Gained in Translation

Sunday, 11 December 2022

Kept awake half the night by circadian shenanigans and some inconsiderate neighbours, who weren’t even doing anything interestingly amorous, just talking too loud, I decided to sleep in, which I managed until after noon. Then went to do some laundry, the only notable part of which was that, at 34th Street, I stopped and looked west and knowingly saw the Empire State Building, so tick. Didn’t take a photo. You know what it looks like. So it was fairly late in the day by the time I thought about doing anything interesting at all. Well, I have only so many days and it would have been ridiculous to see only one borough of the city in that time, so it was onto the subway headed for Brooklyn. But only just. This, my third subway trip, was the first in which I had to fight my way onto the train and spend the first leg of the journey being pressed against a door that I knew from previous experience bore a sign, now roughly located in the small of my back, that says “don’t lean on this door”. Fortunately, one stop was enough to relieve most of the pressure and the remaining few, to Borough Hall Station, were much less socially undistanced.

The Land of Oz

Off the train and into drizzle, the promised rain having arrived. It never got quite heavy enough for me to buy one of the million or so cheap umbrellas I would pass during the day, but it was heavy enough for someone determined to walk in it for hours to make that a mistake, repeated one million times. I slowly, over the course, got very damp indeed.

Brooklyn, or the parts I saw, was on a much more human scale than Manhattan, residential streets with five or six story apartment buildings. The kind staff at Swallow Cafe on the main street (Atlantic Avenue) were prepared to explain by pointing slowly what the hell an 8oz coffee looked like so I could decide whether that would be sufficient (it wouldn’t). Perhaps no city in the world has more experience of dealing with ignorant foreigners. From there, after a minor getting lost of the sort I encourage by not checking the map carefully enough, onto the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, which the internet suggested provided excellent views of the Manhattan skyline, the industrial tones of the buildings backlit by brilliant summer blue, and eight months of the year it probably does. On a drizzly day in December, it’s industrial tones all the way, but the view is excellent, nonetheless.

Fifty shades of grey

By now, a handful of days into my attempt to walk as many metres (sorry, feet) of New York pavement as I can manage, I’ve started to go a bit funny, at least to the extent of talking to myself and, I was surprised to notice at one point, singing Pet Shop Boys songs quite loudly as I tramped (“Yesterday, when I was mad…”). Clearly in need of human contact, I seized upon the passing chance afforded by almost the only other people on the rain slicked promenade, a youngish mother with her threeish year old son, whom she was encouraging out of his stroller, clearly wanting him to get his legs moving. Three year olds don’t normally care that you’re a weird stranger with a funny accent, so I challenged the lad to a race to the next rubbish bin, pointing and naming our target. After about three repetitions of the challenge I realised that I didn’t just have a funny voice, I wasn’t even speaking English as the language is recognised here in its global home. “Beat you to the trash can!” I boasted, and we were off. He won. Unfortunately, I couldn’t persuade him to give me a chance to get even, but his mother was, astonishingly to a male stranger who had just literally, and without warning, run off with her child in a public place, effusively grateful for my efforts. As I’ve mentioned once already, New Yorkers are incredibly polite.

At the end of the promenade is the improbably named Dumbo, a chic district of flea markets and little eateries, and from there one can get onto the southern end of the Brooklyn Bridge (whose northern end is just visible on the right in the picture above). The walkway is entirely separated from the traffic, its wooden slats slightly slippery, and the walk is relatively short – probably only five minutes once one is on the bridge proper, although the long lead ramps treble the journey. By now about 5pm, and night already upon us, the views back to Manhattan were, of course, marvellous.

Huddled masses

Most of the way across, a narrow stairway down appeared in the middle of the walkway, promising Chinatown, and my feet and another few hundred metres of pavement made good on the promise. After speaking with Anna, I entered the first restaurant I could find which had no English signs at all in its window, if one ignored the campaign posters for Democratic candidates for “Assemblyman” (they were all women), which I guess probably means the state legislature, as I saw no reference to Congress. Unfortunately, the interior was unimpressive and the food equally so, but then I know by now that the places worth seeking out are already well known to the locals and I could, no doubt, have had a better meal had I been prepared to join any of the queues outside the more happening venues. I was not, certainly without an umbrella, so I made do with a mediocre kung pao chicken. The spring rolls were fresh (my second choice, having been told by the elderly man who took my order in a manner that suggested that I was a boring chore to be got out of the way as quickly as possible, “No egg roll. Spring roll,” repeating the last two words when I failed to grasp the concept quickly enough to satisfy him). The chicken, though, was flavourless, although whether this was because the restaurant wasn’t very good, or American ideas of spicy are calibrated differently, or they just hated me on sight, I don’t know. It had the requisite little pictogram on the menu warning customers that this was a hot dish. At one point I added to my bowl a dash of the provided Tabasco-like bottle of cayenne sauce, about as authentically Chinese as hip hop. Still no kick. In desperation, I thought briefly of drinking the sauce straight from the bottle, contented myself by dashing half a teaspoon or so into a spoon and swallowing it, in a spirit of enquiry. Vinegar, mostly, with a suggestion that it might have been stored near some pepper at some point. I’m starting to think that chilli, or Szechuan pepper, are controlled substances here, reserved for those who know the handshake and have been vouched for personally by the local boss.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

From Chinatown to the East Village, with the vague thought that I might find a bar to get out of the rain for a while, but the mood had left me. Up First Avenue, past the United Nations Building on my right and the homeless sleeping next to piles of garbage on my left, and from there back to the hotel, giving Anna a WhatsApp walking tour for the last few blocks.

QNYE1: Saw my first rat, which ran across my path two metres in front of me near the Brooklyn Bridge.

QNYE2: Saw and grinned at a vegetarian, kosher Chinese restaurant. Probably should have eaten there.

QNYE3: Saw my second rat, darting amongst the refuse on First Avenue.


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