to go to the Museum of the City of New York to see a couple of exhibitions.

The museum is just the right size for someone with the attention span of a gnat. In other words, me.

A piece from "Everything is Design: The Work of Paul Rand".
An image from Activist New York, an exhibition about New York's long history as a center for social justice movements.
The shows cover not just art and history, but other humanities as well.  Due to its out of the way location (5th Ave. at 103rd St.) and esoteric exhibition menu, you’re not caught in a tsunami of fashionably dressed people from The Better Suburbs trying to check the month's "must do" exhibition of their to-do lists as you are at MoMA or the Met.  By all means, make time to go.

After doing the Museum it was back downtown via the subway to meet CB at The Morgan Library.

If you’ve never been to The Morgan, go. If you have been, go back. It’s one of the best things about New York City.

J.P. Morgan as photographed by Edward Steichen
The library started out as the personal collection of banker J.P. Morgan. The three things you need to know about J.P. Morgan are:

1. He had the biggest nose of any of the Robber Barons.

2. He said if you had to ask how much it cost to have a yacht, you couldn’t afford one.

3. He isn’t related to the former Gong Show panelist and singer of the novelty song, The Tennessee Birdwalk, Jaye P. Morgan.

Understatement is the name of the game at The Morgan Library.
Morgan was a voracious collector—of stuff like medieval manuscripts, Gutenberg bibles, Sumerian Pez dispensers, and whatnot, so there’s quite a lot to see.

A portion of a plaster model of the library as designed by McKim.
Since he collected well before well before self-storage units and the hoarder diagnosis, Morgan engaged architect Charles F. McKim to build a library to house his collections. Even though money was no object, the place is still somewhat restrained, and doesn’t have the volume up to 11 as in quite the same way that a Newport “cottage” of the same vintage would.

The Morgan's buildings have been updated and expanded by Renzo Piano.

The exhibit Lincoln Speaks was the impetus for our visit. It’s a small exhibition of letters and speeches in Lincoln’s own hand. Lincoln didn’t have a Ted Sorensen, Peggy Noonan, or Christopher Buckley on speed dial to pen a few trenchant lines covering the topic du jour. So, he wrote his own material. The show isn’t large—but the letters are offered without printed translation, so it takes a while to read the 19th century handwriting  There are  a couple of artifacts too, such as a life mask and his pen and inkwell. The show’s great. By all means take the general tour of the library too. We tagged onto it for thirty minutes and it was fantastic.

"Is that a Sumerian PEZ dispenser in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?"
The Morgan doesn’t have huge crowds. It looks as if most patrons there had good SATs, went to more competitive colleges, and are physically fit. If they were to start a bar, it would be a good place to meet guys named Hollingsworth. Indeed, I cruised the young members’ reception photos online, and frankly, it looked as if a bar at The Morgan could give Grindr a run for its money.

After some lunch (Thai), we went back downtown for a 3:30 pm tour of the Woolworth Building.

The Woolworth Building was the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930 and remains one of New York City’s Iconic Skyscrapers.  Since 9-11 the building has been closed to the public so you can’t wander through pretending that you’re on your way to meet your white shoe law firm or the person handling the trust established for your health and well-being by your great aunt Marge.

Woolworth stores were the Walmart—or would that be Amazon?-of the day, and Frank W. Woolworth put up the tallest building in the world both as advertisement and investment. The construction of the building was accompanied by an unprecedented PR campaign. When it was time to open the building, President Woodrow Wilson flicked a switch in Washington DC and turned all the Woolworth Building's lights on. As my friend Martha is wont to say, "You can’t buy that kind of publicity."  Interestingly enough, the Woolworth Company only used a floor or two of the building, and the rest of it was rental space.
Enterprising architectural historians have received permission from the building’s management to offer tours of the building’s lobby. Since only the lobby is open, you don’t go upstairs to see the early 20th century version of a cube farm, F.W. Woolworth’s private office, or the view of Lower Manhattan from 700 feet up.
Cass Gilbert, Architect of the Woolworth Building
The tour is pricey, but it’s worth the dough, especially if you’re interested in architecture. Our guide was Barbara Christen, a real live Cass Gilbert expert, not something you run into every day.

The lobby is covered in marble, glass mosaics, and enough gothic detailing to make the Hunchback of Notre Dame feel at home. The opulence of the lobby more than makes up for not seeing a vintage cube farm upstairs.

Architect Cass Gilbert holds a model of the Woolworth Building.
Owner Frank W. Woolworth counts coins.
One of the highlights of the tour are carved corbels of different men involved in the building’s construction—Cass Gilbert, Woolworth, the rental agent, and so on. I can’t see Donald Trump doing anything like this; then again, what stone carver could do justice to The Donald’s hair?

There were thirty of us on the tour none of them looked like likely candidates for their own reality show unless perhaps it was about wearing corduroy and trying to keep an old Volvo on the road.  Barbara did a great job dealing with the loud party music coming out of the rental spaces—she acted as if it happens every day and just ignored it. New Yorkers seem to have sang froid to spare.

The building is a construction site—it’s going condo—and the spaces we toured looked as if they could use a good cleaning, or at least to have the burned out light bulbs replaced. Presumably that will happen—it’s hard to sell an expensive condo when the remainder of the building is starting to look like the architectural equivalent of Miss Havisham.

The Ear Inn, one of New York's classic dive bars.
After the tour, it was time for a power nap and dinner at the Ear Inn—as modest as Woolworth is grand, and as crowded as Woolworth was empty. There were lots of other things to see in New York, but they’d have to wait until the next trip.