Exactly three months ago today, the wedding took place of Prince William and Kate Middleton. As far as I’m aware, he hasn’t subsequently tried to cop off with an older woman, and she hasn’t tried to chuck herself down a flight of stairs. I think that counts as a success, given the circumstances. Congratulations to them both!
Is it really three months? It seems like an age since all that nonsense at the Abbey. At the time, The Belated Birthday Girl and I were concerned that the nuptials would generate unnecessary amounts of hoopla, and we were looking for ways to avoid them. As we hadn’t yet got a big intercontinental holiday planned for the year, we decided to leave the country for a few days, and head for somewhere where they wouldn’t be making as much of a fuss about a royal wedding.
So we went to America. What the fuck were we thinking?
Once we’d worked out the arrangement with the AirTrain from Newark Airport and its connection to the NJ Transit service, we were at Penn Station in no time, with the delightful sight of the Hotel Pennsylvania literally over the road. The Hotel Penn is famous for two things: it has the most famous phone number on the planet, and it provides dirt cheap accommodation right in the centre of the Big Apple, allowing them to style themselves as The World’s Most Popular Hotel. But trawl the web for reviews and you’ll find all sorts of horror stories about bedbugs, cockroaches, and fresh brain spatter on bedroom walls. It’s a cheap hotel that’s obviously seen better days, sure, but we found it to be lived-in rather than actually squalid.
The building’s currently under threat of demolition, and you suspect that there’s a stratum of society that’s enraged at the idea of a piece of prime NY real estate being used by thousands of happy tourists daily, when it could be yet another symbolic penis for a corporation or two. Stuff the begrudgers: if you’ve ever travelled on a New York subway rather than pay for a cab, you have no business complaining about the cleanliness of the Penn. Having said that, we thought we saw a cockroach running around the ground floor coffee shop, although that might just have been the afterimage of Piers Morgan still burned onto our retinas.
So: four full days in New York. What to do? Well, unusually for us, shopping was high on the list of priorities this time. Our requirements were simple: I wanted a jacket, and The BBG wanted an entire wardrobe. As I mentioned last year when we were in Tokyo, her clothes retailer of choice is Talbots, specifically their petites range: but they closed all their UK shops in 2008, and since then she’s been reduced to bulk-buying whenever we visit a country they haven’t pulled out of yet. Talbots has four branches in New York alone, and she walked out of the Madison Avenue branch with a huge smile on her face and blood pouring out of the chip on her credit card.
Small women like The BBG are lucky: there aren’t really specialist stores for normalish-sized-blokes-with-a-bit-of-a-beer-gut, so we took the opportunity to look around the big department stores to see what they had to offer. Saks turned out to be a mistake: when we saw one jacket selling for $5000, we ran out of the store giggling and screaming simultaneously. Macy's, on the other hand, did us proud - they were in the middle of a sale, so there was plenty of stock going at reasonable prices. I ended up buying a whole suit: a $400 Sean John affair that had been whittled down by a bewildering series of discounts to a measly seventy-five bucks. Sean John is, of course, P Diddy’s clothing label, and on close examination the suit turned out to be made up of bits of half a dozen other people’s suits held together with shouting.
Our clothes shopping was wildly successful, then: our other shopping, less so. I obviously didn’t spot the warning signs when we were in Shanghai two years ago, and found it virtually impossible to buy local CDs. I’ve had similar experiences in other cities since, and now it’s the turn of New York to shock me into this realisation: there is no longer a market for shops that sell any material that can be easily downloaded or bought off the internet. Okay, we happened to be staying across the road from one of the few bookshops apparently still standing – the Madison Square Garden branch of Borders, although even that’s met its doom since we were there – and I picked up a few bits of light reading from Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert and the Bureau Chiefs. (I feel guilty about putting Amazon links for them below, in the circumstances.)
But trying to get CDs and DVDs? Fuggedaboutit. And given that I’ve spent the last two decades of my life picking up my travel souvenirs from music and video shops, this is all rather terrifying. Thankfully, we still have one remaining branch of Kim’s Video in the Village. It’s always been the place to go for weird records and DVDs, but it appears that in the age of the download they’ve had to shut up shop like Virgin, HMV and Tower before them, and compress their business into smaller premises. Those smaller premises are still an Aladdin’s Cave of delights, though, particularly their huge range of foreign and cult DVDs. The cultiest thing I bought at Kim’s was the DVD of an animation I reviewed here two years ago: but The BBG outculted me with a box set of the Maiku Hama Trilogy, three films about Japan’s coolest private eye (mentioned here in passing during LFF 1994).
One of the best things about a trip to New York is there is so much good food to eat there. One of the worst things about a short trip to New York is there is so much good food to eat there. On the one hand, you can't possibly get to try everything you'd want to. On the other hand, you can have a good go, and end up in an almost constant state of stuffedness.
All our breakfasts were excellent, all filling you too much to have two more meals in the day - which we nonetheless did. I would heartily recommend the following:
- Andrew's Coffee Shop, Midtown West branch. Conveniently close to our hotel and recommended to us by SeaPea. Nothing fancy, just a good diner with all the expected fare (eggs in various ways, pancakes, bits of pig…).
- 7a Café, in the East Village. A nice "villagey" vibe to this one, with an interesting breakfast menu and excellent food (items such as a California omelette with refried beans and guacamole, and a feta and spinach omelette).
- Chocolate at the Bald Man (or Max Brenner - but that's not as fun a name). A bit pricey, but with an imaginative menu and heavy use of chocolate, the smell of it pervading the restaurant. Spank eschewed the chocolate, with a breakfast burrito, but I had the "‘Max’ican" omelette (see what he did there?), which came with chocolate to dip in. Yum!
- Finally, one more traditional diner, the Skylight Diner. A decent brunch, and the diner is adorned with lovely photos of the construction of the Empire State Building, which is a few blocks away down W. 34th Street.
Lunch had to be relatively light, given the hearty breakfasts…
- Café Metro (specifically, the Avenue of the Americas branch, under the McGraw Hill building) is an excellent location for a light lunch. A wide range of salads, sandwiches, pizzas, quesadillas and more, and popular with office workers (go after the lunch rush is over, if you can). My spicy prawn quesadilla was excellent: spicy and full of juicy prawns, as the name suggests, and Spank's chicken parmigiana sandwich was also good quality.
- For a lovely café in Queens, with decent free wifi, excellent coffee and nice nibbles, I can recommend Sweetleaf Café.
- One place definitely not for light lunches is Katz's Deli: the portions are huge. I had latkes (not that much for a non-meat eater on the menu, it has to be said), Spank had bagel and lox, and Carole had a chilli dog. Obviously, it's the archetype of the Jewish deli, and full of tourists, but I'm sure many New Yorkers also want to stuff themselves for a reasonable price. The payment method - on your way in you are handed a ticket which you have to return as you leave, or else pay a fine, and your waitress will mark up just one for the party - seems to confuse even the locals.
And as we've still got loads more New York stuff to tell you about - including, obviously, what we had for dinner - you'll have to go to Part Two and read the rest of it there.