Gotham was in my flight path during a recent week away.
I actually didn’t fly or even drive to New York, I took Amtrak from Lewistown. Federally subsidized passenger trains have their detractors, but I’m not one of them.
Yes, it’s not cheap and it takes forever. But there is no better approach to the city of my birth than a five-hour rail jaunt via Harrisburg, Coatesville, Lancaster, Philly and the swamps of Jersey. The train even showed up so close to on time that the volunteer who minds the Lewistown station barely had time to pour me a cup of coffee.
“Oops!” I told him, “I’ll catch you on the way back.”
But the guy insisted I take a coffee...at no charge...and came out to hand it to me while I lined up to board.
I try to dress like a grown-up when I travel. I pulled out a jacket and tie and even considered bringing a fleece top. But I had forgotten how Manhattan can still swelter in early October, especially in the underground concourses of Penn Station.
I was drenched by the time I climbed out of the caverns and hit Seventh Avenue. It was also the height of the evening rush hour. I bought a 20-ounce Coke for $3 from a guy at a cart, then walked cross-town, sweating like a pig and wondering why I was lugging a laptop.
The second train ride of the day would be from Grand Central Terminal up to Mamaroneck, NY. Metro-North’s A/C worked fine and was a godsend. I stopped sweating by the time we skimmed by the 125th Street station.
The purpose of the visit was to see my sister, brother-in-law and their son. Our fun began the next day when my sis and I went out to look for decent Chinese food.
I suggested a drive to Flushing, one of my old neighborhoods. It was known for a huge Asian population and really good food places. They were cheaper and friendlier than Chinatown as I remembered.
But I realized that Flushing had changed when we approached via the Whitestone Bridge. The place now has a skyline like a city unto itself. What were once Flushing’s biggest buildings, seven to 10-story apartments, were dwarfed by bigger apartments and glass and steel offices.
The food places, at least my old favorites, were all gone. All we wanted was soup, basic fried dumplings and some kung pao chicken. Table service also would have been nice. All we found were buffets which featured stuff like chicken feet, broth with boar’s hoofs and something with tripe in it.
My sis suggested we try a place where all these construction workers were going for lunch. It offered scoops of five different entrees on a styro platter for $6, white rice and soup included. It was given an ‘A’ rating by the city Board of Health, which was proudly displayed on a sign out front.
Unfortunately, almost nothing recognizable came off the buffet table. What the server told me were ribs were more like a pig’s spinal column in hot sauce. The bok choy, which is kind of like greens, came with buttery garlic gunk on it. The soup was like dishwater with tofu.
The only thing which saved either of us from severe gastric distress was that it was so unpalatable that we didn’t eat much. My sis and I gave a simultaneous thumbs-down, chucked what was left in the trash, and scooted out.
How much the city had changed was just beginning to dawn on me. I got a better picture of what it’s like now when my sister and I went to Manhattan the next day. The stations of our lives where we’d worked, commuted or snuck out for lunches were either unrecognizable or gone outright.
I once sold entry-level watches, jewelry and social stationary for a luxury retailer. Solemn blood oath prevents me from mentioning the name, but the store has had two makeovers since I worked there 18 years ago.
The place has been redone as a European palace, not pretentious but creeky and overstuffed. The gems of a genuine royal family were on display. It was unclear whether they were for sale.
Security, thought to be tight in the late ‘90s, was even tighter. There were lots of big Russian dudes and the sense that you were being watched and listened to at all times.
One current sales associate remained from when I worked there and she was out that day.
New York City, or at least midtown and lower Manhattan, has been critiqued for turning into the world’s biggest retail mall. An area only 100 yards from the site of the now-gone World Trade Center has three floors of luxury retail surrounding a transportation complex.
I might agree with a Harper’s Magazine writer who posited this summer that New York is now just a gated community for the ultra-rich, except for one thing.
That “thing” was Junior’s Restaurant in Brooklyn. Junior’s was almost exactly as I remembered it, except there is a little more duct tape holding the vinyl seats together and the tables are just a little more chipped.
The people, of course, are what make the difference. The hostess and the server were personable but not obsequious. In short, they were real people.
And oh yeah, Junior’s still has the “best cheesecake in the galaxy.” It’s made with a sponge cake crust, not a graham cracker crust. It is worth the trip from anywhere.
If you are skeptical of this endorsement, order one online and see for yourself. But without the Junior’s Experience, you’ll have to keep refilling your own coffee cup.
Acknowledgments: “Brooklyn-A State of Mind,” by Michael W. Robbins and Wendy Palitz, also “The Death of a Once Great City,” by Kevin Baker, Harper’s Magazine, July 2018.
Staff Writer Matt Farrand can be reached at 570-742-9671 and via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.