Thanks to most of my important, formative years carelessly spent at the movies and watching sitcoms, the island of Manhattan was an extremely familiar sight even though I’ve stayed eight thousand miles away from it until a few months ago. It’s what all the fairy tales tell you meeting your soulmate is supposed to feel like – a brand new person you know you’ve never met yet certain sights and avenues feel so familiar as if they’ve been home all along. I’ve watched Spider-man swing through the skyscrapers, Ted Mosby obsess about its skyline, King Kong obliterate Broadway and scale the Empire State in a few leaps and a disorientated Steve Rogers stumble through Times Square as Fury and his minions swarm around him. This was my state of mind as we planned for a trip to New York City for new year’s eve of 2020. What more could it offer, right?
Three freezing days, aching feet and eight hundred pictures later, I can now tell you all the ways in which I was wonderfully wrong.
Off the bat, I have never been one to celebrate New year’s day ever. I rarely celebrate birthdays and have often scoffed at the idea of making a big deal out of the birth of a new calendar year. But I was dragged last year to Bangalore by a couple of friends seduced by the prospects of a fully paid trip. I went for the luxury hotels and the airplane journey more than for the city or the sake of the new year itself. I had a good time though. I was beginning to see the point of taking a moment off to undo previous baggage and clean up the palette for a fresh start. Cut to three hundred and sixty five days later, I was sitting in Rochester, NY – having arrived five months prior and barely explored Downtown even. I was putting off a visit to New York for a later date looking at the potential expenses but was talked into it by a bunch of well meaning friends. As always.
This trip was completely opposite to last year’s which was all about pampering myself rather than experiencing the city. This time we had to book the cheapest bus, get the smallest hotel room and eat only from street vendors so that we could spend what little money we had left, on taking in the city as much as one could in three days. I am generally a very shy person who refuses to take pictures in public to not seem like every self absorbed millennial but all that was going out the window for this trip. I had to be a full blown tourist and do this right. I now have 847 pictures on my phone and it’s been six days since we got back and I’m still struggling to pick a number to upload to the gram.
New York felt like it was built as an experience rather than a destination, sort of like an amusement park. Just the initial entry into the city can be quite dramatic. After six hours of staring at the highways sparsely dotted by sleepy towns, the view is unceremoniously replaced by walls and white lights for quite some time as you dive into the Lincoln Tunnel and you emerge to the towering buildings of Manhattan. It reminded me of those neon laser light tunnels that every theme park has at its entrance. I looked at the lights, the traffic and the homeless man asking us for some ‘kindness’ and my first thought was, “This is Chennai with taller buildings and beggars with manners”. To attest any semblance of familiarity to a strange place is a bane none of us are strong enough to shake off, I guess. We were dropped off at Hell’s Kitchen around 8.30 pm and I couldn’t help but look up at the rooftops that Daredevil prowled around on. The night ended quickly with a cab ride to Phoenix Hotel all the way across in Brooklyn and a midnight dinner from a Burger King that was close by. I was really excited about staying in Brooklyn because I like Brooklyn nine-nine a lot but I now see how naive that was. Honestly, I don’t know what I was expecting. Brooklyn, or at least the part we stayed at, looked very sketchy and gloomy and was honestly kind of dirty for American standards. But we had a McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, Dominos and a subway station all within a 3 minute walk from the hotel, so it was clearly very much America.
One of the first things I noticed as we made our way to the subway station the next morning was the sheer amount of foreigners. When I say “foreigner”, I just mean people who did not look American or African-American. They could be tourists or people who’ve lived here for generations, I didn’t know but everywhere I could see people of different ethnicity and speaking so many languages. The part of Brooklyn we chose was particularly rich in people of Chinese origin and as we moved deeper into the city more and more Indians came into view as well. They say if you buy a green car, then suddenly all you can see on the road are other green cars. Perhaps I was noticing only foreigners because I felt foreign there. Perhaps not. Regardless, I think New York extends different limbs to different people from any walk of life and can be home to quite literally anyone.
We hit a snag at the very first venue when the ticket machine at the subway stop wouldn’t accept cards and none of us had any change. The help desk very casually waved us off and let us pass without tickets. I was initially worried as to how to explain not having a ticket at the exit station because in India you need to swipe your token/card at both entry and exit. The anxiety gargoyle took over and I started frantically framing sentences in my head to explain this situation to whoever at the exit but I was eventually relieved to find out that you didn’t need to produce a ticket at the exit in the New York City Subway. You just walk through. Neat. We also originally got onto the train going in the opposite direction but luckily realized it after only one stop had passed. The subway itself is often dim-lit, dinghy and smelly – a stark contrast to the shiny glass behemoths above – but it gets the job done. We would’ve gone bankrupt trying to get across the city if not for the 7-day unlimited metro card. Also the sense of casual familiarity you feel at the end of the trip with the subway routes, the numbering system of the streets in the city and the unchanging menu in all of its thousands of halal carts feel like a collective embrace that Manhattan now acknowledges you as one of its own.
I spent a lot of time with my neck craned all the way up than looking straight ahead once we were in the city – a telltale sign of a first timer. We got down at Bryant Park and decided to walk to Central Park to take in the skyline and not just pass them through under the ground. My god, the buildings were tall. I climbed up the stairs of the subway exit and stepped onto the pavement and couldn’t stop looking up. Many buildings just vanished halfway up into the fog. We began walking towards Central Park along 6th Avenue and the second thing I noticed was that like every other city, people kept trying to jump traffic signals. I wouldn’t flinch in Chennai but after getting ugly looks for jaywalking three feet off the zebra crossing in Rochester, I assumed that’d be the case all over America. I guess the heavyset demands of city life waits for no lights to turn green, even in the States.
Eventually we got tired of walking in the rain and were definitely not going to make it to the museums before closing time on foot. So we took another subway straight to the back entrance of the American Museum of Natural History only to be greeted with an enormous queue. When we finally made it in a good hour later, we were told it was a “pay as you wish” entry and of course we wanted to pay as little as possible without making them think Indians as a whole are cheap and ended up agreeing on $10 for entry for four. I went straight for the dinosaurs ’cause I was eager to catch all the heroes of Night at the Museum and Rexy was top of the list. This was barely an hour and half before closing time and the crowd was quite thick. We managed to navigate between all the bones nonetheless, shooting enough pictures to create a complete virtual tour of the museum. Right after Rexy, I wanted to meet the Moai head that likes gum-gum from dum-dums but we could only explore so much before the guards pointed us to an exit. I did manage to catch the outer space section with actual meteorites and moon rocks which was pretty cool.
It was too dark and cold by then to explore Central Park but we did explore the Halal cart that was parked outside quite thoroughly. Spicy fried chicken and falafel balls over fragrant rice on a side of lettuce, a plate of fries, burgers and Philly cheese steaks, all lathered in white, barbecue and hot sauces generously made for quite the filling dinner, the spice and heat perfectly complimenting the cold weather. However I am not completely sure if we weren’t ripped off since all that cost us a total of $50 which seems way too high for a street cart.
A couple more trains took us back to Broadway. The plan was to walk to the Rockefeller Center, check out the Christmas tree and then get a view of the city lights from either Top of the Rock or the Empire State building. We walked right across the studios where Jimmy Fallon was recording and where Big Bang Theory used to be. When we finally got to the center, we were in perfect timing to watch a man go down on his knees to propose to his girlfriend. And she said yes. And everyone clapped. And they cried. It was frickin’ magical and now I’m a part of that moment and it made me feel all warm inside for a brief few seconds. The Christmas tree itself didn’t quite impress me though. It was just lights. I felt they could’ve decorated it much more creatively. As we stood around asking for directions to Top of the Rock, a kind policeman on guard there informed us that going up tonight would be a waste of money because it was too foggy and we wouldn’t be able to see any of the lights. This was close to 8.30 in the night and I was ready to push Empire State to a different day and call it a night but the group decided otherwise and I was forced into living a little fun. We went underground again, this time to go to the Roosevelt Island Tramway and as always, I was so glad I was forced into it. Even though the raindrops of the glass windows made for some smudgy footage, the actual view standing there was surreal to say the least. My fascination with city lights were just about to break out. The night was still young and we decided to check out the Brooklyn Bridge next. Initially I wasn’t excited too much by the idea of walking over a bridge. We had walked all day and I’ve seen bridges before but I remembered that this was the bridge from the opening sequence of Daredevil and thought a picture in front of it would make my brother jealous. So I went on with it.
By the time we got there, it was close to 10.30 pm and near 2 degrees Celsius not accounting for windchill and I could feel every bone in my legs ache but that bridge was worth it. The bridge itself was beautiful and I realized that it had featured in way more movies and shows. It gave breathtaking views of the city skyline, the East river below and the adjacent Manhattan bridge – the one that features in the first few frames of every episode of How I met your mother. I wish I knew enough of the building names to tell you but I could only recognize the Empire state and Chrysler buildings. But “Walking on the Brooklyn bridge” is a preset “location” on Instagram stories, so one can imagine just how popular of a tourist destination it is. The normality of the location really fascinated me – it was no historic monument or a museum, we were on a bridge that people took to work and home everyday and we were looking over at normal buildings that were nothing more than homes and offices and yet it was a tourist destination, a beautiful one at that. We stood on that bridge for a very long time taking in the views and pictures regardless of the freezing cold or our stomachs announcing their emptiness with increasing frequency. There was a short plan to dine at a restaurant in Chinatown which was right where the bridge ended but nothing worthwhile seemed to open this close to midnight. We ended up taking the subway back to our hotel and Dominos fed us for the night. We had completely gone off the plan set for the day but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. There were still 2 days to go.
We woke up marginally early the next day – the big day – December 31st. We realized that our plans were being thwarted by the universe on a regular basis, so we threw the list out of the window. We had to see the Statue of Liberty, Empire State and be at Times Square at midnight. Everything else was optional. But here’s the thing about the Statue of Liberty; there are too many ways to see it. You could go the traditional way and take the liberty ferry, get down on the island and go all the way up to the crown or take any number of other ferries that took you close to the statue at varying levels. We had to somehow pick one considering the expenses and the time involved. We settled on Battery Park and got on a subway to Lower Manhattan. As soon we stepped out of the escalators, we were greeted by a bunch of people in blue uniform introducing themselves as being there to hand out free information about the ferries and a woman pointed us towards these “City sighting New York Cruises” which would take us slightly close to the Statue of Liberty while also giving us a tour along the Hudson river. We didn’t think much and just went for it. After buying the tickets, our first “major expense” at $35 a piece, we were given a map and asked to head to Vessey Street to board the cruise which was leaving in 30 minutes. The key point to be noted here is that the walk from Whitehall subway station to Brookfield Place, Vessey St. is about a mile long and takes you through the Wall Street Charging Bull (which was drowning in a sea of tourists trying to take pictures), the Trinity Church (which I’m surprised Dan Brown hasn’t had a murder happen in so far), the New York Stock Exchange, the 9/11 Memorial and the One World Trade Center. Each one of those is a trademark NYC destination that deserves to be admired and photographed. We tried to do that and still be on the move and by the time we made it to the cruise, there was a long queue waiting and midway through the queue, the boat was full. We were asked to wait until the next ferry which was 2 hours away. Told you the universe likes to meddle with us.
However, around this time the sun was starting to shine again giving us much needed warmth. The pier was scenic nonetheless and we walked around a bit. A sudden flurry of chimes from my phone reminded me that it was midnight in India and each of us decided to call our families back home to wish them. We had a few more unashamedly touristy photo shoots by the street and it was time for the Horn Blower, our cruise. We took a quick look around the lower quarters of the boat, mostly occupied by families with kids seated around tables strategically placed by the windows and we went straight to the open top. The wind was punishing but the pictures were more important. The crowd here was much more lively and everyone was scrambling to get that perfect selfie against the New York Skyline. A voice greeted us through megaphones I did not see at all stating that he would be our tour guide on this trip and began explaining the history of Manhattan, the island of many hills. He also gave us lots of trivia about key buildings and bridges that we crossed and honestly, I enjoyed the trivia just as much as the sights themselves. Soon enough lady Liberty came into view and everyone’s phones came out. I really wished I had gotten to see her in all her copper glory before the green oxidation set in. We could see the long, un-moving queue on the island and were glad we didn’t fall for that option. The cruise carried on giving us more views of New York and New Jersey (the contrast was extreme) and some more key bridges and buildings of its famed skyline. We finally got down at Midtown around 4 pm and still had time to kill until heading to Times Square. We were supposed to check out The Vessel, a psychedelic, geometric spiral tower that offered nice views of Manhattan and New Jersey but choose to head to the mall behind it because we had just seen those same views and all of us had to pee.
The inside of a mall is a universal sight. You can blindfold me and drop me at any decent mall and I wouldn’t be able to tell which one I am in. We quickly answered nature’s call and went straight to the Shake Shack, the only place that looked like it won’t burn a hole in our carefully measured pockets. Plus we had read that Shake Shack makes one of the best burgers in the city and had to try it out. The reviews were true indeed. Each of us ordered a different burger and whatever was in that shakesauce definitely satiated us. The next item in order was the Empire State, which was a good 20 minute walk away. The winter sun set soon on us and it was dark by the time we got to the building. We picked the second best option – the view from the 86th floor and access to the museum. The rush wasn’t too much and the staff seemed surprisingly friendly, considering they were at work on New Year’s eve. The journey to the 86th floor took us through the main cabin and the empire state museum where nifty animations walked us through the construction of the building. Even the elevators were designed with screens on the roof to make it appear as though we were climbing up the floors during the construction of the building. It was extremely well made, just like every other tourist attraction we had been to in the city. More screens and posters, all proudly proclaiming the merits of the “world’s most famous building” followed suit. There was a wall full of screens playing a movie of the building’s appearance in mainstream media and comic books, followed by a wall full of photos of celebrities visiting the 102nd floor. We finally made it through to the 86th floor observatory, smartly lined with heating grills on the walls emitting a red glow on everyone’s selfies. I cannot put the views it offered in words and am letting the pictures speak for themselves but bear in mind that these do no justice. We fought and compared on whose phone’s “night mode” captured the sights best but neither Oneplus, Pixel or Samsung could come remotely close to capturing what our eyes were seeing. You just had to be there. You know how the world seems small when you’re looking down from the top of a hill or through an airplane window? That didn’t quite happen here. At any given moment, your brain is in full awareness of just how huge the buildings underneath you are. Trips you up.
As we were taking turns on the many tower viewers mounted along the viewing rail, we noticed quite the crowd forming around Times Square down below on the streets and knew it was time. We made our way back and decided to catch one last snack and stepped into a Philly cheese steak place by the street and gorged on those and some bottomless iced tea. The streets grew brighter as we walked closer to the billboards of Times Square. The streets were barricaded on all sides for the police to control the crowd to perform security checks resulting in clumps of people wavering between one check point to the other, trying to get closer to the main attraction. We decided to stick to one and made it in eventually but we did end up jumping the fences a couple of times to get even further inside. We could see the stage at a distance, presumably whatever concerts were planned were already over but at least we were pretty close to the One Times Square building for the famous ball drop. It was almost exactly 9 pm on the dot, giving us 3 hours till midnight. Within minutes, the crowd had grown large behind us well effectively locking us into our single spot for the rest of the night. With the passing of each hour, a short series of fireworks would erupt from One Times Square and the crowd would hoot and cheer. Other than that it was a crowded, stuffy, cold and painful ordeal. We tried to pass the time by calling friends in India, eavesdropping on conversations around us and complaining how much we should’ve listened to everyone else and stayed home watching this on the TV. The novelty of a hundred bright billboards wears off very soon. Starting from 11 pm, the fireworks became more frequent, now at every fifteen minutes. When it was minutes to midnight, the crystal ball finally lit up and all eyes and cameras were trained skywards. The countdown hit and the ball dropped amidst perhaps ten minutes of fireworks shooting into the sky. I’ll admit it, that part was pretty to look at but still it was fireworks going off one building with a shiny ball on top of it. Skies in India on the night of Diwali look just as, if not more pretty and varied. Nonetheless it was the collective experience that counts. There we were, taking part in a century old tradition of watching the Times Square ball drop at the dawn of the New Year among people from all over the world. We saw a mom carrying her daughter on her shoulder who was screaming “Happy New Year” at the top of her shrill voice and that made my night. We rushed back to catch the subway before the whole crowd moved in, hoping we made it back to the hotel in time before our bladders burst. Damn you, bottomless iced tea.
We checked out of the hotel room on the dot the next day. We had covered Lower Manhattan and Midtown extensively the last two days and only Upper Manhattan was pending. We decided to just take a stroll around Central Park and maybe check out the MET before heading to our bus, thus touching upon the famously posh Upper East side. The original plan was to take a cab because of the luggage but we had grown very accustomed to the subway and decided to carry on the same.The subway took us directly to the park entrance and we stopped at one of the hot dog carts before going in, just because it felt like the ‘NY’ thing to do. I didn’t like it though.
Interesting thing about Central Park in January – its brown. All the leaves are shed and it’s just bleak and brown and cold. But there was still no lack of people though. There were fellow tourists like us taking pictures, couples on horse drawn carriage rides, kids cycling around, joggers and dog walkers and the countless street artists busily setting up shop and going about their routines – it was busy. We walked around almost the entirety of the park, pausing every once to take pictures. I was again hoping to check out a specific spot from a specific movie but the park was too huge and I couldn’t figure out which specific bench it was no matter how much I tried to match the skyline. We eventually gave up and decided to check out the MET. I was fully prepared to recreate Zendaya’s pose from the 2018 MET Gala but, like clockwork, universe intervened and the museum was closed. We decided to walk on to the Guggenheim and check out art instead. The only problem is three out of the four of us did not get “museum art” while the fourth got it a bit too much.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is another prime candidate for a Dan Brown novel, mark my words. It is designed as a marble-white ascending spiral, that’s sort of like an inverted pyramid. The ground floor – or the first floor as they call it here – is the smallest and it gets wider in circumference as you climb up the spiral. We got in, admired the architecture, looked at the art, commented on how everything’s a boob, mocked the “art” that looked no different from scribbles to us and kept moving on from piece to piece. All but one of us. He took his sweet time and analyzed every single piece, talking to the museum staff, inquiring about each painting and photographing every single one. The three of us got to the top in about half hour to forty five minutes – there was one nude photo series of gay, black men by a gay, white photographer accompanied with snippets about the photos themselves and commentary on homosexuality, race and the stigma of a white man desiring black men in particular in very thought provoking sentences and that ate up a lot of my time. About three hours later, our friend made to the top. Mentally drained, we walked out to the cold evening air one last time. We’ve been eating exclusively fast food the last two days to save money and decided to have one fancy meal before we left and looked up the must-haves of Manhattan.
After arguing and bargaining for an eternity due to different dietary restrictions and tastes, we finally settled on Joe’s Pizza. It was ironically right next to the spot in Times Square that we were stranded for three hours the previous night. We walked along Upper East side and you could smell the money in the air as each time we would cross too close to an apartment door on the sidewalk, the automated doors would swing open blasting warm air as a sharply dressed concierge peered out confusedly. We walked and walked onward to the last subway ride and I mentally thanked the unlimited metro card. I thanked all of it, really. The freezing cold, dirty subway and scamming homeless people alike. I liked this city and wished to spend more time in it, look at it more.
We made it to Joe’s Pizza and felt like utter idiots looking at the enormous queue outside of it. Every other restaurant in the vicinity had the same state. Except McDonald’s. That’s where we went and if you really think about it, it truly is the real American classic. I had a Big Mac, which was way different that our Maharaja Mac, with the classic fries and coke and it barely cost us anything. We sat there chatting for a while, trying to minimize the time to be spent outside in the cold waiting for our bus which was 2 hours away. Eventually we strolled our bags to Port Authority Bus Terminal which was right alongside Times Square and just as I was starting to wonder how they managed to have an entire inter-state bus terminus in the busiest part of Manhattan and not forever drown in traffic, an information board pointed us three floors down. The whole thing was underground. We made our way to our gate and into our bus right on time.
It wasn’t the worst way to start our new year. Sure my feet hurt for the next three whole days and my friend definitely caught a cold that he’s still nursing, 2 weeks later, but it was worth it and is one less item on my bucket list and we’ll always remember it. Every time someone complained that Rochester is boring, I’ve always defended it saying how I prefer quiet towns where nothing happened over busy cities. But New York definitely shed a whole new light on busy cities for me. A thousand tiny, sparkling window lights actually. There was still so much left to explore in the city and I’m definitely going to be back with more money and time.
2019 was Bangalore, 2020 is New York; now unless I go to space in 2021, I’m not sure how I’m going to top this.