Posts Tagged ‘ellen’s stardust diner’

New York City is considered by many to be the ‘capital of the world’, and whilst others might be more populous or influential in certain aspects, its towering influence over global society continues a decade into the 21st century. NYC is the go-to place for tourists, and I’ve personally had the chance to experience the city’s magic twice in my life: as a tween in December 1999/January 2000, and as a teenager in July 2002. Now it was time for a third bite of the Big Apple.

On both previous occasions, I was a child and accompanied by family, which, as stated in my Nashville post, considerably effects how you remember and perceive a place you’ve visited. Those sojourns were jam-packed with visits to a multitude of landmarks that every traveller needs to experience at least once, such as Times Square, the Empire State Building, and Central Park. But returning for the first time as an adult, I realized how many opportunities I had missed, and how much was still out there to be explored in this microcosm of American and global culture.

My 12-hour overnight bus trip from Ohio started things off in unfamiliar territory, bringing us over the border from New Jersey through the Holland Tunnel, and into Chinatown. Waiting for me on the bustling streets was my final host: an American lass whom I had met about one-and-a-half years earlier at a music festival in South Africa, whilst she was visiting her younger sister. We had kept in touch since then, and when it came time to book flights before my trip, I asked her if she had a couch to spare for this intrepid traveller. Fortunately, the answer was positive, and for my last few days in the USA, I could be accommodated in her two-bedroom apartment in Astoria, Queens.

We took the first of many subway rides to her home at the end of the N line, and I quickly acquainted myself with the fascinating electronic information boards on the trains, which inform you of how many stops are left to a particular destination. This was the most advanced system I had seen on all the subways I had used in the States, and would prove to be incredibly useful in the upcoming days. After setting up camp in the corner of her lounge and getting some much-needed rest, we went for a stroll on a cool evening through her neighbourhood. Semi-suburban NYC is full of trees amongst the apartment-lined streets (at least in Astoria), and it felt like walking through a shrunken, more peaceful Manhattan. We grabbed a burger at the proudly-local Petey’s Burger (which gave Five Guys’ heavenly bun a run for its money), and embarked on a bar-hop of sorts through Ditmars Boulevard and the surrounding streets. Everything was within walking distance, sort of like my time in San Francisco’s Haight Street. A pitcher of rum-flavoured beer (?) from Astoria Bohemian Hall & Beer Garden provided a memorable end to my tour of Astoria’s drinking establishments, and we returned home at a respectable hour, ready to traverse the city streets over the next three days. With my meticulously-debated-and-updated bucket list in hand, I was already getting into that NY State Of Mind.





On my first day out, my friend didn’t have any shifts at her work, so I was accompanied by an actual New Yorker from start to finish. We arrived in a gloomy Manhattan, caught in the middle of a downpour, and retreated indoors to the breathtaking Metropolitan Museum of Art. My bucket list was tailored for a very tight budget, and the Met obliged with its ‘pay what you wish’ admission policy. The massive museum occupies 190,000 m2, making it the largest art museum in the USA, with some of the most significant art collections in the world. To be honest, I was very much out of my depth as to what determines that significance, but my friend’s extensive art history knowledge and the sheer grandeur of the place ensured me that I was walking amongst very hallowed pieces of art.

Due to my novice status in the art appreciation realm, and the time available to us, we cherry-picked sections that would appeal to me. Starting off with a modern photography exhibit, we moved onto some modern art, where the likes of Monet and Van Gogh had my friend captivated. It wasn’t until we reached some truly epic Renaissance paintings when I began to wander between each piece of work, jaw-to-the-floor. The level of detail was astonishing, especially over some of the larger paintings (and by large, I mean taking up at least 5m of width or height). I couldn’t keep serious for too long; my unrefined, playful approach to art appreciation eventually resulted in the two of us making funny poses in front of our favourite paintings or sculptures. A temporary exhibit devoted to the influence of the punk sub-culture on fashion was a particularly interesting one, blaring music by the Sex Pistols against a backdrop of bizarre works of fashion that would be a little unwieldy to wear on an everyday basis. We also made a stop at a section that presented historical musical instruments, showcasing an assortment of lutes, harps, and other antiquated but ornate tools of the trade. My 10-year-old self wouldn’t have wanted to miss out of the medieval armour and weaponry section, so we made sure to admire some of the exquisitely maintained battlefield equipment before heading back out onto 5th Avenue.



The sun had finally come out, and whilst meandering through Central Park, I was amazed at how such a large piece of verdant land could be found in the middle of one of the largest cities of the world. There are multiple reservoirs and lakes, playgrounds, running paths, and even a zoo (which I vaguely remember visiting in 2002). Our destination was Shake Shack on the western side of the park, where we’d devour some delicious SmokeShack burgers in exchange for the hard yards we put in roaming the most beautiful part of the city.



I was a late-bloomer with regard to being a Beatles fan, and whilst I probably have more of McCartney’s optimism, I’ve always admired the soul of Lennon. Ever since I first heard of the Strawberry Fields Memorial in Central Park, it has been a musical pilgrimage I’ve anxiously looked forward to, exacerbated by the fact that I had actually walked through Central Park as an unformed and uninformed teenager in 2002. The 2,5 acre section in the park is dedicated to John Lennon’s memory, opened five years after his assassination outside Dakota Apartments (which is directly across the road). We first visited the Dakota, where John lived for the later part of his life, and where it was taken too soon on the night of December the 8th, 1980. I had read the official reports and seen a few pictures of the building’s exterior, but standing on the very spot where my hero died, tracing his staggered steps to the security hut in front of the building; it was a very solemn and sorrowful experience.

The mood changed to a more happy and placid one when we entered Strawberry Fields itself. Green benches surround the focal point of the memorial, which is a large stone mosaic entitled ‘Imagine’ (after one of John’s most famous songs). The memorial is usually filled with flowers and tributes left behind by Lennon fans, but as it had just been raining, we encountered a single tribute: a solitary flower, with a handful of strawberries. With both of us wearing matching Beatles shirts, we sat on one of the benches, whipped out one of our phones, and quietly sang along to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ (from where the memorial gets its name). In that peaceful moment, at the heart of a serene woodland, I tried to reflect on what The Beatles and John Lennon mean to me, and the colossal impact that they have had on this world. As a patron of peace, I’m sure John would’ve been happy with the quiet tranquilty of his own memorial.



The last part of our afternoon was spent at the American Museum of Natural History, a few blocks away from Strawberry Fields on 8th Avenue. Just like the Met, it has a budget-friendly admissions policy, is incredibly large, and is celebrated around the world for its variety of collections (which include specimens of animals, plants, fossils, rocks, meteorites, and human cultural artifacts). We quickly browsed some the natural history exhibition halls, which consisted of many intricate, life-like dioramas, but the section I was most interested in was the Rose Center for Earth and Space, which also housed the Hayden Planetarium. As a child, I was fascinated with astronomy, and still retain a sense of wonder about the cosmos. Tapping into that curiousity, we attended a show inside the huge planetarium that hangs from the ceiling of the centre, where the voice of actor Liam Neeson narrated the formation of the universe, and studied a compelling exhibition called ‘Full Moon’, which consists of high-quality, lesser-known photographs from the Apollo missions to the Moon. It’s just the kind of place to get lost in for a whole day…


The Hayden Planetarium inside the American Museum of Natural History

The Hayden Planetarium inside the American Museum of Natural History




Who likes to sing a tune when having breakfast? Or have one sung to you? Breakfast at Ellen’s Stardust Diner in Times Square was an entertaining start to the day, after which I’d be left on my own to wander the streets of NYC whilst my friend went work at another nearby restaurant, Times Scare. All the waitrons are aspiring Broadway actors and singers, and perform an array of show tunes whilst serving your food. My friend’s flatmate works there, and guaranteed us a fabulous show in addition to a hearty American breakfast. I was thoroughly impressed with her ability to pour a good cup of coffee whilst singing the lead part on a Disney classic, and the same could be said of the rest of the multi-talented and professional waitstaff. They were quick to remind us that many Ellen’s employees actually go on to make it big in Broadway, such as the lead actor in ‘Mamma Mia!’ that was currently showing not far from the diner.



I had visited New York pre-and-post 9/11, and as a child, I remember the only change that affected me was the increased security checks whilst travelling. We didn’t think to visit Ground Zero in 2002, as it is located in the Financial District quite a few miles south of Times Square and the more ‘touristy’ areas. But a lot had changed in a decade, and the World Trade Center complex had seen the One World Trade Center building (or ‘Freedom Tower’) grow almost to completion, and a beautiful memorial develop over the bases of the old North and South Towers. The time was ripe for a visit, and I set off south down 8th Avenue on a gorgeous, sunny day, temporarily forgetting that miles are more than kilometres – a common traveller’s mistake.

The longer-than-expected route first took me past the legendary Madison Square Garden concert venue, and then through the leafy Greenwich Village. It is now mostly residental, but used to an artists’ haven in the late 19th to mid 20th century, and the quaint, predominately brick buildings contrast sharply with the statuesque pillars of steel & concrete that now dominate the New York skyline. Nearing the Financial District, the gargantuan prism-shaped One WTC building emerged into view, literally scraping the sky. It is so unbelievably tall that when I reached the WTC complex, I had to get on my knees to capture it all in one photo. A temporary tribute centre was located a few streets away, where passes were given out to the actual memorial, and the centre contained numerous artifacts and literature on the terrorist attacks and the subsequent rebuilding, both emotionally and physically.



As expected, a stringent security check was required before entering the memorial site, as construction is still ongoing. Once inside, the plaza contains a field of trees, but the two massive building footprints of the fallen Twins dominate the area. They have been turned into pools of water, with large manmade waterfalls cascading down their sides, surrounded by memorial space containing the names of victims from the 9/11 attacks, as well as the 1993 bombings. The arrangement of the names was of particular interest: an logarithm was used to place victims together who knew each other, also considering company affiliation, first responder teams, and personal requests from family members. In addition, cutting-edge pedestrian simulations were conducted to test the design of the site to simulate how visitors would utilize the space. The amount of thought that had gone into the layout of this memorial was staggering, and as I circled each pool, gazing upon the thousands of names cast in granite, the name of the memorial (“Reflecting Absence”) definitely rang true. It made me think of my father, who had been in New York on a business trip just one week before the attacks, and had actually stood in the lobby of the North Tower. He fortunately returned home a few days later, but after 9/11, many did not. Even if you didn’t lose a family member or friend, a visit to this memorial puts the everyday trivalities of life into perspective.



Moving from Ground Zero, another item on my NYC bucket list was the Statue of Liberty. Due to the damage from Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the island on which she stands is still under repair, and ferries to and from it wouldn’t be available for another few months. I approached a friendly New York City cop and asked him where the closest point on the mainland was to Liberty Island, so I could at least get a look at the iconic statue. His helpful response was surprising; he told me of the Staten Island Ferry, which was a) free, b) departing every 45 minutes, and c) as close as you could get to seeing the Statue of Liberty. It turns out that The Strokes were wrong: New York City cops, they are quite smart. Standing on the deck facing New Jersey allowed for some magnificent views of lower Manhattan, Ellis Island (formerly the busiest immigrant inspection station in the United States), and Lady Liberty herself, with my 30x zoom coming in handy for capturing that famous face.



Returning to the mainland, I planned on meeting my friend halfway up the long Manhattan section of Broadway, which is the oldest north–south main thoroughfare in the city, best known for its theatre industry. She got off work in the late afternoon, and decided to take me to see her alma mater. The East Village is the student capital and home of New York University (NYU), and once again, I was amazed at how integrated a young vibrant community like this was with the surrounding area. Starting the evening off with a Brooklyn Lager in a basement bar, we searched for a truly unique dinner option, and found it in Japadog. This quirky and fun takeaway joint, only found in Vancouver and NYC, sold Japanese-style hotdogs, which included toppings such as teriyaki sauce, seaweed, Kobe beef, and shredded cabbage. The fusion of flavours was delicious, and if you pay the New York branch a visit, make sure to get the deep-fried icecream bun!





My final day in the United States saw me return to that bustling tourist hotspot, Times Square. On a Saturday morning, the square was teeming with tourists and flashing billboards, and it was a typical example of feeling so alone in such a large crowd of people. But that should be expected from travelling solo, and to be honest, I had grown quite accustomed to self-reliance whilst sightseeing. The weather was really unpredictable on that day, and thankfully, my lengthy walk up 7th Avenue to the Guggenheim Museum was perfectly timed between downpours. The walk might’ve been a bit extreme (it was over 40 blocks), but I’d still rather choose a stroll through the glorious Central Park than take just another underground subway ride. I was to be disappointed when I arrived at The Guggenheim though. After queuing for 15 minutes, I was told that free admission was only from 5pm that evening, and not for the entire day like I had originally thought. Whether I had been misinformed or was uninformed, $22 was far too steep for my limited budget, and I dejectedly left their awe-inspiring atrium. No modern art today, it seems. Faced with some spare time before a lunch meeting, a much more relaxed walk through the park was a decent compromise, and I tried different running paths, visited a few lakes along the way, and passed by an annual outdoor aerobics festival.

My father had put me in contact with a potential South African-American business partner of his who is based in NYC, and the gentleman graciously took me out for lunch at Dallas BBQ in Times Square. He suggested that I get the honey-glazed fried chicken and BBQ baby back ribs, and it was equal parts appetising and overwhelming. After a bit of small talk and business, he suggested that we pay a visit to Harlem, a predominately African-American neighbourhood in northern Manhattan, where he had lived for his first few years in the city. Although the area had experienced social and economic gentrification, he assured me that it was still safe to visit, so we boarded the famous A train, referenced in many jazz and hip hop songs over the years. Our visit, however, was timed with a relentless downpour, which shortened the stay, but we briskly walked through the driving rain to the legendary Apollo Theater. The esteemed music hall used to see the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Michael Jackson up onstage, and concerted efforts have been made recently to restore the theatre and keep that legacy alive.



I got back to my friend’s apartment in the little neighbourhood of Astoria that night, feeling the cumulative exhaustion of spending 26 days on the road. The cycle of packing and unpacking my suitcase was soon to be broken; the cycle of moving every couple of days to another lounge or bed. Catching trains, planes, busses and cars, walking along an avenue of stars. The Eagle’s Flight To Coachella was coming to an end, and when I packed my bags that night for the final time, I thought of all the people I’d seen and met, the places I’d been, and the memories that had been made. I reflected on my final few days in New York; a city that never sleeps, and never stops offering up tasty new experiences to sample. I hope to return there again, because there are so many bites still to be taken out of the Big Apple.