Monday, July 21, 2014

The City So Nice They Named It Twice and Other Stories By Christopher Rains

Little Critter
"Chugga-chugga-chugga-Woooooo! Chugga-chugga... WOOOOO-WOOOOOOO," 3-year-old Christopher shouted as he ran around the inside of my head. His name is Critter, due in equal parts to his similarity to a storybook character and his inability to pronounce his own name, and he loves trains. I use 'love' only because English does not contain a word that accurately describes the emotion. It is not the relationship between a man and his dog, or a man and a woman, or a mother and a child. It is the relationship between fish and the ocean, between wolves and the moon, but more than anything, it is the relationship between Critter and trains. As I rode an Amtrak locomotive from Colchester, VT to Newark, NJ, the deep, dark, unused parts of my mind that still remember how to be Critter turned back on. I spent the first hour of the trip just gawking out the window, doing my best not to let out a giggle. As the trip went on, however, an inexplicable impatience settled over me. It was a nameless agitation for which I could not determine a cause.

Little Critter, no relation
It suddenly became clear to me as Critter asked, "Where are the dinosaurs?" His first-hand experience with trains is limited to the Disneyland Railroad. I couldn't respond, partly because I didn't have the heart to tell him, and partly because, if I'm honest, I was secretly hoping there might be some dinosaurs along the way. We passed forests and streams, red barns and green cornfields, old-fashioned Vermont towns and modern Connecticut train stations. I found it exhilarating and beautiful, but Critter was left unsatisfied, although he did perk up a bit every time we passed over a bridge. I'm afraid 24-year-old me can't remain constantly excited about a train ride for 10 hours straight, so at about the 4 hour mark, I dozed off. I am extremely grateful that the porter mentioned in passing that the train would change direction in Connecticut on its way to New York and New Jersey, since waking up to discover the landscape was going by in the other direction would have been most unsettling otherwise.

I had just woken up, noticed the change in direction, and taken stock of which passengers had left and which ones were new, when the scenery outside started to shift from rural forest to urban... well, graffiti. Seeing the old factory buildings and the efforts of graffiti artists was only briefly interesting, and I had just about decided it was time to get bored again, when the train rounded a bend and began to cross a much more elegant style of bridge than I had seen yet... and then there it was: The Manhattan Skyline. I was a gawking child once more. I tend to think of myself as more at home in a small town, or a forest or beach, but there really is something about Manhattan. It is a purely man-made landscape, and for once, we made something that can contend. "Big..." said Critter. "Big," I replied.

Did I mention, Big?

Suddenly, we were underground. I saw nothing out my window but my own reflection and blackness, save for an occasional passing light. Hang on, I thought, I know this. It was finally going to happen! Any second now, the black wall would pull away like a curtain, and there would be a scene from the Cretaceous Period, complete with giant reptiles. And just as I knew it would, the black wall pulled away, and there was... Penn Station. Critter went back to the dark recesses of my mind to pout, and I didn't hear from him again. There was a certain eeriness to the long underground tunnel with 4 tracks running along together, side by side in the dark, but no one could call it beautiful. When the daylight bathed the train once more, we were in New Jersey, which is somewhat unfairly made the joke state of our country, and provides a unique atmosphere and housing for many who work in the city... but no one could call it beautiful either. Newark Station was my stop, and after a brief moment of disorientation on the platform, I located the stairs into the station, and met my friend Shauna, for whom I made this trip in the first place. After a short but terrifying car trip, punctuated by her occasional cursing of all things New Jersey, we arrived at her home in Livingston, despite the best efforts of NJ drivers. We made guacamole and enchiladas to satisfy my growing need for Mexican food (well, I mostly provided moral support and unhelpful advice) and turned in for the night. Shauna only had to work a half day on Friday, and we were going to see NYC!

I woke up on Friday at the crack of noon, taking full advantage of the real bed and lack of anyone to wake me up. Shauna had left for work several hours previously, leaving me with the house to myself, save for her dog Grissom. I busied myself with blog writing and sketching until she returned, and then we packed up to leave for New York. We drove to the Short Hills station in New Jersey, which is a bit closer to Shauna's house than Newark, but we soon learned a fairly critical drawback of this origin: there was no place to park. I do not mean that all the parking spaces in the area were full; I mean such parking spaces did not exist. There were a handful of permit parking slots, presumably for people who live nearby and take the train to work, but even so, there simply was not enough parking in the area to support a train station. We drove around for a while until we found a spot on a side street that wasn't really in front of anyone's house, crossed our fingers, and then walked to the station. The ride into the city was quick, and before I knew it, I was back at Penn Station, ready to set out into New York, New York.

The word of the day is throng. I have been in a crowd before, I have been in droves and groups and hordes, but this was a throng. Inconceivable numbers of people moved in every direction, an order emerging from the chaos as, somehow, none of them seemed to collide. Shauna confidently waded in, and with no other option, I followed after. I was presented with a strange inversion of the classic child lost in a crowd. I can remember what it felt like to be in a sea of people taller than you looking for someone taller than you, and it is extraordinarily similar to being in a sea of people shorter than you looking for someone shorter. Locating someone based on the top of their head is about as difficult as doing so based on knees, although the increased sight range does help. I was just beginning to enjoy the rare satisfaction of feeling tall when we walked out of the station and I looked up, feeling tiny once more. Confident in our new-found success with NJ Transit, we strode towards the entrance to the subway.

We wanted to head just a few stops north, to get some authentic New York pizza, so we picked up a couple metrocards, and for the first time in my life, I boarded a subway train. We passed the 28th Street stop without noticing anything amiss, but at 23rd, we caught on: The numbers were counting down... we were going south. We quickly exited, crossed the street, scanned our metrocards again, and for the second time in my life, I boarded a subway train. We clattered along for a couple minutes before we arrived at the Christopher Street stop, which was definitely not 28th... we were going south. We quickly exited, crossed the street, and after a brief argument in which I pointed to uptown and Shauna pointed to downtown (assuring me she had it figured out now), for the third time in my life, I boarded a subway train. Soon thereafter, we arrived at Houston Street, which was definitely not 23rd... we were going south. Off, cross street, point to uptown, scan card, and for the first time in my life, I boarded a subway train going in the direction I intended. I was very gracious about being right about uptown, and Shauna barely had to hit me at all to get me to shut up.

Best Observed at Night
After a few minutes, we were back where we started, and after a few minutes more, we were at 50th Street. Up the stairs, I was exposed to the assault on the senses that is NYC. Sound ranges from the low constant hum of human voices to the staccato beeps of taxis and minivans. You are constantly bumping into people, and the sooner you decide not to care, the easier traversing the city will be. As far as sight, you have neon reflected off mirror windows reflected off other windows and puddles and sunglasses. And smell... well smell is something else entirely. Taking a long breath through the nose virtually ensures you will not be smelling the same thing at the end of the breath that you were at the beginning. Every type of food imaginable scratches at the nostrils, imploring one to imagine what these foods would be like combined. How would sushi taste on a pizza? Chow mein on a hotdog might be good. What would Italian sausage taste like after it's partially digested by a hobo? Ugh, well not all the smells are good. In fact it's close to 50/50, but I couldn't convince myself to stop sniffing. Each new discovery was worth the risk.

You can really taste the fame
Navigating the streets on foot is far less complex than going underground. When you cross a street, you definitely end up on the other side of the street, and with the Streets counting up from south to north and the Avenues counting up from east to west, it's impossible to get lost. In no time at all we had reached Famous Original Ray's Pizza on 49th St and 7th Ave. The city is peppered with Ray's Pizzas, all to some degree of fame and originality. I don't know if this one is truly the original, but it's the one you want. The slices were wide, the toppings were delectable, the crust was cracker thin, and I folded it in half like a true New Yorker. Sated, we headed for Times Square, which is also an assault on the senses, in the same way that Everest is also a mountain. Like a regular tourist, I walked, necked craned back, mouth agape, probably drooling on myself. I allowed as to how it would be a shame to come to NYC and not see a Broadway play.  We got tickets, and after a bit more meandering, we walked into Chicago... er, that is, we walked into a theater playing Chicago.

I had seen Chicago before, but it didn't matter. Velma was played by a South African woman who can sing like a very smoky angel, and Roxy was played by a Mexican woman who can dance like a very unabashed gymnast. I've seen renditions with more impressive sets, more razzle dazzle as it were, but the band and the performers on Broadway were on a level completely their own. A major highlight was the character Mary Sunshine, clearly classically trained in opera, who [spoilers] on the line 'Everyone loves the big bambooz-a-ler' in "Razzle Dazzle" revealed that she was, in fact, being played by a man. The crowd went berserk.

The Vast Majority of That Jazz
On our walk back to Penn Station, on a whim, we stopped at a Wine Bar called L'ybane on 8th Ave. I can't speak for their Lebanese cuisine, since we weren't hungry, but I had a glass of Cabernet that was out of this world. Shauna had some fruity, fizzy, sugary nonsense wine that made me shudder, but she seemed to enjoy it. We sat, sipping wine and listening to the live jazz trio playing at the back. They played an extremely jazzy version of Sweet Georgia Brown, better known as the Harlem Globetrotters' theme, that is still running through my head. I honestly can't imagine a better way to cap off the day. We wearily rode the NJ Transit train back to Short Hills, found the car again, and made it home. Senses still alight from the day's activities, we found it impossible to turn in, so we stayed up, catching up on each other's lives and reminiscing on times past. We finally crawled into bed around 4:30 AM, fully expecting to get nothing done the next day.

The Remainder of That Jazz 

In that sense, Saturday went exactly as planned. I again slept until nearly noon, and Shauna, not to be outdone, did not emerge from her room until about 2:30, after I stomped past a couple times to get Grissom to bark at me. Deciding that 24 hours was much too long to go without pizza, we set out for a restaurant recommended to us by her parents as the best pizza they've found in New Jersey. The streets and highways of this state are labyrinthine at best and incomprehensible at worst, and the GPS routes have clearly been designed by someone with a nasty sense of humor. Shauna eventually found our destination, but for some reason, she did not take my gentle chuckling at her as the motivation I intended. The town we ended up in was none other than Maplewood, New Jersey, which you've probably heard of... if you were born in Maplewood, New Jersey. I'm pretty sure when people design a 'quaint little town', this is the prototype. I was forced to reconsider my first impression of the state; it's not all smokestacks and steel frames, and someone would most certainly describe Maplewood as beautiful if they shared my lack of a thesaurus. We walked up to Arturo's Brick Oven Pizza to discover a line around the front of the building. This was decidedly strange to us, since we also discovered a closed sign in the door. Apparently Arturo's does not open until 5:00. Shauna glanced at her cell phone; it was 4:55. Pleased once again at our extraordinary success despite any sort of planning or foresight, we took a place in line and got one of the last tables available when the doors opened.

Go here. Eat this. Do it.
The popularity of the joint was well deserved. I am loathe to admit it, but I think it was better than Famous Ray's Originally Famous Pizzoriginal. I continue to long for the comforts of my home state of California, and one sure way to my heart is sourdough bread. Now, you make a sourdough pizza crust? Fuhgeddaboutit! Still basking in the warm bliss derived from dough, cheese, and tomato sauce, we hopped across the street to the Village Ice Cream Parlour. This is the single friendliest ice cream shop, or indeed, location of any kind that I have ever visited. After being offered a multitude of flavors and free samples, I was complimented on my choice of scoop and cone in a way that was so genuine, I felt proud of it for the rest of the day. When we got back, we raided the wine cabinet for a lovely red and watched a movie... unless Shauna's parents read this blog, in which case we definitely did not do that and the bottle that's in there now is the same one it's always been.

Pictured: The reason I came all this way... also Shauna

Sunday went very much the same. Although it is not exactly an area-unique experience, Shauna and I both have sort of a thing for Cracker Barrel, so we decided to go there for breakfast, after another memorable battle with the GPS. Eating one's weight in comfort food is not an effective way to prepare for an active day, so our plans for the rest of the day suddenly got a lot smaller and less specific. We wandered around the Short Hills mall for a bit looking for a pair of sandals, and I would like to visit there again someday if I ever have a seven-figure salary. Back at Shauna's place, she asked me if I wanted to work out with her, which I politely declined, since I needed to use the time to look at myself shirtless in a mirror and tell myself I ought to work out more. That evening, we went to pick up Shauna's parents at the airport. They had been in California up to this point, visiting their other daughter, who has just given birth to a beautiful baby girl. I was glad to get to see them before I left, since having four people with the same sense of humor in a car at once is a mirthful, if somewhat competitive, experience.

Today, Monday, I needed to return to Newark Penn Station to take a train back to Vermont. The departure time did not sync up as well with Shauna's work schedule as I'd hoped, and we had been mulling over how to tackle this problem since Saturday evening. In an act of exceeding generosity, her parents paid for a town car to take me to the station, for which I will have to call them every day and thank them until Christmas. It was a rather entertaining experience to have a man in a neat suit come, put my lumpy bags in the trunk, and act for all the world like I was not scruffy, unkempt, and wearing a t-shirt. The ride into Newark was spent pretending I was a billionaire, which frankly takes a lot of imagination. In retrospect, I probably should have asked the driver his name. I don't think he appreciated it very much when I said, "Pull the car around there, Wimberly, and don't wait up. There's a good chap." Anyway, I tipped him well.

I'm now sitting on the 56 Vermonter Northbound Train, finishing up this post for all you excited Rainsbow followers. I leave rereading my first four paragraphs in reverse order as an exercise for the reader. Trying to decide how I am going to fill another 10 hour ride will be eased somewhat by a fact I wish I had discovered on Thursday: the entire train has internet WiFi. Most likely, this will be posted up by the time I rejoin my parents, dog, and progress towards Maine.

1 comment:

  1. CHRIS!!! We have enjoyed reading your posts of the great adventure/lifestyle as you head towards the lobsters of Maine and other points in between since the three (six?) of you left California. I read today, with special interest, your day in New York City since your uncle and I have plans to spend three days there in September. Alas, we are not currently going to any Broadway plays -- I looked and couldn't justify the prices and wasn't sure that I wanted to spend time standing in line for the discounted tickets. We did just get back from Ashland, OR where we had a great time seeing four plays. SO many other sights to see, experiences to have, and food to try in NYC! Yes, pizza IS on our list! Thanks for sharing your impressions regarding crowds, sights, sounds, riding the subway -- we are forewarned. Keep us posted about the lobster roll tastings! Give our regards to your folks -- we'll need to write more to them sometime. Aunt Linda and Uncle Lyle