Then it was off to Rockefeller Center which actually is a staggering complex of 19 commercial buildings occupying two blocks between 5th and 6th Avenues. The centerpiece is the 70-story GE Bldg. where you usually see the famous ice-skating rink in front of the Prometheus sculpture and giant Christmas tree put up on the lower plaza during wintertime. The NBC studios are located here and Avril Lavigne was having a free outdoor concert when we passed by – we could only hear but not see her because the weekend crowd was out in full force. Heading on to 7th Ave., we turned left and walked six blocks more until our final destination, Times Square.
Nicknamed the “Crossroads of the World” this iconic square is synonymous to NYC. You have to see it to believe it, because there’s nothing quite like it in the world. Hemmed in by towering buildings whose facades are all emblazoned with brash neon lights advertising anything from noodles to beer to movies to high fashion – it’s kitschy Americana gone wild! Then there are the stores with their crazy layouts and over-the-top signage like the huge Kids ‘R Us, MTV, Hershey’s and Virgin. Plus there are restaurants and souvenir shops that sell every imaginable thing to remind you of the city. In the middle of all this madness was a US Army recruiting station sitting on an island with a marine standing in full dress regalia as traffic swirled around and tourists gawked at him. We shuffled our way past tourists craning their necks at the latest giant billboards and almost bumped into a street performer dressed like a cowboy with an acoustic guitar playing a mournful country ballad. We finally found what we were looking for: the TKTS discount booth where one could buy discounted Broadway show tickets. We all wanted to watch “The Lion King” but alas! All shows were sold out. We went to the Ed Sullivan theater instead where David Letterman’s “Late Show” is taped hoping to get some standby tickets but being a Friday, there was no show. So we ended up in Hello Deli beside the theater and chatted up Rupert Jee, the owner, who’s sometimes a guest on the show – that was the closest we ever got to a celebrity in New York!
The skyscraper is what makes the Big Apple different from any other city for nowhere else on earth will you find so many tall buildings clustered together in such a small space. With the Twin Towers gone, the highest building there is once again the 102-story, 443-meter tall Empire State Building built in 1931 whose claim to fame was sealed in the original movie “King Kong”. We took the high-speed lift to the 86th floor outdoor observatory deck and had the whole spread of the city below us. From that vantage point, you could see for miles and miles and appreciate the grid streets of Manhattan that make traffic move quite smoothly – both people and the yellow taxicabs were as small as ants. It was so windy that several visitors lost their hats and we couldn’t take any decent pictures, as our hair flapped wildly in the wind. Back down on street level, we crossed Broadway Ave. once more, to get to Madison Square Garden and then to Macy’s where a big sale was going on. I ended up with two Ungaro suits bought at bargain-basement prices and the wife, well, she bought half of the store!
Manhattan’s lower end has the densest concentration of skyscrapers where the World Trade Center used to stand tall. Now the place is a beehive of frenzied activity as they were reconstructing the memorial site; you could peer down into the deep excavated section through the fence and for a moment visualize what happened on that memorable 11th day of September 2001. We walked past Wall Street pausing by The Bull near the NYSE which was always crowded with tourists. The oversized bronze sculpture has become an iconic symbol of the financial district and people there said you have to rub the nose, horns and testicles for good luck. Well, I saw some ladies do funny things with the last piece of anatomy!
From Battery Park, after a rigid security screening, we boarded the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. No visit to New York would be complete without paying homage to this historical landmark and being a clear day, the view of Manhattan from Liberty Island was beautiful. The statue, standing 46 meters from foot to crown, towers over the park majestically as you stand below the granite pedestal that supports it. On its base is a plaque with Emma Lazarus’s immortal words: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”. You could walk the full 354 steps all the way up to the crown for a great view after paying the entrance fee and being frisked once more by Security but the queue was so long and the thought of climbing the equivalent of 22 stories made us pass! Instead, we went through the exhibit which told the story of the Statue, then sat on the lawn outside wondering how the thousands of immigrants must have felt upon setting foot on the Land of the Free.
I think the best thing you can do when visiting New York is to go cruising on a Circle Line yacht. For US$30 we went on the full 3-hour cruise that left Pier 83 on the wide Hudson River which separates Manhattan from New Jersey. Heading south to the bay, we enjoyed the famous skyline, picking out as many famous, then cruised by Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty before turning north at the tip of Lower Manhattan into the East River. Here we passed under the iconic Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges before the massive rectangular building of the UN came into view. The running commentary onboard kept us all updated with what the lesser but equally-charming sights were: Roosevelt Island, Gracie Mansion – the official residence of the Mayor, Yankee Stadium, Harlem and the Lincoln Center plus numerous other bridges with the tall George Washington bridge at the end of the trip.
As we got down, Frank Sinatra was singing over the loudspeaker: “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere; it’s up to you New York, New York!” Great lyrics of a great song in tribute to a great City. Couldn’t agree more.