In a New York state of mind

A visit to the Big Apple is every bit as exhilarating as you would expect, as Paul Hopkins discovers

New York, New York. So good, they named it twice; the City that never sleeps; the Big Apple, Capital City of the World, the Centre of the Universe.

We’ve heard it all before, of course, but, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, he who tires of New York, tires of Life. I love great cities: Paris, Barcelona, Rio, Kuala Lumpur, Edinburgh. New York City, though, takes some beating, hands down.

Anything in the world you might fancy, be it food, fashion or fetish, you can find it — or they’ll fetch it for you. 

There’s the famous and the fabulous too, and the forlorn, the raggedy street people: stand on Bleecker and Canal or indeed 5th Ave long enough, and all humankind will traipse by.

NYC has changed somewhat since I last set wary feet on Broadway, but maintains its familiarity, perhaps, in part, because of its casting role in TV and cinema. The Twin Towers have gone, given way to Ground Zero with its seeping shroud of sorrow and sustained shock and curiosity- seekers; bad crime is but a mild memory, thanks to one-time mayor Rudy Giuliani, with more cops on every block, posing for photos not punishing perps; and it’s a city that seems cheaper to eat and shop in than I remember. Happy hour is daily and runs in most bars from 4 to 8pm. I find refuge in Johnny Utah’s on 52nd, between 6th and 5th Avenues, a dive bar where the music’s loud and the beer flows. Even the out-of-town visiting cowboys have changed — checked shirt and Stetson are still in tow but the denims are designer and torn or skinny and the boots have given way to Puma or Vans or Italian loafers, which lend themselves to walking a city that was made for walkin’.

The Subway is good though, cheap and convenient, a ride from one extremity to the other a steal at $2.50 (€2). And there’s always, always, the buskers and late-night jazz combos on platforms, entertaining the shuffling souls that people a city 24/7. The city’s famed yellow taxis are also as cheap ashere.

In Johnny Utah’s, my draught Miller is $4 a pop, bourbon just $5, its measure solely down to the discerning young barmaid Jenny.

She and Johnny Utah give me respite when the sun’s going down and my wary, and now weary, feet are blistered from walking this city’s sidewalks, taking in the neon lights of Broadway and Times Square, the imposing Rockefeller Centre, the how-long-have-you- got-to-spend-there Museum of Modern Art, hallowed St Patrick’s Cathedral, Radio City and The New York Times building.  And then there’s the Village, SoHo, Chinatown and Little Italy.

 At Grand Central Station — 44 platforms serving 67 tracks with 22 million annual visitors — I sit down and, if not weep, then certainly find peace and earnest reflection amid the fast-forwarding commuters quick-stepping through its main concourse. 

Lunch can be Italian or Mexican with extra salt on the Margarita, or the popular Halal street food; here you can expect long queues that move fast, like everything in this frenetic city. Or maybe just grab a 99c slice of pizza, as only Americans can make it, and keep walking, and looking up, forever gazing at the changing and captivating skyline.

Lunch will set you back $6 to $15. For dinner, a good steak in Midtown will divest you of $27. I go shopping with the world and his wife on 5th Ave. I buy the lady a dress, down from $250 to $100. I go to pay. Your lucky day, says sales girl Jazz,  another $30 off today.

I take a room by Central Park at the Hotel Beacon, on leafy Upper West Side. I get a suite on the 17th floor, courtesy of genial general manger Tom Travers, a regular visitor to Ireland. “Tell ‘em I said hi,” he says. And then tells me Bette Midler, when unknown, once had a residency gig at the Beacon, accompanied by an unknown piano man named Barry Manilow. And Tom tells me the Dalai Lama is in town next week at the famed Beacon Theatre  next door and he and his entourage have taken the hotel’s two top floors.   

Only in New York, I think: the Dalai Lama strutting his stuff on stage, the night after the awesome Drive By Truckers play town.

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