New York: the city that never sleeps
Only ten minutes after my wife and I had settled into our hotel, we set off to explore a city we’d last been to 20 years ago. But the area was in lockdown.
How could this be? This was the city that never sleeps, the one so good they named it twice. Yet we could go only a few yards in one direction and a few hundred more in the opposite one.
This had the potential to ruin my wife Sue’s birthday trip. I asked a shopkeeper what was going on.
“There’s only one reason why they close the roads: the President.”
“Don’t you get that in England with Theresa May?”
I told him we might do it for the Queen but the Prime Minister didn’t get such preferential treatment.
We moved up to the next corner to see the biggest motorcade you could ever imagine. There must have been 50 motorbikes with lights dazzling everyone before armoured trucks announced the arrival of two limousines, one containing Trump himself.
More armoured vans were followed by three television trucks – the Donald never misses an opportunity to put over his message – and another platoon of motorbikes. Nice of the President to give us a personal welcome, I thought . . .
It was a surreal opening to a five-day break in the Big Apple which proved that New York is like no other city.
It’s such a vast, diverse place that there’s something for everyone; it’s what you make it. It can be cultural, educational, manic, relaxing – whatever your taste, New York will satisfy it.
As we’d been to New York before, we didn’t want to repeat what we‘d done two decades earlier – with one exception which I’ll come to later.
So after our encounter with Trump we had a quick look at the Chrysler building from the outside, the tallest brick building with a steel framework in the world although there are five taller buildings made of a different construction in New York.
Then we marvelled at the art deco magnificence of Grand Central Terminal, otherwise known as Grand Central Station. It’s one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world, with more than 20 million visitors a year checking out the 65 shops and 35 places to eat as well as gazing at the fabulous chandeliers in Vanderbilt Hall. More than 250,000 people commute through Grand Central every day on trains, the subway and buses.
The best way to see New York is on foot. The open-top tourist buses and taxis get caught up in the horrendous traffic, so it’s quicker to walk everywhere.
We headed towards Times Square, one of the world’s busiest pedestrian areas, and for our first evening meal settled on a place called the Brooklyn Diner which boasts that it serves the best burgers in New York. I can’t verify that because it was the only one I tasted. But it was delicious.
We started day two with a walk to Central Park. It’s incredible that within such a bustling, frenetic city there’s this huge oasis of calm.
Only cyclists and horse-drawn carriages are allowed in the park, so you can walk around without fear of being run over or suffering respiratory problems from suffocating traffic.
A popular place in the park is Strawberry Fields, an area dedicated to John Lennon. Walk out of one of the nearby exits and you can see the apartment where Lennon lived and was shot dead.
One of the customs you have to get used to in the States is tipping. A gratuity of between 10 and 20 per cent is expected. There was even a receptacle for tips at a Central Park stall where we bought a pretzel and water.
Sue said to me afterwards: “I’ve got a tip for the stallholder: put a smile on your face when you serve people – then they might give you something!”
A quick detour took us to department store Bloomingdales – a disappointing experience where nothing seems exclusive yet the prices are especially high – before we headed back to Times Square.
The sales booth TKTS opens at 3pm and has seats for most major theatre shows on that evening. We decided to bypass a production which had just been nominated for 12 Tony Awards – Spongebob Squarepants the Musical – and queued up instead for 45 minutes for tickets for Phantom Of The Opera.
Although we’d seen it on Broadway before as well as in the West End, the cast has changed several times and we took the opportunity to see one of our favourite shows again.
One of the joys of New York is meeting many fascinating people who tell great stories.
In Central Park we met a supposedly homeless man who told us about his deep, insurmountable problems with several wives and how he’d recently met Ozzie Osbourne. You couldn’t make it up.
After we’d got our Phantom tickets a man presented us with a leaflet for a discount at a nearby upmarket restaurant. He claimed to be a retired scriptwriter for one of the top TV comedy shows in the States and was working a couple of days a week just to get out of the house.
Our walk from our hotel, the DoubleTree by Hilton on Lexington Avenue, to the theatre and back meant on that day we clocked up an astonishing 15 miles.
On the third day we decided to head downtown – too far to walk, so we used the subway, a clean, efficient train taking us to Fulton Street and Ground Zero. The monument to thousands of people who died when the Twin Towers were inconceivably reduced to rubble is a strange place: I expected it to be a peaceful, possibly eerie location where people silently paid their respects. But it was heaving with tourists, some of whom hurriedly snatched selfies without even looking at the engraved names of the victims before dashing off to the next tourist attraction.
Heading towards the Whitehall ferry terminal in Manhattan, we decided not to see the Statue of Liberty close up: we hadn’t pre-booked and there were massive queues to get on one of the ferries.
Instead we had an invigorating, 45-minute walk over Brooklyn Bridge where we could still clearly see the statue, a robed woman representing a Roman liberty goddess. The panoramic views of Manhattan are spectacular whichever way you go over the bridge.
It was interesting to compare New York with London where we’d been a few weeks before. We’d gone up the Shard which gives an unparalleled view of the English capital’s skyline. In a word it’s grey. New York, however, is colourful and vibrant.
For our evening meal we went to a sports bar where at the time the NBA play-offs were being shown – a great way for a basketball fan like me to spend a couple of hours.
Saturday got off to a great start, breakfast with our English friend Graham, a basketball coach who lives in New York. He gave us a good tip: instead of paying 36 dollars to go to the observation deck on top of the Rockefeller Center, “New York’s most famous landmark”, you can go to a bar a couple of storeys below for nothing.
Unfortunately it doesn’t open on Saturdays. So after checking out the Empire State Building and “the world’s biggest store” Macy’s where we got a couple of good bargains in a sale, we headed to Trump Tower.
The headquarters of the Trump organisation was at one time the tallest all-glass structure in Manhattan.
Outside a man was shamelessly selling anti-Trump propaganda, demonstrating that not everyone is a fan of The Donald.
Parts of the building were closed to the public, so we headed past the awe-inspiring 60-foot waterfall on the eastern wall of the building to the Trump Bar for cocktails.
Sunday was the day we returned home, the flight from Newark International to Manchester getting us back at breakfast time on Monday morning.
New York is a quirky city. There’s constant noise from sirens and motorists sounding their horns simply because they can.
In shops the staff can be surly or friendly. When they say “enjoy your day” it can sound like a command.
When we chatted with some Americans, all they wanted to talk about was the Royal wedding. And people even talk to you in a lift!
Our friend Graham told us that people ask him what it’s like living in the States. He tells them: “I live in New York – it’s nothing like living in America.”
The Big Apple is big, bold and brash. You should never be bored. There’s only one thing New Yorkers don’t do well: they can’t make a decent cup of tea. Not even if the president demands it.
* This article originally appeared in Country Images magazine