Penn Station

 

 


"Any city gets what it admires, will pay for, and, ultimately, deserves. Even when we had Penn Station, we couldn’t afford to keep it clean. We want and deserve tin-can architecture in a tinhorn culture. And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed." - The New York Times, 1963

Nobody likes drinking in train station bars. They're the last resort of the weary traveller, the delayed, the desperate-to-be-someplace-other-than-here. Tracks in New York's Penn Station is such a place, a long, skinny bar serving oysters and Guinness to the down-at-heart and late-of-train. It's impossible to find without a local pointing the way and once you have found it you'd rather not leave - not because of the hospitality but because the alternative is navigating your way through Penn Station again.

A friend insisted we grab one last drink in Tracks before my connection to Newark Liberty International and it was the first time I'd stepped into the metropolis beneath the metropolis. It was an ugly place. I mean, really ugly. Penn Station may offer tourists relatively cheap and quick airport transfers to and from Newark but there's a reason guidebooks prefer to talk about Grand Central Terminal instead.

In the heart of Manhattan, buried deep beneath Madison Square Garden, it's a dirty, soulless bunker of corridors and panicked commuters, panicked because they haven't the first clue where the hell they are. It's a football-pitch sized version of the Industrial Zone in the Crystal Maze, but with infinitely less character and infinitely more people wondering where the exit is.

It wasn't always this way. When Pennsylvania Station opened in 1910 - above ground - it was a decadent temple of pink marble, glass ceilings and ornate sculptures. Tuscan columns extended across the frontage, behind which a shopping arcade led to the waiting room, the largest in the world and itself inspired by the Roman Baths of Caracalla. The scale and beauty dwarfed that of Grand Central.

And yet the City Council demolished it in 1963, deeming it an unnecessary, unsustainable relic in an age of ailing rail travel. Today nothing remains of the original Penn Station at the location except for a single staircase and two eagle ornaments. So instead of gazing up into the blue New York sky through an opulent vaulted ceiling of steel and glass, you can stand in line with three dozen pissed-off commuters in a miserable underground bunker, unable to comprehend why there are only ever two kiosks open at any time.

There was a silver lining to the destruction of the original Penn Station. So outraged were New Yorkers by the decision to raze the building that their campaigning led to the formation of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Act. It was this Act that saved Grand Central from a similar fate several years later. So while we can no longer enjoy a Roman spectacle in the heart of Manhattan and instead have to schlep down cramped passages bereft of light and soul, we should raise a glass to the legacy of Penn Station - in a railway station or wherever we happen to be.

 

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published soon. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

Crazy people

 
 
The panicked diner next to us pushed back from her table, stood up and whipped around to see who had snatched her jacket from the chair. We were seated outside a Spanish restaurant in Manhattan's West Village, enjoying the warmth of the New York evening. Among the jovial passers-by tripping along the sidewalk, an opportunistic thief had fled. But who? 

"Was it the goat?" suggested the waitress.

It wouldn't have been my first guess, to be honest. A discussion was had between staff and other diners and it was agreed that yes, a goat roaming the streets of the West Village was the likely culprit. It was a deduction of Holmesian proportions, no doubt aided by the generous quantities of Sangria that proceeded it.

20 minutes later, our group had settled up, left the restaurant and walked across to 7th Avenue, where we were confronted by one man and his goat, a scruffy brown kid with matted hair and no jacket to speak of.

"Why are you walking a goat around New York," I asked.

"I need the exercise," huffed the owner. Touché.

"But why do you own a goat?"

"You don't have pets in Britain?"

Wasted bums screaming and lurching through the streets before lunchtime, evangelists spreading the word from their kerbside pulpits - that's standard colour for a city of any size. New York really pushes the crazy boat out.

The previous day had offered irrefutable evidence of this. As I sank my teeth into a burger on 3rd Avenue, a young woman called Moira passed by the cafe window. One of the eight million people in New York I'd never met, and I knew her name. It wasn't her face I recognised, but her breasts and the fact that I could count the freckles on them. The 29 year-old activist had recently made headlines the world over for her topless strolls around the East Village, on the basis that men were allowed to do so and it wasn't against the law. So why not, eh? A local approached her and asked to take her photo, and topless Moira posed accordingly.

Then there was the man playing golf on a cleared lot in SoHo, smashing balls into the wall of the adjacent store. The person dancing on a Times Square street corner with a cardboard box on their head, a collection bucket in hand and a hand-scrawled sign slung around his neck that read "I AM THE WEED MAN. I NEED MONEY FOR WEED." The haggard and haunted pensioner wearing a fur coat and blue felt fedora, furiously snatching at passing motes of dust. The woman in the Bowery passed out on top of a distressed piano. The gentleman wearing a cat hat.

That's not an unusual day. That's New York. It's a city where people can reinvent themselves, be who they want to be and live their lives accordingly. A city where you can wear a box on your head, let it all hang out, take your pet goat for a stroll or wear a cat on your head. There are sights to be seen in NYC, but its people are an attraction in their own right.

 

 

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Autumn 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.

Coney Island

 
David Whitley visits New York’s Coney Island – the ultimate throwback theme park 

We’re not in Williamsburg any more. Any moustaches spotted in Coney Island are likely to have been there for life, whilst titanic beer bellies are a more regular sight than drainpipe trousers.

This is the Brooklyn that hasn’t got cool yet. It’s a long way from that. The only artists in these parts are the sword-swallowers and contortionists that perform in the sideshows. Everyone else is too busy fending off the seagulls on the boardwalk to make creative statements.

Coney Island is a real throwback. It’s a place that, up until two years ago, allowed members of the public to pay $5 a pop to fire paintballs at a live human being. Shoot The Freak will be sadly missed by anyone who objects to the gentrification of the borough.

Still, at least there’s the Hot Dog Eating Contest. Once a year, binge eaters from across the world get together outside Nathan’s to stuff themselves with as many hotdogs as possible within 10 minutes. A man called Joey Chestnut has won five years in a row. He holds the record – 68 hotdogs in ten minutes. Others try and fail to attain it; an arena liberally plied with vomit in front of a bear pit-like 40,000 spectators is not uncommon.

It’s a squally Monday in spring, so nothing’s open. An observation tower clanks backwards and forwards in the wind, looking like it could collapse at any minute. Apparently it’s cheaper to leave it up there, closed and written off for visitors by perfectly reasonable health and safety inspectors than to pull it down.

The new Screamzone set of rides sits relatively polished, but empty. It’s one grade up from a fairground – undoubtedly thoroughly enjoyable for a couple of hours, but lacking that certain tinge of danger that should rightfully be associated with Coney Island.

By ‘danger’, I don’t mean the 1980s-style danger when the area was covered in syringes and roamed by the sort of chaps whose idea of sideshow performance was robbing people at knifepoint. Coney Island has cleaned up considerably since then – largely at the instigation of former New York mayor (and proud Brooklynite) Rudy Giuliani. He had an extensive new station built at the end of the line, and generally got people to get their brooms out.

Attractions come and go, as various companies try to make a profit from Coney Island. New Yorkers hate the idea of it being taken over by condo developments, but not enough to actually go and spend enough money there to make running rides there profitable. For many, it’s a place best kept in memory than reality.

But in a bid to stop the developers moving in, concreting over the boardwalk and introducing peace and quiet where screaming kids should be, three rides have been protected. Of these, the Cyclone is the icon. And it’s what gives that proper Coney Island danger factor.

This ancient wooden rollercoaster is not so much rickety as patched together Blue Peter-style with double-sided sellotape, loo rolls and wishful thinking. Probably best not attempted after 68 hotdogs.

Disclosure: David visited Coney Island as the last stop on A Slice Of Brooklyn’s pizza sampling-based tour of Brooklyn’s less heralded suburbs (www.asliceofbrooklyn.com). He stayed as a guest of the spanking new (and rather spectacular) Wythe Hotel in Williamsburg (www.wythehotel.com)
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roundtheworldflights.com have a great 4 day Essential Package



Brooklyn Superheroes



In Brooklyn, David Whitley finds himself choosing whether to buy omnipotence, invisibility or cybernetic henchfish 

There’s a sign by the door. “Rivalries and archrivalries must be left outside.�? Ah, these wacky comic book types and their geek humour.

But there’s more. “The Cape Tester is – Operational; Free of Charge; Wonderful.�? A Cape Tester? Hang on – this isn’t quite the average comic book store. As the sign suggests, near the entrance is a Cape Tester. It’s a platform with a big fan underneath. And if you’ve not brought your own cape with you, there are some handily racked up around the Tester for you to try. Oh, be still my inner child’s beating heart…

Sometimes you stumble across a concept so delightful that you just want to give it a big cuddle. Brooklyn Superhero Supply is one such concept. Upon stepping across the threshold it becomes obvious that it’s not a comic book shop. But working out quite what it is? - that’s a different matter.

In one display case is a skeleton. Advertised for sale around it are a lightweight ribcage and telescopic armature. On the shelves behind it in a jar of water are “cybernetic henchfish�?, a particle collider, a human face and a vacuum chamber.

Then there are the screens, showing the threat levels from supervillainy. One area is ‘sorted’, others don’t fare as well -  ‘threats’ and ‘disorderly’ are two of the more worrying updates.

Wandering through, different superpowers are for sale in what look like cans of weedkiller. Cloning fluid is a snip at $9. Invisibility ($10.99) and telekinesis ($14) are a bit steeper. Still, probably worth the investment in the long run.

In the middle of the shop is a red cage. Or, if we’re being accurate, a Devillainizer. Once inside it, a computer screen asks you a series of tricky questions to check just how maniacal you are. “Do puppies make you smile?�?, “Do you live in a volcano?�? and “Do you have a secret lair?�? are amongst the teasers. I’m not utterly villainous, it turns out.

As I’m staggering around, utterly bewildered, a stream of children walks through. They head towards the metal shelves at the back, and suddenly the shelves swing open. Of course – it’s a secret back room.

But what the hell is going on in there? I turn to the man in a high chair looking down on the shop and ask. “It’s a volunteer project,�? he says. “The kids are here for after-school tuition in whatever they need it in; history, maths, science, whatever.�?

And all the superhero supply stuff? That’s a mighty elaborate front. The level of detail in everything is astonishing – even the most hardened adult could be lost for hours checking out every ingenious little sign and label. There are secret identity kits, fire extinguisher-sized containers dubbed ‘Instant Tsunami’ and so much more. So much effort has gone into what’s essentially an entrance hall to an after-school club.

“I hate to use to word ‘lure’, but it gets the kids excited about coming here,�? says the volunteer shop assistant. “And we’ve always wanted creativity to be a focus, so it fits.�?

And what’s in the jars labelled as ‘Gravity’ or ‘Omnipotence’? “Usually coloured sand,�? he replies. “People usually take it out and fill it with candy then pass it on to someone as a gift. I fill them with stationary.

“But the money from the sales helps to run the program.�?

Wow. I’m stunned, and cheered at the same time. What a fabulous way to get what are essentially donations for a worthy project. Charities who send chuggers to harass people on high streets across the world, take note.

Details: Brooklyn Superhero Supply can be found at 327 Fifth Avenue, Brooklyn. It’s run by 826NYC


Jane Hotel

 


With age comes consideration and respect for others. I know that while I’m not a consistent snorer – there are occasions when people have been moved to check for a pulse – I can drive others to the brink of dark and heinous acts. The two strangers who shared a room with me in Barcelona in February 2008 will testify to their consideration of violence; fortunately they were content with shouting square in my face and shaking my bed like maniacs. I didn’t wake up. That first morning we all laughed about it. The second morning, not so much. 

18 months ago I decided I was too old for hostels; I needed my own space, at least for eight hours. What made my mind up was three largely sleepless nights spent at a hostel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, watching wide-eyed as dark shapes scuttled across the walls. But where can you book a single room in New York that's anywhere near affordable? There are no doubt more to discover, but so far I've tried and can recommend AirBnB (ask somebody with NYC smarts before you book anything), the Americana Inn in Midtown (basic and well-placed for first time visitors, but request a room off the street), the Bowery House in the Lower East Side (quirky, cool, a great take on the traditional hostel set-up) and The Jane in Manhattan’s West Village. 


The Jane is my favorite (or at least it was until the room rate crept passed $100); not because of its off-beat personality or staff in bellboy attire, or the dainty single sailor's cabins, or the passable music collection of the DJ who entertains the crowds of 20 somethings in the Jane's ballroom. What draws me to The Jane is its kiss with history, when it found itself in the wake of an event that dominated world news in April 1912, an event that continues to reverberate throughout popular culture a century later. 


The Jane has been known by other names since 1908 when it opened as the American Seaman's Friend Society Sailors' Home and Institute. It was originally a flophouse for sailors and officers who disembarked at the piers that fingered the Hudson River opposite. Sailors would pay 25 cents a night for board in a cabin that accommodated a bed and little else – it was possible to touch opposite walls with fingertips. It still is, in fact.
 

On the eighteenth day of April 1912, the Institute provided shelter to a contingent of DBS – destitute British seamen. Destitute, because their wages had stopped the moment their ship slipped beneath the grey and cruel waters of the Atlantic. They were the crew of the RMS Titanic, lost at sea three days earlier while on its maiden voyage. 


The New York Times dated 20th April 1912 reported that the surviving crew were invited to the Institute for a prayer service. In sight of the White Star piers, shipmates filled their bellies with sandwiches and coffee. Some wept as they recalled the bitter, blunt horror of that night at sea, before they “coughed apologetically for their emotion.” The Women’s Relief Committee, upon hearing of their hardships, shouldered a purse of over $2,500 to be shared among the crew.
 

The men were determined not to let such frozen horror break their spirit as they roared “Nearer, my God to Thee” in unison. But throughout the evening, the crew shared their stories of that darkest of nights; of sailors paid gratuities by millionaires who clambered on board their lifeboats; of a fire that took hold below deck just an hour out of Southampton, in the part of the ship where the first bulkhead gave way to the sea.
 

�?And so the stories went,’ reported the New York Times. �?One told of hearing as many as twenty shots fired, among all the groans and cries that rose as the Titanic went down, shots which he thought were suicide shots. One told of a frantic swim for the raft that was soon so crowded they had to beat men off. One who climbed aboard had on a soldier’s uniform. He lay down on the raft and died, and they pushed him off to make room for the living.’
 

How many guests know of The Jane's history? How many know of the inconsolable despair heard by its walls, in prayers, in screams, in quiet sobbing? How many look no further than the price tag and the stag’s head that crowns the flamboyant lobby? Too few, perhaps. For me, it's another opportunity to understand New York and its place in the world. A stay at the Jane is always a night to remember.

 

 

   
"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
 
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.