Wednesday, May 07, 2008


Got up to find it wasn’t raining like yesterday. It was absolutely bucketing down. How truly wonderful.

So, following the Billy Connolly dictum, that “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes”, I put on my Designer Bin Liner cagoule, nicked a Hotel umbrella, and waded out for breakfast.

Being a few yards from Wall Street, this place is littered with Delis, where the earnest Financial wizards grab something on the way to their toils. And they are earnest – looking resolutely forward as they stride on (they don’t walk), phone in one hand, talking very loudly as they go, coffee and a bag of breakfast goodies in the other hand, and somehow they’ve got the laptop and other paraphernalia in yet another one.

There is a slight guilty pleasure, which actually I don’t find all that shameful, in walking past them with a guidebook in my pocket, an umbrella in my hand and mentally rehearsing the Gene Kelly impression I am about to unleash on the unsuspecting public.

The Deli chosen to receive my custom this morning is called “Au bon Pain”, so the possibility of a decent croissant wafts naughtily into my mind. These places continue to amaze me – you can get just about anything food-wise in them. But the locals don’t like some gitoid who doesn’t know his way around, who can’t navigate the menus in a flash, and frankly can’t make his mind up about what to eat. Especially, as he’s still wearing this black plastic bag, and looks as if he’s from another planet, let alone another country.They want to be in, shout an order, fling the money across the counter, and get out.

The food looks enticing, so it’s an egg and bacon and Bagel, Fresh Orange Juice, a decent looking croissant and a Small (ie enormous) Coffee. 6 out of 10 for the food – falling to 3 if you only mark the croissant. As far as the croissant was concerned, the “pain” was anything but “bon”. It looked perfect, but didn’t taste of much at all.

Being Monday and raining, restricted the possibilities a little. My plan to go up the Empire State Building fell at the First. With a Mist Ceiling of around 300 feet (estimated by counting the number of floors I could see on a convenient Skyscraper), the idea of standing on an Observation Platform staring down into 900 feet of absolutely nothing didn’t turn me on. So an Inside Day beckoned, but you need to navigate the opening times of the Museums a bit carefully, as Mondays and Tuesdays are closing days. I decided on MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) as we New Yorkers call it.

They’ve got a passion to shorten the names of all these things. Even the names of the Manhattan districts contain a fair number of truncations. SoHo is not like London, it’s South of Houston. And to make it worse, here Houston is pronounced House-ton, not Hoose-ton. Tribeca (what a stupid name) is Triangle Below Canal, Nolita is North of Little Italy, DUMBO (I kid you not) is Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass, and so on. It’s the lack of history, you see. The gorgeous Pastry shop in Little Italy, Ferrara’s, claims to be the oldest in America – and that dates only from 1892. I considered suggesting to them that if they want an old coffee shop they should try Mrs Miggins one on London – but I don’t think their minds are ready for it.

So, back into the carwash, and onto the subway, taking an Uptown 6 to 51st and Lexington, and swimming the rest of the way. In spite of my cagoule, I got soaked. Of course, if I’d bothered to think just a little bit about it, I would have realised that the other million tourists in the city had thought through their day in the same way I had (or more accurately hadn’t), and come to the same inevitable conclusion. I went to the entrance of the Museum, and was pointed very politely to The Queue. Which I walked along. I then turned right at the end of the block, and carried on walking to the end of that block, and turned right again, and halfway along, finally reaching the end. Don’t you sometimes want to hit those smug bastards near the front of the line, who leer knowingly at you as you trudge past – the ones who know something you don’t.

Anyway, the bouncy young MOMA Attendant doing the “Gid-em-up, Move ‘em out” bit at the back of the queue told us we had a 40 minute wait. So I waited for 25 minutes, and found myself inside the Museum. That’s not so bad.

On the outside it’s nothing – a dull, square, black façade with not a lot to recommend it. Inside, it’s something else. It’s laid out on 6 floors , and in summary I spent 5 utterly fascinating hours wandering round. There’s a large outside sculpture park, and each floor has a theme, Media, Drawings, Architecture and Design, Photography (the swines had closed that today – they must have known I was coming), and two floors dedicated to Modern Paintings and smaller sculpture. The top floor is reserved for special exhibitions.

The place is designed around a large Central atrium, with each floor being a series of connected rooms, all different sizes and shapes, giving a large range of canvasses to show off the works. It’s a light and airy place, with masses of space, much better suited to the job of showing pictures than the Guggenheim, whose quirkiness is actually quite restricting. And here, I didn’t have to spend the whole time leaning slightly to the left.

There’s some very serious money at play in this Museum. Many of the rooms have names, like the Ethel J Cheeseburger Room (I made that one up) which gives you a clue both to how this museum was funded, and how rich Americans want to be immortalised.

The quality of what’s on show is fabulous. If I’d thought about it, I’d have started at the top, where the “Modern”, ie older than Contemporary paintings are, and then drift down the floors of the buildings ending up with the stuff that is happening today. But I didn’t, so I went jerkily back in Time Machine mode. But No matter.

“Modern” to them starts around 1880, and their collection of Modern paintings is stunning. If you like Picassos, there are about 50 of them. Van Gogh, Cezanne, Seurat, Matisse, Monet, Chagall, all are well represented. And then it goes through the whole range of painters up to Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Salvador Dali, Mark Rothko and the like. Some of the most iconic and well known paintings on Earth are on show here.

There is a lot of unsmiling suited attendants roaming around constantly, whose vocabulary seems to be limited to “No Flash” – photography, not exhibitionism, I assume. But, apart from that, you can get as close as you like to most of these masterpieces.

There’s an awful lot to like, and a lot which does not strike such a chord, at least in me. You can’t help being overwhelmed by a 60 foot panel of Monet’s Water Lilies, as well as the huge canvases by Jackson Pollock, though, not in my case for the same reason. My favourite painting there, the one I would have on a (very large) wall at home was one by Henri Rousseau, of a Gypsy sleeping. Quite exquisite, and you (or at least I) couldn’t take your eyes off it.

The Contemporary Floor was a real eye-opener. Some of the ideas there were weird, zany and very Left-Field – call it what you will. But if you took the time to read the little captions about them, and try to understand something about the author’s intention, quite a few drew you into them.

You do have to be a bit careful here, though. One exhibit in this section was an umbrella, leaning on the wall. There were quite a few people staring intently at it, and walking around it with quite an earnest attitude. That is until some kid rushed up to it and yelled “It’s all right, It’s still here”, picked it up and disappeared. Actually, having thought about it, it may well have been a very clever way of stealing a priceless exhibit. It’s that sort of place.

About 4pm, I reached the end, and went into the street. My stomach was making the usual demands, but I decided to walk the city a bit more, since the rain had now almost stopped. I went sort of South East, because something inside me was whispering “Pizza” rather insistently, and Little Italy seemed like a good idea. Some places you instinctively like. I ended up roughly in the area I had been a couple of days ago, and ambled down Mulberry Street, the heart of the district.

Rather than stick a pin in a restaurant map, I asked a local where the best Pizza was made, and he pointed to a rather dilapidated place on the corner, painted rather unsubtly in red, white and green. But then an awful lot of the place was in that colour. Parking meters, Fire Hydrants, and much of the road hardware seemed to have had a makeover – Italian style.

Posh, it was not. There were four or five rather dissolute looking Italian guys sitting around inside, looking as if they could easily play bit-parts in a gangster movie. But they did have a proper pizza oven, so I lived in hope. One sidled up, and waited for me to order. My attempt at chatting to the natives was not a great success. I watched as the head honcho spun the pizza dough very expertly in his hands, while chatting away to one of his mates. Ten minutes and a bottle of Peroni later, the Pizza appeared. It was predictably excellent – far better than I can make at home – and he wasn’t even concentrating. I’ll put it down to the Pizza Oven, although I suspect I’m kidding myself.

The other good thing about this restaurant was that it was 20 yards or so away from Ferrara’s where previously I had that gorgeous Tiramisu. So I trooped over there, and bought a Chocolate Canoli to take back to the hotel and trough my way through with a cup of coffee, when I got back.

Now back at base, it had turned 6pm, so I forced down a couple of beers in the bar, and I watched the Mets playing Baseball, irritating the Barman by asking him a stream of inane questions about what was going on. It was in truth a scrappy game, with neither side managing to get going. So, by about 9pm, it was Coffee and cake time. Well, it wasn’t really, but you can blame the body clock. Actually, having thought about it, you can’t, because it was 2am in the morning in England. Oh, well.

And that was about it for the day – I didn’t even give any thought to tomorrow – my last part day.



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