NYC: Day 4
Just Another Manic Monday
Rosie, MaceVindaloo, ThePlazaQueen, SteakGrrl, Diana, Wraith6, Runt, Farklempt, Susu, Csillag
"Monday, Monday, so good to me
Monday mornin', it was all I hoped it would be ..."
How did the Mamas and the Papas know 30 some years ago how much fun we would have on this Monday of our big city adventure?
The rest of the city was back to work, but we were ready to play and explore some more. Our subway run into town took us directly to Rockefeller Center, one of the icons of the city. Recognized around the world, this landmark even makes an appearance in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular shows that appear in several venues around the country during the holiday season. If you've seen the show, you know the scene: the Yellow Cab pulls up to the center of the stage set up with a representation of Rockefeller Center and the Rockettes (all of 'em!) emerge from the cab bringing Jolly Old St. Nick with them.
In the summertime, there are café tables and chairs shaded with umbrellas set up over the whole plaza, which is how we saw it, but in winter the plaza is a huge outdoor skating rink where celebrities, locals, and visitors alike can show off their form then warm up with hot chocolate and roasted chestnuts. In every season, Prometheus, the "real" champion of men (he brought fire to the shivering cold humans of yore, and thus was punished by his godly brethren ... fated to be chained to a rock and have his liver eaten away by raptors anew daily) watches over all, exactly as he was sculpted and gilded by Paul Manship in 1934.
The Friday after Thanksgiving, New York City's Christmas tree is erected above Prometheus you might have seen it in the nationally televised annual tree-lighting ceremony. After a committee expressly charged to do so has conducted a nation-wide search for the perfect tree, the chairman of the committee conducts the negotiations, which culminate with the chosen specimen being donated to the city. The massive evergreen is then cut down, extracted from the forest that nurtured its growth (though in one case, the tree of the year was taken from someone's backyard imagine having such a thing looming over your house??), transported to its new home, set in place and decorated to become the centerpiece and crowning glory of Rockefeller Center's glittering holiday display.
We strolled around this Art Deco "city within a city," drinking in the vibrant colors and designs and admiring the Deco and Nouveau murals. The land was leased by John D. Rockefeller, who envisioned a commercial and cultural center, complete with theaters and opera center. The Great Depression forced him to modify that vision, but he refused to scrap his ideas. Like Prometheus, the great human benefactor continued to employ the builders throughout that awful time in world history. Today, it houses businesses, government and international institutions, and is the headquarters for NBC Television. All those shots in the old David Letterman show (and the current Conan O'Brian show) are ... here!
On the Fifth Avenue boundary of the center, there is a statue of Atlas the Titan fated to hold the world on his shoulder by Lee Lowrie and Rene Chambellan, and it has a touch of infamy in its early history. Apparently when the statue was unveiled in 1937, some thought the face of this Greek mythological hero resembled the Italian dictator Mussolini. That didn't sit well with many in the tense years leading up to World War II so they picketed poor Atlas. As if the poor fellow's looks were his fault maybe he was too "Roman"? AND he had to contend with the weight of the world on his shoulders ...
Rockefeller Center is the home of many shops and restaurants, the most "swelegant" being the Rainbow Room, at the top of the first and tallest building to be erected. It has a gorgeous 360 degree view of the city and gets its name from the variable colored lights that surround the dance floor. We hear the food is no great shakes, but you go there to be seen and to impress your date into a state when they can barely think, much less taste anything! Like many things, it's the "theater moment" that counts.
Rockefeller Center was on our younger members' "places we MUST see" list because it is the home of the Pokémon Center and some of us are Pikachu's most ardent fans. GameBoys in hand, a store employee was solicited to help download a new character for revitalized play for each of them. Talk about a Pika Highlight! There are games to play here, the funkiest toys and stuff like Pikachu Chocolate. Pika Pika!
Across Fifth Avenue on 50th Street is the magnificent St. Patrick's Cathedral. St. Patrick's Cathedral is arguably at the heart of the Catholic Church in the United States in spirit, as well as the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York. The church itself might be more dominant elsewhere, but it's so well-known that it's a major attraction, both in terms of religious pilgrimages, as well as in terms of tourism. Architecturally, this Gothic edifice argues convincingly that American artisans and craftsmen can hold their own when compared to the European masters who had designed and built the Gothic cathedrals at Rheims, Cologne, York, and Westminster. James Renwick, the architect who designed St. Patrick's in 1859, had also designed a number of other churches in New York including Grace Church, as well as the main hall at Vassar College, the former façade of the New York Stock Exchange, and the New York Public Library, and you'll recognize his touch in the Smithsonian Institution's many-turreted "castle" down in Washington D.C.
Walking up the street toward the Cathedral, it was difficult to take in the full grandeur of this beautiful house of worship. It occupies a full city block you'll recognize it from movies and shows and being surrounded by all manner of modern office buildings only seems to add to its awesome presence. It drew us in and in spite of the many many visitors strolling around, voices were hushed and the place is obviously "holy," regardless of your religious stances. Candles were lit for personal intentions and quiet reflection seemed to be invited even as we, took wandered around admiring the sensitively created sculptures, side altars, and shrines as well as the beautiful stained glass windows and other artwork. Some of the works actually won awards at various world expositions! Normally modern works are the stuff of those types of forums, but these were completely in keeping with the very traditional church works.
It must be something about churches, but if you've read the Day 3 Travel Journal entry, you'll note that we tend to want a meal in and around houses of worship ... but we'd planned on meeting other working Hutties for lunch later, so we didn't want to overstuff ourselves. The food pushcarts off of Sixth Avenue proved to be perfect not only because they were inexpensive, but it turned out you can get just about anything you'd want to eat, in portions you can handle. So you want a hotdog for breakfast? How about a pretzel or a BBQ sandwich? No problem! The public open space had benches and places to sit, very convenient for NYC al fresco dining! It was so satisfying that we might need to schedule a whole day of pushcart fare on a future trip.
Another walk back down through Rockefeller Center brought us to yet another landmark. Radio City Music Hall is still another Art Deco masterpiece and treasured icon. Our resident young dancer dreams of being a Rockette so naturally we had to make Radio City a must see for her. More than even seeing a show in this historic theater, we all loved the idea of seeing the backstage workings and lo and behold backstage tours are offered several times a day. Each tour group was limited to about 30 people to make negotiating the cramped stairways easier. Like our friend Dave from the Circle Line tour back on Day 1 of our trip, our Radio City tour guide was very friendly and commanded a very thorough knowledge about the history and trivia surrounding this historic theater.
We attribute the tour guides' thorough knowledge of the features and their insider tales to them being transplants to the city. The Radio City guide seemed to hail from the south originally, and though we know they are taught all those facts they recite so glibly, she seemed genuine fascinated in her place of work. She was never perplexed about anything the curious tourists wanted to ask.
Although a well-kept landmark and an icon today, Radio City Music Hall had slowly deteriorated as newer attractions in the city lured away its audiences. It could not even hold its own as a movie theater. The value of real estate in the city being what it was, Radio City was slated to be demolished to make room for a more commercially viable structure. Thanks to the intervention of Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Radio City was granted landmark status in the mid-1970s, and a major overhaul and clean-up was undertaken at that time. The most recent renovation cost $70 million and was undertaken by the theater's owner, Cablevision. It was completed in 1999, unfortunately too late for Jackie to see and enjoy the fruit of her initial labors.
Part of the tour normally includes a behind-the-stage part, which would have been a big thrill to us Hutties who had always been props, sets, and production types, rather than performers. Alas, something was being filmed on the stage, so we settled for sitting in the elegant mezzanine level to look at the stage from above. This is arguably a better view in most theaters, rather than the orchestra area.
We did see a dramatic treat, on the audience side exiting the mezzanine brings you down a wall-hugging curved staircase backed with a dramatic deco mural of people and animals climbing "the Golden Staircase" up to heaven (makes you want to join them, eh??). At the foci of the elliptical curve of the wall and staircase are 26-foot long chandeliers made of long, thin prisms and panes, which encase a long sleeve of other prisms and glass panes, which envelop the full-length lighting source. Unlike traditional chandeliers which appear to drip gemstones and chains of beads, this one is sleek, modern, and dramatic in its own right, and looks somewhat like a well-shaped flapper-girl-cum-roaring-20s-fairy. The prisms look like fringe, and compared to what you might be used to, they look almost alive in the big, tall room. And it's thoroughly engineered the guide pointed out that the large light fixtures could be mechanically lowered for cleaning. That's just too intelligent to believe!
If you've ever read the illustrated editions of Land of Oz, there are beautiful art nouveau illustrations. Though Rockefeller Center is solidly art deco in style, there are many elements of "nouveau" in such things as the lighting fixtures on the walls; it's really more a transitional style, which makes this place somewhat unique. It felt like a combination of New York and Gunga City and Theed ...
The stage is colored from orange to duller shades toward red for the specific depiction of a sunset. The arched curtains also contribute to the effect. Sunsets were a favorite motif of Rockefeller's, as well as a very popular Art Deco decorative element. He just took it to it's extreme and ridiculous but gorgeous conclusion. The stage can be moved in four separate segments to create different levels, angled tilts, and other cool effects. When the three main parts of the stage are locked together, a central piece can rotate for a variety of performance enhancign showstoppers. The fourth piece is the bandpit, and was also controlled by state-of-the-art hydraulics. The U.S. Navy came to study these hydraulics to incorporate into the hangar elevators on WWII-era aircraft carriers. As a result, extry or inspection of these mechanisms and the backstage area in general was strictly forbidden and controlled to prevent enemy researchers from discovering what the Music Hall patrons had always taken for granted.
To either side of the sunset-colored stage, there are two pipe organs, built by Würlitzer, later to become known for creating the quintessential 1950s style jukebox. You'll recognize the colorful lights above the keyboard console they are nearly identical in form to the jukeboxes. The pipes for the organs were actually physically hidden behind the curved sections of the "sunset," but the acoustic benefits were manifested by the shape of the hall itself. Therefore, there was no loss of sound quality behind the wall. This would be a way cool church service in here, eh??
When you go on tours of public buildings, you don't really expect to have your guide *tell* you to go to the bathroom. Ours did, but not for the reasons you'd think. When Radio City Music Hall was designed and built, *every* detail was thought out. The ladies lounges both in the lower lobby and on the mezzanine level were beautifully appointed with many of the decorative elements that define Deco. The walls in the mezzanine lounge were painted with a large floral mural reminiscent of Georgia O'Keefe's later work; and therein lies another interesting historical tidbit. Ms. O'Keefe was actually approached to paint the mural in this lounge and agreed to do it, but poor health due to her advanced age caused her to back out. Undeterred, they found another artist who could paint in a similar style one of her students perhaps? The men's rooms were less luxuriously appointed or decorated, but they are still classic Art Deco rigid, tall, straight ... very masculine, come to think of it!
Included in the Radio City tour was a walk-through of the Samuel "Roxy" Rothafel apartment. It was built for him as a "thank you" gift from John Rockefeller, for suggesting he take on a troupe of female dancers from Missouri. They would be the cornerstone of the glittery variety show at Radio City, and Roxy called them "the Roxyettes." But rather than a chorus line, or "marching drill girls," this group of woman were "precision drill dancers." This type of dancer seems to have evolved from the infamous can-can dancers of Monmartre; choreographer and promoter Russell Markert in 1922 had seen a performance by a group of women in this style at the Ziegfield Follies. He loved them, but required his dancers be taller, tap-dance better, and kick higher, and as they say, the women "knocked their socks off!" This type of dancer became the symbol of American entertainment, and movie directors like Buzby Berkby made this idea popular in his many movies; these types of dancers were featured in the opening of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
In fact, the Rockettes, as they are now called, have performed as a troupe on Broadway shows and events. The very strict guidelines for height, strength, skills, and precision were maintained by Markert till he retired in the early 1970s, and happily, they still are. There are now more Rockettes; some perform in New York, others travel on the various Radio City road shows, the most notable being the aforementioned Christmas show. It's worth seeing these women strut their stuff!
A Rockette is there to meet and greet the tour participants. She answers questions, poses for photos ... we noticed she stood in the same pose for the whole time, and didn't show any sign of discomfort. Several of the tourists asked for a sample of the kicks, and she happily complied. But first, she took some warmup jumps to build momentum, then did a series of alternating eye-high kicks. She must be one of the shorter ones? The crowd applauded and she bowed deeply without losing her hat or mussing her costume. She also did some kicks on request not hip-high, but eye-high it's important to be able to stop your leg at the precise height everyone else's lets will stop. This means for the taller dancers, they kick less high than the shorter ones, to preserve the illusion of uniformity. The women are even arranged with the tallest in the center of the kickline, so the natural perspective will fool the human eye into thinking everyone is the same height. So now you know it's not the bet dancers in the center, but the tallest!
One of the Hutties noted that the warmup was essential, ("Do not attempt without proper dance training!" she warns) or else you'll do like another Huttie did and fall on your butt when trying out the high kick the non-kicking legs needs to stay ON the ground! After the laughter died down, we dared her to do it again ... but Hutties are good learners thus no luck at this venue, so falling on her butt had to wait till later ... (yes, this is foreshadowing!)
The apartment which was awarded to Roxy featured the latest amenities of the day, and combined older art within a framework of art deco splendor. Coffered and recessed ceiling lights, imbedded and inlaid art (representing wine, women, song!), custom-made furniture, specially woven wall-to-wall carpeting it must be nice to be on Rockefeller's Christmas gift list! The whole apartment, like the interior of Radio City Music Hall, was covered in a warm red must've been the color du jour then.
Roxy would have used this place as his "city abode" and for entertaining. He was a big party-thrower, and enjoyed the spectacular duplex's location for that, and many a celebrity and starlet used the private elevator which whisked them directly to the ground level without having to mingle with mortals in the main part of the building. We only saw the living room, and the dining room, but there is also suites of bedrooms upstairs.
The dining room was domed for optimal acoustics while seated, so that can whisper and still be heard. A full kitchen backed onto it, designed to accommodate cooks and servants. The balcony overlooking what existed of Manhattan to the south is today shuttered, but it would have been fairly private when it was built. New York was still moving uptown at that point; this location was a bit in the "wilds" then!
Today the apartment remains empty except as a party or movie-opening space and a tourist attraction for those who take this tour. This guided tour does come at a price $17 for adults, $10 for children. We advise reserving in advance if you have a particular time of day you want to go they do fill up quickly, and we had to wait for the next tour when we purchased our tickets.
We headed back to Grand Central Station an easy bus ride. All Fifth Avenue buses stop in front of the New York Public Library, between the two grand old lions which flank the steps. Their names are Patience and Fortitude, and their serene, majestic stare was originally mistaken for laziness or "the mumbly look of an old lion, long past its prime"! We hope the critic was eaten by the lions for that ... anyway, legend has it that at Christmas, the lions would roar if a virgin passed between them. Many a visitor was startled to hear a lion's roar! A prankster once secreted a tape recorder by the steps, so the lions would appear to roar randomly. Thankfully, it's high summer, so no testing!
We walked to Grand Central Station again, which seems to be our "homebase" for meeting people inbetween tourism excursions. While waiting for the rest of our party to join us, we again admired the grand indoor spaces of Grand Central Station even imagining that the Grand Hall could have substituted for the grand reception hall on Yavin where radiant Princess Leia presented medals to the Rebel heroes. The soldiers would have been far more comfortable here than in the bowels of a Massasi temple!
Our friends arrived and we proceeded on to another world class eatery, the famous Grand Central Oyster Bar. We had been looking forward to this lunch since our arrival in town and we were not disappointed with the fare there is no doubt as to why this place has an international reputation. The place was filled with foreigners, even at lunchtime, who looked to be consulting their guidebooks about what to order. Located here since the station's opening, they suffered a devastating fire in the late 1990s, but seem to be back with all its former spit and polish. Really, it looks like it has been here forever, located almost right in the tracks. It's noisy cacophonic really, especially when the subways pass by and you get to feel the rumble more than hear it over the restaurant din and the service is prompt, the harried waitress was nice, and it's a great place to have fish or seafood of ANY stripe.
After lunch, we strolled through the Grand Central Market, which is actually a series of specialty shops in miniature, or kiosk / market form, where commuters can stop to pick up last-minute necessities for dinner or even dinner itself so they don't need a special trip at a shop at home, which might already be closed anyway. It's not all food though, and other shops carried items that would be suitable to pick up as a gift or even some unusual cooking apparatus. One of us found some perfectly shaped sea scallop shells, intended for cooking or perhaps for crafts. Hopefully the rest of us will have the chance to taste whatever culinary delight requires being baked in a giant scallop shell ... Even the floors in this space add artistic depth to the already enchanting emporium, with stone and metal forms of the fish and other creatures inlaid into the floor.
Going our separate ways for the afternoon, the tourist contingent hopped onto a bus that dropped us right in front of the Circle Line ticket booth where we had been just a few days ago for that three-hour tour. Just a hop, skip, and a jump north to Pier 43 and we were at the permanent home of not only the decommissioned Essex-class aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Intrepid, but also the final resting place of the British Airways / Air France Concorde, the first, and so far only, passenger aircraft to break the sound barrier ... but more on that in a moment. Our CityPasses included the Intrepid as one of the attractions, but not the Concorde, which required a separate ticket and admission charge to see the supersonic aeroplane. Unfortunately for us, there was also a limit to the number of people they could let onboard to see it; only 1500 per day got "boarding passes," and all of those tickets had already been sold for this day. Ah well, it was a fairly new attraction having just recently opened, so its popularity was understandable. Perhaps we would have a chance to see it another time.
Still, the Intrepid offered plenty of interesting things to see and do so we see'd and do'd the old boat was now a air and sea museum. Just on the opposite side of Pier 43 in front of the barge holding the Concorde was the U.S.S. Growler, the only intact strategic nuclear missile submarine open to the public. We made a strategic choice not to explore the Growler because we were anxious to see all those aircraft on display on the flight deck. Before we did that though, we saw a short film about the history of the Intrepid from its launch in 1943 to its present incarnation as one of four aircraft carriers that have been converted into museums. The Fighting I, as the Intrepid was known, sustained more damage than any other ship of her class including unfortunately successful Japanese kamikaze attacks but came back to fight again and again.
Up on the flight deck we saw several different types of aircraft from several different branches of the armed services and even a couple of foreign visitors. In front of each was a plaque which gave the specifications for the particular craft as well as some of its accomplishments. Among the aircraft on display were an F14 Tomcat, an F16 Fighting Falcon, a British Harrier Jump Jet (just like the one in the opening sequence of The Living Daylights for you James Bond fans out there ... it's the only vehicle that ever really successfully accomplishes a vertical take-off and landing), the SR71 Blackbird spy plane used by the CIA from 1963(!!!!!) into the early 1970's, a Polish MiG21, and even a couple of Hueys (Vietnam War-era Hughs Bell UH-1D "Huey" helicopters used by just about every division of the U.S. Military, including the Marines and the Army Cavalry for troops movements, gunships, hospital evacs, cargo, etc.; it was so useful and versatile that it was produced up to the year 2000 by Bell Helicoptor of Canada, and they are still used in branches of the military today. They are more famously nicknamed the Iroquois Helicoptors these are the ones you see in all the war movies!). We found ourselves running from one to the next to look at them up close and marvel at their exploits and their sheer presence. Funny, but these things look way too heavy to be flying the way we see them on newsreels!
There was much more we could have seen below decks, but we had spotted a film crew setting up cameras on the pier below and wondered what it could be about. Could we get ourselves on TV?? It turned out that they were filming part of a documentary for the History Channel and would be interested in talking to people who happened to be around, but they weren't going to be ready to film till after we had to meet our friends again across town. This was not to be our chance to be "discovered" after all!
Down at the end of the pier, there was a structure about the size of a semi truck container with some steps leading up to it. It was sponsored by the History Channel and has some additional exibits including photographs, models, and enlargments of period news articles about the history of flight across the Atlantic Ocean. Even though it was pretty close to closing time for the museum and exhibits, we decided to go on in and look around. A couple of minutes later one of the docents from the Concorde came into the trailer to announce "last call" to see the Concorde. We told her that we had not been able to get tickets because they had sold out, but she told us that no one was waiting, so go ahead and have a look!
Not waiting to be told twice, we ran up the steps to see this amazing piece of aeronautical engineering. What was so amazing about it was how tiny it was. The tallest person in our group had to stoop because he could not stand upright in the aisle between the seats. The seats, two on each side of the aisle, were upholstered in rich dark leather, but if the width of the aisle was 2 feet, that was being generous. The cockpit and the galley right behind it were also miniscule. There's no way they would have had room to store the makings for a full meal service. It's hard to imagine how they would have space for the top shelf bar offerings the passengers on a flight like this would demand. Less than 100 passengers could fly on the Concorde per trip. At $6000 per seat it was only a matter of time before everyone came to the realization that the Concorde could not continue to outfly economic reality. The Concorde made it's last 3 hour transatlantic crossing in 2003. After removing its supersonic engines (you can see striaght through the housings!), the Concorde was placed onto the barge and towed to Pier 43 to become part of the Intrepid Mueseum where even us lowly mortals can see how the other half *really* jetsetted across the pond. How? Cramped, hungry, thirsty, and stooped over!
Truth be told, the Concorde fleet (numbering 20 total from 1966 to 1979, of which the first four were prototypes) never made money, but it was a superstar of promotion and marketing. Movies used it (Sabrina's Harrison Ford salvaged his relationship with Julia Ormond by flying one and beating her to Paris,) rock stars use it (everyone remember those odd 1980s charities when they'd play in London, then hop on the Concorde to get to play in New York the same day?), etc. It circumnavigated the globe annually, touching down and taking off at various airports around the world; some of us remember family trips to Auckland, New Zealand from parts yonder to see the supersonic plane and watch its take-off from afar it was the equivalent of going to Cape Canaveral to watch the moon rockets launch! One of us who worked by JFK Airport remembers car alarms going off as the sonic rumble of the engines merely on takeoff shook the whole area and even broke windows on occasion.
In its lifetime until its final flight on Friday, October 24, 2003, the beautiful plane flew with the British RAF Red Arrows (the UK's military jetfighter stunt team), and it broke the speed record from JFK in New York City to Heathrow Airport in London it crossed that distance in 2 hours, 52 minutes, 59 seconds in 1996. She looks like a bird of prey, a fantasy rocket, and a paper airplane, and combined all those dreams and images for a span of four decades, and even now, she's the stuff of memories and legend. She may be a civilian plane, but it's fitting that she is now on permanent exhibit in a military air vehicle museum in New York, one of the towns the Concorde called home.
(But as beautiful as she is and as special as she feels and as wonderful as it was to see this ship, its woefully sad that the Concorde is now de-sexed, gutted, and tethered in death to a barge, like a glorious, taxidermied bird. The gutted rockets of Cape Caneveral have the same aura ... and one of us tried not to weep as he intoned, "She should have been shot into the sun instead ...")
The Intrepid closes at 5pm, and we barely managed to squeeze in our "bonus tour" (remember to be nice to the docents!), and took the crosstown bus on 42nd Street to Fifth Avenue. Our destination was on Madison Avenue, but we got off one block sooner to visit Yagura Grocery Store located between the two avenues to pick up some Japanese candies we happen to like, shaped like bright, colorful cubes. The place is small, but choc-full of neatly arranged rows of many, many things with labels we couldn't read and funny cartoons on them. There were a bunch of people waiting up front for ... something ... since everything was written in Japanese, we didn't realize at the time that it's a takeout eatery as well as a grocery store. What an unexpected thing to find in midtown Manhattan!
We'd decided to meet some Hutties after work for dinner, and midtown was central for all, especially since we intended to go to the Empire State Building afterward. We entered an art deco building which, unlike many of the other buildings had scaffolding on the inside it was undergoing renovation. Being a landmark building dating from the World War I-era, the floors and stone walls were covered in boards to keep them from cracking or marring, since replacing them was likely impossible or at least painfully expensive. This particular building's lobby was designed as a "portfolio" by the architect toward winning the contract to later design the lobby of the Chrysler Building, down the street. For its Art Deco splendor, it is often used for small scenes in television shows to substitute for more famous ones such as in Wild About You: Helen Hunt and Paul Michael Reiser met at the "Empire State Building" but it was actually in front of these particular elevators. Odd to think of a building as a "stunt double"! (And speaking of stunt doubles, one of our group could have used one when she tried switching from sunglasses to regular glasses as she walked and slipped and stumbled and fell right on her butt down a short staircase, to everyone's amusement around her! We kept telling her, "When you do a Rockette-style high kick, one leg must be on the ground!")
We took the elevators up to a floor high enough to get above the madding crowd of buildings. Note that in older buildings, the lobbies may be gorgeous, but the floors on the office levels are utilitarian at best. Newer buildings are more mindful of interior decor. Considering that the spaces are rented per square foot (!), this was an unexpected surprise.
This particular office had a wrap-around balcony which is actually visible from the Empire State Building. The view is breathtakingly different from this height many older buildings did not decorate the outside of the building up past the fourth floor, which is understandable. But the architects saved the most ornate "bling" for the very tops of the buildings themselves! One plain looking building has Babylonian and Abyssian winged lions and gryffins enameled onto the roofline. Another had gargoyles, eagles, angels sitting on the sides and tops of their staggered rooves. Many of the angels had lost their heads and a lot of mortar replaced or strapped and bound securely. Now we understand that law about inspecting brickwork every three years so it doesn't come loose and tumble down to the street at terminal velocity!
The most dramatic views: the Empire State Building, so close you can see the tourists on the 86th floor observatory trying vainly to take flash photos of the city ... did they really think the flashbulbs would reach the city and light it up sufficiently for the film to capture the image? The other dramatic view an empty space, as we looked downtown. That was where the World Trade Center used to be, and the people who worked here watched the two towers collapse on that awful day on September 11, 2001. The smoldering smoke rose for nearly a year from that end of town after.
Believe it or not, Peregrin falcons are native to this part of the world, and many conservation efforts worked so well that a nest of them was found in a building's turrets across the street! The people who work here used to hear screaming, and would find pidgeon legs and claws on their balcony from time to time. One day, they watched a female falcon eating lunch on the edge of the balcony! They discovered that falcons eat their "lunch" head first ... thus the "leftover" legs ... the falcon nest has since been moved up the Hudson Valley (you saw Sleepy Hollow, right? That part of the state ...) to a wilder part of the state, and the turrets across the street rebuilt to not be so attractive aeries to raptors!
With that, we decided to head off to dinner! For that, we went back into Grand Central. Again we rubbernecked and admired more features and details of the Grand Hall as we passed through. Our destination was literally outside of the station, but to get there, one needed to go up on some escalators. We were able to experience those beautiful egg-shaped metal and lightbulb chandeliers approaching our heads as we ascended.
Emerging from the station we proceeded through the lobby of the MetLife Building to our dinner destination. Many large office buildings actually have "malls" of shops on their ground floor, and en route, we noticed that the shops are cleverly located in the public spaces where people need to pass to get to the train station from the street. These range from sundries to stationery to clothing boutiques to gourmet shops and bakeries, not to mention restaurants of many different grades. Cucina & Co. is one of these restaurants that does a booming business at lunch time when the denizens of these towers of commerce break for sustenance. It's very reasonable, the food is good, service is fast, and they have a killer fruit ice tea!
Late in the day, the pace is much slower as workers head for home, but Cucina is still open to entice those who must work late, but need to refresh themselves or those who want to have an inexpensive but nutritive and satisfying bite to eat before going on to whatever other entertainments they have planned for the evening. We decided we were in the latter group since we had not finished our sightseeing agenda for the day. This Tuscan-themed eatery successfully drew us in with their "Dinner-for-Two" specials. These allowed our group to indulge in delicious meals and to eat "family style," since we were not shy about sharing among ourselves, and for a very reasonable price $24.95 for two, including salad, fries, meat or fish entrée (even lobster!) and a slice of fruit tarte for dessert! As Rachael Ray constantly tells her viewers on her show $40 a Day, look for early bird specials to make your funds go farther, or go to lunch at a fancy place for the same meal at a better price. In the case of Cucina & Co., the reverse was true do your homework, as Rachael advises, and you'll fing other places like Cucina, which hit the mark perfectly.
With dinner behind us it was time to make our way to 350 Fifth Avenue, better known to the rest of the universe as the Empire State Building. Construction started on this future icon in March of 1930 during the (pardon the pun) height of the Depression; this massive project provided employment and inspiration as it soared skyward. Completed in May 1931 in just over 15 months, unbelievable! and because the world's economy was still stagnant, the Empire State Building opened with only 2 percent occupancy. Before long, however, it staked its place in the imagination of the entire country appearing in such films as the original King Kong, as the ill-fated meeting place for Carey Grant and Deborah Carr in An Affair to Remember, and more recently as the romantic rendezvouz location for Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan in Sleepless in Seattle. Many buildings are mistaken for it, and it's the quitessential building we think of when we hear the term "skyscraper."
There are many myths and legends associated with this building: how dead workers are entombed in the walls (not true dead bodies are poor structural features), that if you drop a penny off the observation deck, it will create a deep hole in the sidewalk (not true, it won't even crack it but it'll hurt anyone it hits, though probably not kill them), people jumping off the observation deck will die before they hit the ground. Actually, the last one is true, but not for reasons you think the Empire State Building is build staggered, with subsequent blocks of floors set back from the base this was the traditional architectural style of the times, due to structural concerns about the total weight of the building if it was simply a monolith. Thus the observation deck is set quite a bit away and inwards from the sidewalk. Besides, if you jump, you have to get past the reverse-curve fence (the tines curve toward you, making it harder to climb over and slip off), the safety netting (also reverse curved, to scoop you), and then you'll just fall on one of the staggered terraces on the way down and die before you ever hit the ground. Plus if you kill yourself in that manner, the natives will be REALLY pissed off at you for tying up resources and traffic. And they really hate having to locate your next of kin, etc. What's more, you might not even get a mention in the paper anyway. And people will make bad jokes about you, like this one:
The Art Deco motif was evident in the lobby of the Empire State Building both in the oversized inlaid steel mural depicting the building and in the decorative elements used for elevator doors and other openings, and on the floors themselves. We didn't linger to enjoy it though because we had to make our way down two levels to where the lines to get up to the 86th floor observation deck formed. Arriving at the tail end of the line we learned just how popular the vista becomes at sunset we would have had a 45 minute from that point if we did not have our CityPasses. The Passes, which also entitled us to another attraction right there in the lower level of the building, let us bypass the ticket line another good point about getting this pass in advance!
This bonus attraction was something called the New York Skyride. This consisted of a "line ride" meaning you walk through the display as part of the entertainment. And that was followed by a large Disney-style ride featuring a flight simulator (the floor beneath the seats tip and roll) with a large screen at the front. The image showing as we stepped in to take our seats was a control room with an aging, portly Jimmy Doohan channeling his Star Trek character, Scotty, manning the controls. The voice of our narrator / pilot was Kevin Bacon and he really got into pretend roller coaster-like flight all over the city and even out into space and back to the point of making one of us more than a little queasy. Good thing they had strapped us in for the 'ride.'
Back on terra firma, we left the simulator and made our way to the real line or should we say lines for the observation deck. There were two separate lines waiting to go through two separate metal detectors, but we had to find that out the hard way. New York City public or private sectors is not exactly known for having restrooms conveniently located so when members of our group needed these facilities they had to go down three more levels to find them (going through metal detectors to get to the restroom area, believe it or not). And when they came back they went to the other line in error, and wondered where the heck we had disappeared to. Fortunately, they had a cell phone and another of our group went and retrieved them. Hint: If your party must separate for some reason, make sure each person has their own ticket or pass with them. Otherwise, you'll come to blows ...
Back together again, we had to pass through the metal detectors that create the bottlenecks and lines. Most people think that these security measures were put in place as a result of the 9/11 tragedy and though they certainly would have been implemented then, they actually predate that attack. Ever since a mentally unstable person smuggled a gun up to the observation level, the machinery has been in place to protect the innocent. A pain, and a vivid illustration about how "one bad apple can destroy the whole bushel," even in the Big Apple!
Past that gauntlet, we were nearly there or so we thought. Teams of scary (for various reasons) security guards operated the remote controls for a bank of six elevators that would whisk us to the 80th floor where we would wait in another line for the elevator that would take us the remaining few floors to the Observation Deck, though they tried to bully us to walk up the steps. Several of us had before, but as the stairs of poorly ventilated, cramped metal fire stairs, we decided waiting was worthwhile!
The interior walls in this space were decorated with panoramic photographs of the views from the top of the building, but those parts of the snaking line that passed the windows enticed us to anticipate the views upstairs yet to come. Meanwhile, we were all but deafened with megaphone-loud P.A. announcement promoting the audio tour headsets which could be rented for a nominal charge. Our CityPasses proved their worth once more when we got our audio tour headset free! Also in this space we (and everyone else in line) had our pictures taken by building tourist services staff. The photos would be available for purchase when you come back down to this level and they make a fun memento especially if you all have the wherewithall to look exhausted or loopy for the camera!
So remember that even skipping the Skyride, you cannot just pop up here for a quick peek. If you're smart, you'll allow one to two full hours for the whole process: there is a line to buy the ticket (unless you have the CityPass), a line to get through the metal detector, a line to get into the elevator, another to get into another elevator, then remember that the observation deck is PACKED with visitors at twilight and beyond to see the city in all its lighted splendor. Another piece of advice when you see the lobby packed with tourists, it's not a line. Walk around them most have no clue what they are doing, and the lobby staff aren't all that motivated to help them, if you know what we mean. Hey, it's New York!
At last we squeezed into the elevators and finally got up to the Observation Deck, which deposited us right into the gift shop. Shopping could wait! We were here for the view! And what a view it was! Having spent all that time in line to get up here, it was well past sunset and the city was glitteringly lit up. It was a hazy evening, so some of the more distant landmarks like the Statue of Liberty were mere fuzzy glows. Closer buildings like the Chrysler, which had not only raced skyward in record time, but hid it's crowning spire till the very last moment. In 1930, the workmen pushed the spire higher and higher, level by level as an awed New York wondered how much taller this building would be? The spire is 123 feet tall, but ultimately, the Chrysler Building only managed to hold its position as tallest building for only a few months, but it's considered one of the most beautiful and quintessentially New York of them all. It was said when the sparkly spire was first viewed that Chrysler had ordered crushed diamonds be stirred into the paint. The reality is much more logical the car manufacturer simply had the spire chromed!
There is an interesting fact about the spire of the building it was thought that it could be a zeppelin mooring! People would walk from a gangplank extended from the hydrogen-filled balloon ships onto the 106th floor, a station in the sky. It would have been a beautiful way to arrive in New York, don't you think? But of course, after the Hindenburg disaster, lighter-that-air ships filled with volatile, flammable gas fell out of favor. Another thing, predating 9/11: the spire was hit by a military plane in the 1930s; the pilot was flying an open-cockpit bi-winged plane and it was a very foggy day. Back then, the fog was compounded by coal smoke; coal was the major source of heat in most homes and buildings. After that, tall buildings and structures (like antennaes) were required to have red lights at their tips so that they would not be visually invisible. And the need for air traffic control was demonstrated. Today, air traffic is strictly controlled and forbidden to fly over Manhattan, except for some proscribed routes for tourist helicopter ridesm and the spire is a communications and broadcasting tower.
We circumnavigated the entire Observation Deck, slowly trying to spot the places we had already visited and listened to personal stories about this and that, as our hosts proudly show off their home town. We knew before we came that New York City was an awesome place; many ethnic groups and cultures living side by side more or less in harmony; museums and restaurants and theaters here to enjoy, big buildings and so many things to see and do. But we didn't realize that this really is Gotham City, or how much history is embedded here and that history is not just confined to the city itself. We jostled elbows and shoulders with tourists from nearly everywhere on this globe; they all had a feeling of connection to here, it seemed, even if it was because their relatives emigrated here, or empathy with the tragedy of 9/11. They all considered the Empire State Building as a must-see, and none of them were griping about the long lines, the cramped elevators, or anything. They gazed out over the city, pointing to things they recognized; some tried to point toward "home," their personal Meccas.
Introducing our young Hutties and those who'd never been to this incredible place, and immersing ourselves into the life of the city which really doesn't sleep, as evidenced by all the lights left on! was an experience we would not trade for anything, and there it was spread out at our feet. What more could we ask for? Hmn, maybe some souvenirs ...
Alas, the the souvenir shop at the top of the Empire State Building was not so well stocked, register was not well stocked there was but one cashier for the whole shop and honestly, you can get these things on ground level in the various tchotke and souvenir stores anyway if you really want them. Our mamas always told us, best to keep the admiration and the wallet away from each other meaning, after a night of reflection, that snowglobe and pen and pencil set may just be too tacky after all ... We did imbibe in pictorial history books, showing the view from this very spot over the years. We even spotted the Huttie's office building and the wraparound balcony we stood on a few hours before! We also couldn't resist the honest touristy kitsch keychain license plates with our names on them, and some postcards to make others envy us. Muwahahaha! (We did, however resist t-shirts and paperweights and Swarovski crystal representations of the New York skyline! Aren't you proud of us??)
By the way, there are bathrooms up here, and they are very Art Deco, like that old font called "Broadway" brushed metal, black and white tiles, round mirrors. But there are only three stalls total, if you count the handicap one which also doubles as the family room and men's room. Weird ... but do use them if you need to. It's quicker to get out of the building (no metal detectors to get OUT), but you still do have to wait in line for the elevators. And if you are out late, many of the eateries and traditional places you might stop for a break might be closed or closing.
Before we left though, we had to return to the 80th floor to return the audio tour headset. This was okay, as it was free, but the guy "Tony" who narrated the bits was way annoying. We know it's New York, but we have only heard such a strong, exaggerated accent in the movies or televisions, and he wasn't all that easy ot understand or listen to. So unless it's free, don't bother with it. After that, we joined the line up (again) for the elevator back to street level. This also gave the tourist services staff a chance to guilt visitors into buying those pics that they took on our way up, and yeah we were suckers and bought 'em, complete with goofy faces ... On our way out we did stop to admire that metal wall mural and even take pictures before taking our leave. There were still people trying to get up as we were going down. The observation deck is open till midnight, but we were getting weary, having tramped through three major tourist destinations today. And it was muggy the source of the haze over the city and we were getting dopey.
So we headed for the subway and got stuck behind a gaggle of Scandinavian tourists who did not quite understand how the MetroCard worked. Here are the rules: for a regular card, up to four trips per card, and if you transfer, all four transfers are cancelled at once. These people kept half-going through the turnstyles, thereby cancelling that transfer ... then the senior male tourist in charge put the card through the cardreader again, lost another fare ... another person half-went through ... then all the way ... then eventually, he'd used up all his transfers and spare fares. The impatient line of New Yorkers told him his card was not valid for re-use (it said so on the display). He shreiked in frustration with a heavy accent, "The card is new!" He got pushed aside by a family who showed him how to do it right. But in the meantime, he had no fares left on his card, and his group was on the other side of the impermeable gates ...
Hutties are such nice people we gave him one of our fares on a regular MetroCard and shoved him through the turnstile. He was so shocked he forgot to say, "Thank you!" till we were all through on our 7-day passes. See? We're not all heartless bastards who laugh and point at the misfortunes of others ... but now that we did our good deed, we are free to write filthy fanfic some more!
The 34th Street IND station is hot, in need of renovation, and it was humid outside, and even worse inside. We played the "Find Splinter" game half-heartedly ... and this time, he showed up! He waddled across the tracks, then casually walked into a hole over the third rail. He stuck his nose out to say goodbye, then disappeared as our train rumbled into the station. Wow!
Relieved to be sitting down in a nice, cool, air-conditioned subway car after our chock-full day, some of us succumbed to Mr. Sandman for the duration of our trip back to Queens and home base. It's the rumbling rocking motion, it's a great saporific, try it sometime. We have noted that New Yorkers seems to be able to snooze on any of the public transportation, whether sitting or standing. This was not so bad though because it gave us just enough second wind to be able to stop in at T-Bone Diner for a late night cool drink and snack before calling it a night. With all these symbols of NYC behind it, it was nice to sit in a kind of seedy diner, like in the movies!
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