Monday, October 09, 2006

The Big Apple 2

Jet-lag drew me out of bed and to the picture window of our hotel room at 3 in the morning. My eyes wandered away from the still glittering skyline to the busy Lower East Side streets around Rivington: the grocery store with its brightly lit yellow signage was still open and a couple of old men with brown paper bags wrapped around cans of beer were hovering by the doorway; young clubbers were milling around a trendy nightclub.

The scene reminded me that though the Lower East Side has traditionally been an immigrant (first mainly Eastern European Jews packed into the mass tenement buildings that define the Lower East architecture, now more likely Latin Americans), working class neighbourhood, it has undergone gentrification in recent years and is increasingly populated by young professionals, artists, musicians and students. As a result, the Lower East Side today is an eclectic mix of cut-price garment stores, groceries, Jewish delis, trendy bars, chi-chi boutiques and thriving restaurants.

I woke up again at 7am in time to watch, from my bed, a beautiful pink dawn wake up the Wall Street and Midtown. I showered with hotel-supplied Ren products in the black tile and slate bathroom then breakfasted on ham and cheese on rye, peach pastries and coffee in the Rivington's famous Thor restaurant.

We took the subway (the F-line) to Lexington, amazed at how grubby and bland the NY Subway is compared to the brightly-lit, cushion-chaired, more designed London Underground. We strolled through the 2.5-long and 0.5-wide rambling green oasis of Central Park and watched the thick mass of joggers pounding the pathways against the magnificent backdrop of residential and commercial concrete skyscrapers.

We walked down the oppulent 5th Avenue with row upon row of ornate, pre-war concrete residential blocks, designer shops and restaurants for ladies who lunch, to the Guggenheim and Cooper-Hewitt museums. At the Cooper-Hewitt we saw the Frederic Church, Winslow Homer, and Thomas Moran: Tourism and the American Landscape exhibition showing the rising popularity of paintings and drawings of such places as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park to encourage tourism amongst 19th century Americans. At the Guggenheim we saw a retrospective of the designs and drawings of innovative and maverick Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid. We were disappointed with the bittiness of the museum's permanent collection of modern art, but the dramatic white spiral building designed by one of my favourite architects Frank Lloyd Wright delighted.

We walked down the down and dirty Lexington Avenue - made personally famous for me by The Velvet Underground's song Waiting For The Man, about buying heroin and featuring the line: "Up to Lexington 125 / Feel sick and dirty more dead than alive". At the 81-year-old diner Lexington Candy Store, in a bottle green leather booth with a candy pink formica table, we ate cheddar bacon burgers dripping with grease and salty french fries, and drank vanilla cokes served by middle-aged waitresses in candy pink.

And then we shopped till we dropped on Madison Avenue: The Gap, Ann Taylor, Barneys department store, Banana Republic... At Jil Sander we were served by a clerk who loved to shop in Leeds, London and Manchester, but who also loved, for some bizarre reason, Huddersfield!

As night fell, we joined the tourist hordes in the bedazzling, neon-lit Times Square, then into the beautiful and ornate 1913 Beaux Arts Grand Central Station, and a view of the gleaming art deco Chrysler Building built as an homage to the automobile and complete with radiator-cap eagle "cargoyles".

Exhausted, we returned to the Lower East Side for a dinner of red snapper, phad thai, mango salad and flambe ice cream at Thai On Clinton, while trying to both ignore and eavesdrop on the guy behind us trying very loudly to impress his female companion with tales of wanting to get married and having orgasms in his sleep.

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