I arrived at JFK just before midnight last night. The flight was uneventful, which is always best. My cousin Phil had borrowed a car and was able to pick me up, which made things easier, and we drove to his apartment in East Harlem. It was probably 2 a.m. before I actually got to bed and despite being tired, it took me a while fall asleep: it was hot so the window was open and the street noise was incredible. I'm used to the quiet of rural silence and on a Friday night in Manhattan it seemed everyone was out in the street partying. There were constant shouts and yells, music blaring from a half dozen boomboxes, people laughing and talking loudly, and the roar of bus engines as they revved past. I woke up a few times during the night and it seemed to me it wasn't until nearly 5 a.m. before things quieted. I'm sure New Yorkers get used to the noise and don't hear it after a while, but it sure kept me awake.
I was up shortly after eight, surprisingly not as groggy as I expected. There was bright sunlight coming through the window and it looked like a glorious day. At about 8:30 Phil and I walked around the corner to a little coffee shop and had breakfast (I had a decent omelet). Then we road the subway downtown to the Greenwich Village area where he was to work. From there I set off on my own. I had the whole day to kill and no set plans. This seemed odd but turned out to be fantastic: there really no better way to explore New York City than by walking it. Last time I was here I road the subway and took taxis and left with only a vague idea of the city's layout. This time I walked. And walked and walked and walked. I think I started somewhere around 34th Street (just south of Central Park) and ended up in Battery Park (the northern tip of Manhattan, where the ferries take you out to Ellis Island). That's a long walk. I did not take the direct route, either, wandering around, stopping at City Hall Park for a rest, swinging by Ground Zero (not much to see except construction and tourists), traipsing through the financial district and wondering why so many restaurants were closed and the place had few people and then realizing it was Saturday and Wall Street was closed. I had my iPhone with Google Maps so I was never lost -- but without a particular destination in mind, I just wandered. It was around noon when I got to Battery Park and just as I arrived it started to rain. The blue sky had gone, replaced by gray, and the misty spray I initially ignored soon became a downpour. Everywhere in Central Park vendors were rushing to cover their displays with plastic tarps to protect their merchandise (postcards, pictures, sketches, etc.). I chatted with one and he told me the rain was totally unexpected and unpredicted. He naturally was annoyed. I hung out with several hundred others in the Ellis Island ferry ticket shelter, waiting for the rain to subside. I had contemplated going out to Ellis Island, but the crowds and weather dissuaded me. There was a long line just to buy tickets, and an even longer line to board the ferry. The ferry itself is open to the elements and the ride looked cold and wet and I had no jacket with me and was dressed in short sleeves. I also saw no indication of the length of the boat ride, but I figured that at minimum, it would probably take several hours to get to the Ellis Island and back, depending on how long you spent on the Island. Since I had to be back at Phil's by five, I wasn't sure I had the time. I also was getting hungry and needed lunch soon.
Earlier I'd called my other cousin, Peter, who live in Brooklyn. He doesn't work on Saturdays and called me back and said he and his flat-mate were heading into town that afternoon, so we decided to reconnect later and meet. I got tired to waiting for the rain to stop -- it had lessened and I decided to brave it and resumed my walk, this time looking for an eating place. I was a little picky: I didn't want to go to a national chain and I stay away from fast food now. I also wanted a sit-down place. I headed off in a direction to see what I could find. Now a key attitude when in a foreign place is to at least pretend you know where you are going: walked with determination and confidence. It keeps away a lot of the riff-raff who target tourists. Unfortunately, this was a tourist-heavy area and I guess my attitude worked because I was accosted several times by people who wanted directions! One guy was hilarious. He wanted to know where to get on the Staten Island Ferry and I knew that, so I told him, but he wouldn't believe me! I was like, "Why do you ask me if you aren't going to believe me?"
I ended up passing the Wall Street bronze bull, which was surrounded by Japanese tourists taking photos of each other in front of it, and soon found myself in front of Trinity Cathedral. At this point the rain was really coming down again, and since I still hadn't found a place to eat, I ducked into a Borders bookstore. I had no intention of buying anything, but as I passed a "New in Paperback" display a book on soccer cried out to me and I began scanning it. It was really good and I bought it. I sat and read for a while, but it was restless and getting really hungry (by now it was after two o'clock). I decided to pay for the book and brave the rain in search of food. Right as I was paying for the book my phone rang and it was Peter: he was on his way downtown. He told me where he was going, but the places he mentioned were unfamiliar and I was in the middle of a credit card transaction and distracted. All I really heard was "I'll call you when we're down there."
Outside, it was really raining, but I couldn't wait. I needed to eat. But it was really coming down and in just a couple blocks I was soaked. I began choosing my path based on scaffolding location, as walking under the scaffolding was almost dry. Then I passed an entrance to the Fulton Street subway station and something clicked: hadn't Peter just mentioned that? I tried to call him but just got voicemail: he was probably already underground. Then I saw a little burger place with sit-down tables. That sounded as good as anything and I got a turkey burger which was delicious and didn't have too much bread (the bun was grilled). It was good and hit the spot, though a bit pricey at $8 with no fries or drink. Right after I finished and was trying to decide what to do next as it had stopped raining, Peter called. I went outside trying to figure out where I was; one street sign was obscured. He said he and Jon were on William and had me head east (an adventure for me to figure out since I'm terrible at compass directions). As I walked, we were still talking, when two things happened at once: up ahead I saw William Street and Peter suddenly reported that he and Jon were at William and John. "I'm on John and I can see William!" I shouted, and then I saw Peter with a cell phone to his ear. I hurried forward and we connected. I couldn't believe it. "I had lunch like two blocks up there," I told him. "John and Nassau." Peter and Jon had come out of Fulton Street Station and it was a terrific coincidence that we happened to be at the same place!
We then headed over to South Street Seaport where we found a TKTS booth with a ten minute line (instead of the three hour line at the Times Square location) and bought tickets for the Sunday matinee of Spamalot. I hadn't even been thinking about the expense of the tickets and was a bit shocked that our "half off" tickets still cost $60 each -- yikes! NYC is expensive.
After that we wandered the seaport (similar to San Francisco) and eventually walked up to City Hall Park (where I'd been earlier in the day) and over to Chinatown and Little Italy. Peter's friend Jon has been in New York for eight years and really knows the city -- it was handy having him as a guide. At about 4:45 p.m. it was time for me to head back to Phil's place, so with Jon's help, we found a subway station where I could catch the "6" train which took me to 116th Street, just two blocks from Phil's apartment. Phil had given me his only set of keys, so I needed to be there or else he wouldn't have been able to get in. He arrived just minutes after me -- I'd just barely gotten into the apartment. He'd picked up a rented "Zip Car," a cool New York system where you can reserve a car by the hour via the Internet and with pickup locations all over the city. We changed clothes and head off to Giants Stadium for the soccer game.