Wednesday, March 05, 2008
(Map courtesy of NYSubway.com)
(Part One is here.)
In Boston, admitting that anything in New York is better is looked upon as heresy. I'm going to say it anyway. There is one thing New York City does immeasurably better than Boston. That thing is public transportation.
Don't get me wrong about the T. I grew up riding it and I loved it. However, whereas the T has destroyed its past, the MTA in New York cherishes theirs. Station signage & artwork, quaint old entry kiosks, just about any individuality or uniqueness - Boston discards it while New York keeps it, cleans it up a bit, and displays it lovingly. They converted one of their old abandoned subway stops in Brooklyn into an amazingly good subway museum, for instance. The MTA isn't perfect, as I'm sure many New Yorkers will gladly attest to, but they try really hard. The employees are generally helpful and courteous; the maps, though very complex, are correct; and it has an automated ticketing system that is easy to understand and which works well. On top of that, the system runs efficiently. Considering its size and scope, it is a marvel.
Boston's T, on the other hand - the oldest subway system in North America - has saved almost nothing and seems intent on obliterating what little of historic value there is left. They had the 100th anniversary of the first subway not too long ago, but you would have hardly known it from riding the system. New York would have celebrated it, but Boston pretty much tried to sweep it under the rug. There seems to be a fetish about subtracting the old and adding what is supposed to be new and stylish (but which ends up looking tacky and outdated soon after the older stuff is irretrievably gone.) The employees are generally surly; the maps, of a much less complex system, are likely to give you the impression that you can get somewhere that hasn't been accessible for at least twenty years; and the automated ticketing system is near-incomprehensible and often doesn't work at all. The system doesn't run especially well, considering its limited size and scope. It is a marvel, in that there has never been a major revolt amongst the clientele.
I'm sure that familiarity breeds contempt of most subway systems, but I look forward to riding the New York subway and elevated lines whenever I go there. This trip was no exception. I also looked forward to eating some great deli and having a slice or two of New York pizza, but we'll get to that later.
FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 29TH (Our Wedding Anniversary)
On the morning of our first day in the city, we started out by looking for breakfast. There were lots of choices available near the hotel, but many were crowded. We found a place on 3rd Avenue called The Frontier that had quite a few booths open. Despite wondering why this was the least-crowded place, we decided to eat there. It turned out to be just fine. I had what was called "The Farmer Boy", which consisted of two eggs, bacon, pancakes and coffee. Since there is no better place on earth to get one - New York, that is, though The Frontier had damn good ones - I ordered a bagel on the side. I told the waitress I wanted it with a schmeer.
As soon as the waitress left, MY WIFE gave me a look that said, "A schmeer? Oh, come on, Boston Irish Boy. Yiddish?"
I gave her a look that said, "Hey, how often do I get to use such an expressive language? Besides, everybody in this city knows what that means. Relax."
My bagel arrived covered with chocolate sauce and cashews.
No, not really. It came with a healthy dollop of cream cheese, just as it should have. And I enjoyed it immeasurably more for having said "schmeer" when ordering it.
(By the way, there are no doubt some spoilsports among you who remember me saying that I gave up flour products and dairy for Lent. That's true. However, I decided that God would rather I be happy on my anniversary trip. More important, I figured He'd want MY WIFE to be happy, and that wasn't going to happen if I was grumping around New York for three days giving the cow eye to bagels and otherwise being disagreeably holier-than-thou. MY WIFE also decided to forego her pledge not to have liquor, so it was all good. She would pleasantly tipple and I would be pleasantly bloated.)
After breakfast, we went to the Astoria section of Queens. More specifically, we were headed to The Museum Of The Moving Image. Aside from wanting to visit this place and see what it was all about, I also wanted to ride the elevated line in Astoria, a very small part of which is pictured above. MY WIFE was not as intensely excited about riding the train as I was, but she still finds such things interesting. She grew up riding the elevated (now utterly extinct, of course) in Boston.
We took a subway line to Steinway Street, and then walked over to the museum. It wasn't open yet, so we strolled around the area. On the same block, there is the Kaufman-Astoria Studios, where many television programs are filmed. One of them is Sesame Street, so we were hoping we might see Big Bird or Elmo bellying up to the bar across the street, where we dropped in for a quick one while still waiting for the museum to open, but they must have been on hiatus. We did see the following sign, though, and what more could you ask for in way of entertainment?
(Earlier on the block, I had spotted a "Drug-Free School Zone" sign on [of course] a school. I always wonder if some folks might think - very logically, I would say - that if you leave a drug-free school zone, it's OK to break out your works and start mainlining? However, I digress.)
The Museum of the Moving Image is dedicated mostly to movies and television, although such predecessors as magic lanterns and stereo opticons are given display, as well as newfangled flibbertyjibbitings like computer-generated animation. The emphasis is on technology more than hero worship, and there are collections of motion picture projectors, old televisions, home movie equipment, and other outdated toys. However, there are also magnificent hands-on displays, wherein you can try sound mixing or doing a voice-over (both things I do every day, but which I nevertheless had fun doing in a different setting) as well as cartooning, television direction, green-screen superimposition (where you can place your partner on a bridge ready to fall apart and fall into a river, or have her running down a road being followed by menacing headlights, while in reality she's just standing in front of a green background) and also great step-by-step rundowns on make-up, costuming, and other facets of production.
We saw a Captain Marvel serial in their small theater, had pangs of nostalgia in front of the collectible displays, and generally were delighted with the place. Very much worth the trip to Astoria if you happen to be in NYC.
We took The El back to Manhattan, but first I wanted to take it to the end of the line at Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria. It was a pleasant enough ride, but nothing so spectacular that I'd urge you to go out of your way for it.
(There is one elevated ride that I would suggest you go out of your way for, if riding an elevated train is the type of thing you'd enjoy anyway. That is the F train [Culver Line] through Brooklyn to Coney Island. The sights are interesting, the destination is worth it, and you'll also travel through the most highly-elevated station in the system, Smith-9th Street, the platform of which stands - are you ready? - 91 FEET ABOVE THE STREET. That's basically 9 stories high. And it actually stands over the Gowanus Canal, not the street, so if you were utterly mad, you might take a high dive into the brackish waters below. Needless to say, considering my fear of heights, I have never gotten off at this station, nor will I ever - even if the train itself is on fire. Fun to ride through, though.)
We boarded the Astoria Line at the decidedly NOT 91-foot-high 36th Avenue Station.
(I've said so much about being scared of heights, you might wonder why I would want to ride elevated trains at all. What can I say? I'm a riddle wrapped inside an enigma wrapped inside a complete dope. Somehow, being on rails makes me feel much safer. I could tell you - or tell MY WIFE - that I'm trying to rid myself of my fears by doing things that involve it, thus inuring me to it, but that would just be a convenient lie. I like it, is all. It's the only thing involving height of any sort that I do like.)
I'll stop with my paean to subways. I'll come back to it later, no doubt, but now I need to tell you about our evening.
After returning to the hotel, we got all gussied up for our anniversary dinner. We were going to The French Culinary Institute. We had a 6:30 reservation.
The Institute is a school, of course, but they also have an actual working restaurant on the premises. The students prepare the dishes (under supervision of teaching staff) and also work as servers, bus staff, cashiers, bartenders, and other positions within the food service industry. Thus, a first-class meal may be had for a relatively inexpensive tab.
We first had to get to the place, though, and that proved something of a challenge.
You need to know that I had forgotten to pack an essential item. I had no overcoat. Snow was forecast, and it was very windy and cold, so this was a big problem. I had a choice of wearing my black suede over my suit jacket, which would have made me look like an absolute idiot, or grabbing a nice warm cab instead of walking to the subway both from our hotel and to the restaurant on the other end. We opted for the cab.
The problem, of course, was trying to flag a cab at 6pm on a Friday in Manhattan. There was a line waiting for them at the hotel, so we decided to take our chances on 2nd Avenue. Of course, doing so negated the benefits discussed earlier. I froze my ass off in my suit while we tried in vain to locate an unoccupied taxi. It took us a good 15 minutes before we flagged down an off-duty driver who was nice enough to pick us up when we told him our destination and he found that it was near his garage anyway. I would have stayed warmer if we had walked to the subway, and saved $20 to boot.
The traffic was horrendous, so we arrived at the restaurant at 6:45, 15 minutes past our reservation. Luckily, this wasn't a problem. We were seated, ordered our food from the 4-course prix fixe menu, and awaited the delivery of gustatory delights.
I had the Beef Carpaccio for my appetizer, followed by Roast Duck with potato terrine and bok choy in a sweet and sour pepper sauce for entree. MY WIFE had a Winter Salad followed by Pan Roasted Salmon with wild mushrooms, fingerling potatoes and beurre blanc. We both were given a pomegranate-apple cider sorbet as palate cleanser, after which we chose Creme Brulee for dessert, along with coffee. I had them do a wine pairing for me, while MY WIFE had a Pinot Grigio.
The service was excellent, barring one mishap. They forgot to give me the wine pairing with desert. When I pointed this out to the waitress, she was extremely apologetic. She scurried off and then brought both my wine and another, for MY WIFE, as a make-up, so it turned out better than originally expected. The food was superb all around, and the company was interesting.
Seated at the table next to ours was (we assumed, although we only had circumstantial evidence) an older gay couple. They were both very nice, and one of them was extremely loquacious. He spoke at length, to both us and the female Swiss law student seated on his other side, throughout dinner. His partner didn't seemed tremendously thrilled by this, but also seemed resigned to the fact that this was how it was, so no sense fighting it. The more silent of the two was celebrating his birthday, so when they found out it was our anniversary as well, well-wishes were exchanged and a festive mood prevailed.
It was a very pleasant dining experience. For the price ($39.95 per person, not including the wine) it was downright magnificent.
After dinner, we decided to walk to the subway instead of spending another $20 for a cab we might or might not get quickly anyway. It was snowing and windy, and I still had no overcoat, but I had a belly full of good food, a head full of good wine, the most pleasant company I could imagine, and the promise of warm snuggling when we got back to our room. Life doesn't get much better than that, so what was a little bit of cold weather in comparison?
(As far as details of the snuggling are concerned, a gentleman never tells. Neither will I.)
Tomorrow: Brooklyn, big overpriced steaks, MY WIFE's brother, pissed-off directions, and a bagel (but not mit schmeer.) See you then.
(Disclaimer: All of the photos are mine, except the one of the cabs. That is, of course, the best shot of the lot. Oh, well. I got it from here.)
Go To Part Three