Sunday, October 30, 2011

New York New York

... so good they named it twice.  That's a great line for a song and for some reason I always think of it when I go through NYC.  It could of course be the immigration forms you have to fill in even if in transit which is often the case when flying into JFK airport.  However this time I had an address as Vivien and I would be here a couple of days, mainly to allow me to attend board meetings.  We would be staying for one day at the New York Athletic Club on Central Park South.

Here's a recommendation for frequent travelers:  join a club with accomodation that has club affiliations all over the world.  I joined the University Club of Toronto as they were having a membership drive (a common worldwide affliction currently is that most clubs are financially strained and keen to take in new members) and they have 300+ club affiliations worldwide.  I had stayed at one in London in the summer and had for ages wanted to do the same in New York.  The room rate is pretty much the same as a hotel rate so there's no advantage there but that wasn't the reason for staying there.   The location itself is sensational adjoining Central Park on 58/59th Street and we'd walked past the street level cocktail bar window during a previous trip and I'd promised myself a cocktail from that bar.  OK, pretty spurious I know but there had to be a reason.  Vivien used the club's magnificent sporting facilities, something I have promised myself I will do in the future.

View over Central Park from our room at NYAC.  Pretty nice.

So why clubs over perfectly good hotels?  Most clubs have club rules, many dress code related (NYAC does) but the reason for staying is the basic premise.  Most clubs are not for profit organisations so they don't need to make 15% ROE every year.  My Toronto club targets covering costs less depreciation as its goal -- i.e. staying cash flow positive.  They also tend to be located in lovely downtown locations.  This stems from the days before highways and commuter trains when the family stayed in the country whilst the meal ticket headed for the big smoke to earn the daily crust.  So comfortable but reasonably basic rooms, good bar and dining options and sporting facilities are the order of the day.

Where you get sent if you don't follow the dress code.  Mind you, we did know the rules.

New York has a great buzz to it, possibly more than any other city I have visited.  I love Toronto but it is waaaay more relaxed.  New York just seems to be a very big mish mash of residential, shopping, schools, big business and neon all traveling at 900 miles an hour.  Neon looks tacky elsewhere but in New York it fits right in.  I've always thought I wouldn't much want to live there all the time, great though to visit.  But why?  Not sure now.

Vivien and I had decided we'd make ourselves familiar with public transport instead of simply jumping in a taxi.  While I won't pretend to be an expert, the subway is a good system and understandable.  It is grubby though.  We'd decided we needed to eat at Katz's world famous deli on East Houston Street in the Lower East Side so became familiar with the F Train.  What you forget though when you look at the subway/street map is that Manhattan whilst a great walking city is huge.  Everything is crammed up against one another but that is irrelevant when you have to walk it and don't really know where you are or where you are going (we had approximate details) but ultimately we did find Katz's and it was worth it.

The Food Channel has done much to elevate the art of eating and culinary arts to superstar status, some times I feel pointlessly, but in Katz's case it was definitely worth it.  Outside looks 1920's tacky and inside is pretty much the same which is part of its charm if you can call an aircraft hanger sized diner with old furniture and bits of paper tacked up everywhere (you can hardly call them menus) charming.  Cash only and you have to line up to pay.  If you lose the ticket someone gives you as you walk in (evidencing your entry) you pay $50 penalty.  They also had the "When Harry met Sally" sign up.  I thought it was great.  Trouble was we couldn't eat everything.

Next was the pursuit of culture and in New York it is everywhere.  Museums, theatre, art galleries, cinema, music ... you name it, New York has the best on display every day.  You just have to find it.  I relied on Time Out which was pretty OK but I guess with a city that size you cannot cover everything and then typically only the new stuff that's on that week.  It doesn't help much trying to find out what is there all the time.  For that you need a (gulp) guide book or local knowledge.  We settled for film and tickets for the following night's theatre visit and slowly digested Katz's mixed meat plate most agreeably.

We moved hotels the following day to where my meetings would be held and decided we'd head out for more film before the show we'd bought tickets for but this time of a more offbeat nature and found oursleves at the Lincoln Centre.  We'd checked out tickets for a John Williams concert and other things going on at one of their 10 (at least) different auditoriums but settled on a movie about the sub-prime melt down and in particular the actions of one specific investment bank no longer around.  I tend to be cynical about films about business matters (I include the movie "Wall Street" here too) as while entertaining they are usually superficial and simplistically demonise the bad uber wealthy capitalists at the top.  Things are never as black and white as they are made out on the movies but that I suppose is because the movie makers only have 90 minutes to set the scene, define the plot and then work it all out with a happy ending.  Well this movie set all that on its head as I think it did a good job of explaining things (OK you need some basics in this environment as they talked about the bank's VAR in the first 3 minutes without explaining what that was and why it was important to banks' solvency calculations) and actually just stopped.  No heroes, no happy ending.  The movie is called "Margin Call" and is well worth watching.

But I was going to talk about the Lincoln Centre and how impressive it is.  It is VERY.

Its difficult to assess how well a city/country is doing just by being in that country's most vibrant city as it is always seemingly busy so I don't have any insights into how well the US is faring.  An ex-colleague said to me once when we were discussing the US experience during the Depression of the 1930's that people tend to forget that however bad things were (and they were) 91% of the population still had jobs throughout this period.  That is the same as now and given that we've seen some months of positive (albeit sluggish) US growth, I believe that things are getting better although more slowly than people hope/want.

Just from a brief visit to New York, it is pretty hopeless to assess how well things are going as its always busy with people spending left, right and centre.  If obtaining a theatre ticket is any bellwether, we were lucky enough to buy some of the last $100 (cheapest) tickets so things must be just fine.

And that was pretty much the outcome of my business meetings too: things are getting slowly better in the US but "you gotta watch out for those Yuro-peens".

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