Sunday, June 3, 2012

a quick trip. down memory lane: new york. in a hurry



first, let’s set it all up (for some credibility).  I’ve been here before… once or twice.  few, actually.

ACT 1. aug 28, 1989: off the “boat” in jfk, tarom flight late.  missed the delta connection.  that explains my first night in the u.s. spent in the airport.  sort of an ellis island episode, if you wish.

ACT 2. fast forward a few years.  college.  first job.  then second.  then kpmg.  then eventually my first real trip to ny: feb 24, 1999. almost 10 years later.  I remember it being cold.  dirty.  lots of traffic.  crowded in the metro on the way down to wall street.  but somehow exciting.  this was new york, after all!  a different country.  different from Atlanta, that is.  I was there only 2 days.  didn’t see much.  I just remember the office used hot-water radiators for heating.  just like back home…  and the top-hat doorman at the marriott east side made an impression.  bit of a throwback to older times…

ACT 3. sep 23, 2001. yep, right after 9/11.  I recall flying over manhattan that sun night.  smoke was still rising from the wtc site.  less than a dozen brave souls on the plane that night.  air travel was not the same for a while.  but I started flying up thereafter.  almost every week.  until about april 2004. the “w” on lex was my home away from home.  I “lived” in ny [mon-thu] for about 2.5 years.  I was with kpmg consulting / bearingpoint.  worked in citi offices on 5th.  and long island city, across the east river.  downtown with chase.  and down by holland tunnel, just east of soho and the village.  that’s when most of the memories and impressions have etched themselves in the frontal cortex.  and hippocampus

ACT 4. dec 2006.  extended weekend.  family trip.  mom turning 60.  there’s always something about NY in december…  the christmas tree at the rock center.  ice skating below.  festive store-front windows.  macy’s.  snow in central park.  the holidays feel more real, somehow…

ACT 5. feb 2008. dropped in for a couple days.  about one year before bearingpoint went under.  the signs were there already.  new office right next to the wtc site.  lots of rebuilding going on.  stayed at the marquis in times square again.  smack-dab in the middle of tourist alley… wonderful views…  more memories…

ACT 6. may 2012. hello again. 

up for a few days once more.  some of the notes below are fresh.  others, pulled from memory.  but even I can’t tell the difference.  so let’s see what comes out…

first, the smell. 

the fragrance industry has imitated everything.  but I don’t think they can bottle “new york”.  it smells like construction.  steam.  and exhaust.  and sewer.  and spoiled food.  garbage (piled up in black plastics bags on the sidewalks to be picked up over night by – presumably – mafia-owned sanitation services).  yeah, too much Sopranos.  I know...   yet, after a quick summer shower most of that washes off.  and you get an [incredibly!] “clean” scent.  especially if you’re near a park.  and every now and then you walk by a spot that knocks you out: a food cart.  a flower stall.  a hole-in-the-wall.  ess-a-bagel is one of those places that I can “guess” with my eyes closed.  phenomenal bagels fresh out of the oven!  the best way to “breakfast”.  you should definitely go.

piece of ny advice: try and avoid the metro during hot summer days.  and some of the people who reside there.  you may never forget the stench…

also first – for one can’t separate it from the olfactory: the sound.  it also sounds like construction.  there’s beeping.  and honking.  and yelling.  and sirens.  it barely stops.  even overnight.  ask for a hotel room on the higher floors if you want to rest.  and even then it’s not guaranteed.

then thirdly – or are we still on “first”? – the people.  new yorkers are a different species.  I’m convinced of that.  loud.  obnoxious.  resilient.  purposeful.  rude.  direct.  resourceful.  arrogant.  restless.  but they still find time to “stop” for a walk in the park.  lunch on a bench.  a jog in the neighborhood.  a drink with friends at the favorite watering hole.  life happens here at a different pace.  you have to be like that in order to keep up.

the city itself is effervescent.  alive.  always “on”.  relatively unchanged from up high.  yet perpetually transforming if you zoom in. 

downtown.  the twin towers are gone.  but not forgotten.  new skyscrapers are growing nearby.  1wtc – once completed – will be the tallest in the western hemisphere (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_World_Trade_Center).  I walked down to the memorial.  the pools and waterfalls are the right symbols.  they strike the right notes.  I closed my eyes and tried to “see” the damaged towers.  the smoldering pile of debris.  the ashes… not there anymore.  mission accomplished, I guess.    






‘couple of blocks away, another symbol of recent “destruction”.  wall street.  a few years ago, people working down here were a proud bunch.  not so much today.  damage control will take longer than the physical reconstruction of those towers.  I won’t go into it.  we all know the story.  or do we?

so you see…transformation is both physical and psychological.  yes, the city does have a psyche.  I’ve seen it! 



nyse... and trinity church... where wall street sinners hold hands with the angels...

years ago, soho, tribeca, greenwich village, were the “in” places.  today, they’re out-of-price-range for most commoners.  meatpacking district and even harlem (yes, harlem) are “in”.  sunnyside, cobble hill or park slope [not on general tourist maps] are places where new yorkers move to.  upper east side is still “money”.  park-facing real estate here has price tags in the “limbs and internal organs” range.

overall impression: some changes did occur over the years, yet most are just cosmetic.  the tourist traps (mainly around times square) are still there.  ditto for empire state building.  or the statue [of liberty].  rock center.  and china town.  or the south street seaport.  yes, these are mandatory stops along the visitors’ circuit.  one has to check the boxes. 


 times square and rockefeller plaza (sorry for the pic quality... phone camera)

...but once done, get off the beaten path.  grab a pair of good walking shoes.  a camera.  mta card.  and a good dose of curiosity.  and open mind.  for it will surprise you!

stay off the “avenues”.  most are for tourists.  go east-west instead.  do a lot on foot.  you’ll soon realize that “manhattan” is actually made up of hundreds of little neighborhoods.  a different one around every corner. 

case in point:

start in washington square.  green.  lots of nyu students.  dogs on a leash.  a few picnic baskets.  blankets.  then take the west side exit and walk up a block to waverly place.  down on the left, an iconic restaurant where I once traded an entire week’s per-diem for the most fabulous meal ever.  yes, babbo.  I recall rabbit and pasta.  worth every penny.  despite some of batali’s recent stupid remarks against his wall street clientele.  but I digress.  read through the menu posted outside.  mouth will water.  let it.  now, walk off. (if you wanted to dine here, should have called 3 months ago).  go down to 6th ave.  avenue of the americas.  cross over and go left for a couple of blocks.  this wide street is all about retail.  and fast food chains.  could be main street anywhere.  duck down cornelia street on the right.  a different picture here.  mostly residential.  one or two small restaurants.  pearl is one of my fav.  very small.  typical ny.  grab a seat at the bar.  order the lobster roll.  best you’ll ever had.  better than anywhere in new england.  if it’s crowded and you don’t want to wait (they don’t take reservations) keep walking down to bleeker.  hang right.  this has the feel of an italian neighborhood.  butcher shop and all.  stop in john’s pizzeria for an amazing pie.  go hungry or with a group.   they don’t sell by slice.  now that you’re full, turn around and check out pasticceria rocco.  even if you don’t have a sweet tooth. 

done. 

you see? 

5 distinct areas within a 6-8 block radius.  you can do that in many parts of the city with the same effect.


clockwise: washington square, babbo, john's on bleeker, cornelia st. right outside pearl 


from here, it’s up to you:

go south one block and you hit houston.  meander through soho or tribeca.  bouitiques.  art galleries.  swanky cafés.  there was a whole-in-the wall down sullivan (or was it thompson?) where I often went for amazing italian deli sandwiches.  authentic prosciut’.  wondering if it’s still there…     

…or go east and hit little italy (whatever’s left of it) or china town.  aside from one or two [authentic] culinary exceptions both will disappoint you.  or maybe not the first time

you get the idea, though.  each of these neighborhoods  are distinct.  unique experiences.  unique architecture.  unique style.  often clashing.  always original.  quintessential ny.

the only common theme: scaffolding.  omnipresent.  best business in the city.  these things are always in demand.  they really are part of the landscape… I doubt there is a block in the city without one!

ahmmm…squirrel!

southern tip... buildings on top of buildings... not two the same...
go south.  at some point, you run out of land.  southern tip.  battery park.  a cacophony of architecture starting with the early settlers.  the dutch.  new amsterdam they called it.  back in 1626 when peter minuit bought it from the natives.  for about $24 worth of trinkets.  now, that’s investing!  half-a-cent per acre back then returns over one million per acre [in taxes only] today.  forget actual real estate value…


from the tip, ferries take you to ellis island (if you want to dig into history) or the statue.  I hear they closed it in oct last year.  for one year at least.  renovations.  visitors still not allowed to the top of the crown.   maybe they’ll reopen that soon.



brooklyn bridge... the statue (up close and from my office window)

on the lower east side - tourist trap and all - take a quick peek at the legendary brooklyn bridge.  or walk over to the other side.  if you have time.  they say brooklyn is changing (at least the area close to manhattan).  people move here.  it’s only a couple of train stations away from the city.  at a fraction of the price.  perfect sense!

quick tip while you’re down here:  visit the tkts office at the corner of john and front st.  they always have tickets left for some of the good shows.  it’s never crowded.  less known than the one in times square.  but you have to experience a broadway show in ny.  yes, you probably seen a touring performance.  I’ve seen a few at the fox in atlanta.  not the same!  theaters here are smaller.  you get more intimate with the actors.  which is the whole idea of stage play.  so do yourself a favor.  buy a ticket or two.  enrich your cultural baggage…

from here, hail a cab.  grab the train.  don’t care.  just make it to grand central.  grandiose.  a true symbol of industrial america.  a throwback to the era of the vanderbilts (who actually built and owned the thing) and rockefellers.  and it’s so much more than a train station.  6th most visited tourist attraction in the world, apparently (read more here if interested: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Central_Terminal).  I dragged laura and simi there one night so I can hear the clock strike midnight on my birthday.  somehow it appeals to me.  maybe it’s the whole point-of-departure thing…


once done (make sure you at least check out the whispering arch.  right outside the oyster bar restaurant.  look it up) head out and walk over to 5th.  go south to visit the empire state building.  a tourist must.  or walk north towards the park.  any serious designer or retailer has a store on 5th.  it’s overwhelming.  and then some.

half way through, stop in saint patricks’s (pic on the right) to light a candle.  I did so almost daily years ago.  as my father was battling cancer….  the place really takes you away.  out of manhattan.  and beyond.

now that you’re rested (and faith in humanity restored) cross over to the rock center.  ice rink in winter.  outdoor café in summer.  nbc studios.  more touristy stuff…

back on 5th.  about 6 more blocks to the park.  trump tower (main one) on the way.  fao schwartz a must.  with or without kids.  the plaza across the street.  then the park.  too big to walk.  but give it until 65th transverse, at least.  amazing place.  simple as that!

squirrel!

years ago I wanted to stay at st. regis.  even if for one night.  never did.  although I had the spg points ;-)  this time, as any amateur foodie, I succumbed to a recent foodtv show.  they said the bar there is a must.  so I did.  it’s small.  not as stuffy as I thought.  $20 maritini.  very strong.  great actually.  but $20??  and the clientele… let’s just say I have not seen so much “work”, botox, fillers and silicone…ehm… ever.



I mentioned earlier the w on lex early on.  home away from home.   the “hood” being 46th to about 53rd between 2nd and 5th.  a quick stroll through the area brought back memories.  marriott east side.  first time there in ’99.  houdini lived in at some point… smith & wollenski.  legendary steaks.  or sparks steak house.  where you’d expect another mafia hit any day now.  john gotti still around?  seo.  great sushi.  sushiann.  even better.  manchester pub.  on soccer nights.  solera.  for spanish tapas.  wonderful chorizo.  pescatore.  amazing squid ink pasta nera.  rosa mexicana.  now in atlanta as well.  but my favorite – zarela – was what I was yearning for.  it had been a [nearly] weekly occurrence during that 2+ years mentioned earlier…

I turn the corner from 50th on 2nd.  what’s this?  zarela is gone.  boarded up.  an icon of traditional mexican fare no longer there.  painful.  gutted, really.  unbelievable.  the internet later on provided some explanations1.   but really, it left a void for me.  I recall the owner – zarela martinez.  always there.  like a mother inviting you in her house.  serving amazing food.  best margaritas in town.  amazing fajitas.  and that cochinita píbil served in banana leaves.  yum.  indescribable flavors.  mouth watering.  just the thought alone… 

she says she’s looking for investors and may reopen somewhere else.  just wondering why her son [aarón sanchez2] doesn’t jump in.  but who knows what that relationship is really like…

squirrel!

I can’t get over it.  walk aimlessly towards the train station.  any train station.  tying up memories.  reflecting on life.  and what’s fair.  and moving on.  and letting go.  if only it would be that easy…


this [ny] is a lovely place, though.  jaw-dropping the first time.  equally exciting 10+ years later.  always something new around every corner.  even if you passed by that corner a thousand times.  I heart ny.  and that’s not just a t-shirt slogan for me!


memories. snippets:

flatiron.  I recall mesa grill where I tasted bobby flay for the first time.  the jalapeño-poblano soup  still lingers on the palate.  I already talked about babbolupa is a cheaper alternative.  molto mario’s got about a dozen other places in the city.  but can you really trust a chef who tips the scales around 300 lbs?  tao.  once the place to hang out.  not so much today.  tricolorii.  a small place in queens.  I once introduced a bunch of american co-workers to authentic romanian cuisine.  sarmale (stuffed cabbage).  mamaliga (polenta).  papanasi (cheese-filled desserts).  there was a lot of finger-licking that night!  the manhattan chili co.  nothing city-slicker-ish about it.  warmed me up many a cold nights.  broadway.  the producers.  2003.  the letterman show.  in the audience.  only he wasn’t on the stage.  out with shingles.  bill cosby ran the show that night.  I remember a stunning girl.  unknown at the time.  promoting some obscure film.  chasing papi… yep.  sofia vergara.  cosby was actually drooling… century 21.  cool shopping.  new shoes.

lunch at every spot in soho and china town. for about 6 months.  salmon burger a delicious first.  indian buffet.  balthazar.  hi, woody!  first canon camera bought in china town.  co-workers asking if it spells with 2 “n”s… five dollar dvd’s of the movie that’s just premiered last night.  the diner from spider man.  where Kirsten dunst “worked”.  right ouside the morgan stanley building.  gone now.  the [swanky] james hotel in its place.  “street” vendors packing up their knockoffs every time the cops show up.  central park.  rain.  snow.  coldest I’ve ever been.  before minneapolis, of course.  dinner at l’ecole for mom’s 60th.  little italy.  biggest meatball I ever had.  and most delicious.  can’t remember the place… and so on... 

northeast blackout.  2003.  ny shut down.  no power.  no phones.  no metro.  one-dollar sushi before it goes bad.  party in the streets under car headlights.  might as well. 

the w times square.  all one-way glass hotel room.  feels like a fishbowl.  hundred-dollar hookers.  why did I even ask?  and, no.  in case you’re wondering… 

today…

a lot of that’s still there.  some adapted.  some did not survive the cruel city.  cutthroat.  “just business”. 
food trucks are the latest craze.  some have a religious following.  some are excellent.  most are not all that.  but they’re affecting local lunch spots.  and killing the ol’ hot dog cart.  and bbq joints are in.  yes.  in ny.  they love it.  couple of spots in harlem are excellent, I hear.  fete sau (brooklyn) claims to be the best.  

I ventured to the east village.  on 1st.  coyote ugly.  (is it just a name?).  dinner at momofuku.  funny name.  nothing funny about the food.  pork ramen.  iconic.  The poached egg on top… nice touch! and pork buns.  delish.  you get the idea.  definitely worth it.  david chang left boulud and craft to change the [casual-hip] ny culinary scene…

broadway closed to traffic in times square.  tables and chairs for gawkers now.  columbus center.  architecure finally finished.  wtc rebuilding.  nyse floor closed to visitors.  and yes… my beloved zarela closed… 

you zoom in and you see the changes.  zoom out and it’s still there.  almost unchanged.  the smell… the sounds… the people… the city... alive...


good bye.  off to jfk then.  one of the most rundown airports in the country.  yet, part of the whole experience...

until next time, NY!









PS - I "squeezed" a lot of pics in here... click on to see 'em bigger.


1 -  http://www.zarela.com/2011/zarela-closing-some-media-coverage/

1 comment:

  1. I just love your humour, Adi:)) You hit bull's eye with your memoirs, so effervescent!!! Makes me wanna hop on the first airplane and follow your trail!!

    ReplyDelete