The Big Five-O

The Big Five-O
Tuesday 21st May 2019

The day began as it always does back home, with breakast in bed, only today was no ordinary morning. Today was Julie's 50th birthday! I couldn't think of a better place to celebrate it. (Other than Hawaii perhaps, because of the TV show Hawaii Five-O!)

Despite the early hour Julie was super excited. "I can't believe it, I am waking up on my birthday in NEW YORK!"  she delighted.  She was truly thrilled to be here. The blinds were still open after last night and our room had filled with the bright sunlight of the 5am  morning. This wasn't helping us adjust ourselves to New York time.

She opened up all her birthday cards, which since the advent of Facebook only those older than us continue to send and put all four of them out on display in the lounge.

When our "continental breakfast for one" arrived we had already been awake for 3 hours and on the verge of starvation. That was soon remedied when we shared a bagel with cream cheese. It was delcicious but the bagel was so enormous it filled us both up that we couldn't eat anything else.

We now know there are bagels and then there are New York bagels!

"Did you know that they are deep fried?" asked Julie.  No wonder they taste so good.

Despite being eager to see the city we didn't get moving until after 10am. It was a conscious decision not to rush around on this trip. Despite that, I did still have an itinerary for us to follow!

It was a beautiful day with clear blue skies and sunshine. As we walked towards the One World Trade Centre we were amazed by the sheer size of it. At 541.3m it currently stands as the 6th tallest in the world.

I caught a reflection in a window and suddenly saw two towers. It brought back an eerie reminder of the twin towers which collapsed after the terror attacks of 9/11. I remember watching it unfold, streaming live on the internet whilst I was in work. The whole world was left in shock by what happened that day. 

There were two memorials where the original towers once stood but we didn't stop to have a look. I had that scheduled for tomorrow.

Onwards and forwards towards the Church Street subway station we passed a striking architechtural feature known as the Occulus. It was several white iron spikes fanned out in such a way they looked like wings. It was rather disappointing to discover that this impressive structure crowned nothing more exciting than a shopping centre.

We soon descended underground to the subway station and made our way to the ticket machine. We stood there for quite some time scratching our heads. I knew we wanted the E line to 5th Avenue but I couldn't work out which option I needed. Fortunately there was a ticket booth at the end where we could speak to a real person.

He sold us an 8 ride Metro card for $23 which he said was better value (but I'm sure single tickets cost $2.75, which x 8 makes $22, so we were paying a $1 more for the reusable card?) We consoled ourselves at being slightly ripped off by agreeing it would at least save the hassle of getting tickets every time we used the subway.

We swiped the card, twice and were immediately on the platform. Our timing couldn't have been worse as the train left before we could step onboard. Fortunately another train on the other side of the platform waiting to leave. 

Church Street was the end of the line so they all travelled in the same direction but we were unsure if this was the E line train. We walked down the platform a little to see if we could work out where this train was going but there was no indication on the outside.

Not wanting to miss another train we stepped inside where a modern LED sign clearly showed it to be the E line to the Jamaica Centre, Queens.

Whilst we waited to set off we noticed a strange phenomenon. Several people were walking "through" the carriage. They would enter the first door, walk the length of the carriage and exit the second door. They looked like perfectly normal people. They repeated this odd habbit through the next carriage I assume until they reached the end of the train or it set off, whichever happened first

When it was time to go we heard an announcement "Stand clear of the closing door" in a voice that sounded like a cartoon character, like Woody from Toy Story!  We had 10 stops to go and every time we heard it we had a little giggle. 

We got off at 5th Avenue - 53rd Street and followed the exit signs. Stepping out onto 53rd street was a little disorientating. Did we turn left or right?  Buildings towered over us so we couldn't even use the sun to judge East or West.  After a quick inie-meanie-miney-mo we turned left. 

We were aiming for the Rockerfeller Centre and ultimately it wouldn't have mattered as it's all just one big block.

In no time we reached 6th Avenue, also known as the Avenue of the Americas and turned down towards Radio City Music Hall, a famous New York landmark. It opened in 1932 and is part of the  Rockerfeller Centre, (which I didn't know before).

The next building we entered through some fabulous art deco brass and glass doors and stepped inside a dimly lit shopping centre. 

The main reason for being here was to buy tickets for the "Top of the Rock" experience. Access to the Rockerfeller's 70th floor rooftop.

It wasn't the only reason. I remember reading about this mural painted by Diego Rivera in1934. We've seen another one of his in San Francisco and thought it would be nice to tick another one off.

When we came to an information desk first we asked where we would find the entrance to the Top of the Rock. He looked like a man tired of answering the same question.

 I then enquired about the mural. The guy behind the counter, dressed like a 1930's police officer said "it ain't here, it's in Mexico" and pointed to the exit behind me.

"So where's that then?" I asked thinking he meant Avenue de Mexico or Little Mexico by the way he was pointing. "Mexico the country" he said "you stupid asshole" which he didn't say but his face did.

It was never completed because Diego Rivera refused to remove an image of Lenin. The Rockerfeller family then had the whole thing removed and plastered over. He recreated a version of the mural in Mexico City at the Palacio de Bellas Artes .

 Suitably embarrassed I moved along.

We eventually found the "Top of the Rock" ticket office in amongst all the stores on the lower floor.  My intention was to buy tickets for a timeslot later in the afternoon. I wasn't expecting there to be tickets avaiable in quarter of an hour's time. I thought it would be fully booked for hours in advance.

After a detour to the toilets it was time to make our way to the start of the "Top of the Rock" experience. Our tickets were checked and we waited by the elevator. Julie was beginning to feel rather anxious about hurtling up 70 floors in a little tin box. You could see the dread on her face as we stepped inside.

The doors shut and ... whoosh ... we went up one floor!  Ha ha!   It only took us up to the floor where the "experience" began.  

After going through airport style security we walked through a large room filled with photos and information about the construction of the Rockerfeller Centre.

They even had a photographer ready to take your picture sat on a large iron girder with a black and white view of 1930's New York as a back drop in an attempt to recreate that classic photo of those workers sitting on an iron girder eating their lunch.

 "Now lean back as if you're about to fall off" he asked. We rolled our eyes and half-heartedly faked an "oh my god we're about to fall off" then moved on. (We didn't even bother checking how the photos turnded out.)

Eventually we got to the real elevators. We waited patiently. It reminded me of queuing for a theme park ride. The anticipation was building and Julie was getting more and more nervous.

It was soon our turn. A member of staff told us that it would rise 67 floors in 43 seconds. Shaking like a leaf Julie began to count down the seconds as we took off. The elevator itself had a glass ceiling which was pretty cool to watch us shoot up at 93 fpm, (that's floors-per-minute).

Julie had her head down counting.  The elevator then started to slow down. "What's happening?" she blurted, on the verge of panicking because she had only counted up to 24!

Of course there was no incident to worry about, we had just reached the top floor.

When the doors opened she couldn't get out of there quick enough, apologising profusely as she politely and gently pushed people out of the way.  

We stepped out onto the 67th floor and immediately made our way outside onto a relatively small enclosed balcony.  A thick protective glass wrapped around to discourage anyone from climbing over whilst still allowing us to see the spectacular expanse of the sprawling city below.  

Julie tentatively walked towards the wall but retreated as she felt a little unsteady.

This was the first of three floors of observation decks so we returned inside and walked up two flights to the 69th floor. This outdoor area was a much larger open space with which Julie felt a lot more at ease. She even felt brave enough to walk right up to the edge, briefly.

 

She was rewarded with an iconic view of New York with the Empire State Building standing centre stage. This view alone was the reason I chose the Rockerfeller as the only skyscraper we would climb during this trip.  It was well worth it.

The Rockerfeller also had the benefit of a great view North over Central Park, although that was gradually being obstructed by newly built towers.  Much to their annoyance I'm sure.

There was one building, far to the left that was incredibly tall and stick thin. We wondered how that could possibly stand tall without some wobblying! "They're just taking it too far now!" was Julie's considered opinion.

 

There was still another level up for us to go. This one was inset and so it didn't need any protective glass. If you were stupid enough to fall over the edge you would ony drop 3 metres at most which would hurt but not kill you!

The bonus was, it offered unobstructed views in all directions and Julie felt a little safer. We spent quite some time up here.

Zooming in on the classic structure of the Empire State Building I couln't help but imagine King Kong scaling it, Ann Darrow in hand, being buzzed by bi-planes. I can remember as a child watching the film and being utterly captivated. Ask me to name a film set in New York and my first answer would always be King Kong. 

We could see for miles all around. North and South Manahattan and beyond was full of interest. The view to the East was not so much, and West was mostly out of view.

The only real disappointment was that the stunning Chrysler Building was mostly hidden from view by the boring concrete block tower of the MetLife building.

After less than half an hour we had seen all there was to see, taken our selfies, photographed every skyscraper in Manhattan, it was time to leave.

Coming down in an elevator was just as, if not more frightening for Julie.  It's not so much the calustophobia but the fear of plummeting to your death that worries her, so the sense of dropping whilst coming down doesn't help.

Safely back down on ground floor (or even underground- it was difficult to tell inside), we exited through the gift shop where we bought some postcards, another habit that is in decline courtesy of social media. We now only send postcards to those who send birthday cards, i.e. those over 60s!

Still a little agitated after the elevator Julie struck up a conversation with the shop assistant. She recomended Julie tried some "Black Seed" to take the edge off anxiety. "it'll mellow you out" she said.

"Are they legal?" I asked. Turns out that they are basically Nigella seed (often the oil) sold as some anti-oxidant rich miracle cure for everything from weight loss to cancer!

Moving on, we followed the exit signs for 5th Avenue where we passed a food store selling salad pots by the pound. Perfect for a picnic in Central Park.

I circled the deli counter shovelling in heaped spoonfulls of delicious stuff as I went.  Perhaps the dense and heavy boild eggs wasn't the most economical thing to put in. My overfilled tub cost over $20! Julie had spotted an offer of Fried Chicken and two sides for $10, and with those two sides being a double helping of mashed potato she was as pleased as punch.  

We couldn't wait to sit down and eat!

 

We came out of the Rockerfeller centre opposite the stunning Catherdral of St. Patrick, next to a statue of Atlas holding the whole world on his shoulders. We didn't dilly dally, we were on a mission.

Marching up 5th Avenue we came to Trump Tower. I hate toadmit it but it was very stylish, something you wouldn't associate with the incumbant president. He has the style of an oompaloompa but this was a very  striking skyscraper in black and gold and an interesting building blocks design. 

Directly opposite Trump Towers there was a one man protest. This guy, who looked like he came here every day stood there with a plackard denouncing Donald Trump as a "shit hole". It wasn't the most eloquent of criticism but it was funny.

We were too focused on our picnic to hang around to find out what his personal gripe was about Trump other than him being a "shit hole".

In no time we had reached Central Park where we followed a path down to a small lake known as The Pond. We stepped over a small fence which made us feel like we were breaking some rule (although we didn't see any 'keep off the grass' signs) and sat down to a wonderful view of the city. 

After we devoured our lunch, and I mean devoured, we went at it like a pair of hungry warthogs, we chilled for a little while. 

It was a lovely spot and surprisingly peaceful considering we were only a stone's throw away from all the hussle and bussle.

For a brief moment we felt miles away, all on our own in some forest. We were even treated to the sight of a heron looking for some fish for its lunch perched on a dead tree branch hanging over the water. It really was rather idyllic. 

At the far end of the pond was Gapstow Bridge, an old stone bridge arching over a narrow section of water. It looked very familiar. We would have seen it featured in countless movies.

Crossing over it we followed a path beneath an underpass before getting up onto Central Drive, a fully fledged road through the park complete with a pavement, or sidewalk as they're called over here. There weren't any cars but plenty of horse drawn carriages trotting tourists around.

Then we came to The Mall a long straight tree lined path flanked by many statues of famous people who seemed totally unrelated to America, for example Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, William Shakespeare, Beethoven, as if it was a bad case of historical appropriation. Oh, there was a Christopher Columbus who did discover the Americas.

It was a lot busier along here, with many stalls selling artwork and several buskers trying to earn a few dollars. As a rule the buskers were evenly spread out so you could hear them properly but we came to these two guys occupying the same spot, one playing the saxophone and the other the bagpipes. Both trying to drown out the other one. The noise was horrendous but neither one was giving up. We found it so funny but didn't hang about in case it escalated into a fist fight!

At the end of the Mall we came to Bethesda, which is a familiar name in America, but is also a town a few miles away from where we live in Wales. When I was a child I thought it was amazing that there was a place in America called Bethesda. "It must have been Welsh immigrants" I thought. Of course the name originally derives from a biblical reference to the Pools of Bethesda in Jerusalem.

There was also a pool here in the middle of which stood the Bethesda Fountain. 

It was very pleasant here as we sat down at the edge and people watched to the soothing sound of splashing water. People came, took selfies at the unimaginatively named lake, called The Lake and left. Not many hung around, everyone moving on to the next must-see.

We had hardly reached a third of the way down Central Park but decided we had seen enough for one day. It was time for a siesta.  We returned back down the Mall then towards Columbus Circle at the South Western corner of the park where we found the nearest subway entrance.

Benefiting from our multi-use ticket we breezed through onto the platform for line 1 where within minutes we were heading South, 10 stops,  to Chambers Street, somewhere in the Tribecca neighbourhood.

Despite only being a few minutes walk away from the One World Trade Centre it had a nice local "lived-in" feel to the area, low rise buildings, grocery stores, a school etc.

Once again orientating ourselves when stepping out of the subway was proving nigh on impossible. Looking at a paper map was pointless. Even looking at our positon on GoogleMaps was of no help. Only when we began to walk could we literally see in which direction we were heading. 

As we followed our little "you are here" blue dot moving on the map it didn't take us long to reach our hotel. 

Back in our suite we were a little disappointed not to have found a "little surprise" waiting for us. We had been expecting something only because the receptionist suggested it so.

 We had no right to be disappointed.  "oh me, oh my, our complimentary champagne hasn't been delivered, what will we do?"

Luckily we always carry an emergency supply!

So we opened our own bottle of Moet and gently snoozed away the rest of the afternoon. An alarm was set to wake us up, otherwise we could have easily slept straight through to the morning.

At about 6pm we used Uber. It was our first ever use of the taxi app and found it really convenient. No more standing on the corner of a street trying to hail a cab. The app also gave us a lot of information about our driver. Not only his name but a short bio. He was originally from Georgiaand had a rating of 4.2 out of 5.

The journey to the Broadway Theatre cost us $40. We had no idea if that was cheap or expensive for New York but wepaid Uber, not the driver.

We drove up West Street, which pretty much followed the riverside all the way, through the neighbourhoods of Tribeca,  West Village, Meat Packing District, Chelsea, Hudson Yards, and Hell's Kitchen.  It wasn't all glass and steel, in fact it was mostly old red brick warehouses, some renovated, some not.

At pier 86 we came across this massive aircraft carrier. We thought it was a bit odd to have a Naval base right in the centre of  the city but of course it wasn't. The USS Intrepid was now a Sea, Air and Space Museum. Not only had they preserved the ship for posterity it had several stellar items such as a cruise missile submarine, a Concorde supersonic aeroplane and the actual Space Shuttle Enterprise! 

I hadn't realised how interesting it all was and it hadn't made it into plans for this week. Perhaps we could squeeze it in on Friday we thought.

We turned down 54th Street reaching Broadway the street that breaks with convention by cutting diagonally across the rigid grid of streets and avenues.

King Kong [the musical] (which I couldn't say without singing in a theatircal manner to the tune of "Go West" by the Pet Shop Boys) was being performed at the Broadway Theatre.  Unlike many Broadway theatres this one actually was on Broadway!

We had arrived in plenty of time so we went to the bar for a drink. I needed a stiff drink (and a seat) after paying $40 for a large wine and a beer, especially as they were served in plastic King Kong branded cups! That was expensive even taken into account a $5 deposit on the cups. 

Our seats were in a great spot, we call it the middle/middle spot, not too near to the stage and not too far; not too much to the right nor the left; right in the centre.

 It was a lovely old theatre built in 1924 and one of the largest on Broadway with a capacity over 1700 but it had nothing spectacular of note. That was of no concern however, as the most important fact was the seats were very comfortable. 

 

Whilst we waited for the performance to begin we read the free show time magazine we were given. Inside it there was an insert that informed us this evening the role of Anne Darrow was to be played by the understudy Jennifer Noble and Fake Carl was also not as advertised.

The initial reaction would be of disappointment at not getting to see one of the leading stars of the show but as we didn't know who she was, then it mattered not.

The only thing that would upset me was if King Kong were to be replaced by a man in a gorilla suit. Then I would be a little pieved.

I have to admit I'm not the biggest fan of the musical theatre genre. I couldn't bare watching the film versions of Evita or West Side Story. I couldn't last much more than 10 minutes before switching them off.  However in my old age my attitudes have changed slightly. In fact after watching The Greatest Showman I would almost go as far as to say I enjoyed it. I definitey didn't hate it. 

At 7pm the curtain raised and the show began. I sat there with my arms folded.

Literally moments later I was engrossed. To start with the set was utter genius. Images of which ever location they needed was projected onto a large imax style surround screen giving a full panoramic view. It changed in an instant whenever they needed a change of scene.

But I think what I liked the most, ironically, was they weren't making a big song and dance about everything! There was plenty of dialogue, great storytelling, solid acting and the understudy Jennifer Noble was absolutely captivating. She nailed the goofy vulnerability and gritty determination of Anne Darrow.

We all know the story of how an out-of-work actress during post-depression 1930's New York gets hired by a desperate film director. They set sail to Skull Island to find adventure and a film. 

As they boarded the ship not only did the background change to project a moonlit open sea but a large section of the stage floor, cut in the shape of the bow of boat lifted up to perfectly recreate the sense of being onboard the SS Venture. It was a very clever set design. Well, it impressed me.  

The story continued as they reached Skull Island. Then came the moment we had all been waiting for, King Kong makes his entrance, 

At first it was dark. We couldn't see but we could hear him breathe heavily. Then we could sense movement as it approached the front of the stage. The anticipation was building, and then it roared an almighty roar, the stage was illuminated and there it stood in all its glory.

Yes, it was just a giant puppet but the skill with which it was moved was incredible. It took a team of puppeteers to push, shove, pull on ropes to make it look as realistic as possible. They made it look easy but the coardination and effort needed to replicate the movement of a gorilla would have been immense. The best bit however, the bit that brought it to life was the amazing animatronics controlling the face. Not only did it open the mouth when it roared but it could create recognisable facial expressions.

Then followed several dramatic scenes when Anne Darrow was taken by Kong, then a fight between the great ape and a huge serpent, which reminded me of that trippy moment in Disney's Fantasia, (which incidentally had it's world premier in this theatre) and then the capture of King Kong. 

After such a thrilling sequence it was the perfect time for an intermission which gave us time to catch our breath and refill our reusable plastic tumblers with some more expensive drinks.

We returned to our seats and King Kong was taken back to New York, put on show as the Eighth Wonder of the World, from which he escapes, takes Anne Darrow with him and climbs the Empire State Building.

The visual effects of Kong climbing up was cleverly done. There wasn't a physical tower there but the sense of movement was created by projecting onto the screen the windows of the Empire State moving down. Ok, you needed to suspend reality and use a little imagination but it worked for me.

Of course the story ends as we all know (I don't think I need to post a spoiler alert here, do I ?) with King Kong being shot down. A tragic end. 

At the curtain call we had permission to get our cameras out but I was too busy applauding to take that many. I did get King Kong and Anne Darrow, the two stars of the show. Jennifer Noble the understudy didn't let us down. I thought her performance was amazing and made a musical convert out of me. 

The curtain fell, the light's came on and we shuffled out of the theatre onto Broadway. It was dark by now and the street looked magical with al the neon signs.

The plan now was to have something to eat. Whilst doing some research Julie had come across Elen's Stardust Diner where the staff not only wait on tables but also sing. It was on Broadway just a minutes walk from the theatre so it had to be done.

There was a long queue outside. We usually don't do queues but today was different. It was Julie's birthday and the night was young. It was slow moving but after 10 minutes we managed to skip the line. In front of us were groups of four or more so when room for just two came up we were the first couple in the queue.

We followed a waitress inside and then upstairs to a long table that ran the length of the balcony overlooking the diners below. The food choice was pretty basic, however it did have a turkey dinner on the menu which was a big draw for Julie.

We ordered a "Brooklyn potato pancake" to share as a starter and paid an extra $2.50 for some melted cheddar cheese. The pancake was like a very thin greasy hash brown topped with bright orange processed cheese slice.  It was the kind of processed food kids love but they grow out of once their tastebuds develop.

 

My vegetarian burger was a bit lacklustre and I was again served a children's potato product. This time they were latticed potatoes and deep fried to its saturation point. Despite this, I ate it all.

Julie's Turkey dinner however was perfectly acceptable and tasty enough. But we weren't here for the food, we were here for the famous "singing servers"!

It was a really strange concept as they would pick up the microphone with their blue hygiene latex glove like a catering Michael Jackson and belt out show tunes.  Grease Lightning was fun but when they launched into Phanton of the Opera it really killed the mood.

I'm not too sure how much serving these singers actually did as it always seemed to be the same 3 or 4 performing. There were many more staff who weren't singing. They were doing the actual work, somebody had to, it was  incredibly busy. 

There was a compare, a master of ceremonies, a madame if you like, who every now and again would struggle to get up onto the "stage" which was literally a thin strip between the back of two rows of seats.

Julie was convinced she didn't like her. She came to this conclusion when she answered the question "What is the longest running Broadway show?"

Julie shouted out "Phantom of the Opera" but the maitre dee ignored her.

A little later she asked "Is there anyone celebrating their birthday here this evening?"   I made sure she heard us this time. Julie was made to stand up. She wasn't alone, there were another two or three in the room. The whole restaurant then sang "Happy Birthday".

Suitably embarassed we left. 

A minute later we were walking into the neon wonderland of Time Square. Here Broadway met 7th Avenue creating a narrow slither of a building upon which every inch of it was covere in neon advertising screens. The flanks were also filled with bright and colourful screens.

The atmosphere was literally electric. I could almost taste it. Despite the late hour the square was buzzing.  

We didn't hang around for long and continued walking away from the crowds to the end of Times Square where it was easier to hail a cab. This was a yellow cab not Uber but we still found out the old fashion way by talking to the driver that his name was Victor and he was from Ecuador. The ride also only cost $20, half the price of our outward journey earier.

Once we got to our hotel it was a case of straight to bed and straight to sleep. It had been a very long but fun-filled day. Certainly one worthy of a 50th birthday.

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