Sunday, September 7th 2014
Yes, today is my birthday so happy birthday to me! Also, this is our last full day in New York, so we had better make the most of it.
We started with breakfast at the New Apollo Diner then went to look for a bus. Tigger likes buses and prefers them to the tube or, in New York, the subway. She has an amazing, almost encyclopaedic, knowledge of London bus routes and soon manages to work out how to get around by bus in other cities as well.
Apart from a few of small differences (e.g. the driver sits on the left and the ticket reader words differently), New York buses felt quite familiar to us. We needed to change buses and asked the bus driver for information. She was very helpful and started to explain where we should pick up the next bus, then decided it would be easier to take us there if we didn’t mind waiting while she took her statutory break – an example of the sort of kindness and helpfulness will have met here. We didn’t mind waiting at all and that’s when I photographed the delightfully empty bus.
Arriving somewhere near our destination, we continued on foot and this gave me the opportunity to photograph one of New York’s 15,000 Fire Alarm Call Boxes. Usually just called Fire Alarm Boxes, they have two buttons, one for fire and one for police. In case you are wondering, yes, they do still work, but a shadow hangs over their future. The first alarm boxes were installed in 1870 but were then operated by a key and only solid citizens were given a key. If you were poor and your house caught on fire, I assume you had to run to the fire station to call for help. The key system soon ended and the alarms became accessible to everyone. Call 911 and you are first connected to an operator who asks which service you require; press a button on the alarm box and you are put straight through to the service you require (provided it is the fire service or the police). However, in this age of mobile phones, the alarm boxes are increasingly seen by city governors (aware of the cost of maintaining them) as redundant. Plans to junk them have been mooted but protest against this has so far ensured their survival. Statistics reveal that only 2.6% of alarm calls are now made from alarm boxes and of these, 88% are false alarms. In view of this, the future of the famous red boxes does not seem very secure…
We walked through a park which lies to the left (or west, if you prefer) of Brooklyn Bridge and is called, reasonably enough, Brooklyn Bridge Park. I think this is regarded as forming part of DUMBO (see New York 2014 – Day 2), though this theoretically lies on the other side of the bridge, between it and Manhattan Bridge. But who’s counting?
We went down to Pier 1, which is one of the stops on the route of the New York Water Taxi. Yesterday’s trip had left Tigger unsatisfied and, as for me, sitting on a boat was preferably to wandering the streets of New York.
Where people gather, there are food scraps and where there are food scraps, you find birds. While we waited for the Water Taxi, I watched the entertaining sparrows flitting about, hunting for crumbs. I think these are cousins of our house sparrows, once common in Britain but now in worrying decline. They looked very similar to sparrows in Britain, anyway.
We obtained information about the Water Taxi from a company representative. An amiable man, he was kept busy by information-seeking tourists of various nationalities. Many of them were Spanish-speaking and he talked to them fluently of their own language. This provides an opportunity for a Linguistic Note.
The official language of New York is (American) English. This is passably similar to British English such that mutual comprehension results approximately 99.9% of the time. There are nonetheless occasional misunderstandings caused by differences in vocabulary and in pronunciation. Some of these are understandable, such as when Americans call “kerosene” what we call “paraffin” in the UK, but some other misunderstandings seem odd, to say the least. For example, take the word “tomato”: I pronounce this with a long ‘a’ as “tomahto” but if an American calls it “tomayto”, I have no trouble knowing what he means; Americans, on the other hand seem perplexed if I say “tomahto” and ask me to repeat the word, eventually exclaiming “Oh, you mean tomayto!” as if they have just solved a difficult puzzle.
An anecdote on a similar theme involves a tour guide. She quipped that you could buy anything in Times Square except goods for the household interior. Tigger mischievously said “What about fridge magnets?” The tour guide appeared mystified and asked her to repeat “fridge magnets” several times, eventually exclaiming in relief “Oh yes, refrigerator magnets!” Even if “fridge” is not the current word in New York, how is it so hard to understand when linked to the word “magnet”?
This is all the more puzzling in view of the fact that a second language, Spanish, is widely spoken in New York to the point where many public notices are in both English and Spanish and many people who deal with the public are virtually bilingual – like our man at the pier. Whereas in London, if you try speaking, say, French, people become embarrassed and flustered, in New York, if you speak Spanish, people will usually reply fluently in the same language. Many New Yorkers of course come from Hispanic immigrant stock whose families still speak Spanish at home and in the local neighbourhood.
Many other languages are spoken in New York, of course, partly owing to tourism but mainly as a result of vast numbers of immigrants flooding into the US in the 20th century, bringing their culture and languages with them. In view of this widespread multi-linguistic experience, difficulty in understanding “tomahto” and “fridge magnet” seems doubly strange.
The Water Taxi eventually arrived and we were able to go aboard, flashing our New York Passes at anyone interested. This time we stayed on the upper deck and thereby had a better view of the surroundings.
We were treated to the usual discourse on the Statue of Liberty (“a gift of friendship from the people of France, made of metal only as thick as two dimes pressed together…”) and Ellis Island (“where new immigrants were processed by being asked 29 questions…”) and so on and so on. I preferred just to look at the scenery though I did take a photograph or two, including the one above of the Statue (well, you have to, haven’t you?) and…
water-borne traffic on the Hudson River, such as this sailing boat seen against the looming skyline of Manhattan.
We disembarked at Hudson River Park where we spotted this sculpture. It is by Stephan Weiss (1938-2001) and is known as The Apple, presumably a reference to the “Big Apple”, New York.
From there we walked into the maze of streets that is Manhattan. I would have liked to slip the expression “mean streets” into my account somewhere but have not so far managed it. Downtown Brooklyn can be rather grotty but nowhere that I have explored seemed particularly “mean” though it might well do so for some of the people we saw, street dwellers with their entire lives packed into a few bags or luggage trolleys. That is not a slur on New York, by the way, as there are homeless people in London too and no doubt in all the cities of the world. (Yes, in the photo that is the One World Trade Center. Again.)
We joined a tour bus (yep, our New York Passes, again) and submitted to a commentary on the streets we ran through and the buildings we passed alongside. (Don’t forget the bucket for tips at the end.) I took hardly any photos and none that I care to show you (apart from the one above, just to set the scene). Our guide was a personable woman, quite good at her job, who obviously enjoyed being the centre of attention. Yep, she was the one for whom a “fridge magnet” is an imponderable enigma. On these buses there is also a recorded commentary, cleverly synchronized by GPS with the position of the bus. It tends to be simpler and less colourful than the peroration of the guide but some might prefer it.
After our bus tour, we went rambling again and found ourselves at the Rockefeller Center. In front of it was a living artwork, as you see above. It is by Jeff Koons and is called Split-Rocker because it combines the heads of two toy rockers, a pony and a dinosaur, halved and stuck together. You will find more details here. In the third photo, a strange effect has been caused by sunlight reflected from windows passing through a water spray that comes on intermittently to prevent the plants drying out.
The Rockefeller Center is in fact a complex of buildings serving many purposes (see the Wikipedia article here). One of its buildings is known as the GE Building or “30 Rock”, and contains a viewing platform 70 floors up called “Top of the Rock”. Admission was gained with our New York Passes and up we went for another bird’s-eye view of New York but this time in daylight. The building is a “mere” 850 ft (260 m) high but the view is still impressive. I won’t bore you with an account of the shunting and shuffling necessary to get to the top but will just show you a selection of the pictures I took up there.
These pictures are affected by haze to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the direction of view. I am sure this is owing to weather conditions rather than my camera which is all other circumstances produced sharp images.
We passed in front of the main building of the New York public library, known as the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. It was built in 1911 and the interior is magnificent by all accounts but we did not visit it this time. Maybe, if ever I am persuaded to come back to this city…
Outside the library is a pair of rather splendid lions of which I have pictured one. They were carved in Tennessee marble by Edward Clark Potter (1857-1923).
For dinner, Tigger took me, as a birthday treat (a birthday treat for both of us – the best kind!), to the Empire Diner. As you will have gathered, I have been quite taken by diners, finding them havens of peace and tranquility amidst the tooth-grinding chaos of this city. I can relate to diners as they are akin to British cafes or restaurants but, like their British cousins, they are all different, each having its own style and character. None more so than the Empire Diner.
Do we describe it as an Art Deco restaurant, as a retro venue or perhaps as a railway dining car that has gone off the rails and lost its wheels? Any and all of these descriptions fit. It was built by the Fodero Dining Car Company in 1946 (hence its railway car feel), was then abandoned but refurbished in 1976. Once more it closed, opened briefly in 2010, closed again, only to rise phoenix-like in January this year.
The service was friendly and helpful. (Our waiter was Australian and concurred with us that “No one here knows how to make tea”!) The food was, um, interesting and a little expensive but I wouldn’t have missed the experience for anything. This is definitely one to revisit (if ever I am persuaded to return etc etc).
After this unusual but enjoyable experience, we retired to our hotel to rest. Tomorrow we return to London but only in the evening. We have the early part of the day to spend somehow in New York. How will we fill it?