Archive for September 2019

NYC/Pittsburgh 2019 (Day 4): The Aukmaster, The Shawarma and Mr. Met

Elson “Mega Bass” Trinidad meets up with Eric “The Aukmaster” Wolf at Grand Central Terminal.

The Aukmaster Reunion
As much as I love my niece dearly, I also wanted to get out of the Upper West Side and do what I love doing most when traveling — exploring. Today, I was finally able to do that, starting off with a 1 p.m. lunch with Eric, one of my good friends from high school, who moved back to NYC last year after living in Houston for many years. We decided to meet at the iconic center information booth/clock at Grand Central Station, which is in his work neighborhood. Eric and I graduated from high school 30 years ago this year (!), and maintained in touch through the years. I visited him 20 years ago during my 3rd visit to NYC when he lived in Manhattan, and the last time we hung out was in 2001 when he was in Los Angeles for a convention, and we lunched over french dip sandwiches at Philippe The Original. That was 18 years ago — and 18 years was about the age we were when we graduated high school. It was cool to see Eric, who went by the nickname “The Aukmaster” back in the day due to his fascination with the marine bird (my nickname, at least among our crowd, was “Mega Bass” – from the Sony Walkman I was prone to toting around which had that low-frequency boost switch prominently displayed on its front panel). Eric gave me a vinyl LP of his own guitar music, which he took up as a hobby several years after high school. He told me he decided to meet me at Grand Central Terminal since the last time we met was at Los Angeles Union Station, and we had lunch at Grand Central’s historic 106 year-old Oyster Bar restaurant, which unbeknownst to me existed below the main station hall!

The Grand Central Oyster Bar restaurant, an institution since 1913.

I had the Fried Ipswich Clam Sandwich with cole slaw, and for dessert I had a slice of New York Cheesecake (which I just referred to as a “cheesecake” of course), since I had never had a New York Cheesecake in New York City before. We talked about our parents’ health, various people from high school we’ve seen or been in touch with, the planned 30th high school reunion in Las Vegas in November and the various dynamics/quirks of New York and Los Angeles local politics. I told him I visit NYC every other year, and will most likely go visit his house in suburban Westchester County during my next visit. We walked up Lexington Ave, past the various police roadblocks for the United Nations General Assembly this week to his office at Sotheby’s before parting ways.

On The Avenue, I’m Taking You To 42nd Street
I walked back towards Grand Central and then headed west on 42nd Street to Hudson Yards. I was already familiar with the Midtown Manhattan grid of east-west numbered streets and north-south numbered avenues, so I was basically here to explore. I passed a place called “Pershing Square” which, unlike L.A.’s park, is the area under the Park Avenue viaduct by Grand Central. I also caught nice vantage views of the MetLife Building and the Chrysler Building. I also passed just south of the hustle and bustle of Times Square (been there, done that), but not without encountering the spillover crowds of people passing out discount flyers for various attractions, as well as Spanish-speaking women in Minnie Mouse costumes accosting various Latino passers-by. I also passed by the massive Port Authority Bus Terminal, which I don’t remember going to before, although I may have in 1999, but the place had since been remodeled to where it’s no long recognizable. I also heard there was a Jollibee location here, but I was unable to find it. I did see numerous Hudson News periodical/snack stands that didn’t seem to sell bottled water that wasn’t Dasani. I also encountered a Time Out NY-branded street piano and a woman performing on a piano on a performance stage, entertaining bus passengers and shoppers. Besides taking a peek, I was also there to seek reprieve from the overcast humidity in the structure’s air conditioning system, before exiting the building at 9th Avenue.

From then it was due south to 34th Street, where I got to stop by a market for some potato chips and Poland Spring water, and encountered the sights of various restaurants, a stacked parking lot, the sight of the Empire State Building (now settling for seventh place among NYC’s tallest buildings), the B&H Photo Video electronics superstore, and finally westbound on 34th to Hudson Yards.

The 150-foot public art sculpture called “Vessel” (a.k.a. The Shawarma) at Hudson Yards.

Hungry For Some Shawarma
Hudson Yards was my destination to see this big public art thingy that opened in February of this year that instantly went on the list of things to see in NYC for this visit. Entitled “Vessel” by Thomas Heatherwick (a.k.a The Shawarma), the $200 million brand new tourist attraction certainly attracted this tourist to walk all the way from Grand Central. It was big enough to where I didn’t have to hunt for it; it was right there next to the Hudson Yards subway station (and where a Farmers’ Market was happening today). There were tickets to be had to get inside and walk up this thing, but ironically, I got an email telling me that I was able to buy Dodgers playoff tickets (home was calling). I wrestled on my phone for the next half hour setting up the public Wi-Fi connection and buying a pair of tickets for Game 2 of the National League Championship Series, to be played on Saturday, October 12 – before the opportunity passed and tickets got sold out. After the tickets have been purchased, it was time to get the tickets to this Vessel/Shawarma thing, which were free, but required an appointment time to keep crowds manageable. To my chagrin, the next opportunity to buy tickets was Monday, September 30.

Crowds at the base of “Vessel” (a.k.a The Shawarma).

Okay, so forget that. It was getting very windy, a little cold (I put on my light hooded jacket), and starting to drizzle. It was time to leave this place that’s trying hard to be the new World Trade Center, get on the 7 train at the nearby Hudson Yards subway station, and head down to Queens.

On The 7.

Flushing In The Meadows
In about half an hour I found myself getting off at Mets-Willetts Point station, next door to Citi Field. It was only 5 p.m., and the Mets game wouldn’t start for another 2 hours, so I gravitated down the wooden boardwalked pedestrian bridge to the adjacent Flushing Meadows Park to finally see the Unisphere – the main monument of the 1964 World’s Fair – with my own eyes – it was peeking from the view of the 7 train, beckoning me to come closer. Fortunately, it was a very walkable half-mile to the large steel globe structure. Snap!

Meet The Mets
My ultimate destination today was the Citi Field, home of the New York Mets since 2009. This is my 2nd MLB game this week (I saw the Dodgers vs. Mets on Sunday) and my seventh MLB stadium. Having been to Yankee Stadium 2.0 during my last visit in 2017, it was time to visit the NY’s NL stadium.

With the Mets out of playoff contention and playing the last-place Florida Marlins, this wasn’t going to be a sell-out anyway, so I just bought a $22 seat for Promenade level, Section 414, Row 5, Seat 7. It was a small section above home plate, but not quite as high as the nosebleeds. Since the stadium was a cookie-cutter new-generation ballpark, it had great sightlines and the flexibility to walk around the stadium ant watch the game from different locations.

Some observations:

  • They have an onsite Mets Hall of Fame and Museum near the main entrance.
  • The entrance rotunda is heavy on Jackie Robinson history and images. I guess they can kinda claim this since Jackie played in the next borough over.
  • The rumble of airplanes and LaGuardia and the nearby 7 train is omnipresent throughout the game.
  • There is no stadium organist. It’s all pre-recorded music.
  • Students from a local elementary school sang the National Anthem.
  • The game is kicked off with a video recording of a Mets fan saying, “Play Ball!”
  • There are a few nods to the old Shea Stadium, such as a bridge in the right-field area with an insignia and plaque on the former Mets stadium. The original home plate is out in one of the parking lots, but I didn’t have the time to seek it out.
  • Lots of great food options, and the required hotdogs and beer aren’t as expensive as in Dodger Stadium.
  • There are a number of cashless (credit/debit card only) concession stands.
  • The “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” 7th-inning stretch song is just an old recording, and they just sing “the home team.”
  • I could not really spot the press box area.
  • The overall fan experience is much more laid-back than at Yankee Stadium (maybe because the Mets aren’t playoff-bound this year).
  • The working-class Queens ethic is really present in the stadium atmosphere, moreso than at Yankee Stadium.
  • You can see the Manhattan skyline from the left field-side stairwells.
  • Nobody cared that I wore a Dodger cap. Unlike at Yankee Stadium, I didn’t spot any other Dodger fans.

The game was scoreless until the 7th inning, when the Mets drove in two runs, but the Marlins fought back in the bottom of the 7th and in the 8th; former Met Curtis Granderson (who got an ovation from the crowd) hit the go-ahead homer that sealed the deal during the game. No pony in this race of course, but I would have loved to see HR leader Pete Alonso hit his 52nd bomb at this game (alas, he went 0 for 4). I did, however, get to meet the team’s mascot Mr. Met (the first-ever MLB mascot I’ve met, no pun intended), after tracking him down and following him through the main field-level corridor. Perhaps it’s because of my Dodger hat that he knew I was just there to visit, but I had my phone in Selfie Mode, he leaned and paused to pose, I snapped the picture, we shared a fist-bump, and the deed was done.

Lovely post-game pic.

After the game it was just a short walk up to the 7 platform and back to Penn Station, and a transfer to the 1 back to the Upper West Side.

NYC/Pittsburgh 2019 (Day 3): More Upper West Side Life

West Side Community Garden.

Afterschool Special
I made some progress with my jetlag, waking up around 11 a.m. and had some breakfast, so I decided to pick up my nice from school. My sister and I walked to the school, where she acquainted me with where the parents gathered and where the kids got dropped off at. After we picked her up, we briefly hung out at West Side Community Garden, which to my surprise is another park built with funding from the Trust for Public Land, just like my local Madison Avenue Park back in East Hollywood. did some shopping at a nearby store called Face Values and Beyond, which confused me because I had never heard of it before, yet it shared the same branding as Bed Bath and Beyond (I later learned that it’s a merger of BB&B and a local cosmetic store called Harmon Face Values). I really only ended up buying some water and snacks there as my sister went off to do some errands and I took my niece to the nearby playground, where she proceeded to play with kids from other nearby schools on the jungle gym, and follow these little boys around who were operating a radio-controlled car.

My nice enjoying the Brio train set at West Side Kids

Later we headed home, but not before stopping by West Side Kids, a local indie toy store where she enjoyed playing with the Brio wooden train set and convinced uncle to get her a My Little Pony doll.

Pies, slices and squares galore at Made In New York Pizza.

Adventures In Babysitting, Part II
My sister and brother-in-law went out for dinner, and it would have been a family affair had my niece not taken a nap. So it was another night of babysitting. Before they left, I made sure to grab dinner at their local recommended pizzeria, Made In New York Pizza, where I had their trademark (albeit controversial) Spicy Pepperoni Square and a slice of plain (cheese). I also went to a nearby market and ordered a Greek Salad to go, and ate them all back at the apartment. The Pepperoni Square was nice and crunchy on the edges, with a more-than-ample amount of pepperoni. The cheese slice was nice as well. The salad from the deli had quite a bit of iceberg lettuce (more than this Californian is used to) and tiny cheese slices. And almost on cue, my niece woke up crying again.

After much negotiation, I tried the walk-around-the-neighborhood method, which also worked. I distracted her by pointing out dogs in the neighborhood being walked, which cheered up her spirits a good deal and made her forget about missing her parents. As we walked, south on Amsterdam this time, I happened upon a restaurant named Playa Betty’s, which touted itself as “Cali-Style Beach Food” to my amusement. I only wanted to walk up to the menu display to see what they had, curiously. As expected, a lot of very expensive tacos, enchiladas, as well as items with avocado and kale in their ingredients. And don’t forget the margaritas! I was very amused. We also passed by a familiar bagel place which my niece told me that her daddy would frequent often, and we paused in front of Amorino gelato, where I floated the idea of ice cream to her, she initially declined, then changed her mind. Success! We enjoyed some gelato which cheered her up even more. Intending to meet with her parents after they were finished with dinner, she suddenly had a craving for pizza, and it was a return to Made In New York Pizza, where she had a White Cheese Square and a plain slice. After texting her mom and dad where we were, they eventually surprised her at the window and everything was cool again. We all went back to chill out, although she became quite the insomniac night owl, opting to play with her toys rather than go to sleep for school the next day. I, too, pulled a late-nighter, mainly to write yesterday’s entry into this blog.

NYC/Pittsburgh 2019 (Day 2): Just Settling In

(Upper) Wesssoiiiide!

Jetlag Is A Thing
I almost forgot the three-hour time zone difference between Eastern and Pacific would wreak havoc on my inner biology. During my last visit, I took a redeye flight, landing at Newark Liberty just before dawn to enjoy the sunrise and join early commuters on their way to work on the NJ Transit train, but that afternoon I crashed hard.

This time around, I took an afternoon-evening flight and slept around 3-ish, playing with my niece (who had to go to school in the morning, yikes) and ended up beginning my day in earnest around 2 p.m.

I got to walk around the Upper West Side along Amsterdam Ave, making a personal errand for snacks and groceries at Key Food Supermarket on Amsterdam and 86th. Though not new, culture shock re-set in as I almost forgot how compact and dense the supermarket experience is in NYC: Relatively small store footprint, baskets, not carts, narrow aisles, shelves stacked high, yet you can still find pretty much everything you need here.

I also got to visit my “regular” Halal food cart on 86th and Broadway. Not The Halal Guys, but a relatively generic one found all over NYC. The chicken/lamb combo over rice is what I’ve been getting at this cart since 2015, so that functioned as my defacto lunch/dinner for the day.

Adventures In Babysitting
Later that evening, I got to babysit my niece as my sister and brother-in-law went to her school to attend a parents’ welcome dinner event. She was taking a nap when they left, which only meant she woke up to much tantruming when they were gone. So I did what this uncle did best, and tried to distract her by promising I’d take her to her parents to kill some time. One outside, she stopped crying and I carried her along the streets of the Upper West Side. At first I unsuccessfully tried to distract her with ice cream from the local Van Leeuwen, but she wasn’t into it. Then we walked around the corner and stopped into the Danish postmodern trinket store Flying Tiger on Columbus to provide massive distractions. But her parents left the dinner early and went home, and we headed back to the apartment. Walking a nearly five year-old up nine flights of stairs is no small feat.

The City That Never Sleeps (Mostly)
With the rest of the family asleep, I felt I had to venture out of the Upper West Side for a bit. So I took a brisk 11 p.m. walk down Broadway and passed the post-concert crowds leaving Lincoln Center. It was a relatively warm night, in the upper 60s. I took a light jacket with me, but later in my walk I ended up taking it off. I was also attracted to the sight of a new, extremely tall and narrow skyscraper being built in the distance, which gave me a spontaneous destination. I soon learned it’s called 111 West 57th Street, an 82-story, 1,428 foot-tall luxury supertall condo that, when completed next year, will be the 3rd tallest building in NYC. The development also incorporates Steinway Hall (yes, the same Steinway of piano maker fame) in its lower stories. Cater-corner to it is another legendary music venue – Carnegie Hall. And in the distance glowed the lights of Times Square, a place I haven’t visited since 2015. So, it beckoned as the next spontaneous destination.

New York is famously called “The City That Never Sleeps.” The connotation isn’t exactly true – the city actually does sleep, and even though state law allows bars to be open until 4 a.m., most of them actually close at midnight during weeknights. The 24-Hour City axiom, however, is true at Times Square, a location powered equally by electricity and tourist revenue. Stores and restaurants are open well past midnight. The farther one goes from Times Square, the earlier the activity ceases.

Although Times Square was not a new sight to me, I did walk up the now-iconic TKTS Red Steps in the middle of Times Square, a sort of de facto bleacher section for tourists to ogle at The So-Called “Crossroads Of The World” where various residents from different part of the world gather for selfies and even romantic moments. I took a sardonic selfie and posted it on Instagram. But then I realized that I can take pics and selfies here with no shame, as the Red Steps functioned as a safe space for tourists – and though I was not new to NYC, I was still one of them.

I also realized here that I already had a history in NYC. It was here in Times Square that I stayed at the Marriott Marquis Hotel during a family trip in 1991.

New York is famously called “The City That Never Sleeps.” The connotation isn’t exactly true – the city actually does sleep, and even though state law allows bars to be open until 4 a.m., most of them actually close at midnight during weeknights. The 24-Hour City axiom, however, is true at Times Square, a location powered equally by electricity and tourist revenue.

I continued to walk south until 43rd street or thereabouts, right at the foot of the location where the legendary ball drop happens every New Year’s. I ate a $3 bag of roasted candied cashews as a snack and decided to walk back uptown, passing the Ed Sullivan Theater where I had seen tapings of both David Letterman and Stephen Colbert’s Late Shows in 2015, and then elected to board the 1 train (at the base of the Tr*mp International Tower of all places) back to the Upper West Side instead of walking back all the way. I boarded a 2 train but realized after consulting a map that the 79th Street station only served the 1, so I got off at 66th Street and waited a few more minutes for the 1 to arrive. At 79th Street, after alighting my train, I saw a rare NYCTA Maintenance Of Way train speed by on the express track.

In NYC, they pick up the trash all night long (all night).

The Last Haul
As I walked back to the apartment, I noticed a NYC Sanitation trash truck picking up trash along Amsterdam. It was about 1:30 in the morning. I had no idea trash pickup happens late into the night.

So maybe this really is a city that never sleeps.

NYC/Pittsburgh 2019 (Day 1): Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

LAX to JFK.

Preamble
It’s about that time again for a vacation. I realized that I never took a formal vacation in 2018. Although I did take a business trip to Atlanta and did the required two Summer and Winter jaunts to the Owens Valley, I didn’t an actual vacation. So I vowed to take one. To my chagrin, my U.S. passport expired in January (with only two countries visited, and one of them was just Canada), so this trip will have to be another domestic one.

For the past few half decade, my usual travel destination was New York City, mainly to visit my (then-) baby niece. Since she’s turning five, it’s another visit during an odd-numbered year to NYC, but since I’m King of The Sidetrip, where I need to visit someplace new, this vacation will also include the city of Pittsburgh, PA.

Now, I have been to NYC seven times — in 1991, 1993, 1999, 2003, 2014, 2015 and 2017. All of those visits, save for 2003 (where I flew into Providence, RI and visited NYC via car) and 2014 (where I took a cross-county, 3-day, 2-train Amtrak trip by rail) involved flying into Newark Liberty International Airport. It just seemed logical to fly into an airport where you can see the NYC skyline, plus JFK seemed so far away looking at a map. But this time, I just wanted a different experience, so JFK was it.

Also, in my 2017, 2015 visits and 2014 flight home, I’ve flown Virgin America, LED lighting and in-flight safety video and all. But due to Alaska Airlines’ acquisition of Virgin, and because I have some semblance of frequent flyer mileage with them, I flew Alaska.

Alaska Flight 468.

It’s Time To Fly
Being someone who doesn’t fly too much, I’m not as jaded about flying as most people are. I always think of flying in an airplane as a special event. I was able to get to LAX Terminal 6 two hours before flight time and had a lunch/dinner at The Habit’s in-terminal location, feasting on an Ahi Tuna burger and some sweet potato fries (not bad, actually, and not as expensive as I thought).

That gave me time for a brief wait to board Flight 468 to JFK. The actual flight was okay, save for a few things:

  • Due to my Saver fare, I had to settle for the middle seat.
  • This was a Boeing 737 and not an Airbus A320, thus a noisier ride and no video screens. 🙁
  • Because of no video screens, no more Virgin America safety video, or any safety video for that matter. Also, no flight tracker. None of that.
  • I had to settle for a very expensive ($39.95) Gogo in-flight internet. Which wasn’t very fast, and wouldn’t allow any streaming. Bleah.
  • They served me a ginger ale and a small pack of cookies.

On the positive side, there was a very strong tailwind that had us arrive at JFK almost an hour earlier than scheduled. Also, aside from flying over Chicago, it was pretty much all clouds below us, so there was nothing really to see out the window during most of the flight anyway.

The first thing I see after exiting the jetway.
How very nice.
Whoa, wayfinding. This is the hall right after the Baggage Claim area and before the curb.

JFK, Blown Away, What Else Do I Have To Say?
Flight 468 touched down at 11:05 p.m. EDT. There was some mighty long taxiiing involved. Right away, my preconceptions about JFK were wrong: I can also see the NYC skyline from the airport. As I disembarked the plane and felt my first whiff of terrestrial air (and a sense of the weather from the jetway gap), I noticed the jetway led to a long, winding set of ramps to the actual terminal waiting area, which was unusually small. After a quick restroom break (which helps pass the baggage claim waiting time), it was on through a narrow hallway, and some stairs going down a level to the baggage claim area. As expected, I found my bag already on the carousel and went on my way. I was looking for the AirTrain, which leads me to the Jamaica, Queens train station. It was pretty dang straightforward, with some good wayfinding and some pretty nice aesthetics, at least as far as this terminal was concerned. I followed the arrow and walked in a straight line and once out of the building, I crossed the road and into the AirTrain terminal to take the elevator up. Total time elapsed from wheels-down to AirTrain terminal: 25 minutes. Wow, I was blown away. Impressive.

All Aboard…TheAirTrain!
Both the Newark and JFK airports are run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, and both have an inter-terminal rail systems that connect to outside transit. In AirTrain JFK’s case, it’s an 8.1-mile system running since 2003 that connects to both an NYC Subway station (Howard Beach) and a joint NYC Subway/Long Island Railroad transit center (Jamaica Station). I headed for the latter, with the interest of taking a 23-minute LIRR commuter train into Penn Station. Aside from waiting twice the normal time due to maintenance, I was impressed. I also noticed JFK Airport was not so much a conventional airport, but a neighborhood of several terminal buildings. The train, which is totally automated and runs on conventional standard-gauge rails (i.e. not a monorail) really flew through the airport and over the Van Wyck Expressway. Finally, the tracks curved east onto the equally-impressive-looking Jamaica Station, where many passengers had to buy NYC MetroCards (a $5.00 fee) to leave the turnstiles. I also bought a $2.75 subway ride (a combo option exists on the ticket machines) for my connecting train after Penn Station.

That architecture…
The 12:16 to Penn Station.

Heading To Penn
Being off-peak, trains weren’t that frequent, and I just missed a Penn Station-bound train if it weren’t for still orienting myself with the station, I bought a LIRR ticket ($7.75) to Penn Station and got down to Track 2, where I had to wait 15 minutes for the next train. It was there I finally realized, looking across the tracks to a lonely street with a couple buildings, that I was actually in New York City. You just have to stop amidst the travel rigmarole to actually appreciate and realize where you are. The train finally arrived and I sat in a bumpy, mostly-empty commuter train through suburban Queens heading west to Penn Station, with one stop at Woodside. Soon enough, I was at the subterranean platform at Penn Station, and pulled my one checked luggage up the stairs into the terminal. It was familiar territory, although I had to quickly glance at a Subway map to confirm that I was getting on the 1 train. The Subway entrance wasn’t very far from where I got off at, as opposed to the NJ Transit train from Newark which alights at the opposite side of the station (and a long trek to the Subway).

The Uptown 1 train.

Again dealing with an off-peak schedule, I had to wait some 16 minutes for the next Uptown 1 train. Finally, it took me on a half-dozen stop final trek to my destination, my sister’s apartment in the Upper West Side.

79th & Broadway, Upper West Side, here I am again.

Hello Again
To my surprise I saw and smelled the fallen rain on the ground, which I did not see at JFK or Jamaica. This was already familiar territory and I was soon at my sister’s place, with my brother-in-law greeting me and helping me schlep the checked luggage up the stairs, where my kindergarten-aged niece was waiting for me to a big hug. Traveling involves the sight of many strangers, but it’s all worth it once you see some familiar faces.

I also realized that the total time from landing-to-final destination from JFK was exactly the same as from Newark: Two hours.