Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Me And New York

For somebody who set out a goal some 35 years ago of seeing the United States first and visiting every state, it took me a long time to get to New York. It wasn't until 1985 when I had probably visited 30 other states that I made my way there to teach a class. There are a couple of reasons why I actually avoided New York. Manhattan sounded like a dangerous place to visit--people were in fact being mugged in the subways and attacked in Central Park. Indeed, when relatives moved to Philadelphia in the 1970s and offered to take me there on a day trip while visiting them, I declined. Furthermore, having done the bulk of my traveling on fly and drive trips, the thought of driving in New York City was frightening. Indeed all my trepidations were proven true on my first trip to Manhattan, as the taxi taking us from JFK airport crossed over into the Manhattan side. Right after crossing the East River, the cabbie got into a dispute with a truck driver, a dispute so nasty that the cabbie stopped his vehicle, and got out of the car to jaw with the truck driver. Welcome to New York!

Five years later in 1990 I actually got up the nerve to drive into New York City, at the tail end of our two week fly and drive Canadian/East Coast trip. I made sure we arrived on Saturday, when traffic was lighter. It was a fun trip with our little kids in the back. Crossing the George Washington Bridge from New Jersey into Manhattan, I pointed out Grant's Tomb on the bluff overlooking the Hudson River. "Are we going to visit there?" asked Christina. "No, we're not" I responded. "That part of town is too dangerous." To which Eric thoughtfully inquired, "Oh. Is that how Grant died?" Yes, and they buried him on the spot.

As it turns out Manhattan wasn't that difficult of a place to drive if you followed certain rules. First of all, don't drive through Times Square, but rather go a few blocks out of your way to streets like West Highway. More importantly was don't drive like a polite Californian. Rather drive like the locals do, particularly the cabbies. Force your way into lane changes and through intersections. Indeed, I became fairly good at driving through Manhattan using these principles. When a colleague attending a training session with me on Long Island disclosed over dinner in Queens that he had never been to Manhattan, I immediately drove him over to Manhattan and gave him a tour of all the major sights. He was so impressed that when we got back he told everybody about the tour of Manhattan that I had given him.

However, it wasn't until 15 years after my first trip there that I discovered that it really didn't make any sense to drive in Manhattan. First of all the cost of overnight parking was ridiculous, and on top of that, it took forever for the parking attendant to get your car off of the storage ramp and out to you. Secondly, we discovered the New York subways. Now even in 2000 I was still greatly influenced by tales of crime in the subways, and since it made no sense to drive short distances in Manhattan, we opted to rely on taxi rides for those short trips. However, one evening after taking the cab to Manhattan Chinatown, we were going to return to Midtown when Mrs. Chandavkl pointed at the stairway going down to the subway station. Mrs. Chandavkl, who is many times more paranoid about crime and doom in general than I could ever be, said "Look at all those Chinese people going into the subway! It must be safe." This time I was the skeptical one, reluctantly following her down the tunnel. We got on the subway and the ride back to Midtown was wonderful--much faster and cheaper than a cab, and not a suspicious looking soul anywhere on the train. We turned in our rental car the next morning and it's been nothing but the subway ever since.

With numerous business trips to the east coast in the last few years, I've explored transportation alternatives I never would have dreamed of. Take the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan from the outskirts? Sounds interesting, but I had never taken a domestic train ride anywhere in the US. But it wasn't much harder than catching the subway from Flushing to Manhattan. There's an Amtrak commuter train between Washington DC and Penn Station in New York? Again, sounds interesting, but how do you buy your ticket, how do you find your track, where are you supposed to sit? Well, two years ago I finally booked the train. Amazingly, arriving at the ticket counter just 10 minutes before an earlier train was about to leave, I was able to switch to the earlier ride in time. Arriving at Penn Station, fortuituosly my randomly booked hotel was just a couple of blocks away. The next time I rode the Amtrak from DC to NY I got more adventurous, booking a hotel in Chinatown, requiring a subway ride not originating from Penn Station. While I had actually taken the subway from Manhattan to JFK airport once before, it was with a lesser amount of luggage, but somehow I managed my way on the stairs through the turnstiles into and out of the subway station.

Which leads me to my next potential adventure in traversing New York City. When travelling back from Washington DC to New York, I need to make a choice of whether to stop overnight in Manhattan or in Flushing. Both are very interesting places, but staying in Manhattan entails taking the Amtrak train and its three hour ride, while Flushing is a short plane ride from Reagan Airport to LaGuardia. Now you can do both Flushing and Manhattan at the same time since there is the 7 subway train, but that can take 45 minutes to more than an hour each way. Also while I did ride the Long Island Railroad from Flushing to Manhattan once, that service is not as frequent as the subway and it only gets you to Penn Station. But I recently found that hitting both Manhattan and Flushing on the way back is a possibility due to the Chinese bus service between Manhattan Chinatown and Flushing Chinatown. While I have heard about the legendary Chinese buses for many years, I've never ridden one since there are several issues. For one thing, there is no "Chinatown Bus Station" at either end. The buses pick up and drop off their passengers on the street, from buses marked only in Chinese. Also, there is no set schedule. A bus won't leave until it's full. Supposedly the buses fill up quickly, so the wait shouldn't be that long. Indeed, I suspect the buses run a circuit like the Disneyland parking lot tram rides. But the attraction is that for the $2.50 bus fare, you can travel between Flushing and Manhattan Chinatown in roughly 20 minutes. Will I be able to find the Chinatown bus? We'll have to wait until next year to see.

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