New York March 2003
Food and Wireless Frequences in the Empire State
by Hanson Hosein, published in Off-Centre magazine April 2004
Travel is to the foreign correspondent as combat is to the military: necessary to justify their existence, but rarely pleasant. As a journalist then, I've always looked for the small pleasures along the way, those things that can make the job easier and a tough day more palatable. For me it's an explosive mix of "Tn'T": Tech n' Treats. I keep up with the latest of gadgets that'll get me out of a jam no matter where I am in the world. And I seek out the best places to enjoy local fare no matter how deadly the airborne bacteria. Sometimes, these two pursuits work hand-in-hand.
New York City is hardly a war zone, but it's where I found myself with my wife in late February. And I put both of these operating principles to good use there. We decided at the last minute to drive down to the Big Apple after visiting with my family in Toronto. It's an eight-hour trip, so I signed up with Audible.com and downloaded a couple of audio books onto my iPod. Then I bought a tiny FM transmitter so I could play the MP3 player through the car stereo - on any available radio frequency between 88.3 and 90.3. Such a device works flawlessly in the Radio Free Zone of the Okanagan, but on the crowded airwaves of the northeast, we were always competing for space with dozens of silver-tongued DJ's. Still, listening to Dean Koontz' Odd Thomas made the trip go as quickly as it would have on an airplane, minus the stress of arduous security checks.
Vacation or work, I travel everywhere with my laptop. It's got everything I need for a long trip away from home: ten days of continuous music that I ripped from my large CD collection, all my digital photos from the last five years, my video editing system, downloaded Mapquest.com driving directions (from the first turn out of the driveway in Ontario to handing over the keys to the Manhattan parking lot valet) and easy access to e-mail via telephone line or wireless high speed modem.
A tip to the Wi-Fi savvy: if you're ever in dire need of a free Internet connection, seek out the lobby of a major four-star hotel. In Manhattan, I pop up my screen and start surfing the moment I sit down in a comfortable chair in a midtown Sheraton or Hilton. It doesn't even matter if you're a guest or not. Even better, you can pick out a stray signal out of thin air in big cities. Which is what I did (somewhat dishonestly, using someone else's connection for free) while waiting in the car for Heather as she shopped for gourmet treats at Dean & Deluca in SoHo. Thus I performed a small example of how well "Tn'T" can work.
An even better demonstration was our first lunch in New York. We were determined to try out one new upscale restaurant, even if we were trying to keep this impromptu trip on budget. So I whipped out my PDA, and consulted the digital edition of the world famous Zagat's restaurant guide for New York. Years ago, I had promised Heather to take her to Jean-Georges, one of the best restaurants in the city (and thus the world), but we missed our chance. This time, to keep our finances in check, we opted for lunch at Jean-George's less expensive, less formal café, Nougatine, just inside the lobby of the Trump International Hotel near Columbus Circle. We wondered whether we would run into the Comb-Over King (aka The Donald) and his reality show Apprentices, but it was not to be.
Alright, so Fresco in Kelowna has better ambience, but this was New York and Central Park was right outside the window! Our $80 splurge was well worth it. From the bluefin tuna tartare with a spicy radish and ginger marinade to the sautéed baby squid in a celery and golden raisin relish, tangerine poached prawns and crab salad with mango and red onions. I got dessert with my fixed price selection and Heather opted out, but she got a sweet fixing "on-the-house." This surprised us. Maybe it was because the lunch seating was nearly over and had desserts to spare I opined. Then we noticed that the chef had been making eyes at my wife (or at least we convinced ourselves of this). That was fine with me, our relationship is secure (especially with a surprise trip to New York) and the delectable food was worth the flirt. A couple of weeks later, Heather was leafing through a cookbook compiled by rock-star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten who couldn't possibly be everywhere at once (Jean-Georges and the Vong restaurants in London, Hong Kong, Chicago and New York are all named after him). Then she realized her would-be suitor was none other than the Gourmet God himself. We kicked ourselves for not taking advantage of her looks to at least get an autographed menu.
But my wife remained the focus of our next meal -- dinner a few hours later at her old neighborhood hangout in the Village: The Corner Bistro. What had once been the dark, dank preserve of old men and a gaggle of 20-something girls kicking back after a tough day at the TV network was now an impossible place to get into, with a line around the corner. In the late 90's, the Corner Bistro hit prime time as a favorite for the stars from the sitcom Friends. It also got voted one of the best burgers in the Big Apple. At $6 (and $2 for a pint of local McSorley's brew), it was a steal for the budget-conscious. We jumped the line by sitting at the bar with one of my NBC colleagues. Together, we consumed three drinks each, along with a full array of burgers and fries and could still only spend $52. Heather recognized the bartender and started a conversation with him.
"Welcome home," he told her as he slammed her final rum and coke on the counter.
We certainly were home, visiting all our old haunts when we lived in New York a decade ago. I've always found Kelowna severely lacking when it comes to Big Apple mainstays like pizza and Chinese food. So we had to satisfy all our cravings during our two-day jaunt in the big city. We hit Famiglia for a couple of two-dollar slices of succulent pizza under the watchful eye of an autographed portrait of Al Pacino.
Then we met up with some old NBC friends at Citarella's on the ground floor of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and indulged in $14 cocktails. I had the highly recommended Titanic, which tasted a lot like a BC ice wine martini. But thanks to that pricey bit of schmoozing, Heather's good friend Mark (who's an NBC publicist) got us VIP tickets to the next day's taping of The Late Show with Conan O'Brien. After the show, we notched another gourmet to-do by enjoying excellent Chinese with Conan's right-hand publicity man at Ruby Foo's near Times Square.
Last on the list: a Krispy Kreme donut. When I lived overseas, the first thing I would do upon returning to Canada for vacation was to pop into a Tim Horton's for a chocolate glazed donut (the closer to the airport, the sooner I could satisfy the urge). But I've discovered that as that venerable chain has expanded, its specialty has been rendered nearly tasteless through mass production. It's nowhere as good as it used to be. So I had to renew my faith in donuts by trying what I've always been told is the ultimate in Homer Simpson's favorite health food. I found a small Krispy Kreme kiosk in the basement of the NBC building near the subway. I ordered a chocolate one, and told the woman behind the counter that this was my first time. That prompted her to stick an original glazed donut free-of-charge into a bag. I thanked her profusely.
"Oh that's good," she said as I took a huge bite into the sweet, doughy delicacy. "But you haven't had a real Krispy Kreme until you've tried it hot."
So on our last morning in New York, we drove down to the main store on 23rd Street (located courtesy of Zagat's yet again). They weren't quite as nice there as my friend from the day before. Even worse, there weren't any hot donuts. So we bought a dozen to take back, undeclared, across the border. And thus begat the last manifestation of "Tn'T" as the first thing I did upon returning to Toronto was to put a barely fresh Krispy Kreme "original" into the microwave and cook it…for fifteen seconds.
As if to remind us that our principles should not be forgotten once outside the metropolitan area, we were faced with a terrible choice before hitting the New Jersey/Pennsylvania border while heading west. I wanted to make good time, so fast food would be just fine. But when we took the exit that indicated a whole host of corporate franchises would cater to our conveniences, I realized that it was leading us too far from the interstate. So in frustration, I headed right back to the on-ramp. That's when I saw Davy's Dogs in Mount Arlington, NJ (I know this essay is about the "Empire State" but this part of New Jersey is really an extension anyway). I can't believe that i even hesitated, but I guess years of conditioning, despite our new "Independent America" philosophy had kicked in. Could I trust the unpredictability of a one-of-a-kind non-franchised roadside stand? The answer is, I shouldn't have even thought about it. Davy's, with its Swiss cottage look, outdoor take-out window, and busy lunchtime traffic, was probably some of the best "fast food" I've ever eaten. I had their speciality, two hot dogs packed into a baguette, stuffed with molten cheese, a chocolate shake and fries. It occurred to me that maybe this town had actually considered the possibility of putting a true local business close to the highway rather than a Burger King or McDonald's. This made me happy.
One of the reasons we indulged in such artery-clogging food was because we knew we would be stopping at the world-famous Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca. They're vegetarian there, and Heather owns at least one of their cookbooks. So it was meant as a kind of pilgrimmage to take a detour off the interstate and visit them. It was a surprisingly low-key place for such a vegetarian empire, and I once again surfed the wireless Internet (legally this time) while we had some coffee and perused the book collection. We had finished with our Odd Thomas audio book and had moved on to the far more literary Confessions of Max Tivoli. It's more quaint narrative suited the scenic drive along the Finger Lakes as we ambled slowly along the two-lane byway that would take us back to intensity of Interstate 90 our stomachs full, and culinary curiousity sated by a mere 48 hours in New York State.
Newark - Seattle, January 15, 2003
For someone now used to the leisurely pace of walking his dog along Mission Creek in Kelowna, the every day speed of a near-sprint on Manhattan's sidewalks is a jolt to the heart.
I quickly fall into old habits. Scaffolding and slow walkers easily frustrate me on my personal preserve that is the city's pedestrian by-ways. I soon recall that the fastest way to anywhere on foot is to stick to the edge -- a handy metaphor for life, but throwing caution to the wind for real as I get that much closer to buses and cabs that whiz frantically by.
But that's the familiar. Most daunting this time around was my fear factor survivor challenge in New Jersey. There I was, staying at the fabulously located Secaucus Hilton, with my perfect view of the Turnpike. And like a beacon in the distance, the Best Buy electronics emporium beckoned to me with its glowing sign. If I had a baseball, its conceivable that a well propelled throw would have that ball bounce into the store's parking lot.
It was that close. But the infamous multi-laned highway made it that far away. Was there anyway I could walk to the store I asked the clerk at the hotel front desk. We get that question all the time she said, and the answer is no. You need a car to make the thirty second drive. Such is America I thought to myself.
But I discovered a more daring soul in my waiter that evening at the Dominican restaurant in the hotel's parking lot. "Caribbean Star" was its name in Spanish, or something. Of course you can get to Best Buy he said. You just need to walk over the turnpike using that bridge you see there.
So I filled up on roast chicken, rice and beans, and steeled myself for the sub-freezing temperatures. I had convinced myself that by consuming so much bulk, I had to find a way to burn it off. And Miles was four thousand miles away. Hence, the expedition over the turnpike.
Of course, as soon as I got nearer to the bridge, I realized there was no sidewalk at all. Just a well-worn footpath in the grass alongside the road. Probably one trodden a million times by one particular waiter from the Caribbean Star. I thought about it for a while, and realized how stupid I must look to the drivers speeding past me. So I just started to walk. And I made it across, despite the narrow path of opportunity, which made me realize this was quite similar to walking on the edge in that pedestrian's paradise on the other side of the Hudson River.
And I made it into Best Buy ten minutes later, proud of my feat, certain that any challenge that would follow in the next few days would be taken on just as easily.
So I treated myself and proceeded to ogle this consumer electronics wonderland. Few customers spoke English. These were the new immigrants to the Land of Plenty, determined to show off their new allegiance by buying into DVD's, digital cameras, cellphones, home theatre systems and Playstations as soon as financially possible. It was a multinational marketplace of desire as I heard the familiar sounds of Hebrew, Arabic and Hindi. Being an advocate of all things wonderfully, shiny and high tech ,I silently wished them all well in their assimilation into the Promised Land.
And that's despite the perceived economic "downturn" in the States. I walked by one of my favorite places to crave after I left New York: "Gray's Papaya" on Broadway and 72nd. "Recession Sale" pronounced the red-lettered posters that plastered the hot dog and fruit juice purveyor. Recession Sale? At $2.45 for two hot dogs and a papaya drink, how exactly were they going to cut their prices any further?
But really, I didn't care. I was just happy to indulge. And I was happy to be back. When I walked through those golden doors of NBC off west 50th street, it was like I had just come home. It took me back to the days when I would make that forty minute walk through Central Park every morning, trying to beat the cars and the traffic lights once I hit the streets and 59th, and then push through those revolving doors sweaty but invigorated, ready to take on Nightly News for another ten hours.
Even better, it was like I had never left them, nearly two years ago. That's how I felt when I met up with my old friends from the Tel Aviv bureau Tuesday evening. Martin and the gang were in town to claim a much deserved Dupont Award for their work during this "Intifada." And Martin was determined to have me surprise the rest of the gang, by showing up unexpected at the party in their honor...at Tom Brokaw's home.
Fortunately, Tom let me crash the shindig, and Gila, Paul and Amikam were truly shocked to see me there. Credit to them, they never thought for a moment that I was going to lay any claim to that award, despite Tom's teasing that I couldn't and shouldn't. And I certainly wouldn't. In many ways, that Dupont is a "lifetime achievement" award for those people who live and work over there everyday, and I was just as proud of them as were the other thirty-some attendees who were there to toast their success.
It was an evening full of warm feelings and reacquaintances for all. There I was again, among family, friends and colleagues. And I was especially tickled by a truely Israeli observation that my former Tel Aviv colleagues made just as they were leaving Tom's gorgeous home.
When we had arrived a few hours earlier, the doorman in the lobby readily accepted the declaration that we were all headed up to the Brokaws. There was no guest list or security. He told us to leave our coats in the rack at the back of the lobby and take the elevator up.
And that's what amazed the guests of honor -- that they could be separated from their belongings here in this foreign land, and that they would be .... safe. That everything would still be there when they returned. In so many ways, there's something immensely comforting about that.
June 13, 2002
I found it difficult to fathom that I once lived at this pace, and this level.
Even before I arrived, I had to fight through a sea of blue suits who were jostling to be the first to get on the plane at the gate in Montreal. They were oblivious to the passengers who had small children or needed extra time to get on the plane. They made Israelis look like true travel humanitarians.
A middle-aged, heavy-set woman approached me in the middle of all this and asked me whether she was in the right line, and I said yes, but first you have to get through sea of the blue suits of entitlement. She laughed and said, "follow me." I said, "you must be a New Yorker," She was. I told her I used to be one, but that wasn't as good as her present-day moxy and agression, essential to push through a crowd of self-perceived powerful men.
I was half-grateful that it was too cloudy to really see the Manhattan skyline as we landed at La Guardia. I wasn't quite ready to face the island without the World Trade Center. Never my favourite buildings, they still typify the power, glory and ambition of New York. Without them, the city seems meek and castrated.
I've flown through Laguardia probably close to a hundred times, so it was still a shock to see army soldiers in camouflage standing guard at the security checks. They're in Seattle too, but there's something more...eerie, about seeing them in New York, a city that usually marches to its own homegrown authority of political, cultural and financial power -- not military.
It was raining, so naturally, there were more people waiting for taxis than there were cabs available (I once heard that many taxis don't have "rain" insurance, which is why they mysteriously go "off duty" when New Yorkers need them most). As I stood in line waiting for the airport bus to Manhattan, a yellow cab drove slowly by me. The driver lowered his passenger side window. I knew the drill.
"Manhattan" I yelled out.
He gestured to me to come quickly. He was breaking the rules by not waiting in the approved cab dispatch line, but I needed a quick ride, and he needed the fare. Someone yelled out behind me "sir, sir!" but I ignored her and we sped away from the airport.
It was when we got into Manhattan that I was first hit with a feeling of wonder of how I had ever managed to have a job and live here for four years. It's probably aggravated because we live so far off the beaten path, and we only read about New York, or see images of it. It seems so distant, and it's not difficult to inflate the city's importance and strength.
This feeling grew stronger when I checked into the "W" hotel on Lexington and 49th. As I walked into the lobby, I had to look twice for the reception desk...beautiful young people sat around on plush chairs and sofas drinking listening to pounding music. The scene was lean, mean and metallic, like walking into a sushi discotheque.
Vanessa, a hip young woman dressed in black checked me in, not batting a eyelid at the fact that I was using points to stay in this expensive hotel.
No elevator music at this establishment., instead they were pumping in Peter Gabriel-inspired modern Middle Eastern tunes. Which prepared me for the art gallery-appearance of my bedroom -- with the queen bed in the middle of the room, the modern art hanging from wires on the soft-colored walls, the stereo TV with VCR, and of course the obligatory $6 bottle of Canadian glacier water. This was not your typical four-star corporate hotel.
To compensate for feelings of guilt at my over-indulgence, I decided to take the subway down to Grammercy to meet my friend Jackie. As I was crossing Lexington, a young woman yelled out to someone that he had dropped a piece of paper on the street. He bent down immediately to pick it up and kept walking.
"You're welcome! Sheesh!" she said. It was an incident that neatly summed up the New York personality: kindness to strangers because we're all in this crazy place together, but sometimes so wrapped up in our own neuroses, fantasies and ambitions that we can't be bothered to acknowledge another human being.
While I waited for the subway, I looked at the route map and saw that a new train had sprouted up in the last year, the "V" line to Queens. And that sadly, the "9" had disappeared, along with the Chambers Street station -- the stop for the thousands who worked at the World Trade Center. I think the subway station was vaporized on September 11th.
But the city is resilient. The MTA has improved many of its subway lines. A computerized voice reads out the stops, which is far more coherent than the mumbled gibberish the old P.A. system used to barely broadcast.
Unfortunately, I didn't pay close enough attention to the "1" line though, when I started heading up to Columbia University to attend a journalism conference. They run the "2" train on that line now, making all local stops and leading into Harlem -- a train I once mistakenly took when I first moved to New York in 1993. And similar to that time, I ended up at 116th and Lennox Street, far from my destination.
By the second day, the novelty and thrill of being back in New York had worn off. It rained every day. I was always late for some appointment and there was always some delay getting there. Despite its superficial classiness, the shower drain at my "W" room still clogged instantly (a pet travel peeve of mine), and the noisy ventilation system was clearly something that had survived whatever the swanky hotel's previous incarnation had been.
I wasn't able to walk into NBC at 30 Rockefeller Plaza by flashing an old business card like I've done in the past. Now you've got to check into the Visitor's Center, and get a badge as well has have a photo taken. There are security guards on every floor. My former colleagues now have to wear ID badges around their neck at all times. At Nightly News, all of the furniture and computers are new: installed after the anthrax attack last year forced them to get rid of everything. It was great to see all my friends, but I was saddened to learn that Tom Brokaw's assistant was still on leave -- trying to recover from being the first one to be exposed to that near-deadly envelope addressed to Tom.
I finally did get down to "Ground Zero." It was a strangely numbing experience. Although it's little more than an immense construction site ringed by flags and messages of sympathy from visitors from around the world, I almost found it hard to believe that those two awesome towers once stood there. The buildings surrounding the site are still scarred, and judging from the number of visitors I saw wiping their tears, the wounds are still raw.