This afternoon I found myself running errands in Manhattan, and my travels took me to the Upper West Side. I realized that I hadn’t done a grand wanderlust tour of my city in a while, so I decided to walk down Broadway as long as I could. During my earliest years in New York I would do these kinds of walks often; these opportunities have become few and far between as of late, but I take them with gusto when I can get them.
I started up at 105th Street, where Becca works at a fantastic restaurant called Calle Ocho. I’d give the place top marks even if I didn’t know the manager. Down a few blocks they’re setting up the Christmas tree displays. I could never schlep a tree into a Manhattan apartment, but then again my kind of holiday tree is a Hanukkah bush, so the point is moot.
I don’t like the Christmas tree, to be honest. I’ll get cancelled for this for sure, but what’s festive about chopping down a whole bunch of young pine trees, selling their drying corpses on the street for way too much bread, and then having folks struggle to get them up and looking nice? I’d rather let the trees continue to help cool the Earth and use the money I’d spend on one to help a cause. But maybe that’s just me.
And don’t step to me about the plastic tree business. We got one of those once because Becca and I decided to do Christmas, and the metal pieces didn’t fit and the green leaves shed and got all in the cracks of our old apartment floors. We ended up putting the remnants of it out on the street. (It was gone within seconds. The streets of New York are truly the Bermuda triangle of thrift.)
I know they’re looking to restore the Metro theater on 99th Street, but man alive, the place looks rough. I got this picture from its good side. The R on the other side has fallen off, and the rest of the exterior is covered in vandalism. I hope they can give this place the United Palace treatment. It would suck to have another once-celebrated community space fall into a developer’s hands and become another overpriced condo eyesore. Then again, doing any sort of development work good or bad is impossible with the amount of NIMBYs in the Upper West Side. If you take away a parking spot, they complain. If you try to build affordable housing or convert a hotel into a shelter, they complain. If you dare try to put in a bike lane or add any sort of infrastructure that would inconvenience them but otherwise benefit the city at large, they complain. Then they complain about how the city has become a cesspool and they would rather spend six months of the year in their summer homes in the Catskills. Hellish people. Strip them, share their wealth among the masses, and turn the Metro into a vast indoor community garden where New Yorkers can grow their own produce and legal weed.
I snagged a slice for a snack and sat on the benches above the abandoned 91st Street subway station. If you look down the grates you can see the 1/2/3 trains passing old local platforms that haven’t seen paying passengers since 1959. Once upon a time I used to believe in the Mole People myth, which spoke of mutated men and women who hid in the abandoned stations to hide their shame and feed off of pizza scraps, dead rats, and other such vermin and garbage. Sometimes I still think they exist, looking up at us from the muck, wondering if anyone misses them, if they could have done anything different to avoid their cruel fate.
In any case, I don’t know why, but the stretch of Broadway between 79th and 84th Streets is one of my favorite on the entire road. Maybe it’s because I spent a good deal of time at the Barnes & Noble on 82nd Street. maybe because it isn’t too far uptown, but it is still removed enough from the 60s and 70s which I feel gets a little too highfalutin. And of course, there’s the First Baptist Church on the northwest corner of 79th and Broadway which is just a wondrous piece of architecture among all of similar-looking apartment buildings. This is around where tourists get tired and don’t want to drag themselves too far from their hotels. So if you’re looking for true Manhattan, or at least true Upper West Side, this is a great place to sit down with your cheapest cup of coffee, blend into the scenery in your Mets hoodie and dirty black peacoat, and watch the upper class of New York go about their day.
The Beacon Theatre remains one of my favorite venues in all of Manhattan. I’ve seen some of my favorite bands here: The Mountain Goats, Jason Isbell, Lake Street Dive, and Guster to name a few. Having sat in just about every section, I can confirm that there is no bad seat in the entire house. Not even most Broadway theaters can make that claim. To that end, I would say that the Beacon is one of the best theaters on Broadway, and then a lot of my theater friends would probably kick me in the head.
New York’s many squares can be tight places to vibe, and I think Lincoln Square is one of the more underrated of the Big Five in Manhattan (Washington, Union, Herald, Times, Lincoln). Herald and Times are far too busy, and Washington essentially doubles as the NYU quad. I have a soft spot for Union so I can’t speak ill of it. But with Lincoln Square, you’ve got Columbus Circle and Central Park just steps away, you’ve got the opera house right there, and plenty more art and culture is all around if you’re into that sort of thing. (You may say that Columbus Circle is actually the fifth big square of the Big Five in Manhattan. But it’s not a square, it’s a circle. Therefore your point is null and void, and you will have to stand half-naked in the Revson Fountain in the cold for your transgression.)
Speaking of Times Square, I had a sneaking suspicion that I wouldn’t be coming into Manhattan again before they changed out the big 2021 below the ball, so I had to go get one last good look. I took the picture from a distance of course, since nowadays I don’t go into Times Square if I can help it. Sure, I used to thrive in that chaos, but there comes a time when a guy sees one too many Elmos wearing Vans or underpaid shlubs shilling comedy shows. The shine starts to wear off.
I used to busk in Times Square, actually. Yes! I was one of the strange fools who dragged his guitar and portable amp into the black heart of the beast and played acoustic covers of 80s songs for chump change. I would make small talk with the desnudas and the guys trying to sell their mixtapes and the dancing robots all painted silver and gold. I even had long chats with the Naked Cowboy and Sandy Kane themselves. But to everything, there is a season, and my season of trying to profit off of the driest teats in America came to an end long, long ago.
In any case, even with a new mutation of COVID in the mix, folks are lining up for all of the area’s biggest tourist traps. The Rockettes have once again taken up residence at Radio City, and of course everyone’s clamoring to see the singing servers at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. I can’t speak for either performance as in my ten years as a New Yorker, I haven’t seen either. But my God, I have heard through the grapevine that those singing servers need to get tipped so much more for what they have to deal with. The Rockettes are a fun show from what I’ve heard as well; maybe it’s me, but I don’t know if it’s worth the major coin.
I turned down 50th Street because my dogs were barking that it was time to get on the train home. Before getting on the F train, I waded into the fray of tourists and snagged a picture of the famous Rockefeller Center tree for my mom right in front of the entrance to 30 Rock. I know that I went on a whole thing about Christmas trees, but if we’re going to have the tree, why can’t we all just enjoy one big tree? Why cut down a whole bunch and make them look crappy in our living rooms where they will most likely catch fire? The Rockefeller Center tree is well-lit, in a central location, and represents Christmas observers all over Manhattan if not all of New York. Forget your dinky living room trees that represent environmentally corrosive capitalism. I am for the socialist – nay, communist – practice of having One Big Tree to provide tidings of comfort and joy for all. Cities and towns all over America, all over the world! Keep your trees in the ground. Light them as you will. Rally around them in a communal sharing of peace and goodwill.
Again, not that any of this matters to me. I have my Hanukkah bush.
Anyhow, I got home and threw some leftover turkey and mac & cheese into the air fryer to regain all the electrolytes I burned walking sixty blocks and change through Manhattan. As much as I love the opportunity to become a tourist in my own town, I’ve also reached the point in my life where I find there is no greater pleasure than a quiet evening at home. But it’s not all quiet; I can still hear the Prospect Expressway from my front door.