Return to New York: the best-laid plans

As I write this, it’s raining on Manhattan like a punishment.  I don’t recall seeing (or feeling) rain in such sweeping driving torrents outside Africa and Asia, except possibly in earlier years in New York, so perhaps we shouldn’t suspect that it’s all down to global warming, or global wetting.  Hurrying back this evening from a spectacularly good, cheap, unpretentious Chinese restaurant just two blocks away from the hotel, we got so wet, so comprehensively soaked and waterlogged, that we looked as if we had just climbed out of the East River.  This creates logistical problems when one is living out of a suitcase, optimistically packed in hopes of warm sunshine next week in California.  Already our one flimsy umbrella is showing signs of strain, as if about to blow inside-out in the streaming gale.  If it does, I shall gaily toss it away, pretending to be Gene Kelly splashing in and out of the flooded gutter and waving his sodden hat at the cop.

We have been brutally reminded that New Yorkers must hold the world record for umbrella ownership and usage.  At the first warning sprinkle, every sidewalk sprouts umbrellas like mushrooms, as in Les Parapluies, and every brolly is wielded like an aggressive weapon, clashing relentlessly with oncoming brollies in a game of wet chicken.  All are held at the same altitude and there’s no air traffic control to order a quick dive or climb to avert mid-air collision.

J and I lived in Manhattan for nearly five years in the 1960s, had our third child and only son here, and loved the famous buzz of the place.  Then it seemed like the world’s leading edge, a vision of the future and it worked, more or less.  We’ve been back dozens of times since then, most recently almost every year since our daughter married an American and came to live in Manhattan with two American (and British) daughters of her own.  So we’ve been well placed to monitor change.  Yet even now, almost forty years since we left in 1968, hardly anything of significance seems to have changed, except that what looked to us, Europeans, like the future in the 60s has gradually begun to look like the past in 2005.

Some things reflect the technology of the new century.  Our hotel, although old-fashioned and slightly tatty in a very New Yorkish sort of way, now boasts broadband internet access for its guests.  Interrogation of the two fortyish desk clerks at reception reveals that (a) the hotel charges ten dollars a day to rent what they call ‘the broadband box’, (b) they don’t distinguish between the terms ‘broadband’ and ‘cable’, (c) they have never heard of wi-fi or even of the possibility of a wireless internet connection a broadband internet connection and (d) they are happily unaware that a wi-fi-enabled laptop anywhere in the hotel will instantly recognise about 15 wi-fi hotspots in easy range, of which three or four are unsecured and need no password or code in order to join the fun, all for free.  The connection I’m using at the moment is a good many times faster than my broadband connection at home in London.  Of course this opens up faintly worrying possibilities of being hacked into or even finding the laptop electronically commandeered by some computer nerd in the next block.  The nerd would be very well placed to use his wireless network for the ensnaring of unsuspecting hotel guests at the very moment when they are congratulating themselves on their skill in the dark arts of getting online for nothing and doing the hotel out of ten bucks a day.  How can you tell, for example, whether it’s really me writing this, or the nerd in the next block?

This morning, half sceptical about the weather forecast of incessant rain for the next 36 hours minimum, we got the bus along Lexington to Bloomingdales, shoppers’ Nirvana, where unbelievably we actually used to shop you know, buy things when we lived in New York in the 1960s.  The store is if anything even more glamorously, lavishly appointed than at any time in the intervening four decades.  Everything in it is farcically expensive, including especially its clientele, very tall and beautiful expensive blonde women aged from 15 to 75, escorted by very tall, imperfectly shaved and expensively but faux-casually dressed men aged from 23 to 27.  We loitered bemused around the menswear section, marvelling that there could be human creatures who would actually buy the stuff.  We admired a carefully crumpled linen jacket with a price tag of $1,499.99 (plus, of course, tax).  It didn’t seem to be a Sale price.

In the afternoon we set off in our still dripping rainwear with our granddaughter and her school-friend (the other granddaughter is currently in Disneyland in Florida with another schoolfriend; there’s always someone worse off than oneself) to visit the newly re-built and re-furbished Museum of Modern Art, which we knowingly call MoMA to show that we’re still adopted New Yorkers at heart.  Clockwork would not be an entirely accurate description of the way our plans worked out.  Spurning any idea of a yellow cab a drop of rain never hurt anyone, and anyway while we waited for a taxi we’d probably miss three perfectly good dry, warm buses we stood at the bus-stop in the torrential, gale-driven downpour for what seemed like a couple of hours, but which was probably hardly any more than 20 minutes, while the yellow cabs streamed past us, spraying muddy rainwater onto our lower limbs:  climbed dripping onto the cross-town bus as far as Sixth Avenue:  waited for another hour or three for a bus up Sixth Avenue: finally got one:  and pressed the yellow strip to request the next stop which we calculated would be at W 53rd Street, just a wet stone’s-throw from MoMA.  But the bus ploughed on through the flood and didn’t stop again until 57th Street.  So we waded back along 57th Street to Fifth Avenue and eventually got yet another bus back to 53rd Street.  And at MoMA we found a dripping line of pig-headed parents with their mutinous children behind MoMA barriers, waiting for admission to the sacred shrine.  A uniformed MoMA lady votary[1] in command of the entrance rituals assured us unsmilingly that if we joined the end of the line, snaking back almost as far as Sixth Avenue, we would only have to wait for about 20 minutes in the driving rain before reaching the holy places, at that point earning the right to a place in the next line for tickets and the third for the cloakroom where we could shed our sodden outerwear.  We waded gamely to the end of the line, and calculated that, with more luck than we deserved, we might actually be looking at our first modern painting in around an hour and a half, by which time it would hardly be modern any more.  So we trudged back to the stop for the 50th Street cross-town bus, urged on by the vision of a warm dry Starbucks and huge cardboard cups of hot chocolate.  MoMA can wait for another day;  probably another year, maybe more.

For some reason I keep remembering the more risible things about our arrival from Heathrow at Kennedy airport last Saturday afternoon.  The way the immigration officer, Mr Zhou, half infuriated and half wryly amused, couldn’t get J’s finger-tips to register for finger-printing on his red-backlit glass plate (“press down harder.  Harder.  No, harder please.  Sir, would you graciously press down on your lady’s finger?  No, I’m sure you haven’t broken it.  Just a bit harder, please.  Please“).  Happily, he seemed to have a better grasp of the technology for photographing our irises, although how that would help the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security to catch a terrorist remained mysterious.  Anyway, hadn’t we solemnly checked (ticked) the No box opposite the question on our immigration forms:  Are you or have you ever been a terrorist? A crafty trap for al-Qa’eda, that one.

Then there was the Pinterish dialogue at the Ground Transportation desk in the terminal at JFK as we sought a place on the mini-bus shuttle to Manhattan.

“Can we get the shuttle to Manhattan here, please?”

[Reluctantly opening eyes and surveying us without enthusiasm:]   “All right.”

“How much does it cost, please?”

“You want the $24 shuttle or the $37?”

“What’s the difference between the $24 and the $37, exactly?”

“One costs $24, the other costs $37.  Which you want?”

“Well, does the more expensive one get there more quickly?”

“No, they’re both the same speed.  Which you want?”

“Then is the more expensive one a more comfortable bus?”

“No, the cars [reprovingly] are the same. [With growing irritation:]  Which you want, $24 or $37?”

[Ground Transportation official lounging at corner of desk, suddenly regaining consciousness like the dormouse in Alice:]  “Thuh only difference is the price, like she says.”

It turned out to be a small mini-bus, crammed with passengers and baggage and driven extremely aggressively by a pleasant Muslim Arab with a Falstaffian laugh.  We never did discover what further comforts would have been available for the additional thirteen bucks.

*  *  *  *

Later: As it turns out, the MoMA experience, or lack of it, wasn’t unique.  Our daughter took a day off work to come with us and our granddaughter to Ellis Island we’ve been there before, since the immigration exhibition opened, but we wanted to return now that J has done a lot more family history in recent years.  Emerging from the subway at the Battery into warm sunshine (at last), we found an enormous line of patient people, three or four deep, winding all the way round the park and disappearing from view somewhere near the water.  There were no signs to indicate what the lines were for, or where to line up for any particular ferry: and no official in sight to provide such information.  “Must be a line for the buses?”, suggested our old friend B., our trusty guide to New Yorkery these forty years.  Enquiries revealed that some were in line for Ellis Island, some for the Statue of Liberty:  one even thought she was in line for the Staten Island Ferry.  Worse:  the average estimate of the wait to get aboard a ferry, any ferry, from the end of the line was 3-1/2 hours.  Worse still:  these were people who had already stood in another line for up to two hours to buy their ferry tickets.  We inspected the line for tickets.  Two hours looked as if it could be a conservative estimate.  Our daughter had to be back in her Manhattan office for a meeting in the late afternoon.  We abandoned Ellis Island and took the Staten Island ferry instead.

On Staten Island a vast lack of signposts or other sources of information gave little indication of how we might find our way to Historic Richmond.  Our daughter eventually dragged out of the bottom of her bag a Staten Island brochure which we had coincidentally ordered online to be sent to her apartment.  This told us the bus route from the ferry to Historic Richmond, but not when Historic Richmond was open to the public.  A call to Historic Richmond on our daughter’s cellphone disclosed that Historic Richmond didn’t open until 1 pm.  It looked as if the bus trip each way would leave us about 10 minutes after 1 o’clock to look round the historic reconstruction if our daughter was going to get back for her meeting (and certainly no time for any lunch, admittedly not a defining factor).  We abandoned the idea of Historic Richmond, took a bus to a caf-bar on the waterfront for lunch, and got the ferry back to Manhattan.

Next day we offered to satisfy our granddaughter’s long-standing wish to visit the Empire State Building for the famous Skyride, a simulated aerial tour of New York City.  We were met by the now familiar sight of a line of patient sight-seers snaking round from the main entrance to the building and reaching back along E34th Street as far as the eye could see.  While J and our granddaughter trudged along to the end of the line, I went to the front of it at the entrance to the building to ask if we had to stand in the line if all we wanted was the Skyride.  I was referred to a genial fellow in a sort of uniform with an ancient ticket-printing machine slung over his shoulder.  “Sure,” said the genial fellow, “I can sell you Skyride tickets right here and you and your folk can go right on in, no need to stand in line.”  I promised to be back within five minutes with my wife and granddaughter.  When I got back after retrieving them, the genial fellow with the ticket machine had vanished.  Another man, in the same sort of uniform, markedly less genial, was now guarding the sacred portal.  “Skyride?”, we said.  “When you get inside the building,” said the not so genial man.  “Your colleague said if we only wanted the Skyride, we could go straight in without standing in line.”  “You have to stand in line to get inside the building,” explained the ungenial man.  He dived sideways to intercept an elderly couple brandishing Skyride tickets that they had bought in advance, online, and printed out.  “You have to stand in line,” he pointed out to them.  “But we have our tickets”  “That saves you having to stand in the Skyride line after you get inside the building.”  The elderly couple looked stricken.  We asked how long it would take to get from the end of the line into the building so that we could join the Skyride line inside it.  The man gestured to a notice which warned that current waiting time was two hours.  We recalled having seen on the Skyride website that “The New York SKYRIDE is a 20 minute experience that includes a 5 minute Comedy Central pre-show skit followed by a pre-boarding safety instructional video which leads to the 8 minute ride.”  Waiting in line for two hours tgo get into the building in order to stand in another line for the Skyride in order to experience an 8-minute ride seemed somehow out of proportion.  We congratulated ourselves on not having bought tickets online purely because we couldn’t print them out from the laptop in the hotel bedroom.  Tickets to the Skyride and the observation deck for two septuagenarians and a teenager (14) would have cost us USD $81.00.  We reflected that almost all our sight-seeing plans had been frustrated, and it wasn’t even April yet.  Can things be even worse in the summer?

We went for a pleasant walk round the Village and had lunch in a coffee-shop doing vaguely Japanese food.  The shrimp tempura was excellent.

[1] Definitions of votary on the Web:
* one bound by vows to a religion or life of worship or service; “monasteries of votaries”
* a priest or priestess (or consecrated worshipper) in a non-Christian religion or cult; “a votary of Aphrodite”
* a devoted (almost religiously so) adherent of a cause or person or activity; “the cultured votary of science”.

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