BLACK SNOW & STIFF DRINKS: A SAN FRANCISCAN’S TAKE ON THE BIG APPLE.
Cleanliness may be next to godliness, but as it’s a relative term, it’s also pretty darn close meaninglessness. For example, when I’ve served New Yorkers at the San Francisco restaurant where I work, I often hear them marvel “…and San Francisco is so clean!” (to which one can watch locals turn their heads and awe at the astonishing and never-before-heard opinion). Safe at home after my very first trip to New York City, now it all makes sense to this lifelong Californian.
My very first “New York Experience” consisted of me nearly getting my ass kicked. One hears all the time about the roughness of New York’s subways, but that still left me unprepared for the three very large, very drunk, and–shall we say–very impolite Dominicans who greeted my maiden voyage with assurances that they were drawing nigh of beating my California ass and taking my shit.
I survived the incident (thankfully, without there being much of one) and immediately noted the differences between NY’s subways and SF’s MUNI. Whereas one might find a hamburger wrapper or two fluttering about Civic Center Station, this is utterly eclipsed by the unmitigated filth of New York’s subway system. Rats, sewage, mold, you name it: if it’s foul, it’s down there. However, whereas MUNI streetcar routes are sparse, and their reliability is notoriously unreliable, NY’s subways hurl seemingly beneath every inch of the Big Apple, and do so all the time, as in 24 hours a day (!). After going straight into New Year’s Eve drinking following a transcontinental flight and eventually finding your drunk self trying to get from Manhattan to Williamsburg at 4:30am, one tends to find this arrangement quite agreeable.
Then there’s the pizza. It’s great, without a doubt, especially Joe’s at Union Square. But honestly, after hearing about New York pizza my whole life (the entire side of my mom’s family was born in New York), I came away with the conclusion that a pizza can only get so good, and that perfection has in-fact been exported beyond NY’s city limits for some time (dude, Littlestar?).
Then there are the bars. We ventured to at least a dozen watering holes, from the urbane cocktail lounge at Cibar, where enormous Manhattans were poured (and spilled) to bring in the New Year, to the light-beer-dark-beer-only selection at McSorley’s Old Ale House (believed to be the oldest bar in NYC, and probably the only bar on Earth which can count both Abraham Lincoln and John Lennon as past patrons). The Dram Bar in Williamsburg, with it’s polished pine decor, cozily mixes the polarities of working-class pub with specialty cocktail lounge, and the barkeep at Marlow & Sons, a tiny, must-see bar near the Williamsburg bridge (which doubles as a very Californienne fresh-ingredient-oriented restaurant during the day) poured Rachel and I no fewer than 8 shots of tequila on the house.
Pressed for time (we only had four days) we had to be precise in our sight-seeing. At the MOMA we took-in originals of some of the 20th century’s most celebrated artists, including Jasper Johns, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, and even an exhibit on vintage kitchen design (very cool). Downtown, we saw the NY Stock Exchange and Federal Hall, where George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States. We paid homage to fallen heroes at Ground Zero, where the memorials brought you to tears, but also where the still-missing Freedom Tower brings you to rage. Uptown, we saw Times Square and Broadway, where we watched (and listened) to the musical Memphis, and where I snapped a video of Al Pacino leaving the Broadhurst theater after finishing a showing of The Merchant of Venice.
We ventured to the “Top of the Rock”, the viewing deck atop Rockefeller Center, and took in breathtaking views of the city, including Central Park. Nearby, we visited the Dakota building where John Lennon was assassinated, and the neighboring Strawberry Hills. We also visited the American Museum of Natural History, where I saw a rather dated placard read something to the effect of “At current growth rates, humans population may reach 6 billion by the year 2000”.
The trip bore several surprises. Nobody seems to recycle, and what few trash cans I saw were plainly being pushed to their cosmic limits. The street grid doesn’t run North/South, East/West like in San Francisco, but at a diagonal which, when combined with the skyscraper-blockade of the Sun, makes navigation difficult. There isn’t much Mexican food (I found one taco truck, where I enjoyed an entirely respectable taco), but New Yorkers partially make up for this terrific dearth with an ample supply of extraordinary bagels. Contrary to popular belief, there seemed to be plenty of Fernet Branca, though nobody seemed to drink it. No place stocks toilet seat covers. The West Coast is a generally irreligious place, but this is especially true in it’s cities, so it was surprising to see churches filled with people who weren’t tourists. For the life of me, I’ll never get over the sight of Hasidic Jews tripping over their bronze-age costumes while chatting on the cell phone as the step into their Chrysler minivans. Nobody seems to pick up after their dog, and there are no hills.
Finally, something must be said of the people. I never before gave much credit to the national slogan E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) mostly because it seemed to sacrifice accuracy at the alter of wish-thinking. But New York seethes with a nearly indescribable brand of unity that, at least for a major metropolis, might be unique to the entirety of human civilization, and which earns every syllable of the national motto. San Francisco, the most transient of cities, differs greatly in this respect. Remember, San Francisco was founded by tens of thousands of men who left their families to strike gold. Most of them didn’t find any, many of them left, and from college students, to dot-com start ups, to culinary aficionados, this constant inward-outward push continues today. So whereas New York City piles generation atop of generation to fortify it’s civic identity, San Francisco replenishes it’s cultural stock by briefly enchanting individuals to spend several years calling her home, before they too continue the tradition and move on.
An amazing time to be sure, and given that I missed so many things (Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State building…the list goes on) I’ll surely go back. But in the contest of cities, my heart lies with San Francisco and her (relatively) clean streets. It’s good to be home.