Wednesday, October 31, 2012

~ Autumn in New York ~

Times Square, New York
It’s one of those I-had-to-pinch-myself moments but instead I check myself in on Facebook right away, complete with a picture that I’ve just snapped. The location: “Times Square” – Isn’t this what people do in 2012 when they discover themselves in an awestruck situation like this? They share it with their fellow Facebookers and pocket their “LIKEs”???

I’m after all standing on this famed avenue simply known as “Broadway” surrounded by bright neon-lit signboards of various brands and musicals including “Wicked”, “The Lion King” and “Mamamia”.

Well, Mamamia, indeed! Finally, here I am at this world-famous crossroads where people of different stripes, hues and shapes from all corners of the world unite.

New York, to my delight, is just the way I imagined it, nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps, to an extent, many of us visitors are already familiar with the city before making the actual visit.  Through movies, books, photographs and stories told, we somehow get the idea of what is to come or expect. The smell and smoke coming from the hot-dog stands, the busy New Yorkers on the go with lattes in hand, the maddening street chaos caused by the holidaymakers and the big yellow taxis. Or how about those tall, tall buildings that tower above us?

With overall 5937 high-rise buildings, New York can be quite detaining and oppressive from street level, especially in midtown Manhattan area where one can be constantly encircled by its skyscrapers one way or another. In fact, some of these landmark buildings are what bring 50million tourists a year and are hugely associated with the image of the city. Among them, the biggest star of course, is The Empire State building, one of very few skyscrapers in the world that enjoys the cultural icon status, very much in the same way Marilyn or Sinatra, partially due to her unforgettable starring role in the movie “King Kong” (1933). No, unfortunately it was not an Oscar nominated role for her but it has led to countless other cameo appearances and references in pop culture until today. The first ever building to have more than 100 floors, the Empire State Building is best visited on a clear sunny day to fully appreciate its two observatory decks that offer visitors with 360-degree views of the city.
The Empire State Building

The Chrysler Building seen from the Empire State Building 
Worshipped by many contemporary architects as the finest building of New York, this next Art Deco structure, standing at 1,046 ft, defeated the building which now known as the Trump tower in the race and enjoyed a short-lived 11 month reign as the world tallest building until The Empire State Building surpassed her for the crown in 1931. Nevertheless, the Chrysler Building will always have her magnificent terraced crown, thanks to the Brooklyn-born architect William Van Alen who, legend has it that, had to fight bitterly in court to get his fees paid but effectively got his career ruined as a result of the legal battle with the commissioner, Walter P Chrysler. There is no observation desk at the Chrysler, as, I believe, she is only to be seen and admired from the decks of her Art Deco siblings, The Empire State Building and The Rokefeller Centre and very soon One World Trade Centre, the brand new building, being constructed in lower Manhattan.

Rockefeller Centre
Once completed in mid 2013, 1 WTC will become the tallest building in the western hemisphere and hold the record of the priciest single structure ever built with the cost of nearly 4 billion dollars. In the same complex lies the national memorial in which nearly 3000 innocent lives killed in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and six people killed in the bombing of WTC in February 1993 are remembered with two identical reflective pools, about an acre each in size. The names of every person who lost their lives are inscribed into bronze panels edging around the pools that feature two of the largest artificial waterfalls.

9/11 Memorial
As I stand here along with fellow visitors, many in somber mood, some with tears in their eyes, I try to imagine the twin towers that used to stand on this very ground. My memory of the twin towers before 9/11 is vague but the images of rescuers and survivors covered in blood, dust and rubbles that were repeatedly played out in the media after the attacks are still vivid. How could we forget that ill-fated day  or how our world has been drastically changed by this tragedy? Years have gone by and the city has clearly moved on but I doubt that there is even a day where New Yorkers don’t think about that ordeal they grappled with. May the departed souls rest in peace and their loved ones find peace.

No park in the world is as celebrated as the Central Park. Over 300 movies have been made here, making it the most filmed location in the world, an iconic status rightfully earned. A walk through its orchards, ponds and lakes opens out not only to its usual habitats; friendly squirrels, busy sparrows and quacking ducks but also its daily guests, those lucky ones who enjoy the privilege to run, bike, exercise or walk their dogs in this breathtaking greenery. A young dad is pushing his little girl on the swing while a make-up artist gets his model ready for a photo shoot on a park bench. I pass by three construction workers taking a break from their grueling job, enjoying their packed lunches. This 883-acre land has been coexisting next to the concrete jungle yet doing a marvelous job of providing a much-needed oasis, a breathing space, to the residents since opening in 1857.

Central Park
Metropolitan Museum of Art, or The Met as it’s fondly known, is the mother of all art museums in the United States that could easily rival The Louvre in Paris or The Prado in Madrid. One could certainly spend a day to be able to get through all of its exhibits. From Medieval to Modern art, Arts of Ancient Egypt, Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas as well as an extensive collection of musical instruments, sculptures and photographs. In addition to the museum’s permanent displays, luckily for me, a photography enthusiast and Andy Wahol fan, currently there are two special temporary exhibits which will run until the year’s end,  “Faking it; manipulated photography before Photoshop” and “Regarding Warhol: Sixty Artists, Fifty Years” which not only showcases over 50 works of the famous artist but also paintings, sculpture and films by sixty other artists who are influenced and inspired by Warhol’s revolutionary work.  

The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The only upset for me though is the momentary closing of The Costume Institute section due to the renovation work being carried out. That means no McQueen’s Lobster-claw shoes, the Chanel exhibit or all things touched and blessed by Anna Wintour. Well, never mind, I console myself with a broad collection of impressionist paintings. Van Gogh’s “self-portrait with straw hat”, many ballerina-inspired works of Edgar Degas including “The Dance Class”, Seurat’s study piece for what later became one of his most celebrated pointillist works, “A Sunday afternoon on the island La Grande Jatte”, not to mention countless other art works by Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Gauguin and the list goes on, are dotingly housed at The Met for one gigantic cultural visual feast for its visitors.

Theatre lovers will be pleased to know this; New York’s very own, Broadway shows sold 1 billion dollars worth of tickets in 2011. Theatre is alive and kicking in New York after all. With very limited time I have here, juggling between sightseeing and meeting up with friends I have not seen in a long time, I manage to catch at least one Broadway musical. The hottest tickets in town are the recent multiple Tony-award winner, “The Book Of Mormon” and the revival of “Evita” starring Ricky Martin (No, not as Evita of course!) However, I opt for, what I have always longed to see, “The Phantom Of The Opera”. My first ever Broadway experience has to be a standard, a classic, not Vegas-style  “Spiderman” or “The Lion King” (although I would not mind seeing any of them if I had more time) Majestic theatre has been the home to this longest running musical in Broadway history since it premiered in January 1988. It is a packed house tonight. Folks sitting next to me are mumbling in Spanish and the row in front has a family of five Korean tourists. Many of us here may not have seen the musical but are familiar with its legendary songs by Andrew Lloyd Webber such as “All I Ask Of You” and “Music Of The Night”. The massive chandelier that dramatically goes up and down during the show, the ascending/descending intro of Phantom theme and that soaring soprano of Christine are all there delighting the audience in this historic venue. All of us are hypnotized not only by the menacing Phantom also by the magic of live music and acting that transcends language barriers and cultures.

As the cultural capital of the world, New York, without a doubt, has the most dynamic gastronomic scene. Apart from American diners that serve classic American guilty pleasures, such as Burgers, Wraps, Steak & Fries in enormous portions that could easily shock first-time visitors, it is not at all strange to find an Afghan restaurant, a Turkish Kebab place or an authentic Burmese eatery situated within a short distance away from each other. I bump into one restaurant in the East Village that specializes in Chinese-Spanish cuisine, two blocks down from a Hokien noodles joint that I love.  Although I am not sure what their fusion food must be like, their East-meets-West concept certainly gets my attention.

“Where can we get the best pastrami in New York?” I ask my close friend, a Brooklyn resident. Within 15 minutes, we find ourselves in a thriving restaurant where people line up to get food, to find a table and to make payment after meals. Yes, in a true high-school canteen fashion but sans cheerleaders and a teacher on duty. Katz’s Delicatessen, it’s called. The walls of the restaurant are filled with picture frames of sport stars, politicians and various celebrities who dined here over the years. A big sign hangs from the ceiling that says, “Where Harry met Sally… Hope you have what she had” making a reference to the memorable scene from the movie “When Harry Met Sally” which was filmed here. Despite its modest setting and reasonable prices, this is one of the best meals I’ve had in New York. A large pastrami sandwich, a Matzo balls soup and a plate of hand-cut fries; the food, simple yet delicious, speaks for itself.

The Open-rooftop buses offer cheap and efficient sightseeing options for tourists providing routes to and fro from mid-town, downtown to the Bronx, Harlem and Brooklyn. In all major cities in the United States, these bus companies employ human guides instead of audio guide with multiple languages, which is more common in other parts of the world. Naturally, it is fun and exciting to have a live commentary for those of us who speak English. But I find that it is quite limiting and unfair for tourists who don’t. What are they supposed to do? Sit and watch us interact with the guide and participate in quizzes and questions, while having no clue what’s going on. Nevertheless, here in New York, these buses are on time; the drivers and tour guides are very friendly, charismatic and cheerful. Plus the competition here is stiff. There are many but lines operating in the city. One thing though, to sit on the open-top bus for hours is quite a summer thing to do, I must say. New York in winter or even during autumn can be at times wet or painfully cold especially when the icy wind that blows across Hudson River gets trapped by the buildings and effectively housed within only to generate a maximum cooling effect.

New York metro is not only the best and most efficient mode of transportation it is also an ideal place to hide out from the cold… even for a while. It is safe, moderately clean and very well connected that even those who don’t know the city can get around without having problems. Policemen and women are also there to help out during peak hours or when there are big sporting events and concerts. The presence of NYPD (New York Police Department), though not intimidating, can be felt all throughout the city. In some touristy areas, friendly NYPD officers are found posing with their horses for pictures with tourists.

Although it may not be a cup of tea for folks who dislike heights, shaky situations or being claustrophobic, or worse, splurging 200 bucks for a ride that lasts no more than 20 minutes, viewing the city from a helicopter is by far the most spectacular and memorable thing a tourist can do in this city. Let’s just call it a treat. The ride starts with an aerial view of Brooklyn then the symbol of American dream, the statue of Liberty, which despite its 46-meter height looks miniature from up above, and Ellis Island, once the checkpoint for immigrants who came to America from the sea, then finishes with the famous skyscrapers of Manhattan. As for me, the image of the liberty statue against the backdrop of New York’s mighty skyline will forever be tattooed in my memory.

One World Trade Centre seen from a helicopter

A section of former elevated New York Central Railroad in the meatpacking district has gone through a complete revamp and been reintroduced as a liner park with a fancy name, “The High Line”. This 1-mile long stretch of greenway offers a unique angle of New York. From it, one could observe a glimpse of New York lifestyle, the neighborhoods where people actually live, work and raise family, the graffiti-filled walls expressing beliefs, values and opinions or simply people in motion. Recycling work at its best, this old railway is brilliantly transformed into an urban park with 210 species of plants, an out-door theatre, street performers and roadside stalls at weekends, cafés and even sunbathing decks. Without the annoyance of vehicles and traffic fume, the High Line is one of the most pleasant city promenades that one could ever take. Even better, this activity doesn’t cost a dime.

The New York Skyline from a ferry to Staten Island
Not many people are aware of the fact that New York, after changing its Dutch colonial name, New Amsterdam under English control in 1664, served as the capital for a short period of time, from 1785 to 1790. This city also has experienced its fair share of both tragedies and triumphs. One of its accomplishments has always been accommodating immigrants and providing a home base to all citizens of the world. New York has always been a dream or a standard of many, also both a starting point and a finish line. It attracts opportunities and those who seek them. I feel at ease here. I don’t feel different for I am surrounded by differences. New York to me is a coat of many colors, textures and outlines. Maybe it is the very reason it can keep us all warm and cozy.

On my last morning, armed with a latte, the seasonal pumpkin spice flavor from Starbucks, and a 4-dollar hot dog, I enjoy a little stroll around Times Square. No camera, no agenda and no friend. It’s just me and I try to just… be. Where I came from and where I call home are the complete opposite of what I have been experiencing for the past four weeks. I am hugely inspired by the city’s energy and a tad too envious of its colorful residents. “But is the grass really greener on the other side?” I wonder.

I am a visitor. I’m merely looking in. If I want to be a part of it, if I one day decide to melt away my little town blues, I know that I can for I have an open invite.

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