It is E’s birthday. She is very excited. So I have had my first taste of sorting out a birthday in New York. When I was a kid, birthday parties were at your house, you had games, birthday tea, birthday cake, wore your special yellow, long 1970s birthday dress and everyone went home happy. Maybe I have sepia tinted memories of the 1970s in rural England, but this doesn’t exist here. I did my research, I looked at local venues, I talked to the mums at the school and quickly established that there’s a birthday racket going on and it’s EXPENSIVE. I emailed the place nearby that does birthday parties for kids who are creative, want to make little books, hang out with their friends and have a cake. The usual thing. Ah yes, ma’am, that’ll be $850 plus tax plus tip! And that’s not unusual. Other venues wanted over $1,000 for a 2 hour hire, but they included the food, the cake and party bags, so that’s all right then. Blimey. I looked at ten pin bowling, a couple of hours of indoor, loud fun fuelled by cheap lager, but apparently that’s not what little girls want… I took E to a party where they allowed the kids to help themselves to frozen yoghurt that they served themselves from pumps in the wall and then covered in sweets. This left the parents to take their children bouncing home fuelled by their sugar high. So what did I go with? I have a very nice lady coming from a local petting zoo with some cute animals for the girls to pet and hold at my apartment. They will do animal -focused crafts, have birthday tea, birthday cake and (hopefully) go home happy. But I might just upgrade the party dress.
He’s here, well, in the New York Public Library. The original toys owned by Christopher Robin that inspired A.A Milne to write the Winnie the Pooh stories live in a glass box in the children’s library on 42nd Street. I was not expecting that! Have to say they do look a bit forlorn and unhappy in their box stuck behind the librarians and surrounded by over excited children.
To be admitted to Government buildings you need ID. Most New Yorkers carry their drivers licence and use that. I don’t have a US driving licence, I only have my passport. I am loath to carry my passport with me everywhere because it’s expensive and a complete pain to replace if it gets lost. I forget to take it on this occasion. I show the security guard my credit card and other cards in my wallet and tell him I have an appointment. I play the British card and see if that works too. Then, as if from nowhere an older lady interjects. ‘You gotta have ID, what happens if you die? Who’s gonna know who you are?’. I try to ignore her and focus on the security guard but to no avail. ‘If you die and and you don’t have no ID, you’re gonna end up in the morgue and in City Cemetary and no one will know where you are. You gotta have ID.’ She is not helping my cause and I am still not getting in the building. She carries on, ‘I carry my ID even when I go to the store, you never know when you’re gonna get run over and die’. Eventually she shuffles off, ID fully on show on a chain around her neck and I am now faced with the supervisor, who is also deeply concerned I have no ID. I am saved by someone from the office who collects me and I breathe a sigh of relief. Gotta get some ID. Can’t face that again.
Sesame Street wasn’t that big a part of my childhood. I saw the Muppet Show in the 70s and can remember Debbie Harry featuring in one show and it being a huge thing. Here in the US, Sesame Street is still huge, even though it has been around since 1969. I read somewhere that 95 per cent of all preschoolers in the US had seen Sesame Street by the time they were three. Sesame Street characters appear on boxes of biscuits aimed at toddlers, I don’t know who they are so I have to read the small print as it’s assumed you already know. I took a look at a box of cards that someone had in a local play space which featured Sesame Street. They are big on the alphabet but I recoiled at the American spellings and rather insensitively gave them back with a ‘but I want J to learn to spell the British way’. Not a good way to make friends. Anyway, the reason for all this Sesame Street talk is because today I was accosted by Elmo. We did a real tourist thing and walked through Times Square, which was bitterly cold but didn’t stop us gawping at the bright lights and neon advertising. Passing a major toy store, there were a lot of people dressed up as cartoon characters, which is a massive magnet for any toddler. Next thing I know I have Elmo on one side (he’s bright red and very furry) and Minnie Mouse on the other, both of whom have their arms around my waist and are encouraging R to take a picture of me, J and E. E bursts into tears at this point, overwhelmed by the proximity of these characters and I can’t escape. A swift exit via a few bucks and we are let go. I had no idea Elmo was so mercenary!
I had hoped to see many stars wandering the streets of New York but as yet, no luck. I did see a dead ringer for a young Brad Pitt in my spin class this week, which made the class much more pleasant. A trip to a massive toy store yesterday was greatly improved by being advised by a very nice man who appeared to be channelling Dustin Hoffman! And walking up Madison Avenue, home of the high end designers and ultra expensive clothes, it’s good to see your classic fur wearing, high heel tottering ladies-who-lunch sporting sun glasses when there is no sun and hailing taxis with great success. Not quite Sarah Jessica Parker and the world of Sex and the City. Will keep looking for celebs and report back.
There was a huge snowstorm on the North East coast of the US last weekend. New York got off relatively lightly and the city enjoyed a weekend of playing in the snow. Central Park was beautiful and whilst the snow was soft and powdery, people managed to make the most incredible snow sculptures. We saw a snow horse, lots of snowmen and on one park bench a man had sculpted a woman reclining on the bench, she was possibly a mermaid, I couldn’t quite tell. It’s now Tuesday, the temperature is up and the snow is melting. People cleared the pavements leaving great mountains of snow like the sides of canyons. Now they are no longer pretty, but dirty from exhaust fumes and muddy footprints. The city looks ugly as it shakes off the snow and what it has revealed is the rubbish: mounds and mounds of rubbish lining the pavements where the snow is melting. It is horrible, great bags of recycling and household rubbish piled up and added to by the ubiquitous coffee cup and take out bags. I don’t know how long it takes for the rubbish men to resume their schedule, but I hope it’s soon, otherwise the rubbish will be taking over Manhattan.
Gourmet must be the most overused word in New York. The corner shops selling everything claim to be gourmet, the pizza joints do the same. But there really is a hierarchy of food here. It starts with the independent deli, ubiquitous and fairly generic, selling sandwiches, bagels etc. Then there are the supermarkets, starting with Gristedes, which has been around since 1888 and here is open 24 hours, great for a quick in and out to get odds and sods. D’Agostino around since 1932 is ok, but a bit over priced. Morton Williams, founded in 1946, is similar but so tightly packed with goods it is a real challenge with a buggy, especially on Tuesdays when seniors get their ten per cent discount. My regular haunt is Fairways, huge, with great fresh produce and big on organic. The Food Emporium is similar, but I rarely go in as it is hidden by the horror of the Second Avenue subway construction works. I did go to Trader Joe’s once, out of my way, but as so many people had raved about it I went and had a look. I didn’t think it was anything special, especially the queues, so long they have someone specifically to indicate the end of the queue with a white paddle saying ‘end of the line’.
Then you change to the fancy specialist supermarkets cum deli shops. This is where the true meaning of gourmet comes to life. There’s Eli’s and its West Side relation, Zabar’s. Wonderful cheese counters, great on Jewish food but hefty on price – definitely treat territory. Agata and Valentina is a real favourite: mouth watering cakes and the best liquorice all sorts. There is also Citarella with its famous fish counter – don’t count on much change here.
And top of the hierarchy? It has to be Dean and Deluca. It is incredible. Located on Madison Avenue and very close to Central Park and the Met, its clientele don’t need to look at the prices. It has amazing cakes, bread and the best sushi I have had so far. Its white understated bags undersell quite how expensive and upmarket this place is. When you see the local private school girls buying their lunch here, you know you are in Gossip Girl territory. Best not go in with a credit card and a post run appetite, that’s for sure. Now that really is gourmet.
There are five boroughs in New York, with Manhattan being the most well known. Staten Island suffered horribly in the Hurricane and is often forgotten as the island off the bottom of Manhattan. The Bronx is at the other end of Manhattan and whilst I have discovered there is a zoo and a botanical garden there (to be visited on warmer days) it still makes me think of scary New York of the 70s. Ed Koch, Mayor between 1978 and 1990 died recently and was credited with transformation of the Bronx and other run down parts of New York. This leaves Queens and Brooklyn. The latter is of course well known because the Beckhams called their eldest son after the borough – it’s certainly up and coming now, with Park Slope known as the nappy valley of New York. I visited the Transit Museum today and got my first glance at Brooklyn. I only saw the civic parts around city hall and the MTA (transport authority) but it was a world apart from Manhattan. Lower built and more interesting to look at than the high rises of the Upper East Side. And as for Queens, well, I wouldn’t go there again unless there was a good reason. We went to Astoria, which is across the East River from the Upper East Side of Manhattan and it is pretty unloved and run down. The Museum of the Moving Image has been there for 20 years but it hasn’t led to any regeneration in the neighbourhood a la Tate Modern in London. The museum is great, hosting a computer games through the ages exhibit (or excuse for middle aged men to play with computer games dating back to their teens) and it did make me laugh to see the Wizard of Oz as part of the permanent exhibition, when the first thoughts I had when we emerged from the subway were “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more, Toto”.
This is the conversation of the day. No explanation needed, everyone is talking about the Super Bowl. I had never seen it before nor had any interest in its existence but you could not escape it here. Every bar, every cafe had some sign up encouraging people to watch it on the big screen, eat lots of junk food and drink beer. Even when I went for a run in Central Park early on Sunday morning there were reminders, as the fun run also going on in the park split a section of the road into the San Franciso 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens who were the competing teams. In honour of the great day, Animal Planet, a cable channel shows Puppy Bowl, which is in its 9th year. It is a mini American football field filled with puppies and goes on for two hours, over four quarters, just like the real Super Bowl. However after half an hour of ‘ahh, aren’t they cute’ it does get a bit samey. Although I did enjoy the hedgehog cheerleaders and the guinea pig commentators. I did watch the entire Super Bowl which started at 6.30 pm and went on until past 10.30, not helped by a power outage just after half time which the conspiracy theorists say gave the losing team time to recover and stage a come back. R explained the rules to me all the way through, quite how he knows all about this, I have no idea, but it did make a bit more sense that way. Because each play of American football is so short, it’s a great excuse to show lots and lots of adverts and because each break is variable in length, it’s hard to watch on time lapse, so I saw a lot. Beyonce strutted her stuff during the half time break and put on an impressive show, her legs seem to go on forever! Oh, and Baltimore won. I put it down to their kit, so much nicer than the San Francisco ensemble of red and brown.