(Last) Weekend Update, Part II: New York

New York City’s one of my favourite places in the world, yet for whatever reason it’d been almost three years since I’d last been there. For that reason, stepping off a bus and into the maelstrom of a Manhattan Sunday afternoon was particularly exciting; throw in the fact that neither Jamie nor Jeff had ever been to New York and we were looking at a potentially legendary couple of days. No sooner were we off the bus than we were inside the Nederlander Theatre, seeing Rent from fifth row centre. Jeff and Jamie were nonplussed; as the token Renthead in the group I was duly impressed, especially by Tim Howar’s impassioned Roger (he played Tommy in the Canadian Tommy tour back in 1996) and Christopher J. Hanke’s impish Mark. When your Mark and your Roger are strong, I’ve found, everything else tends to fall in line.

After the show we reimmersed ourselves in baseball; two hours later we were walking up to Shea Stadium for a Mets/Yankees game. Tickets were impossible to come by: they were only available by lottery, and over 400,000 people entered to win. Thankfully, we had a connection, and were duly given a trio of decent upper deck seats. The price was right, but the location–i.e., inside the stadium–was all that really mattered. Shea Stadium, slated for demolition in 2009, is clearly showing signs of decay. The park reminded me a lot of Veteran Stadium in Philadelphia; that’s not a compliment where stadiums are concerned. It’s a big, impersonal concrete hulk with lots of escalators, cramped concourses, and narrow aisles. It just doesn’t feel very warm. The concrete reinforces that feeling. Also, as I wrote earlier this week, Shea Stadium is arguably better known for a concert than for being the Mets’ home stadium. For me, it was hard to look at second base without seeing the ghosts of John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

But I digress. The crowd was what set Shea Stadium apart. How much of that is attributable to the team’s opponents is irrelevant: what matters is that the crowd kept us entertained, even while the Yankees were busy dissecting John Maine’s pitches and waltzing to a 6-2 victory. Imagine the crowd at a Leafs/Sens game; then throw in a liberal dose of New York attitude, offensive chanting (“Je-ter’s Boy-friend!”), lingering resentment from the 2000 World Series, and copious amounts of booze and we’re talking a boiling cauldron of hate. Violence was rampant from the fourth inning onwards; it was impossible for five minutes to pass without a stir emanating from a section of fans and a gang of police officers swarming to the rescue. Again, it’s in their blood; the consequences were fully visible all around us.

After the game we took the LIRR back to Penn Station, then wandered around Times Square just taking it all in. New York after hours is a magical place, with the lingering notion that anything is still possible even without the throngs of tourists clogging the streets. The city’s pulse, which you’ve felt if you’ve ever spent five minutes in New York, is palpable around the clock, especially on a warm evening when nothing in particular is drawing you back to your hotel room. And speaking of hotel rooms…hey, remember when I said we were staying in the sketchiest hotel in Manhattan? You ain’t seen nothing like the Americana Inn. Without delving into too much detail, if I spread my arms as widely as possible I could almost touch both walls of our room. Yet somehow we fit three single beds inside; mine and Jamie’s were separated by less than two feet, while Jeff successfully wedged a cot between the feet of our bed and the door. We had no washroom; facilities were communal. The one closest to us had a hairdryer…yet we couldn’t use it, because the plug had been cut off, leaving a set of wires dangling precipitously over the sink. Another one had a garden hose attachment in place of a regular shower fawcet (I’m not kidding). The walls, meanwhile, were about as thick as tracing paper: we heard absolutely everything that happened outside our rooms both nights we were there.

Somehow, we managed to sleep; somehow, we managed to spend six hours sightseeing on Monday, which included an ascent of the Empire State Building (which is an eerie experience now, and which is all the more surreal because of the view it affords of the hole in the sky downtown). Afterwards, we boarded the B train and headed north to the Bronx and Yankee Stadium. Like Shea Stadium, Yankee Stadium is falling into disrepair, ostensibly in anticipation of the Yankees’ forthcoming move across the street to, uh, New Yankee Stadium. Yet the stadium reeks of history, just like Fenway Park in Boston. Again, it’s impossible to visit without feeling like the past is sitting in a seat next to you.

The evening’s opponents, the Boston Red Sox, are of course the Yankees’ hated rivals; they’re also running away with the American League East crown this year, which might explain why the crowd was strangely subdued, even in the bleacher seats (which are notoriously rowdy, even against non-rivals). The Yankees won the game, 6-2, yet there was a sense of anti-climax. The fans allowed themselves to heckle the few Red Sox fans in our section, while sporadic brawls eruped in the upper deck throughout the game…but after the last two nights there was a sense of letdown. Jeff and Jamie both put Yankee Stadium at the bottom of their list of stadiums they’ve visited; I strenuously objected, largely because it’s my job to object to everything the two of them say, but I could certainly see where they were coming from. That said, I don’t think either of them would argue that it’s cool just to be there.

I wrote this entry in record time, largely because I spent too long writing the first one. But Jeff, Jamie, and I have clearly established a yearly tradition, and now that we’ve gotten three of the big ones under our belts were examining places to go next. The West Coast seems like a good idea; so does Chicago or Washington D.C. I’ve often been asked why I do what I do–i.e., travel the continent seeing stuff. I’m sure a proper explanation would require a book, so for now I’ll offer a cop out reply: it’s a great way of seeing different places. It focusses your travelling, pins it down to a particular requirement. And by planning accordingly, I’ve been able to visit a lot of places I might not have otherwised visited. In the case of baseball, meanwhile, travelling around America to all the different baseball stadiums provides fertile grounds for understanding our neighbours to the south. Whether this is ample justification or not is debatable, but what isn’t in dispute is that the weekend we just had was an amazing, galvanizing experience.

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