Monday, February 18, 2013

Notes from New York

    A colourful message outside a restaurant in New York reads “Life is too short to drink bad wine”. It's the last day of my trip to the US and I reckon this short sentence perfectly describes this amazing city and its people.
The City of New York from Empire State
     I reach New York just when winter seemed ready to settle in and stay at the famous Broadway Millennium Hotel, a stone’s throw away from Times Square. That very evening, a few of my relatives join me at the hotel and we set out to explore the bright neon lights of Times Square. The first thing I notice, apart from the blinding lights, is folks wearing costumes of every major Hollywood comic movie posing with tourists for a dollar or two. Batman's main gadget seems to be his red adidas bag to carry dollar bills. Woody is a big hit with tourists and Lady Liberty looks smug with a strained expression on her face. Surprisingly there is a guy in his underwear carrying an old stereo and braving the chilly winds; not sure which character he is though!

    Every time I visit Times Square, there is a token guy with the sign - “Need money for weed”. I imagine serious men working in shifts carrying the same withered board around and secretly winking at each other during the change-over. I wonder if the Mayor is responsible; somehow conspiring to show tourists how “free” the country really is. In India, such a person would have been hounded by the local cops and branded a drug addict. The irony is that there are plenty of beggars in India streets who are drug addicts but never come out openly and ask for “Money for Ganja” to avoid hurting sentiments of the conservative middle class that coughs up their moolah.
Times Square
    The area beside the statue of Father Duffy in Times Square doubles up as “Protester’s square”. Palestinians holding placards against atrocities in Gaza rub shoulders with Israelis protesting against them. If the statue were to magically come alive, it would know what to do for world peace. Tourists willing to shell out five dollars to street artists and sit still for a long time are rewarded with a caricature that looks remarkably close to their long dead grandfather. At times, there are mob dances that give the entire street the look of a never ending Roman carnival. A few street food vendors greet me with a “salam alaikum” as I pass by. Thanks to countless “Alif Laila” shows I watched in my childhood, I promptly respond with a “wa-alaikum-salaam”. They immediately smile and respond with a long sentence in Arabic that I don’t even pretend to understand!

    Times Square is chaotic but expect to be pleasantly surprised once in a while. But the charm of Times Square wears off pretty quickly, especially when you have to wade through the traffic there on a daily basis. After a few days, like the average New Yorker, I avoid it as much as possible.


    The Museums of the city are on top of my to-see list and thanks to my employer, I get a free entrance pass to all of them. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) or ‘The Modern’ is nearest to office and the first place I visit. Whether it is Van Gogh’s “Scream”, Edvard Munch’s “Melancholy” or Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon”, the collection of the works of modern greats is unmatched. Thanks to the audio guide, I learn about cubism and abstraction allowing me to understand and appreciate the paintings better. The Friday evening crowd is such that it's easier to get a lunch token at Saravana Bhavan than take a decent picture of the Van Gogh's paintings.
MOMA: Edvard Munch's Melancholy"

MOMA: Pablo Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles D’Avignon"

MOMA: Van Gogh's "Scream"
    The metropolitan museum is the undoubtedly the best museum I have ever visited. The sheer weight of history in that place is overwhelming and unfortunately I rush through with only an hour to spend there. The museum is a treasure trove of relics from different eras of China, Egypt, Persia, India, Rome and Mayan civilizations. Visiting this museum definitely stoked my perpetual desire to travel around the world more to understand ancient cultures and their history.
The Metropolitan Museum
    The Natural History museum boasts of an amazing collection of fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals and a four story tall planetarium sphere! Visitors are transformed to a time when terrifying lizards and giant sharks ruled the world and our ancestors were just tea time snacks. I jostle for space with loud kids and their tired looking parents at the best exhibits. As someone very interested in evolution, I find the fossil of the pterodactyl( the flying reptile which is the missing link in the evolution of the flying dinosaurs) fascinating.

    The folks at work arrange a live tour of the Universe at the Hayden Planetarium of the Natural History museum. The tour starts humbly from the blue planet to the edge of the known Universe where even light has not travelled to in all these billion years. No better way to understand the pointless lives of a hominid ape species in an insignificant planet with a dying sun at the edge of a rather unimportant galaxy is to the grand universe where millions of stars are born and die daily.

    Whether it is the museums or the planetariums, importance is given to the young in this country. America has an amazing public educational system (compared to India) and some say that the quality of the public school indirectly determines the real estate price in a locality. At the museums, I notice mothers explaining the works of greats to their children and the first question at the planetarium is from a five year old. An appreciation of fine arts, history and science is drilled into them at an early age and I find this heartening because my exploration of India’s rich history and cultural heritage started only after I moved out of the formal educational system!
Tyrannosaurus at National History Museum
    Like most Indians, my first visit to America is on work. Working with people of a country gives more perspective and understanding than visiting all their tourist sites. If there's one thing that my co-workers were better at than us, it is at asking the question "why?" It doesn’t matter who it is addressed to or how many times they ask it; but they ask it until their curiosity is sated and concerns addressed. The educational institutions in America encourage questions and students carry forward this curiosity for the rest of their lives. In India, speaking up against elders openly, be it managers or professors or elders is discouraged. And this attitude, I believe, is the bane of our educational system – not substandard teachers and professors or the lack of quality research in our country. Perhaps I am being didactic, but in my opinion, we will never become a world power until we allow our students to ask stupid questions.


    One thing I absolutely love about New York is the food. My trip is three weeks long and I decide to eat anything but Indian food for that duration. The food in New York is probably the freshest I have ever eaten – clearly the benefit of local produce and cold storage. The taste of the soft Pizzas, the extra cheesy cheesecakes, the Mexican burritos and croissants that serve as breakfast are hard to describe for someone who has been smothered with spices since childhood. The competition among restaurants is fierce and every restaurant tries to outdo the other with better quality and service. The worst thing I ate at New York - the one dollar-per-slice pizza, is still better than the ones I buy in India.

    A lot of New Yorkers eat food from carts on the street, right from the investment banker to the homeless guy on the street. The street food in New York is mostly safe due to regulation and frequent checks; back home after eating in the wrong street or at the wrong cart, food poisoning and typhoid are the least of consequences one would have to worry about.

    New Yorkers as a group of people hate to wait and are generally impatient, especially when forced to wait for food. One gentleman stormed out of a restaurant, after a refund of course, when the food did not arrive in the promised time. “I don’t like being lied to”, he thundered and probably headed to his favorite street cart! Everybody wants to eat at once, pay at once and get out at once.


    Even though many friends recommend watching a Broadway show, I am not sure considering the prohibitive cost of tickets. For the same money, I could watch 30 movies in IMAX or 50 plays in Hyderabad. So when one of my aunts suggested Broadway show as weekend activity, I immediately acquiesce knowing that she would never ask her young nephew to cough up!

    Two of my aunts and I watch ‘Dead Accounts’, a dark comedy that is not the typical “dance and song” Broadway show. Katie Holmes, the star attraction, can act well unlike her performances in Batman would have you believe. The protagonist, brilliantly portrayed by Norbert Leo Butz, is a new age bank robber returning to hide in his conservative house from New York after stealing loads of money from dead peoples' accounts. He is quickly followed home by his ‘almost divorced’ wife who wants a share of the booty. His loser sister (played by Katie Holmes) and mother are shocked to learn about him and the family tries to come to terms with this ‘surprise’ reunion. Overall it is a great show and I love the sudden silences, the passionate monologues and Leo’s portrayal of a man who is more interested in his wife’s love than the money he stole.

    There are plenty of fashion wear stores around Broadway. New Yorkers are definitely the most fashionable people I have ever seen. When you roam around a city with observant aunts, you overhear enough conversation about fashionable boots and handbags that you eventually observe things you'd otherwise miss!


    When I was around 13, my 10 year old cousin from America visited Coimbatore and I think absolutely loathed the country of her forefathers. She asked me “Why do people in India spit so much?” Having grown up in a city where chewing beetal leaves after lunch, sucking out the juices and spitting the reminder on the street was more like a fundamental right, I responded naively “Doesn’t anybody spit in America?”

    So imagine my surprise when I come over to the promised phlegm-less land and find folks spitting on the roads and throwing plastic and paper bags just like the good folks back home! The New Yorkers, of course, blame tourists for this and vice versa.  But New York is a city that works. The garbage is cleaned up in time and the cigars that folks throw vanish by the next day.


    In New York, travel is mostly by the metro or by walk. The metro is a New Yorker’s favorite whipping boy. Often you hear statements like “Oh it’s too crowded”, “There’s no connectivity between avenues and I have to walk” or “When Sandy struck, the trains didn’t run for two full weeks!” Clearly such complaints can only come from somebody who has never traveled in the crowded buses of Chennai or local trains of Mumbai. And all this in spite of ferrying about a million people from the suburbs to the city on a daily basis. Whatever the complaints, I think many New Yorkers fail to appreciate the vision of people who built the most extensive public transportation system in the world more than 100 years ago.

    For my weekend shopping at New Jersey, my aunt drives me around. I want to get my hands around the wheels of my aunt’s BMW and give her not-so-subtle hints which she catches on early and flatly refuses. Apparently the traffic violation fines are prohibitive, especially for those without driver’s license. During my stay at their house in New Jersey, I am surprised to note that there are no walls or boundaries between houses. The suburbs are pretty sedate and boring and I get the impression that nothing ever happens there.

    There are a lot of rules when it comes to driving in America and what surprises me, pleasantly of course, is that people see benefit in and follow them! In the suburbs, the middle lane is reserved for essential services like ambulances and fire trucks. I am sure such a thing will never happen in India  and definitely not in Hyderabad!

    On the roads, most cars are huge and probably voracious fuel guzzlers; only one in a hundred cars I see is a hatchback. The limousines are monstrously long; roughly enough to fit in four Maruti altos and carry the same number of people as one Maruti alto.

    The first time I switch on cable TV, it takes 15 minutes just to browse through all the channels. There are plenty of “lose 20 pounds in 20 days” and “special tea” ads. Just like in TV back home, smartly dressed actors tell you what to do with your life and how to feel good about yourself by buying their product. Nevertheless the overdose of “Call Lawyers if you fall in the mall” and “home foreclosure schemes” tells an interesting tale about American society – the story of corporate greed and easy loans that cannot be repaid.
Rockefeller Center
    The craze for American Football or rugby mirrors our country’s love for cricket and Sunday mornings are inevitably spent in front of television. In American Football, organization of offense and defense lines takes long, timeouts are longer and 'advertisements' is the name of the game. Actual action, if at all it happens, occurs in short bursts and the players get back to forming a huddle and wasting time allowing more ads. The game is tailor-made for television and long advertisements! I learn never to expect the last five minutes of a typical football game to get over in five minutes.


    Perhaps I am romanticizing a bit but people here smile more and seem happier than most other places I have visited. This begs the question – “Does money equal happiness?” Frankly, if there’s one lesson in my New York trip, it is that even though money doesn't buy happiness, the experiences that money can pay for can definitely lead to happiness. A few Americans warn me about the pitfalls of chasing money and unbridled ambition, otherwise known as the American dream.


    There are a few parks in this concrete jungle called New York City. At Central Park, the fattest squirrels I have ever seen prepare for winter, runners go about their weekend long runs and anachronistic horse carriages and rickshaws give the impression of a bygone Victorian age. At Bryant Park, I learn ice skating; perhaps ‘learn’ is too strong a word. I mostly fall on my rear with kids zipping past and impersonating my falls like I were an over-sized egg with small feet. Nevertheless, it is the best fun I had for a while. On the last day of my trip, I visit the observatory at the Empire State building and get to see the city in its entire splendor from the top of the world.
Skating at Central Park
    A friend of mine once said that a great city encourages you to get out of your home and explore. As soon as I finished my work at office every evening, I got out walking around avenues and shops, discovering new places to eat and gawk at. Though I didn’t buy any “I love New York” mementos, I can declare that the three most interesting weeks of my life were spent in the greatest city of the world.


Bhavya said...

Very well written and an interesting read.Looks like you tried your best to avoid things that have already been mentioned about NYC :-)
Btw,Scream is by Edvard Munch,popularised by MTV India during their breaks!!

VInith said...

WOw ..Even though i have never been there ,, you not only highlighted with so much vivd detail but also made me feel 1. It really is a beautiful and must see place 2. felt like reader was right in the middle of action

Unknown said...

@Bhavya - Thanks. Didn't want the blog to be a compilation of my FB posts. For me, the blog is definitely more sacrosanct...
@Vinith - Thanks mate. Are you Vinith Muralitharan from Stanes by any chance?

PANKAJA said...

Liked your NYC blog post....

Unknown said...

@Pankaja - Thank you.