Letter from New York City

BC Business Magazine

I’m gnawing determinedly on a rubberized “breakfast bagel’ at a wobbly Formica table surrounded by orange plastic chairs with bent legs. A waxy linoleum floor is reflecting the kind of flourescent lighting usually found only in fish tanks. Despite mirroring the queasy ambiance of a Greyhound station café, this is supposedly one of the world’s most prestigious institutions. And it’s as depressing as hell.

 

New York is studded like an over-salted pretzel with well-known visitor attractions but on my trip I eschew obvious sites like Times Square and Central Park and head straight for the United Nations complex. Clinging to the East River as if it might detach itself and sail away, its soaring monochrome tower and squat office block is a monument to 1950s modernism.

 

It’s just as dated inside, where the interior resembles a grubby regional airport long past its prime. Underlining this, my uniformed tour guide arrives wearing what looks like an old Pan-Am flight attendant outfit. She starts by pointing out some motley artworks lining the corridors of power. Donated by member nations, many look like the dusty macaroni and string collages that children produce and parents feel duty-bound to display.

 

Traipsing into the cavernous General Assembly Hall illustrates the problem here. Paint-scuffed walls and threadbare chairs show that money is in short supply – only 50 nations are up-to-date on their membership dues, whispers the guide. I respond by heading straight to the subterranean souvenir shop, possibly the UN’s main source of funding. In the absence of any U Thant action figures, I peruse books including a Handbook on the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes Between States. It’s suspiciously thin.

 

Stepping back onto New York’s roiling thoroughfares, I weave towards Canal Street, home of the world’s biggest Chinatown. Shuffling past makeshift stalls selling bootleg Microsoft software and DVD movies that have only just hit theatres, I spot several Osama Bin Laden T-shirts that depict him in the crosshairs of a gun.

 

When I visited New York soon after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, tacky souvenirs including Twin Tower ashtrays and fire department baseball caps were being hawked on every street corner. The devastated site, still smouldering on my 2001 trip, quickly became a macabre tourist attraction with visitors showing up in the rain to peer through hastily erected fences. Arriving in the same area today, I find a vast, sanitized cavity awaiting a worthy replacement that no-one seems able to agree on.

 

With the sun sliding behind some of the larger skyscrapers, an end-of-afternoon drink seems in order. The Museum of Modern Art – now housed in a pricey new home on West 53rd – has a novel, lounge-style watering hole for chin-stroking art lovers. Balancing on a cuboid vinyl stool that must have seemed like a good idea on paper, I combine a couple of pricey gin and tonics with some frenzied postcard writing. As the drinks take effect, the final few cards become vague, monosyllabic scrawls.

 

Now in full relaxation mode, I make for the early evening show at the Comedy Cellar on MacDougal Street, where stand-up legends like Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock cut their comic teeth. Wedged elbow-to-elbow in a claustrophobic, almost pitch-black room where servers tiptoe as if they have night vision, I sit back and take-in the roster of three wisecracking New Yorkers. While the UN struggles to find common ground among its members, some themes seem to unite everyone looking for a good laugh here: degenerating relationships, getting older and the collected wisdom of George W. Bush.

 

Essentials

 

Can’t miss: Mets

April in New York is all about romance, especially if you’re a Mets fan in love with one of baseball’s legendary teams. The home opener at Shea Stadium is on April 3 but there are games throughout the month. Cheap seats are just US$5. mets.com.

 

Cool eats: Rainbow Grill

The 65th floor of the Rockerfeller Center is worth visiting for its fine Northern Italian cuisine and sparkling art deco interiors but it’s the panoramic sunset views of the skyline that make it special. You can almost reach out and touch the twinkling towers of the surrounding metropolis. Entrees from US$26. rainbowroom.com

 

Best bed: Library Hotel

The idea of skulking around the stacks for the night may be an unwelcome reminder of university finals but this discreet boutique property suggests that hitting the books may be cool after all. Rooms are themed on Dewey Decimal sub-topics like money and erotica and there are plenty of volumes lying around if you run out of ideas. Rooms from US$289. libraryhotel.com.

 

One thing we need:

Delis on every street corner. There’s nothing more civilised than being able to buy a ham on rye on your way home from the pub.

 

One thing we don’t need:

Uber-crowded sidewalks. For an unhindered stroll along Fifth Avenue, consider walking naked and barking like a dog.

 

Weather: 

More refreshing than a New York cabby’s attitude, changeable April alternates springtime blue skies with regular showery days. Expect temperatures from 8-15 degrees Celsius.

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