This November we spent six days in a New York state of mind. We chose Amtrak because of their good deal for seniors at $170 each and because we have more time now that I am retired from teaching. The 10-hour trip there was relaxing with the exception of the hour-long wait at the border and the surly border cops that the new US administration thinks they need to keep out the bad guys.
We brought our own picnic, which we recommend, because what is available onboard is nothing to write home about and it’s expensive. The ride home wasn’t quite as lovely. The train inched and crawled but the friendly Canadian border cop made up for it. The conductors are friendly too. The views in upstate New York are quite wonderful from the comfortable reclining seats. We arrived at Penn Station on schedule at 8pm and immediately purchased subway/bus passes for $33 each for the week, well worth it.
We never had to worry about having change to board the buses or subways, which cost $2.25 for a one-time fare. We took the subway uptown to our hotel at W 77th and Broadway. The limited subway lines don’t stop at every stop so they are much quicker. I far prefer the buses, which go up and down Broadway and across town to the East side. You can take one down Lexington all the way to the Lower East Side if you care to.
We had booked our boutique hotel called NYLO because that was where we wanted to be — three blocks from Zabar’s, New York’s most famous take-out Deli that I used to frequent when I could afford
it back in 1975 when I lived on 125th and Riverside Dr. for a year. The area is full of small restaurants both on Broadway and Amsterdam, full of young families and packs of dogs with their walkers, 8 to 10 per walker. How those dogs ever get to do their business is beyond me.
New York is grittier than I remember it in 1975 but it is also safer. We took a bus uptown to visit the apartment block I had lived in and I remembered the short walk to Broadway and my then-fiancé, who taught at Columbia U. telling me I couldn’t wear mini-skirts unless I wanted to be mugged or worse.
We loved the buses and took them everywhere. The first day we took the 79th cross town bus to 5th Ave and saw an exhibit on Art and China after 1989 at The Guggenheim. This is the period following the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, the bloody crackdown on free expression. The exhibit, which continues to January 7, includes experimental film and video, installation, and performance art, reflecting both desperate desire for change and despair in the face of repression. Not easy to observe, but so powerful! The Guggenheim itself is an amazing piece of architecture, designed by the great Frank Lloyd Wright – circular with the exhibit on the outside and the permanent collection in the inside rooms. Winding up on the spiral ramp, climbing at an angle of 3 degrees, you can see the Thannhauser Collection, paintings by Cézanne, Picasso, Kandinsky, Monet and other masters. The building is a U.S. National Historic Landmark, considered one of the greatest architectural achievements of the last century. Two hours later, we walked over to Lexington and the 92nd Street Y, where I studied art for a year in 1975. The building hasn’t changed at all and I met a couple of women my age enrolling in classes that sounded similar to what we have at the Cummings Centre or the Visual Arts Centre.
As we headed downtown on Lex, we stopped at a small Chinese restaurant with $5.95 to $7.95 luncheon specials. Not bad for NYC or anywhere for that matter. The soup and main dishes didn’t equal Tao on Decarie or Beijing in Chinatown here in Montreal but it did the trick.
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A word on food: we almost exclusively frequented the “choose your own ingredients” restos, both uptown and downtown, where you can “create your own salad” from a vast quantity of toppings for under $10. There are also soups at different prices, the seafood being our favourite. Some of these places charge by weight. Some are cleaner than others. Watch out for the open buffets. You never know who has touched the food. In fact, we saw a young man putting food back, and we walked out quickly.
We did tour Zabar’s but there was very little space to eat inside so we just walked up and down the aisles marveling at the variety of cheeses and fish and well… more cheeses and fish.
On our second night, we purchased full price tickets at the theatre for Book of Mormon, ($149 each) to sit in the third row, albeit on the far left. It might have been too close but we did hear everything. The Book of Mormon, if you didn’t see it when it was here in Montreal, is a hilarious and irreverent look at well…. Mormons. This was by far my favourite of the three musicals we saw during our six-day visit. Audacious, aggressively and militantly atheistic, it is a satire on what the Mormons try to do — convert anyone they can. For those who haven’t seen it, be prepared for non-stop fun and games, and for those who are in the least bit religious, beware the flagrant and damning fun that is poked at religion. The play actually opened my eyes to the history of the Book of Mormon, an incredible story of two tribes (Israelites I suppose) fighting it out in the USA in the 19thcentury with Jesus himself showing up to help out.
The next day we decided to brave the line-up for half price tickets at the ticket outlet at Times Square. It turned out to be an adventure both days — we got tickets for Miss Saigon, the first night and Desperate Measures the following night. These tickets are 40% to 50% off Broadway and off-Broadway shows and you can choose from a long list posted outside.
The ticket outlet is open 3 to 8pm so we decided to get in line at 2:30. By 3:30 we had our tickets! It was fun standing in line talking to other theatre goers about what they had seen and asking the attendants dressed in red coats to describe some of the plays, which they were happy to do.
We discovered the most packed bookstore we’d ever experienced about five blocks uptown from our hotel on Broadway. It’s Westsider Books at 2246 Broadway. There’s nothing quite like it in Montreal. Step in and you find yourself literally and literarily surrounded by books. We’ll let the pictures do the talking. Let’s just say, it’s well worth a visit.
We swooned at the modern masterpieces we saw at the Museum of Modern Art, with works by Van Gogh, Jackson Pollock, Claude Monet, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo. And the exhibition of prints, books, and the creative process that drove the celebrated sculptor Louise Bourgeois (1911-2010) was an eye-opener and learning experience. It continues to January 28.
When we returned to our fair Montreal, it was a bit nippier, but what we really noticed was the calm. Almost no people on Monkland as we walked home from the metro. New York is all people all the time, but they’re really nice to talk to, and very helpful and kind when it comes to recommendations and directions.
Yes, the constant homeless asking for money with their signs of woe remind us how lucky we are living in Canada. We were told by friends that there are homeless families with children in the thousands and that many of these children go to school. These are the economic homeless and from the cost of housing in Manhattan, we can imagine why.
Our own government has finally recognized the problem. Unfortunately, nothing will happen soon. And in NYC we got the feeling things will only get worse and the divide between rich and poor, which is so blatant in this city of 8.5 million – the most populous in the U.S. – becomes wider and more accepted, but can never be acceptable!
One last piece of advice: Try not to go when it’s cold. The wind howled and we should have taken our Montreal winter coats. Of course, November can go either way. September or October would have been a safer bet.