Monday, November 23, 2009

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

NEW YORK - Getting to New York was the hard part. Not in the air, where Continental Airlines did a fine job bringing me to the USA from London - on the ground, where cab fare, Lincoln Tunnel toll and tip for the ride from Newark Liberty International Airport set me back $90.

After that, things could only get better. And they did, with gratifying speed. After checking in to the grandly restored Hotel Pierre, on Fifth Avenue, across from the southeast corner of Central Park, I set off on foot to have a look around town. It was Saturday night, Thanksgiving was nearly at hand, Christmas was not far off, and Manhattan positively glistened. Night had fallen, but it wasn't cold - maybe 50 degrees F, and dry. The sidewalks were alive with people.

Fifth Avenue was electric, figuratively and literally. Lights and decorations everywhere. The Cartier store wrapped in an electronic "ribbon'' for the shopping and gift-giving season, and every shop illuminated inside and out. I people-watched and walked. At Rockefeller Center, I strolled off the avenue and stopped by the ice-skating rink, which went in Nov. 18. The icy surface was ready to receive skaters but literally no one was skating - only crowding round the outside of the rink, as though expecting something exciting to happen any minute. Maybe Michael Bloomberg and Donald Trump were making themselves ready to come out on skates, or maybe Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding were set to re-enact their 1990s battle as part of a fond reunion tour, I dunno. The place looked great but nothing was happening just then. I soaked up the mood for a New York minute and moved on.

I passed a long line outside Radio City Music Hall, and pushed on to Times Square. It was absolutely jammed, with tourists sitting at the cafe-style tables that the city put out in blocked-off portions of the famous intersection this past summer. What's a little frosty November weather? The tables and chairs are still there, and still occupied. Huge outdoor video screens and neon advertisements throbbed and looked ready to explode. The city seems to have amped-up and at least trebled the available wattage from five years ago. You could read a newspaper by the overhead lights, if people still read newspapers.

Sunday morning, I had a lovely breakfast at Le Caprice, at the Pierre, and then went for a walk in Central Park. It was a sunny, crisp, breezy morning. The sky was a clear blue of the type seen best in Fall on the U.S. East Coast. It was about 9:30 a.m. The horse-drawn carriages were fully booked and making their aromatic way through the park. Joggers were jogging, dog-walkers led pooches around. Chestnuts were roasting on grills and buskers were already busily busking. It was a delightful way to start the day.

When it was time to head out to JFK airport for the last leg of my round-the-world trip - home to California - I returned for a thankfully brief time to Taxi Purgatory. This time, fare and tip were a measly $60. I, having been overseas for a month, was short of cash and wanted to pay with a credit card. When we got to the airport, the cabbie mournfully informed me that it was to be cash-only; his credit-card machine was "broken.'' I informed him it is illegal to operate a yellow cab in New York without a working card-reading machine. He shruggged. In New York, as elsewhere around the planet, the taxi-driving tribe continues to wage its long-running war on the world's travelers. There are two sterling exceptions: The polite, scrupulously honest, white-glove-wearing cabbies of Tokyo, and the super-informed, witty drivers of London black cabs.

I was on the curb outside the terminal. "Home, Jeeves,'' I wanted to say. But of course this was to be an airplane journey, and Jeeves doesn't fly. I strolled, wheelie and briefcase in hand, into JFK terminal 7, sailed through security and headed to United Airlines' Red Carpet Club, boarding pass in hand.

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