Sunday, March 15, 2009

NYC09: Bright Lights; Big City

New York, New York
There is a flavour to a city; New York's is just as you'd imagine it to be. Everything about New York City is as imagined. The subways feel a little rougher, with iron gates, and bars lining the tracks. The street vendors are a tad bit pushier, attempting to sell sketches, kabobs, and comedy show tickets. From time to time, you'll even notice a homeless person employed to help sell. Is it exploitation, or is it a city trying to help?

Everything is as you've been led to believe it is here. With the smell of roasted nuts billowing down into the underground, I found myself drawn to music raising in volume through the tunnels. A crowd formed, and I attempted to push my way between a young woman - with way too dark eyeshadow, wearing a t-shirt designed with her personal collection of sharpie markers, accented by the numerous facial piercings glinting and reflecting the menagerie of colour – and what may have been her small child, or perhaps it was simply her little brother.

Before me, five teenagers put on an impromptu hip-hop show, performing flips, and rotations, while others popped and locked to the beat. A dance crew had arrived, to impress the onlookers. But when they past around the hat at the end of it all, I didn't have a penny to pay. They exited as quickly as they appeared, nodding to me as they past, and addressing me by a name I've now heard in over seven countries. Neither insulting, nor endearing. Simply descriptive.

Like them, I too stand out in a crowd. The difference being, I need not dance to do it. And while I appreciate this in most places, New York City seems the one location I'd like to simply just blend in.

Checking In
As I checked into my hotel, having safely navigated the New York subway system, I was only slightly terrified by the man who checked me in. Soft spoken, large, and Spanish with a name tattooed on the side of his hand, he reminded me of any number of guest actors on CSI: Miami. When he asked for my passport without explaining why, I didn't think twice about handing it over. I was in no position to bargain. I know it's a great sin to ever find yourself without that book in your pocket, but what was I to do? He was very slightly terrifying.

I considered myself quite blessed when it was returned after a quick scan.

The room is not luxurious – nor is it the death trap some internet reviews claimed it was. It simply is what it is. Bed, tv, kitchenette (which will allow for grocery shopping and microwave cookery), bathroom, shower, safe. I wonder how many people think the safe has value? I imagine the staff have an override code – and by using it, all you've done is help them easily locate your valuables. But perhaps that's just paranoia talking.

One unpacked, having emptied my day pack to a manageable weight, I was quickly back to the streets.

Bright Lights; Big City
I'm not the type of person to find myself in this type of place, at this time of night. Still there I was at 42nd street. Times Square. The illumination is incredible, comparable to few other places on earth, save perhaps Shibuya. It took me a moment to realize that all the light cascading down around me was artificial. Light as day, my camera shooting at 50iso with a shutter speed of 1/60, took perfect images. Paris is the city of lights; New York is the city of light.

From Coca-Cola ads, to stock tickers; news updates to theatre banners – everything was ablaze with false stars.

Times square extends for blocks, passing by an assortment of stores, seemingly open well past midnight. There is a carnival-like feeling created by the tables and chairs set up for people to eat their newly purchased pretzels, hot nuts, and skewered chicken. The dozens of booths photo-shopping pictures, drawing people, and selling photographs and paintings of the city only adds to the atmosphere. Everything is surrounded with little blinking lights. The McDonald's could be easily confused for a Broadway Marquee, even the police station has scrolling pink neon to accent it.

And for those who desire rides? They need look no further than the Toys R Us

A City of Heroes
Where can you see Spider-Man, Super-Man, King Kong, the Statue of Liberty, Lightsaber wielding Jedis and a Tyrannosaurus all without moving from one spot? Why the same place you can ride a ferris wheel, take pictures with people dressed as giraffes, and play Mario Kart Wii on nine giant screens linked together: Times Square, Toys R Us.

I don't know why Jurassic Park has come to New York, as the movies and subsequent toy lines were released when I was a child. Being my favourite movie, I made sure to collect as many of the action figures as I could back then. But here, now, was a large mechanized dinosaur, before iconic gates. Who was I to refuse being photographed with it, and admiring it for some time?

From Toys R Us, I headed straight for the last of its kind. The Virgin Megastore. Already gone from London, this too was undergoing a final closing sale. Movies, games, music, books, and clothing were all significantly discounted. I headed for the apparel in hopes of some hoodie (a magical item, well known to keep me warm in the coldest of all antarctic winters) that I may never have come across. Sadly, as they were all purple, sparkley and featuring the Jonas Brothers, I was forced to pass.

I did, however, find a Flight of the Conchords Cuban hat. While it had no price tag, I figured at forty percent off, it couldn't cost that much. All the others in the pile also had their tags ripped off.

When I approached the check out, I was told to wait while the cashier attempted to track down a price. Was this really such a travesty? Couldn't they just take the price from a similar item? It was, after all, just one hat in a pile of many. But no, as she returned I was told this could not be. Without proper price it could not be sold.

You need to appreciate that this is a going out of business sale. They're selling all their furniture and manikins on top of their stock. Everything must go! And yet I am being refused the purchase of this hat? Seeing the sorrow in my eyes, or perhaps simply looking for an excuse to take another break, she headed off again.

Some time later when she returned she had a hat safely in her hands. This one had a price on it – where she got it, I'll never know, because I made sure to search the whole pile. None existed. Even her first ten minute search produced no results. But at the end of it all, I had the headwear of my choice. 19.99 minus 40% brought it down to about twelve dollars. I have a hat for this trip.

I am notorius for losing my caps, however – most never making it past a month or two. I don't even know where they end up – most likely with dryer socks, and yetis. Other such mysteries can come too. If this hat makes it back to Toronto, it will have outlived all experts opinions.

Dinner, Stations, and Sleep
After the excitement of a first night's view of the city, I found a delightful cultural experience in the form of a pizza restaurant. New York pizza? Is it better than the rest of the worlds? I can't speak to that yet, as I ate it at the end of long, food deprived, day – but the cheese? Gooey, stringy mozzarella? That is most definitely as advertised!

From there I took the shuttle to Grand Central Station, more in an effort to familiarize myself with the subway system, than anything else. I was shocked by the sheer scale. This is what Union Station in Toronto can only hope to be. Some long-exposure shots later, and my camera battery died. It was time to head back.

Aside from some quick jumping on, and then off of, express trains do to my foreigner ignorance, the trip was uneventful, and the internet-bashed bed seemed quite inviting.

Now talking to, and helping other guests, the man at the front desk didn't even seem terrifying anymore. Perhaps I've acclimatized. One thing is for sure, it's going to be one interesting week.

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