New York, New York: Part 1

It’s been a full working week since I last updated the blog and it’s been quite an eventful one at that. When we left off last Sunday evening Neil had a broken bike so was travelling by car until a cycle shop specialising in Trek models could be found. As luck would have it, the small town of Hamburg, NJ had exactly that, so Neil, Ed and I headed there as Alex, Andy and Leo hit the road for the 50 mile journey to New York.

The owner of the cycle shop (who may or may not have been a Bush Republican, as this time we decided to avoid finding out) was optimistic that he could sort it quickly and cheaply, so we headed across the road to a diner where I had a cheeseburger for breakfast. I now understand why Americans love their country so much: in the UK not even McDonald’s will sell you a cheeseburger for breakfast.

As it happened, the bike job was more complex than initially anticipated, so we sought out any activities in the immediate area that we hadn’t already tried. Failing, we decided to go back to the Franklin Mineral Museum which was now open and positively bustling, with two or three cars parked outside. Unfortunately, due to the $6 entrance fee I can only imagine the pleasures being enjoyed by the crowds inside, including the reconstruction of a mine shaft.

After another Dairy Queen ice cream we headed for the interesting sounding Tomahawk Lake, about a 30 minute drive away. It turned out to be a sort of water park with, get this, the longest water slides in the whole of New Jersey. Entrance was $9 each, which initially seemed reasonable, though it turns out this only allowed you to visit the shores of the lake and, if it took your fancy, go for a dip. A further $10 would have to be coughed up for a pass that would allow you to slide further than anyone else in the state.

We decided to pay nothing, as there really wasn’t much time before the bike should’ve been ready, so we went for a drive around Mohawk Lake, hoping to find a quiet beach where we could sit in the sun and do some reading. To our disappointment, though sadly not to our surprise, every beach we passed was privately owned by the wealthy residents of the area and strictly off-limits to the likes of us.

Finally, the bike was ready and we set off towards New York City. I dropped Neil and Ed at Newark Airport’s long-stay car park and set off to find the cyclists who had made it to Jersey City but had been unable to get their bikes on the public transport to the airport. People do not know how to drive in Jersey City. For that matter, people do not know how to lay out roads in Jersey City. The streets were a confusing maze of one-way systems and squid-like intersections, and the drivers were impatient and aggressive. A car park attendant reacted angrily to the prospect of the cyclists loading their bikes onto the back of the monster truck on his turf, and insisted on us moving 5 metres further up the road.

With the bikes loaded inside the car and everything we would need for a few days in the Big Apple to hand, we took the bus under the Hudson and onto Manhattan. Our hostel, the Gershwin Hotel, was an art-filled 20-storey building close to the Empire State Building. The hostel was clearly a popular one as the six of us were slotted into four different dorms, and they had space for us for only one night.

We dined at a restaurant at the base of the Empire State Building, then wandered along Broadway towards Times Square. It is magnificent; imagine London’s Piccadilly Circus on acid and you come close to the experience of Times Square. For a start, it isn’t really a square, it is more of a convergence of several streets, with every building in the vicinity covered from floor to about 10 storeys up with enormous television screens and scrolling text. The area is so bright that the ground appears to be bathed in sunlight.

The following day, we relocated to another hostel in Upper Manhattan, right next to Central Park. This hostel was more basic than the Gershwin, but also significantly less expensive. After returning to downtown by way of a long stroll through and alongside Central Park, we visited the Rockefeller Center. The Center consists of 14 art deco buildings that were entirely funded by John D Rockefeller Jr. The construction work took place during the Great Depression of the 1930s, providing plenty of work for New Yorkers who otherwise would’ve been without it.

We visited New York’s central library (”Now open six days a week!”) and had a tour of a photography exhibition. On stepping out of the peaceful cool air of the grand stone building back into the brightness of the city, we noticed something missing: noise and traffic. While we were busy being cultured, the blocks around the library had been evacuated by the police due to a bomb threat and we found ourselves having to step over NYPD’s ‘Police Line: Do Not Cross’ tape in order to rejoin the rest of the populace.

Nestled among the skyscrapers of New York are a number of churches, each of which provides an incredible area of silence in the middle of one of the busiest cities on the planet. Without exception they were ornately decorated and not much less appealing than Durham Cathedral. After visiting a few of these we headed back to Times Square with the intention of picking up cheap tickets to a Broadway show. We bought half-price tickets to Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theater.

The show was absolutely, mind-blowingly incredible. As well as the fantastic voices of pretty much the whole cast, the innovative use of the sets really made it come alive, including pyrotechnics, actors on wires and falling chandeliers. American theater audiences love to involve themselves in the shows, clapping every solo and even applauding the pre-show announcement to turn off mobile phones. In the row in front of us was a man who still managed to clap at all the wrong moments and, at one point, demonstrated his enjoyment by delivering a loud “yee-haw!”

After the show we found a bar (Irish-themed, like most bars in New York it seems) and enjoyed a few pints. In the bar we found the first American who does not identify our accents as being “London”, and in fact was able to do a northern English impression. His Geordie impression was as dodgy as ours, however. He did have a bit of an advantage, though, having lived in Britain for a number of years.

There’s plenty more New York blog to come, so look out for it over the next few days. Thanks to everyone that’s sent in messages of support for the trip, the cyclists in particular are very appreciative. Also, please remember that they’re putting themselves through this pain for a number of good causes, so if you haven’t already done so please consider giving a donation to one of them by clicking here. I’m writing this from Atlantic City, though the cyclists are already on their way to Washington DC, having decided to skip a stopover in Delaware and push right through.

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