New York Travel Stories: Chasing The Edge

We visited NYC a few months before the terrorist strike, adventuring its wild boulevards, cruising about town on a Moto Guzzi Jackal, compacting a large amount of fun into a small amount of time. We saw landmarks famous and obscure, grand parks and cathedrals, Broadway theater, and, of course, the neighborhoods that furnish this town’s piquant flavors.

A revisit to a post-9/11 New York was in order. As a motorcycling destination, New York City is a carnival of sight and sound. You could bounce from museum to restaurant to coffee shop, cruise upscale avenues and downtown dives. By the end of the day, you may have gone to 10 places and ridden less than 10 miles. You could visit a different eatery every day and still be munching at somewhere new a year later. The city’s immense diversity has a powerfully magnetic appeal.

As recently as our summer 2001 visit, we could feel the independence New Yorkers embrace. There was a palpable sense of being able to do what you wanted, when you wanted. This made it a natural habitat for bikers, a rare environment they could flourish in. Far from lawless, NYC has a relatively low crime rate among major cities, yet its people were able to enjoy a special notion of self-expression, of freedom. You could do whatever you wanted to do within some fairly reasonable limits and be whatever you wanted to be, reinventing yourself daily if you wished. No one would bat an eye. In a city of eight million, you can be noticed, but only for a moment.

Motorcyclists like that. You could throw on your toughest biker wear, or a Spanish Inquisition robe, or a suit and tie, and putt the streets looking for adventure or wherever the next double-espresso chocolate latte is. Nobody judges you in Manhattan. Until now.

On this go ‘round, I rode a Speedstar Stage IV competition kit-enhanced 2003 Yamaha Warrior, courtesy of Pocono Motor Sports in Pocono Lakes, PA. Camrod Motors in Manhattan acted as our bike base. The Warrior was the perfect urban machine. It was muscular and mean, growling out a drag-pipe exhaust note that signaled pedestrians to stand back. The Warrior was fast, agile and fit the part beautifully, looking all like the nasty boulevard bike it was.

As New York continues to rebound from the tragedy, it becomes evident that something else was lost that day. It’s hard to put a digit on what exactly, though. So I was off, not so much to seek refreshment in the creative juices and energy that flow through this town, but to find what was missing. Who better to search for the bohemian edge of New York City than a biker?

A bike allowed me entry to all parts and aspects of the city. It carried me to the funky dangerous Lower East Side and the hole-in-the-wall clubs there; the shopping, restaurant and jazz-club tourist trap that is now Greenwich Village; the treasure-hunting flea markets of West Broadway and Columbus Ave.; the South Street Seaport and its tall-masted ships and river excursion boats; the art galleries of SoHo; and the wonderfully renovated waterfront of the Hudson River. It delivered me to the tasty soul kitchens of Harlem, to the aromatic noodles of Chinatown, and enabled me to enjoy the delicious power of a Little Italy cannoli.

I zipped around, visiting the Museum of Natural History on the Upper West Side and the Metropolitan Museum of Art across town on the Upper East Side and onto the city’s northern borough to see an old friend, the Bronx Zoo. Since I was in that part of town, I went to a New York Yankees night game, which they won in 12 innings. Nathan’s hot dogs, $7.50 Budweisers and a baseball crowd that is still screaming at 1 a.m. What could be better?

The FDR Drive and West Side Highway encircle Manhattan like some sort of broken race oval. The pavement has improved in recent years but is still scored and bumped and potholed here and there. What makes it interesting, though, is the mad rush to get nowhere fast. There is 24-hour traffic in New York. Sometimes it moves along at around 30-40 mph on the city highways; sometimes you crawl along for days trying to get to the next exit. A bike makes things easier, but lane splitting is, technically, illegal.

On the grid of surface streets that comprises much of Manhattan, I once heard that traffic moves at an average of 18 mph. So, when you’re on a motorcycle that can accelerate from 0-60 in about four seconds, you feel like you are riding a rocketship. Blasting around town is outrageous fun; being able to park pretty much anywhere makes it even sweeter. Motorcycles will enable you to explore the city unlike anything else. They will go places subways and cabs can’t, or don’t dare. This allows you admission into layers of New York the biped citizenry perhaps never experience. Fun, heh?
The one thing I can’t seem to park my bike next to is the kick-ass attitude that defined this town. It seems to have moved on, or was left behind in a different time. It began some years before 9/11.
When conservative Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor, he began a systematic program to clean up the town. Not everyone wanted New York clean. Some people liked the grit and dirt and wickedness. The Times Square Project, a massive undertaking to halt the spread of urban and moral decay that had afflicted the area for decades, actually predates Giuliani. But budget restraints and political squabbling saw to it that the ambitious plan never progressed very far.

Giuliani’s administration, however, somehow pushed it through. There is a price, however, for such godliness. Times Square was only the spearhead of the mayor’s campaign to sanitize the city. Crime moved out, Disney moved in. New York got cute and cuddly; New Yorkers got soft. They also nearly went broke. While Giuliani may be remembered best for his calm and compassionate leadership in the aftermath of 9/11, he left office with the city in a fiscal mess.

Citizens of NYC wear their residency as a kind of badge of bravery, or as New Yorkers might quaintly print on a T-shirt, “It takes big-ass apples to live in the Big Apple.” They would then remind you that none other than King Kong himself lived here for a while during his nonconformist period; liked to hang out at the Empire State building. New Yorkers are soldiers in an undeclared cultural war with every other city on earth, and with one another. Independent, pugnacious, irreverent and tough, they win both fights every day.

Enter Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is described in Christopher Hitchen’s article in Vanity Fair as a stupendously petty bureaucrat, a fickle and careless lawmaker who creates rules that cannot be obeyed. His ultimate solution to the financial crisis is to slash city payrolls and fine every person, visitor or resident, living or dead, as he dutifully plays out his role as a grim harvester of tickets.
Some of the more inane examples of the so-called “nuisance laws”: riding a bicycle with your feet off the pedals; riding without a bike bell; taking up two seats on the subway; violating the city’s new Smoke-Free Air Act, even outdoors if under or near an opened or closed canopy; sitting on a milk crate; feeding the pigeons; sitting on public steps.

These offenses to no one in particular carry penalties ranging from $50 to $2,000. They are enforced. Just ask the pregnant woman who was fined for taking a breather on some subway steps. Is this the healthy disrespect for authority NYC I once knew? Where was the sass, man?

Bloomberg may be refilling the city’s coffers, but he’s also breaking its will. Ancient cabaret laws, which prohibit dancing in bars that have no cabaret license, are selectively being targeted. If you so much as wiggle your butt on a barstool, the owner can get slapped with a summons. After a couple of violations, the fines escalate sharply and the city can padlock the establishment. The law has been used to close black and gay clubs in the past; now it’s being used to milk cold cash. Street performers, whose music and mime, juggling and jokes often perked up the workaday civilian, have nearly vanished. Apparently, the city has discouraged such frivolity with exorbitant licensing fees.

I never thought even the dopiest of city administrations would legislate against having harmless fun. After all, after you consider the extremes in weather, the congestion, traffic, the crazies, and the absurd cost of living, why else would New Yorkers live in New York?

All this ruminating on the lost spirit of NYC made me hungry. I climbed back on the Warrior and rocketed back to one of the two hotels I was using as base camps. The Le Parker Meridien is not just a hotel; it’s an experience. From its art deco rooms to its warm and helpful hospitality, the Mid-town property has an agreeably sophisticated yet casual ambience.

The hotel has 730 “ergonomically inspired” rooms and suites featuring cherry and cedar wood accents. Not many hotels have tempted me to stay in, but the room and restaurants here offered the kind of comfort and character that made me look forward to bad weather. Attached to the hotel but feeling very much like another era is Seppi’s. The restaurant has a tin ceiling, full bar, courteous and knowledgeable service and some of the very best food you’ll find anywhere in New York, and it’s served until 2 a.m. Try the escargot and seafood.

Norma’s is the Le Parker Meridien’s place for breakfast and lunch. My favorite here was Waz-Za, an unparalleled fruit waffle. If you’re in the mood for something simple, the swank property has a no-name burger joint. There are not many spots in NY where you can get a good burger for $4.50. To work it all off, the hotel has Gravity, a 15,000-sq.-ft., multi-level gym. I forgot to go.

For a change of political scenery, it’s best to get out of the city. Long Island has some of the best beaches in the world. The best time to putt off to the south shore for Jones Beach or Fire Island is during the week, to avoid the crushing weekend traffic and crowd. Long Island has 23 state parks sprawled over 21,000 acres, but they are never occupied evenly. While the miles of sandy shoreline at Jones Beach may be blanket-to-blanket on a summer Saturday, wooded Caleb Smith Park farther east in Smithtown may be nearly empty. That’s good to know if you like a lot of company, or not.
There is only so much suntan oil and sand in my pants I can stand, so I roll the Warrior onto Route 495 (the Long Island Expressway), point it west, and cruise in traffic fits and starts back to town. I could take 495 into Manhattan, threading the Midtown Tunnel. But I don’t. I take a slightly sneakier way. I exit off Van Dam St. in Queens and hop over the 59th Street Bridge, upper roadway for the view. I head south on the FDR, which after Wall St., swings back north and into the West Side Hwy. After about a half-mile up, Battery Park City sits on the west side. Ironically, the entire area was formed by landfill from the excavation of the Twin Towers some 30 years ago. A marina, restaurants, high-rise apartment buildings, a riverside park, a dog run, and one of those megagoogooplex movie theaters turns this into its own little village. It feels removed from the rest of the city, resembling more of an upscale suburb with big buildings.

And there is the Embassy Suites Hotel, right off the Hudson River in lower Manhattan, standing in what literally was the shadow of the World Trade Center. I could see the site from my window, which at this writing looked a lot like any other Manhattan construction site.

The all-suites property has 463 spacious, well-appointed rooms. Nearby there is a secure lot and a garage, but the area feels safe enough to park your bike overnight on the street. That feeling comes from the good number of hotel security guards and police that keep watch. This is the financial district and the World Financial Center is just across the street. It remains a high-alert area.
The Embassy Suites has a 14-story atrium. Through its glass you can see the Irish Hunger Memorial and sweeping views of the Hudson. A hearty buffet breakfast is complimentary, and so is the evening manager’s cocktail reception. The 20,000-sq.-ft. New York Sports Club is also free to guests. The property offers a variety of summer special packages.

Within walking distance are museums, such as the National Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Jewish Heritage, the NYC Police Museum and the South Street Seaport Museum. New York has lots of museums, which is good, particularly on a rainy day, which was almost every day on my visit.

The financial district is the oldest part of an old city. It is where the island was first settled. It’s hard to imagine this artificial landscape was once bucolic, covered with farms, woods and marshlands. But so it goes that this city also has many historic landmarks, such as nearby Trinity Church. The church’s graveyard hosts occupants who moved in around the late 1600s. Once you get a place with decent rent in New York, you never leave.

The ethnic neighborhoods of Chinatown and Little Italy, as well as artsy SoHo, once-artsy Greenwich Village and the yuppie kingdom of Tribeca are a quick ride away. A nice spot is Battery Park, which once housed the city’s cannon defenses. It is now another green oasis in this realm of concrete and steel. From there, you can catch the ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Walk a little farther, and you can board the Staten Island Ferry, which makes continual round-trips to New York’s offshore borough. It’s a free and fun way to spend a couple of hours on the water.

Battery Park City has a pleasant community sense to it—neighbors out walking their dogs, people jogging by, picnickers and families enjoying the grassy Battery Park Esplanade. It’s peaceful and quiet.
I couldn’t wait to get out of there. CR


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