I’ve been to New York a number of times but always as a true Brit tourist staying in funky Manhattan hotels but I recently visited a friend living in Brooklyn and for the first time I got to see the Big Apple through the eyes of a local.
On arrival at 22:00 on a Thursday night it was hard to get a true feel as it was dark and late but three of us - old friends from school - found comfort in the form a dive bar on the street where my friend lives. You find a lot of ‘dive’ bars outside of Manhattan and it’s a funny phenomenon as the term basically refers to a pub that’s badly in need of a clean and some general TLC. It’s the sort of place you wouldn’t take your mum. And yet for for all the sticky floors and toilets you don’t want to think too hard about, there is a huge amount of charm to them. They’re REAL. And that’s the feel that I got throughout our trip.
Seeing Brooklyn in daylight - for a small town boy from England - is like being in a TV show, but not the kind of glitzy soap opera you might immediately call to mind. It’s not like anywhere I’ve ever been and is filled with things that just don’t make sense in this day and age. There’s an almost permanent backdrop of the fairytale city; Manhattan’s skyline looms over the near horizon like the Emerald city of Oz. But half the time you’re walking through streets with broken sidewalks, tons of trash, people asking for money. It’s a weird and uncomfortable juxtaposition and I’ll say quickly that this isn’t every neighbourhood but it’s more than it should be. I’ll add something that it makes me uncomfortable writing about; the people in the poorer neighbourhoods are very, very rarely white, whereas on the buzzing streets of Manhattan it’s a very different story. There’s a campaign on the subway trains with posters saying ‘It’s not a crime to be black’ and ‘Black people have a right to vote’ (I may have misquoted a little, I stupidly didn’t get a picture but these are pretty close). It’s 2019 and apparently we need posters to remind us that other humans are of equal importance. It brought home to me that although I surround myself with liberal, progressive folk there is still a lot to do in the world at large and the work doesn’t get done by us saying ‘well it’s not a problem where I live’. So before I continue with the tour, a favour please: make sure you’re doing what you can to be inclusive of people of other races/sexes/beliefs/sexuality and consider your next opportunity to speak out for people.
And now, onwards…
On day 1 we did a targeted mix of Manhattan and Brooklyn, heading for brunch at Katz’s deli to fuel up first. Katz’s is an institution and their pastrami on rye is world famous for good reason - it’s not a sandwich, it’s an all you can eat buffet on a plate. The staff are famously grumpy and the place is like an outdated canteen, which kind of just works. One thing I will say is it’s really fucking expensive. Ok, it’s famous, the portions are huge etc but for a sandwich & beer each and some slaw & fries to share among 3 we paid $50 each for the priviledge. I’ve been there before and don’t remember it being this pricy but no one has ever accused me of having a great memory. Given the portion sizes I recommend sharing, at which point the price isn’t so contentious. It’s great food though (and the last taste of beef for me indefinitely as I’ve now finally made the decision to cut it out altogether - another story for another day). After a quick whinge about the pennies we headed somewhere even more expensive but which has been on my ‘to do’ list for about a year: RRL (or ‘Double RL’, the new & used, vintage look Ralph Lauren store in west village. If you like vintage clothing, 30s-50s style with an Americana feel and a dash of utilitarian robustness - and I do - then you’re in the right place. As you’d expect, the prices are high while I bored the staff with my questions they were kind enough to appease my companions with beers to lighten the wait (which was particularly handy when I discovered a handful of vintage Rolexes, Omegas and Breitlings in a cabinet by the counter. I made a small purchase (sadly not one of the watches) and we were on our way. I regret nothing. We headed to McSorley’s, an Irish bar hidden in plain sight right in the middle of Manhattan. Do you want light beer or dark beer? That’s only question you’re asked as you’re ushered to a seat amongst complete strangers from around the world. It’s a sawdust-covered melting pot and I loved it.
A side note: it’s really hard to get drunk on a night out in NY, or that is to say much harder than in the UK. Drinks are smaller, staff are less hurried and the bars are spread out so you generally can’t fall out of one and into the next. And I quite like it. And I also suddenly realise why the world thinks British people have a drink problem. Because we do.
We finished that night at an axe-throwing bar (that’s right, ‘axe’, ‘throwing’ and ‘bar’ in the same sentence) called Kick Axe. It was fantastic, partly because I won, and partly because it was just cool to do something a bit different and give a focus other than booze to a night in the pub. And the beer (canned) was pretty good too. We stayed up way too late playing darts and Guess Who against a backdrop of jazz & whisky. Nice.
The rest of the trip was a blur of sleep depravation and reminiscing but wasn’t without further highlights. These included:
Barcade on Union Avenue, Brooklyn. It’s a bar filled with vintage computer games. Grab a beer, load up on tokens and head out to relive your youth on Berserk and Frogger or smash some complete strangers on Street Fighter.
Heading to the ‘top of the rock’ . Heading up one of NYC’s tallest buildings is - while obvious - a must. The (almost) birdseye view of Central Park is worth it but more inspiring for me is seeing the man-made city in all its glory. The human race has done some fucked up stuff but you can’t deny their ability to defy gravity with a bit of concrete. It’s genuinely pretty breathtaking to see a century of achievement from on high.
Coffee in The Plaza followed by a walk in the park. The Plaza is one of the most filmed buildings in NYC and Central Park itself is guaranteed to make you think you’re in a movie. Maybe it’s because it was still pretty cold but the first two Central Park films we thought of were Home Alone 2 and Elf. Then I lose everyone by talking about the 80s TV show ‘Beauty and the beast’ where Ron Perlman dressed up like a cat monster to save the permanently periled Linda Hamilton…does no one remember that?! Anyway, Central Park is cool and if you’re a Beatles fan - as we three British lads were - then you’ll enjoy a stroll up to a part they call Strawberry Fields; it’s close to the spot where John Lennon and is generally attended by groups of people singing Beatles songs together. A little surreal perhaps.
A walk through Times Square. If the aforementioned aren’t touristy enough for you, a walk around Times Square should do the trick. It’s big, it’s busy, it’s brash. It’s a shitload of screens and neon lights and a lot of people hate it but I think it’s cool. It’s the other kind of authentic New York.
Another walk, this time through Central Park. As we’re big Beatles fans our objective was to get to ‘Strawberry Fields’. It’s not the real strawberry fields but there are more Lennon and Beatles fans there than I’ve seen in one place and is quite touching. It’s metres from where Lennon was killed and there is a definite poignancy to it.
The bars of Brooklyn. You kind of need a tour guide for this but if you can find a way to navigate your way to some of the out-of-the-way bars you’ll get the true Brooklyn experience. Loud, buzzing, not touristy, tons of fun.
There’s so much more to do in NYC, if you’re going for a week, get your hands on a Lonely Planet guide to fill in the gaps. It’s a fun-filled whirlwind of a city and I highly recommend it.
You have a nice day now.