On 2015-06-17, I took my first journey into the Big Apple. This is something that I had been wanting to do for a significant while, but opportunity never struck until this season's Concerts in the Park series. Currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, the Concerts in the Park are a series of free outdoor concerts given by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on the Great Lawn of Central Park. More on that, however, will come later.
Planning the trip was fairly straightforward: simply pack a duffel bag with overnight essentials, discuss overnight housing with my friend (who, having been to the city before, will serve as both my guide and companion), and figure out transportation. Conveniently, my friend lives very close to an Amtrak train station, so I drove up to his house, parked my car there overnight, and we took the train into the city.
Arriving in Penn Station was strikingly similar to arriving in any one of the several airports that I've been to: arrival/departure signs, terminals, even newsstands and food vendors. Walking past all of these, however, we left the station immediately, and I got my first eyefull of New York City.
"Eyefull" is perhaps a slightly misleading word to use. The first thing that caught my eye coming out the station was not, in fact, the scope and majesty of the city, but rather the derilect and shoddy-looking storefront of Brother Jimmy's BBQ. Ever a sucker for barbecue, I immediately started walking in that direction, but my friend tugged my sleeve and told me that there would be other times and other opportunities for food along the way. Agreeing, we headed off.
New York City is often described as a "concrete jungle"; having now been there myself, I can't bring myself to disagree. As we walked along the sidewalk, there were almost zero instances where I could see for more than one block in any direction; frequently, I felt encased on all sides as the looming building facades pressed in. The myriad bodies constantly moving didn't help; while not necessarily quite as claustrophobic as the movies will sometimes lead one to believe, it's still remarkable just how many people are in the city, and moreover how many people one sees during their personal, experiential cross-section. I've been to many cities, and in cities like Philadelphia or Chicago, it's easy to know that there are many people in them without seeing them; in New York, the city takes its people and puts them in your face: businessmen moving from one building to another; tourists with cameras and "I<3NY" shirts; droves of people lining up at crosswalks waiting for the dam to burst, and then flowing across once the light turns (or perhaps even before if there are no cars, a rarity). Looking up, it's possible to see the sky, if truncated: the tops of buildings cut into the openness with sharp corners; the different buildings' heights create a bizarre jigsaw puzzle out of what would otherwise be a beautiful Wednesday sky.
After walking down 7th Avenue for what felt like forever, we reached Times Square. Though an obvious tourist trap, it's still nice to be able to say that I have walked through Times Square. The stores are the sort of stores that you would find in any big city: H&M, Disney, Hersey's, and the like. The only difference is that in New York, these stores are huge. Well, the storefronts are, anyway; glancing inside the Hersey's store revealed a square footage equal to a store that I might find in any small town, though the facade would lead one to believe that there was a vertical factory right there in Times Square. Turning to catch a glimpse of the New Year's Eve ball, we walked past what appeared to be the fanciest Olive Garden in the country and continued north.
The Quest for Pizza: Having passed up an opportunity for ninety-nine cent pizza earlier, we were hankering for ninety-nine cent pizza. Unfortunately, the parlor that we had passed earlier was about eight blocks in the wrong direction, and we wanted to get to Central Park for the concert. In an amusing yet unrelated interlude with technology, we struggled to find a vendor, and despite passing several more upscale parlors, my friend insisted that we have ninety-nine cent pizza. Eventually the internet shone down upon us, and we were informed that a ninety-nine cent pizza parlor had in fact been one block north from where we deviated from Broadway. Smacking ourselves, we returned to Broadway and obtained our pizza. Among three people, an eighteen-inch pizza cost eight dollars; for one dollar a slice, all three of us were happily filled after we took the pizza the last two blocks to Central Park. Finding a nice, wide, relatively flat rock, we ate the pizza while listening to a truly awful bagpiper practice in the park. Fun fact: In New York, or at least in the parlor that we went to, the Parmesan shakers don't have grated Parmesan, but rather tiny Parmesan balls that will slightly melt over the pizza while still retaining their firmness. While not the best pizza that I've ever had, for ninety-nine cents that pizza was in at least the 85th percentile of my pizza experiences.
Our next adventure was Central Park. Central Park is not your average city park. Movies fail to communicate the vastness of Central Park. Finding the Great Lawn should not be difficult, and it honestly wasn't, but it took far, far longer than any of us expected, even my friend who had been to the city before. Coming from the southwest entrance to the park, we still took almost thirty minutes to follow sprawling trails until we found the Lawn. In our defense, we were not in any kind of rush, but the general impression that I got from the Park was that it was much, much bigger than I expected it to be, even taking into account that I knew that it would be bigger than I expected it to be.
The grandstand that the orchestra would play on was lit with lime-green stage lights, and there were speaker stacks scatters throughout the Lawn. Initially, we tried to find a location close to the stage so that we could see the orchestra playing; we eventually admitted defeat and found a location about two hundred yards away, close to a speaker stack so that we would be able to at least hear the orchestra. The Lawn was littered with blankets and tarps, with people evidently having picnicked in the park for hours leading up to the concert. The small patch of grass that we found was remarkably comfortable, though it was squashed between blankets. This was forgotten, however, as the concert started.
Unfortunately, as the concert started, the clouds began leaking. Ever so slighty, droplets of rain began to fall. As anyone with any classical training knows, water and moisture are death to instruments, especially the priceless instruments that the New York Philharmonic would be playing. While the orchestra fought through and played Barber's Overture from "The School for Scandal" (brilliantly, I might add), there was an unplanned intermission that immediately followed. During the pause, I heard many of the people around us complaining; one notable comment was that the orchestra shouldn't have brought their expensive instruments, but rather used "$20 cheapo instruments" instead. While we held our tongues, it was only just; we knew that we would be surrounded by people who did not appreciate quality music, and were only there for a free concert. Luckily, the rain did not last, and while the orchestra decided to cut Gershwin's Lullaby, we were given the privilege of hearing a suite from Bernstein's West Side Story arranged for orchestra and solo violin, with the solo part being played by none other than Joshua Bell. Even after the rain, neither the orchestra's nor the soloist's spirits were dampened, and both played brilliantly; Bell's mastery of the violin was on full display, as the virtuoso played difficult harmonies and harmonics. Before the last note died, the audience erupted into tumultuous applause, prompting Bell and the orchestra to play an encore: New York, New York from Berstein's "On the Town". After yet another exemplary performance from Bell, the orchestra retired again to discuss the remainder of the concert.
When the orchestra returned, they bore terrible news: the highlight of the program, Copland's Appalachain Spring, would need to be cut for time. This caused an outrage, leading many concertgoers to leave the park. While the orchestra continued with Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel Waltz, Leroy Anderson's Fiddle Faddle, and Sousa's Washington Post (each as brilliantly played as everything else in their program), the audience's atmosphere was tepid. The brief fireworks display after the concert lightened the mood somewhat, but the disappiontment in the overall evening was palpable.
After leaving the park, the next destination was our overnight location. As our host lived in Brooklyn, we needed to take the subway. After navigating the underground maze that is the subway system, we emerged in Brooklyn on 7th Street. We walked south, eventually reaching the apartment. Apartments in Brookyln are nice, but speaking with our host I realized that the quality is certainly not worth the cost. After we dropped off our bags at the apartment, we went to Rosamunde's Sausage Grill and Bar. Rosamunde's features a fairly wide list of craft beers on draft, and their list of sausages is quite extensive. I opted for their standard beer sausage (spicy, smoked beef and pork) topped with grilled onions and spicy beef chili, with a Moa St. Joseph's to drink. St. Joseph's is a Belgian Tripel, nicely flavored with apple, pear, and tropical fruits, with a nice peppery finish at the end that masks the alcohol very well. The sandwich was very good, with a nice smoked flavor from the sausage, though the onions were a bit bland. The best part, however, was the chili: an incredibly balanced spice blend, incorporating a good amount of cinnamon, paprika, and cardamom, was mixed into a texturally perfect sauce, which had achieved a blend of tomato paste, molasses, and Worchestershire sauce that featured the best characteristics of each while not permitting any one of them to dominate the others. This was mixed into a perfectly ground beef mince, with no excessively large chunks to disrupt the texture. Rosamunde's is a must-visit for any future excursions to the city.
After eating our fill, we headed over the Barcade. As its name implies, the Barcade is a mix of a bar (featuring a broad list of craft beers on draft) and a collection of classic arcade games, for only a quarter per play. We lost about five dollars each on the games, and another ten dollars each on beer, before heading home. In the morning, we ate at Vanessa's Dumplings, where I sampled their pork dumplings in noodle soup and a pork, carrot, and cilantro sesame pancake. All of it was delicious. Unfortunately, at this point we had to go home, so we took the subway back to Penn Station and caught the train back home.
My impressions of New York are almost universally positive. Everything is huge, but none of it is in your face unless you want it to be. The food is delicious, and has a wide price range, so anyone can eat amazing food. There is always something to do; I didn't even begin to scratch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to activities in New York. The only downside that I can think of with New York is that living there full-time would be prohibitively expensive; the real estate values are astronomical, and most of the things to do that are exciting or very high-quality cost accordingly high prices. However, the adage that New York is a great place to visit, though bad to live in, seems to hold: I certainly wouldn't mind visitng New York again, over and over, each time sampling a new and different bite of the Big Apple.