Saturday, September 16, 2006

New York Tour - Day 1

Today we start our official tour of New York. After returning the Pontiac G6 to Alamo, we got ourselves an all-day Metro pass. First thing I wanted to visit is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yeah, that's me all right. Dad and I went in the museum, while my brother waited for his friend at the steps. Now, the Met is one of those museums where you can easily spend a whole day in. Unfortunately, I have only two hours, and I'm not paying 20 bucks "suggested admission fee" for only two hours to see two million works of art across two million square feet of exhibition space. I was told by a little bird that if you're too cheapo to pay full price, you can opt to make a "donation" to the musuem, and you still get the entry sticker. Yup, that's me again. The Met has quite a bit of history. It first opened in 1820 along Fifth Avenue, then moved to West 14th Street in 1873. It later acquired some land on the east side of Central Park, and that became its home till the present. The museum's permanent collection ranges from paintings and sculptures from European masters and American artists alike, special sections for Greek and Roman art, Asian art, Islamic art, medieval art, Egyptian art, extensive collection of arms and armour, musical instruments, etc. Currently on special exhibit is Cai Guo-Qiang on the Roof: Transparent Monument - the "roof" being the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Roof Garden. Personally, I think Chinese artists in general are getting quite a bit of exposure these days simply because of the novelty of it all. Anyway, the installation consists of four works:

  • Clear Sky Black Cloud - This seems to be the highlight of the exhibit. Every day at noon (except Mondays), a suite of three black-smoke shells are fired off, creating a black cloud in the city sky.
  • Transparent Monument - This one's my favourite. The work is simply a 15-foot-tall unframed glass pane, at the base of which lie some dead pigeons, obviously hitting the clear glass in mid-flight and causing their own deaths. Well, the only thing real about them are the feathers.
  • Move Along, Nothing to See Here - This pair of open-mouthed crocodiles are obviously fakes, too. The life-sized crocs are skewered and propped up by bamboo poles, and their whole bodies bristling with hundred of sharp, dangerous items allegedly confiscated from airport security checkpoints - knives, screwdrivers, forks, switchblades, etc.
  • Nontransparent Monument - This is a 32-foot-long limestone relief with vignettes depicting life after 9/11, including scenes of bird flu, international festivals, same-sex marriage, terrorist hits, etc.
From Central Park, we took the subway to Grand Central Terminal (not to be confused with Chicago's Grand Central Station), where we had lunch at the food court (dining concourse) downstairs. Reminds me of the lunch we had recently at the food court of the Washington Union Station. The GCT is a tourist destination in itself. The main concourse is just cavernous - 120 feet wide, 375 feet long and 125 feet high. Those of you who have seen the movies Madagascar and Hackers would know how big it is. The ceiling is so high they were able to fit in a Redstone missle (vertically) in 1957. In erecting that missile, they had to cut a hole near Pisces, and that hole remained there ever since. If you're confused by the reference to Pisces, that was because I forgot to mention that on the ceiling of the main concourse is a mural of the New York sky with gilded stars and constellations. It was originally painted by French artist Paul César Helleu in 1912, and recently restored by cleaning away the years of grime and soot and smoke and plaster that accumulated. The cleaners apparently didn't do a good job because there's still an uncleaned patch above Michael Jordan's Steak House. Kidding aside, that's to remind people how bad the grime was.

More trivia for you: if you look at the constellations, you'll notice that they're painted backwards. It's possible that the painter's no good at reading sketches. A more plausible explanation is that the painting is based on a medieval manuscript that shows the sky as seen from outer space. Near the Oyster Bar & Restaurant at the dining concourse is the "whispering gallery". Due to the physics/acoustics of the low arched ceilings, people at either ends of the gallery entryway can hear each other perfectly, even if they're only whispering. It is also rumoured that underneath the GCT is a network of underground tunnels and tracks. By entering a secret entrance you gain access to a train platform and an elevator that goes straight up to the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.

Our next subway stop takes us to the Wall Street area. Along Broad Street, we find the the neoclassical New York Stock Exchange building. Atop the six Corinthian columns is the pediment with John Quincy Adams Ward's sculpture called “Integrity Protecting the Works of Man”. Draped across the columns is a giant American flag. Along Wall Street, we find the Federal Hall National Monument with the bronze statue of Washington in front. The classical structure with its Doric columns and domed ceiling started life as New York City Hall in 1700. In 1789, it became the First Capitol of the United States. It later served as US' first Customs House, then a Federal Reserve Bank. In 1939, it was designated as Federal Hall Memorial, currently operating as a museum. Incidentally, this is where Washington was inaugurated as the first President.

At the end of Wall Street is the Trinity Church. Too bad I didn't even get the chance to take a glimpse of its interior, as our guide is walking quickly down Broadway. Down at the Bowling Green Park is the famous Charging Bull a.k.a. the Wall Street Bull. One caress of its bronze horns and you're sure to make a killing at the stock market. (That's not the only part of the bull that has become shiny with too much caressing, but we won't go into that.) Story goes that Arturo Di Modica created the 7000-lb. sculpture after the 1987 crash (at his own expense) and left it at the doors of NYSE building as a Christmas gift. The police wasn't happy with his "littering" and impounded the bull. The public wasn't happy with the police impounding the bull and raised a ruckus. The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation had no choice but to re-install it at the Bowling Green Park. But now, time for more trivia. Turning right at Battery Place at the end of Broadway, you'll see a short, nondescript building along Greenwich Street. On the face of the building it says "BROOKLYN BATTERY TUNNEL - TRIBOROUGH BRIDGE & TUNNEL AUTHORITY". It's supposed to be the ventilation building for the tunnel, but (sotto voce) it's actually the MIB headquarters.

Going through the 21-acre (8.5 ha) Battery Park, we pass by Fritz Koenig's The Sphere. The metallic sculpture used to be located in the Austin Tobin Plaza between the World Trade Center towers. After the Sept. 11 attacks, it was recovered relatively unscathed, and now temporarily relocated along Eisenhower Mall in the northern section of The Battery. Just beside it is an eternal flame to commemmorate the victims of 9/11. Further on, we reach Castle Clinton where ferry tickets to Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are sold. (For those who are interested to know, Castle Clinton is a low, circular sandstone fort built prior to the War of 1812 to protect the harbour from attacks.) The queue to the ferry dock is long and winding, but I'm not about to miss my date with Lady Liberty. After the requisite full security check, we're on our way to Liberty Island.

So this is how the immigrants felt when they first saw the Statue of Liberty looming closer in the distance. (I seriously have to go NOW! :-)) The moment we docked, everybody spilled out and rushed over to the statue to take pictures. Commonly known as the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Enlightening the World is a gift from the Paris-based Union Franco-Américaine (Franco-American Union) in 1886. Visitors to the island have a choice of a museum tour at the base of the monument or an observatory tour for the best views of the NY harbour. I did neither because half an hour later, I was already on the ferry to Ellis Island. Main attraction of the island is the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. If you've seen the movie Hitch, this is where the man took the girl after a day of jetskiing for some ancestor-hunting. Outside the building is an "American Immigrant Wall of Honor". You would think this is where they list all the immigrants that passed through Ellis Island. Wrong, because for as little as $150, you could put your family name on the wall as well.

Back at Battery Park, it's a short walk to the World Trade Center Ground Zero. Five years after the event, I'm a bit saddened to see people walking around the site holding placards, still looking for their missing loved ones. Attached to the metal fences surrounding the contruction area are flags, flowers, pictures, baseball caps, and other memorabilia. At the entrance of the WTC PATH Subway Station is a photo exhibit chronicling the events on that fateful day. There's even a guy there giving a very detailed narrative of what happened, complete with facts and figures. That guy sure knows how to tell a good story - everyone was bunched around him, hanging to his every word. Pressed for time, we moved on to St. Paul's Chapel, which is just across the east side of the World Trade Center. The little chapel's claim to fame is that it didn't suffer any damage during the 9/11 attack, not even a broken window. (Some say it's a miracle.) Due to its proximity to the disaster site, the chapel became a place of rest for the recovery crew, who were working shifts non-stop. Volunteers also used the place as a relief center, working 12-hour shifts to make beds, serve meals, offer prayers and counseling, etc. The chapel is now back to its regular religious duties, although it's now also a tourist attraction. It still retains most of the memorial banners and memorabilia people left behind. There's an extensive audio/video history of the inspiring event, and even a huge roll of paper where visitors could write down their dedication. I spied a few people sobbing quietly in the pews, and I knew it was time to leave.

Taking the subway to Times Square, we spent most of the late afternoon gawking at the billboards ads of upcoming TV shows and theater plays and scrolling displays of text ads and stock quotes. I don't mind having a bit of art and culture, but I really don't have time to watch a Broadway hit even if it's at half-price. Too bad. Dinner is at Ollie's Noodle Shop. Despite the prime location and trendy interiors, I can assure you this is an authentic Chinese restaurant. For one, the staff doesn't care about customer service. You sit down at the table, and the waitress slams plates, chopsticks, and teacup in front of you, without much of an excuse me. Just the way I like it. Table too big? No problem. Before you can say yes, please do join us, there's already another party of four seated across the table. For our after-dinner entertainment, we walked over to the Rockefeller Center. The Rockefeller Plaza is such a nice place to simply hang out. Sitting on the steps of the plaza, you can see the outdoor dining area at the Lower Plaza. There's the colorful water fountains with Paul Manship's sculpture of Prometheus. Behind him is the white 70-storey 266-meter GE Building rising all the way up to the night sky. At the plaza is a stone plaque with this long quote, which my brother liked a lot:

  • I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
  • I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty
  • I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.
  • I believe in the Dignity of labour, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a liking but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.
  • I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business or personal affairs.
  • I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.
  • I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a mans word should be as good as his bond; that character not wealth or power or position - is of supreme worth.
  • I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.
  • I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individuals highest fulfilment, greatest happiness, and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His Will.
  • I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.
After digesting our food, we walked back to Times Square. Passed by Toys "R" Us, and we just had to go in and take a look. This flagship store is the biggest toy store in the whole world (multi-level, 110,000 square feet). Highlights include a 60-ft working indoor Ferris wheel and a 20-ft high, 34-ft long animatronic T-Rex. With that, we end the day.

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