An English Girl in New York: A Blizzard in the City
All of my visits to New York have been made in February. Maybe one day I will know the pleasure of walking down Sixth Avenue in a summer dress and sunbathing in Central Park, but until then I have contented myself with the glamour of winter in the city. For my latest visit I had expected the usual grey skies of February, but what I had not bargained for was a bona fide blizzard hitting the northeast coast halfway through my stay. They say only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun, but in truth, only mad dogs and English-women explore New York in a mid-winter blizzard.
After two days pleasurably passed in a sub-zero but sun-drenched New York it was on my second night in the city that news of the weather reports reached us. My travel companion and I braced ourselves for what was to become the worst blizzard to hit New York since 1978 and returned from a day combing the Lower East Side for a late night meal of dim-sum and noodle soup on Broadway amid flurries of snow. Staying just a few blocks away from the neon of Times Square, the buzz of the city was palpable even in our quiet hotel room next to Carnegie Hall, and the weather did nothing to dampen the spirit of the lively New Yorkers. But as we slept the snow fell thick and fast, and by morning the city was coated with an ever-rising blanket of pure, unblemished snow.
According to Ted Hughes, “there is no such thing as bad weather, only inadequate clothing,” and taking the unusually sound advice of a poet, once unfashionably practically dressed (I threw an oversized, vintage Yves Saint Laurent shirt over two jumpers, fit to meet the approval of the front-rowers enjoying New York Fashion Week in Bryant Park), we decided that in this scenario there could only be one option: a snowball fight in Central Park. With snow continuing to fall ever faster and ice freezing underfoot, it took several times the usual distance of five minutes to reach Central Park, but it was an urban expedition worth making. Deserted except for the occasional dedicated dog-walker, the park was an enchanting winter wonderland as snow clung to the bare-branched trees and a white mist shrouded the skyscrapers and brownstones that surround the park’s Fifth Avenue entrance. We strolled until our hands turned a worrying shade of blueberry, and, now that our sodden clothes and hair matted with snow left us looking suitably disheveled, we decided it was time to visit New York’s most fashionable avenue.
Heading from Central Park to Fifth Avenue, I was struck by the silence of the city’s famous shopping street. The efforts of the road sweepers had not prevented treacherous driving conditions and the blizzard had largely scared off New York’s shoppers. Even the usually chipper six-packed boys who guard the entrance of Abercrombie & Fitch looked distinctly downcast, and this absence of the usual crowds made for an unexpectedly relaxing shopping experience. After paying my respects to Fifth Avenue’s most prominent alters to consumerism, Tiffany’s, Saks and Bergdorf Goodman, where I spied wealthy Upper East Siders snapping up pairs of $2000 Chanel wellies to guard against the snow, it was time for a pit stop at Starbucks. That is, the Starbucks in the Trump Tower where walls coated in marble, bronze, and gold and three-storey-high waterfalls provided the setting for the most opulent chai latte of my life. Though an absolute tourist trap, I can’t deny I enjoyed my brief visit to Donald Trump’s excessive temple to himself, the unashamed excess of its architectural narcissism is delightfully indulgent, while the Donald Trump gift shop will tickle anyone’s funny bone with its sheer unabashed self-worship.
After a lengthy session of window shopping, from Fifth Avenue we waddled (an unintentionally hilarious imitation of “March of the Penguins” was necessary to stay safe on the icy sidewalks) to a spectacularly snow-shrouded St Patrick’s Cathedral; then to the Rockefeller Center, where the famous ice rink was closed after being transformed into a real-life snow drift; and onto Times Square. By now the snowfall had a more ferocious edge and the streets cleared as it turned to hail with thick chunks of ice falling from the sky, while sharp winds bit at my skin, driving the hail into my face. Like any self-respecting New Yorker, many would have abandoned the streets at this stage and sought shelter in the comfort of their homes, but mad dogs and the English refuse to give up over a spot of foul weather.
Where there is bad weather, there is an opportunity and while the wild weather had scared off the majority of theater goers, for us hardy Brits it could only mean one thing: cheap, unsold tickets. As any Broadway fan worth their weight in playbills will know, TKTS in Times Square is the destination for discount tickets to the biggest hits on and off Broadway. Open for just a few hours every afternoon to sell unsold tickets for the evening’s performances at dramatic discounts, even as the snow swelled into the ice blaze of a blizzard, the queue for tickets was a hundred people deep. It has to be said, queuing in a huddle for half an hour in the very eye of a blizzard is an experience not for the fainthearted. But our refusal to accept defeat at the hands of mother nature was rewarded, and later that evening we found ourselves in the second row for a spectacular performance of Tennessee William’s classic play “A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” at the Richard Rodgers Theatre, with the role of Maggie played to perfection by none other than Scarlett Johansson. Even more beautiful in the flesh, Johansson captivated the audience with her enchanting portrayal of the character once played on the silver screen by Elizabeth Taylor. She was smooth, sultry, passionate, and powerful, while the Irish Ciarán Hinds was superb as a larger-than-life Big Daddy with real bite. At the intermission I sipped from the selection of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” cocktails, where the only option I could possibly choose was a Maggie the Cat, vodka shaken with gin and cranberry juice, a potion almost as fiery as Scarlett Johansson’s Maggie herself.
Still high on the high-octane energy of the performance, we battled back to our hotel through sheets of snow and hail that attacked the city with an unrelenting force. The sidewalks were now impassable, and after hailing the rare commodity of a spare cab, we realized that the roads were not much safer. Sitting tight as our cab skid on the patches of black ice, barely able to see out of the windscreen thanks to driving winds of heavy snow, the hair on the back of my next stood on edge and we could only breathe easy once we were back in our hotel, ready to take refuge and dream of Scarlett Johansson and her Southern drawl.
The following day, though the winter sun shone, the thick snow still rendered many of the city’s streets impassable on foot. So we embraced a taxi ride to Battery Park at the very tip of Lower Manhattan as the perfect opportunity to seek out views of a deserted Greenwich, TriBeCa, and Chelsea in the snow. After taking a walk down a silent Wall Street blanketed in unsullied snow we chose to take another cab tour, where our journey revealed gorgeous views of a white Brooklyn Bridge and a snow-speckled Hudson River before dropping us back in Midtown where we treated ourselves to a hearty All-American lunch at one of my all-time favourite New York haunts.
From my previous visits, I’m of the opinion there is one place in New York where you have to go for a laid-back lunch. Though it will never win prizes for sleek decor or a hip-crowd of regulars, Junior’s diner deserves a place in the New York Hall of Fame. Founded in Brooklyn in 1950, it has won numerous awards for its uniquely rich New York cheesecake and now has a large branch on 45th Street, just a stone’s throw away from Times Square. My motto is: Come for the cheesecake, stay for the lunch. After discovering it four years ago as my friends and I searched for a late-night indulgence to sneak back to our hotel room, over the course of three visits in three days (please, don’t judge this unashamed diner food addict), this year I rekindled our love affair. I feasted on matzo ball soup and pastrami on rye with a cherry-topped strawberry milkshake fresh out of the 1950s, buffalo wings that left delicious gooey sauce all over my frost-bitten face, and finally the most incredible burger of my life, a force of nature known as pastrami-Swiss cheeseburger, so large it has to be served in the manner of an open sandwich. If it’s possible to fold it together and fit a bite in your mouth, I don’t know the trick to it. As for the cheesecakes, though the strawberry cheesecake is delightful, original is the undisputed champion of the dessert menu. While Junior’s wastes no time on polish or presentation, its cheesecake consistently exceeds the hype and really is the very best the States have offered me. Junior’s will ship slices of cheesecake to any address in the America, though it has yet to offer an international delivery service, but when it does I will be the first enthusiast on its mailing list.
Having satisfied our stomachs and despite our sugar-fueled, can-do spirit, the weather meant that many attractions, including most of the city’s galleries and museums were closed. Rearranging our original plan to visit the Guggenheim and Metropolitan Museum of Art, we decided to escape the snow and indulge in some marginally less highbrow contemporary mainstream culture, aka a tour of the NBC Studios. Housed in the main building of the sprawling Rockefeller Center, the NBC Studios are the working headquarters of one of America’s oldest and biggest television stations. I tend to be skeptical of any attraction that ends with an exit through the gift shop, and so entering NBC Studios through the gift shop filled me with more than a little dread. Yet despite some moments of total cheese, including a pose-with-the-news-desk photo-op, the tour was not the Midwestern-visits-city tourist hell I had braced myself for. The tour guides had a brilliant self-depreciative wit to them, and spent the majority of the tour asking me to assess their various impressions of Russell Brand.
The NBC Studios are a working building teeming with life, and the tour included visits to the studios where the “NBC Nightly News,” “Dr. Oz,” and “Saturday Night Live” are filmed every week, giving fascinating insight into some of America’s best-loved television exports. Saturday Night Live is one such show, a rating-grabbing flagship-programme that boasts a history of celebrity guests so revered it puts the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame to shame. The process of getting a ticket to be in the audience is a strenuous one: In the month of August fans can apply for tickets, which are then allocated at random throughout the year. More tickets are distributed than there are seats, resulting in a weekly survival-of-the-fittest scrum to get a spot. Yet by a trick of fate, taking the tour on a Saturday meant I had the pure luck to bypass the entire ticket-allocation process and be lead straight through to the Saturday Night Live studio. Expecting another tour of an empty studio, I was taken aback to find myself slap-bang in the middle of the live rehearsal for that night’s show, which was to be guest-hosted by none other than teenage heartthrob, the unstoppable force of Justin Bieber.
While I’m almost totally ambivalent to the baby-faced crooner, knowing that I was ten meters away from one of America’s biggest pop icons was an unexpected rush. Content with the knowledge that there are legions of pre-teen girls who, if Twitter is anything to go by, would quite literally kill to be in my dubiously privileged position, I allowed myself to indulge in a few minutes of silent Bieber fever. With just a few hours left before leaving to catch our flight, one of the first to be allowed to leave JFK after the blizzard had left all aircraft grounded, there was just time to devote to myself to being suitably star struck before making the journey back to London.
Resting my sore Doc Marten-clad feet in the departure lounge, I reflected that one thing is for certain: In the city that never sleeps, snow days are not an option.