Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pearson to Laguardia (Pt. IX)

Sunday, March 22, 2009 ... [Continued from Parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 ]

All good things must come to an end, and on Sunday I found myself on a cab back to New York's Laguardia airport.

Cabs in New York are pretty sophisticated these days. Sure, they still have the classic yellow paint job, and you still stick out your hand and whistle "Taxi!" to hail one, but inside they're pretty advanced. The most notable feature of modern New York cabs is the presence of an LCD touchscreen built into the back seat. It lets you access everything from news, sports, and weather, to a GPS map. It also lets you adjust brightness and volume to suit your needs, or turn off the screen altogether. Of course, what media system would be complete without a celebrity endorsement or two? Sure enough, how to use the system is periodically introduced by none other than Regis and Kelly.

Another notable feature of New York taxis is the abundance of plastic... and I don't mean credit cards. I mean shielding. Particularly in the SUV models, but also in the classic Crown Victoria's, passengers are separated from the driver by a plastic shield. In the sedan versions, this partition only separates the back seats from the front. In the SUV, the shield forms a kind of capsule around the driver that protects him/her from even the passenger beside him. Money can be exchanged through a sliding plastic window, which is usually left open. Better yet, why not pay using the debit/credit machine? If you're sitting in the back seats, you'll be prompted by the LCD screen at the end of the trip to select payment by cash or credit. Above the LCD monitor is a card swiping or tapping (if you have one of those newfangled tap cards) machine which you can use to dispense payment.

Cab fare in New York is not cheap, but it's not atrocious. Still, I swear that for the last leg of our trip to Laguardia the meter was going up by a dollar a time... I was watching.

We flew American Airlines because it was a helluva lot cheaper than Air Canada. On my way through security, my bag was stopped at the X-Ray machine.

Guard: Whose bag is this?

Andy: Mine.

Guard: I'm going to have to look through this.

Andy: Sure, yeah, alright.

Guard: Do you have a screwdriver in here?

Andy: No.

Guard: Do you have anything sharp or a screwdriver?

Andy: No... I don't think so...

[Guard sifts through bag, pulls out a screwdriver]

Guard: I thought you said you didn't have a screwdriver?

To be honest, I had no idea how the screwdriver got there. It was definitely one of ours, but I certainly don't remember anything like that being inside my bag or for what purpose it could have been put there. My mother just kept saying, "Oh, they didn't catch that on our way here," which I wished she would stop because it made it sound like we had smuggled contraband that had somehow been overlooked in Toronto.

I really was worried that I was going to get pulled aside, questioned, beaten, and imprisoned in Guantanamo for secretly trying to sneak a screwdriver onto an American Airlines plane for allegedly trying to disassemble it from the inside out or stab somebody with it or something nefarious like that. Luckily, the security person seemed more amused than suspicious.

Guard: Where did you come from?

Mom: Toronto.

Guard: Poor Toronto...

I felt like my screwdriver and I had single-handedly soiled the Canadian image... In the end, they told us that the screwdriver was too big to bring as carry-on. We told them to chuck it. Crisis averted.

The lady at the gate gave me a dirty look because apparently we were supposed to present our boarding papers and passport to her before getting on the plane. Well, nobody told us that and I've never had to do it before, so that was a rather negative interaction.

Our plane was a dinky little two-and-one (two seats down one side of the aisle and one seat down the other). It was so narrow that the flight attendant had to serve drinks to each passenger individually because the aisle was too small for a concession cart.

The flight attendant and pilot were both very friendly and cheerful, even though the pilot didn't know he was flying to Toronto until ten minutes before the flight took off (I saw him checking at the gate computer terminal). It was a relatively pleasant (and short) journey.

I have to admit that ever since I watched the Japanese drama Attention Please, I've had a new respect for the airborne lives of cabin attendants and pilots. I'm sure that the show romanticized things quite a bit, however. Though if Asian and Western air service philosophies are as different as their customer service philosophies, then the show may not be exaggerated much. In that case, I'd very much like to fly on Asian airlines instead, where the cabin attendants seem to have higher standards of attentiveness, attractiveness, and attire. Ever since I watched the drama, I've been disappointed seeing flight attendants lacking JAL's seemingly prided neck scarves.

One year, Evey considered applying for a summer job as a flight attendant with Korean Air. Apparently, they were heavily recruiting Koreans that were fluent in both Korean and English (solid fluency in both is a rarity, I suppose). Unfortunately, she missed the height cutoff by an inch or two. I guess tallness is an important part of the flight attendant image.

While on the flight, there was a moment when I started to get a painful prickling sensation on my forehead and down the bridge of my nose. At first I thought it was my glasses irritating my nose somehow, but it was actually quite uncomfortable. "Oh no!" I thought, "V1 palsy!"

I rubbed the affected area, but it was still tingling a bit by the time we landed. I'm still not quite sure what the malfunction was. Bodies are such strange objects. In any case, we touched down in Toronto without incident and I headed home anticipating the resumption of classes the next day... Oy, if only we had robots to do all the work, we could just live on holiday!

Thus ends my eventful voyage to New York. My three and a half day journey spelled out over nine entries! I hope that sharing in my experience was entertaining to the end.

La fin.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Pearson to Laguardia (Pt. VIII)

Saturday, March 21, 2009 ... [Continued from Parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7]

With all family members accounted for and rested, Saturday was the real day of family gathering. This included three cousins, my uncle, my mom, my sister, and three significant others (two cousins' and one sister's). We began the day with dim sum at an excellent Chinese restaurant.

Note: Representative picture only, these are not the bao from my trip.

Being from Toronto, the heart of one of the most vibrant Chinese communities in North America, I've had some superb Chinese food. What I've learned from my experiences at Chinese restaurants from Toronto to Montreal is that ordering Shanghainese food at a Cantonese restaurant is tantamount to disaster. Go to Asian Legend if you want siu long bao. At Cantonese dim sum, stick to your haa gaau. Unfortunately, my cousins did not heed my warning and were determined to order something with which to compare with the bao at Joe's Shanghai, where they were planning to lunch the next day. The siu long bao were, of course, thick, starchy, and repulsive as I predicted. Everything else was tasty.

After lunch, we swung by my cousin's apartment, which was on something like the seventh floor of a building with no elevator. It was, in classic big-city style, very narrow; but what it lacked in width, it made up for in length, so overall it was reasonably sized. Cleaning had been applied less than optimally, however, and despite prior efforts by my uncle and other cousin to tidy it up, my mother still spent half an hour chasing dust bunnies around the apartment with a Swiffer and some Lysol wipes. My cousins were universally impressed by the amount of dirt that was uncovered.

We then proceeded to swing by Central Park, this time on foot. Central Park vaguely reminded me of Stanley Park in Vancouver (which I've only been to once and only vaguely remember in the first place), except that instead of mountains in the background, you have skyscrapers. It's an impressive and elegant juxtaposition of urbanity and nature.

I couldn't help but notice on my two visits to Central Park (one by car, one on foot) that the New York Parks logo seemed to be an encircled Maple Leaf - much like the Air Canada logo or the Canadian Air Force roundel. I commented to one cousin:

Andy: This just proves that Americans secretly want to be Canadians.

Cousin: A lot of Americans wanted to be Canadians... for a very long time. Eight years long. Ever since we had a president named Bush. When Obama got elected I ran through the hospital and told my attending, "Finally, I can take that Canadian flag off my bag when I travel." He replied, "Finally, I can be proud to be American again."

Central Park, as I've described, is a massive and well-equipped recreational nature space. It has paths for bikers and runners. Lakes for boaters. Rinks for skaters. It's a haven for street performers. But its own zoo? That's right, if you can't read the stone pillar in the photo above, it says: Children's Zoo. While it's no Toronto Zoo, it's not insignificant either. Not too shabby!

After our walk through Central Park, everybody returned to my sister's boyfriend's apartment to watch television. That may seem odd, but everybody in the US loves basketball. Apparently, virtually every workplace places bets as to which teams they expect to win in the tournament, and whoever gets the most teams correct, takes the pool. This was made all the more significant because UNC, the college at which my uncle works, was playing that night (and they are ranked among the top tier). Therefore, this was an unmissable game. For my part, I took the opportunity to catch some time on Windows Live Messenger.

Our final destination for the night was a lovely ten-course Chinese banquet celebrating my uncle's birthday. On the way there, we passed by a white and orange stack placed conspicuously in the middle of the street and streaming steam. I had no idea what it was, but felt compelled to take a photo.

The Chinese restaurant was first-rate, and all of the waiters were dressed in blue, colonial-style uniforms with epaulets. I approved. After all, Hong Kong was most significant just prior to the 1997 takeover. It had achieved success and wealth, yet with its unique British styling was widely regarded as the Western gateway to Asia. Let me ask you, how much less grand did it sound when the Royal Hong Kong Police became just the Hong Kong Police?

The food was well done, though likely quite expensive. The most unique dish, in my opinion, was the Peking duck (or Beijing duck, as they called it). Instead of having little pancakes and sliced duck to assemble ourselves, we received one large pancake, stuffed with goodies, and a side of hoisin sauce. It was unusual, but very tasty. You know a restaurant is classy when they wrap your Peking duck for you, right?

After dinner, our evening wound down and we dispersed, ending our enjoyable family get-together in New York. For awhile, a texting frenzy attempted to organize a meet-up between myself, Ting, and her friends, who were also in New York for March Break. As it turned out, she was situated just a few blocks from my sister's boyfriend's where we were hanging out, but proved ultimately too lazy to extract herself or her friends from their hotel room to do anything interesting. Epic fail.

On the way back to my sister's apartment to sleep through my last night in New York, I took note of this particularly remarkable advertisement for Snickers candy bars.

"Make an appointment for a Hungerectomy!"

I appreciated the misappropriation of medical suffixes, though I'm fairly sure there's no such thing as a Hungerectomy (unless, of course, we're referring to bariatric surgery). But indeed, if there were such a procedure, given America's privatized medical system, I imagine that you would indeed be able to obtain one by making an appointment yourself.

On a slightly related note, these kinds of slogans and advertisements really do work. One day, when I was famished prior to a two-hour clinical skills practice session, I picked an Oh Henry! out of an entire counter of candy bars. Why? Because I remembered, "Oh hungry? Oh Henry!"

Oh impressionable minds.

To be continued...

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Pearson to Laguardia (Pt. VII)

Friday, March 20, 2009 ... [Continued from Parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6]

After two nights of sleep on my sister's futon with an oversize pillow, my sore back muscles and mildly sleep-deprived brain were quickly deteriorating in function. Adding to the situation was my uncanny ability to doze off immediately upon sitting down in a car. (This doesn't occur when I'm the driver... honest!) Thus, I was for the remainder of our automobile trip... effectively comatose.

I awoke at our next stop - Chinatown. Chinatown in New York had the same transplanted Asian feel of any downtown Chinatown. It was perhaps a little bit taller and perhaps a little bit older and perhaps just a little bit bigger. But essentially, all city-locked Chinatowns look the same. Colourful signage hanging off of lofty and aging apartments. Crowded streets filled with fresh fish and bargaining salespeople. And Chinese people. Lots.

Having now visited both Koreatown and Chinatown, I had to note: The Asians were there. They had, like immigrants do anywhere in the world, cliqued up and formed their own little neighbourhoods and little communities teeming with their own... but somehow, outside of these areas they were visibly lacking from the overall mix of people. Not missing, just underrepresented. I still don't quite understand it.

An interesting feature I found on the street was this little intercom box with buttons for both the police and fire departments. It reminded me of the blue-lit security intercoms at Queen's University (a similar network exists at UofT) or the DWA (Designated Waiting Area) intercoms in TTC subway stations, which exist to provide a lifeline to students or commuters faced with a panicky, dangerous situation. Seeing one on a street corner linked directly to the police was a bit unusual.

"Does this thing work?" I asked my sister's boyfriend's father. "Go ahead and try it," was his facetious response. He made it clear, however, that he was not used to seeing such devices either, so I suppose it was more of an anomaly than a New York idiosyncrasy.

While we are on the topic of police, though, I found it interesting to note that Chinatown was patrolled by Chinese NYPD officers. I can only assume that the same targeted officer assignment is true in other ethnically-specific neighbourhoods. I'm sure this is not a novel system, but I did find it rather neat.

We bought some barbecue duck, chicken, and Chinese pastries for a homely meal at my sister's boyfriend's apartment. As a Chinese person, I'm used to seeing all sorts of grocery store oddities - from chicken feet to pig's blood jelly. What I didn't expect, however, was to see a bucket full of live frogs, each slightly smaller than one's hand... that is, they were huge! That was a new one for me. I did ponder whether they really were alive, since they seemed to stay more or less motionless; but every now and again, I'd swear I heard a "ribbit." The real question is: what was keeping them from jumping away?

On the way back from Chinatown, we stopped by a supermarket called Trader Joe's to pick up some odds and ends. Trader Joe's is apparently a very special store, selling all sorts of unique and rare foods and health items. It seemed to cater toward the grassroots, organic food-loving folk; and because of its distinctiveness, it was quite unreasonably popular.

The cashier line snaked all the way around from the front of the store, along the side wall, and ended along the back. A number of employees were tasked with holding up what were essentially road signs that indicated the line's end. It was nuts. Naturally, I stood in line while my sister went around gathering her supplies.

We returned to my sister's boyfriend's place for dinner and were joined by my cousins. In fact, the whole New York trip had been planned as a family get together celebrating my uncle's birthday. My mother and I had opted to arrive a few days early to spend time with my sister and do some sightseeing and shopping, but by Friday night, the whole crew was assembling.

My uncle and cousins were staying in the Plaza hotel. They had apparently gotten a pretty meaty discount as a workplace benefit from one cousin's job at Saks Fifth. The Plaza was the lap of luxury. In addition to its cushy upholstery and widescreen LCD TV, the room featured an amalgamated control panel from which the television, lights, and thermostat could be adjusted (and from which you could order a wide variety of hotel services). And did I mention the complementary shoe shining?

It was getting pretty late, so we decided to leave my travel-weary uncle and cousins be. My mother, sister, sister's boyfriend, his parents and I headed over to the 24-hour Apple Store. From street-level, it appears as an enormous glass cube with an Apple logo on it. When you enter the doors, you descend a glass spiral staircase bordering a cylindrical glass elevator reminiscent of the turbolift in Star Trek. While I still think that Macs are more of a fashion statement than functional computers, I was quite taken with the Apple store's gleaming glory.

Amusingly, one of the largest concentrations of Asian people I saw outside Chinatown was a group of youth huddled around a table playing video games on the demo Macs. For a moment, I was challenged in my preconceptions that Macs were inadequate gaming devices... that was, until I realized that the most sophisticated game on display was Lego Star Wars.

But for all my Apple-bashing, the Apple store was a great place to finish the night off at. I mean, it suited me just right - it even had a Genius Bar. I approve.

(As it turns out, the Genius Bar is not a bar for geniuses as one might expect; but rather, a Macintosh tech support station located at every Apple retail location.)

To be continued...

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pearson to Laguardia (Pt. VI)

Friday, March 20, 2009 ... [Continued from Parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5]

Our guided tour of New York began on wheels with a drive through Central Park. The famous park takes up 843 acres in the middle of Manhattan Island. Its estimated real estate values is $528,783,552,000. I have to give the city credit for forking over such a huge stretch of land in the midst of their urban jungle for parkland.

Above: Central Park as seen from the top of the Rockefeller Center.

Central Park has an abundance of facilities. It has paths for walking, cycling, and roller-blading; rinks for skating; and lakes for boating and rowing. There are a number of roads that penetrate the periphery of the park (hence we were able to get a taste of it from the car), but in some cases they are sunken lower into the ground so as to minimize the distraction to park patrons.

We've all seen Central Park at some point, regardless of whether we've actually been there. Numerous films and television shows have visited the eminent location. But perhaps my greatest prior impression of the park was from the recent video game, Alone in the Dark (remake of a childhood classic). In the game, Central Park was recreated in its entirety as the playground for a survival-horror game. You're pitted against zombies, subterranean menaces, and plenty of other nasty creatures in the park's setting.

Thus, it was with some excitement that I first laid eyes upon Central Park to discover... "Hey, it really looks like it does in the video game." When I told my sister this, she assured me that she'd never be able to play such a video game. She visits the park all the time and is certain such an experience would leave a negative psychological impact. For what it's worth, I'd never play the game either... and that's not just because it received an abysmal average score of 58/100.

New York is a huge and vibrant city, and the touristy areas are havens for street performers and vendors. A common sight are these guys dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, beckoning you to come over and take pictures with them. At first, I assumed that there was only one of these performers and that he moved around from time to time. After all, street performers can be pretty possessive of their ideas - I remember the copyright controversy surrounding one Naked Cowboy. But as it turned out, I found Mr. Statue of Liberty just a few blocks down from another one. Who would have guessed?

We continued our vehicular tour of New York, driving past upscale shopping districts like Park Avenue and notable landmarks like Grand Central Station. Much to my mother's discomfort, we also decided to take a spin through the notorious Manhattan neighbourhood of Harlem. As you head northwards from the affluent downtown core, a palpable drop in income level and real estate value is apparent. In fact, the more impoverished and ludicrously wealthy areas of the city are separated by little more than a few blocks.

My sister's boyfriend's parents assured us that Harlem was perfectly safe during the daytime, though the same couldn't be said for the evening. Indeed, a beefy police presence was notable as we drove through the area. Another aspect of the neighbourhood that was jarring was the sheer shift in demographics toward the African-American population. New York may be one of the most diverse cities in America, but it doesn't seem to be the most integrated.

Along the same vein, other than our brief visit to Bon Chon Chicken in Koreatown the night before, I had seen a surprising dearth of Asian people on the streets of New York. And true to the stereotypes, all but one of our cab drivers in New York were accented, brown immigrants. Interesting.

To be continued...

This entry was
adopted by Brutus.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Pearson to Laguardia (Pt. V)

Friday, March 20, 2009 ... [Continued from Parts 1 | 2 | 3 | 4]

After lunch, we made a run through what may be the world's greatest toy store: FAO Schwarz. My sister's boyfriend did mention, however, that New York's Toys'R'Us may be even better, since FAO Schwarz flirted with bankruptcy a few years back whereas Toys'R'Us stayed afloat. Apparently the Toys'R'Us in NYC is colossal and includes its own Ferris Wheel. Sadly, I didn't have the opportunity to go.

FAO Schwarz is a toy store the likes of which I've never seen. "If you see it, you can buy it," I was told. What I saw were two enormous floors of the most unique specialty toys I've ever seen. These included stuffed dragons, elephants, and giraffes of near life-size proportions. Outside the store was a cheerful looking man dressed up like a toy soldier, beckoning passersby to take photos with him. Inside the store were demonstrators, previewing and pushing many of FAO Schwarz unique inventory. I'd never seen toy demos in a toy store before - I always assumed that was something reserved for foodstuffs at Costco. I was impressed.

I mentioned that FAO Schwarz carried all manner of specialty toys. These included Barbie-like dolls by American fashion designer Jason Wu; a variety of original FAO Schwarz self-branded toys; and life-size Lego recreations of the cast of Harry Potter, Star Wars, and Batman, retailing for around ~$27,000 USD per character. The baby dolls pictured above were protected by a glass case, and looking at them was almost like looking into the nursery at a hospital. They were rather creepy though. Standing nearby was an FAO Schwarz employee dressed as a nurse with a rocking chair, holding one of the babies for customers to experience. While I refused to touch the doll, my mother took the opportunity to pick it up. To her astonishment, it weighed and felt like a real baby, right down to the softness of its tiny faux-baby body.

One of the major attractions at FAO Schwarz was the "Big Piano." It's a giant piano that you can stand on and play with your feet. The keys light up as you step on them and emit the appropriate sound. Unfortunately, I didn't have the chance to try it for myself. We were in a bit of a hurry, and there was a rather long lineup. What would I have played anyways? I barely remember any piano pieces via the muscle memory of my hands, so there's no way I'd be able to translate anything more complicated than a scale through my legs. It did look like fun though.

FAO Schwarz included an entire section devoted the Harry Potter merchandise. It was a rather authentic looking display, and one might imagine that if little Harry were to indeed buy supplies in wizardly, he might do so over quite a similar looking counter. While I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan - I've watched the movies, but haven't read the books (except for the second one, which I'm told is the worst) - I couldn't help but get excited when I saw the Harry Potter neckties.

I admit it, I like that pretentious English prep school look. To be honest, the ties were in fact quite nice, and bore the classy looking Harry Potter house crests. They also sold Harry Potter scarves, and I seriously considered returning to the store and buying a necktie and scarf or two for the remainder of the weekend. I, however, did not.

The only objection I had with FAO Schwarz was its disappointing dearth of action figures. You may recall that action figures were a veritable staple of my childhood. So to find only a single aisle in such a robust store devoted to the genre was sorrowfully underwhelming. What's more was that even the said aisle only carried three or four different varieties. Clearly, FAO Schwarz was geared more towards doll carrying, stuffed animal hugging, toddler types.

Maybe I really would have been better off checking out Toys'R'Us.

To be continued...

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pearson to Laguardia (Pt. IV)

Friday, March 20, 2009 ... [Continued from Parts 1 | 2 | 3]

My sister's boyfriend's parents had kindly agreed to drive us around New York for the day. Having cleared the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building the day before, we'd already touched base with the landmarks where parking would be difficult. Friday would be an opportunity to get up close and personal with the city proper.

We began our day at a classy Asian fusion restaurant called Tao. It had a beautiful, dark ambiance resplendent with glassy windows, glimmering lights, and Asian decor with a modern arrangement. Along the wall of the restaurant, spanning both floors, was an large stone Buddha with irregularly long fingers. At the Buddha's feet was a fountain full of carp, similar to those seen in many Chinese restaurants.

The major difference, however, was that the fountain was at waist level, and the water was filled to within a centimetre of the pool's edge. There was no buffer between the height of the water and the height of the pool's partition, meaning that when the carp stuck their heads above the water, they were also sticking their heads over the edge of the pool. My sister's boyfriend's father obliged us by sticking his finger at the carp, who obscenely nibbled at it with their toothless mouths.

The food at Tao was quite tasty. We ordered from the Lunch Special Menu, which included an appetizer, main course, and dessert. There was a lot of duplication in ordering and sharing of food going around our table. For the appetizer we tried the Bang Bang Chicken, Satay of Chicken with Peanut Sauce, and Peking Duck Spring Rolls with Hoisin Sauce.

For the main course, we all ordered either the Shanghai Scallion Beef (a stir fry dish) or the Wok Seared New York Sirloin. They were both well done, although we couldn't quite finish them off. I had a "Zen Parfait" for dessert, but by that time I was absolutely stuffed. As a result, I didn't really get to try other people's desserts, which included Banana Bread Pudding and Fresh Fruit/Tangerine Sorbet.

Before leaving, I had a chance to visit the washroom, which was quite unique. The first test was determining which was the men's room. One door was labelled Yin and the other Yang. There were no other helpful aids. Luckily, I had been tipped off in advance that Yang was for boys.

Sister's Boyfriend's Father: I mean, it made sense to me. Yin... -in... ladies room.

Sister's boyfriend: I don't really get your logic here, but I don't think that I like it...

Inside, the bathroom stall was a lit up slot machine hanging from the wall. I spent a bit of time trying to figure out if it was functional, pushing buttons and turning knobs... but I couldn't get it to work. My impression is that it was purely decorative. I didn't want to play with it too much, since there was an attendant waiting outside, and he was probably wondering what I was doing inside the stall for so long.

When I exited, the attendant was there ready to squeeze liquid soap onto my hands. Then he turned on the tap for me and turned his attention back to the stall which I had just exited. He kicked up the toilet seat and sprayed a bit of... air freshener? Cleaning solution?

The sink was pretty special also. It didn't make a complete bowl, but was shaped kind of like a trough with one side missing. As a result, it functioned somewhat like a gutter, spilling water off the right side down to the floor, on which there was a little drain bordered by neatly arranged and rounded stones. At first, I thought I was spilling water all over the floor, and it took me a few seconds to realize that the sink was supposed to do that.

When I returned to our table, I found and promptly devoured a chocolate fortune cookie waiting for me. "You are difficult for others to resist," it said. Well, I'm hardly going to argue with that!

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Pearson to Laguardia (Pt. III)

Thursday, March 19, 2009 ... [Continued from Parts 1 | 2]

It was raining and frigid outside. I had only a spring jacket and an umbrella with which to face the elements because I had expected the temperature to hover around 9-10 degrees Centigrade. After our Liberty Island excursion, I was ready to get inside.

We stopped over for lunch at a franchise restaurant called Cosi near Union Square. It specialized in a particular kind of flat bread, which was used to make sandwiches and pizza. Between myself, my sister, and my mother, we ordered a pizza, a soup, and a plain flat bread. While the food certainly looked tasty, none of us ate a terribly large amount. The unfavourable spices, chilly temperatures, and rapidly cooling foodstuffs led to our party of three only being able to consume half of a pizza designed for two. Sad, I know.

After lunch, my sister and mother wanted to go shopping in search of clothing bargains. Big cities are renowned for their shopping glory, and New York is certainly no exception. We made a long stopover in a two-story clothing store known as Forever21 with an absolutely minuscule men's clothing section. Apparently, there is a Forever21 store in Toronto also, but it's tiny.

While my sister and mother browsed to their hearts content and tried on clothing, I wandered aimlessly around the men's clothing section. I must have seen every article of clothing on offer at least thrice. I ran into the above T-shirt that read: Hip Hop is Culture. Rap is Style! I thought to myself, How can I possibly buy anything from a store like this? I deeply disapprove of ghetto/gangster culture and its popularity.

It's true that the store's clothes were indeed very inexpensive, but they all either started in L/XL sizes or looked incredibly cheap. Now it's one thing for an item of clothing to be inexpensive, look good, and feel cheap (upon inspection). That's Bluenotes. I love it. It's quite another for clothing to be inexpensive, feel cheap, and look cheap. That's bad.

But given the enormous amount of time for which I was kicking my heels, I did manage to snag a few bargains including a $25 vest and $50 blazer, which fit surprisingly well and didn't look too shabby. It just goes to show that every cloud has its silver lining.

Next, we headed over to a multi-level shopping complex containing two stores: DSW and Filene's Basement. Filene's basement, for the record, was no basement at all but rather was located on the fifth and sixth floors. DSW can only be regarded as footwear Mecca. Never in my life have I seen such rows upon rows upon rows of shoes, boots, sandals, and flip-flops of every colour, brand, and style. I spent quite a bit of time bouncing from one chair to the next as my mom and sister perused all that the store had to offer. In the end, they each ended up buying one pair of shoes at what by Toronto standards would be considered deeply discounted prices.

We stopped for dinner at a pub-slash-restaurant called Bon Chon Chicken in Koreatown. Apparently, Korean-style fried chicken has become all the rage in NYC. Bon Chon is tucked away inconspicuously along the street. It has an unmarked doorway like many smaller apartment buildings, which gives way to a sterile looking hallway leading to a narrow staircase. If you somehow manage to find the establishment, the staircase gives way to an explosion of music and style as easy Euro beats drift over a crowd of leisurely businesspeople in pinstripe suits enjoying alcohol and fried chicken by the bar.

It took us awhile to get a seat, but I was drinking in the atmosphere. In many ways, Bon Chon was a case of East-meets-West. The club-esque atmosphere, moody lighting, and heavy beats had a distinctly Western feel; but the heavily Asian clientèle, menu, and wait staff affirmed the establishment's origins in the Orient.

The most fascinating aspect, however, was that all of the waiters and waitresses looked like they were ripped straight out of a Korean drama. I wouldn't have been surprised to see any of them in the immensely popular series, Boys Over Flowers, recognized for its attractive male cast. Bon Chon must have pulled the top looking Koreans in New York - you know, the unusually tall ones with impossible hair. The image was completed with a shirt/vest uniform that was upscale but trendy looking. Yubin's paradise, no doubt.

When we finally managed to move from the bar to a table, our Korean waitress leaned over the bar to get another waiter's attention. "Oppa!" she shouted. So drama!

We each ordered a soda and shared a seaweed salad, order of California rolls, and Bon Chon's famous fried chicken. All of the food was excellent and copious, but relatively expensive. The sodas were $3 each, despite coming in minuscule glasses filled half with ice. I suppose that was our punishment for ordering non-alcoholic beverages at a bar.

With full bellies, we were ready to continue our journey. We headed to the nearby Empire State Building and bought tickets to the top. I opted for the audio tour, which was excellent (though freezing). From the top of the Empire State, New York's tallest building since the fall of the World Trade Center, the whole of Manhattan is laid bare. The audio tour filled me in with tons of background information on the building and city and also pointed out to me the notable neighbourhoods and structures.

For instance, I learned that the Empire State Building was constructed in just 14 months. Today, such an endeavour would take at least three years. The construction was done supremely efficiently. For example, a cafeteria was set up every twentieth floor so that workers wouldn't have to go down to the base to eat lunch. And while in those days, it was expected to lose one worker per floor, only five casualties were incurred in 100+ floors of construction.

Above: The nighttime view from the top was magnificent.

As I learned about the neighbourhood, my audio tour guide pointed out the almost equally noteworthy Chrysler Building. Apparently, during its construction it was rivalled by another New York tower for the title of world's tallest building. Both architects revised their plans on the fly so as to keep ahead of their rival in terms of height. The Chyrsler Building architect, William Van Alen, had the spire of the building secretly constructed within the tower's infrastructure; and when his rivals at 40 Wall Street stopped building, he raised the spire upwards, claiming the title of tallest building. His victory was short lived, however, as less than a year later, the Chrysler Building was dwarfed by the completion of the Empire State Building.

Having hit both my "must visit" landmarks, we stopped by a pharmacy so that I could buy a shaver. While there, we picked up an egg carton of chocolate-marshmallow eggs. They were really cute, though we felt a bit cheated when we opened them to find that they were only half-eggs (kind of shaped like Turtles). We rotated them to have the round side up in order to take a convincing photograph.

I finished off the last few pages of the Gum Thief and then tucked myself into bed. Two full days of New York madness remained.

To be continued...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Pearson to Laguardia (Pt. II)

Thursday, March 19, 2009 ... [Continued from Part 1]

I've only been to New York once before, and that was to move my sister in. (We drove. It was a disaster.) On that occasion, I had very little time to play tourist, so I was determined to hit the key landmarks this time around.

We took the tram from Roosevelt Island where my sister lives to Manhattan Island (both are part of the borough of Manhattan). The tram is kind of exciting because it crosses the East River high above New York City, providing a pretty sweet view. My sister assured me, though, that during windy days it can be pretty rocky and will even slam sideways into the cable-supporting towers along the way. Since cable cars seem a little bit dodgy to begin with, the image of the tram car smashing to and fro was reasonably distressing for me.

From the tram station we walked to a New York City Subway station. The subway infrastructure in New York is old, made of crumbling tiles, dreary concrete, and criss-crossing black steel beams. Stations have all the welcoming atmosphere of old prison complexes you see on television. That said, the subway network is impressively intricate. Train lines run every which way all over the city, making it an effective tool for getting virtually anywhere. The station at which we boarded the train was an intersection point for numerous lines, with literally dozens of staircases and hallways winding up, down, and around guiding commuters to the correct station platform for boarding. Certainly New York's subway services a much greater proportion of the city than the narrow corridor covered by the TTC in Toronto (and in fact I think that Toronto should be ashamed of the limited utility of its subway system given the size of the city).

Interestingly enough, most stations have an on-duty police officer and numerous security cameras. You can see the little booth in the middle of the station platform in which an NYPD officer was sitting. The above photo of the R Train is the only photograph of the subway that I was able to take, because after taking it I was approached by the officer who told me that it was illegal to take pictures of the subway. When I asked her why this was, she artfully dodged the question by simply replying that she would much rather see me on my way than take me in for questioning, so I had better put the camera away. My sister tried to restate the question by asking what the rationale for this rule is, to which the officer replied that the station is a terrorist watch post, that it is illegal to take pictures of the trains, that the station security cameras are monitored by Homeland Security, and that we didn't want Homeland Security to see us taking pictures of anything.

I obliged by not taking any further photographs from any of the station platforms for the rest of the week. I was, however, pleased that the officer didn't ask me to erase the photos that I had already taken. I must admit that ever since I started blogging, the activity has taken on a somewhat cathartic role in my life. Instead of becoming unreasonably upset with these situations, I consider how interesting these stories will be in the retelling. See how much I like you guys?

The little police booths actually have placards on them that read, "Suspect terrorism? Call the NYPD. 888-NYC-SAFE." I thought it was kind of cute.

As I mentioned, the infrastructure for the New York subway system is incredibly old, but the trains themselves are of various ages. The newest trains include automated audio prompts informing riders about upcoming stations and possible transfer points, LED information screens, and a real-time map indicating where the train is, which direction it is travelling in, and at which stations it will stop. Of course, while none of these features are particularly advanced (they're virtually ubiquitous around Asia), Torontonians won't see anything similar until our new trains arrive in 2011.

We took a ferry over to the Statue of Liberty, donated to the United States by France in 1886. The ferry also travelled to Ellis Island where immigrants entered the United States until 1954, but I limited my goals to the major landmarks - the Statue of Liberty and the Empire State Building - so we passed on Ellis Island. I was mildly amused by the pigeons who seemed to have taken permanent residence on the ferries. It's actually a pretty clever scheme given the volume of tourists that ride the ferries everyday and buy snacks from the on-board concession stands.

While our ferry dropped us off on Liberty Island, we were shocked to discover that our tickets did not actually allow for us to ascend the statue itself. Ascension all the way up to the statue's crown has been prohibited since 9/11. However, visitors can go up the ten story pedestal with a Monument Access Pass, which unbeknownst to us, needed to be booked a week in advance. Bollocks.

We had to contend ourselves to walk around the statue's perimeter and revel in the gift shop. I have to tell you that Lady Liberty is quite a bit smaller than I had imagined. Sure she's rather big, but she's not the towering colossus that they portray her to be on television and in cinema. In fact, the statue itself is only a few metres taller than the Tian Tan Buddha in Hong Kong, but cheats by standing on an almost equally tall pedestal.

As a result, I was rather let down by Ms. Liberty's stature. This only goes to show you the power of expectation. When I saw the Big Buddha, I was blown away by its size. However, with the Statue of Liberty, expecting one statue to rule them all, I came away notably disappointed.

To be continued...

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pearson to Laguardia (Pt. I)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

My journey to New York, NY began at Terminal 3 of Toronto's Pearson International Airport. There's something special about airports... The cool, clean colours. The neatly compartmentalized vendors. It's as though airports are a microcosm of reality - part of their own world.

Above: A little bit of America in Canada for the homesick traveller. What makes a bar American? I'm not sure, but if my trip taught me anything, I'd guess NCAA coverage.

On the way through to the gate, we stopped to present our boarding passes to one of the airport staff. She was in the midst of a conversation, which began: "If they tell you to arrive at the airport three hours early, then you arrive three hours early. If you choose not to, then oh well..."

As she was speaking, she took my mother's boarding pass in hand, looked in her direction, and finished, "...You're going to miss your plane. Thank you." The former part of the sentence was a conclusion of her conversation and the latter was addressed to my mother... but for a second there, I almost had a heart attack.

In fact, our plane was to depart at 6 PM and we had left home at 3 PM in order to clear security and whatnot. It's a shame that travelling by plane requires so much security and waiting, because when you strip that all away, it's a tremendously speedy way to travel. The ride from take-off to landing was a mere one hour and twelve minutes. After take-off, I fell asleep, and was awakened by the flight attendant serving beverages. I ordered a ginger ale, and before I could finish the whole thing, we were landing.

Welcome to the Big Apple. New York is a king among cities. Being a thoroughbred Torontonian, I love Canada to bits, so it pains me to say this - but Toronto doesn't hold a candle to New York... at least to downtown Manhattan. Manhattan, one of the five boroughs of New York City, is densely populated with people and skyscrapers. It feels wonderfully historical yet at the same time towering and impressive. It's no wonder Spider-Man lives in New York - there are ample vertical structures to swing from. But while Toronto has it's fair share of landmarks (the CN Tower), coastline, islands, and tall urban structures; what really impressed me about New York was its vibrancy as a living, beating cultural heart. Toronto is a big city, drawing to it the biggest Canadian chapters of many corporations and retailers. But New York has more than just the biggest, it has the flagships. Corporations and retailers begin here. Money begins here. Fashion begins here. Trends begin here. It leaves Toronto with the feeling of an overshadowed younger brother, hanging onto hand-me-downs (admittedly, very nice hand-me-downs).

We do have the flagship Hudson's Bay Company store... but then, they aren't even Canadian-owned anymore...

However, the contrasts don't end with beauty and magnificence. Juxtaposed with the splendour of downtown Manhattan are the ever closely linked ghettos of Harlem. From what I've seen of Queens and Brooklyn (two other boroughs of New York City), they have many rundown areas as well. And we've all seen Rumble in the Bronx, right? New York is a city of contrasts, and while it experiences opulence like nothing in Canada, it also experiences poverty equally extreme. The rich and the poor areas as so closely intertwined (often separated by just a smattering of blocks) that they become much more obvious than in Toronto.

As it turned out, our flight got off the ground half an hour late, leaving little time for activities Wednesday evening. After arriving at my sister's apartment in New York to drop off our luggage, our quartet (me, my mother, my sister, and my sister's boyfriend) made good on our only plans for the night - dinner.

We started our holiday in New York off with style, dining at an up-up-upscale restaurant called Le Cirque. If there is a template for rich, this restaurant was it. From the lavish decor and lighting, to the smartly dressed patrons unwinding at the bar, to the waiters with obligatory European accents, everything smelled of high class and money. In fact, while I came outfitted with a dress shirt and pants, the waiter stopped us before seeing us to our table. "We're going to have to see about getting you some jackets," he admonished my sister's boyfriend and me. The coat check lady located a couple of reasonably fitting black sportcoats, which we promptly put on before taking our seats. I was absolutely bewildered that the restaurant at which I was eating had just lent me a jacket (requisite to my dining experience no less). Now that is classy.

Just so you don't think that we're a band of extravagant snobs, however, we opted for Le Cirque because of a Winterlicious-like event ongoing in New York. Thus, we were able to compose a three-course dinner for only $25 each. Apparently, the event had been extended several times because of the flagging economy. In the early days of the event, my sister said, reservations were near impossible to come by. However, because many people were unaware of the event's extension, we were able to score a table. It's worth noting that besides the special event menu, the cheapest meal was a $75 three-course dinner. Oy!

My sleeping arrangement left me on the futon in the living room of my sister's two-bedroom apartment (her roommate had recently moved out, having to follow her PhD supervisor who had transferred to another university) while my mother took the other bedroom. This made it virtually impossible to sleep when anyone was using the adjacent dining space or kitchen. As a result, I was kept up by my mother's incessant cleaning and tidying of my sister's apartment, which continued well into the night. Luckily, this gave me a chance to virtually finish the book I had bought at the airport: Douglas Coupland's The Gum Thief.

The book kept me up until 4 AM, at which time I decided I had better give up and go to sleep. Three more full days of New York intensity awaited me.

To be continued...

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Seasons of love

In pursuit of my Son Yeh Jin fanboyism, I recently picked up the Korean movie April Snow on a trip to First Markham Place...

Maximus: What's the deal with Koreans and the seasons? April Snow, Winter Sonata...

The plot for the movie is described virtually in its entirety on the back cover of the DVD box (a practice that rather irks me...). It goes like this:

April Snow is a story about a man and a woman who face their spouses' accident and betrayal together and lose the balance on their lives. The man and woman meet for the first time in the empty hallway in front of an operating room.

As the two rush in upon hearing of their spouse's accident, they realize that the man's wife and the woman's husband had an affair together. They also realize that they share the same sadness. The two get lost in despair of confusion and anger but they unexpectedly fall in love and jump into the same "affair" as their spouses did. They hesitate at this new love and feel more heartache and pain.

Indeed, this encompasses more or less the entirely of the movie. But rather than being a film about surprises, April Snow is a movie about mood and emotion. Living in the same hotel in the same city, waiting on their comatose spouses day and night; the two constantly run into one another. As they face jointly the discomfort of their spouses infidelity, they find solace in each other's companionship.

The movie takes itself slowly, painstakingly describing how two strangers, scarred by infidelity, can fall in love with one another. Most of the film refrains from music, playing the odd soft ballad to suit the mood. The emotion is palpable, and seldom feels contrived. It is a movie about the journey, rather than the destination (the destination being made clear from the onset).

The one issue I took with the film was that given its slow pace, it was almost jarring when the two protagonists jumped into bed with one another half way through the film. Considering what to do next on one of their early dates, they somehow end up at a love hotel for intimate relations.

But aside from this one indiscretion, the movie weaves its path artfully... It makes it easy to understand how In-Soo (Bae Yong Jun) and Seo-Young (Son Yeh Jin) arrived where they arrived. They do so in a way that is neither commendable nor condemnable. It just is.

Life as is... that's what April Snow dares present, and for that reason, it soars.

P.S. in keeping with the prototypical Korean male (including Chul Soo from A Moment to Remember), In-Soo spends much of the movie with a cigarette in hand. /sigh