This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on December 8, 2006 11:48 AM. The previous post in this blog was The fix is still in. The next post in this blog is We all got misty. Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Friday, December 8, 2006

Bright lights, big city

I spent a long weekend, last weekend, in the Big Apple. Having grown up in the shadow of the Manhattan skyscrapers, I always experience a rich spectrum of sensations when I'm back there for a visit. This one was no exception.

Time was short, and so was the agenda. I had a tax conference to attend up around Columbus Circle, and I wanted to squeeze in a visit with some of my Jersey family members if possible. This combination of goals resulted in my taking several rides across the Hudson River on the New York Waterway ferry out of Weehawken -- a spectacular amenity that post-dates my Jersey years by a couple of decades. It's an excellent way to get in and out of the city, and given the clear, calm weather and full moon that marked my stay, it was truly magical. The view of Manhattan that people come from all around the world to get was there for me to enjoy during each short ferry ride, all of which were taken at night.

When you get to the New York side, big, free shuttle buses take you along several of the main midtown streets. I boarded the 42nd Street bus, and it fought through some serious crosstown traffic to take me right to the intersection of 42nd with Seventh Avenue. Times Square, baby, just like you pictured it. I had decided to take a room in the mammoth Marriott right on the square, and wheeling a suitcase and lugging a laptop three blocks through throngs of tourists on a Sunday night was... er, invigorating. It's definitely a place where one wants to keep one's wits about him (or her), but it seemed a whole lot friendlier and safer than it was before Giuliani cleaned it up. Unlike a walk through downtown Portland, I wasn't panhandled once in my day and a half, and thanks to the splendid weather, I did a lot of walking in Hell's Kitchen.

The morning of my conference, I sashayed up the Great White Way to Columbus Circle. This took me past the Ed Sullivan Theater, which brought back memories of my encounters with Dave. The Late Show was in reruns this week, and it was early morning by New York standards, and so the place was deserted. The Hello Deli, where I had shaken hands with Rupert many years ago, looked healthy, but Rock America, the kitsch palace that Mujibur and Sirajul used to haunt, is long gone. It looks as though there may have been a bar in that space recently, but the whole storefront is now soaped up and boarded up. Dave's good influence on his neighborhood goes only so far, it appears.

Curiously, I spent that part of my walk thinking about Bob Borden, the funny ex-blogger who's now got a gig as an in-house comedy writer for Letterman. I also thought about Bob when my sister and I were cruising through Nutley, N.J. on our way elsewhere over the weekend -- Bob and she use the same laundromat, but there's been no rendezvous yet. I'd like to meet Dave in person some day, but I'd take meeting Bob as a close second; am I right, people? It's the little things. I also passed Hurley's Bar a few times -- I think Paul Shaffer, the Late Show orchestra leader, hangs there, but of course, the show being dark for the week, there was no sense looking for him in there.

My other walks in the vicinity of Times Square took me past a number of other great theaters. Nathan Lane and Martin Short are right next to each other. There's a "Tarzan" with music written by Phil Collins (gack), a "Beauty and the Beast," a "Mary Poppins" -- and "The Producers" is still running. To me the vestibule of a Broadway theater is one of the most exciting places on earth.

Upon my arrival at the hotel, I proceeded down to the lobby bar -- lobby, as in on the eighth floor. There I ordered a bourbon Manhattan, and it was so good that I indulged in a second as I shot the breeze about sports with a tech guy from Michigan. The tab for my two cocktails, with tip? Thirty-five bucks. Yikes. And in good conscience, that one couldn't go on the expense account. It was all me.

The emotional highlight of the trip came at my mom's house, where she broke out the old photos. It's really something to be looking at a 75-year-old photograph with somebody who's in the photo. The fading images confirmed for me my perception that I look a lot like my mother's father, and that one of her brothers looked in his younger days like a Bruce Springsteen type. I still hear his central Jersey twang in recordings of some of Springsteen's concert speeches. There were my godparents. There was JFK in that Lincoln, cruising up Fifth Avenue. First Communions. Confirmations. Graduations. The whole works.

Speaking of the heart strings, one thing that really bothered me in the big city was looking at the downtown skyline. It's been five years since the World Trade Center was destroyed, and of course I've seen the cityscape without those buildings many times since (including a few in person). But I saw the financial district from a couple of new angles on this occasion, and what I saw (and didn't see) hit me right in the gut. It's still a spectacular crowd of buildings, but I think the kids who never saw it the old way will find it a more glorious sight than I ever will. I feel the devil's hand on my shoulder when I take it in now. The ultimate in obscenity.

In the end, the trip showed me, probably for the first time, that New York City is just a place -- unique, special, but just space that so many people, even lifelong New Yorkers, pass through. Most of the souls who showed me around the city in the '50s and '60s are gone now, and many aspects of the metropolis that once seemed eternal are nowhere to be found. The Horn & Hardart Automat and Nathan's Coney Island have been replaced by the Virgin Megastore and a McDonald's. Ethel Merman's dead, but Nathan Lane's still going strong. Where have you gone, Mickey Mantle?

And if that impermanence is evident to me in New York City, then it's surely true everywhere on the planet. We're all renters.

On the way out to La Guardia (a grim little airport in a grim little neighborhood), I tipped my hat to the people who dwell in New York now -- all sorts of newcomers since my time, along with those few who remember the same things I do. It's a wonderful locale in a lot of ways. But I stand by my choice of 35 years ago -- the West is the best. The Christmas trees lining the road out of the San Francisco Airport many hours later never looked so good.

Comments (13)

The west is the best? Jacko, we hardly even knew ye!!! But I am happy that you enjoyed your stay in the greatest city on earth. You should have taken in the Newark sites. Just have me as your armed escort, 100+ murders and counting this year. YIKES!!!!

I spent five days in NYC back in 2003. I wasn't hit up for change or harassed once but I mostly stuck around the touristy districts in Manhattan. I'm sure it's a different story out in the boroughs. I can't imagine what the city was like back in the '80s.

Pretty nasty. You wouldn't think of walking where I walked with luggage, at night.

Thanks for a very entertaining and illuminating post. I like those Hudson River ferries, too. In fact, one time I stayed at the Jersey City Hyatt, right on the river, and commuted to downtown Manhattan. Spectacular views. And as Dave said again in a re-run the other night, crime is so low in New York that the only way to get yourself killed is to eat a spinach salad at Rupert's. (Or, unfortunately, almost anything at Taco Bell).

I'm surprised you stayed at that Marriott. Times Square is so loud, even at 3am, that I have a hard time sleeping in that hotel. NYC is fun, but usually after about 4 days, I'm ready to get the heck outta there...

My room was on the 24th floor. Street noise wasn't an issue. I heard some folks next door, however.

Internet access in the room: $16.95 a day.

That was a very fun and interesting blog.

A few years ago, I went to a 25 year reunion for a NYC university, and stayed at an ex-girlfriend's (and fellow alum's) condo in Brooklyn, near to the park and the botanical garden. A very fun few days. Manhattan does feel safer there 25 years later. I felt I could actually approach and talk to people on the streets, and they would respond, whereas that was much harder 25 years ago.

On the other hand, they have so many dispersed facilities for the mentally ill now, so underfunded that they have little control over the residents, that I wonder if many places around the greater NYC area are actually a little worse off than 25 years ago. (And the size and scale of the projects are so much larger than anything in Portland that it hard to even picture).

Near my friends Brooklyn condo (in what is supposed to be a pretty good area), after 5 p.m. the entire neighborhood becomes a nightmarish, locked-down fortress after 5 p.m. It does remind me of how it was 25 years ago. The cause is not just the underfunded mental health facility nearby, but normal crime as well.

At precisely 5 p.m., all the nice shops in this utopian "eyes on the street" setting, with all of the elements of proper New Urbanism (mixed use residential above, on-street parking, sidewalks, public plazas with huge parks nearby) slam down their steel gates and plates across their entire sidewalk frontage, and the streets become instantly foreboding and inhospitable. (The New Urbanist sales slogan, "eyes on the street" doesn't seem to matter much when the project across the street blocks your view, and the shadows, darkness and crime increase------at this point, no-one even WANTS to look out at the street and all shades are continually drawn.)

At the time I visited, there was a big n-hood broohaha going on about a proposal to expand the nearby mental health facility. It was not a mental health facility on the Portland scale. This was an old hospital or something---huge and fortress-like, with hundreds---maybe over 1000, residents who really shouldn't be allowed to walk the public streets. But they are. And it was creating a terrible environment in the neighborhood. Even in the daytime, nobody felt safe. So petitions were going around, etc.

My friend had just had her 8 year old daughter witness an incident with one of these residents. With no underwear on, the resident just picked up her dress above her waist and urinated on the sidewalk. This kind of frequent and sometimes menacing behavior had become routine. This was a minor one, as I was told.

I should check back in and see how the neighborhood battle came out.

Interesting. Downtown, the Pearl, and SoWhat are Portland's Manhattan. The inner east side is Brooklyn, northwest is the Bronx, and everything else is Queens. The Couv? Staten Island!

Times Square, baby, just like you pictured it.

I lived on 42nd street, a block from the Great White Way, back in the 70's. Cleaned up now, yeah, I s'posse...but characterless. Nathan's, Nedicks, Horn & Hardart, the 2-for-a-quarter horsemeat hamburger joints gone, yeah...nothing but the usual chains now. The block of marquees gone. Sanitized, sterilized. Makes me sad it's nothing like it was. Used to get off work at the post office across from Madison Square Garden at 2:30 am, catch a late dinner and a movie. Later grab a snack at the corner all-nght deli where the hookers hung out on break. Now it all shuts down early. No, you can't go home again. Renters? Hell, we're just dust in the wind. The Nedick's in the corner of Macy's where my Mom used to take me to lunch is now a Sunglass Hut.

Years before I saw the Dave Clark 5 at the now Ed Sullivan, at the taping of his show. Thought they'd be bigger than the Beatles. Shows you what I know...

"The West is the best?" That's Jim Morrison singing. And, funny, I left the big city for Oregon 35 years ago too. No regrets. But I've got to convince my daughter in Brooklyn that our inner SE Portland is the NEW Brooklyn, and she needs to come home. We've even got a Macy's now. But no, no Nedicks. McMenamin's will have to do.

We got back Friday evening from our week in NY (oldest is 1st year at NYU Law, his partner is NYC Teaching Fellow). We spent a couple of nights at their apt (51st & 8th Av) and walked around that part of midtown a lot. Next time be sure to check the Russian Vodka Bar on 52nd & 8th. Very old school, with a cutained booth in the back, lots of Russian spoken, and happy hour every night with their own infused vodka for $3/shot.

Another son's girlfriend is in art school in the village, conveniently close to the Cafe Collage, an espresso bar opened by one of the Albina Press owners. Portland barista attitude finally comes to the big apple. She also interns at the Met, so we got a private tour on Monday when it's closed to the public.

Spent the rest of the week in Brooklyn. An old friend recently moved from McKenzie Bridge to a brownstone in Carroll Garden (talk about culture shock), and another old friend, now a Brooklyn ADA, was a pioneer in DUMBO. So we had beds in two great neighborhoods.

My wife is Jersey Italian, so we wandered through what's left of Little Italy (about a block of Mulberry) before hitting the Dumpling House for fried pork dumplings (5 for $1.50) and shaved beef banh mi style on sesame pancake ($1).

With a 7-day Metrocard for unlimited subway access and clear blue skies, we had a great week. Actually ran into an acquaintance from here on the street, stumbled into the aftermath of a gang fight near Union Square, and never failed to get friendly advice whenever we asked for directions.

Our lasty meal was at Franny's, a wood oven pizza place on Flatbush in Brooklyn. The only meal that came close to what we've got here when it comes to quality ingredients (local, organic, sustainable, and incredibly delicious).

I'm a native Oregonian, so I'm biased. But I'm bascially with Jack...the Pacific northwest is the best.

My wife is Jersey Italian

You lucky dog!

Thanks for this - I always like New York stories. It's a great town, and (though I'd probably be in the minority here) I've always found it friendlier than Portland. New Yorkers are great.

Almost as sad as the WTC missing from the "profile" of the city is the fact that the Times Square area is now Olive Garden-ed to death. I can't fathom why someone would travel to New York and then want to eat at TGI Fridays or the Red Lobster, but there you have it.

I don't get objecting to another person asking for some money for food or a drink more than the encroachment of advertising by corporate "free speech" into every nook and cranny. The pan handlers are gone from Times Square to make the neighborhood safe for global corporations. Why is this a good thing?

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