Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Better Late Than Never

The view from my hotel room
Hey, nobody's perfect, right?  I meant to make this post about my post-tax season trip to NYC back right post-tax season, in April, but, well, life, you know?  Whenever someone writes "life, you know," I believe you're obligated to imagine an unshaven Frenchman in his late fifties, sighing the line through a cloud of smoke that he has just exhaled, and just before the non-cigarette-bearing hand brings a glass of red wine to his lips.  Soon after, there will be a wry smile. 

Anyway, I really did have a great trip to the city way back in April.  It was full of delights in all of the areas that I want a vacation to hit: ambulatory, gustatory, cultural, and horizontal.  And let's tackle that last one first: I made the horizontal acquaintance of six guys during my stay.  I realize that is not such a large number, but I was only there for three nights, and I had a lot of other things to do. 

As for the guys, well, I'm sure I'm not the first person to notice that New York is chock full of men who think of themselves as New Yorkers but don't think of themselves as Americans, and five of the six guys matched that description.  I have a thing for men with accents, and these accents, and the accompanying guys, were all just swell.  The sixth guy (who, fortunately, was somewhere in the middle of the order) was actually from Maryland and lives about fifteen miles from me.  He was not swell, and, unfortunately, not long after my return, he hit me up on Scruff, looking for more of the same.  I said no.  Or maybe I just blocked him: I don't remember which.

But the other five were entirely charming, and I especially enjoyed meeting a French New Yorker who works in finance and a Colombian New Yorker who's a personal chef.  The latter gave me some good restaurant recommendations.  The former told me (only after I asked) that he'd been in New York so long that he now thinks in English instead of French.  I think that's a tiny bit sad.  He came to see me on his way home from the opera.  He'd spent $439 for his ticket.  "Wow," I thought -- and said.

I hadn't even been sure that I was going to NYC this year, but sometime during the first week of April (this is where many accountants* would make an April-is-the-cruelest month joke, but a) seriously? and b) March is worse) when I was feeling especially beaten down by work and life, you know (long exhale, red wine, wry smile), I took a break between tax returns, checked the deals on one of the discount travel sites, and found a 3.5 star room for a price that I could not (or at least did not) resist.  It was one of those deals where they give you the price, the rating, and the approximate location, but you don't get the actual hotel name and address until you book the room.  In this case, I ended up at a very nice hotel at 57th and 7th. 

I arrived Wednesday afternoon.  I was there early, but they were very nice about it and checked me in immediately.  The room was so nice that I may have done a happy dance as soon as I was inside it, though I suppose that 85% of the happy dancing could reasonably be attributed to not having to work 75 hours a week any more.

I got started immediately on the ambulatory portion of my visit.  I'd decided beforehand that I wanted to have a small picnic in Inwood Park, so I headed over to ninth, then south to International Grocery, where I picked up some taramasalata, kalamata olives, and pita bread, then I took the train north. 

I had my first only-in-New-York moment of the trip when the A train got to a part of the trip where it doesn't stop in what would normally seem like forever.  But on this occasion, two young gentlemen stepped forward, turned on a boom box, and started dancing.  And they were incredible.  One was short, compact, and acrobatic; the other was long and lean, and  he had a tendency to balance on one hand while the rest of his body snaked through various positions.  Who can stand on one hand on a moving subway car?  It was crazy: even the locals seemed amazed. They switched off and danced for three or four minutes, all in an area that couldn't have been more than ten square feet.  I gave them a couple of dollars, which seemed like not enough, but it was more than anyone else gave them. 

Inwood Park seems a lot more practical than Central Park: everywhere you go there are people playing baseball or softball or ultimate frisbee or tennis.  I found a bench and watched the frisbee players while I ate my little container of taramasalata (so, so good; so, so filling; so, so cheap) and the pita bread.  The olives were not so much to my liking, but I have good kalamatas all the time, and good taramasalata is not findable out here in the provinces. 

After that, I set off walking.  You pretty quickly get from where there's everyone to where there's no one.  I headed up a big hill and strolled for a half hour or so.  I found a trio of hanging chickens:

And then, a few yards father on, another:

I decided that they must be some sort of Buddhist monument to a friend who had died recently.  I am likely mistaken about that, but I am fond of saying that you should never let the facts get in the way of a good story. 

Much of the rest of my perambulation involved Central Park.  I can't imagine going to NYC and not sitting down at the Bethesda fountain.  I did that a couple of times during my visit.  One of the time a group of high school girls who were visiting from the Midwest struck up a conversation with me.  They were very nice, but I kept wondering why no one had warned them about not talking to strangers.  On the other hand, I have been reliably informed that no one ever finds me threatening.  I find that fact approximately 4% insulting and 96% reassuring.  Also, I feel like I ought to be able to profit from it somehow, but I have not yet written a business plan.

I walked many other places, as well.  The weather was amazing throughout my trip.  I took the subway a few times, but mostly I just walked everywhere I wanted to go.  I have learned not to plan so much when I travel.  I typically like to go on a vacation with a small  number of activities that I know I can get to.  Sometimes, I just have a single goal.  There's so much going on in NYC that I had a few more specific activities in mind before I arrived, but I still left a lot of time for discovery.  I mean, it's New York, so you can rely on two things: a) there's no way you can see everything, and b) you're always going to see something interesting. 

I'd arranged to have lunch on Thursday with an Internet acquaintance, someone from a website where I've participated for many years.  I had never met him in person. I always face such meetings with some degree of trepidation, mostly because I'm not at all extroverted, but they always turn out to be a good time.  I had a very specific restaurant in mind, and we decided on a later lunch so that we would be sure to get a table.  I was in the Park in the morning, and he suggested that I take the subway down to Union Square and then walk east on 14th Street.

It will tell you most of what you need to know about me ** when I tell you that -- even though I rarely drink -- one of the big highlights of the trip was the discovery that NYC has a (wait for it) Trader Joe's wine store!  Oh to the em to the gee! 

This is what I bought there.  We must conclude that I bought it principally for the label since it's sitting, still unopened, on my kitchen floor, next to the refrigerator, even as we speak. 

I also bought an inexpensive bottle of Prosecco, but that one didn't make it off the island.

Apparently, TJ's is only allowed to sell wine at one location in all of New York, and that's why there's a separate wine store.  Or at least that's what the cashier told me when I whinged about how the TJ's in Maryland aren't allowed to sell wine.  I considered going into the regular Trader Joe's, which is just down the block a bit from the wine store, but even though I had plenty of time and an appetite for discount chocolate, I decided not to: there are plenty of them back home, after all.

Then I walked over to First and south a few blocks, where I waited for my friend at Momofuku Noodle Bar.  I realize that Noodle Bar stopped being really trendy a few years ago, but I'd always wanted to eat there, and I had reliable intelligence that the food was still very good.  My friend showed up (he'd ridden down from his office on a bicycle that he was considering buying from a co-worker) a few minutes later, and neither he nor the restaurant disappointed.  I went for the signature ramen, and we split an order of pork buns and an order of snow peas.  Nom. 

After we finished at Noodle Bar, we walked around the corner to a tiny little coffee shop, where he had an espresso and I had a latte.  I am normally not a big fan of the coffee unless it is heavily adulterated with the chocolate, but my friend is something of an expert, so I figured that it was worth trying something from a place he frequents.  It was very good.  As chocolateless coffee goes, that is.  While we were there, a group of young men came in, and one of them attempted to order a decaf.  When the coffee guy (there's a word for that, but I am not using it) told him they didn't sell decaf, the young man seemed nonplussed and asked whether he'd committed a faux pas by ordering a decaf.  The coffee guy assured him that it was ok, but it was clear that the young man would never have coffee in that town again.  I wanted to hand him a shovel.

I'd mentioned to my friend that I thought I'd stop by Grand Central Station on my way back to the hotel, just to enjoy the atmosphere, and he suggested that I head upstairs and have a cocktail at the oyster bar and watch the passengers come and go.  I tried to do that, but I somehow ended up at a different bar, one owned by a basketball legend whose name also graces a very successful line of athletic shoes.  It was fine, though.  I still got to sit and watch passengers, and I had a very nice Manhattan.  Cocktails are pricey in New York, but this one cost less than I'd expected to pay, so I was pleased.

I had plenty of other good food during my visit.  I went to Milk Bar for some cookies, and they were very good, mostly (I will pass on the corn cookie next time, but the one with the crushed potato chips in it is great), but my very favorite meal of the trip came on Thursday night after I'd had the conversation with the aforementioned Colombian New Yorker personal chef, and something he said made me google best new york dumplings, and I ended up (after a long walk during which I attempted, unsuccessfully, to acquire a knock-off designer handbag for my younger daughter) at a hole in the wall on Mulberry Street where -- for the princely sum of not quite five bucks -- I stuffed myself on dumplings (and Snapple):

The steamed ones were chicken and mushroom.  The fried ones were pork and scallion.  They were amazing.  This establishment also sells their dumplings frozen, in bags of fifty.  If I lived in New York, I'd eat those all the time.  I'll go back, but next time not alone so that I can try more varieties. 

After Dumplingfest 2012, I walked north through Little Italy and had a cannoli.  I have one every time I visit the city. 
My big cultural goal for the trip was to -- finally -- visit the Guggenheim. 

The central exhibit (on the long, twisted inclined plan, sort of like walking up the threads of a screw) was a John Chamberlain retrospective.  He spent most of his long, productive career making sculptures out of crashed automobile bodies, but in later years, he turned to twisting foil. 

There were many pieces that I liked a lot.  I walked up the screw twice.  Near the top, there was an alcove that had one of his pieces that was neither car part nor twisted foil.  It was a huge piece of foam, covered in plastic.  There was a sign on it that asked patrons to remove their shoes before sitting on the sculpture.  Everyone, including me, assumed this meant that you should stay off it, but the price of admission had included an audio tour, and I listened to the explanation for the piece, and it said that you should go ahead and sit on it.  So I took off my shoes and sat for a while.   

Within a couple of minutes, it was covered with people, including many visiting students who had not removed their shoes.  The guards did not seem to mind, but one of them chastised me a few minutes later when I took a picture, even though I was not pointing my phone at any of the artwork.  That time.

My other main cultural outing was to see Other Desert Cities.

I'd somehow stumbled across a rave review for the play online, so it was my first choice.  I almost always catch a show when I go to NYC, but I am down with neither paying full price nor for standing in long lines at TKTS.  As it happens, the lines are generally dreadful in the afternoon, but they disappear by early evening.  I walked over from my hotel Friday evening and got a ticket after waiting for no more than a minute.  ODC had been around for a while, and it wasn't a musical, so I figured that the chances of getting a ticket were high.  I also figured that if the tickets were all gone, I'd find something else worth seeing.  There's always something worth seeing. 

The play was terrific.  It's a very well written play, and the entire cast was first rate.  I'd always wanted to see Stockard Channing perform live, and now I have.  Good live theater may be even better than good dumplings, though it's admittedly a close call.

Saturday midday, I took the bus back to Maryland.  There are numerous private bus lines that specialize in going from the DC area back and forth to NYC, and I have never yet found one with empty seats on the trip north, or one that was more than half full on the trip back south.  We didn't run into any bad traffic (either way).  It was a great trip.  I reckon I'll do it again next year. 

*Accountants who've read The Waste Land, that is, which is substantially none of us.

**The only thing that's possibly more revelatory of my character is that I have recently concluded the most important personality trait any prospective boyfriend can have is the firm and unshakable belief that Wile E. Coyote is a nobler character than Road Runner.

1 comment:

  1. I regularly go to the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station. I always feel like I've gone back in time a few decades sitting there with its cloth tablecloths and all male wait staff. The Oyster Pan Roast is great. My favorite is the Bouillabaiss. I'll have to try taramasalata; thanks for the introduction. Tork,,,

    Oyster Bar menu: