10 Oct 2014
Gazing out of heavily tinted windows as we slipped through the streets of Manhattan, I felt a sense of detached anonymity. We were in the back of a ‘Uber Black’ car, which is as black inside as it is out. Even our driver wore a black tailored blazer. We were on route to the Empire State Building in Mid-town Manhattan. We’d been riding in comfortable silence until I said “I like this car”.
“You like it?” The driver said sounding pleased. It’s one of the reasons Uber works so well: the drivers own their cars.
“I like it!” It’s roomy, all leather interior, being high-up, and it was really quiet. I secretly want one.
“It’s a Yukon Denali” he tells me in an accent I couldn’t place. African possibly. He went on to list the specs, most of which I didn’t understand until he mentioned how it works with his iPhone: He can start the car, turn on the seat warmers (and steering wheel warmer) from inside his house. He can track the location of the car, and the dealer can get a diagnostic remotely. A clever comfortable car.
As we pulled to the curb in front of the Empire State Building the driver leapt out of the car to open my door for me. I felt like a star.
Inside, the Art Deco lobby is immediately familiar from my 1988 photo album. One of the DC home-stay families brought us to NYC for a long weekend. I realise now how generous this was. Three 16 year old girls must have been a handful!
We followed the tightly controlled routes through security, to the ticket counter, through a maze of crowd-control barriers, past exhibitions and finally to the lifts. We’d arrived early morning so the lines weren’t too bad. As it was our turn to enter a lift, a Chinese man was frantically asking the lift crowd-control lady questions. He was in-her-face and following her too closely as she tried to stay focused on what she was doing.
“He’s following me like a puppy!” She exclaimed in a thick New York accent. Our lift erupted in giggles as the lift doors closed.
Looking out from the Observation Deck at the sprawling metropolis, the now familiar city was a transformed into a rich texture, a pattern. We pointed out the familiar buildings and landmarks. The Chrysler building gleamed in the morning light.
Back on the ground in a cafe and connected to free wifi, we hatched a plan for the rest of the day. We continued down 5th Ave until reaching Madison Square park, a peaceful oasis in the city, in the shadow of the Fuller Building (aka the Flatiron). Following Broadway past a farmers market in Union Square wandered down to the charming Washington Mews behind Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.
Washington Square Park itself is a conundrum. It was equal parts friendly and sociable as it was shabby and a little creepy. There was a string duo busking under the marble arch, and oldies playing chess, a dog run, and broad open sunny places where young mums picnicked with their babies. But lurking in the shadows are makeshift cardboard beds and on the fringe a group of shady guys lingered together. But I know the locals love this park, it has a rich history.
Continuing down a side street deeper into Greenwich village, the vibe changed. The scale closed in; it’s more intimate with narrow streets, brownstone houses, a clutter of street awnings and neon signs. The crowd is noticeably younger, NYU owns most of the property north of the square. We passed a house that Eleanor Roosevelt lived in, and another where little women was written.
The Minetta Tavern was our destination for lunch. You know how much we love a cosy brassiere and this was the perfect spot. Opened in 1937 and described as ‘Parisian steakhouse meets classic New York City Tavern’, it has history. If you believe the menu ‘the Tavern was frequented by various writers, poets and pugilists* including Ernest Hemingway, E.E. Cummings and Joe Gould.’
*a professional boxer
Nestled into a quiet corner booth overlooking the back dining room, we had to try the house speciality: the Black Label Burger. They were pricy at USD$27 but worth it, made out of ground steak and nothing else. It will make all future burgers chewy in comparison.
For dessert we moved to another interesting place, Cafe Reggio open since 1927, and famously offered the first cappuccino in New York. Domenico Parisi invested his life savings in a 1902 espresso machine from Italy and it’s still on display. This cafe has been featured in a few films too. It’s only a small place filled with a rich vibe of history; decorated in warm dark colours and surrounded with original oil paintings and brick-a-brack. It would look good on-screen, and we made a note to watch a film shot here.
After coffee and pumpkin pie, we continued our exploring and headed to Soho, with its hip shops and galleries. We couldn’t help popping into a few shops which meant going our separate ways for a few hours. We regrouped and caught a Uber car home through mad New York Traffic. It was practically grid-lock for a few blocks and it took almost an hour to get back uptown. In retrospect, the Sub-way would have been faster.
What a day!