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.

The jewel of NYC



If Flushing Meadows-Corona Park sprawled across Manhattan's Midtown instead of a former ash dump in East Queens, it'd be the jewel of New York City. Tourists would swarm to it, clog up the internet with a million Instagram snaps of it, and coo about it endlessly to jealous friends and colleagues once they returned home. 

Not only is the park a vast lung of greenery and flora, it's a movie set; plenty of sights that belong there will have caught your eye on the silver screen and your own TV. There are attractions to rival any seen elsewhere in the city, world-famous sporting venues too. Best of all? There are rocket ships. And UFOs. Beat that, Central Park.

As it is, the majority of tourists (and New Yorkers, too) rarely stray too far from the close and familiar, and perhaps the park is all the better for it. The families who set up vollyball nets between trees and enjoy the endless parades of lawns and cherry blossom are mostly locals from Corona, a predominantly Latino neighbourhood. The footpaths aren't thick with impatient joggers and torturously slow packs of tourists despite the park being easy enough to reach; pick up the 7 subway from Times Square or Grand Central and head out under the East River into Queens and keep going until 111th St.

The site was originally transformed from an ash dump to host the 1939 World's Fair and again for the 1964 World's Fair. It's the second of these spectacles that provided the obvious landmarks we know and recognise today. The star attraction is the Unisphere, a steel globe 12 storeys high surrounded by frills of fountains and lights. The backdrop to the Unisphere is a concrete spectacle of towers and angles; the World's Fair observation decks and the US State Pavilion. Neither the observation towers nor the pavilion are open to the public; the saucer-shaped decks are in fact disguised flying saucers, or at least they were in their leading role at the climax of Men In Black, while the pavilion provided the stage for the Stark Expo in Iron Man 2.

A short amble away are both the Queens Museum of Art and Queens Zoo. The Museum is housed in the only building that remains from the first World's Fair and provided a base of operations to the United Nations before their move to Manhattan. The prize exhibition remains one commissioned and built for the 1964 World's Fair; the Panorama is a scale model of New York City that sprawls across 9,000 square feet of floorspace and details every single building in NYC standing in 1992. Queens Zoo also makes use of a World's Fair building; a giant geodesic dome that has been repurposed as the zoo's aviary.

If you visit by subway, your first sight of the park will likely be of rocket ships, a pair of pristine Atlas and Titan rockets that blasted the Mercury and Gemini astronauts into space. They're part of the New York Hall of Science, built in 1964 and in operation ever since. It's hands-on stuff with plenty for kids to do inside and out, but then who doesn't love rockets? To the north of the park, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center is the current home of the US Open, and Citi Field provides grandstand views of NYC's other baseball team, the New York Mets. To the south, visitors row their hired boats across the calm expanse of Meadow Lake.

It may not be a place for the first-time, or even second-time visitor to NYC - it's a city rudely spoilt with sights and activities - but when you return next, set aside half a day for exploring Queens. Tennis, baseball, rockets, art, cityscapes, lakes and UFOs - Flushing Meadows-Corona Park is a jewel of New York City, but it's one that few travellers discover.


"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.

Unique bars


It's a futile exercise trying to list the "best" bars in New York City; not only are there hundreds to consider, but plenty more are opening every month. Consequently any list is ridiculously subjective to the point of pointlessness. So instead, here's a handful of venues if you're looking for "somewhere different" - whether it's to get boozed up, live the high life or make an impression.



Radegast Hall & Biergarten (corner of N 3rd St & Berry Street, Brooklyn)

Would you honestly travel any distance to try a pub's house mustard? It's a ludicrous suggestion, or at least it is until you visit Williamsburg's Radegast Hall. Amongst the deserted lots and half-built condos of hipster central, there are a dozen craft ales and German swills to sample at the bar, while the beer hall offers long wooden benches, sausages aplenty and a full menu besides. A great place to mingle but avoid weekends during good weather; the retractable roof rolls back on the biergarten and you'll struggle to get through the door.

Boom Boom Room, The Standard Hotel (Washington Street at W 13th Street, Manhattan)
The Standard Hotel straddles the phenomenally popular High Line in Manhattan's Meatpacking District. Ditch the trainers, dress up and take the elevator to the hotel's top floor. There are actually two rooms, though you probably won't find the one with the jacuzzi. Instead enjoy the most lavish bar you've ever stepped foot in and feel a million dollars, still considerably less than was spent on the fixtures and fittings; cream and beige leathers, polished woods and chandeliers, a carpet worth more than your house and floor-to-ceiling windows with views stretching to Midtown in one direction and to the Statue of Liberty in the other.

Drinks are pricey so order a signature cocktail, make it last and enjoy a New York sunset among the well-to-do crowd. Get there no later than 6.30pm otherwise you'll have to hustle the door staff and forget going altogether if it's after dark - the Boom Boom Room is renowned for extravagantly debauched late-night parties that you won't be invited to.

The Jane Hotel Ballroom (Jane Street and 12th Avenue, Manhattan)
In a former life the Jane Hotel was a seaman's refuge, the same that provided lodgings to the broken and traumatised crew of the Titanic. Now it's perhaps the best place to stay in Manhattan when your budget is tight, but even the guests miss the discrete entrance to the ballroom leading off reception. It's a place to try out for the atmosphere rather than any specific drink recommendations; the crowd is young, cosmopolitan and flush, 20 and 30-something year old New Yorkers, and the ballroom is actually a sweeping open study suspended in near-darkness.
Barcade (388 Union Avenue, Brooklyn)
More craft ales than you'll manage in a week of trying, two dozen arcade machines and the opportunity to see your high score live on in legend. Pouring quarters into video games and good beer makes for a fun night at Barcade in Williamsburg. Just don't get your hopes up about smashing those high scores - according to the chalkboard suspended above the crowds, the record for Arkanoid hasn't been beaten since 2006.

The Back Rooms (102 Norfolk Street, between Rivington Street and Delancy Street)
Prohibition outlawed the sale, production and import of alcohol in 1920, leading to the rise of smuggling, organised crime and bars operating in boozy back rooms away from the prying eyes of law enforcement. In the past decade, the Roaring Twenties have inspired numerous Prohibition-themed bars across the city. While there are plenty to recommend, some well-known bars such as Death & Co and PDT (Please Don't Tell) are usually more effort than they're worth.

For the beginner, start in the Lower East Side on Norfolk Street with a low iron gate marked "LES Toy Company". Half a dozen steps beyond the gate is a long, oily black alleyway below street level, then it's up the steps to an unmarked door. The warm and comforting light at the end of the tunnel is The Back Rooms, a bohemian, upmarket bar that welcomes you with open arms, regal sofas, dimly-lit chandeliers and crimson flocked wallpaper. Serving up cocktails in tea cups may seem a tad pretentious, but it's entirely fitting for the period.

The Raines Law Room (48 W 17th Street between 5th and 6th Ave)
Before Prohibition there was Raines Law, which in 1896 attempted to curb the drinking of men working six days week - the norm for the era - by prohibiting the sale of alcohol in bars on Sundays. There was a loophole; alcohol could be served in hotels offering accommodation, which led to saloons kitting out upper floors in beds and furniture. The Raines Law Room takes its names from this, yet another failed attempt to enforce sobriety. There's nothing to suggest a bar other than a covered doorway; you'll need to push the doorbell on the unmarked entrance and wait for a response. From plush Chesterfield sofas, guests can sip cocktails and summon waiters with electric bells. Reservations are required on several nights of the week, making it the perfect hideaway to impress your guests.


"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.

Fireflies & barflies



"What did you say your name was?"
"Good to meet you Paul, and thanks. Have a great day."

And with that, Alan Tudyk shook my hand again, turned off Bowery and power-strolled his pet down 5th Street. You'd recognise his face from the dozens of films and TV shows he's starred in, but you probably wouldn't know the name unless you're a fan of Firefly. I'm a stupidly big fan. That was the reason I'd sat in the audience of his theatre show That Beautiful Laugh just an hour before, a couple of blocks away in the East Village's La Mama theatre. That was the reason I'd caught up with him, introduced myself and complimented his performance.

It was very much a New York moment - a fleeting experience, a serendipitous occurrence that feels unique to New York City. The phrase may be a cliche, and only a fool would argue that rushes of wonder can't occur wherever we are in the world, but each to their own - I'm hopelessly in love with the city, I feel special every time it reaches out to me. Lying beneath the cherry blossom trees in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, gazing up at the might of the Unisphere. Sipping cocktails above the Hudson River as the sun sets over the Statue of Liberty. Stood alone on Coney Island beach in the piercing winter sunshine. The saxophonist under the bridge in Central Park. Stumbling upon a block party in Brooklyn. Spongebob Squarepants and Catwoman making out on Halloween. 

I realised I was head over heels for New York six years ago, when the barman in Rudy's recognised me. I'd only drank in the Hell's Kitchen dive once, some six months before. We shook hands and introduced ourselves to one another. The barman's name was Gary, Gary the Glaswegian, and he wore rounded spectacles, a white shirt, black tie and waistcoat and a devilishly long beard. And then bought Gary bought me a drink because, he told me, I was a regular. In that moment of generosity the city won me over.


Six years later and there hasn't been a trip back to New York where I haven't called by Rudy's. It's small, it's dark, the booths have been reupholstered in red duct tape. But it's still $2.50 for a pint of Rudy Red, the jukebox is still the best in town, the hot dogs are still free and the crowd is always local; the cab-driving philosophers, the comic book writers, the retired Navy marines. The doorman still makes a big deal of telling me I'm too young to drink there and I better have some ID or else. I take everyone I meet to Rudy's, it's my New York tradition.

"Hey, are you Paul?" 

I was stood by the window pouring a pitcher of Rudy's Red, my first time back this year. The voice was a thick New York drawl, its owner wore a flat cap and an exploding moustache that obscured his mouth.

"I'm Danny, I'm the manager here. And this is Jack, the owner." Danny gestured to his frail and elderly friend. "We wanted to come over and say hello, and say thank you - for all the great things you say about us, for being a regular."

They wanted to thank me for being a regular in a bar I drink in three, maybe four times a year.

"I'm 85 now, but I've been drinking in here since I was 16," said Jack between slow sips of his shot. "I knew I wanted to buy this place right then, just had to wait few more years til I could afford it."

"All the years working behind the bar," said Danny, "I must have seen hundreds, yeah hundreds of kids come in here with a new date. They'd say 'Danny, I'm bringing her to Rudy's for her first time, and if she doesn't like it then I know she's not the one for me'. I remember this girl who brought a guy here, and-"

The stories continued for another twenty minutes. Hearing Danny's tales and meeting Jack, it was everything to me and a quintessential New York moment; generous, personal, unique. New York has never turned a blind eye or given me the cold shoulder, only shared experiences and opportunities I've cherished and adored. If we're lucky, we all find a place we feel we belong. New York is mine, every moment I'm there.



"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.