Monday, May 05, 2008


Up with the lark this morning, and off to a local Deli for breakfast. They do everything in these places. A simple Egg and Bacon on Poppy Seed roll with no cheese. Yesterday's breakfast had come with cheese, and it was NOT a success. The Americans don't do cheese. It's all like an especially stretchy Kraft Cheese Slice that's been polished until it shines. Even the more expensive ones are just the same, only a brighter, more luminous Chernobyl’y colour.

Thinking I might come over all unnecessary late one evening with a sudden desire for a Club Sandwich, I asked him what time he closed. "We don't." was his simple reply. When they say 24/7, they mean it.

Fully refuelled, I trooped off to see Ground Zero. It's only a few hundred yards from the hotel, so you've almost got to go. I had quite mixed feelings about it beforehand, because I simply didn't know what to expect. Sometimes the Americans can be a bit heavy handed with these things, and there's a fine line to be walked in getting the tone just right.

It's one of those John Kennedy assassination, Buddy Holly plane crash things – we all remember where we were when it all happened, and talking to the Americans over here, it's still very much at the forefront of their minds. When you talk to them, they all seem to bring it up unasked in conversation.

The truth is - it's a building site. A very large building site, probably 300 yards square, but still a building site. They plan to have it finished with a very fancy tall new building, in 2012, so at the moment it's a massive hole in the ground. At least, I think it is, because they've gone to considerable lengths to stop you seeing what's going on. It's all high barriers, set out quite deliberately to cut off the public's view. There is no viewing platform, and if you approach the barriers, someone immediately shouts at you, or blows a whistle, to tell you to move away – and NOW. Of course, as you walk round, if you try hard enough, there are places where you can poke a camera lens through, but you are left with the definite feeling that they'll take the covers off when they're good and ready, and they've got a nice new shiny building for the World to see – and not before. They're probably right.

I'd got almost all the way round thinking that they hadn't actually got a Visitor centre, but I finally came across one – very small and low key. Not what I was expecting at all. Well done, them. The only place apart from this where you had a real sense of what had happened was a small Fire Station, with a frontage of no more that 25 feet, alongside the Visitor Centre, where the Fire Engines inside were being dutifully polished. A small bronze plaque on the wall outside commemorated the six men from that station who had perished that day. It was discreet to the point where most people didn't even see it as they walked past – but very sobering.

I usually find that there's always one thing in these circumstances which bring it all home to you, and usually not the obvious one. Here, the thing which really hit me hard was a mangled, twisted, painted and scorched body panel hidden away high up on the side-wall of the fire station. It had been recovered from one of the fire trucks which had been there on September 11. That one piece of metal, no more that 6 feet x 2 feet, more than anything else there, stopped me dead in my tracks.

I felt they had got this "Matter of Fact" approach just right. They're a very positive people, and it really showed here. They all seemed to be getting on with the job, with a real business-like buzz around the place.

I had decided that, being Saturday, I would make for the Chinatown/ Little Italy are of the City. The good thing was it wasn't too far to walk, but the bad thing was – I still had to walk. Past their equivalent of the Old Bailey, the surroundings changed rather abruptly. One minute you're among large, formal, intimidating municipal buildings, with lots of steps and stone columns, and the next minute, you're in a street market, with people selling things to eat you don't even begin to recognise.

Chinatown buzzes with energy. Although it's predominantly Chinese, it's a real melting pot. The streets are lined with stalls and guys from all over the world selling the most amazing piles of stuff. But it's the shops which grab your attention, particularly the ones selling food. Vegetables which were completely unknown to me and my sheltered life. What's a Darian, for instance? The size of a large melon, Yellow and covered in what looked like Acne. The skin was tough – the guy selling it was preparing it for a stroppy American woman, and was attacking it aggressively with a Stanley Knife. Out of each of the inner cavities, he withdrew six or so piles of something which looked like creamy, squishy bread dough, or uncooked brains. It did not look terribly appetising.

There was the most impressive Chinese take-away I've ever seen. Chickens cooked in half a dozen ways, hanging in the window, over a range of 20 or so tempting dishes. If you wanted some of the chicken, a guy took one down, and with a very large, and I have absolutely no doubt very sharp, Meat Cleaver, smashed it down to cut it into Quarter inch thick slices. He missed his fingers by about half an inch each time, starting down ferociously from about head height. You winced each time he did it, but there were still 5 fingers on his left hand, so presumably you learn quickly.

But the Fish Stalls - remarkable. There were dustbins full of live Blue crabs, tanks full of live Fish a couple of feet long, piles of huge octopus, large fish heads and a massive range of fish laid out on ice beds the like of which I'd not seen before. I had no idea there were so many different sorts of prawns and crustacean on this earth. Quite fascinating, and You Want Fresh – You Got It!

I took a few pictures of the fish, but the Chinese are not overkeen on having their photograph taken. But talk about a vibrant foodie area. Excellent.

Next to Chinatown is Little Italy, and by comparison, it is little. It used to be much larger a few years ago, but somehow the Chinese have taken over – that sounds really comforting, doesn't it? But the bit that's left is good fun. Being Italy, it's almost all food. Wall to wall restaurants, with a few shops dotted around selling fancy meats, cheeses, wine, olives and bread. Drool, drool, drool.

It was now nearly 2 in the afternoon - time for a late lunch and I was hungry. The plethora of guide books I'd brought aimed me at the snappily name Umberto's Clam House, where I sat down with a cold Peroni to people watch. The restaurant is famous for home-made Lobster Ravioli so I'll give you three guesses what I ordered. Too right. It was great, and £14 in English money. I decided that one course would do for lunch, and I'd find somewhere for afternoon tea a bit later on. I'd read the guide books here as well, so there was a bit of method in my madness.

I wandered off into the Soho district which joins onto where I'd been in the morning. Different again. Lots of hugely expensive shops, fashionable boutiques, art galleries selling some lovely stuff (and a lot of pretentious rubbish, but we're catching the positive US vibes here, so we won't dwell on that) at prices which made your eyes water. But people were buying it, so What the Hell. The words Credit Crunch didn't seem to be affecting too many of them.

An amusing sideline. Many of the yellow taxis have a two sided advertising board mounted on the roof, which can be seen by the people as they pass. They're all advertising Insurance Companies, Real Estate, and other really boring stuff. One however cracked me up. It was all white, with simple writing on it, saying "I'm SO over Sarah Pullen" in huge letters. We know no more than that, but I can't imagine she'd be a happy bunny if she ever saw it wafting past her.

Back to the wandering - One of the distinctive features of this area is the Cast Iron staircases which adorn, and they do adorn, the outside of the buildings. They are beautifully ornate, all different and their symmetrical repetition on the front of a ten story high building is very satisfying, although a crick in the photographer's neck is a necessary price.

There's clearly some form of architectural protection around here, because they were all painted in muted, understated, and dare I say, very non American colours. No flash, “Jamaican on Speed” reds, purples or anything like that which you'd have thought some bright spark would have gone for to give him an edge – it was all very Farrow and Ball. So turning a corner, what do we run into, but a large Farrow and Ball paint shop. They're not daft, are they? But the overall effect is one of homogeneity, and a really unique style of building which I found very pleasing.

By this time my stomach was reminding me that pudding was still awaited, so I was drawn back to Little Italy, and the hunt for "Ferrara's" was on. Reputedly the best cake shop in town, there was only one real choice. I had visions of a long queue on a Saturday afternoon, but my stomach told me to stop faffing about and get walking. I found it straight away by spotting the queue, where everyone was salivating over one of their ice creams, it being now pleasantly warm. I sidled (good word, that) up to the front of the queue in a distinctly non English way, and asked the young girl "How long for a table for 1?" and was taken straight in, to imagined looks of hatred from the families still waiting. "Outstanding", as Warren* would say.

If you like cakes and pastries (and I do, just a little bit), you could be forgiven for thinking you'd died and gone to heaven – and landed up in the bit reserved for Gordon Ramsay and his like. The cakes on show were magnificent, so I sat down to read the Menu. You didn't peruse this one, you read it, and then looked at the counter to see what was around, Perfect looking breads, exquisite cream cakes, tarts, cheesecakes, mountains of Panetonna, biscuits and..and…and.

Being in the land of Italy I settled for Tiramisu, and an Iced lemonade. My thinking was on the lines of "If they can't make a decent Tiramisu, then I'm a Dutchman's uncle", which I'm not. The fresh lemonade had home-made lemon sorbet ice laced through it and the Tiramisu was stunning. I can't think of ever eating a better cake. I'm sitting here in the hotel writing this at 6.30 on Sunday morning, and I'm drooling – how pathetic. But my plans for the last two days of this holiday are being modified, as I speak. The subway map's out and a return to this part of the world is currently quite advanced in the strategic planning phase.

It's now about 5pm, and a return to base is called for, so try to find a subway. By God, they're well hidden. Nothing as helpful as a sign which says "Subway". The railings around the entrances are painted dark green, presumably to blend into the background as well as possible, and there are a couple of poles with dirty red balls on the top. I've walked past them on a couple of occasions, and having asked some poor unsuspecting Yank where the subway station is, felt a complete twit when he looks at you in that superior way they sometimes have and points to something no more than twenty yards away. Dur!

I suspect it's a remnant of the 9/11 thing, but there a lot of work going on on the subway, so the stations near the hotel were not open, and neither was the subway running there. So I found an alternative route which took me marginally closer that I was already, and set off. The trains don't come as often as in London, and they have a mix of local and express trains, so if you’re not careful, you can have the odd experience of watching your intended destination flash past you, if you don't decode the way the express trains are named.

One enjoyable little benefit of the change of train was that the Information guy, who sits at each station in his little armoured cabin actually told me to "Take the A Train". I immediately burst into an impromptu Duke Ellington impression, trying to win him over with my humorous wit. It really made me very pleased, but he didn't move a muscle – I suspect I was about the millionth person who'd done it to him. Oh Well.

Seeing it was Saturday night, I thought that a trip to photograph the lights in Times Square was in order. So I grabbed my tripod, and made my way back onto the subway. Times Square at night is a riot. All the world seems to be there, jostling and seemingly going nowhere, shouting and having a good time, heaps of cars, taxis, buses all tearing around, and police blowing whistles and trying to maintain a small level of order. And all this is going on as if you're inside a Firework Display – the lights are amazing. I spent around 90 minutes there, getting in the way of as many people as possible, and expecting to be had up by the local plods for using my tripod as an offensive weapon.

My stomach informed me on the way back to the hotel that it hadn't seen any food since the Tiramisu had arrived, and would I please like to send some more down. Now the problem with a hotel in the Financial District, is that, at the Weekends, the area is dead, so they all stay closed. But I finally found a place on Pier 17, by the side of the River, where they served me a very acceptable Pizza. And a Cool Beer!

So I went home very satisfied. A truly excellent day.

* You need to have watched THIS LIFE (on BBC TV in the UK) to pick up this reference.


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