Wildly, after all of my travels, I still had not been to New York City. I had seen a lot of New York on TV and in the movies, but I always pictured it as a big and busy city that I would not enjoy. After submitting my draft dissertation to my supervisor, and watching the snow begin to fly in Calgary, I decided it was time for me to head South for warmer temperatures. It was late-April 2012, I was on holidays, and it shouldn’t have been snowing! I made a quick post on Facebook to see if anyone in the US who would be willing to host me for a for a few days and my friend Sarah quickly responded suggesting New York. I figured it was as good of a time as any to finally take a bite out of the Big Apple!
After a quick call to Air Canada’s Aeroplan center I had flights to New York booked for the next evening. The best part is, the flight only cost me $30 because I was using a credit from a flight that I had previously been unable to use. After a few rounds of beers with friends in Calgary the previous time I had been home, I decided it would be a good idea to join my buddy on his trip to Vegas for a bachelor’s party. While still at the bar, I pulled out my phone and made the flight reservations for the next day. Then, as I was packing, I realized my passport was still in Ottawa for a visa and I had to cancel the trip. Lesson learned – no more booking flights at bars!!!
Because of the last minute travel arrangements, I had to lay-over in Ottawa and sleep on a bench in the airport for 6 hours. This was not an overly pleasant experience, but hey, The Baldpacker can manage such frugalities. Yes, I just spoke about myself in the third person; deal with it. It helped that I put back a couple of Caesars in the Maple Leaf Lounge before boarding the flight and sat next to a crazy old fella from the Yukon who had been building schools around the world his whole life. He spoke Russian and had spent time working all over the world so he was full of great expat stories. After 4 failed marriages he seemed to just want to ‘live it up’ and he treated me to a few rounds of Jack Daniels on the flight to Ottawa so that he’d have a drinking buddy. It was perfect seat selection on my part (blind luck) as he provided much needed entertainment once the media system on the plane failed to function (an unfortunately common problem on Air Canada flights).
The flight into Newark from Ottawa was also fantastic. It was a small plane with some Maverick for a pilot who seemed to enjoy pushing the commercial airliner to its limit. I imagine he does several return short-hauls each day and the Red Bull Air Race maneuvers he was executing were the only way to make his monotonous route more interesting. It was great for all of us passengers as well, as we got fantastic views of the city as well as a free rollercoaster ride!
The train from Newark to Manhattan was easy to navigate and only cost $12.50. I was immediately impressed by how clean everything was and how friendly people were. Much different than I expected. A good start to the trip!
It was fantastic to see Sarah again. I had originally met her in Portugal several years prior and had surfed her couch in Ottawa in 2011 while I was in the city getting a visa for Yemen. She’s the type of person who knows how to work hard and party hard, which jives very well with my own philosphy on life. Sarah managed to receive a job offer from one of the top law firms in the world, which has an office on the waterfront in the financial district of Manhattan, so she moved to New York in the fall of 2011.
I arrived in New York on a Saturday and Sarah was luckily able to take the day off work and show me around a bit. It was a beautiful April morning and Sarah could see in my red eyes that I needed a caffeine kick before hitting the town. Luckily, New York is developing a proper coffee culture and Sarah took me to one of her favourite spots for a ‘pour-over’ coffee. It was one of the best cups of java I’ve had in a while, and it gave me the kick I needed to make the most of my first day in New York.
After waiting in line for a trendy West Village cafe / restaurant called Buvette to open for their noon brunch, we both enjoyed steamed eggs with savoury toppings, and then made our way to Central Park. I have always seen and heard of Cental Park in the movies and on TV, but I was still blown away by just how big and central it truly is. On our way to the park we saw a busker who had brought out his baby grand piano to Washington Square Park for the day! It was pretty amazing to see a busker on a baby grand piano, outside, in April, and is something I would only expect to see in a city like New York!
Being late April, the trees were in blossom and Central Park was absolutely beautiful. Sarah impressed me by climbing one of the massive trees in the park, but she did have to call on me for help to get down. What a city slicker!
Sarah and I also made a celebrity sighting of Zach Galifianakis in Central Park. I think he’s a pretty funny actor and he was doing a rollerskate skit in front of cameras in the park, though neither Sarah nor I could figure out the comedy in it. I managed to snap this photo as Zach almost biffed on to the pavement due to the plastic runner on his rollerblades breaking. Sarah convinced me that this was not a true ‘celebrity sighting’ since there were cameras filming Zach and we probably wouldn’t have had a clue who he was had the cameras and fans not been around him. I’ll agree that seeing a celebrity doing a sketch in the park is not as cool as seeing Tony Danza jogging his chihuahua or something, but as a guy who really doesn’t care much about celebrities, it was neat to see an actor my first day in town.
After enjoying a few hours of walking around, climbing trees, watching buskers, and enjoying free music performances, it was time to make our way towards Madison Square Garden for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When I was in the Calgary airport awaiting the boarding announcement for my flight, I figured I’d see if any tickets were available for Ranger’s playoff games while I was in New York. It just so happened that Ticketmaster had 2 seats available in the 12th row for a total of $465 Canadian. A steal of a deal for playoff hockey for a Canadian like me. Those same seats in Calgary for the playoffs would have cost at least twice that! Unfortunately, they began boarding the flight just as I started booking the tickets so I was in a real bind. As I waited for the ‘Verified by Visa’ transaction to process, they paged my name saying it was last call for the flight. I hollered that I was on my way and the second the transaction was complete I closed up my laptop and scrambled aboard. It was well worth the effort as there’s nothing better after a hot sun-filled day in Central Park than NHL playoff hockey in Madison Square Garden!
Sarah and I decided we didn’t have time to go to her place and change before the game, so we hit a patio for a couple pre-game beers! My feet were also beginning to hurt from all of the walking so I also picked up some flip-flops (my favourite travel walking attire), which came in very handy for my next few days of city walking!
After the beers, the only thing standing between us and the game were the crowds of Times Square. As we pushed through the throngs of people, including the naked cowboy, Sarah informed me that Times Square had been named after the New York Times newpaper when their office moved to a high-rise in the area in 1904. The crowds, lights, and video screens reminded me very much of Tokyo, but I didn’t have much time to appreciate it all as it was nearing puck drop!
We made it to Madison Square Garden just in time for the game, collected our tickets, grabbed a couple Bud Lights (ugh) and found our seats! The seats were much better than I expected and Madison Square Garden is a beautiful hockey arena. They were giving out free Ranger’s souvenir towels to the fans so there was a nice wave of spinning white towels throughout the Garden all night. The crowd was very respectful throughout the Canadian national anthem, but I did miss the usual horn toots during the final verses of Oh Canada! as I’d normally hear back home. After puck drop, things quickly heated up and a scrum broke out in the far corner. After a rough first game, the coaches put their grinders on the ice to start the game and it quickly turned into a melee with the refs dishing out 2 game misconducts within the first 2 minutes of play. The crowd quite enjoyed watching Dubinsky power bomb the Gatorade dispenser on his way to the locker room, and the scrum and misconducts set the tone for the rest of the first period. After the scrappy first period and tentatively played second, things got going in the third and we finally got to see some great playoff hockey. The crowds were not as loud as they would have been in Canada and I had to laugh at some of the fans calling for penalties on clean hits, which are a normal part of the game, but they were a solid fan base overall. We were lucky enough to be seated next to one of the most die-hard hockey fans I’ve ever met. He was a really nice guy with a dog named Ranger (after the Rangers!), which he showed us photos of, in a Rangers uniform. Now that’s devotion to your team! He also met his wife at a Rangers game and the two of them plan most of their travels around away games – a great way to see North America I suppose.
Having a hardcore Rangers fan seated next to us also helped me understand more about the many NY Rangers hockey traditions. My favourite tradition was the yelling of ‘Potvin Sucks’ mid-way through the game. Apparently, back in 1979, Daniel Potvin of the NY Islanders laid a hard check on Ranger’s center Ulf Nilsson and broke his ankle. Nilsson has said it was a clean check, but the crowd holds on to their hatred for Potvin for the incident to this day, yelling ‘Potvin Sucks’ after a catchy whistle tune is blown from the nose bleeds. Apparently the chant can also be heard at Knicks and Yankees games on occasion. Love it!
The other tradition we were told about is ‘Dancing Larry’. Larry is an unofficial mascot of the New York Rangers and has been a season ticket holder since 1988. During the third period when the Rangers are tied or leading, Larry puts on a crazy dance routine to pump up the crowd. It was pretty funny to watch and the crowd did get into it. Apparently the crowd used to chant ‘Homo Larry’ during the dance, but in the spirit of modern day political correctness, Homo Larry has become Dancing Larry.
During the game I discovered that the Madison Square Garden also offered a beer garden of sorts, with a dozen decent beers on tap for slightly more than the Bud and Bud Light offered at most vendor stands. I tried a couple of the local beers, including the Brooklyn Brewery Lager and Sixpoint Sweet Action. The best part was the beer mugs had a hole in the handle allowing for a pretzel stick. Nice work Madison Square Garden!
The third period provided some very entertaining hockey, but the most memorable part of the game was when some meat head kept standing up in front of us drawing calls of ‘down in front’ and ‘sit down’. That’s when it finally happened…a scrawny kid sitting behind us yelled for Mr. Meat Head to “go back to the Jersey Shore.” Perfect execution! I was thinking about yelling the same thing, but am not one to start trouble in a foreign town. Of course, this comment set Mr. Meat Head off in a fit of roid rage, but eventually cooler heads prevailed and Mr. Meat Head sat down so everyone could get back to the game.
During the game I had a hard time deciding who to cheer for – the home town Rangers or the Canadian Senators – so I stayed impartial and just cheered for good hockey. After the third period ended with a 2-2 tie, the game headed to overtime. At this point, I figured I’d join the home crowd and cheer for a Rangers win as it’s always nice to leave a stadium with a crowd high on victory. Sadly, Ottawa poached a quick goal in the first few minutes of the first overtime period and the game was over. The crowd was down as we exited the stadium, but I still thoroughly enjoyed the MSG experience and my first day in New York.