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Monkey Business In Manhattan
Daunted by metropolitan gridlock, dangerous low-clearance sites and Draconian truck restrictions, experienced professional truck drivers typically groan with displeasure at the thought of dragging a 53' wagon into NYC. Veteran of numerous commercial sightseeing jaunts to Brooklyn, Queens, and the Lower Bronx, I've reveled in that glorious crackerhead drama known as "Urban Life," fielding abuse and dodging bullets while striving to keep my rig from becoming an oversized convertible beneath some nameless concrete bridge... Thrilling as these episodes invariably were, I must confess: throughout my ten-year reign as undeclared "King of Paid Tourism," I've secretly harbored an overwhelming masochistic desire to "trash around" Manhattan.
Manhattan, beautiful Manhattan, Heart of the Big Apple, El Dorado of the East, where streets are paved with corporate crooks, celebrities and crackerheads! How my diesel-powered soul longed to explore every fascinating nook and cranny of this fabled burg! Truck restrictions and overnight parking presented the greatest challenges, and I racked my brain for solutions... calculus seemed simple by comparison. Seasons turned, years passed, and I became obsessed with this thorny geographic puzzle, which loomed large and rivalled the Gordian Knot in its complexity.
One day, while waiting to unload at a warehouse in Metro Jersey, the answer literally dropped into my lap when an exit guide I was studying slipped off the wheel and struck me in the groin. Leafing through it to recover my place, I unexpectedly hit the mother lode: the mystery of inner-city access suddenly became crystal clear, the doors to Manhattan swung open wide, and I was invited to enter...
Tuesday, 6/13/06---my lucky day. Wagon empty by midmorning, I ease into traffic and head north on the NJ Turnpike. Due for a 34-hour restart, I need a reasonably safe place to shut down (five drive-by shootings per hour or less). Thirty minutes later, allowing my spirit to guide me, I strike paydirt: golden truck parking (no restrictions) two short blocks from Secaucus Railway Junction. Marshland to the south and west, light industry to the north and east, not a crackerhead in sight... a spot good as gold to a professional driver, so good I'll use it for all future recon missions into NYC.
I load gear into my ultralight Lowe Alpine Neutrino Summit Pack (clothing, canteens, camera, film), draw all curtains, lock my rig and head for the depot. Dumping $3 into a ticket machine, I hop aboard a NJ Transit train---seven minutes nonstop to Penn Station in Manhattan, followed by a descent to the subway, where I board Line 1 to South Ferry and Battery Park (named for fortifications, not electrical storage cells). My first objective: tour the Statue of Liberty.
As the railcars hurtle through the tunnel, I converse with the classic New Yorker: an older, balding, no-nonsense kinda guy with humor dry as the Sahara. I tell him I haven't ridden a subway since I rode the London Underground back in '79. His reply, given with a curt wave of dismissal: "Amateurs." He then discloses details of the system (270+ miles of track under NYC!) and explains how the city has always been a trading center---the Dutch played a big role here in the 1600s, since they were a great seafaring nation at the time. Originally called New Amsterdam by Dutch founders in 1625, the city was renamed New York by English usurpers in 1664. Karma ultimately caught up with the British in the Revolutionary War, and in 1789 George Washington was inaugurated here as first U.S. President (the only President to be inaugurated in two locations, Philly and NYC). Fascinating history, indeed...
I emerge from South Ferry Station, blinking in the sunlight, enter Castle Clinton and book passage to Liberty National Monument. Ticket in hand, I head for the boat, only to be denied access---I'm wearing my utility knife, and the Rangers won't hold it for me (policy). "Hide it somewhere outside," one says... I walk outside and glance around at the thousand or so people in Battery Park, including some who are actively staring at me. Hide the knife? "Yeah, right." The boat is already leaving the dock. NYC transport waits for no man: five seconds late, even "The Donald" (dead possum stapled to his skull) is unceremoniously left in the dust.
I get a refund, then pay for a Harbor Tour with NY Water Taxi. No knife restrictions, could probably bring a bazooka if I had one and nobody would notice... if it were noticed, nobody would care. Smart move, buying the 2-day "Hop On/Hop Off Pass," which includes the Harbor Tour (best deal in Manhattan). One can disembark at strategic points, then foray into the concrete jungle. The hour-long Harbor Tour brings me within 300 feet of Liberty, so I get a good look at her after all. Down the Hudson to Liberty, round Governor's Island (interesting old fort there), up the East River to the Brooklyn Bridge, past beautiful old sailing ships berthed at South Street Seaport, then back to the dock.
The afternoon is warm, so it feels really good to be on the water, observing the skyline and the neverending traffic. Marine traffic (sailing craft, tugs, barges, tourist boats, passenger ferries, freighters, liners and warships), air traffic (planes crisscross the skies above, while sleek helicopters with retractable landing gear constantly enter and depart from the heliport in Lower Manhattan), distant vehicular traffic on roads and bridges... The general impression is of a bustling metropolis surrounded by a magnificent harbor---precisely what NYC is.
After my boat ride, I'm ready for a cold beer. I walk north, find a market, buy a pack of Pilsner Urquell (for only $6, what a steal), and return to Battery Park, where I sit with another classic New Yorker who is "fishing" from the boardwalk (explanation: rod lashed to the handrail, he's kicking back in a chair, watching the women go by). He looks just like Ted Nugent, long hair and all, only Ted doesn't have the same tan. This guy's also in the music industry, and he relates hilarious anecdotes as we savor our Pilsners in the sun... A refreshing breeze rises from the southwest, and sailboats appear en masse; I watch a regatta being held under the Statue of Liberty, and greatly appreciate an old wooden schooner which elegantly sails past.
In the next hour, the guy catches one small fish, which he immediately releases. He doesn't care: fishing's merely an excuse to enjoy a pleasant afternoon down on the waterfront. We say goodbye as he folds up shop and pedals off, pole in hand. Bikes and motorcycles are popular here---traffic is crazy, parking is impossible, and auto insurance is sky-high due to theft and collisions. Biking through Battery Park is easy, but it's a different story when one is a bike messenger... those guys are nuts. They hold an unofficial race every year, with participants contributing toward the jackpot. They don't publicly announce it, they just hold it on a regular weekday. From the looks of traffic, I'll have to pass---not enough health or life insurance.
Nimble rice rockets are everywhere; heavy Harleys don't cut it when one has to evade the oncoming truck or bus... Not many big trucks here, mostly small straight trucks suitable for the streets of Manhattan. Dragging a 53' wagon in here is a chore: 4000 people on every block (that's just one side of the street), lanes are really narrow, and any kind of turn is a major operation. I see two 53' trailers during my entire visit---regular metropolitan heroes, those drivers.
I board the Staten Island Ferry because my friend the fisherman told me it was free. A free boat ride? "Yeah, I'll take it." Over and back with the setting sun---the harbor is beautiful in this light. Boarding the boat is an adventure in itself: picture a herd of human cattle milling about the terminal building, casting anxious glances at the boarding gates... the staff appear, the gates swing open, and "Hiyaah!!!" CRACK!!! "Head 'em up, move 'em out!!!" CRACK!!! "Roll 'em, roll 'em, roll 'em, git them riders rollin', RAWHIDE!!! Hiyaah!!!" CRACK!!! The herd surges toward the gates and the waiting ferry, which is the size of a small aircraft carrier. Momentum builds---one slip here could be fatal. I make it aboard in one piece, along with 1200 others, only to discover that beer is sold in the snack bar; after the loading chute operation, an oil can of Foster's Lager tastes better than usual. On the return voyage, the sun sets behind Liberty as I yak with another local. Funny guy, looks like a young Don Rickles---we laugh all the way from Staten Island to Manhattan.
I return to Secaucus via rail, pound a few more beers, mack a delicious crab sandwich in my sleeper, and call it a day. I sleep like the dead, wake and devour a big bowl of cereal with strawberries and banana. Pulling the field shower routine on the catwalk of my tractor, I'm back in Penn Station by 0900, marvelling at the size of it... plunk a gridiron squarely down and nobody would notice. Grinning like a fool, with fully-rigged Lowe pack and $300 sunglasses, I walk up 7th Avenue to Times Square, where I chill for twenty minutes, checking the scene... approximately 100,000 good-looking women walk by during this interval. "Yeah, this paid tourism gig is rough." On the wall of a tiny recruiting station smack in the middle of it all, I notice a plaque which lists NYC Medal of Honor recipients---no shortage of honorable men here, rest their souls.
I walk over and speak briefly to several NYPD cops in their tiny Times Square station:
Moi: "What's the worst you guys see down here, drunks in the street?"
Cop #1: "Yeah, we get plenty of 'dose."
Moi: "You don't even BOTHER with them, do ya?"
Cop #2: "Only if they're lying in the roadway..."
A classic NY moment. In a burst of shared laughter, I bid them farewell.
Intent upon visiting the "Top of the Rock" (Rockefeller Center, another hot tip from the fisherman I met the previous day), I stroll there to find 200 screaming kids waiting in line---a field trip of some sort. Hey, I love kids, just not 200 at the same time (observation: all teachers' salaries should automatically be doubled). I return to an Irish pub I passed ("Pig & Whistle"), where I order a Black & Tan. It is delicious. My watch reads 1100 Eastern Time... oh, well, it's noon somewhere over the Atlantic. Declining another, I march to the waterfront at West 44th Street to look at the Intrepid (WWII aircraft carrier) and the Growler (submarine), each with a colorful history. Surprisingly, a Concorde SST is also on display. In a nearby deli, I swig Sapporo and watch World Cup Soccer with two Hungarian construction workers on break.
Breaking out my pass and hopping the next southbound boat, I make my way to Ground Zero and spend an hour circling the site. A timeline on the eastern perimeter fence is a grim reminder of the sequence. St. Paul's Chapel miraculously withstood the collapse of the neighboring WTC towers. A small fire station on the south side bears a touching memorial which honors firefighters who died on that day of infamy. In a somber mood, I trudge north, skirting Greenwich Village to visit Chelsea Piers... a floating golf range offers sanity in a crazy world. Hot pastrami on rye and cold beer go far in restoring my spirits. The megayacht "BAD GIRL" is an ostentatious monument to the American Way of Life.
Plodding to Penn Station (enough NYC for now---my former Infantry feet are tired!), I'm struck by the endless human panorama... Africans in robes, Asians in silk, Europeans in suits or backpacks, Kiwis & Aussies draped in broad accents... they're all here in glorious profusion. For every 1000 people in NYC, eighteen different languages are spoken, according to my subway historian. In California, ethnic groups live in different areas---here they're all jumbled together, so I hear Chinese one moment and Swahili the next. Standing amid a diverse crowd on a noisy railway platform, I'm enlightened by a sudden revelation: if men and women from a hundred different countries can learn to live in such close proximity without actively strangling one another, perhaps there's still a faint ray of hope for the human race.