Springtime in Central Park

Barreling out of New York on the Pinellas Parkway at seventy five miles an hour, swooping over hills and between trees in a rented blue Sebring convertible, my blue shades on, blaring Motorhead’s Ace of Spades with my wife at my side, it occurred to me that the dawn of GPS navigation might forever change the landscape around us. An odd thought for the occasion, but the charming little box with the British accent guiding our route home compelled me to these ruminations. In this brave new world of digitally-determined, on-the-fly OSPF navigation, the tried and true routes from point A to point B that your father would have sent you on become less traveled and new, unexpected paths open up. These routes are based not on human preconception but on the cold, hard facts gleaned from digital maps and algorithms aimed at finding the shortest, directest path to your destination.

I wondered at what changes these newly well-traveled avenues might see. I wondered what the locals in the suddenly well-known small towns might think of the every day parade of cars. I pondered how transportation had always shaped economies, how the Internet had for a moment seemed to obviate the need for travel, and how technology was now turning it’s attention to changing our means of transportation on its own. Passing a “scenic overview” road stop on Rt. 17, whose nominally scenic view had recently been replaced by the chain maille glimmer of SUVs in mega-store parking lots, I sensed the shape of a new marketing strategy or three that those cunning Madison Avenue types might soon exploit. Albany-New York corridors sponsored by Viagra, guided tours on your Nokia phone and scenic views of the Catskills brought to you courtesy of Gander Mountain. As Kurt Vonnegut might say, “So it goes.”

But change is good and change is also bad. Mostly, as the Chinese soothsaying tomb the I Ching tells us, change simply is. Indeed, it is the only inalterable, imperishable thing that is, was and ever will be. And it was just past the threshold of what now simply is – a threshold beyond which lay pain, loss and confusion, but also hope, love and all that ever will be in our life’s journey – that Sarah and I suddenly decided we needed a temporary change of scenery.

So we booked a car, found a hotel and in the early spring Saturday morning hours, cloaked by a foggy sunrise in which all the world smelled of worms and the Earth wriggled with this new year’s renaissance, we made our way towards New York City.

You could hardly consider yourself human if your existence wasn’t in significant measure random, incoherent and above all, contradictory. In a country founded by slave owners who yearned to be free, I hope we all know this intrinsically. Sarah has relatives who live in Washington, D.C. and actually lived in Charleston, South Carolina. I myself have traveled the length eastern seaboard from here to Florida many times and went as far west as Kansas City, Missouri. I even spent some time in a fairly well-traveled band, playing gigs all over the north eastern part of this country.

Yet in one of those indubitably human contradictions, neither Sarah nor myself had ever been to New York in our lives, save for the occasional transfer at JFK Airport. Neither was this, in my case at least, a simple case of oversight: I had many times shocked friends in telling them that I’d not been to New York, and when asked why, I had never managed a satisfactory answer. Perhaps the only honest answer is that New York seemed too close to be exotic and too intimidating for an idle trip. I am, after all, from Sodus.

Whatever is the case, seeking distraction within a reasonable distance of Rochester, one cannot deny the allure of the Big Apple. And after five hours of driving through rural flatlands and rolling hills in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, we rounded a corner to be greeted by the jagged, cock-sure purple grin of New York’s interminable skyline. Our route into the city was through the Lincoln Tunnel, the mildly disconcertingly long tunnel that winds its way under the Hudson River, connecting Weehawken, NJ directly into the heart of Manhattan Island.

Exiting the tunnel, we entered. . . not simply New York City, but a Ralph Bakshi film come to life. If your mind craves straight lines in parallel, the Manhattan side of the Lincoln Tunnel is not for you. It is a riot of bridge steel, pipes, wires, graffiti, billboards, signs, concrete, lights, skyline and traffic, all seeming at once to both explode from and gravitate to a single point barely fifty feet ahead of you. It’s like a high school Goth kid’s art class experiment in forced perspective gone awry and made manifest; an urban event horizon. What you might think of as the normal rules of the road seem not to apply as cabs and cars vie for safe passage through this very narrow passage barely inches from each other. It is chaos. It is survival. It is automotive Darwinism in its rawest form.

I looked ahead of me and thought, “My god. I’m home.”

And our home for this weekend getaway was the famed Essex House, a monument to wealth in a time of poverty, having been constructed in 1931 at the height of the Great Depression. It’s now owned by a company in Dubai, UAE. Once again, the state of the art in wealth over poverty. Our room was beautiful, and we had a telescope looking over Central Park, which helped mollify the guilt until a homeless guy setup camp on the rock right across the street. I’m sure that, somewhere along the line, we were probably also funding extremists in the Middle East by our mere presence, but the bathrobes were very nice.

Besides which, our aim was not to stay in a hotel room. Our aim was the sights, the sounds of the city. And the smells. I’m sure being right next to Central Park makes a difference, but New York smells way better than Toronto does. Sure, New York has it’s share of diesel stench; the musky smell of unfortunate souls born horses, unfortunate horses born indentured to the tourist trade of Manhattan; the aromas of the wares on sidewalk vendor carts. But the acrid pall of exhaust that seems to weigh everything down on Yonge St. doesn’t seem to have quite the same grip on Fifth Ave.

Did we do some sight seeing? Sure. We saw the Trump Tower, the other Trump Tower and another Trump Tower. And in the “Apprentice” Trump Tower, I got a Starbucks latte that cost the same as they do in Rochester, to my surprise. We went to Tiffany’s, which I hated like poison. We watched a couple street break-dancing troupes. For some reason, the building that impressed me most was the Reuters building on 42nd street. And in a city that’s all about all the luxury you can afford, we saw lots and lots of luxury we could not afford.

In Central Park, I was delighted to happen upon the glass veranda of Tavern on the Green, exactly as Rick Moranis saw it while being chased by the demon in Ghostbusters. I resisted the temptation to start banging on the window and yelling “let me in!!” And we passed by the rock where I’m pretty sure Miss Piggy ran into Gregory Hines while rollerskating in a scene from The Muppets Take Manhattan. It was a seminal moment in American cinematic socio-politics; a metaphor for the struggles of both racial and sexual identity and equality that presaged the 2008 Democratic Primary process.

And we ate at Anthony Bourdain’s Park Avenue restaurant, The Brasserie Les Halles. This intensely dark, loud, rollickingly alive restaurant is on Park Avenue South and has the hands-down best beef I have ever eaten in my life for the best price I’ve ever seen. I got a steak au poivre with pommes frittes (steak covered in peppercorns with a sauce and french fries) that I know I would have paid $30 for in Rochester for $22. I’ve never seen au poivre done with filet, but I hope to see it again, some day.

In fact speaking of price, the only place I felt ripped off was our hotel. I paid even money to the penny for a latte, 11 bucks gets you way farther in a cab in NY than it does in Rochester, Les Halles was great, our breakfast at Les Parisians (or whatever it was, on the corner of 57th and 7th, behind Essex) was $25 with tip, . . . but I paid $14 for a hair brush at the hotel lobby and $18 for a martini in my room. Credit where credit is due, they used a wine glass as a sidecar, filled it up, and I got a nice buzz, but still. . .

And in the Sunday morning light, while the weather was still remarkably warm, I went to a corner store around the way from Essex and got my wife some flowers. We had breakfast, wandered around the park for a bit, visited Pale Male and Lola‘s nest on 5th avenue, took some pictures and checked out of our hotel. We programmed our little GPS, drove down Central Park South and headed back to home and back to our lives.

So off the George Washington Bridge we went, speeding away from Manhattan Island, headlong into Pinellas Park, flushed with anticipation of vacations to come.  The shows, the shopping, the food.  And as I mulled over the prospect of digitally-inspired economic shifts, I guess maybe change started to seem like a good thing again.  Like the lovely little blue and white anemones slowly wilting in the usless back seats convertible car designers build out of an acute sense of sarcasm, the past is meant to be let go of.  The future is to be ardently embraced, however scary it may at first seem.  And if we can rest in our faith in these things, we can take the time to watch this precious present roll by.

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.

3 replies on “Springtime in Central Park”

Hey, We just got back from the Sonoran desert. We did’nt see anything that looked like that! We did however enjoy the heat and caktus! Happy to see that you both had a great time! Love to you and Sara. Dad

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