Notes from Around the Sundial: New York part 1

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Gnomon's column image, showing a sundial surrounded with the words Notes From Around the Sundial'

And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!

My Trip to New York


One of the things I saw on my recent trip to New York was a work of art by Japanese conceptual artist On Kawara. It is called I Got Up At. It consists of a series of postcards of Japan which Kawara sent to one of his friends, each one rubberstamped with "I GOT UP AT" and the time he arose that day. So in keeping with that tradition:

I GOT UP AT 6:00

Mrs G, my elder daughter El, and I were on our way to New York. We left the house at 6:30 and trundled our cases down the road–it's a 10 minute walk to the bus stop. We didn't have long to wait before the Aircoach arrived, taking us all the way to the airport. Dublin Airport has recently opened a second terminal; everything is very shiny and new, and it all works smoothly. Having arrived on time, we had no great delays. We got through bag drops, security checks and American Immigration without any problems. Unfortunately, many of the passengers on the plane did not arrive with sufficient time, and a huge queue built up at immigration, with the result that when our scheduled take-off time arrived, there were still 40 passengers stuck in the queue. Eventually, at 11:30, the plane took off and we were on our way. We had seats in the middle of the plane, so we couldn't see anything out the windows. It's a six and a half hour flight, so we had plenty of time for meals, reading books, and watching films. I read a lot of Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry, a fascinating novel set in and around Highgate Cemetery, featuring twins, ghosts and old secrets. We arrived in New York at about 6pm Irish time, but had to put our watches back by 5 hours so it was now only 1pm.

There's a fixed taxi fare from the airport to any hotel in Manhattan, so the taxi driver was determined to get us there as fast as possible. We had a breakneck taxi-ride along various highways and freeways, then crossed over onto the island of Manhattan where we hit traffic jams and honking of horns. Our hotel, the Hotel Beacon, was in the Upper West Side, on Broadway. We had a suite: Mrs G and I got the bedroom, while El had a sofa which unfolded into an enormous bed in the other room. There was a little kitchen area with microwave, fridge, gas cooker (which we didn't touch) and coffee maker. They provided enough coffee for two cups a day, and there were even teabags. There was, however, no way of boiling any water to make the tea, other than in the microwave, which is very dangerous. We forwent the tea. The hotel was absolute luxury, but one thing I didn't like was the $10 a day charge if you used their Wifi connection to the internet. We only needed it for a few minutes each day, so it was much easier to go to Starbucks next door, where the Wifi is free.

It now being about 7:30pm Irish time, 2:30 American time, we didn't want to do too much, so we went for a stroll, arriving at the Lincoln Centre, which has a theatre, a concert hall and the New York Metropolitan Opera, all gathered around a pleasant square. There were brightly painted pianos dotted around for any passing person to play, and we met a few people playing away. By this time we were feeling hungry so we found a nice restaurant serving good burgers.


We began the day with a trip down into New York's underground railway, the Subway. This is less well organised and more confusing than London's Tube. Trains can suddenly change from being local, stopping at every station, to express, only stopping at major intersections. The only way to tell is to listen to the garbled announcements shouted over the speakers. New Yorkers shout all the time, and you have to understand that there is no anger or impoliteness intended. On a previous trip, in a theatre, I heard an usher shouting down 10 rows 'Hey, you in the front row, you're in the wrong seats! Move over to the left!' The first train we got onto had a shouted announcement which told us it would bring us to Times Square without stopping, which was what we wanted.

New York in June can be rather warm and very humid. The temperature was about 29°C (84°F) the whole time we were there. On Thursday it was so moist that there was a mist over the city. The buildings around Times Square are quite tall, about 20 to 30 storeys high, and the tops of the buildings were hidden in the mist. Times Square is the centre of the Theater District, and the nearest thing there is to a centre for the whole city. It is not a square, in any European sense of the word. It is a very narrow and claustrophobic hourglass shape, formed by the intersection of two major roads: 7th Avenue and Broadway. These cross at an angle of about 30°. There was a Starbucks here where we got some coffee, but no seats. Out on the street, one part of Broadway has been pedestrianised and we were able to sit at little tables and drink our coffee in the middle of the biggest thoroughfare in New York. I noticed that the tables and seating area were kept clean by people doing community service– better than sitting in a prison any day!

We passed the Rockefeller Center– on a good day, the view from the tallest building ('The Top of the Rock') rivals that from the Empire State Building, but today it was hidden in the mist. We also dallied in a few shops: the Nintendo Shop and the Lego Shop were particularly popular. We eventually arrived at our main destination for the day: the Museum of Modern Art (known as MoMA). Unlike most of the major museums in New York, this one is a private enterprise, so there is an admission fee ($20 for adults); other museums are free but you are expected to make an equivalent donation unless you are hard up. The museum had a lovely cafe where we had an early lunch, then it was time to see the art.

This is probably the biggest and best collection of Modern Art in the world. The most important works are on the fifth floor; everywhere you look you see famous paintings, including Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Rousseau's The Sleeping Gypsy, Van Gogh's The Starry Night, and an enormous 13-metre-long triptych of water lilies by Monet. The fourth floor has more modern stuff, including Andy Warhol and Jackson Pollock. Much of the art on this floor was 'installation art' : a pile of bricks in the middle of the floor; a plain white canvas; a series of books containing the numbers of all the years since 1 Million BC to the present day; and a canvas containing the dictionary definition of the word 'definition'. Much of this leaves me cold, but occasionally I'd see something which would make me burst out laughing. That's the only reaction I can imagine to such so-called art.

We had seen so much at this stage that we were saturated. We took a quick run through the 3rd floor design exhibition, where the highlights for me were the Le Corbusier recliner chair and the original concept sketch of the Ismiley - loveNY logo. El then went around the German Expressionist exhibition on her own while Mrs G and I rested our feet. All in all, our day at the MoMA was a resounding success.

We stopped off on our way back to the hotel to buy some theatre tickets; it is surprising that in Broadway, you can buy tickets for a show that's on the next evening. In London all the shows are booked out months in advance. That evening, we found a highly recommended pizza restaurant, Patsy's Pizzas.


Friday was another dull, warm day. There was even a little rain. We got the subway right down to the southern end of Manhattan, the South Street Seaport. This is a museum where some of the streets of early New York have been preserved, with cobbled streets, old buildings, and sailing ships docked at the wooden piers. We didn't go into the museum building itself, but wandered around the streets and looked at the ships. It's a very pleasant spot, and is a taste of what New York must have been like a few hundred years ago. There wasn't a huge amount to do except soak in the atmosphere. Here we split up to do some shopping– Mrs G for clothes, El for comics and me to that Mecca for the gadget freak, Brookstone. I bought a very nice multipurpose tool with pliers, screwdrivers, knife and torch for only $10.

Lunch was a deli on Wall Street. The New York delis are the best in the world, as you can choose just about any type of food known to man and they will serve it up to you in about 10 seconds. I had a delicious salad and a very good coffee. Wall Street is the site of the wall of the original city, New Amsterdam. Built on the end of Manhattan Island by Dutch traders, the wall ran all the way across the island, but as it was only 6 feet high, it was not of great strategic importance. The city was later taken over by the English and renamed to be New York. Wall Street is now one of the biggest stock exchanges in the world.

Next we spent a couple of hours wandering around one of New York's biggest bookshops: the Strand. They claim to have 18 miles of books. These are both new and second-hand, all crammed into far too small a space. On the top floor is a rare books section where, once you have made your choice, you will be accompanied by a staff member to the checkouts.

On Friday evening we went back to the Theater District, where we saw the show 'Mary Poppins'. It seems odd to go all the way to New York to see such an English show, but it was well worth it. The usher told us to 'Have a lovely time' as he brought us to our seats, and we did. The staging was spectacular, and Mary Poppins herself did some wonderful magic on the stage. The show is very like the film but with some new songs and some different scenes. There's a scary bit when the sugar-sweet nanny shows she's not all sweetness and light. She punishes the children by getting their mistreated toys to grow to enormous size and then terrorise them. All in all, I'd highly recommend this show, wherever you see it.

We were now half way through our stay in the Big Apple. I'll tell you about the rest of the trip in the next installment.

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