Weekend in the Big Apple

On October 14, Gail and I celebrated our 15th wedding anniversary. We knew that we wouldn’t be going anywhere overseas this summer (after UK last year and France the year before), but we love to travel, so for our anniversary we decided to go to New York City. I had been there twice before, once in 1992 and once in about 1996. Both times were for work, and both times I flew down in the morning and back in the evening so I didn’t get to do much sightseeing. Gail and the boys had never been at all. We knew there would be lots to see and do, but it’s driving distance so the only travel costs were gas and time. Google Maps said it was between 7 and 8 hours, which turned out to be fairly accurate discounting gas/lunch/bathroom stops, construction, and traffic. I’m not going to go through each day and describe what we did. That would just take too long. I’ll just comment on stuff I feel like commenting on.

We stayed at the Affinia Manhattan at 31st and 7th, kitty-corner to Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. For a studio room, it was actually quite spacious and the beds were comfortable. The bathroom was tiny but for three days, it was fine. It was pretty expensive compared to hotels almost anywhere else, but for mid-town Manhattan it was pretty reasonable. We would have preferred a hotel further north (in between Times Square and Central Park would have been perfect) but the location wasn’t bad.

We visited the Sony Wonder Technology Lab on Friday. It was pretty cool – lots of hands-on stuff so the boys were happy. There was a timeline of technology showing the earliest cell phones, Walkmans (Walkmen?), radios, and stuff like that, even a Commodore PET computer, which is what I started programming on in high school lo these many years ago. (I’m not sure I used “lo” properly there, but whatever. I just hope this person doesn’t get a hold of my blog and rip it to shreds. But I digress. Oops, began a sentence with “But” there. Sorry, digressing again.) Anyway, the lab was cool and tickets were free, so it was a nice way to spend a couple of hours.

We drove instead of flying but I really had no interest in driving in Manhattan. I can be an aggressive driver if I have to, but Manhattan is just another story altogether. Every block would take forever, there are thousands of taxis driving wherever the hell they want (“lanes? We don’t need no stinking lanes!”), and pedestrians cross against the lights and in the middle of the block all over the place. No thanks. Not to mention that parking is about a million dollars an hour – and that’s US dollars! On the advice of a friend of Gail’s, we drove to Newark airport and parked in a long-term lot there. The parking lot had a shuttle that took us to the airport itself and then we took a New Jersey Transit subway directly to Penn Station. The parking turned out to be more expensive than we wanted ($12/day for 3 days comes to $64? WTF?) but by the time we were paying for it, we had a nine-hour drive ahead of us and we couldn’t be bothered arguing about it so we just paid and left. Other than that, the Newark airport solution worked quite well. The subway into Manhattan on Friday morning was pretty full but even with our suitcases it was pretty painless.

Times Square is unbelievable. Billboards on top of billboards, each five stories tall. Neon and flashing lights everywhere. Several large screens, one of which must have been hi-def since it was unbelievably clear, even from a hundred feet away. Normally it was pretty busy and kind of fun, but we happened to walk through around 9:00 on Saturday night, and there must have been several thousand people milling about. That night, it was a little scary to walk through with the kids, especially after seeing the homeless guy drinking Listerine and having some random guy come up and take a picture of Ryan. This was no picture of the crowd where Ryan happened to be at the front – he stopped, pointed his SLR camera directly at Ryan’s face from under ten feet away and snapped a picture. He didn’t say a word and then vanished into the crowd. To say that this was a little creepy would be the understatement of the century.

American stuff that used to be in Canada that we (that is to say I) miss: The Olive Garden. Snapple. Cherry Coke. Dear Coca-Cola Canada, three words: Cherry Coke Zero. KTHXBYE.

Drivers honk their horns a lot in New York. A lot. No, seriously, a lot. Most drivers in New York use their horns more often than their turn signals. I’m sure that New York is the only city in the world where it’s commonplace to take your car to the garage to have its horn replaced because it’s worn out. After witnessing the driving in New York for a few days, I’ve come to realize why. Here are some things a New York driver might say as he honks his horn:

  • I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t change lanes right in front of me, my friend!
  • Perhaps you haven’t yet noticed that the light turned from red to green at least ten milliseconds ago.
  • I am turning left/right soon (instead of signals)
  • I am moving into the lane to my left/right (instead of signals)
  • Pardon me sir, but might I trouble you to move a tad forward or back so that I may join you in that lane?
  • Hey! Get the fuck out my fucking way you fucking fuck! (This is the most popular reason)
  • The Yankees/Mets/Rangers/Islanders/Knicks/Giants/Jets/Titans won last night! Woo hoo!
  • The Yankees won the World Series last year! Woo hoo!
  • The Rangers won the Stanley Cup in 1994! Woo hoo!
  • Look! When I press the middle of the steering wheel, it makes a noise! Cool!
  • I am a taxi driver
  • I am an ambulance / police car / fire truck driver – I was amazed at how few people moved over to let emergency vehicles through even with lights a-blazing and sirens a-wailing.

Funniest business sign: “Sienna the Psychic” above the address, and “Clairvoint” below. Using my own powers (from the spiritual and mystical world of logic), I can see that she does not get visited by a lot of teachers or English majors.

A few times on Friday night and Saturday we saw people dressed up as superheroes. We thought maybe these people were going to a costume party at a club or something, but then we saw a whole family dressed up – mom, dad, and two kids. Turns out that New York Comic-Con was on in the city that weekend. You know, because there weren’t enough weird people in New York City already.

Part of 5th Avenue was closed on Sunday for a parade celebrating “Hispanic day”. This, according to our tour bus driver, is a different parade than the one for Mexico. And the one for Cuba. And the Dominican Republic. And several for Puerto Rico. Those parades are for specific Hispanic countries – this one was for Hispanics in general. There are also parades for New Yorkers from Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Norway, India, Pakistan, China, and a bunch of other countries (though not Canada), as well as for Thanksgiving Day, Christmas, Columbus Day, Presidents Day, Veterans Day, and extras like the New York City Marathon and the gay pride parade. Apparently there are parades in New York City every week or two.

Just as we did in Paris and London (and Boston many years ago), we took a double-decker hop-on-hop-off bus tour. This one was from CitySightsNY and the package we got included the uptown tour, downtown tour, and Brooklyn tour (which we didn’t do) for 48 hours, and also included a night tour (which included some of Brooklyn) and even a boat tour down the Hudson River near the Statue of Liberty (the Statue isn’t terribly big, but damn is that thing impressive). The busses were fewer and further between than in London or Paris, but it only really caused us a problem once – there were a zillion people in line for stop #1, so we walked over to the last stop on the tour and got on there, and then just stayed on the bus when we reached stop #1. A little more walking, but we didn’t have to wait in line for an hour. The busses didn’t have prerecorded messages and headphones line the European ones, but there was a tour guide pointing out what we were seeing. They told stories and even some jokes – we heard the same New Jersey joke (“What’s the difference between New Jersey and a jar of yogurt? The yogurt has an active culture.”) from two different tour guides. The bus tours alone were worth the price, but we really enjoyed the boat tour and the night tour as well, other than the fact that photography at night from a moving bus doesn’t always result in the greatest pictures.

I thought that Tim Hortons was a Canadian thing – that there were locations all over Canada but not in the US at all, except maybe for some border towns (Niagara Falls NY, Buffalo, maybe Detroit, that sort of thing). There are at least twelve Tim Hortons in Manhattan (no I didn’t count them, there was a list), including one a block from our hotel. No steeped tea though.

We visited Ground Zero, though there really isn’t much to see since the place is a huge construction zone now. You can see the new tower that’s going up and a bunch of cranes above the fences but that’s it. There is a 9/11 Memorial Preview Site, which is a tiny little place around the corner from the building site. There are pictures, videos, and a timeline of events on that horrible day, as well as a 3D model of what the new WTC complex is going to look like. Considering the number of people in there when we were there, it was pretty quiet and very emotional. There were also videos, pictures, lots of NYPD and FDNY shirts and hats and stuff for sale. These were more expensive than at the souvenir shops around the city, but the money goes towards the 9/11 Memorial.

We went to Ellen’s Stardust Diner (warning: web site plays music with no STFU button) for dinner on Saturday. One waiter grabbed a microphone and the first thing he said was that all the waiters and waitresses wanted to quit. They’re all singers trying to make it on Broadway, so between taking orders and delivering food, they would sing show tunes – this is one of the staples of this restaurant. They even passed around a “collection bucket” for us to donate – the money goes towards singing, dancing, or acting lessons for each member of the wait staff. They were all good singers and it was very entertaining, but I’m not sure I can recommend eating there. The food wasn’t bad but quite expensive. Gail’s had a $16 Cobb salad and my Philly cheesesteak was good but had far more onions and peppers than meat. Ryan had $14 “macaroni and cheese” which turned out to be pasta shells with Velveeta. Ick. Have to say that Nicky’s burger was really good and the fries were excellent. This was by far the most expensive meal we had in New York. But that wasn’t the worst part. We ate downstairs, which turns from a restaurant into a jazz club around 7:30. We didn’t know this when we arrived for dinner around 6:30. Partway into our meal, we noticed that most of the tables near us were empty and nobody was coming in anymore. Waiters began covering up the diner-type decor by closing curtains and putting tablecloths and candles on the empty tables. At another table nearby, more staff started pulling out papers and envelopes and stuff – looked like they were counting up the day’s income. Pretty soon there were only two occupied tables in the whole place. We asked our waitress if they were closing soon, and she told us about the jazz club metamorphosis, but that there was no rush, we could stay as long as we wanted. With a $90-something bill for dinner we weren’t likely to have ordered dessert anyway, but we felt rushed despite her reassurance so we quickly finished and left.

One thing that was a little disappointing was the amount of scaffolding everywhere. I couldn’t begin to count the number of buildings that had scaffolding around them, including the American Museum of Natural History and the immense New York Public Library. There were some pretty impressive old buildings in New York, and obviously they’re going to need maintenance now and again, but it’s too bad we couldn’t see a lot of them because of the scaffolding.

We had a great mini-vacation. By the time we arrived home, we had driven 1501 km, travelled on several busses around Manhattan and Brooklyn, a subway from Newark airport to Penn Station and back, a tram around Newark airport, and a boat down the Hudson River. And my pedometer registered almost 44 km (72012 steps, 27 miles) of walking on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. We walked a marathon in three days.


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