Picking the Big Apple

...or should that be picking in the Big Apple? Judy Raymond is spoilt for choice in New York City

  • La Bagel Delight in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Photograph by Luke Raymond-Guillen
  • Times Square.Photograph by Luke Raymond-Guillen
  • Manhattan from the Staten Island ferry. Photograph by Luke Raymond-Guillen

No cheese? You gotta have cheese, baby!” yelled the man behind the counter at La Bagel Delight.

He was yelling, in a not unfriendly way, at another customer, but there were times during my New York trip that I wished someone would make up my mind for me too.

This place is said to have the best bagels in the city, so it’s no wonder it needs a swift, efficient assembly line. There’s barely room for customers to queue up between a freezer packed with dozens of kinds of juice on one side, and tables laden with muffins, cupcakes and cookies on the other. There – once you don’t linger over it too long and hold up the line – you can contemplate your choice of bagel: plain, poppy, cinnamon raisin, onion, salt, garlic, sesame, pumpernickel, wholewheat multigrain, or, improbably, “everything”.

And then you still have to pick a filling. So much choice, so many possibilities.

Outside, there was a cupcake van parked on the street. If you survived the “Mr Bagel” – two eggs, ham, bacon, and, of course, cheese – you could stop here for dessert. It offered red velvet, coconut creme, rocky road, vanilla chocolate, triple chocolate, Boston cream, pumpkin spice, and flavours I’d never heard of: Yankees, funfetti.

The bagel place and the cupcake van turned out to be metaphors for the whole city.

This was the elegant, regentrified neighbourhood of Park Slope in Brooklyn, the richest community in the United States a century ago. Nowadays traffic jostles and zooms along the wide main roads, between the boutiques, eco-friendly dry cleaners and restaurants offering everything from Tex-Mex to Thai food.

But on the side streets, trees shade the long terraces of Victorian houses that lead up to the green expanse of Prospect Park. These buildings give you the sense of a city with a long history that is harder to grasp among the 20th-century skyscrapers of Manhattan.

When I was there, the fringes of the park were busy with dogged runners and cyclists. Beyond them were vast lawns ringed with trees that were starting to turn russet and yellow and brown. Drifts of leaves were starting to gather. Over these green acres George Washington fought the Battle of Brooklyn against the British in 1776, just a month after the United States had declared itself a nation. It was the first pitched battle of the war, and Washington lost it, retreating to the city of New York, which then spread no further than southern Manhattan. It looked like a bad start, but he didn’t lose a single man in his tactical withdrawal; and we all know how he did in the war.

On board the Staten Island ferry, there were few choices to make. From a terminal at the southern tip of Manhattan, this free ferry runs every half-hour, carrying hundreds of commuters to and from the island, which, though you never hear about it, is one of New York’s five boroughs – and the only one that can’t be reached by subway.

The Manhattan skyline slid away in the ferry’s wake, so familiar from films that it looks like a movie set even when you’re actually there. The squat orange-painted ferry chugged placidly past the sailboats swooping about the southern tip of Manhattan, the swarm of helicopters buzzing in and out of the nearby heliport, the kayaks splashing cautiously, like ducklings learning to swim, just off the Brooklyn shore. From the starboard decks there was a close-up view of the Statue of Liberty, and everyone flocked to that side of the boat, defying a biting wind. On the other side there were empty seats, warm sunshine, and a view over the green, wooded heights of southern Brooklyn and the bridge across the narrows that is named after Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European to explore these waterways, who anchored there in 1524.

In the cavernous marble halls of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue, a photography exhibition was on display. Rather vaguely named “Recollection”, this was an exhibition of portrait photographs, long lines of small pictures that practically rubbed shoulders along the walls.

Among the photographers were Richard Avedon, Dorothea Lange, Irving Penn, Cindy Sherman, Margaret Bourke-White, William Wegman. Some of their subjects were equally famous: Jackson Pollock, sitting on the running-board of a car, looking like a mechanic on a cigarette break; Norman Mailer; a young David Byrne, somehow combining a youthful awkwardness with a huge, knowing confidence. Berenice Abbott’s photo showed only Jean Cocteau’s gaunt hands, as eerily expressive as a full portrait. In a photo from 1901, Grover Cleveland sat on a riverbank, a fat man fishing in a suit, taking his ease after serving as the 22nd and 24th president of the United States.

The New York Public Library has been collecting photographs since 1849, and now houses 500,000 photographs by 600 photographers. Such abundance is staggering to someone from a place with just as much history, but far less to show for it. And yet this exhibition was staged almost casually, in a space that was little more than a glorified corridor. It made you wonder what treasures must be stored up out of sight, among the stacks beyond the library’s echoing public spaces. And outside, the Babylonian wealth of the city stretched for miles.

Luckily, across the road a Jamba Juice outlet beckoned. Just what I needed before tackling the rest of New York. But there was a problem. Did I want a classic smoothie, an all-fruit smoothie, a pre-boosted smoothie, a Jamba light smoothie, or fresh-squeezed juice?


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