A weekend in Manhattan

Light up the nights

Ligia and I spent this past weekend in Manhattan, and got home around 1 am last night, completely exhausted. Was it fun? Yes. Was it worth it? Yes. Are we still tired? Yes.

The trip out on Friday morning wasn’t bad at all. The traffic was decent all the way through, including the Lincoln Tunnel. Even the Manhattan traffic was bearable, except for Times Square. We stayed at the Algonquin Hotel, which is about a half block up from 44th St and 5th Ave, and we loved it. It’s a small, cozy, quiet hotel with a rich history. It has also undergone recent and extensive remodeling, and it looks great, inside and out. I got a chance to compare it with the Waldorf-Astoria, where my parents stayed, and I’ll take the Algonquin any day. The Waldorf is huge — too big for me — and it’s crowded. Sure, it’s very nice, and it’s on ritzy Park Avenue as well, but still, I prefer smaller, quieter hotels like the Algonquin, where I can get to know the faces of the people who work there.

If you’re in town, do try to eat at the Algonquin. We had breakfast in the Round Table Room. The food was delicious, and the service wonderful. We didn’t get a chance to attend one of the shows at the Oak Room Cabaret, but that’s on our list for the next visit to NYC.

We spent our weekend traipsing about Manhattan, visiting various spots like the Flatiron Building, Empire State Building, Rockefeller Center, Statue of Liberty, Museum of Natural History and tons more. We crammed as much as we could into those short few days, and as a result, I have over 1,500 photos while we’ve both got very tired and aching feet (and legs, and hips, and shoulders, etc.). I can’t wait to go through and start winnowing and post-processing my gigabytes of photographic memories.

A few months ago, I read an article that said New Yorkers are the friendliest people in the States. The article had relied on informal methodology to gauge the friendliness of people in various big cities: strangers were stopped in the streets and asked for directions. I got a chance to test those findings during our trip, and I agree, for the most part. New Yorkers are friendly and helpful. NYC cops are also called “New York’s Finest”, and I agree with that as well. All of the cops we talked to were nice to us. They even smiled frequently, prompting Ligia to wonder what makes them so happy in a city so frenetic, where the pace of life and traffic can be so stressful. We don’t know, but they sure were friendly. Even random people on the street, although a little more stressed, helped us out when we needed directions. Not everyone was nice, though. MTA employees were definitely not friendly. I even had a woman employee at the 72nd St subway station yell at me when I complained that my just-purchased tickets would not open the gates for me. While I’m on that subject, the subway ticket machines need better maintenance. They locked up frequently when purchasing by credit card or ATM card. Many did not accept paper notes, only coins. We were left scrounging for loose cash with a line forming behind us…

Manhattan is a very interesting place. This was my first chance to stay there for more than one night, and as I walked around the town, I got the chance to think and compare. Needless to say, space there is at a premium. Everything is packed tightly, and the only way you can get more space is to build up or down. It’s mind-boggling to think how many tunnels of all sorts traverse the underground. Trains, subways and cars travel underground on multiple levels, while pipes and wires of all sorts and ages, all of them needing maintenance, fill out every nook and cranny of available underground space. It must be a logistical nightmare to keep up the infrastructure of a city so massive, on every scale.

There so little vegetation in the city! Most of the time, we were surrounded by concrete, glass or old, grungy brick and mortar. Parks of all shapes and sizes are a welcome sight. Even the planted bushes on penthouse terraces are a sight for sore eyes, though removed from those on the ground by tens of stories and layers of social and financial hierarchy. It didn’t matter though — I had my trusty 100mm lens, and the thing about tele lenses is that they have no social graces. They will cut through distance of any sort and bring the object down to the photographer. I took many photos of beautiful penthouse terraces — little oases of vegetation in grungy, musty concrete fields.

Here, I complain about urban sprawl and the lack of decent pedestrian accommodations. In Manhattan, I got to see the other side of the coin. There can be no urban sprawl. There are too many pedestrians, and you can’t drive your car. If I lived there, I wonder if I could even keep a car. At the prices they charge for parking, I’m not so sure. To get places, you have to either walk, or go underground and take the subway. When you walk into a building, you have to take the elevator. There are no one-story buildings, unless you count churches. Although it was exciting to walk around and look at the architecture, I felt fenced in. There were no wide open spaces, not even in Central Park. The only place I felt freer was on the boat to and from the Statue of Liberty. There, on the open air deck, with the wind blowing through my hair, looking out at the vast expanse of water, I could breathe easier once more. But to get there, I had to take the metro and walk for some time, not to mention stand in line with a ton of people.

And that’s another thing. People are something. We’re social beings, we need company, but we each have our own level of comfort when it comes to the number of other people we can bear. I, for example, can only take so much of being around a ton of people. After that, I need to be alone, or I start getting headaches and feeling nauseous. Times Square, for all its lively and colorful action, is chock-full of people, all the time. When you step into the place, you’re surrounded by buildings on each side. Strident, flashing colors assail you from all points of view. People rub against you. You step out into the street but cars almost run over you, honking endlessly. Camera flashes go off almost every second. Every breath of air feels charged with a suffocating mix of electricity, yet every cubic inch of air is stale. You draw in more, but to no avail. You’re still fenced in, unable to breathe, and the unstoppable urge to get out of that place grabs you by the head and turns you toward the nearest side street. And so you go, heady and reeling from the indescribable something you’ve just experienced, grateful for every breath of cold, fresh air you can pull down from the tall Manhattan sky.

We left on Sunday evening around 5 pm, and got home around 1 am. It was supposed to be a four-hour trip. But we spent more than 1 hour and a half trying to get out through the Lincoln Tunnel. There was an incredible traffic jam, possibly caused by the 5-borough bike race that had taken place that same day and closed various streets and bridges around the island. All we knew is that we were stuck in traffic in some rundown neighborhood, and it wasn’t fun. To make things worse, the NJ Turnpike was also under construction, and the Delaware Bridge was also under construction. We were finally able to reach constant highway speeds when we entered Maryland, and boy, were we grateful for that!

Last but not least, tolls will possibly cost you more than gas on a trip like this (depending on your car). As soon as we reached Delaware and NJ, we got hit with tolls up the wazoo. I think we paid more than $25 in tolls on our way in, and a little less on our way out. It seemed like there were toll booths every few miles. I couldn’t help comparing the Delaware and New Jersey roads to the Maryland roads. In the states where we paid the most money (NJ, DE), the roads were terrible — potholes, construction, lane closures, pavement not level — yet in MD, where we paid only a couple of dollars to cross through the Chesapeake Bay tunnel, the roads were smooth and very drivable. I’m glad I live in MD.

I’d like to visit NYC again. There were a ton of places I didn’t get the chance to see. And I’d also like to stop in Hoboken. It’s got some nice, tall hills with great vistas of the big city. And let me not forget about this energy plant whose name I forgot, alongside the highway in NJ. Lit up at night, with white smoke coming out of its tall, metallic towers set against the darkening sky, it looked like a strange alien spaceship. I’d love to photograph it.

There are so many beautiful places in the States, and throughout the world. If only I could see and photograph them all! 🙂


9 Comments

  1. They’re coming, slowly but surely. It’s a bit difficult when I only have about an hour of free time each evening and have to steal time from other pressing tasks in order to blog or post-process photos.

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  2. Nice write-up. It’s good to read that somebody else thinks New Yorkers are friendly. When I tell people here in San Francisco that, they look at me like I just landed from another planet.

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