This was our final full day in New York. By now we had gone native, taking our breakfast to go from Fika, the excellent swedish coffee place just outside the back entrance to the hotel, and hopping straight onto the subway with our preloaded MetroCards. It was lucky our routine was this well oiled because, as you will see, there would be no time to spare today.
So, follow Gabby’s lead: make yourselves a hot drink, sit down and enjoy a trip the length and breadth of New York.
We took the subway as south as it goes on Manhattan to the Ferry Terminal. We’d been told by locals that the Staten Island Ferry was a better excursion than the boat tour to Liberty and Ellis Islands. The big orange ferry did look fun, and it’s free, but considering we had nothing to do on Staten Island, that it would have taken 1:30 hours to get out there and back and that in these freezing temperatures standing on the deck appreciating the views would maybe not have been as enjoyable as it would have been in the summer, we thought maybe not today.
So we decided to visit New York gateway islands. We paid the $28 at the official ticket office inside Castle Clinton in Battery Park; beware the other cruises being touted on route, they don’t let you off on the islands. After going through airport security, again, we embarked. It was a gloriously sunny winter’s day but by golly was it cold, Miss Liberty had mini icebergs to navigate around! The journey was great though, the massive, ice strewn deck was almost empty, as usual -like at the Empire State Building – the sensible people had opted to stay indoors, and the simultaneous magnification of Lady Liberty and shrinking Manhattan skyline was treat in every direction.
Clearly there’s nothing quite like approaching this famous statue by boat to drive home her symbolism and, despite being made of copper, her gradual magnetism. I can only imagine the effect that first catching sight of her would have on a persecuted migrant. Definitely worth trying to imagine in person though!
Getting off the boat we made our way directly to the gift shop, aka indoors! Gabby, in her new North Face coat, needed to be tucked in and weather ready because it was super cold. A water pipe had burst in the Statue herself which made getting inside her robes impossible.
Going round the pedestal, listening to the audioguide replaces your first impression of her as you observe and learn about her more. First off you wonder how peculiar it must have been to see the gleaming brown of her original colour.
Then you think how cool she is, with her stern face, stride forward, roman robes, pointed headware and cargo of the Declaration of Independence. Then you hear things that start to baffle you: initially she was meant to wear a pileus (the cap given to emancipated slaves in ancient Rome) but the War Secretary at the time, a Southerner, having doubts about the connotations it might have in encouraging abolition had this changed to a helmet which finally became the diadem. Then you hear that women were excluded from attending the inauguration (which was duly gatecrashed by suffragettes in a hired boat) but you can’t wrap your head around the paradox that here was a statue in the female form, with all its promise and hope, at whose unveiling women weren’t meant to be present! And finally you understand that even today the ironic hypocrisy is still alive with the shutting of the torch observation deck following 9/11. The Statue is of Liberty and she isn’t free but you can buy/mess around with souvenirs!
We reembarked for Ellis Island. Gabby as a historian and genealogy fancier was especially looking forward to this part of the tour, having researched her family’s records through the island. Again, the first impressions those migrants would have felt upon seeing the Statue of Liberty must have given way to trepidation as all 2nd and 3rd class passengers had to make it through the Ellis Island filter. Arriving at a prison like structure, indeed part of the complex was a quarantine hospital, to be greeted by immigration guards wearing uniforms and doctors in white coats ordering at you in maybe an unfamiliar language must have been an extremely intimidating welcome.
Nowadays, quite a fun effect is created in the main lobby as boat loads of tourists disembark all at once and squeeze through the main doors all chattering in different languages, though in this modern parallel they each make their way over to gather to get an explanation from an audioguide in their own tongue. The exhibition was OIA, by that I mean that like that of the Empire State Building as it was unable to convey the most interesting information about the history of the site. It succeeded in making this significant place of American heritage devoid of any modern relevance allowing the exhibits to only go surface deep without any appropriate human context. It looked impressive but delivered nothing.
The next bit was by far the best bit of the tour. Going upstairs, Gabby and I were both totally unprepared and overawed by the size of the 1st floor hall. Again, imagining this must have echoed the feelings of previous arrivals in this room when doctors would have been peering over the balconies trying to spot signs of ill health (the stairs to the 1st floor were part of their test). It’s a shame that all the benches and dividers could not have been reinstalled as part of the tour; a tour guide could have a field day triaging tourists to give them an impression of just having arrived in America.
Going down the stairs unceremoniously ends the audioguide. If you’re observant you’ll notice the computers which allow you to access the Ellis Island records. Thankfully Gabby had already done this at home because when we managed to find a working desktop to retrace her research we realised that there were massive air conditioning unit blowing cold air onto our only-just-warming bodies. Madness, if we were going to be cold we rather it was on the deck of Miss Ellis Island heading back to Manhattan and Wall Street.
Once we’d made it back we walk straight into the financial district via the most famous bronze Taurus in the world. As you can see, we opted not to grab the bull by the horns and chose some more appropriate poses to highlight our relationship with the markets!
Getting very hungry, it aptly appears that Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange and bankers eat money not McDonalds, unless you count Pret which I don’t. We’d have to wait until we’d gone North past City Hall to Canal Street for lunch (thank you $3 t-mobile internet and googlemaps). If you’re left wandering what Wall Street looks like, it looks like Bank.
Then we went to the site that set the tone for the start of the 21st century and most of the foreign affairs of my adult life. The place that first came to my attention a week after the start of term at my new boarding school, a week after leaving home. On that afternoon that I had off, because I didn’t take chemistry, and spent watching television with two sixth form boys on free periods in the house TV room. None of us quite believing how unhollywood reality, wondering if the grainy pictures really were reality, and the unfathomable act of piloting a plane full of people into a building full of people is. Images which have cut a hole into human morality and leave an indelible mark on the evolution of our species; not for the first time.
To this end, that the foundations of the what were the Twin Towers have been replaced by two waterfalls, which pour their waters towards a bottomless chasm in the middle of each square, evokes well the constant open wound that we have wrought.
I wanted to give my own introduction to the memorial which has been built to remember that day and those that are remembered. I wish someone had prepared me for the graceless irreverence with which access to the memorial is gained. It starts off with a shack of an outdoor ticket office, more suited to a fairground. And then most paradoxically, airport security, potentially necessary but truly inappropriate, followed by narrow barbed wire railed passageways with armed officers and guard dogs every 15 metres that make you feel like you are Guantanamo’s most recent inmate. Unfortunately, this is not the lasting effect those managing the site are able to leave you with as you pass through the can’t-possibly-believe-anybody-would-have-given-their-approval-to 9/11 gift shop. All I can say is that this is not a place for OIA behaviour. This has to stop, please, please for all of us stop this crazy system, drop the hypocrisy and let the memorials be.
Still incredulous, we had lunch to warm up and let the uneasy feeling pass. We then walked up to a rather well know intersection, that of Bedford Street and Grove Street, home of one of America most influential cultural exports of the 90s generation: Friends. I had insisted on this particular pilgrimage meanwhile, Gabby for reasons known only to herself, had acted ambivalent and uninterested. Odd considering she is the biggest Friends fan I have ever met and, if challenged while the show is on, can quote the next line of dialogue. Imagine therefore who was more excited when we finally arrived – Gabby now smiles whenever the apartment appears on one of TV repeats!
Coffee stop at Mojo coffee in the West Village that serves the strongest roast coffee possible.
Gluttons for New York, the outdoors and the cold we took our caffeine coupon and cashed in for a walk on the High Line as the sun set.
A public park/walkway built on the disused elevated former freight-train rail-track, the High Line is as cool and futuristic an urban space as you can imagine. Suspended above traffic and streets, it weaves its way around the old industrial buildings (now luxury loft apartments owned by celebrities), exclusive fashion shops and fancy restaurants of the Meatpacking district. A definite must on the list of things to do in New York, preferably in the summer!
Despite Gabby’s worries, a 10 block taxi dearth and the number of elements in the day we made it to the penultimate part of the day on time. The part which kick-started the whole New York trip in the first place: our tickets to Broadway to see the Book of Mormon.
I LOVE South Park, as social commentary, nothing else, apart from maybe Eminem, even comes close. So it was as a massive fan of Team America that I sat down to enjoy what I hoped would be the real life version of that musical the main puppet is recruited from (“the Pope has got it and so do” etc).
While the musical was undoubtedly well delivered, the singing, casting, dancing and set, this seemed a very toned down Trey Parker and Matt Stone. It was a theatre performance for a theatre audience, if I’d been watching Cats all my life and was suddenly sung “Fuck you God, in the arse, mouth and cunt”, I’d give it a Tony or two. As I haven’t, and thought the Phantom of the Opera was dull as shit, I’d rather rewatch their hilarious South Park episode on the Book of Mormon, or the dark genius of Scott Tenorman Must Die or, well just about any of the South Park episodes. A proper South Park, if it touches nerve and cultivates a meta-joke to punchline at the end can get me giggling silly. So it was an odd experience to find myself occasionally laughing hard with one or two other spectators but mostly finding things amusing while everyone else was shaking with laughter. In my opinion, like South Park the film, their killer satirical thread was swapped for something that would be mainstream adult fun.
It was a once in a lifetime experience but watch Team America again.
At the end of the show, I had promised Gabby a late dinner in China Town. We subwayed our way south only to find that at 22:30 everything was closed. It was a Thursday evening but we had found that New York definitely sleeps. The streets had become empty, save for a few loiterers, and none of the recommendations our concierge had made were open (one had even closed down). Thankfully, that morning I had asked the concierge to call his favourite Chinese restaurant to tell them we might be coming in late after a show. A snooty aged American lady in a fur coat had been standing behind me at the desk and sneered “if you’re going for a show you should eat near Broadway, why go to China Town?”. Hubristically I just thought she was being precious but as it turns out, she had been right. If it hadn’t been for the concierge’s call then empty Red Egg would have shut.
Not wanting to keep them open for 2 people and without any atmosphere in the restaurant we opted to take the food back to the best restaurant and view in the city – our room on the 46th floor. Still hot from its subway ride back, with Friends on the telly, we chopsticked in bed and savoured New York city.