Saturday, October 29, 2011

New York Stories (1)

Where should we begin with telling you the story of our first couple of days in this amazing city? Oh yes, that's right! With one of Jamie's now-infamous pan shots, of course, taken from what is known around town as 'Top of the Rock' – the top observation deck of the main tower in the Rockefeller Centre, which gives you a 360° view of Manhattan.

This is the first part of two pan shots, looking north over Central Park.

And this is from the other side of the tower, looking south, over the Empire State Building.

The whole visit to Top of the Rock is designed to amaze. Once you get past the queues and security, the elevator ride to the 75th top floor was a trip in itself. As soon as the doors closed, the lights went out in the lift. All 12 of us crammed in the lift groaned, and then the light show began, overhead. The lift has a glass roof, and as we took off the elevator shaft lit up with blue lights narrowing all the way to the pinpoint high above us, then whoosh we flew upstairs to the observation deck.

Before all that, however, they ask you if you want to sit for a cheesy tourist photo where you look like you're falling off one of the steel girders on the construction tower, and we weren't too sensible to say no to that!

However, let's rewind for just a moment, all the way back to ground level. Getting used to New York is the first challenge to face here. For one thing it's noisy. Every taxi driver blasts his horn about every 10 seconds or so. The ambulances, cop cars and fire engines have even louder horns, and they love to use the ones which sound like ocean liners, or semi-automatic machine guns, to get their 'let me through' message across. Then there are the tall buildings. Lots of them, everywhere, stretching for miles in every direction. There are so many you can never see the sun and you have no idea which way is north, south, east or west. And every sidewalk is crowded. People walk fast here, most with their heads down as if on a mission.

We of course walk slowly and frequently consult our map. We're not alone, though. There are lots of lost tourists here, speaking every known language on the planet. No-one, not no-one, asks where you're from (unlike the South, where it happened virtually everywhere we went). When we do bother to lift our heads from the map, we see famous buildings, like the beautiful Art Deco Chrysler Tower.

If we turn right three short blocks from our hotel room, then look up, there's the Empire State Building. If you think these blue skies are typical here, don't be fooled. It rained all day yesterday, today was cool (max of 50°F) and tomorrow snow is forecast, as well as temps in the low 40s, maybe even the 30s. When I saw those forecasts, I knew today (Friday here in New York) was the perfect day to head for the Rockefeller Centre and that wonderful view across the city.

And so it proved. I simply cannot put into words the sensation of being so high up in the sky, looking out on such a massive city. The only thing I can say is that the moment I saw all of Manhattan and New York in one hit, it ceased to be the mystery to me that it was when all I could see of it was from down on the ground. I'm ready to really enjoy the place now (but I think Pammy has been enjoying it from the moment we arrived).

This south-eastern view from 30 Rock overlooks the taller Empire State Building, and off to the right, in the harbour, you can just make out the Statue of Liberty.

Pam's ultra-zoom brought it a bit closer, but the lady is still shrouded in mystery for me. Must get up closer with a ride on the Staten Island Ferry in the next few days.

There's actually a series of observation decks at 30 Rock, and one of them was being used to express some high hopes for this bride and groom.

Standing back down at ground level, the 30 Rock Building itself is actually a series of buildings which stretch between 5th and 6th Avenues, also spanning the breadth of three streets.

At the base of the building the skating rink was filled with lunchtime ballet stars.

It's a lively place filled with people, and that's a feature of virtually every street and avenue here: a press of people, everywhere. Can you spot the blogger in the crowd?

One lovely little detail in the plaza next to the ice rink was the cabbage art plantings here.

Rows upon rows of ornamental kales in reds and greens, all perfectly grown.

Yesterday was our first day out and about, and to cut a long story short the first thing we learned was how to get around on the Subway. It's pretty easy, really (just get a Metrocard: ours is the one-week unlimited for $29, which lets you ride the Subway and local buses an unlimited number of times). This is the Natural History Museum, which has its own Subway stop – and I mean its own stop. You get off the Subway train, walk to the exit, go through the doors and join the queue to enter the Museum. The Museum itself was a bit of a dud, with a lot of exhibits closed for repairs, plus huge crowds jamming all corridors and exhibits. It was a very dated old museum that seemed like how museums were about 25-30 years ago.

Much better, infinitely better, was the JP Morgan Library which we visited in the afternoon. Forgive this photo, which is actually a photo of the postcard I bought there, as cameras are strictly banned inside there. JP Morgan was one of the original American financial tycoons of the late 19th century, and his library has the most extraordinary collection of books I have ever seen. It has the Gutenberg Bible (the first book ever printed using movable type): it has Jane Austen's draft of one of her novels in her own handwriting (a tidy hand it is too); it has a handwritten letter by Thomas Jefferson (another nice hand); a 9th-Century Bible whose cover was encrusted with gold leaf and countless rubies, emeralds, diamonds and other gems. I could go on and on listing all the treasures here, but there are too many. And then there is this magnificent room with its illustrated ceilings in which the whole collection is contained and guarded by the over-zealous officials which seem to be common to all the galleries we have visited over here.

But I really should tear myself away from great libraries to tell you how excited I was to see steam coming out from this manhole cover. Ever since I saw Francis Ford Coppola's film 'Rumblefish' back in the 70s I've wanted to see steam coming out from manhole covers, and now I have. Almost as good as seeing the Gutenberg Bible, it is.

And this afternoon Pammy and I stood in wonderment beneath the railway line running through Queens. All it lacked was a car chase to be perfect.

However, at this stage I really ought to hit the pause button. The reason for us being under this railway line in Queens is that we were off to see a sublime sculpture garden, and that's what we'll show you next time here in New York Stories.

PS: what about Tummy Time New York? The short answer is that our taste buds are already back in Sydney, with any and every ethnic food you can imagine on offer, all cooked to a very high standard. Never fear, we're accumulating a dossier (burp!) and will report in.

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