Wednesday, September 8, 2010
We recently took a small nibble, a nosh, you might say, from the Big Apple. It was my first trip back in four or five years and Eric hadn’t been there for decades. I’ve been telling him how much New York City has changed for the better. Every hour we spent there proved it. The weather could not have been more perfect for us. Summer swelter had been followed by heavy rains for several days. We got late summer in all it’s glory - blue sky, puffy, white clouds and visibility for miles.
The Manhattan of my childhood was filthy and pretty scary. We sometimes stayed in the city with an aunt and I remember the window sills being covered with soot. Our feet got black from walking around. The streets felt dangerous. Stories of muggings abounded. The mode was survival. New York today is clean and can be immensely livable. People are polite and helpful to strangers. Over the years I’ve been impressed by how considerate Manhattanites, especially the men, have been when I traveled with young children. People would go out of their way to hold doors and help me with the stroller. We never had to stand on the subway.
My friend, Sally, once commented that folks on the West coast are friendly, but not polite. The opposite seems to be true for those who live on the East coast. Over the years I’ve found this to be the case. A Californian will think nothing of telling a stranger something exceedingly personal - perhaps about their cleanse or high colonic. That same person will also let a door slam in your face. Eric and I took a subway along Central Park because I wanted to rent a rowboat on the lake. By mistake, we took the express rather than the local. We had planned to get off at 72nd street, but all of a sudden we were flying by 96th. A woman on the train overheard our discussion and explained exactly how to get off at l25th and go back down to the park. Another woman, an older lady, repeated the directions and followed us until we went down the correct stairwell. She probably didn’t want us to get lost in Harlem, but it was very sweet regardless.
Such a contrast with a recent experience in San Francisco. I went in to have lunch but didn’t have enough quarters for the parking meter. Each quarter covers just about the time it takes to insert the quarter into the meter. I looked around for somewhere to get change. There was a Pack ‘N Ship with about twelve customers in line. I asked if anyone had change for a dollar. Without exception, each person in line said no without checking. No eye contact. Nobody was willing to help me out by exchanging one dollar for four quarters. Disgusted, I was back on the street asking a passerby. He wanted to know why I wanted the change. Why should he care? When I said I needed it for the meter he gave it to me. If you happen to see my car in San Francisco, and it seems to be riding a little low, it’s because it’s filled with quarters.
Transportation in New York is very easy. You walk for hundreds of blocks. When you develop shin splints and your feet feel like they’re going to fall off, hop on a subway. If you’re going a short distance, hail a cab. When Lucy was about to start kindergarten we were visiting New York. My friend, Cathi, took her shopping for some school clothes. At some point Cathi flagged a passing cab. It was like magic. The child was ruined. For the longest time, no matter where we were, when she didn’t feel like walking anymore, Lucy suggested we get a cab. We could be hiking in the woods and she thought we should get a taxi when she was tired.
There is always so much action on the streets and so many types. New Yorkers are famously blase and it takes a lot for them to stop and look at something. At one point we saw news crews, helicopters and emergency vehicles on 5th Avenue, by the Empire State Building. Crowds gathered, trying to figure out what was happening, everyone looking up. Sadly, we found out later that the seventeen year old daughter of the Thai ambassador had fallen out a window to her death.
People watching in New York City is the best. We hadn’t been on the street for more than ten minutes when we passed a French restaurant. The proprietor was out front greeting some friends with big hugs. Eric stepped right up and the owner gave him a bear hug. Eric so bonded with the man he thought we should eat dinner there, but I wouldn’t have it. Tourists taking horse and carriage rides through the park, VIP’s going in and out of limos, locals walking home from work, visitors speaking foreign languages - you’ve got it all.
New York is so much fun, but it ain’t cheap. It costs to breathe. Waiters are so smooth at up charging you don’t even realize when you’ve ordered a six dollar water. I loved our hotel and it was fairly reasonable, but I had to laugh at the bottled water on the bedside table with the price tag. You drink it, you bought it. You can get a classic martini at the oyster bar at the Plaza for nineteen bucks. It will kick your butt, and for that price, it should. Having cocktails in hotel bars follows the same tenets as real estate. It’s all about the location. You are not just buying a martini (or a house). You’re paying for an experience.
On the way home on the plane I reflected on the differences in experience between San Francisco and New York. My best theory is that the large cities in California are full of residents who came from somewhere else. They are the cream who floated to the top. Maybe people feel better than those who stayed. We ate lunch at the diner in the small town where I used to live and I’m pretty sure those people didn’t rise to the top. It was a little like a scene from “Deliverance”. However, when all the big frogs from the small towns get together, there’s a lot of croaking. These thoughts were rattling around in my head when, in a repeat of my migration of the seventies, we had a stopover in Los Angeles.
The only place to eat in the Virgin America wing at LAX is Burger King. I’ve never had the “pleasure” of eating at Burger King. In the future I will choose starvation. Hoping the lumps in our stomachs would settle, we went to the passenger cattle car. I mean holding area. While Eric went off to stretch his legs I was accosted by a rude, foul-mouthed woman who claimed I was sitting in her seat. The only discernible evidence of her presence was an empty coffee cup and a plastic package of headphones. Nasty woman asked, with a sneer, that I move the tennis bag since I’ve taken her seat. No problem. I moved the bag. I asked her to please move over one seat so I could sit with my husband. She meanly suggested that I move so she could sit in “her” seat. I made a comment about her rudeness and she told me I should go f**k myself. I grabbed our stuff and left.
After hearing of the interchange, Eric went to talk to her. It didn’t go any better with him. By the time their conversation was over she told him to go have his wife expletive his expletive. I don’t even want to know what he said back to her. We slunk away, realizing she had us beat. Crazy and maybe dangerous, we were no match for her sub-human style of communication. After ten days of nothing but courteous encounters with strangers in four different states, including New Jersey, this was an eye opener. It’s not like there was a scarcity of seats in the waiting area. What gives? Is this what we’re learning from classless television shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Real Housewives”? Los Angeles? San Francisco? I’ll take my chances in Harlem.