September 17, 2009

New York on $75 a Day

I know it is a cliché, but I unabashedly profess my love for the island of Manhattan.

Give it to me from all the senses, the lush Gershwin score from a Woody Allen movie by the same name, a rasher of bacon from the Carnegie Deli, the geometry of the Brooklyn Bridge, the tangy odor of horse carriages in Central Park, and the cold smooth marble floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My parents brought my brother and me to New York City for three days in 1970, between 3-day visits to Boston and Philadelphia. My Dad always planned wonderful trips, and packed every conceivable historic and cultural site in a few days.

In New York: Radio City Music Hall still previewed movies. We saw Darling Lily starring Rock Hudson and Julie Andrews, a very bad movie in a very good venue. The Rockettes worked their magic prior to the movie. Popcorn never tasted the same at South Whitley’s Kent Theatre after that.

We stayed in a Holiday Inn near Times Square, and I vividly remember walking the few blocks from Rockefeller Center. Though I was 12, I tightly held my father’s hand because Midtown was rife with peep shows, prostitutes, and porn shops and I was afraid.

A Gray Line Tour took us to Chinatown, Midtown, and of all things, the Bowery. Homelessness had not yet reared its ugly head in the “Fly Over” state where I grew up, and seeing souls right out of Guys and Dolls was a first. If only I could say it was the last.

At Battery Park we took the Staten Island Ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and went up in the base. (My father gets dizzy, so we didn’t visit the crown nor the Empire State Building. Years later, I called my dad from the top of the Empire State Building, “Guess where I am?”)

Midtown has changed in forty years. A recent New Yorker "Talk of the Town" article bemoaned the changes this summer at Times Square, which was once considered seedy and rundown as I witnessed in 1970. Cleaned up during the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, many native New Yorkers believe the Times Square area too pristine. This summer current Mayor Michael Bloomberg closed down five blocks of Broadway, making the famous point between it and Seventh Avenue a plaza of sorts.

I have been fortunate enough to visit New York City many times, including a one-day visit in late July. Using a free Southwest ticket, I flew from Louisville to Philadelphia to visit a college friend (a fair trade against my husband and son’s baseball trips). While the Philadelphia area offered great choices for cultural and historic places to visit, we decided to spend a long Saturday in the Big Apple.

To encourage travelers, numerous bus companies run service to major cities in the summer. My friend, who treated me to this junket, purchased two $5 MEGABUS tickets and after a brief subway ride from her home in Old City Philadelphia, we rode in a comfortable bus for the 90-minute trip to Manhattan. When leaving or going to New York by bus, I am always reminded of the final scene in Midnight Cowboy when Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight “ride out of town” with the city panorama behind them and “Everybody’s Talkin” as the score.

The bus dropped us off south of Madison Square Garden and we walked down Broadway through Herald Square to Madison Square Park for an early lunch at the Shake Shack.

While relatively new, the Shake Shack has the distinction of being reviewed by the foodies of the New Yorker with thumbs up. Why is this distinction important to me? Because it makes a cheeseburger almost as good as Newburgh’s Knob Hill and costs about the same.

The great chow is enhanced by the terrific view of the Flat Iron Building, which holds court between Fifth and Broadway and 23rd Street. Considered one of the first skyscrapers in New York City, the 1902 Beaux-Arts steel frame building was designed by Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. A Chicago architect? Of course!

After our affordable lunch in view of the Flat Iron Building, we walked north until we caught a Madison Avenue bus and headed for the Upper East Side. Taking a New York City bus is an excellent way to see the city. I bought an all-day pass for a few dollars, and my friend who travels to NYC frequently had a permanent pass. The pass is good for subway and bus transportation.

In 1992 before the 1993 first bombing of the World Trade Center, my same friend and I took a city bus all way down Broadway from around Columbus Circle to the Wall Street area. That was my first trip back to New York since my childhood visit, and from the bus, you could see everything from Times Square to Penn Station to the Empire State Building and finally, the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

On my 1970 visit, the World Trade Center was still under construction. I have pictures of my family on Liberty Island with Manhattan in the background, no World Trade Center.

On the recent one-day visit, we got off the bus a few blocks east of Central Park, and passed the famous Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home, which has handled celebrity arrangements, including Heath Ledger, John Lennon and Jacqueline Onassis. We walked to Fifth Avenue where the Metropolitan Museum has a huge footprint on the east side of Central Park, and is an infinite treasure to visit and revisit. Schoolchildren will enjoy seeing Washington Crossing the Delaware or treasures from the Pyramids and other tombs of Egypt.

Our early afternoon goal was to see the Frank Lloyd Wright Exhibit in celebration of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum up the street. The museum celebrates 50 years this year, of the distinctive building designed by Midwestern architect Wright.

The book 1959 by Fred Kaplan published earlier this, shares the reaction of the Upper East Side community when this circular building like no other opened. With its distinctive architecture counterweighted against the classic structures of the Met and Fifth Avenue buildings, some felt the Guggenheim looked alien.

Because of the circular nature of the outside walls, there are no steps and patrons wind their way up to the top, where a magnificent glass window designed by Lloyd serves as the ceiling. This window image is licensed and I could not to photograph it, but the image is included in many Guggenheim signs and publications.

The exhibit traced Lloyd’s work from his early years and focused on many “unbuilt” buildings, as well as his ideas for easy, affordable housing and magnificent hotels and civic centers.

Skirting the vendors hawking photos of the newly deceased Michael Jackson dressed as Carol Channing, we took a bus down Fifth Avenue past the Met, the Frick Museum, and into the area of some of our country’s most expensive shopping.

What makes Manhattan so great is that it offers something for everyone. An Evansville friend who lived in New York and I don’t see eye to eye on the city. To me, it’s a city of museums, history, and restaurants. For my friend, it is a city of shopping, nightlife, and restaurants. That magnificent city exists for both of us. For me, this Saturday trip was not about the food, but many articles can be written on the variety and wonder of New York restaurants.

Rockefeller Center is a wonderful place to visit on a one-day trip. The Art Deco GE Building, also known as “Thirty Rock” is not only the home of NBC Nightly News and Saturday Night Live, but features incredible, and sometimes controversial, public art.

Famed painter Diego Rivera murals were removed sixty years ago after many considered inclusion of Lenin with Abraham Lincoln in a mural inappropriate.

Atlas guards the property on Fifth Avenue, while the golden Prometheus stands watch over the skating rink. The Today Show studio is visible from the street as well as the familiar entrances to Radio City Music Hall and the Rainbow Room.

You can take an NBC studio tour and see both studios for Nightly News and SNL.

I have taken at least four tours, none more memorable than when we saw Joe Garagiola in a hallway outside of the Today Show in 1970. We also toured Studio 6-B where a few hours after our tour Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show, which moved to “beautiful downtown Burbank”, California two years later. I was quite disappointed to learn you had to be 18 to see Carson live. My memory tells me that Jack Benny was a guest that night, but IMBD says no.

Now the most important part of the day – the wait in line at the TKTS booth for show tickets. We didn’t want to spend big bucks – the TKTS booths, located at Times Square, downtown Brooklyn, or the South Street Seaport offer significantly discounted hours before curtain.

The line at 4 p.m. was long -- my friend and I debated which shows on the list we wanted to see – Avenue Q? Hair? South Pacific? No, I really wanted to see West Side Story, which was too popular to be on the big neon board that showed available tickets. For me there is never any question. When in Rome…..see a musical. While New York offers plenty of wonderful musical offering from opera at Lincoln Center to jazz at the Blue Note, I want a singing, dancing, larger than life musical. My husband and I saw six shows in five days for our 20th anniversary -- the sixth being a drama starring Mikhail Baryshnikov, tough to take she said wryly.

West Side Story, set in the 1950s in the neighborhood, which is now the location of Lincoln Center, retells Romeo and Juliet through the romance between a Puerto Rican girl and a Caucasian boy.

My friend suggested one of us run across the street to the theatre and see if tickets were available. I went. A college friend who now works in “the business” in Los Angeles once told that house seats or the director’s seats are often turned in just hours before a performance. Sure enough. Two aisle seats in the fifth row. (This same Ball State friend also got me two house seats for Wicked when it came out, so I am forever in his debt.)

Tickets in hand, we walked to Broadway and up past the Ed Sullivan Theatre where Hoosier David Letterman produces his nightly show. Tickets to The Late Show With David Letterman are relatively easy to obtain if you plan. (My husband and I saw a live taping in 2004 when Will Smith was a guest. Of course we told them we are Cardinals, just like BSU grad and C student Letterman.)

On to Columbus Circle for dinner and a trip to the Whole Foods Market in the Time Warner Building, the home of CNN, a great people watching spot. Whole Food’s website states that this location is the second largest grocery store in Manhattan. Grocery prices blew my socks off, but for a relaxing, affordable meal, Whole Foods was a great choice with salad by the pound and a New York deli.

Waiting for our 8 p.m. curtain in the pseudo-plaza near the statue of George M. Cohan we saw a stretch limo pull up along Seventh Avenue and out popped Dr. Phil McGraw making a “fly by” promotional commercial for his new season. What is it about a celebrity that compels even the sanest person to take pictures? I was driven by some digital demon.

McGraw hub bub over, we went to the Palace Theater. The performance, brought back to the stage by one of the four originators, Arthur Laurent, features much dialogue and song in Spanish. The song to remember is “America” by Tony winner Karen Olivo who hits one every night as if she was Babe Ruth at Yankee Stadium. Filled with hyperbole as I am, I am hard pressed to find the words to describe the fusion of dance, song, and drama in this beautiful show, which resonates its charge of the horrors of racism as fully as it did fifty years ago.

After the show, a pleasant walk amid all the brights lights and broken dreams down Broadway to Pennsylvania Station for the 11 o’clock train to Trenton, and ultimately home to the City of Brotherly Love.

Cost for the One Day Trip (per person)
SEPTA token $2
Metro Bus Pass $8
Shake Shake lunch $10
Museum Admission $10
Whole Foods Dinner $12
Train Ticket $18

Broadway Tickets PRICELESS!

Quoth the raven.