I moved to New York City soon after New Year. And then seem to have disappeared into a black hole. Neither have I been blogging my exploits, nor have I taken the trouble to upload photographic evidence of my presence in this great city to Facebook or Instagram. No, I’m not hiding out in some corner of Oregon and just saying I’m in NYC. But it’s hard to take pics of yourself when all you own is a not-all-that-great Android phone with not-good battery life. I’ll be getting a camera soon, and maybe I’ll do a photo-essay on the Greek-inspired architecture in the city. And then maybe do Boston.
But until then, all I have is my shaky memory and this blog to tell you all about what to try in New York City. From the perspective of a vegetarian, rather social loner. Ingredients – you. And maybe a Metrocard. That’s all. Here goes!
- Look at the city lights from a high vantage point: This is the quintessential thing to do in any big city. I really love looking at lit-up places. It somehow just erases all that is an eyesore and highlights only the nice stuff. High above only makes it better. The Empire State Building is the first place that comes to mind for this. It’s right in Midtown Manhattan, on 5th Avenue, right near the middle of the city. Up the street a short way away is Rockefeller Plaza. You can go up the observation deck of 30 Rock and see all the streets lit up. That’s the Chrysler building, that’s the Empire State Building, that’s the stuff around WTC, and that seems like a church. Then you look at all the tall buildings midtown and point out the one where you work. And if you’re on the Empire State Building, the little blue thing midtown is the Rockefeller Plaza ice-skating rink. Then you see the streets, brightly lit Fifth Av, broad Park Av, crooked Broadway, Park and Broadway merging way downtown into 4th Av. And then the Brooklyn Bridge, and Queensboro Bridge, and Brooklyn and Queens. Then Newport, Hoboken and other cities in New Jersey along the Hudson river. Beautiful.
- Walk along the Brooklyn Bridge and back: It has a very nice pedestrian walkway. And even a lane for cyclists. With plenty of places and benches where you can stop and pose for pictures. Or just look at the tall buildings of the Financial District, or the piers along the East River. And the lights on the bridge itself. And its history, the process of it being built, and the huge steel ropes that seem to impossibly hold it up.
- Get jostled around at Times Square, watch a Broadway show: Times Square is the busiest place I’ve seen ever. It’s always full to bursting with tourists. There’s no dearth of dressed up characters wanting to pose with you for pics (for a fee). Or of bright lights. It’s the closest you get to Vegas without going to Vegas. There are plenty of theaters playing Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. The milling of humanity is cloying if you prefer wide open spaces, but for a big-city person like me, it feels just right. Oh, and the Broadway shows. They take the idea of a stage performance and make it awesomer than you can imagine. No stunt is too impossible to perform, no cost is too big to spare. The music, the dances, the acting, the stunts, the costumes…. even if they vary, there’s no reduction in the ‘wow’ factor at any show.
- Admire the architecture at Grand Central: It has to be the most beautiful public transit station ever. It is a work of art, right from the delicate chandeliers to the tall ceilings. Try their food market. So much fresh produce and fresh catch. A delight to behold.
- Listen to some busking at large transit stations: The ones I’ve seen in Manhattan so far have been the best at Grand Central, Times Square and Union Square. Occasionally Herald Square too. And also on the shuttle between Grand Central and Times Square. There are a lot of performers. Most of them are obviously not that great. But you do quite often come across a really good jazz band, or a bunch of really flexible breakdancers. Or a couple of South-east Asians playing some exotic instrument. Or a sole violinist playing some beautiful, mournful tunes. Or a fun group on the shuttle who have ‘Sing-along Saturdays’. Don’t get the CDs they offer ‘free for a $5 donation’, though. I’ve heard most of those CDs are blank
- Play chess and lounge by the fountain at Bryant Park: I love Bryant Park in Midtown Manhattan. It is located right behind the Schwarzman Library, which is a delight to behold all by itself. It is the perfect place for hanging around after work and attempting to write your novel. Cisco provides free Wifi citing just that reason. There’s a huge lawn, and a fountain. There are a few sandwich places. And a couple of chess boards and pétanque, a French game. It’s a popular tourist spots, and by the end of two hours there, you’ll become an expert at taking shots of people with the fountain as backdrop. A calming, relaxing place. My favourite spot in the city.
- Watch improv for real cheap: There are three places that come to mind – People’s Improv Theater in Flatiron, Magnet Theater in Chelsea and Amy Poehler’s Upright Citizens Brigade. Their shows cost under $10, and are really really good. Then there are mixers as well where you can take part and improvise scenes possibly with someone who’s been doing this for ages. These places aren’t yet as well-renowned for their alumni as Second City in Chicago or Groundlings in LA, (Hang on, UCB can boast of Aziz Ansari) but just go watch! The folks performing now might just end up being the next Lisa Kudrow or Scott Adsit. Or the current Scott Adsit – he performs in these places! And for $5!
- Do Karaoke in Koreatown: I haven’t really been to Chinatown, because it’s so far out of my way. But Koreatown is in midtown. 32nd Street between Madison and 7th Avenue is full of Korean restaurants, banks, bars and karaoke bars. For the first time, you genuinely feel you are in another country. As a vegetarian, I can’t really appreciate much of the food, except in Hangawi, which is a rather upscale vegan Korean restaurant, and their smaller, more chilled out cafe outlet, Franchia. But the real attraction in Koreatown would be the karaoke bars. Haven’t done it myself, but have heard from friends that it is an experience you certainly should have with your friends.
- ….So much more: Well, there’s simply too much to do. Jog in Central Park, have lunch in Hell’s Kitchen, shop for real cheap around NYU, check out the large clothing stores on 34th street, shop real posh around 59th and Lexington, eat at random Pakistani restaurants around 28th and Lexington where you feel you’re in some chai shop in Lahore, walk the Museum Mile, go to the waterfront near WTC, have chaat around Jackson Heights, listen to some jazz at Birdland, attend a Hack-and-Tell session at the Meetup.com offices…
I haven’t done it all. No one has. By the time you think you have, they get something new. That’s what makes it a wonderful, exciting city. It’s not easygoing like Boston or San Francisco. It makes you rough. I went from being a docile immigrant who couldn’t talk back to a store clerk in Dallas when she was making fun of me to the hard-as-nails one who asked the tough-built lady from the Bronx who elbowed me to ‘take all the extra space on the train and shove it up hers’. It’s not easy on the nerves. But it gives you the freedom to be whatever you want, while virtually guaranteeing that no one’s going to remember if and when you mess up.
Being pretty much by myself has toughened me up a lot, I’ve to admit. Not just NYC, but right from when I moved here. I’ve gone through so much that now nothing else seems insurmountable. I tell people one or two stories from my life, and they are already going ‘Girl, you’ve been through a lot!’, when those are just the episodes I can narrate. It’s not like I’ve had it rough…. I just seem to find these fun situations to be in. I sometimes find it hard to not say ‘Bitch, please!’ when others my age whine about being depressed or broke or lonely or stuck, but I realize there are way too many people who are more than qualified to say ‘Bitch, please!’ when I whine about my ‘problems’.
There will always be things to be dissatisfied about, things that you feel insecure about, and scary unpleasant things. But when you fulfill your childhood fantasies of lying down on a lawn and writing into your notebook and having dessert for dinner and catching a snowflake on your tongue, you find there’s very little in the universe you can genuinely be mad about.
Living in New York City has its perks. Hindi movies on the big screen are never too far away.
My flatmate was away for a bit. I wanted a fun-filled Saturday. Being away from Irvine and in an action-packed city, I seemed to have almost forgotten the pleasure of watching movies in theaters. Being away from the esteemed company of my friends in Irvine has a lot to do with it, probably. It’s a wonderful thing to pass Bangalore-referencing InternetMeme-referencing half-funny comments while watching a movie.
I decided to watch Kahaani, given that it was very highly rated by virtually everyone who had watched the movie. Turned out, Midtown East housed a Big Cinemas. As in Reliance. Wow. Samosas for snacks. Impressive. The theater marketed itself as a place where you could watch international movies, French and Italian and Korean and everything else, not just Indian ones. Brilliant move; this way, you attract not just a desi crowd, but also the hipster avant-garde international film-watching New Yorkers.
Oh, and I watched this movie all by myself. Know what, apart from the cashier’s sharp “ONE ticket?!’, there’s no indication of anyone giving a damn about your watching a movie alone. I miss funny comments and all that, but I ended up passing random comments and predicting the next few scenes with these two Indian-American didis who I was sitting next to. Was totally random fun. Especially when they termed the movie a combination of Kill Bill and Salt. Don’t ask me how that conclusion was reached.
Anyway. The Cult Of Bob Biswas.
For those who haven’t yet watched Kahaani, Bob Biswas is an assassin-for-hire. Unlike the usual solidly-built seven-footer types or the extremely lithe, ‘hai-yaa’-screaming martial artist types who usually play the roles of paid assassins, Bob Biswas wears thick coke-bottom classes, works at a desk job at an insurance firm (LIC?), is always on the brink of being fired, is chubby, short and stocky, doesn’t come anywhere close to being called fit. Oh, and he’s asthmatic, too (Oh, and the chief villain in the movie has a rare blood group…. no dearth of medical issues in the movie).
Totally. While the internet is not exploding with Bob Biswas references, the number of folks chattering about him is undeniably increasing.
Not unexpected. Bollywood produces too few memorable movies, and even fewer memorable leads, forget about memorable interesting fringe characters. Unless you watch movies as avidly as Dipta Chaudhuri, your chances of coming across a memorable character in mainstream Bollywood movies is rather low. Bob Biswas is rare enough to stick to the mind long after you’re done watching him. And we can’t deny he’s interesting either.
And what exactly makes him so memorable? To start with, I’d say he’s exactly the sort of character we would love to come up with while performing improv. Reminds me of the time these two guys spent the better part of 20 minutes doing a mom-son thing where the mom was abusive and kept making the son’s life comically miserable. We got all invested in the comically sobbing son, when he upped and killed the mother, and turned out to be a serial killer. All in comic fashion, of course. And all totally improvised.
It is really fun when two totally opposing ideas come together and actually work out, in improv. It’s not always a sure thing. A happy guy and a sad guy? Surely. Two totally excited guys? Totally, when they match each others’ energy levels, there’s only one way it goes. An excited guy and a bored guy? Mmm… not so much. A totally subdued type turning out to be a badass killer? Why not?
For all purposes, Bob Biswas is just a fun thing to play with. The very idea doesn’t make much sense, or we don’t have enough to go by to make such a character believable. How’d he get so good at murder, how does he lay low, how does he advertise and get his business, does he not have any enemies who’d be equally or more powerful and finish him off, and how does he go undetected and stay alive with all this?
Unless these questions are satisfyingly answered, Bob Biswas will never become a full-fledged spinoff or a full-length novel material.
But obviously, the writers of Kahaani never intended him to be all that (and there are plenty of characters that succeed without much of a backstory). Or anything apart from being some guy who gets caught and betrays the guy who hired him. They just thought to up the fun a little. I can picture the writers at a brainstorming session, and someone saying “What if he’s just a mamooli guy you see on the street and don’t even register?”. Most of the folks in the session would have laughed, cracked a couple of jokes and then someone else sees a workable idea taking shape, decides to go with it just to see what it leads to, adds details to solidify the character (“Let’s also give him a boring job… hey, I once had a roommate who worked at LIC, didn’t do a single thing….”), et voila.
When I think of it this way instead of just letting the idea for the character simmer in the backburner of my brain, I don’t anymore find him all that fascinating. But I still do smile a little that what would have been an absurd unworkable idea while whiteboarding was actually taken seriously, its merits recognized, and they actually gave it a form on the big screen.
Not every absurd idea is a good one, and not all of them merit precious time spent on them. But it is good to see how an idea, with some work done to it, can be fascinating, and feel like a rich contribution. And… I’m also glad for these successes, for it makes people – bosses, financiers, folks in jobs that require creative output – more inclined to say ‘Yes, and..’ to seemingly crazy ideas that come their way.