Tuesday, October 29, 2013

If you look…

The day my meetings ended I made it back to Chelsea Market and the High Line Park but this time walked it all the way up to 30th street where it ended.

The soon to be extension of the High Line
Great views all along the trail though.  You don't often get the chance to look down on New York from 3 or 4 storeys up!

Chrysler Building from the High Line

Next day was the first of the two Living Social events I'd organized a week or so before.

I've blogged about Living Social before but really I am so impressed by them.  On one of the events, I had a problem reserving the actual day/time that I wanted -- there was a language 'misunderstanding'.  People that know me know what I mean here!  It would have been all rather embarrassing if I'd ever met the people again, but thankfully this is a big world!  I contacted Living Social's help desk and they resolved it, just like that.

The premise behind LS is the deal of the day (at least 50% off the ticker price).  They and a listed company called GroupOn are the leaders in this field but I chose to follow LS after reading a review of their competing styles.  Each time I visit a city, I try to see what is on LS as a special event and of course with larger cities the options are far more.  New York was jam packed!

My first event was a walking gastronomic tour of the West Village offered by a firm called Sidewalks of New York (see http://sidewalksofny.com).  They do loads of other neat tours too so do check them out!  Everybody on the tour had the same LS voucher as I did!!

Meeting place was near the West 4th Street subway station on Bleecker Street outside 'Porto Rico Imports', a business incorporated in 1907 and really spelled that way!  Our guide, Dante, told us that as they've been there so long and own the building, their prices are lower than anywhere else.  I bought some of the 100+ types of home roasted coffee and found he was absolutely right!

The tour was great in that Dante gave us history, some exercise and some pretty nice food -- not big slabs of it to be sure, but the combination of tastes was pretty good.  First stop was Mamoun's Falafel Restuarant on MacDougall Street, next to the renowned Cafe Wha where every major name musician in the world had performed.  Dante told us that clubs in the Village turn out at 4 am so this place and the pizza shop down the street (Artichoke Basille's our last stop on the tour) had their best custom between 4 am and 5 am.

This area of New York is old with many buildings dating back to the 18th century, in fact 1727 when a large fire rampaged through the city and destroyed all but one wooden building.

18th century apartments, these days very, very expensive indeed
We crossed 6th Avenue and went into the Italian quarter -- not Little Italy, but another one.  We passed a lovely little off-Broadway theatre called the Cherry Tree and discovered the first piece of memorable trivia of the day.

Definitely 'Off Broadway'

Whether a theatre is considered 'On' or 'Off' Broadway is nothing to do with location.  Its all to do with audience size.  On Broadway is 500+, Off Broadway is 100-499 and Off Off Broadway is under 99 -- who knew about 'Off-Off'?  Not me.

Next stop was Faicco's Italian Specialities where we had some antipasto after we'd walked past the Soprano's favourite lobster roll restaurant -- called Pearl, clearly they'd never heard about Chelsea Market! -- and Mario Batali's first New York restaurant -- he's moved on now but it's still Dante's favourite Italian restaurant in the area.  It's called Po at 31 Cornelia Street.  Sadly I never had a chance to try it this time around.

Not on the tour but right next door to Faicco's.  Looked great though!

Things became a bit of a blur after this point as the streets started to look the same and in fact as it turned out they were as we'd walked around in a great big circle!

Don't often see 4th Street intersecting with 10th Street
But Dante was a good tour guide and brought to life the first Prohibition bar in New York -- Chumley's   -- before the only fine dining establishment on the tour, called Fatty 'Cue, a Malaysian fusion barbeque joint if you can believe such exists!

Chumley's -- soon to be a new 'Speak Easy' so called because if you weren't polite to the doorman, you wouldn't get in!
We sat at the bar and the GM described the endless time it took to marinade, brine and then air dry the pork belly before they simply deep fried it and slathered it with salsa verde.  Sounded great but the taster was little pinky finger size and tasted like deep fried falafel!

We also had a New York bagel and the best canoli in New York at Pasticceria Bruno -- he'd made them for the Pope last year and beaten Bobby Flay in a canoli throw down too -- before we all parted ways.  Good fun and I was able to take note of where a lot of great jazz and blues clubs were hopefully for another time.

Some of Bleecker Street's blues clubs

I then moved hotels to Pod 39 -- a take on the Yotel hotels in Heathrow and Gatwick, small but comfy. The literature said "75 square feet of luxury" and it was just that!  But really nice and funky too.  I liked the bar area downstairs as each time I came back late it was jammed with a nice party feel.  Young people, tourists, and $200 a night.  Great deal!!  Check it out here -- http://www.thepodhotel.com.

Love the iPads in the wall!

The following morning my event was a 2-hour pizza making class at AOA Bar and Grill -- check them out here: http://www.aoabarandgrill.com -- in Tribeca.  Again all but 4 of the packed house were Living Social customers like me -- no they aren't listed like Groupon, but maybe they should be!  The class was great though, did take 2 hours and the pizza was really nice too -- my pizza that is!!

There really is a process in making a pizza.  It looks like you mash lots of stuff together, stir vigorously, then stretch the dough out, lob more stuff on top and then bake.  But there's way more than that.  As its baking you really do have to measure things out properly otherwise it turns out … well it actually doesn't turn out at all.  The teacher and pizza supremo, Robert, tossed out loads of wrong 'uns along the way.

I took the subway down to the new World Trade Centre building but found every tourist in the world there at the same time and endless lines so turned left and walked to Wall Street to see if I could get a tour of the New York Stock Exchange.

The security guard told me nobody gets in after 9-11 but I apparently could call someone.  This was annoying so I went to the Museum of American Finance opposite -- check them out here:  http://www.moaf.org/.

Its not everyone's cup of tea of course but finance has been central to my life for at least the last 25 years so of course I found it interesting.  It really is amazing how one dedicated and clearly mad person can do so much with an empty canvas.

That was Alexander Hamilton by the way, an ex-Scot and Caribbean islander who because of his great intellect was sponsored into school in the North East just at the time when the fledgling US kicked off the warm embrace of their colonial overlords.  He met and fought with George Washington and came up with the idea of pretty much everything financial after the war when the US was broke and their great allies, the French, were about to collapse into bankruptcy and then revolution.  Where do we start?  Bank of New York in 1784, bonds, currency -- "let's call it the … ah, ah, I know… the dollar.  Sounds like the German 'Thaler' but with our accent…"

Oh yes, nearly forgot.  He bought that too.

He was president, and apparently a good one, and then died under 50 in a duel with a friend.  Hamilton hadn't loaded his weapon but his 'friend' did!  What's the old saying about being aware of keeping your enemies close but in particular your 'friends'?

The current score…

I closed off the day by going to BB King's Blues Bar on 42nd Street to see a British band called The James Hunter Six.  Not a blues band, more swing or R&B but still great fun.  Don't go there for the food though.  I had fried chicken that was raw in the middle!  They replaced it but I didn't really fancy it much after that.

My last morning was all about corned beef hash at Bloom's, a Jewish deli style restaurant close to Pod 39 on Lexington.  I'd had that itch since arriving in New York and I hadn't been able to scratch it until then.

Great way to finish my trip.  Thanks Noo Yawk, I had a blast!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Combination of the Two

I had a day on my own in New York before the board meetings so wanted to make the most of it.  The concierge in the hotel suggested I take in the High Line Park and Chelsea Market in the Meatpackers District.  I'd seen it on Anthony Bourdain's TV programme too so thought I'd do just that.

I'd also made up my mind that as I was staying in the Big Apple I'd do something I'd never been able to do by now, namely understand the subway system and only use that mode of transport during my stay. So I bought a 7-day pass at the 5th Avenue/53rd Street subway station for $31 and headed off on the E train to the 8th Avenue/14th Street station.

The NY subway is messy. I like public transport but most other countries' subway stations I've traveled on are cleaner and with more advertisements, trash bins, signs and generally aesthetically pleasing stuff.  In addition there were usually helpful maps around advising where you should be aiming.  However the NY subway has a buzz all of its own too.

I found Chelsea Market on 9th Avenue and expected something along the lines of St. Lawrence Market in Toronto or Granville Island in Vancouver -- which really are havens for foodies.  For sure there were food shops but also others as well and as it was near Halloween most was covered in fake cobwebs, funny masks and those yellow pumpkins so beloved over here -- I don't understand that really, but folks in the US go crazy about the day and the pumpkin.

However I did find a lovely place called the Lobster Place and found all manner of wonderful things.  A helpful young man busy shucking oysters suggested I take a bimble around before ordering anything which is how I found the lobster shack and the steaming fresh lobsters themselves.

It was now 2 pm and I'd made up my mind I intended to have a decent dinner so felt I couldn't go totally over the top but wisely settled on a lobster roll and a dozen oysters which were just terrific.

I took the lobster roll up to the High Line Park nearby -- which is an old elevated railway system of some sort that some clever people thought they'd turn into a park -- i.e. just let the plants grow, I think they were all wild flowers, grasses and weeds actually -- dump in a few benches and leave alone.

Nice job too.  It has certainly become a focus for tourists too as there were lots of people like me strolling about (on a Tuesday afternoon) taking photos.

I wanted to take in a movie so promised I'd return in a day or so and headed on the subway again to Times Square where the movie theatre was.  I like Times Square.  Gaudy certainly.  Chic, elegant, sophisticated … not really!

As I was walking over to look at the half price ticket booth, I saw the Lyceum Theatre had "A Night with Janis Joplin" playing that night.  Well, I like Janis so this was a no brainer.

This left just enough time to head down to the movie theatre to see "The Fifth Estate" -- the Wikileaks movie -- and head back to Times Square to a restaurant across the street from the theatre that I'd seen before called Bond 45.  It was a big Italian restaurant and was pretty darned good too.

The Janis play was pretty good too.  It didn't cover some of the yuckier parts of her life, glossed over the fact that one of the songs she'd 'covered' -- supposedly an Etta James song -- was actually Janis' own composition, and generally gave us the Hollywood sanitised version, but in the absence of the real thing it was pretty good to hear 'Ball and Chain' played live.

The actress playing Janis was really good -- but check out the real thing here.  This is the incandescent version from Monterey 1967.  The one that introduced Janis to the world!

This was a really good day!

Does it really have to be THAT big?

You just have to love the Americans and in particular the 'Noo Yawkers'.  People call them 'edgy' -- another way of saying loud, aggressive and in your face.  But I like that.  Many years ago I made the huge mistake of being polite when it was raining and there were no cabs around and I suggested that a lady should take the cab instead of me.  She looked at me like I was mad and then jumped back as some other guy elbowed us aside and jumped in.  As the cab drove off she gave me a look and just snarled out "schmuck".  (OK, she actually said "dumb ass" but "Schmuck" sounds like it could fit better).

But there was no ill feeling in that parting.  Noo Yawkers always simply have somewhere to go, something to do and "NOW, so get the lead out buddy!!"

And I also love the big buildings.  But really, do they have to be that big?

Let's look back and see what was happening when they were all built and take a look at some of the things that were going on at the time: 1920's boom and then 1930's catastrophic bust in the main.

So labour was cheap and plentiful which helped but really did they need to be that high?  New York was a big city, for sure, but it wasn't bigger than other major cities with lower rise buildings -- London for example had a far bigger population at the time.  Also space wasn't really at a premium either.  Manhattan may be an island but it's a really big island.  So really why do they need such a big post office?  And it's one of many.

Left hand side…

… Right hand side …

… and round the corner too!

The answer is quite simple.  They did it because they could.

And what a job they made of it too.  Some, no much of the craftwork is just lovely.  It's not something you pick up at Home Depot either.

The original big guy … but really take a look at the building next door.  The work is magnificent.

The new big guy … #1 World Trade Centre, 1776 feet high and the tallest building in North America.  And yes I bet you can guess why they made it 1776 feet tall!

And my favorite, the Chrysler Building on 41st and Lexington

Thursday, October 3, 2013

"Are they always this bad?"

It was a lovely sunny late summer day in Toronto last Saturday when I decided to go to a FC Toronto football match at BMO Field but after an hour I turned to my neighbour, an English guy called Jamie as it turned out, and posed this question for the preceding 60 minutes had been full of the most complete footballing dross that I can remember seeing.

Jamie said this was entirely normal this season and went on to give me a complete run down of the reasons why and the machinations in general of the MLS and of course FC Toronto.

Its all about money naturally.

The pre-game show with national anthems respectfully sung

The MLS has a salary cap which the game programme said was around $350,000 per year per player.  The cap is set in aggregate per team so its up to each team how much they pay each player.  This effectively means that no big name is likely to turn up to play MLS in their prime.

Well not exactly because in 2008 things changed to enable MLS teams to attract big names so long as they didn't form part of the salary cap.  This meant teams could buy 1 non-salary capped player which is how the LA Galaxy team managed to hire David Beckham.  They kept other stars like Landon Donovan by paying them most of the salary cap which is why LA didn't win anything for years.

The MLS has a draft mechanism like other US major league sports but everything is tightly controlled by the MLS themselves down to setting player salaries, transfers, everything.  My new friend Jamie told  me that Toronto had agreed to transfer a well known player, organised everything within the salary cap, but MLS HQ just said "No" after which he went to another MLS club whence they said "Yes".  It all sounds rather sinister to me!

As for FC Toronto, they are owned by a media group called MLSE -- Major League Sports Enterprises -- which also owns all the other Toronto sports teams: The Raptors, The Blue Jays, The Maple Leafs and the Marlies.  Jamie told me all the teams are pretty much despised locally as they have the highest ticket prices in the North American sporting firmament yet the teams are all rubbish and never make any play-offs.

I'm pretty sure its not quite as drastic as all that as getting a ticket is pretty difficult usually.  I'd been lucky as it was the end of the season and the teams on display were 2nd last and last respectively, by quite a wide margin too (the other team was DC United who'd left most of their best players at home for the match apparently).

Jamie was optimistic though as in the past year ownership of MLSE had changed from the Ontario Teachers Pension Plan who didn't care much about sports or results, only their ongoing dividend, to a joint venture between Rogers and Bell Canada, the 2 big telephone companies in Canada.  This he hoped meant a change in attitude towards the teams, hopefully more money to buy talent and a far more professional approach.

The programme itself mentioned the hiring of a 31 year old GM for the football team who looked insanely young and whose talent apparently was his ability to understand how the salary cap worked.  He'd previously worked for a Baseball team in the US.  I immediately thought of Jonah Hill in the Moneyball movie with Brad Pitt in it.

Ironically as soon as I started the conversation with Jamie the game perked right up and Toronto hammered in 3 more goals, good ones too, to end up 4-1 winners by the end.

Pretty impressive view from my seat above the Directors' Box

Maybe I'd been a bit harsh in my earlier assessment!

You can just see the tallest residential building in North America in the distance to the left of the Canadian flag

And here it is a bit closer.  71 storeys in all their glory.