My South African friend Jack and his Japanese fiancee tied the knot in New York this week, Las Vegas-style. Four of us – me being a second South African, and Kris being Indonesian – went down to City Hall, where you line up, get a number and go to a counter when your number lights up on the digital screen. It felt a bit like a supermarket, except everyone was carrying bouquets and the people behind the counter were really nice, like it was your wedding day or something. You filled out a form, showed your ID, and that was it – well, almost. Couples dressed like tourists sat on sofas waiting to go from the counters to the ‘chapel’ ceremony, where the guy asks things like “Do you take this person to be your one and only spouse for the rest of your life, through sickness and health, for as long as you both shall live” and so forth. One bride arrived in a taffeta gown cinched at the waist, her hair swept up. Another came in a short powder-blue smock, white running shoes. Two men arrived, together, both in jeans. Lots of pictures were taken. Bridal parties came and left. It was like being at not one wedding but many. Afterward, pictures in Central Park, with people sunbathing in the background, joggers shirtless running by, carriages carting people on a Carrie-and-Mister-Big ride, lots of them shouting “Congratulations!” to the bride and groom. I think they thought they had caught a very New York moment – two South Africans, one Japanese, and a gal from Djakarta – and I guess they had.
If people ask me what they should see in New York City, I tell them that there are two routes you can take…
The route I suggest skips out Times Square and lots of lower Broadway (too many T-shirt shops) and Chinatown (nightmare crowds), although there are probably elements in all three places that are worth seeing – just to say you’ve been there. But here’s a couple of places to go and things to do that might not always be apparent. Bryant Park (42nd and Sixth Avenue): Just go hang out there, buy a coffee from wichcraft and people-watch. The Staten Island Ferry: It comes free with your Metrocard (another essential, either daily or weekly) and is best taken across to Staten Island and back, viewing the Statue of Liberty along the way. The small coffee shops: 9th Street Espresso, Joe, Gimme!, Third Rail (Google them for addresses). Rent a bicycle at Columbus Circle and go through Central Park (it’s a six-mile loop in total) or along the Hudson River. Check tripadvisor.com for cheaper hotels. Get some takeout lunch at Whole Foods, the wholesome supermarket, and go sit and eat it in a nearby park. For a couple of my local favorite cheap eateries: Gazala Place (Middle Eastern, Hell’s Kitchen), Sapporo East (East Village), El Paso Taco (Mexican, East Harlem). And that’s a start!
Few things surprise me in N.Y. Maybe the guy in the subway last week who, unlike the normal beggars, claimed to have been tortured by the CIA. But last night a thunderstorm hit upper Manhattan that devastated half of Central Park. Dozens, maybe scores, of trees six- and seven-stories high were lying across the road. Cyclists and runners on their morning ritual were standing next to these 100-year-old giants just gaping. This isn’t the kind of thing that happens in New York. New York is orderly (except for the odd shooting, robbery, mugging and siren every five minutes). Roads were closed off, park employees were scrambling to cut up the trees and clean up the branches. I thought of Africa, then, and how this kind of thing happens all the time. Nice to see Mother Nature hasn’t forgotten Manhattan.
Spring is the best time in New York, but summer is great because the pool in Central Park opens. It’s a skating rink in winter, 65 metres across, but July it open for laps in the morning and at night. And it’s free! Summer is free time in New York. Couple years ago, there was only Bryant Park, which has a free movie once a week. Now there are countless venues for flicks, on the river, under the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s even a couple on rooftops. Then there are free dances to watch or to join (swing at Lincoln Center), concerts at Summerstage, opera in Central Park. Don’t be fooled into thinking New York has to cost lots of money. Rent a bike — it’s probably cheapest from the guys hanging out at Columbus Circle — and circumnavigate the island, which, thanks to Mayor Bloomberg, is getting greener and more bike lanes. Kayak on the Hudson, also free. Museums aren’t free, but check the fineprint at the bottom of the sign. If it says ‘Suggested entrance,’ it means you can pay anything. Even a dime! Remember that when you go to the Metropolitan. I will update free things in the city as they come up, and maybe I will add a couple cheap hotels. Yes, they do exist!