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Tuesday, April 19, 2005

NYC Vignettes

9 a.m. Sunday, April 17 / Handbags
Ah, a spectacular day in Manhattan and I’m headed into the subway at Grand Central. Jump on the Lexington Local downtown to Canal Street because a friend of mine tells me I can find some goodies in the way of cheap handbags in Chinatown.

Of course, I’m instantly accosted about a Louis Vuitton bag even as I’m coming up the subway steps. I duck into a few of the tunnel-like storefronts wedged between legitimate storefronts and peruse the merchandise.

Many Asian families are busy unloading trash bags full of handbags, jewelry, watches, wallets, scarves and sunglasses to sell to every red-blooded, purse-toting American woman. I can’t buy. Feels illicit and goes against my conscience. I know I’m in the minority, but it doesn’t feel right. Can't help thinking that my decision to buy may help fund terrorism.

Instead I head back up Broadway and take in fabulous Soho. This feels like real New York, whatever my impressions of real New York may be. There are friends seated on the front stoop discussing last night’s festivities and young mothers walking with their children back from the market. With the Chrysler building as my northern guide, I know where I am headed…

10:15 a.m. / Surfers in Washington Square Park
Heard a New Yorker say that this week is the pinnacle of New York spring. How lucky I am to be here. I’m going to have to lose the leather jacket soon. The sun is getting very warm, very quickly. I take a seat with a great view of the arch and New York University. With my notebook in hand I begin to just scribble away random thoughts and contemplation.

Now here’s a sight you don’t expect in Manhattan — a young couple walking through the park with surfboards under their arms. Hmmm. Wonder if surf's up on the Hudson. A girl of about 8 is zooming across the concrete on her scooter while simultaneously taunting her younger brother. A young film student is working on his masterpiece and coercing his subjects to follow his direction. Dogs, lots of dogs. A rather boisterous lot are they.

The arch gives the park a European feel. But the presence of a man dressed as a wizard reminds you that this is indeed New York City with all of its requisite eccentrics. There’s such energy here. It’s palpable and ubiquitous and I find it inspires me creatively. Of course it could also be that the past two times I’ve been here have been for writing conferences — also a source of infinite inspiration.

I’m a pretty frugal New York traveler. For this conference, I roomed with my good friend, Jill Zimon, to share costs. We had a ball together. Our similarities continue to delight me. We had similar outfits, nearly the same suitcase and we each had TWO cosmetic/sundry bags. Is it possible to find one to fit all our gear?

Airfare is not bad and I’ve hardly spent any cash. Of course, my husband says it’s because I don’t eat when I travel. Hey, I pack my energy bars and bottled water for sustenance. Did have some fabulous coconut ice cream for dessert last night that made me want to strap on a grass skirt and do a little hula. Mmmm. Even shared a second helping.

Met a lot of editors at national mags this weekend and have a lot of pitches to work on. My briefcase contains a running list of half-baked ideas that I hope to chew on a bit more this week and next. After two days of talking nonstop with so many people, it’s nice to sit quietly, to contemplate, to absorb, to simply be.

I see the Empire State Building. Seeing as it’s my third trip to the Big Apple, maybe I’ll go to the top.

11:50 a.m. / The cellular customer you are trying to reach...
Okay, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. I’m standing in the never-ending line to go up 86 stories to the observation deck of the Empire State Building. I’m not so good in lines. Really I just want to get up there and call the boys to tell them where I am. They’ll get a huge kick out of that. They keep asking why I haven’t yet gone. The reason? Lines!

The walk up Fifth Avenue is delightful. I pass by many churches and admire how the pastors stand outside the front doors welcoming the very finely dressed New Yorkers inside. Why don’t suburban churches do that?

By 12:30 I finally get to the top of the Empire State Building. Not sure Mikey would do well in this line. As soon as I get up there I realize I have no cell phone service. Oh well. The view is spectacular and I imagine it’s worth seeing at night.

Got to hustle back to the hotel to check out by 1.

1:20 p.m. / Resting
I’m sitting in Pershing Square having an omelet for lunch and basically just taking a load off my tired dogs. Switched into my running shoes since I’m trying to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time.

My waiter is ALL attitude. I’ll forgive him since I’m sure he’d rather be acting. After slyly checking my NYC map, I decide I can make it to the Upper West Side and to Columbia University and still have time to get back to the hotel and grab a cab to JFK. Gotta hoof it down 42nd to Times Square station and catch the red line number 9 uptown.

2:10 p.m. / New York Firsts
I’ve had a few firsts this trip. Successfully hailed my first cab on Friday night, took a photo of a couple from Indiana at Times Square and finally made it to the place I’ve been dying to see — the Upper West Side.

Columbia University is spectacular. I was ready to become a college student again. Bongos, Frisbee, packs of Greeks, sunbathers and music emanates from the quad. Reminds me of the East Green at OU in the spring.

Wanted to grab a sweatshirt from the bookstore, but it was closed for inventory. So I walk down Broadway right into a street festival. The sounds and smells of so many cultures are intoxicating. Crepes, gelato, gyros… the food smells heavenly.

3:45 p.m. / My future chauffeur
Don’t know what I was thinking flying in to JFK. When I booked my flight I didn’t even look at the airport. Oh well. Live and learn. I have an extra-friendly cab driver who clearly enjoys speaking. On the way in on Friday, the guy never said a word until I paid him, that is. How much are you supposed to tip a cab driver? I think I overpaid because suddenly mister can’t-be-bothered started talking up a storm.

This guy asks me if I played the lottery as we pass a billboard announcing the Mega-millions is at $168 million. “If you win, I’ll be your chauffeur,” he says. And then he laughs and turns up the Doors’ “Light My Fire” on the radio. We’re driving through Woodhaven in Queens.

“See those houses over there? They sell for $1/2-million,” he says.

“Really?” They are tiny city houses with no yard.

“I live in Brooklyn and you see a house for sale that looks like it’s falling down and ask how much — $700,000. Those (pointing to the left) are new apartments for low-income housing. Go for $240,000. That’s New York,” he says.

My driver is originally from Russia. He moved to Germany and then Israel before coming to the U.S. He speaks five languages and considers himself primarily Israeli. He is married to a Russian woman who emigrated to the U.S. when she was 5. He says she’s American. And he has two daughters who were “made in America.”

He used to drive for black car limousine service. When I tell him I’m a writer he asks if I know Mr. Newhouse. He used to drive for Mr. Newhouse, more specifically for Tina Brown. “You know her? New Yorker and Talk magazine?”

“Yep,” I say. “What was she like?”

“She was very strange. She used to sit in the back seat and talk to herself. But I think people who talk to themselves are very smart,” he says. He’s also driven Maria Shriver and Bono from U2. (Eeek!) After three visits, I still haven't had a celebrity sighting.

6:35 p.m. / International runway
We’re finally taxiing to the runway. Behind us are Czech Airlines, Korean Air, Alitalia, Finnish Air, South African Airlines, British Airways and Lufthansa. Next time I come to this airport it will be for a connecting flight to Europe.

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