A Slice Of The Big Apple
New York. The one city on the planet that can make London look like a big village and Auckland a one horse town.
And make me feel like a country bumpkin.
I met the family here in New York last week for a mid-winter break and to explore some business opportunities. Not my first trip here and I have visited previously for a few days with my wife. It is the first with my teenage sons in tow.
What a trip it has been. To anyone that has never experienced this place you must add it to your ‘things to do before I die’ list. Wherever on this planet you live, treat (or test) yourself to a week in the Big Apple. Nothing anywhere compares.
Theatre, musicals, shopping, a helicopter ride over Manhattan, Central Park, about 1000 miles ridden on the subway, food paradise, the iconic Apollo Theatre for stand-up comedy and a ten day stay in Harlem.
Not the first part of this city that you might think of staying in, but my wife decided to rent a cool apartment in the Upper West Side. Found it on the internet… I confess to a degree of scepticism which turned into a fleeting moment of horror as we stepped out of our Chevy Escalade (think Men in Black, Secret Service, POTUS protection vehicle) to what could only be described as a set for the filming of a Lil Wayne video. Without being rude (actually why not, this is New York where rude is an art form) it looked like we were stepping out into rap central. I looked around for the lights and cameras… This is a very African American part of town where gold chains, baseball caps, baggy cargo pants and basketball tank tops rule (and that’s just my sons). Where low slung cars are mobile boom boxes pumping out their ‘doof doof’ rap at decibels that threaten the eardrums.
I have to say it has been an absolute winner. This is a part of New York most visitors would never spend any time in. There is a gentrification going on in this part of town, but it remains solidly African American.
My sons have explored the Projects of Harlem and Brooklyn (I know, I know… I just said don’t get smart to any of the locals and sent them on their way) and taken me on a walking tour to see where a few famous rap stars and ex-crack dealers (as so many rap stars appear to have been in their former lives) were shot dead (murals commemorate the fallen in this part of the city as the rest of America celebrates the ‘heroes’ of their military). Talk about fish out of water – but then, that is what travel is all about and what I so love about this choice of location to stay in. We have been immersed in an America that is not Wall Street, not 5TH Avenue and not trendy Tribeca.
There are three things that have stood out to me here.
The heat. The food. The attitude.
Let’s start with the heat. Landing in the middle of a heat wave that has continued unabated for days where the average daily temperature in the shade has been 36 degrees (but which the experts tell us feels closer to 40 degrees Celsius). In among the concrete and asphalt that makes up this enormous city and in the honeycombed subterranean world of the Subway it has made for uncomfortable days indeed. I was expecting seriously warm, I was not expecting blast furnace. I do not recall being this hot anywhere – not Singapore, not Kuala Lumpur and not Africa. The subways, in particular, are not air conditioned. Thankfully, the trains are. You dive into the trains and shops like you do your back garden swimming pool. It is hard to imagine that within 6 weeks the locals will be pulling out the winter woollies and retreating indoors for the thick end of nine months to escape the bone chilling cold.
And just like the weather the people here are pretty extreme. I have often speculated that almost the only thing most New Zealanders have in common with Americans is that we share a common language (well, sort of – sitting on the subway late last night listening to three African American youths the only words I could make out in a lengthy dissertation on their day was ‘N*****rs’, B*****s’, ‘Sheee-it’ – you get the drift). I was chuckling away thinking – man, you are saying a whole lot but I cannot understand a word! And I was loving every minute of it.
You will recall those Crocodile Dundee films in which Mick Dundee brings his outback Australian personality to the Big Apple. I kind of know how he felt. I am not quite at the point of donning a suede shirt with tassels, akubra hat and hunting knife, but on more than one occasion, I confess I’d have liked to have quietly pulled a hunting knife from my flip flops and laid it in front of whatever ‘service provider’ I happened to be having a not very pleasant interaction with.
New Yorkers have a reputation for taking rude to a whole new level and maybe the heat doesn’t help, but boy oh boy can these guys do ‘attitude’. There I was thinking South Africans don’t do subtle. I haven’t quite changed my mind on that but South Africans are the height of diplomacy by comparison to the sons and immigrants of this fair town.
They do ‘disinterested service’ like I have never witnessed. God, they are so rude.
New Zealanders must appear pretty ‘folksy’ to them. We like to exchange pleasantries. To enquire as to their health. To engage. Here to engage is to waste someone’s time. To stand back in a queue is to lose. Don’t try being friendly to a cab driver. They will just ignore you. I was thinking I could do rude. But I have learned a few lessons here.
And they do food. Man, do they do food.
A few nights ago we went to a very trendy Midtown restaurant. We decided, given we had two teenage boys with us, to do the ‘tasting menu’ which the waiter had strongly recommended so we got to try a bit of everything. It comprised of three starters, three mains and a dessert – to share. Among four it looked reasonable. I did, just for the hell of it, suggest to the family that ‘this is America and that might be too much food’. I was, as I am want to be on these family holidays, shot down.
The first round was a petite tuna tempura in one of those little Chinese ceramic spoons. The next was three salads followed by eight beef dumplings. So far so good, but we were already feeling the top had been knocked off the appetite. The next ‘appetiser’ was a take on lobster and mushroom pancakes. My youngest son didn’t quite eat all of his – the waiter insisted he finish it. He did. By now we were all feeling somewhat sated. When the next course arrived (we are only at the mains so bear with me) and I asked the waiter if he was serious? – it was huge and was the first of three. We semi polished it off.
The next two arrived and we rolled our eyes. We hardly touched them.
Then came the piece de la resistance – American style. What could best be described as two quarter slabs of a six inch thick chocolate cake sat boldly on a serving platter along with a giant brandy snap of a thing (that when empty the Incredible Hulk could comfortably wear on his forearm like a protector) stuffed with about 7 bananas in a caramel sauce topped off with a mountain of freshly whipped cream. All we could do was laugh. Then groan. Monty Python fans think Mr Creosote.
There would have been enough calories in that one dessert to fuel a small army of African refugees for a week.
Needless to say we asked for a doggie bag (actually a Kleensak) and my youngest Tom became a pack horse and dragged about 6kgs of leftovers out into the waiting heat.
When I asked the waiter if any party of four ever eats what they just served us up he looked surprised! Indeed they do he said. Americans, even with a ‘tasting menu’, expect that as the tasting unfolds that each subsequent course must be larger than the last.
Good God I thought. Gluttony. No wonder they have an obesity problem here. Really you could come to New York, order one family sized meal on your first day and then eat the leftovers for a week without having to buy any more food!
It has been an incredible couple of weeks and once again teaches me much about what it means to be a New Zealander. We stand back. We don’t push. We are not rude. We are considerate. We give to the homeless of which there appear so many in this richest of cities. In this town we’d probably get left behind. Maybe if we lived here it would change us – probably, but I doubt a Kiwi could ever fit in here long term without selling their soul. Like all travel it is a learning experience and a very positive one. We are all having a great time and we wouldn’t miss this crazy town for the world.
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