By the next morning the rain had been chased away and we set off in chilly sunshine. This was a fortunate because Helen had set aside today for iconic things and Grand Central Station is a very grand iconic thing, so we set off with me trotting alongside my guide like a faithful hound. Good heavens the vast main concourse is like a cathedral. I had a black and white print of it above a bookcase in my classroom for years with light filtering down from high windows. The reality is even more awesome and we were agog at the beaux arts beauty of it. However, the vast space was not preparing for a high mass even though it was easy to forget this was the hub of a busy, functioning station, with 44 platforms, the most in any station in the world. I had a schoolboyish urge to get on a train and go – oh – anywhere but it was time for breakfast and we headed for the Great Northern Food Hall where the plentiful coffee was arguably the best we had in the city.
Below the main concourse is an exciting food hall where there are stalls called Frankie’s Dogs on the Go and Chirping Chicken which sound as if they were first conceived in a Popeye cartoon. Down there I took a photo of an iconic shoeshine boy. I’m not sure if he was cross or flattered at my preserving him for posterity. I was wearing walking boots or I would gladly have availed myself of his custom.
We were off next to the Rockefeller Centre but took a slight detour to take in St Patrick’s Cathedral. We both come from Lincoln (England, not Nebraska) which has the finest cathedral in the British Isles. It is a fine example of English medieval gothic. It sits on top of a limestone outcrop and can be seen from twenty miles away. St Patrick’s, on the other hand, is overlooked by skyscrapers and looked, to us at least, to be kind of squeezed into its space. Its neo-gothic style is quite impressive in its own right but it’s not one of the world’s greatest ecclesiastical buildings.
The Rockefeller experience was, however, genuinely awesome. We queued for a very long time but it was worth it. We bought ‘Sun and Stars’ tickets, which meant that we could return later for the night view. My ears have never popped in an aeroplane but they did in the sensationally rapid lift which took us up to the 67th floor. An escalator took us up two floors to a viewing platform and another one to the very top. Words fail a bit here. A bird’s eye view of Manhattan is familiar from countless films but this testament to human ingenuity and enterprise is breath-taking. Some people have asked me, why not the Empire State? The answer was supplied by Helen: from here we could see the Empire State Building and we also had a great view of Central Park. Another pleasing thing was that the numbers are carefully controlled so that there are not too many people up there at any one time.
Lunch was at a branch of Le Pain Quotidien, where my croque monsieur was different from the London version only in that it was bigger.
Time now for the icon of icons, the Statue of Liberty, and our first encounter with the subway. I have to say that it was confusing. We needed to go all the way to the south of Manhattan to get to the Staten Island Ferry. The system is efficient enough but the signage is dreadful. It is not easy to tell from street level whether your station is serving uptown or downtown trains. Once on the move, it’s fast and unthreatening but it’s not easy to tell which station you’ve arrived at. On this train there were no electronic indicators and announcements were at low volume and garbled. I dare say native New Yorkers know their way around just as Londoners and Parisians do in their own cities, but it’s a bit hard on tourists. (A train on a different line later in the week did have ‘tickertape’ signs which was reassuring.)
The departure hall for the ferry was much bigger than I expected and so was the boat itself. There were lots of tourists, of course, but this is a busy commuter route for people who live on Staten Island and work in Manhatten. The good news was that it is totally free. Thank you, NYC! Cliché or not, the lady with the torch was a must-see and one could not but think of the huddled masses who once travelled from Europe and first saw her with the skyline of New Jersey and Manhattan Island behind her. I remembered too that this was a present from France and that she too had crossed the Atlantic. This was all quite thrilling but it was icy cold on deck and we travelled back in the cosy interior of the ferry boat.
Since we were at this end of Manhattan, we wanted to visit the 9/11 memorial. We had just paid tribute, in a way, to the immigration policies which make the city the genuinely multicultural place that it is; now we wanted to pay tribute to the Americans who lost their lives on that day in 2001. Anyone old enough will have their own memories of the appalling images that filled our screens. The site now is eerily quiet. Where the twin towers were are two rectangular enclosures each of which contains a kind of waterfall, by which I meant that a pool of water falls endlessly into a rectangular black hole in the centre. Around the pool are bronze parapets engraved with the names of those who died. Here and there, roses have been placed on the memorial along with a little American flag. Immensely moving.
Back uptown as dusk was falling for our second visit to the ‘Top of the Rock’. There was no need to queue this time as we already had our tickets. I am not much given to teenage exclamations but OMG! how magical was this? Below us and around us a phenomenal panorama of light – tower after tower in every direction studded with light – a great jewel box of light. We could have stood and gazed and gazed but it was actually damn cold. It was February after all. And besides, all this iconicity had given us an appetite so back to the hotel, to freshen up and check out ‘Restaurant Row’ for dinner.
Yes indeed it was February, the fourteenth to be precise, and everywhere was packed because, of course, the fourteenth is Valentine’s. We found an atmospheric Italian place on West 46th Street called Scarlatto which looked promising and said we’d like a table. Would we like the special Valentine’s menu? Well no, we’re just good friends, we said, and would like to see the standard menu. With a knowing look, the waiter found us a table which had a candle and red roses all the same. My pasta was sublime and the zabaglione, celestial.
And the morning and the evening were the third day.
To be continued