I thought for a minute, eventually piecing the fragmented jigsaw together as the two of us continued our stroll. “Ah, I think you mean the movie star Russell Crowe and the film you’re referring to was Gladiator. He won an Oscar if my memory serves me correctly.”
“Yes, that’s the one,” said my travelling companion. “Well, we’ve just passed him. He was eating a pizza!”
Wall Street's Stock Exchange Building
I was too late to check the validity of my travel partner’s claim but he was adamant! However, considering we were in the Downtown area of New York – just a hop and a jump from Wall Street where there were a raft of smart eateries - it was not entirely beyond the realms of imagination; film stars still needed to eat when they weren’t working out in Rome’s Colosseum!
We’d landed in New York just 36 hours earlier and, despite, a time difference of minus five hours with the UK, and the resulting jetlag, there had been little time to waste with so much to see, even if I had been mistaken for a resident of a Wakefield suburb!
“You sound like Geoffrey Boycott,” grinned the face in front of me. “It seemed like the most improbable comment to have come out of anyone’s mouth, let alone someone wearing a semi-official uniform at New York’s JFK Airport.
But the smiling countenance was not a New Yorker but a Trinidadian who had been living in the Big Apple for just three years.
“My wife brought me to New York but no one here knows about or understands cricket,” he added, barely giving me opportunity to respond to the surprising comment. The chap had overheard my Yorkshire accent and instantly used cricket as an international language to strike up conversation. “Heard of Headingly?” I countered.
“Absolutely!” He was delighted that he had been able to connect with a lost world in a country where soccer was still in its comparative infancy and, unlike England, footballers still wore helmets with face guards!
“Thanks guys,” he added, pushing a piece of paper into my hand as we moved to leave towards our waiting cab. It was an ‘employee of the month’ voting card which, if he won, entitled the taxi concierge to some shopping vouchers. I silently vowed to do my duty once checked in.
It had been more than 30 years since I was last in New York and the prospect of re-visiting some old haunts was appealing. Had the Big Apple changed much, I mused to myself?
‘Gratuities appreciated,’ read the sign in the cab that was now ferrying us from JFK to the Conrad New York Midtown Hotel on West 54th Street; some things were definitely the same, clearly the ‘tip culture’ was alive and well! It was still handy to have a pocketful of single dollar bills!
As I was paying the cabbie whilst still sitting in the rear of the vehicle punching my credit card details into a tiny machine, an electronic message appeared: ‘Would you like to add an 18% or 20% gratuity?’ Zero was not an option! Suddenly our fixed fee ride of $60 had somehow found its way to just light of $75 and the Vietnamese driver hadn’t even spoken a word to us; customer care was alive and well!
The bell boy at the Conrad lifted our bags out of the cab and into the main lobby – another $2 – and, after check-in we headed for our room and parted with a further $2, tipping the chap who had just moved our luggage up 11 floors to our room. We had been in town for all of two hours and were already the thick end of $80 lighter!
The Conrad New York Midtown Hotel Lobby
The Conrad New York Midtown is at the tail-end of a major refurbishment and officially re-brands from its current name – The London NYC – in a matter of weeks. However, we still managed to benefit from the newly refurbished rooms which have been re-modelled with lots of space in mind.
Alina, the Russian born duty manager, informed me that the restaurant was all but complete but, for now, we would have to suffice with room service if we needed feeding! However, that was no real punishment since our room – apart from the fact that it boasted two huge Queen size beds – also had an adjacent dining cum relaxation area comprising a small two-seater sofa and easy chair along with a large tv screen and coffee table.
Room service, for us, comprised of two consecutive morning breakfasts which were excellent, if a little pricey, but then we were in New York. Whatever you read on the menu is never quite what you pay because somewhere in the small print there are the local or state taxes and the unspoken gratuities. The displayed price is invariably 20% lighter than the amount you will probably finish up paying.
The New York 'Met'
However, whilst much of the city has a challenging price tag – hotel breakfast for two days was circa $230 dollars – there seems to be a lot happening in the city at any given moment, not all of which requires a wad of greenbacks; Argentinian tango in Central Park, African drumming and street performers, all complemented by a raft of other entertainments that are guaranteed to leave your wallet somewhat lighter: a Broadway show perhaps or even a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art – ‘The Met’ - which will set you back around $28 but keep you occupied all day if you are into art!
“We don’t like Broadway, way too cheesy,” confided one lady in the coffee shop, however, as two Englishmen in New York we were quite happy to indulge in cheese overload, walking along Broadway for several miles taking in the newest theatrical offerings: West Side Story or another recent hit, the stage version of Beetlejuice which featured Michael Keaton in the original movie.
New York is an endearing city and truly a place that never sleeps but, for all its worldliness, there is an aspect to the Big Apple, like so much of America, that is peculiarly insular. On the one hand it has thousands of spoken languages, every cuisine you can imagine and yet, if it doesn’t happen in New York, there is a pervading sense that it is not important; in some ways the ultimate bubble.
‘Saudi Arabia bombed. Oil production falls by 5%’. We knew from Google that big news was happening in another part of the world but when President Trump reassured his people that any fall in international production wouldn’t affect the US, New Yorkers continued about their business, seemingly more concerned as to whether the Waldorf salad contained way too many calories.
“Take the Number 1 subway Downtown and get off at Whitehall,” said the hotel concierge. Would Boris be joining us? Probably not, wrong country.
We were on our way to Coco’s a French restaurant located in the Meatpacking District. That in itself sounded like a bad combination but I was wrong. Much of the said area has now been gentrified and is close to Greenwich Village meaning it is full of music, song, cultural sophistication, restaurants……and a meat packing facility!
Coco’s had only been open for a few months but was already attracting its fair share of punters. In these parts it was something of a novelty because France is a long way off which means there are plenty of diners eager to sample a slice of Gallic cuisine, even if it did mean a slight premium.
We ordered Hummus de Coco…fava beans spread, olives, lemon confit and sourdough, followed in my case by Filet Mignon. My colleague opted for La Niçoise de Cathay, a tuna salad topped off with a vinaigrette dressing
But as much as the palate tingling cuisine, there was the equally sophisticated company.
“We are fashion wholesalers,” said the older woman. The ‘we’ included her daughter sitting in the chair opposite. They ripped their President to pieces whilst expounding the joys of European fashion which they had been wholesaling in Texas and beyond for some 35 years.
“We travel to the UK and Europe at least once a year,” said Mum, “however, these days, she does most of the work,” she added pointing to her smiling daughter. “I prefer to relax at our place in the country….a small 200 acre farm.” How would I ever explain that an Airbnb property in Kettlewell was about as grand as my weekend treat was ever likely to be!
It had been a fascinating return to New York. I had even managed to take in the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island courtesy of the New York CityPASS, a discounted facility which grants you entry to a raft of attractions for a fraction of the cost.
But my visit to Liberty Island had given me an understanding for the first time of the true meaning of America’s most iconic statue.
She represented liberty, freedom, enlightenment and had become a symbol of the USA’s independence. People flocked to take selfies or buy fresh lemonade from motivated vendors before heading into the nearby Statue of Liberty Museum.
Ellis Island, by contrast, was tinged with both sadness and hope: hope for those who were given the opportunity to start a new life, sadness for those individuals who never made it to the mainland because of medical problems, requiring that they be returned from whence they had come.
And now in 2019 President Trump remained committed to building his wall, this time to keep the Mexicans out.
The ‘gratuity’ culture of New York was still very much an unchanged aspect of American life, however, some other things had moved on. It may have been 30 years since I was last in the Big Apple but America was still evolving and just as keen to discover its new place in the world.
As the US pointed its finger at Iran as the culprit responsible for bombing Saudi Arabia’s oil installations, a New Yorker put her hand in her pocket to pay for an afternoon pretzel.
‘We are a cashless restaurant,’ read the sign. Some things were changing even if others weren’t.
We said our goodbyes to the Big Apple and headed for Penn Station to board our train for Chicago.