I've always associated New York City with Central Park. Not the Statue of Liberty. Not the Brooklyn Bridge. Not the Empire State Building. Not any other recognisable landmark. Wasn’t even sure why this was the case, until I realised it was because of Simon and Garfunkel’s epoch-making free concert there in 1981. Become a huge fan over the years, and watching the DVD, with the two re-united, singing to an audience of half a million (!!!) people, always makes me want to have been born early enough to have attended the gig (I was four years old at the time, for the record); makes me want to be a New Yorker, if only for those few hours. Have another vivid New York image – the seedy, nightmarish world without hope in Martin Scorcese’s stunning Taxi Driver. Decide it’s probably best to try and capture some of the essence of the latter, rather than try my hand at being a psychotic insomniac who happens to drive a cab.
Thus, on a beautiful summer’s day, I find myself lying on my back in Central Park, staring at interesting clouds in a blue sky, a cool breeze rippling through the grass. New York seems to be out here in force; couples canoodling, families playing baseball, yoga students contorting themselves, Jimmy Choo-shod society ladies airing out their Chihuahuas and Pekineses. There’s a palpable sense of ‘do your own thing, and don’t let nobody tell you any different’ here; it’s great. Today’s also the annual free concert by the New York Philharmonic, so crowds build rapidly until, by late afternoon, it’s the proverbial sea of people. Music’s predictably superb, superseded only by the electric delight of being in a huge, appreciative audience like this. May have missed S&G, but at least I can say I caught the Philharmonic for free!
Can’t be in New York City and not go to Manhattan. Heck, Manhattan is NYC, if you ask a lot of people. The term ‘skyscraper’ was first coined here in the late 19th century, when multistorey office buildings began springing up due to lack of space, and they haven’t really stopped since. It’s said you can tell a tourist in NYC from the way they walk around looking up all the time; they’ve got that spot-on. Virtually impossible, as a first-time visitor, to tear your eyes away from these towering behemoths, both old and new. I walk around goggle-eyed at first, only beginning to look ahead after bumping into a few onrushing locals and being at the receiving end of a few heated ‘Hey, watch it, bud!’ barbs. Lower Manhattan’s a great place to do a walking tour, because of the number of places of historical interest. City Hall, seat of the city’s Government since 1812, is one such venerable edifice and makes a good starting point. Turn right, cross the road and I’ll be on the Brooklyn Bridge, but I’ve read it’s a great sight lit up at night, so I wander the other way and resolve to return. The Woolworth Building, the world’s tallest in 1913, is an imposing presence as I head towards St Paul’s Chapel, the city’s oldest church and a haven of calm and respite during the madness of 9/11, when civilians, police and firefighters took shelter there. Was one of the few structures to not suffer any damage, which is remarkable considering it’s right next door to the WTC site. Feel a morbid desire to go and look at Ground Zero; had planned to consciously stay away, but there’s an irresistible pull and I find myself at the immense crater that once held the twin towers. Simply beyond the scope of my comprehension, the sheer magnitude of what happened here, and there’s still a desperately sad cloud sitting over the place. My elderly Lonely Planet copy talks about how ‘the massive twin towers of the World Trade Centre rise 107 floors, 1,350 feet above the ground’; it’s too depressing to linger, and I step back into the fast-forward world of Manhattan. Don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a hyperactive, non-stop sensation in any city before; I feel like I’m in one of those movie scenes where I’m standing still and the rest of the world is moving so fast, it’s a blur. Everyone’s totally immersed in their own worlds, barking down cellphones, reading papers on the run, swigging coffee while sprinting for a cab, buying hot-dogs; yet there’s a singular energy that seems to bind everyone together. Someone once told me that Mumbai’s the New York of India. Boss, this is the real thing; come here once and that notion will be blown out of the water. You’ll feel it even more strongly near the New York Stock Exchange, with it’s Roman-temple facade; of course, these days you might also feel the dull thud of speculators leaping out of windows.
Again, can’t be in NYC and not see the Statue of Liberty. The open secret is this – avoid the terrifying crowds waiting to climb up the lady’s innards and hop on the Staten Island ferry. It’s free, takes you past the Statue and, more importantly, gives you a grand view of the Manhattan skyline. I do exactly this, taking in a reasonably proximate view of Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi’s most well-known work; I’m also subjected to a frisking at the ferry terminal, and a sniffer dog gives my satchel a thorough once-over. Not sure if I’ve been singled out for this; I’d like to believe otherwise. Step off the ferry and perambulate in Battery Park for a while, gnawing on a fairly generic New York hot dog and beginning to feel the city’s spirit seep into me.
The sun’s getting set to bid the day adieu now, painting the sky violent shades of pink, yellow and orange. The reflections in the glass-and-steel forest of Manhattan are spectacular; it’s like there’s molten lava running down their sides. Decide that now would be a good time to walk the Brooklyn Bridge, the first steel suspension bridge in the world. There’s a lovely pedestrian walkway along its length, allowing superb vistas of the river and Manhattan, and the bridge itself is a true marvel of engineering, considering its 125-year vintage. Looking down from its mid section, I see the historic Fulton Fish Market by the river, all lit up and bustling. Manage to find my way there (narrowly avoiding being reduced to my component parts by rush-hour traffic) and stroll along the pier; it’s a wonderfully atmospheric place, with some ancient warehouses and their signs still intact. Happen to turn back and catch an eyeful of the Brooklyn and Manhattan Bridges with their lights on full tilt – it’s not an image that’ll be easily erased from my mind.
Find myself gravitating towards Times Square, the Crossroads of the World. At night, it’s an absolutely dazzling place – loud, brash, and so bright with neons it’s almost like daytime. Once the centre of NYC’s sleazy underbelly, it’s had an image makeover and is now tourist central – Madame Tussaud’s, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, movie theatres, souvenir stores... you can’t throw a nickel here and not hit one of these. Unbelievable frisson about the place, though; it’s garish but great fun. Even better on a stomach-full of Roxy’s famous cheesecake – one slice of their divine blueberry creation is like three square meals rolled into one concentrated sugar hit. Will long remain one of my most memorable culinary experiences; I think I’m still reeling a bit from its potent side effects. Head abuzz, I go in search of some night life, preferably the sort that won’t be financially ruinous (NYC can be very expensive), and I find just the thing at Small’s jazz club. A legendary hostelry, it used to be BYOB, as a result of which entire families used to show up to watch the all-night performances. No longer like that, but the drinks are relatively cheap, the atmosphere’s suitably old-jazz-club and the music is truly top-notch. I leave at 3.30 am, the place appears to be just warming up and there’s not a single cop hanging about outside – fantastic. If only we had the same enlightened attitude towards nightlife in our country; when I think of the outrages being perpetrated by the moral-brigade scumbags in Bangalore, for example, my blood boils. I walk into one of NYC’s legendary subway stations – yes, they’re grungy, gloomy and you tend to jump at shadows, specially at four in the morning. Most of it’s in the head, of course; I get on the train to Jersey City, where I’m staying, without incident. There’s a motley bunch of passengers on board – fellow revellers, outright drunks and people who look like they’re on board just for the heck of it. Nobody looks at anyone else, a sure sign you’re in a big city. Still, as I reflect on the day, I realise that I’m already a fan of the Big Apple – I feel a strong urge to come and live here for a while, and I haven’t felt like that about any other part of America. New York isn’t so much a city as it is a state of mind – a mind that’s in constant ferment, admittedly, but that’s the fun of it. To infringe on our own copyright, it’s now in my blood.
What you’ve read is but a fraction of what New York City has to offer. You’d need to spend at least a month there to really do justice to it, and even then you’d just have licked the cream off the top. Like they say, if you’re bored in NYC, it’s your own fault. Take the museums, for example. Two whole days can be spent in the staggering Metropolitan Museum of Art, with its vast collection of exhibits through the ages, and this is to say nothing of the amazing Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), where I saw a magnificent collection of Dali’s works. You could then go to the Guggenheim Museum; the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building is worth seeing just by itself.
The International Center of Photography is a must for all those interested in the art. The American Museum of Natural History is among the world’s finest, and its three dinosaur halls are flat-out amazing. The Bronx Zoo, for those suitably inclined, is excellent as well. For aerial views of NYC, you’ll be enticed to go up the Empire State Building, but a far better (and less crowded) option is to visit the Rockefeller Centre, with its superb observation deck. The legendary Radio City Music Hall is right next door, an added bonus. As far as eating out goes, if you ate at a different place every single night of the week, you’d need something like 50 years to cover all of NYC’s restaurants. I could go on and on; in fact, I probably should, to do this amazing city justice. Alas, space restrictions constrain me. All I can say is this – visit NYC before you die.
There are literally thousands of hotels in NYC, and it’s really best to get on the internet and find a good deal, or contact your friendly neighourhood travel agent. For an authentic (and pricey) NYC experience, you could head to the legendary Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where rooms start at about $350 a night. What the heck, enjoy!