NYC: Day 2
Lessons and Exotica
Rosie, MaceVindaloo, ThePlazaQueen, SteakGrrl, Diana, Wraith6, Runt, Farklempt, Susu, Csillag
After a good night's sleep camped out in our hosts' livingroom we were ready for our first full day (yesterday wasn't full enough???) of big city adventure. One thing to note: hotels can be very expensive in NYC, and there are no motels; in fact, there is very little parking at all. What is available is often pricey, so when planning our trip, we decided we'd camp out on floors and put up with small apartment conditions and limited bathroom time. It meant the difference between watching our pennies as we roamed around versus being able to be careless when it was warranted. And today was fun souvenir day, and we were happy to have the extra funds!
Armed with umbrellas since the weather was still a little iffy, we walked a few blocks from home base for breakfast to fuel up for the day's activities. A brisk walk with our hosts showing us the neighborhood sights brought us to U.J.'s Diner, which is decorated like the 1950's diners which never were. It had a car theme without the carhops, and food that never existed in the 1950's, too. It was nostalgic without actually evoking specific memories (just the almost-memories from television shows!), but it fueled us with good diner breakfast fare and we refrained from singing songs from Grease as we left the diner!
Tummies topped up and caffinated into consciousness, but leaving the warbling to the Buskers (these are street musicians who perform for the spare change commuters cast their way they are in many subway stations and many are genuinely talented arts students ... in fact, actor and comedian Robin Williams said he made spare cash by miming on the streets when he was a student at the Julliard School, uptown), we headed down to the subway and onward to Chelsea (the neighborhood, not Bill Clinton's daughter ... anyway, his office is up in Harlem!).
No rats in the subway today (yes, the younger members of the troop were still seeking "Splinter"), but we were heading into an older area of the City. We found out that the subway lines were originally built by private companies who bid on the contracts from the city (IRT, BMT, IND ... now we know what the letters mean when we see old movies shot by subway entrances!), and thus they often did not intersect. Like toll bridges you had to pay a separate fare for each line, and there were not too many transfer points. We are heading toward Union Square, one of those old transfer points, and the subway stations got smaller with uptown and downtown stations running parallel to each other, but not always connectable even within the same stop. So in the old days, if you went into a downtown station, you had to go downtown no way to get uptown till you rode to a station that was built to allow you to do that ... or you paid another fare when you walked up the stairs, crossed the street, and got into the right station! (So why did it take so long for the transfer-allowable MetroCard to be accepted in this town??)
We were surprised at how many buildings were under scaffolding, and we found out that there is an ordinance which requires all buildings to undergo a 3 to 6 month inspection every three years. During that time, bricks, mortar, windows, etc. are all checked to make sure they don't tumble down and kill or injure anyone below. So the scaffolding is unavoidable for about 1/6th of a building's life. And now it seems that this new tradition of finding advertising space anywhere and everywhere is being applied to scaffolding. But corporate advertising is something very funny, and the best are funny AND thought-provoking. "No one ever worked so hard that milk came out of their nose" is a classic, and an excellent reminder to laugh and enjoy your life, and far be it from us not to obey!
So, why Union Square? We had a date at I.C.E. (The Institute for Culinary Education), one of the premiere culinary schools in the country. Foodies all, we had registered for a 3-hour family cooking class on pizza making, so that everyone younger and older could join in (classes normally are restricted to 18 and over; 21 and over when alcohol is involved). Pizza being a universal favorite, this class offered us an opportunity to refine our skills so that we would never more have to stoop to Domino's delivery ... Not that Domino's is all bad ... but you know ... and being a foodie means you need to know how and where this stuff comes from.
The class was much more than we expected we got to cook in a professionally equipped kitchen, and they have house elves to handle clean up and oven watching. In addition to eating our homework, we got leftovers and dough to take home! It was a new and fun experience, and even those among us who didn't think they could cook ended up having a blast. We highly recommend taking a cooking or any other class if you're traveling to a big city or to one of those cruises or resorts that offer such things.
Heavily laden (and hoping the yeast-risen dough wouldn't like the warm weather too well) and full of our own good food, we walked down Broadway toward Union Square, where we'd seen the likes of Bobby Flay harassing the produce sellers on his shows!
Union Square is built like what you'd expect from a small town square a central quadrangle covered in greenery and park-like. We've been to towns in New England and the Midwest which follow this town planning model, and it's very charming. We were surprised to see it in effect in the middle of New York City!
People sprawl out on the verdant lawns for sunning or picnicking. Many couples look like this is a fine venue for a date. There is a fenced off dog-walking area so that no one has to deal with stray turds or random dogs coming up to lick you. Lolling between species is not always pleasant. Besides, there is the attraction of raw and cooked food here, too!
The Union Square Farmer's Market is famous as the place where professionals and homekeepers come to buy produce, plants, baked goods, organic and artisinal products, etc. for their restaurants and families. It's the market shown in many FoodTV shows where the hosts and chefs hang out and talk to the people who grow this stuff. The sellers come from upstate New York, truck farms in New Jersey, even as far south as northern Maryland. Some come daily, but the busiest days are Wednesday and Saturday. You can buy native burdock (valued as gobo in Japanese markets, for upwards of many dollars per pound., but it grows wild in upstate NY as a weed! So canny farmers dig it up it's the root which is edible and sell it as "wild gobo" which makes people really want it more, of course!), cold or hot fresh-pressed cider (it tastes completely different from apple cider pressed in other parts of the country); fish pulled from the sea just hours ago; animals raised the old-fashioned ways and butchered for their premium meat; cheeses made from goats, sheep and cows, and flavored with horseradish or herbs; fruit and vegetables taken from the ground the day or night before; you get the idea! Everything is seasonal, fresh, and worth getting up early to feel, taste, and buy.
While we were sitting under the shade of many trees, a group of Hindi dancers processed by, swaying to the rhythm of drummers as they went. We have no idea the point of this, but it was nice to see; a fun surprise in the Big City. We'd heard so much that New Yorkers abandon the city to go to the Hamptons in the summer, but we were happy to see that's not true at all. Real New Yorkers hang out at places like Union Square and enjoy the city-that-feels-like-a-small-town.
We met some other Hutties in Chinatown, which was so crowded that we were on cellphones across the street from one another but we didn't see each other at all! We ended up describing which feature we were standing by and instructing people, "You stay where you are, you cross Lafayette and head toward the bank, you cross Canal ..." We finally ended up within eyeshot of each other, but we had to walk down a side street quite a way before we could get the group together. This seems to be where all the tourists all come to clot and throng!
In addition to tourists, there were peddlers and street vendors, along with licensed food pushcarts. The fruits and vegetables for sale here were barely recognizable to the "round eyes" among us those tiny bananas, were they really bananas, or some sort of herb? And that prickly fruit, was that jackfruit, and is it the same thing as the foul-smelling custardy durjan? Are those really lychees? There were also tiny shops that seemed to sell all manner of sea creatures and meats. Some were proper shops, some seemed to be kiosks or holes-in-the-wall type of places, and some seemed to simply be ice-filled crates set up on a very temporary basis. There was dried and fresh everything, even stuff you'd never think could be dried and flattened like whole pig heads. And what was with the block of brownish stuff labeled "cooked blood"? The fun part is with the Chinese, you never really know if that's what it really is, or that's just what they call it. It was a veritable outdoor museum and social academy, applied learning style!
There were also men and women selling everything from umbrellas, to underwear, to paperweights, incense, and paintings of your name. One of us had a friend who has a child, who had seen these on some television program, and the kid desperately wanted one of her own. It pays to look around there are a lot of craftsmen making name art, and some are definitely better than others. Since we wanted one for a child, we sought one who filled up the page with colorful drawings. It cost $12 for a very nice drawing of the child's name, and another $8 for a matte frame. It would protect the name painting, and we wouldn't need to cut a custom matte later for the final framed piece. We'd need to buy a big board, otherwise. A bargain at $20, and a very unique souvenir!
One of us started looking at the Chinese dresses on display at the many storefronts selling all sorts of things. Then in a short downpour, that person got themselves rather wet, and she decided the clothing she was wearing was awkward and uncomfortable and a change of wardrobe was warranted, especially after trying the wall-mounted air-dryer in the bathroom of Sweet 'n Tarte Café didn't work out as well as one thought it might. At least this little dim sum eatery was a pleasant place to stop for a break and a real fruit drink they actually cut up a watermelon or mango or whatever, and stick it in the blender. Some of us waited here while the hapless soaked one went to pick up that dress she'd been looking at earlier in the day.
We did a lot of browsing of tchotchke at both Little Italy at the Franciscan friary and at every hole-in-the-wall shop in Chinatown with knock off designer bags, toys, perfume, plants ... everything was cheap. A couple of T-shirts with attitude for a few bucks, very mod sunglasses for $4, hand-painted refrigerator magnets of fruit and vegetables for $1 ... one had to be careful not to get sucked into buying anything you didn't really need or want. It was rather hard!
With all this walking about, we were hot and tired and needed refreshment on a regular basis, so we stopped in at La Bella Ferrara, knowing they make great frozen desserts and baked goods. The bakery is on the door to the right, and there are tables and chairs and lawn umbrellas set up outside, but we recommend going inside for seats, if only for the exposed brick and dim lighting ambiance, and for the bathrooms. The bathrooms are impossibly small (your knees might hit the back of the door when you sit down), but clean, and hyper decorated in the neo-Italian American way. In fact, the "weight" of the tiles and columns in terms of aesthetis here is quite hilarious. One of us laughs every time she uses the 'loo here. (What a weirdo!)
A wedding had let out in Little Italy, and the frighteningly well-dressed, slicked-back crowd came out to an open air parking lot and tried to get their cars out to get to the reception. Little Italy becomes a walking mall on weekends, so there are lots of tourists walking. These guys frankly resembled younger "goodfellas" in their mannerism and attitude. The women with them wore dresses that were too low, too short, and too tight. In other words, a spectator's dream-come-true! We watched men yell at and gesture to each other to "get out of the ^$#*(@!! way" in a uniformly threatening manner, watched expensive huge SUVs and limos try to maneuver down the old, narrow streets without "acquiring any liabilities," as we overheard one "goon" yell into his cellphone.
We also spied the bridal couple posing for photographs with the throngs behind them on Mulberry Street. Hey, we're in someone's wedding photos!
We did a lot of wandering around and souvenir shopping until we got near Confucius Plaza. Seriously, that's what it's called, and there is a statue of the ancient philosopher outside the building complex. There are many Chinese pagoda-topped structures, including a McDonald's and and HSBC bank branch. Alas, the old pagoda-topped phone booths seem to be a thing of the past now. One of us quipped that if we were kidnapped somewhere in NYC and blindfolded, then dumped here on one of the back streets, we'd swear we were in Shanghai (shanghaied, get it?? Argh).
We stopped at TenRen, a tea purveyor. They sell tea and things to serve tea in. This is where we get our loose jasmine tea and the most fragrant, smoothest tasting Earl Grey. The tea is sold either per 100g or by the pound. The jasmine tea is so pricey that it ranges from $30 to $100 per 100g. The difference is in the quality and picking time of the flowers which scent the black tea. Those picked just before dawn are lusher and more fragrant; picked during the day have lost their smell. And those picked after dusk have not yet recovered. So guess which ones are more expensive? Obviously the one that requires you to get up early!
TenRen is so exotic and beautiful looking to many of us; whenever we are in town, we need to stop here to re-stock and enjoy the tea aromas. The people who waited on customers were all women in silk-topped uniforms. They answered all our questions about tea and offered us samples at the front of the store. The special for the day was a plum-flavored tea served iced, which was delicious. We also looked at all the beautiful metal and ceramic teapots; we especially liked the fanciful zodiac animal pots. One of us has been seeking the "mouse" pot, but she'll likely have to wait till that rolls around again in a few years. We also admired the furniture imported from China when the tea trade was bigger. It's all hand-carved, stuff you'd see in Emperor Ming's dining room (you remember Flash Gordon, don't you??), or the trade materials in the warehouses in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or the set of The Last Emperor. It's very evocative. There were also jade pieces for sale, which were beautiful but we couldn't figure out what they had to do with tea? We're such ignoramuses, but at least we're happy about it!
Tea is a great appetizer, but we were fortunately close to our dinner destination, the boastingly named Great New York Noodletown (just in case you forgot where you were, how good the food is, or what they serve). Actually, it's not a boast, the food is great flavor and texture and goes beyond noodles, though their noodles are fantastic. We waited outside for 20 minutes to be seated. That place is like a clowncar many more people go in to eat than there really is room for in that little restaurant. It's a madhouse inside with a great din and cacophony, and really a great Chinatown experience. It's apparently like this the whole time they are open from 6am to 4am. We know ... we can't figure out why they close for 2 hours either, and we couldn't get the waiters to answer us about it, either!
We waddled out with our leftovers boxed up for us and then remembered we had to get stuff at Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. They make ice cream with flavorings associated with Chinese cuisine, including fortune cookie, even though fortune cookies are not actually Chinese. We stood outside the tiny shop, directly beneath the flag with the dragon eating a cup of ice cream, just like us. We certainly felt as bloated as dragons from the great meal we had from around the corner, but the ice cream was incredibly creamy without getting the heaviness that some premium ice creams suffer from. We had fun watching the parade of people scurry down this tiny sidestreet. Imagine, a little piece of Canton in New York City!
And as we scurried down the many crooked streets toward Canal Street, a storefront mysteriously loomed ahead ... and we recognized the form ... of an X-Wing fighter! GASP! There may not be rats in the subways, but there are Star Wars nerds in the big city!!
We had to tear ourselves away as darkness finally fell on this warm summer day, and we decided to get onto the subway and get home. Our tootsies were sore, we were too full, and tomorrow is more than just another day!
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