Wednesday, December 26, 2007

New York City

We left Pennsylvania Sunday evening, drove through New Jersey and on to New York City. After crossing through the Holland Tunnel, we were in Manhattan. A couple of missed turns later, we made it to our friend Max’s apartment in the West Village.

We’d already eaten dinner, so Max took us to a chic place for cocktails. We discovered that the cocktails are twice as expensive and half as big as in other places – we’d never paid $12 for a beverage before. It was quite tasty, but given the choice, Brian would take a 12-pack of beer instead.

After the cocktails, Max gave us a walking tour of New York City in the rain. Particularly memorable was a bar that was opened by Tim Robbins and built and decorated to look like a 1920s speakeasy. The bar was down an alley, and the gate into the alley had a sign on it indicating that the business inside was a toy store. Inside the speakeasy, the drinks are all served in teacups, and if you get bottle service, the bottle comes in a globe on a stand, where the globe flips open to access the bottle. And there’s a bookcase that opens into a secret back room. The bar was closing when we got there so we didn’t stay, but it was pretty neat! Max was a great tour guide, and eventually we went to bed around 4 a.m.

We’d found a great parking spot outside the apartment when we arrived in Manhattan, but we had to move the car by 8 a.m. the next day, since parking wasn’t allowed on weekdays. So on Monday morning, we got up at 7:15 to move the car, thinking that if we got a little bit earlier start than other people whose cars had to move by 8, we’d have a better chance of finding something. Many of the parking spaces in that area of Manhattan have parking allowed 24/7 except for a preset time when street sweepers come through, which is typically an hour and a half on Mondays and Wednesdays, or on Tuesdays and Thursdays, depending on the neighborhood and the side of the street. So we thought we might be able to find a parking spot where the streets get swept on Tuesday/Thursday, and then we could leave the car until we left the next morning.

At one point we found a spot that looked good – the only problem was that it was 10 or 12 feet away from a fire hydrant. That seemed OK to us, but to be sure, Sarah ran back to the apartment to look up New York parking laws on the internet. It turns out that you have to be 15 feet from fire hydrants, so we moved on. We drove around for another hour with Sarah navigating and Brian driving and had absolutely no luck – every seemingly valid parking spot was either close to a fire hydrant, in front of a driveway, or signed for no parking on all weekdays or for part of Monday.

Eventually, we decided to take a break, so we found a parking spot that was OK until 11:00 and walked back to the apartment. Some of the parking spots were scheduled for street sweeping from 9:00 to 10:30, so we started driving around again at 10:15, thinking if we found a spot a little early, we’d just park and hang out until 10:30.

A left turn put us behind a garbage truck on a street that was too narrow to allow passing, so all we could do was watch the garbage men do their work. They’d throw bag after bag into the back of the truck, which would periodically get full, so they’d have to compress the trash. The big jaw of the garbage truck would squeeze the bags, which would pop one by one like inflated balloons, spewing this gross dark gray liquid in all directions, including on the nearby cars. After 15 minutes of this disgusting show, the truck finally moved enough that we could get clear, but by now we’d missed our parking time so all the 9-10:30 street-sweeping parking spots were full.

You might think that at this point we’d give up and pay to park in a parking garage. The problem with that wasn’t the crazy parking rates, but the fact that parking garages in NYC aren’t like parking garages in other areas of the country. Because space is at such a premium, all of the garages are valet lots, which allows them to not only double park cars, but park cars on vertical lifts as well. Since we’ve been traveling for awhile and had stuff in our car, we weren’t comfortable handing over our keys to a random person working in a parking lot. So we parked again in a metered spot for an hour and got some donuts and coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts. The next street-sweeping timeslot was 11:00-12:30, so this time, we decided to start looking around noon, to allow time to recover from any mishaps of the garbage-truck variety or any other. This time, we didn’t get stuck at all, but all of the parking spots that opened up at 12:30 were already occupied! People were just camped out, waiting in their cars for 12:30 to roll around. A couple of drivers had gotten out of their cars and were just chatting with each other, passing the time until 12:30 rolled around. Apparently, this parking spot search is highly competitive sport! After driving around a little longer, we finally got lucky and found a space that was one of the Tuesday/Thursday street-sweeping spots, so it was OK all day on Monday. It was now close to 12:30 – we’d spent five hours parking!

The parking situation solved, we were exhausted but relieved, and our day could begin. We found a nearby Metro station and took the subway to Central Park, planning to walk through the park and work our way back south toward Midtown. After meandering around a bit, we wound up in the Ravine, in an area of Central Park called the Northern Woods, which had a pretty waterfall.

After an hour or so of walking, we realized that Central Park is way bigger than it looks on the map, and since it was drizzling out, walking all the way down to the southern end didn’t seem so appealing. So we got back on the subway and took it south a couple of stops. By now it was mid-afternoon, and due to our parking debacle, we hadn’t eaten much more than a donut each, so we stopped for a quick slice of pizza each before continuing to walk around. Midtown was decorated up nicely for Christmas, and we liked these monster-sized ornaments in a fountain, set amongst the skyscrapers:

Then we passed right in front of Radio City Music Hall, advertising the Rockettes’ show:

Next we came to Rockefeller Plaza, which is packed with thousands and thousands of people every Thanksgiving weekend for the tree lighting. It was crowded on this day, too, but it was really neat to see the ice rink, the statue of Prometheus, and the tree towering above.

Brian must have looked like a serious photographer, because two groups of people stopped him to have him take their picture.

Next we came to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a full-block-sized cathedral right in the middle of Manhattan.

A life-sized manager was inside, and Sarah had to explain to Brian why baby Jesus was missing – Jesus doesn’t show up in the manger until Christmas.

Then we walked to Times Square, and as the daylight faded, the lights of Times Square became brighter and brighter.

Even early on a Monday evening, Times Square was a hub of activity, with mobs of people walking around. We agreed that although searching for a parking spot for five hours had been a hassle, it would have been a nightmare if we’d had to thread our way through Times Square!

At one point we saw a guy dressed like a toilet, greeting people and posing for pictures. Turned out that he was a Charmin toilet paper advertisement, drawing people into their free Times Square bathrooms! Brian didn’t especially need to go to the bathroom but just had to check this out, so he went inside, where he was greeted by more Charmin representatives in red and blue costumes. A long escalator led upstairs, and then to a large room with 20 or so individual bathrooms at one end. The room was brightly lit and populated by more of these red and blue characters, and a cheery song about Charmin toilet was paper playing incessantly in the background. As Brian waited in line for a toilet, a man came out of one of the bathrooms and shouted, “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. You have the cleanest toilets in New York! My mother would be proud to use your bathrooms! My *grandmother* would be proud to use your bathrooms!” One of the blue characters, embarrassed, thanked him quietly for his glowing praise, so enthusiastically delivered.

After a short wait, Brian was directed to a bathroom. It turns out that after each use, the bathrooms get cleaned by one of the red or blue characters, so they’re always immaculate. It was truly an outstanding public bathroom experience, if there is such a thing. Brian later learned that the red and blue represented two varieties of Charmin toilet paper, a “Strong” type and a “Soft” type, and bathroom-goers could vote on which they liked better. The current tally was somewhere around 73,000 to 67,000 in favor of “Soft”. A few days later, Max pointed out an article on the internet, showing photos of a wedding that had been held in this very Charmin Times Square bathroom area with the bride wearing a gown fashioned out of Charmin toilet paper! What a place for a wedding!

Here’s a photo, although photos can’t do justice to this spectacle. The red and blue characters are probably frowning because they have to listen to the unbearably cheery Charmin song all day long. We hope Charmin allowed the couple that got married there to select their own music.

After our walk around Times Square, we boarded the Metro one more time to head back to Max’s apartment. We went out to dinner at a cozy French bistro with a fabulous BYOB policy with free corking. People were packed into the tiny restaurant, even on a Monday night, and we learned why – the food was delicious, and the BYOB policy made for an extremely inexpensive meal by New York standards. Since we’d only gotten 3½ hours of sleep the night before, we were exhausted after dinner, so we headed back to the apartment and went to bed.

The next morning, we got up early and retrieved our car, which was exactly where we’d left it, with no parking tickets. Next stop, Boston!

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