Rhodes Traveled: New York City
April 12, 2018
Texas may be home to the third biggest city in America, Houston, population 2 million, but what about a city four times bigger? This spring break, eight members of the McCallum journalism program headed to the mighty New York City and had a truly incredible experience. Here is my account of our time in the Big Apple.
We landed in the JFK airport at about 10:30 am, and just as the Weather Channel told us, it was snowing. We made our way through the airport to the JFK airtrain, which would take us to Jamaica Station, where we would then take a subway to Manhattan. The airtrain ride gave us a nice view of some neighborhoods in Queens with all the buildings covered in snow. When we got to Jamaica Station, we bought Metro Cards, allowing us to ride the subway— or so we thought. Instead, we had bought 10 rides on the JFK airtrain, not the subway. Our publications adviser Dave Winter asked an employee if the airtrain passes would work for the subway. He said yes. He was wrong.
After much confusion and 25 wasted dollars, we managed to board the subway. It was a long ride, and for most of it a stranger was doing crazy pull-ups on the bars in the train. When we emerged from the subway, we were somewhere in Midtown Manhattan, surrounded by thousand-foot-tall buildings and a snow flurry. It was an impressive first sight of the city, but then it was back to the subway. Once on the train, we were greeted by a man who introduced himself as Elliot The Poet and proceeded to recite some of his poetry about spreading positivity. We made it to the 1 train, which runs parallel to Central Park on the west, and took us all the way to 125th and Broadway, where we got off and walked a few blocks to the International House where we were staying.
The International House is really just a hotel for former students and visitors and a dorm for current students on the campus of Columbia University, and because it was already 1:30 in the afternoon, we decided to have lunch there. It was not the best first meal to have in New York, but we were hungry, and the food was cheap. We then went through a series of hallways and elevators to get to our room, which was a little small, but we would be gone for most of the day, so it didn’t really matter. We had a nice view of a rooftop trash pile and some old brick buildings.
Once we had unpacked, we headed for The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ready to give the subway another try, we descended to the station and again boarded the 1 train. This trip was significantly easier as we stayed on that train the whole time and didn’t have to worry about any transfers. We got off somewhere around 86th and Broadway and made the quick walk across Central Park to get to the museum. While crossing the park, we could see the 432 Park Avenue residential building, which is nearly 1,400 foot tall and very skinny. It was an impressive height, and a good reminder of how much bigger this city is than Austin.
We arrived at The Met at around 2:45 pm, and learned that it closed at 5:30 pm. I thought, “three hours? That’s plenty of time.” I was wrong. The museum was enormous and had a very extensive collection. We didn’t even finish the section on ancient Egypt and East Asia. We saw hieroglyphics, scrolls, jade statues and large stone tablets covered in Chinese writing. The rooms just kept going, when you thought you had reached the end, there would be another hallway or staircase, with an entirely new set of artifacts. When we were told the museum would be closing in 20 minutes, it took us nearly all of that time just to find our way to the exit. We all met on the front steps and discussed what to eat for dinner. Pizza won the vote, and we found a place only a few blocks away called Saba’s Pizza. It was what we were expecting– thin but enormous slices with minimal toppings.
With time still left in the day, we returned to the subway for one more attraction: Grand Central Station. I’ve seen pictures, but they don’t do justice to the actual size of the building. Regular subways and long-distance trains run through this station as well as tens of thousands of people every day.
The subway ride to the hotel went smoothly and gave us some new confidence in navigating the New York City public transportation. We stopped by the Steak n Shake to get some milkshakes for our walk back in the 40 degree weather.
Wednesday was the first day of the Columbia Scholastic Press Association, or CSPA convention, and because of a lack of time we had breakfast at the International House. Cold tater tots and cereal with no milk? We decided to not eat meals in the cafeteria for the rest of the trip.
The Columbia University campus was fascinating, with buildings from the 1750s and statues of our founding fathers. Most colleges can’t claim to be older than the country.
For lunch, we went to The Mill Korean Restaurant, which was only a few blocks from the university. I got the lunch box, which Liam Wilson, one if the students on the trip, called “a good starter for an American at an Asian restaurant.” It came with sushi rolls, fried rice, salad and chicken with veggies. You could tell this place was legit because of the lack of forks, which is fine for some, but I’m no chopstick wizard, so I ended up eating the rice with a spoon. The waiters were probably making fun of me in the kitchen. After lunch we went our separate ways for the next round of classes.
We walked back to the International House at 3:30 pm after our classes at Columbia, and brainstormed about what to have for dinner before our big event of the evening, Amateur Night at the Apollo Theatre. We decided on a small Italian restaurant on the way to the theatre called Max Soha. The food was fine, and not too expensive for New York. Then we made our way through Harlem, a neighborhood in northern Manhattan, for the Apollo. When we got there, we all spent some time looking at the golden plaques on the ground in front of the theatre, with such names as Stevie Wonder, James Brown and Michael Jackson. We entered the theatre, and it was packed. On the stage was DJ Jess, who introduced the audience to a man in a grey suit, Joe Gray, who sang some songs by famous artists who had stood on that very stage years ago. After he was done, the host, named Capone, pulled the classic, “Let’s try that again,” when the audience’s applause was unsatisfactory for him. Only then was it time for the amateurs. There were some singers; a few were good, one not so much; then a ventriloquist, who started a bit rough but finished strong; then a beatboxer, who was good. After every act, the host would come out and make fun of something they did or the way they did it. No one was bad enough to summon the executioner– a tap dancing tuxed- wearing man named C.P. Lacey who would supposedly pull the bad performer off the stage– a little to our disappointment. When we left the theatre, it was snowing, much like the first day.
We had to get up a little earlier than the day before in order to eat breakfast at a real restaurant. We chose Pret A Manger, a small coffee chain right next to Columbia, which was much better than the cafeteria at the International House and not much more expensive. For lunch, we walked to the other side of campus to a sandwich place called Subconscious, which was good, but only had two tables to eat at. That’s the thing about New York– there are small restaurants all over the place. Here in Austin, we’re used to big restaurants that can be pretty far apart, but in the big city, you’re rarely more than a few blocks from some small deli that no one would notice unless they were looking for it.
We got back to the International House at about 3:30 and planned the rest of our evening. We wanted to see the Statue of Liberty, but the ferry to Liberty Island was expensive and no longer running by the time we were finished with workshops. But the Staten Island Ferry is completely free and would take us right past the Statue. Now masters of the subway, we took the 1 train south to midtown Manhattan. Before we took the ferry, we decided to stop at The High Line, an old elevated rail line that has been turned into a park. It offered a unique perspective of the city, as we were surrounded by trees and bushes instead of trash on the sidewalk.
When we got out of the subway, the sun was setting and we were all aware of the importance of getting pictures before dark. We finally made it to the Station Island Ferry station, and boarded the large orange boat. We quickly realized the timing was perfect, with the golden hour glow illuminating the buildings of downtown Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. The view of downtown was impressive, with views of 100 year old skyscrapers and the new One World Trade Center building, towering above all. We arrived at Staten Island and had a few minutes to spare before the ferry back to Manhattan left (we had no intent of staying in Staten Island any longer than we had to) and decided to check out the gift shop for some overpriced knick-knacks. I purchased a small magnet with the Empire State building on it for $5. The ferry back to Manhattan departed soon after, and on the way back we had a nice view of the night time skyline, well, it would have been nice if we could see through the reflection of the fluorescent lights on the window. The only way to get a decent picture of Lady Liberty or downtown was to press the camera lens right up against the glass. I got a few good ones, and it really was a cool perspective being on the water surrounded by buildings and cities.
Once back in Manhattan, we had the task of finding dinner. Some of us wanted to eat at Wendy’s, and others wanted to eat more local. We wanted to give pizza a second shot and found a place only a few blocks away, called Cucina Bene. On the way, we walked through New York’s financial district, and got to see some cool old buildings, and new high end ones. Every so often between buildings we could see the One World Trade Center building about a mile away, but still towering over everything else. We went to the pizza place, which had a similar layout to the first one, ordering pizza by the slice and all that. It was alright, certainly not the best the city had to offer, but at least now we could say we had real New York style pizza in New York. We stayed in the restaurant for a while to be out of the cold (it was in the upper 30’s outside) and eventually left to brave the elements and find a subway station to get back to the hotel. We were having trouble with Google maps, but a local came to our rescue and told us he was headed for the 1 train also and would be glad to lead us there. The train ride back was uneventful, and we were all pretty tired by the time we got back to the International House.
After the convention, our plans for the next afternoon were the 9/11 memorial then Chinatown for dinner. We hopped on the 1 train and took it south to Chambers Street, which is just a short walk from the memorial. The Ground Zero area has been paved with grey bricks and rows of trees, and the foundation of where the twin towers stood have been made into fountains with the names of all the victims of the attacks inscribed in the metal around the fountains. Also in the area is a train station called the World Oculus, it is the most expensive train station in the world at $4 billion and looks like the skeleton of a whale. Towering at an impressive 1,776 feet is the new One World Trade Center, the tallest building in America. We considered going to the museum, but we weren’t willing to spend $36 on it. We left the memorial and made our way back to the subway, as it was getting cold. Away from the familiar turf on the 1 train, we had a little trouble getting to Chinatown, although part of it wasn’t our fault because apparently “an unauthorized personnel was on the tracks.” We made it eventually, and headed for a place called simply Fried Dumplings.
I’ve never been to China, but I have seen pictures of Chinese city streets, and Chinatown looked pretty spot on, and being there at night probably enhanced the experience. The buildings were shorter, and there were more small streets and alleyways for foot traffic. There were big neon signs on the bigger streets, often in Chinese, and small shops and restaurants. Some of these restaurants were more familiar looking, like what you would find in Austin, others were not, like the place we went for dinner. As the name implied, the main thing on the menu was fried dumplings, and they were cheap: $3.00 for 10. The place was tiny, and our crew of seven was a bit overwhelming, as there was only one old lady behind the counter. We all got our dumplings and were shooed out back into the streets. On the way back to the subway, we passed some small shops selling New York nick nacks. There would be like five shops all selling the exact same thing, with guys very eager to convince you that their shop had the best price. Descending back into the subway, we looked for the best way to transfer to get to the 1 train to take us back to Columbia. The quickest way had us going above ground and entering another station, which is kind of annoying because you have to pay the fare again. But we all agreed it was worth the $2.75 when we found where we had to get off: Times Square.
Again, I’ve seen pictures of Times Square, but pictures don’t do it justice. We got there at around 8:00 at night, but it almost looked like day with the light from all the enormous screens. Advertisements for movies, musicals and brands shone at us from all angles, some hundreds of feet up buildings. Liam said it was like taking adblock off of YouTube. We stopped at another nick nack shop, which was very different from Chinatown. In fact, Times Square is about as different from Chinatown as you could get. Out on the streets, guys were dressed like Iron Man, Captain America, Mickey Mouse, Elmo, or just the statue of Liberty on stilts. All of them wanted you to pay for a picture. JR, another student on the trip paid $4 for a couple of pictures with Caption America, and Liam haggled with Elmo to get a picture for 75 cents. The sidewalks were absolutely packed, and the streets were full of cars going nowhere soon. We decided to stop by the M&M emporium just down the street, and I had no idea you could sell so many things with an M&M on it. After getting separated in the store, and spending a little too much time there, we went back to the subway and headed for the International House.
Our flight left at 8:45 the next morning, so we agreed to get up at 4:00 am to have enough time to subway our way to the airport. In the dark we gathered our things, left the International House for the last time, and headed up the escalator for the 125th and Broadway subway station. While on the escalator Mr. Winter, who had been carrying both of our award plaques, lost his balance and nearly fell down the moving staircase, leaning back on his suitcase and sending it rocketing down the escalator and shooting out into the sidewalk. When he got safely to the top he said, “I heard something going down those stairs, and I knew if I didn’t get my balance soon I’d follow it.” Liam ran down the other escalator to retrieve the fallen suitcase, and said that it hit a pole which kept it from going out in the street. After that scare, we boarded the subway and headed for JFK.
But New York had one more punch to throw at us. Away from the familiar 1 train we soon became confused on which subway would take us to the airport. You’d think there would be a more efficient way to get from Manhattan to the airport, but that simply is not the case. Lucky for us, a few policemen with heavy New York accents were down in the subway station to bust a guy for riding his bike. They pointed us in the right direction, but this confusion had cost us some time. We were going to be cutting it close.
While on the express train, we missed our stop, and had to get off and board the one heading back. The conductor popped in the car we were in, and correctly predicted our situation. “You missed your stop, didn’t ya?” he said very enthusiastically. We made it to the correct stop, went up the elevator, and back to the airtrain station, where we had wasted $25 just four days earlier. It had been a very eventful four days, we managed to do a lot with the limited time we had, considering three days were spent at the journalism convention. On the airtrain ride to the airport, we could see the Manhattan skyline about 10 miles away, and were reminded how big the island is. We made it to our gate just in time, and boarded the plane for Austin. New York was impressive, and on a scale I’ve never before seen. As my grandad put it “going to New York resets your clock.” Austin’s skyline seemed a little more boring when I got back.