New York minute

veena venugopal | Updated on May 23, 2014


No parking Pedallingaround Central Parkshutterstock/gerard lazaro   -  Shutterstock

Red-hot chillipepperoni Thereare no new licencesfor wood-fired ovens,so in Brooklyn,there's a pizza warraging - shutterstock/andrey kuzmin

Is it a visual illusion, or a sensory delusion? The city that can still surprise

At Columbus Circle, a ballerina, bound up against the cold in pink turtleneck and a tutu, swirls and pirouettes. She leaps over the grey stone and twirls past the statue of the winged boy holding the globe. Then, as she raises her arm, she accidentally brushes the man walking past her, a backpack slung over his shoulder. He might be a tourist. Or a local walking home after work. He turns around, sees the ballerina and, to your astonishment, joins her in her dance. Now they move together, weaving past walkers and gawkers, their bodies gliding round the circle. As the bus you are in leaves the Circle to head back to Times Square, the ballerina and the man take a bow.

You barely peel your eyes off them when a UPS delivery man, in the trademark khaki shorts and shirt, standing on the kerb catches your attention. He waves at you. So you wave back. And then he proceeds to leave the package he is carrying by the road and bursts into vigorous hip-hop. Two Asian ladies, one of them pushing a child in a buggy, veer to their right to avoid the dancing UPS man from crashing into them. The child looks up from the stroller, waves enthusiastically and gives you the most adorable toothless smile. You are so primed for the unexpected that you wonder when the baby will jump out of the buggy and break into a jig.

I am on The Ride, a bus which is all glass on one side with three rows of seats, arranged stadium-style. About 30 or so tourists sit facing the glass, a no-smudge view of the city. As we drive around Manhattan, with two witty compères on the mic, of all the things that go on outside the bus, it is hard to figure out what is staged and what is real. Is that lady an investment banker heading home from work or a full-throated opera singer waiting to blow your mind off with her big voice? Perhaps that is a real teenager on the kerb waiting to burst the balloon behind an old man’s head. Is it part of a stand-up act meant for the bus? Perhaps you are about to witness a crime of some kind. Perhaps you will laugh, perhaps you will cry, perhaps you will scream. It could be any of this. Or it could be none. Perhaps that is why they call it a New York minute — a fraction of time in which so many possibilities exist that it seems like no time at all. A visual illusion, or is it a sensory delusion?

The Ride lasts an hour and drops us back in front of the Madame Tussauds museum on W 42nd Street. As I hop off the bus and quickly dart across the road to see what it looks like from outside, I feel the first chill of excitement of being in New York. It took two days to come — this much-anticipated excitement — but I am glad that at last it has.

This is my first trip to New York City. I nearly made it here twice in the past and both times the trip was scuttled at the last minute. I was beginning to think that the universe wasn’t quite going to conspire to bring me here, that maybe my New York would always be in the realm of fiction. I hung on to the visuals of the city — on television shows and movies. So when I finally arrive, nothing feels new. Walking around the city the first couple of days, everything feels so familiar that it feels like a terrible waste to have spent so much time trying to get here. The only source of New York joy initially was the fact that I was staying at Paramount Hotel, which is right next to the Scientology Centre. There were no sightings of Tom Cruise or John Travolta. But everyone on the street seemed like a potential auditor. Some drama seemed imminent. Alas, none transpired.

The trouble with being a tourist in New York, especially a first-time visitor, and doing the touristy routine is that after a while it begins to feel like the hundredth re-run of Seinfeld, Friends or Sex and the City. I saw the same landmarks in various ways. Twice by boat; once on a blustery morning when even the Statue of Liberty looked like she’d rather be somewhere indoors and warm, and once over a gourmet dinner in a cruise boat. I cycled around Central Park. And rode up the Rockefeller Centre to see the city from the top. It was a quick descent from “oh wow, look at that” to “ah okay, this again.” Which is why The Ride was special. It put the “oh wow” into things which weren’t even fascinating at first sight.

Two days after The Ride, I boarded yet another bus. This one was regular and everyone faced forward all the way to Brooklyn, where a pizza war is brewing. Just under the Brooklyn bridge, Grimaldi’s has been serving its signature pie for the last 24 years. In 1998, Patsy Grimaldi decided he was too old to run the business and sold it to Frank Ciolla. Last year, Grimaldi decided he wanted back in. He bought a restaurant next door and after losing the legal battle to call his pizzeria by his own name, named it Juliana after his wife. Pizzerias’ prime assets are their ovens and the city council has almost entirely stopped giving new licences for wood-fired ovens because of environmental concerns. But Grimaldi manages to get a licence — through means that are both inexplicable and awe-inspiring. Paula, our young guide, tells us this story in the bus. We are on a slice of pizza tour through Brooklyn and it is fitting that there be suspense and drama around pizza. I was mildly disappointed that there was no murder.

At Grimaldi’s the pizza is worth its lore. Thin crust with the freshest of mozzarellas bubbling on it, the pie is worth its multi-decade history. We order one with no toppings but the depth of flavours in the pie, the sauce and the cheese are enough. We roll through Brooklyn while Paula shifts from pizza to real estate. We drive past multi-million-dollar homes and listen to stories of indulgent fathers, spoilt daughters and their 10-bedroom mansions.

L&B Spumoni is at the other end of Brooklyn and so is its pie. If the Grimaldi pizza is as crisp as it’s thin, Spumoni is the king of the pan crust. I have ever been keen on pan crusts, to be honest, having found them too doughy. But at Spumoni, the flour is worked and left to rise not once but twice. The yeast and the air play such grand chemistry with the pizza, it blows me away. Eating it is like biting into a pie filled with crisp, oven air. It is portly and invisible at the same time. It is suddenly easy to see why an entire borough is caught up in pizza wars. Travel, they say, expands your mind. I can’t claim any evidence of it. In Brooklyn, it certainly expands your stomach.

If The Ride made me see the wonder in New York, Brooklyn’s obsession with its pizzas opened my eyes to the quirks of its people. Really, there was nothing more I wanted. New York, it seemed, was falling into place.

That evening, I took my first subway ride back to the city. A teenager, pink-haired and surly, sat next to me. I peeped over her shoulder to see what she was reading. It was Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, whose iconic protagonist Holden Caulfield escapes Pennsylvania to romp around in New York — checking into downtown hotels, going to jazz clubs in Greenwich Village and watching Broadway shows, a tourist trail similar to my own. I could’ve laughed at the ridiculous irony of it. Or I could’ve taken it as a sign from the universe that much of New York might be predictable but all of it is alluring. I picked the latter.

(The writer was in New York at the invitation of NYC & Co and Virgin Atlantic.)

Published on May 16, 2014

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