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Monday, Aug 25, 2014 - 23:27 SGT
Posted By: Gilbert

The Three Amigos: Amigo One

Tummyache-ridden week; but, back to the North America stay, which would not have been possible (or at least, as economical) without the generous indirect sponsorship of a few old pals who happened to be there. What follows is my account of what we did (well, the mentionable parts anyway)

Once my official obligations were done with, it was time to bid adieu to Quebec City, which while certainly charming had its sloping streets (and corresponding quaint split-level houses) all too quickly traversed. For the ride down to Montreal (which featured some seriously low-hanging clouds), we relied on the Orléans Express bus, which had some pretty nifty motorized windscreen shades. After about two and a half hours, the view was dominated by some very imposing bridges - Montreal.

We arrived at the Fairmont by cab, driven by a Tunisian waiting for his Canadian citizenship application to be considered. Apparently, while they don't have COEs, their taxi license fees make up for it - CAD$200k (or more) to begin with! There wasn't time to do much sightseeing once we reached the hotel, especially with the closing-at-six culture, so I signed over my particulars for free wi-fi. The bed was comfy, if maybe a bit too soft.

Woke early next morning to board the Adirondack, the most cost-effective (if time-consuming) way of getting to New York that I could find. Conveniently, the station was situated right under the hotel, and I was pleasantly surprised with the modern interior, with online reviews having lowered my expectations mightily (I had begun to imagine rickety nineteenth-century wooden seats, for some unknown reason), particularly about the toilets (which as it turned out, were fine)

As to whether it was worth it, I would say that the sightseeing potential is fair, though one could get bored of viewing hexagonal backyard pools and stretches of the water chestnut-matted Hudson river after a few hours. Fair warning: the train is slow, and the Americas are big (more trivia: the largest park in the U.S. is not the far more famous Yellowstone, but the Adirondack, which the namesake train runs along for maybe slightly less than half its length)

This is without mentioning the border crossing, which took over two hours. Instead of passengers disembarking, immigration officers boarded and walked down the aisles inspecting passports. This did, however, not seem to speed the process by much, even with most of the overhead bin luggage untouched. A few unfortunate souls somehow still managed to be ejected, though.

New York

"Cities have sexes: London is a man, Paris a woman,
and New York a well-adjusted transsexual.

- Angela Carter

...Woke up in New York City/In a funky cheap free hotel
[N.B. Learn Spanish! Note presentational differences]
[N.N.B. Body language is a thing too. Really.]

Finally, mythical America (no, not counting the stopover in Detroit)! For all our fears about locating each other in the vastness of Penn Station with me not having mobile access, there was Mr. Neuroscientist, replete with fetching protobeard, which would more frankly be described as a scraggly unshaved mess by subjects not planning to mooch off him.

[N.B. I refer to the amigos by pseudonyms here, both for privacy reasons, and also in case any of them begin to harbour ambitions of running for public office in the future]

After the obligatory greetings, we split off from my parents, as I readied myself to take in the undisputed Alpha World City of our times; yes, I had already seen London, Beijing and Tokyo, but talk about Big Swinging ***cks, and you simply can't look past Uncle Sam. Not quite yet.

What was it they said about this place? Oh, you can dance in a chicken suit for all native New Yorkers care - they won't bat an eye. Just don't block their path. Standard impersonal big-city vibe, multiplied again by half. Yet, there was also some... energy tingling in the air, dare I say, a gruff undertone: "This is the Big Apple, baby, the Imperial City of the Empire of the United States. It don't come any bigger than this!"

Which is, well, true. While other places may specialize in certain sectors, there is little that can't be done in New York City, which is why it has been sponging up men of ambition for centuries. As we strode briskly through its dusty streets, I could not help but deliberate about how much of contemporary history had been overtly or covertly decided - or at least financed - under its unsleeping watch.

Mr. Neuroscientist recommended a Koreatown restaurant, having not yet abandoned his culinary roots. I must admit, the vermicilli was delicious, with the free side dish refills a constant reassurance; Mr. Neuroscientist even snagged a free pen (with permission) after his exact-to-the-cent tip, availing himself of the wonderful hospitality to its utmost extent.

Heed the warning

With it again too late to do much of anything, we returned to his shared apartment, situated attractively by a hospital and homeless shelter; for the privilege of being serenaded at odd hours by ambulance sirens, and of not having ceiling lights, but with an admittedly nice view of the Empire State Building, Mr. Neuroscientist still wound up paying a highly subsidized rate of... Really Quite A Lot. Of greater concern was not being able to connect either of my devices to the provided wifi.

Lab Tour

"Them that begin by burning books, end by burning men."

- Heinrich Heine

Well, I succeeded with the wifi the next morning, after the loan of a laptop to troubleshoot the issue (it was a default settings problem), and realised that Mr. Neuroscientist was looking a bit the worse for wear. It transpired that he had slept nary a wink the past night, due to gastric pains, with the prime suspect being undercooked egg from our dinner. Not having partaken of the yolkified tofu soup much, and being free of symptoms, I could not help but support the hypothesis. No morning run along the river, then. Big aw.

There remained work to be done for our intrepid brain researcher, though, and I got to tag along to the swanky - and do I mean swanky - new Alexandria Centre. The lobby would hardly have looked out of place being in service for a five-star hotel, and the ridiculously well-equipped lab itself - stocked with all manner of gadgets, from surgical devices to a 3D printer - was not far behind, leading me to suggest, only half-jokingly, that Mr. Neuroscientist would do well to move to an empty room on the premises.

Security for the animal denizens was, as only to be expected, top notch, and I must admit to a brief pang of jealousy as I contemplated the stacks of rodent-inhabitated tanks. Apparently, my friend had gone back to working with mice, which had kept him merrily occupied in high school. I thought I heard a faint scrabbling as we departed, but it was probably my ears playing tricks on me.

I say first, if we get overrun by cyborg mice, not my taiji

With my host's stomach insisting on recuperation, I was left to wander by myself, having at least managed a low-resolution printout of lower Manhattan. My walk took me to the NYU campus, where I made it a point to glimpse the Courant Institute, and thence on to the Barnes & Noble at Union Square, the street outside where I made my first book purchase of the trip - The Warren Buffett Way, secondhand, for three bucks. Given that retail was US$20, I suppose the value-investing author might have appreciated the buy.

A few hours of loitering about cheerfully later, I left the bookstore with my knapsack filled... and headed to the famous Strand Bookstore in the East Village. Now, B&N wasn't exactly a low-traffic area, but the Strand was packed. I was soon tickled by their in-your-face banned book spread, graced by Heine's ever-relevant admonishment, and featuring, what else, And Tango Makes Three. Frankly, what does Mein Kampf (which even Germany is beginning to care less about) have to do, to attain such notoriety as those two penguins have?

I then found myself drifting to the finance corner, which for some reason was perhaps the emptiest section - maybe the subject was too gauche for most of the customers? No matter, that just made more space for me, though I was wondering how I was going to lug my bounty home, when an extremely punctual and still shitfaced Mr. Neuroscientist waded through the sea of biblophiles for me, at six sharp and with cab in tow.

More good news - the spare room had been vacated by his roommate's friend, which meant that we could both get some privacy. It had a bed and a desk, which was all I really wanted. Okay, a pillow would have been nice.

"The Street"

"The terrible, cold, cruel part is Wall Street. Rivers of gold flow there from all over the earth, and death comes with it..."

- Federico Garcia Lorca

Sunday. We were supposed to be hitchhiking up to New Jersey to paddleboard, but fat chance of that now. Obamacare evidently hadn't extended to affordable non-emergency weekend consultations for graduate students, so Mr. Neuroscientist was engaged in the art of self-medication, with some input from the friendly neighbourhood pharmacist. Interestingly, they check US$100 bills with a special pen here.

It was me and myself again, then. Having done some calculations, I had picked up a US$30 card for unlimited subway rides, and after a very thick McFrappe liquid breakfast, I hopped on the downtown line, to take in the financial heart of the world for myself. I quickly realised that the district was historic and all, but one doesn't exactly witness any action, what with the exchange closed to visitors.

Of course, I wasn't about to pass up the world-famous charging bull (which happens to be a lot newer than I thought, and non-commissioned to boot) - which however was perpetually hidden within a mob of tourists. With little hope for an unobstructed view, I poked about a roadside trinket stall, and picked up some cityscape photos that stoked my fancy.

Vendor: 大陆来的吗?

Me: 新加坡也差不多啦.

I left curious at how steep a market decline it would take for a hibernating bear statue to make an appearance, and swung by the Vietnam Veterans Plaza, towards the new One World Trade Center - which like the Empire State Building, made a very handy topological landmark; to be honest, I was a little disappointed that it wasn't open to the public yet, despite it being near thirteen years since 9/11. The memorial pools, it has to be said, were breathtaking - and for all the buzz of activity, managed to retain an air of tranquil solemnity.

Across time and space

After some minutes of lingering, it was time to get a move on, and I resolved to walk the oft-resold Brooklyn Bridge to work up an appetite for some yummy pizza. Met my parents coming the other way (what were the chances?), before stumbling upon the P.S. Bookshop, browsing their copy of Vagabond 25, and picking up a couple of bargains. I then caught a rendition of House of the Rising Sun at DUMBO, and finally found a store that sold towels, before realising that I had not taken down any pizza parlour addresses.

By this time, I was willing to settle for any manner of baked dough, but apparently got lucky as the Capricciosa I got for US$13 proved just about perfect taste and portion-wise (note that pizzas are one of the few things that are actually cheap in NYC). Too bad about the traffic accident outside.

A walk through the borough core (which seemed to be dominated by colleges for some stretches - and, lest I forget, a high school for business) and some residential neighbourhoods (which struck me as not that far removed in spirit from HDB estates, after all), I sought out the nearest subway entrance - they can be hard to locate, and getting into the one going the wrong way can be a hassle - and continued on to Coney Island. Got a dose of Nathan's Famous, but the souvenirs were otherwise neither to my budget nor my taste, and it was getting dark. Subway back then, with a bongo band in the next carriage for accompaniment.

Mr. Neuroscientist had happily recovered somewhat, and was well enough to take me to a Vietnamese restaurant, of which he was a regular patron, before some bubble tea.

Take Me To The Ball Game

"It's fun; baseball's fun."

- Yogi Berra

Monday, and more to cover. It was time to beat it in the other (uptown) direction, and for my morning fortification, I trusted in one of the ubiquitous food vans dotting the landscape. A gyro and ice coffee consumed outside the Langone Medical Centre later, I made my way by the United Nations (tickets long sold out; lots of space for expansion, it seems) and then the Rockefeller Centre, before my first stop - the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).

Nope, I still don't totally "get it"

Some silent contemplative shuffling of feet later (well, they did have a small video gaming section, including Minecraft), I figured I had better start taking on Central Park - though, how difficult can it be to traverse it lengthwise, anyway? It's barely four kilometres!

Not quite that easy, as it turns out, with my canvas shoes beginning to get stubborn, and my Old Navy pants, a legacy from Quebec City, abruptly deciding that my tummy was no longer what it was; evidently, a few days' walking had taken more than a couple of inches off, and marching along with hands in pockets to prevent from slipping into gangsta fashion proved rather tiring, when added to the realisation that Central Park may be near perfectly regular in perimeter, but certainly not in altitude.

Drifted westward towards The Dakota on 72nd Street, where I made an exit for a Shackburger and peanut butter custard drink (all 800-odd calories of it). After that, I cut across the entirety of the park to the other side - I mean, I couldn't leave New York without at least viewing the outside of the Met, could I? - and got an eyeful of the Guggenheim too. Somewhere in between, I got desperate enough to get a bottle of water for three bucks, but in my defence, it was chilled.

Made a re-entrance at the ancient playground, where a very welcome washroom was located, and then followed East Drive as well as I could to its conclusion at 110th Street, as the joggers kept zipping by. That was well enough nature for me for one day, and I was only delighted to leave this mission behind me for Yankee Stadium.

Game on!

Having snagged a bleacher seat in the partisan Section 203, it was time to put my Yankees cap to good use; then again, given that consensus appears to be that the Yankees are the Manchester United of baseball (even if their official tie-up are with City; the stadium doesn't seem too good for footie, though), it might well be a natural fit.

Here, a brief rundown on America's national game. Very simply, baseball is a sport where a guy - the pitcher - throws a small ball very hard, and another guy on the other team tries to hit it with a bat. The pitcher's teammates will try to catch the ball and throw it back if the batter does hit, but frankly the most important part for both sides boils down to not letting the ball be hit and hitting it, respectively. Running very fast helps a bit, but not quite sufficient to make it worth it if one can't hit worth a damn to begin with.

Okay, okay, there're more details - you've got to touch the four bases in sequence to score a run, and the team with the most runs after nine innings wins; the pitcher has to throw the ball into a (slightly subjective) strike zone three times to get the batter out, while the batter advances one base automatically if the pitcher fails to do so four times (walk on four balls); a swing and miss is a strike no matter if the ball is in the zone, as is a hit to foul territory... unless it would be the third strike, so a baseball game can theoretically carry on forever, with infinite pitches (while they generally stop in practice, average durations of near three hours are wearing thin even on longtime fans)

Oh, and I finally figured out why baserunners sometimes continue running on fly ball outs - only the batter is out on a catch, and runners can legally advance if they tag up (i.e. return to their original base), which is a good bet if the ball was hit with good distance. But yeah, back to the big picture - the ball still has to be hit.

Unfortunately, there wasn't too much of that happening today. The Yankees were hosting the Detroit Tigers, who were doing pretty well themselves, which meant that their pitchers had gotten pretty good at throwing baseballs such that batters couldn't hit them; the legendary Derek Jeter got fanatical cheers whenever he came to bat, but that didn't help him get more than one paltry hit; hours of fruitless swinging later, the Yankees prevailed 2-1, talk of "quality pitching" (i.e. bad hitting) was heard all over, and I found that the thirsty mob had denuded the place of even US$5 bottle water.


"Hasa Diga Eebowai!"

- Everybody in The Book of Mormon


(But it does sort of make quite a bit of sense...)

My feet were on the verge of rebellion by now, and I was happy enough to use doing the laundry as an excuse to stay in until two in the afternoon. A couple of the building staff popped over to gently remind me that the spare room had to be left empty, and I obliged by dumping my stuff back into Mr. Neuroscientist's room, not that it made much of a difference.

Not wholly convinced by his warning that the local Ippudo was not up to (his exacting) standard, I made my own way down, encountering my first street preacher at 51st Street, only to find that they were strictly closed till five; no problem, I stood for forty minutes outside, and was rewarded with just the right frame of mind to devour some pork buns and noodles. Personally, I couldn't tell the difference, but then again I never did have selective tastebuds. I was nearly prepared for another bowl, when the understanding waiter reminded me of the two-dollar refill.

A few streets across next, to the Eugene O'Neill Theater for the night's entertainment. In consideration of those who might want to drop in next time, and given that I had to pay well over US$200 for a mezzanine seat with next to no legroom (which had the poor tall fellow by me with his knees almost up his chest throughout), let me just say that The Book of Mormon is what the title says on the can... and just a friendly reminder, it was created by the South Park guys, so...

And eh, you know, I kinda like Mormons. I mean, dedicating two years of the prime of their lives, to don starchy uncomfortable uniforms and be relocated to far-flung regions, to engage in repetitive missions that at least some of the brighter ones must suspect is not actually particularly important or meaningful, despite what the elders say?

Now just wait a minute...

It ended at the right time to take in Times Square at night, and I got my iconic NY T-shirt (which may not transfer well):

Orchard Road, with bigger screens

While walking back home, my eyes inadvertently crossed with those of a homeless man, who then walked up and asked nicely for some change. I figured that tonight was his lucky night, and inspected my pockets (save the advice, please - I do what I do); a five dollar bill. I guess that'd do. This got me some blessings from a certain deity, as my new brutha scurried off with his prize. Now, the professionals say not to give cash, it'll likely be spent on sin; but as I watched his retreating back, I figured - what the heck, life's short. Have a beer, have a ciggy, a quickie, whatever, man. It's on me.

End of Empire

"When you leave New York, you are astonished at how clean the rest of the world is. Clean is not enough."

- Frances Ann Lebowitz

Of course, it's not supposed to work all the time. Sorry, panhandler-with-bandaged-eye. For my last day in New York City, I kicked off with some xiaolongbao and shrimp fried rice, before going up the Empire State Building (completed after barely a year, which makes the WTC delay all the stranger). Despite it being a weekday afternoon, it was crowded from top to bottom, which made hard to contemplate its storied history as quietly as I would have wished.

It was, then, also time to bid farewell to Mr. Neuroscientist, who had been the perfect hands-off host. As a token of my esteem, I left behind the towel that I had searched so far and wide for. Long may it aid him in his endeavours.


[To be continued...]

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