Published in the Sunday Herald on April 29, 2017
This is as unplanned as unplanned could be — travelling to New York City (NYC) in the middle of a winter notorious for its raging chill, plummeting mercury, lashing winds, swirling snowstorms (made large in my head by reports from kith and kin and a fertile imagination).
I dig my heels in and flatly refuse. “It’s not that bad, mom,” says my daughter from Midtown Manhattan. “You just have to layer up.” This from the been-there-done-that lot.
My heels come undug and I find myself breathlessly packing several sets of thermals, fleece jackets, gloves, scarves and woollen caps. No winter can touch me, now that I’ve insured (and inured) myself for all contingencies winter-related. Packing done, all rule books are pored over.
My initial impression of NYC is a well-padded Mumbai. Energetic, busy and crowded, you step out and you are a part of the flowing humanity. Every other person is a non-American. You meld. No wonder NYC is a meld... er, melting pot.
Driving from JFK to Manhattan we dine at Franchia, which serves delectable vegan Korean food. NYC knows its way to the heart. The Chrysler Building, bejewelled and with the full moon as the backdrop, is breathtaking on the velvety night sky. The best time to view this is certainly close to midnight. As we walk the orderly streets of NYC, there is magic and an enticing nip in the air.
Midtown Manhattan is crazy. It bustles with people round the clock and has huge flashing LED displays and electronic billboards that dazzle you through the night, and from where I’m stationed on the 47th Street (Times Square is a hop away), I have to get used to their presence from behind closed blinds; other than the intermittent wailing through the night of what I take to be ambulance sirens. Soon enough, I stand corrected... they are fire engines. With the healthy dose of paranoia that the Americans possess of smoke in enclosed spaces, I think they are kept busy. By the way, firemen in NYC are a highly photographed entity. They are the NYC rock stars.
One, Times Square is historic as the original location (approx 1907) of the New York Times building that passed several hands, along which, in 1994, it fell into the hands of the financial firm Lehman Brothers, who decided that it was best-suited for advertisements because of its prime location. The idea found stupendous success and the revenues from it shot up astronomically. It started with Cup Noodles, then Budweiser above the ‘zipper’ news ticker. We are welcomed now with Dunkin Donuts, the American equivalent of vada pav, if you will. I can see the Mumbaikar bristling.
We let ourselves loose upon the city. The buzz is infectious and invigorating. NYC is having one of its warmest winters ever, making us (paranoid visitors) look just a little foolish. But then NYC weather can do an unexpected somersault, so it pays to be cautious. We are rather tickled to see the NYC denizens begin their day with looking at the day’s forecast of temperature, wind speed and precipitation before deciding what to wear.
We soon discover that Manhattan is where the action is. And pretty much all else — the history, famed spots, Broadway Theatre District, Wall Street, Fifth Park Avenue, Lexington Avenue, Madison Avenue, Rockefeller Centre... each carrying stories of the stupendous commercial, industrial and financial growth of the world’s most powerful city, the pulsating heart of which is Manhattan.
Morning sees us step into a beautifully misty Central Park. This gigantic landmark park in Upper Manhattan, covering 843 acres, is 4-km long and 0.8-km wide, housing several lakes, two skating rinks, a conservatory garden, a wildlife sanctuary, and a large wooded area. And the Belvedere Castle and the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theatre.
Midday finds us at the poignant 9/11 Memorial. The plaques around list out the names of the victims... the skies come pouring down and make the scene unforgettable. It’s a sombre moment.
We stroll along St Patrick’s Cathedral, the window displays at Saks Fifth Avenue, passing by the Waldorf Astoria down the Park Avenue towards MetLife and the historic facade of the Helmsley Building, down Vanderbilt Avenue (named after Cornelius Vanderbilt, America’s first tycoon responsible for transforming New York’s transportation network with a progressive Railroad system) to the Grand Central Station.
The early 1900s saw the emergence of NYC as the financial, commercial and cultural centre. Trade and Banking as early as 1800s took prosperity and growth on an upward spiral, demanding and attracting a constant flow of business, which in turn required mobility. The answer was a sound system of railroads. Progress brought bustle and crowds, and pollution. And the residential areas placed at 42nd Street and beyond had to be protected, which meant stemming the railroad network right there.
And the Grand Central Terminal took shape at the 42nd Street. It has an astounding amount of engineering, architectural and artistic innovation, strategic planning, wizardry of structure and studied management of space and material to be possible to put in a nutshell. Walking along the Main Concourse, you have the sense of being in a hallowed space of grandeur, history and artistic excellence.
Boarding a train to Union Square and dying to bite into some victuals, we sight the Strand Bookstore with racks of books outside. A different kind of hunger takes over, that of the intellect, having satiated which, we meander into Mi Garba and are welcomed with some delectable lentil soup, ravioli, wine, and a wonderfully well-informed chatter from the owner.
Evening sees us deliciously tired at Washington Square Park. We walk slowly past the NY University buildings and libraries, and round the day off with ale at the famed McSorley’s in East Village, amid the informal tavern-like air and rough-hewn logwood tables. The enfolding cocoon of chatter and anonymity is a perfect ending to the day.