The last time I visited Manhattan was 1989, and though I was old enough to appreciate that I was looking at Rockefeller Center or Radio City Music Hall or Central Park or the World Trade Center, I was not old enough to control my itinerary. So, I didn’t get to see some of the things I would have liked to, like the view from the top of the Empire State Building, or the incomparable paintings inside the Museum of Modern Art. This trip, however, was all about doing the important New York City stuff, and it could hardly have gone better.
We left from Orlando on a Wednesday morning and touched down at the Westchester County Airport before noon. That made the most sense, since we would be staying in White Plains during our visit. The flight was half-empty, and though another passenger was initially seated next to Miriam and me, the stewardess offered him his own row, and Miriam and I enjoyed the extra room. I love looking out the window of the airplane, and Miriam always lets me have the window seat. On this trip I recognized Jacksonville, Savannah, Chesapeake Bay, and the coast of New Jersey, before discerning Coney Island, and Manhattan off in the distance. The suburbs of Connecticut looked pleasant and friendly as the plane shifted to a more south-westerly course for landing.
We took a taxi from the airport to our hotel, the Crowne Plaza. Our eighth-floor room was handsome, with a large corner window that overlooked the intersection of Maple Avenue and Hale Avenue, and the charming homes on a hillside to the southeast. The hotel offered complimentary shuttle service anywhere in the city of White Plains, and during our stay we took advantage of that luxury. Though the distance to the train station was not considerable, the path is circuitous, so a free ride was the way to go.
The train station in White Plains is on a platform just west of downtown. I was not well-versed in the particulars of the New York City Metro, or the Metro North Railroad, and we wanted tickets for both. The clerk advised us that our best bet was a ten-trip off-peak pass, with accompanying subway pass. The total was around $60 per ticket. Off-peak hours are after ten o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon, and then after six- or seven o’clock at night. The price for a ticket that included peak hours was substantially higher.
While we were waiting for the next train to Grand Central Terminal, a woman in a long khaki coat repeatedly cut to the front of the ticket line to ask the clerk questions about the next train. I thought her actions were incredibly rude, but she looked very rough and flustered, and assumed she was having a bad day. When we took our seats on the train I had already forgotten her, but then we heard a woman in a thick Long Island accent pestering a handsome English couple with rather personal questions: “Where do you work? How much money does that pay? How expensive is your house?” And so on. I thought it was unbelievably impolite, and I half expected the Britons to tell the lady to shove off. But, like good Englishmen, they took it in stride, and humoured the lady for the entire forty minute ride to Grand Central.
Grand Central Terminal is amazing. First, it’s enormous. The ceiling is painted with a huge zodiac, beneath which is the circular information desk, topped with a four-faced clock. Hundreds of commuters are walking this way and that, and hundreds more tourists are taking photos at any given second. At the north and south ends of the main lobby are two balconies, under which, through arches, corridors lead to an astonishing array of shops and restaurants, plus the various subway lines that connect to Grand Central.
On our various travels, we have become proficient users of public transportation. Perhaps the biggest challenge for us when it comes to riding an unfamiliar subway in a new town is learning which lines run which directions. Once you descend the stairs in a Metro station, all sense of direction one has while above ground is lost. Thankfully, New York City streets are numbered, and Manhattan is long and straight, with lines running, by and large, north and south. Just look for the signs that indicate whether the train is heading downtown or uptown and you’re good to go. The only other challenge (and this one is unavoidable), is determining whether it’s better to exit the subway at one stop or another when it appears that your intended destination lies halfway between. But we managed during our trip, and we went all over New York City.
Our first destination on our first day was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We walked the few short blocks to the steps along Fifth Avenue facing elegant mansions, and ate hot dogs in the sunshine before heading inside.
In general, Mrs. Hill and I are thorough museum-goers. We look at every piece, and read most of the information posted next to each piece, and typically spend many hours exploring. We did not have the time to do that at the Met. We spent so much time perusing the Egyptian wing of the museum that we had to skip the Greek art and the medieval art, as well. The European paintings were astonishing, of course; the sculpture was, too, and I was even fond of some of the modern art, particularly Untitled by Anish Kapoor, a large concave work composed of hundreds of reflective hexagons. From a distance of several feet it reflected nothing distinguishable. But moving closer you could make out your own shape, and at a distance of a few inches it became even more mesmerizing. There was a fascinating round room with a mural depicting the gardens and palace at Versailles painted along the entire length of the wall. The room had bizarre acoustical properties. My favorite area of the museum, though, was the reconstructed Greek Revival facade of the 1822 Branch Bank of the United States which once stood on Wall Street. Beyond the worn stone threshold was room after room of amazing antique furniture organized by period and style. Today’s rich live in squalor compared to those of yesteryear. The stairs from the Chicago Stock Exchange Building made me lament that craftsmanship is dead. Still, I was most touched by something entirely simple: an embroidery sampler stitched by fourteen-year-old Sally Cornelius depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden, beneath which appeared the words, “This I have done to let you see what my parents did for me”.
From the Met we headed back to Grand Central, then took the express shuttle to Times Square. The density of the crowd there was astonishing. Throngs of people walking briskly, or stopping hastily to snap photos of family and friends standing at the center of the Western world. I found it slighty overwhelming, and could easily imagine how one prone to sensory sensitivity might find Times Square oppressive.
We needed to kill some time before heading to dinner. We had decided to eat at Sardi’s, located in the heart of the Theater District. When we arrived we were seated right away. It is a fancy restaurant where fancy people eat. It is also amazingly expensive. Our meal was one of the priciest we’ve ever had. Alas, mo’ money don’t mean mo’ tasty: the food wasn’t that great. But we paid for the experience of eating at Sardi’s, and, in that regard, I do not regret it.
It had rained during our dinner, which was surprising, and we dodged lightning on our way back to the subway to catch the return train to White Plains.
The next installment: New York City, Part Two.