Archive for September, 2009

New York, New York

So! Today I woke up later than I wanted to due to a sleepness night, and wasted no time getting out of the door and into the city.

Taking the subway to the Lower East Side, I made my way to Katz deli, established in 1888 and still going strong. Famous almost as much for its patrons and role in When Harry Met Sally as for its food (stolen from wiki: each week, Katz’s serves 5,000 pounds of corned beef, 2,000 pounds of salami and 12,000 hot dogs), it was absolutely slammed when I arrived in the middle of the lunch hour.

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You pick a ‘cutter’ from the long bar and do your best to try and queue orderly whilst at the same time fending off would-be spot-stealing interlopers. When you reach the counter, you get to watch the guy behind (it seemed to be an all-male workforce) slice and dice the goods, which nine times out of ten is the famous pastrami on rye. It runs at a pretty eye-watering $15, and isn’t actually the best sandwich I’ve ever tasted (someone I know is going to punch me for saying that), but the atmosphere of the place is intoxicating, and one gets the feeling that that’s more what you pay for. Salamis and photographs alike plaster the walls, and there’s a lively, even abrasive hubbub at all times. It’s a real experience, and worth the surcharge.

Afterwards, I wandered north to Central Park. This contains a lot more activity than that sentence would suggest, for a few reasons.

Firstly, the map I had was not to scale. I did not realise this for quite some time – namely the point at which I thought that I should really be on 25th by now and why does that sign only say 15th. Suffice to say I had a lot more ground to cover than I expected to. Secondly, New York is on a grid system but there is a wild card thrown into the mix in the diagonal shape of Broadway, cutting a foot-stamping line from the southeast to the northwest. This led to me getting a little lost more than a few times, as Park Avenue was suddenly on the left instead of the right and what am I doing on First goddamn it.

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I always enjoy ambling, however, and it was great fun simply wandering the streets haphazardly, gazing up at the skyscrapers or around at the people. Shops and bars are everywhere, something I very much appreciated, from the dingy and inviting drinking holes in the south to the super-posh, super-pricey establishments near Grand Central Station in the north (though still below Central Park, so I suppose more Midtown than anything) that cater for the after-work crowd from Wall Street et al. To my delight I found a Pret A Manger – a high-quality London chain – and subsequently bagged myself a free sandwich, further reminding me why I love the place so much. No, I’m not telling you how.

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I actually passed quite a few NY monuments: Grand Central, The Empire State, The Sex Museum… but what was more interesting was the city, to me. It’s thronged – ensconced, almost – with people, and pulses with human energy. There’s a lot of very interesting things to see, which I shall endeavor to show in pictures rather than use my insufficient words, and it possesses in spades that fast-paced culture that is so dear to me – more than anywhere else I’ve been in the world, in fact. But, much to my surprise, I have not yet found myself drawn towards the idea of living here as in Chicago, though I do like the place. I’m not passing judgment yet, though, as I have my one last day to check it out further.

Sadly, by the time I reached Central Park, it was very low light and raining so I repaired home. Tomorrow I shall start there, and try to investigate the many things I have not yet seen!

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I want to be a part of it

‘Everyone wants to go to New York,’ the white-haired Italian man said, at the Pittsburgh station. ‘Why does everyone want to go to New York?’

Good question. But all I know is that I’ve wanted to visit this city for a looong time, longer even than I’ve wanted to come to America. Pictured in so many ways across so many mediums, it’s one of the most culturally represented cities in the world, and if not quite all things to all people, it is certainly something to many.

I took a Great Wall bus, one of the network of asian-run transportation options that span a constellation across the east coast, interlinking the biggest cities, frequently by their asian districts. It is a lovely bus. Do excuse the aside, but after so long on Greyhound, inured though I am to them the startling contrast in luxury was… well, startling. Clean, well-aired, full of Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese people instead of mad ones, it was even comfortable enough to get a few hours semi-sleep in. It was also faster and cheaper than Greyhound, with more sensible times. I really recommend it should you need to get around the seaboard.

It rained through the night, and on into the morning. I landed in Chinatown having slept through the station approach just as the light was starting to filter into the streets. The city that never sleeps was doing a remarkably good impression of it, but soon after I disembarked, the muffled sounds of slumbering concrete started to pick up the dull roar of another day. At exactly 7am, a light flicked into life across the street as the Wing Sing bakery started its business.

I met up with Akilae, who proved an awesome tour guide – very knowledgeable and with quite a flair for rhetoric in his own quiet way. Together we bought me a subway pass, jumped back to his apartment in Brooklyn where I got a blessed hour or so of proper sleep (before jumping out of my skin at finding him standing behind me. Guy is a ninja). Then we headed underground.

We used this tour, which involved queuing in the drizzle alongside an inauspicious street before climbing down an equally ordinary-looking manhole (someone needs to rethink the ontology of that word) in the middle of the traffic.

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(That’s my new jacket!)

It’s a very tight fit. Underneath though, through the accumulated dirt and mud of decades, is a cavernous man-made tunnel with a colourful and fascinating history (covered to some extent by the site I just linked); technically the first subway in the world. I could only take one picture because, y’know, pitch black, but there are some more on the site that do a decent job of it.

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Also, politics was super-corrupt back then. If it wasn’t so awful it’d be impressive. Small wonder America distrusts their men in suits so much.

Afterwards, we returned to Chinatown to eat a whole bunch of Dim Sum, which I made a valiant effort at, even trying the shudder-inducing chicken feet, but I decided probably wasn’t for me on a regular basis. The Chinatown in NY is a pretty expansive one with a lot of character and the slightly otherworldly feel of its cousins elsewhere (Philadelphia, San Francisco, London…). ‘Not going to gawp at the ducks?’ asked Akilae, gesturing at the bronzed poultry dangling in the window, then looking slightly disappointed when I broke the news I had unfortunately seen it before.

We decided to walk the rest of the way home, but by a circuitous route. First we reached Ground Zero.

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No American, and very few others, need further detail here. It’s a place full of sadness and optimism. The discrete information center hosts a model replica of the planned replacement tower and memorial (square waterfalls set where the foundations of the prior buildings were), as well as a simple timeline and unsensational explanation of what occurred. I was pleased to see a focus on contextualizing the event that shaped the first decade of the 21st century, rather than blind outrage or festering resent. It felt like it was being handled properly. There was, additionally, a blacked-out, sound-proofed booth wherein one could record their recollection of that day in three minutes. I left my own words in there, and shan’t repeat them here.

We ambled on through the odds and ends of the city, across small parks and cemeteries, past Wall Street and the ‘anatomically correct’ bull outside, and crossing through the square in front of City Hall. There was a small ‘truther’ protest being held there. Having just been to Purdue, where they did explain how the towers collapsed as they did, and subsequently the scarred site of the tragedy itself, I found myself getting very, very angry.

Some vapid and earnest-looking young man with curly hair was speaking into a microphone in front of the relatively diminutive crowd, and I managed to ignore him. But it was the people hassling passers-by with their leaflets that really choked me. You don’t get to ask a question that serious and then disregard the answer. I yelled back that there was no such cover-up and that Purdue had already shown exactly what happened, and as an amateur camera-man wheeled on me with a slightly predatory grin he was followed by a kid of about eighteen (‘Really?’) who had that wild-eyed look of the conspiracy theorist. As he bounced after me yelling about willful ignorance and abetting an evil Government it was all I could do not to turn around and punch him in the face. I’m not a violent man, but some things…

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We finished the day by crossing the Brooklyn Bridge on foot, a marvelous structure with wonderful views of the city, the Statue, and its sister the Manhattan. Very photogenic.

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And not quite true. We finished the day proper by stuffing ourselves with NY-style pizza, fresh from the restaurant oven in the fashionable waterside DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) district of Brooklyn. Watching the sun set over the silhouetted skyline, the first skyscraper lights glowing through the distance, I found myself more eager than ever to explore this city – to be a part of it.

My adventures continue tomorrow.

I’m leavin’ today

I’m on my way to New York! Squeeeee.

Yes this is worth a post.

Start spreadin’ the news

There came a point at the party yesterday night where I would find that people knew who I was before I actually introduced myself. One accentuated syllable was all that was required. Make no bones about it; being English in America is pretty damn awesome. The amount of free drinks alone

Anyway, anyway.

Between spotted sleep patterns, headaches, and eating at strange hours, the last two days have been a real blur. Having crashed out for a good seven or eight hours following my arrival, I went to the aforementioned party, which turned out fantastically well (I got the chance to say a grinning hello to someone I met over 75 days ago in Gatwick airport. Her eyes nearly popped out of her head). Much drink and dance was had. There was a film about robots with Italian subtitles. There was cake.

I subsequently came home and couldn’t sleep, but I mustered enough energy to venture out today on a drivey-walky tour of Pittsburgh. It’s a nice place, sequestered between the fork of two rivers. Smaller than I had expected, the city nonetheless has a distinct feel to it – though describing what that is is a little bit tricky. There are individuated districts, such as quaint Little Italy where my friend whom I’m staying with is based, or the affluent and hipster-populated Shadyside area with its myriad lounges and bars (definitely more my type of scene than clubland).

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Those are tucked away somewhat in the back of the city, away from the water’s edge. Today I saw more of the downtown area where only a day or two ago met the most important people on the planet (except for the secret Jewish illuminati freemason enclave that controls everything, of course). For the most part it’s a fairly quiet place; clean, compact and economically stable, the skyline dominated by the PPG plate-glass building with its gothic parapets. Its steelworking legacy is clearly evinced by the many bridges that branch over the surrounding waters – four hundred and forty-six in total! The main ones over the twin rivers are often painted a cheery yellow colour, which brightens up the view through the mist and drizzle that we ran into today. The weather unfortunately meant that taking photographs was often a pointless venture, but we did go up to the top of what’s called the ‘incline’, which is a funicular or cable-car that is winched up the sharply sloping side of a cliff to the south of the city, and the view from the top was pretty good.

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Sadly doesn’t really do it justice. Pittsburgh is a nice place, really. Kind of reminded me of San Diego in character, but a northern version. It has that same quiet sense of self-possession and stability, with the gilded edge of financial strength. Well worth a visit should you ever find yourself in the area.

Being of the exciting and whimsical adventures undertaken by the author

Hey all,

Sorry for the radio silence, but I’ve had another few quiet days. This time, I traveled to Purdue college in Lafayette, Indiana, to see a friend I’ve known for years. It worked out with us mostly just tooling around playing games, going to bars and eating (Lafayette isn’t a particularly big place), which although fun for me does not make for particularly gripping reading.

I had an entertaining time getting to my next stop of Pittsburgh, however. You see, Lafayette doesn’t have a Greyhound station. You can’t book the tickets online, nor at the Amtrak desk in the train station where the bus company is sort-of based, in that they have a brightly-smiling person sitting behind the glass who tells you she can’t really do anything. So, you go out to a street and stand there. In the rain. With no sign telling you where to go, so you have to more or less guess where the Greyhound is going to stop.

And then it doesn’t come. Two soggy hours later, I was feeling rather fed up of waiting (thank goodness my backpack has a rainproof sheet), so I teamed up with another passenger and we hitched a lift with his buddy to Indianapolis. Later, we would find out that the bus had broken down – which of course wouldn’t have been a serious problem, if we had any way of knowing at all.

Indianapolis I only got to see a little of, so I can’t pass comment on it, but I was starving by the time I got there. My eyes, stomach, imagination and spiritual wellbeing ruling out the slop being served up at the station, I went wandering down the road a little and found a place called the Slippery Noodle. It’s a large establishment that takes up half a block or so, but that never feels impersonal. Split into several different rooms, the place has an obsession with the Blues Brothers, live music, good food and what even I recognized as an impressive array of beers on tap. Chowing down on loaded potato skins, I had a nice discussion with the person behind the bar about traveling and all that good stuff, which proved far more entertaining than sitting in the station playing Puzzle Quest for three hours. I recommend the place.

The next bus journey was as dreary as it was tiring, another overnight haul on uncomfortable seats. Let me tell you, I’ve got traveling on these things down to an art now, but it’s still near-impossible to grab any sleep.

GREYHOUND SERVICE ALERT: Beginning at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, September 23, the Greyhound station in downtown Pittsburgh will be relocated to the McKeesport Transportation Center, 408 Lysle Blvd. This move is temporary, and is due to the G-20 Summit taking place at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

Oh, goody. Landing about 13 miles out of town in unfamiliar territory after 14 hours travel is just what I wanted. But never mind! I eventually found out how I was to get to my destination, and jumping on another bus made my way into the city. Pittsburgh feels kind of strange at the minute, due to the G-20; lots of protester-looking types with dreadlocks and big cardboard signs to be seen on the street. It’s on everyone’s mind, too: the conversations I overheard were all about the rigor of police checks and difficulty in getting anything done, or in some cases resent at being chosen to host. A small but granite-like old woman nearly poked me in the chest after overhearing my British accent.

‘Are you here for that G-20 thing? What do you do in it?’ she demanded. I explained that I was just a traveler, but that only seemed to redouble her conviction. ‘That’s just what you’d say, you just don’t want us to know, I bet you can’t talk about it.’ I made the mistake of trying to laugh that one off, which only served to further antagonize her. ‘It’s not a laughing matter’, she grumbled darkly as she stepped off the bus, leaving me rather bewildered.

Not everyone is feeling quite so wronged, though. Passing a pub on the way, they had hung up a sign: ‘We’re protesting sobriety’.

I arrived at my contact’s house here and promptly fell asleep until about an hour ago. I better get going though because we’re doing things tonight and my word, do I need a shower. More impressions of Pittsburgh to come tomorrow.

Heckuva town

Firstly, let me make a few choice corrections:

A) I did have a ‘Chicago Dog’, in that I had a bite of Arminas’s. Chili and cheese topping is not Chicago style. I repeat, not Chicago style. Can you stop breaking my fingers now, please?
B) The Water Tower mentioned in the last post was actually supposed to be the John Hancock tower, one of the tallest buildings in the world. The Water Towers, plural, are twin stone edifices that lie near the the base of it. They were some of the only buildings to survive the Great Chicago Fire.

With that in mind, allow me to upload the two best pictures from near the top of that place.

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I hope that was worth the wait.

Today I headed in with the company of another forumite, Ketar, to visit and tour the expansive Art Institute of Chicago, an encyclopedic museum that has almost every type of thing you can think of on display at some juncture or another. Famous pieces include Van Gogh’s self-portrait, Nighthawks, American Gothic, and among others, a smattering of Seurat (including the famous park scene), Goya, Monet, and Picasso. In addition to this is a formidable modern art wing. It is, I hope you will appreciate, somewhat near-impossible to start quantifying art in terms of inadequate and misshapen words. The museum is about one million square feet in terms of area, took four and half hours to comprehensively – though not quite exhaustively – browse, and I can’t even guess at how many items it holds. There’s really only one thing you can do, and that’s see it for yourself.

I took the CTA (read: subway) to the Museum, which allowed me to a little more of the city at street level, and afterwards I ambled through Millenium Park and the Cloud Bridge (read: SHINY BEAN), then up the Magnificent Mile. More on that in a second. First, photos:

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Chicago really is a city that has grown and grown on me. When I first saw a picture of it from the air, it seemed like a dizzying, uniform metropolis, a ball of clay flung at high speed into the earth. It sprawled out in every direction in regimented blocks, and I was apprehensive about just exactly what its feel would be – was it going to prove a soulless, scrappy place, a wordless commuting cabal?

The answer is no, of course not, shut up. Chicago is a wonderful city on the cusp of history and modernity, with enough roots to give it some serious character and enough grip on the moment to be a lively, vibrant place. The buildings alone here are really very lovely; often built in individuated styles out of dense red brickwork, they’re a pleasure to wander around. They feel pleasingly solid in comparison to, say, LA’s concrete-and-breezeblock asthetic. The larger edifices downtown are full of condominiums, towering business skyscrapers, the still-fresh glass of the new Trump Tower, and the dark bristling gothic spike of the Tribune paper. I walked past that building earlier, and it’s quite fascinating. In the wall near street level are embedded bricks from other institutions, from a piece of Abraham Lincoln’s house to a coarse grey block from one of the Scotch-English battlefields. One only needs to read up on the history of the paper and its powerful owners for even more pause for thought, but that is an exercise I shall leave to you.

This is the second stop on my journey where I can imagine living were I to live in America. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. Right from the very earliest stirrings of my consciousness with regards to the states, I always figured I would be a Northeast person. Again, I couldn’t fully explain why. Perhaps the mystery will be solved in New York, which Chicago has somehow made more real, a warm-up act for the main event.

I’ll leave you with some more photos of the place that, over the past few days, I have developed a real fondness for.

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All things go, all things go

Greetings from the Windy City! The Windy City is mighty pretty but they ain’t got what we got no siree No stop that.

I arrived in Chicago on the evening of the 19th, to find Arminas and Mavis, my former PAX compatriots, waiting outside the station. My first impression of the city is that it reminded me of Batman’s fictional Gotham – and then Arminas gently explained to me that that was pretty much because it was based on Chicago. Score one for team obvious.

It was already pretty dark by the time we were there, but for Arminas the night was but young! Our first stop was to feed me, not unlike the piranha plant from Pet Shop Of Horrors, as my diet that day had been pop tarts, beef jerky and a twix. I was ravenous, and Chicago of course had just the answer: deep dish pizza. We stopped off at the apartment and then walked to a nearby place that rustled up what looked like some sort of industrial accident, so thick and goopy was the topping. It proved, however, rather tasty. Not quite as tasty, perhaps, as the Italian/New York style with the wide thin base and the flavoursome toppings (great, now I want a pizza), but the flipside was that it absolutely fills you up. It reminded me a great deal of the old ‘doorstops’ of bread the miners used to take with them, and shares the same culinary ethos as cornish pasties: this is work food.

Out hunger duly sated, we moved on to the far more pressing issue of our thirst. It was quite a night. We probably drank between us enough to poleaxe a medium-sized cow, and hopped through four or five locations, all with their individual characters. My favourite would be hard to call: we visited a very classy little cocktail place where I had something with a lot of gin and blackcurrent in it, which I really liked a great deal for its faintly elitist, hipster atmosphere, but then we also visited a wall.

Well, okay, there was a door in the wall, inset so that one can barely see it – a casual observer might not even notice the well-worn handle sticking out of the graffiti’d brickwork. Through that door is a curtain. Then, another curtain. Just as one is wondering why there are 12-foot velvet drapes hanging from the ceiling, it all becomes clear as they emerge into The Violet Hour, a trendy and intimate bar that has a very special heritage.

Violet Hour runs, you see, in an imitation of the old-fashioned speakeasys, a hangover (pardon the pun) of the prohibition era that saw the rise of organized gangs. The speakeasys, for anyone not in the know, is where all the moonshine or illegal liquor was quietly siphoned into the grateful livers of the poor, suppressed, thirsty populace. The high-backed chairs, dim lighting and secretive feel of the place (and I am told there are others, with secret callsigns and hidden doors) are a great throwback to the character of the time without becoming kitschy.

I had something with more gin in it.

Today, after thankfully somehow not actually getting drunk the prior evening, we headed into the city with special guest MichaelLC, who dropped by to visit. We went and ate at a place staffed exclusively by ex-con’s called Felony Frank’s (nope, not kidding), where I had one of the famous Chicago hot dogs, which was pretty nice with chili and cheese. After a swift detour back to the apartment to reorganize ourselves, we went on into town, though sadly Mavis had to say his goodbyes at this point.

Chicago is a bustling, slightly imposing city with a very ‘east coast’ feel to it. Which is odd, because I’ve not seen anything on the east coast but Philadelphia, so that must be cultural informants talking. I suppose it’s marked by a faster pace of life, grimmer weather, and a slightly more worn-down feeling, in major part due to the age of the buildings, which here are practically museum pieces compared to other cities I’ve visited. I like the place, however.

We spent quite a lot of today just walking around the town, though we wandered out to the end of the pier and ducked into a few unexpected places, mostly due to the sudden and precipitous rainstorm that swept in from the north. I had failed my English test and forgotten my umbrella. A terrible thing to do.

We ended the day by going to the top of the Water Tower, which is not actually a water tower but a skyscraper with a restaurant-cum-viewing deck at the top, much like Tower 42 in London. And I did get some absolutely lovely pictures, the rain that misted up the streets being coloured a delicate roseate by a suffused sun… but Macs are horrible evil things that are designed to be as difficult as possible to work with because they try and do everything for you. So those pictures – and more – will come tomorrow.


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