With all due respect to Frank Sinatra and his swaggering saunter of a song, "New York, New York," if there's one thing better than waking up in a city that never sleeps, it is never sleeping in a city that never sleeps.
While planning my latest visit to Gotham, my list of everything I wanted to see, eat and buy grew so long, I realized my only choice was to disregard any need for that waste of time called slumber. Because I planned to visit on a Wednesday, the city's already vast menu of activities expanded further still, offering the opportunity to see both a Broadway matinee and a theatrical performance later that evening.
Sleep, I soon decided, is for suckers.
Brave talk. But could I make it? Would I survive a nonstop 24 hours of biting at the Big Apple? Hedging my bets, I made a reservation at The Pod Hotel, a new spot geared for thrifty hipsters, where my berth of a room was clean, stylish and shockingly small. (I expected more for $89.) As things happened, I didn't see much of this cubicle.
What follows, then, is my day: a round-the-clock dash of Manhattan merrymaking, or Gotham-A-Go-Go.
Since Barney Greengrass opened in 1908, this restaurant has allowed generations of Upper West Siders to start their days with prodigious breakfasts of "Jewish Soul Food," meaning smoked fish, bagels and cream cheese. Over the past century, luminaries such as Groucho Marx, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Nora Ephron have all lingered here, sipping coffee while perusing The New York Times.
As I sit down with my paper, I overhear three old men loudly debating whether or not a Barack Obama presidency would be good for Jews. (Their tentative verdict? Yes.) I order an omelette with sauteed onions, along with a side of sturgeon and Nova Scotia Lox. The portions are such that by the time I finish, I realize I will probably want to skip lunch.
A pleasant walk of a few blocks south and east, along tree-lined streets of residential brownstones, brings me to the American Museum of Natural History, at the front of which is a triumphant statue of Theodore Roosevelt on horseback. You may already be familiar with this revered cultural institution from last year's movie, A Night in the Museum, starring Ben Stiller, or you may recall how fondly it was visited by Holden Caulfield, protagonist of J.D. Salinger's classic novel of 1945, The Catcher in the Rye.
What most fascinates me is how the museum combines dioramas unchanged for many decades (here are my old friends, mannequins from the Kwakiutl tribe), alongside up-to-the-moment attractions such as the space show Cosmic Collisions. Newest of the 46 permanent exhibitions is the Hall of Human Origins, which offers a cleverly curated introduction to paleoanthropology, or the study of early humans through fossil evidence.
As I gaze at a 40,000-year-old Neanderthal skull and learn more about early hominids such as Lucy, Turkana Boy and the Peking Man, I marvel anew at how multi-trunked is the family tree of which Homo Sapiens (um ... that's us) are only the latest, green sprout. Scholars now believe that one of the main reasons we prevailed over other hominid species was because of our ability to share information through expressions such as writing and painting.
I wonder about this key role that artistic creativity played in the development of the human species when, after a quick taxi ride through Central Park, I arrive at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. One could easily spend a whole day here, tracing the development of humanity from cave paintings to Andy Warhol.
On this visit, though, I limit my attentions to the new Greco-Roman wing. These glorious galleries opened in April, the culmination of a 15-year, $220 million project, and display more than 3,500 objects from the Hellenistic period to the Late Roman Empire.
Highlights in these light-filled halls include statues of Hercules and Dionysus, an enormous head of the Emperor Constantine, and an Etruscan parade chariot decorated with scenes from the life of Achilles. There's an indoor fountain as well as a tessera floor modeled on that of the Pantheon in Rome, with pieces of hand-cut Italian tile laid in sand bedding, without grouting.
Headed to midtown, I jump on the subway. You can't really say you've been to New York unless you've at least tried to master the city's underground mass transit system. For most trips, taxis are not only much more expensive, but also take quite a bit longer.
It's actually pretty tough to get lost, I find, as tracks are clearly marked "Uptown" and "Downtown," and nearly every station has a large map of the subway system and the street configurations above.
Note: The subway has been transporting riders since 1904. Stations are safe, but a bit dirty -- you may even spy a rat or two scuttling about the tracks. In the right frame of mind, this only adds to the thrill.
I come above ground near the TKTS booth, the indispensable kiosk selling that day's performance of Broadway shows at half-price. While a newer, bigger booth is under construction in Duffy Square (47th Street and Broadway), TKTS is temporarily located outside the Marriott Marquis Hotel, on 46th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
A digital sign out front tells me what shows are available for the 2 p.m. matinee, but I've already seen The Drowsy Chaperone, Wicked, Frost / Nixon, Chicago and Beauty and the Beast.
Since Hairspray celebrates its fifth birthday on Broadway this month and since the movie version is in theaters, I deem it appropriate to see the show based on a movie in preparation for seeing the movie based on a show. Hairspray, I'm happy to report, looks better than ever, and is currently given an especially poignant touch by actor Jerry Mathers (of TV's Leave it to Beaver ), who looks 70-going-on-7 in his role as Wilbur Turnblad, Tracy's father.
I emerge from the Neil Simon Theatre into a scrum of dazzled theatergoers and midtown office workers headed home for the night. Sidewalks are slow going as I wander down Broadway to 42nd Street, where the Ripley's Believe It or Not! Times Square Odditorium opened this summer.
I hadn't been to a Ripley's since I was Beaver Cleaver's age and envisioned some good old, cheesy fun -- a freak show, but with a post-modern spin. Sadly, what I find is a hodgepodge of junk ranging from shrunken heads and a slab of the Berlin Wall to a few strands of President John F. Kennedy's hair and a collection 300 beer steins. Any mystery these dubious items possess is utterly dispelled by their display in a warren of brightly lit rooms that have all the antiseptic appeal of a dentist's waiting area.
To my mind, then, the only thing "unbelievable" is that the entrance fee to Ripley's for an adult is $25.
At Spotlight Live, a twentysomething secretary from Smith-Barney is belting out an off-pitch rendition of Britney Spear's "Toxic," cheered on by her liquored-up coworkers. "Eat, drink and be famous," is the ad slogan of this new, state-of-the-art karaoke club and restaurant in Times Square, where each table has a touch screen on which guests can scroll through an extensive inventory of tunes, or vote on those singing.
Wannabe American Idols can consult with hair and makeup artists before getting onstage, where professional back-up singer / dancers await to provide moral and vocal support. Those who prefer to be American idle can simply tuck into surprisingly refined cuisine by Las Vegas star chef Kerry Simon (mini-burgers and truffle fries, or bamboo-steamed halibut) and enjoy the show.
Or not. Ear plugs aren't listed on the menu, though you might wish they were after hearing yet another chanteuse attempt the theme song to Fame.
"I'm gonna live forever. I'm gonna learn how to fly, high! / I feel it coming together. People will see me and cry!"
On the subway again, this time farther downtown to Pier 17 at the South Street Seaport, behind which is pitched the Spiegeltent, a traveling entertainment venue under a big tent. Here, playing until Sept. 30, is Absinthe, a bawdy burlesque that features roller-skating acrobats, knife-jugglers on pogo sticks, a nearly naked young woman who wriggles in and out of an enormous balloon, and a drag queen host / hostess who channels Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland and Janis Joplin with equal aplomb.
Like the green liqueur for which this family-unfriendly show is named, the proceedings cast a nearly hallucinatory spell. So much so that I decide to return for an 11:30 p.m. performance of La Vie, another curious entertainment playing in repertory.
Immediately outside the Spiegeltent, an al fresco restaurant, bar and even a miniature dance floor with a disco ball, all provide jaw-dropping views of the East River and the Brooklyn Bridge. I reluctantly meander a few blocks away to Hanover Square in search of dinner.
Nestled among the gleaming high-rises of Manhattan's Wall Street is India House, a brownstone built in 1854 that's done in the Renaissance Revival style of an Italian palazzo, and once housed the New York Cotton Exchange. In 1914, it became a businessmen's luncheon club, and today it is a warm, white brick and dark wood restaurant called Harry's Cafe and Steak. While dining on an excellent trout almondine, I chat with Harry Poulakakos about his eponymously named spot, and the number of nearby restaurants such as Ulysses and Gold Street that are open late in this enclave of historic 19th-century buildings along Pearl and Stone streets.
"The city has never been in better shape," Poulakakos says. "[Former Mayor Rudy] Giuliani made it safe, [current Mayor Michael] Bloomberg has kept it that way." People like to be out late at Manhattan's southernmost tip in the summertime, he tells me, because this area is 10 degrees cooler than anywhere else in the city.
I think of Poulakakos' words when, after La Vie, I feel completely safe while walking across Wall Street and skirting around Ground Zero, where work is nearing completion on the foundational structure of the Freedom Tower.
Ambling uptown, through Soho, window shopping at the art galleries, I stop for a quick pick-me-up cappuccino at Aroma Espresso Bar. This is the first U.S. branch of a popular chain of coffee shops started in Israel, and is a favorite of insomniac New Yorkers not only because it's open 24 hours, but also because a free piece of chocolate is dispensed with every coffee drink.
Still heading uptown, I arrive in the Meatpacking District around 14th Street, where clubs and restaurants such as Lotus, Spice Market, and Hiro Cocktail Lounge at the Maritime Hotel are all bustling with rowdy patrons.
Avoiding these gaudier attractions, I suddenly crave what is said to be New York's best BLT sandwich. It's served at Florent, a 24-hour cafe on Gansevoort Street that is something of an after-hours crash pad for club kids as well as youthful celebrities such as Uma Thurman and Parker Posey. Everyone is welcome here, as the saying goes, "from grannies to trannies," and yes, the BLT is a star in its own right -- crisply comforting, with not too much mayonnaise.
Licking my lips, I continue walking up through Greenwich Village and Chelsea.
Juvenex is a spa that's open all night in the Little Korea neighborhood, which is just east of Pennsylvania Station, where the Amtrak train arrives from Baltimore. I had been told that Juvenex is primarily patronized in the morning's wee hours by those who want to get a head start on curing their hangovers. When I arrive, however, there are only a few other patrons visible, so I have this 5,000-square-foot facility practically to myself.
Choosing a round of treatments called the "Basic Purification Program," I'm shown to my locker and presented with a disposable bathing suit. Then I'm given the opportunity to sweat in a large stone-walled sauna and to soak in a hot tub where several dozen lemons float on the water's surface. Ambient, New Age music plays, complete with the chirping of birds.
Linda, my gruff attendant, leads me to a vinyl-covered massage table, where she douses me with bucket after bucket of hot water, and sets to work vigorously buffing my body in a technique called the Korean-style Salt Scrub. Just when my skin is tingly, pink and I think I have nothing left to exfoliate, Linda slathers me down with cucumber puree and lets me marinate for a while before sending me on my way.
The sun is coming up. Good morning, New York! I'm tired, but wired. I pass by Tiffany's and think of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's. Up ahead, a few blocks away, I see the glowing glass cube above the Apple Computer store on Fifth Avenue -- also open 24 hours.
I descend the groovy glass staircase and enter into the world according to Steve Jobs -- a high-tech playground for adults, where salespeople are low-pressure, but eager to explain all the latest gizmos such as the iPhone. In fact, visiting this sleek store feels less like consumerism and more like clairvoyance -- as if I'm being given a privileged view of the future.
On my way back to The Pod Hotel to crash for a few hours, I decide I need a nibble. A muffin, maybe?
Happily, Manhattan's most major muffin is found at Sarabeth's Kitchen, a restaurant on Central Park South. This is the latest outpost of a growing empire (there are five locations in Manhattan and one in Key West, Fla.), that all began in 1981, when Sarabeth and her husband, Bill Levine, opened a small shop on the Upper West Side where customers could see fruit jams being cooked in a kettle and ladled into jars. As I sip my morning coffee and reminisce over my day in New York, I ponder Sarabeth's improbable success -- a jelly tycoon? -- and what it may say about New Yorkers.
Sure, Manhattanites like to pretend they are rough and tough; that they live in the big, bad city. But, get beneath that gritty exterior, and the Big Apple has a sweet, gooey, eager-to-please spot, right at its very center.
IF YOU GO
The Pod Hotel
-- 230 E. 51st St. 212-355-0300 or thepodhotel.com.
Harry's Cafe and Steak
-- 97 Pearl St. at Hanover Square. 212-785-9200 or harrysnyc.com.
Barney Greengrass Restaurant
-- 541 Amsterdam Ave. (between West 86th and West 87th streets). 212-724-4707 or www.barneygreengrass.com.
-- 69 Gansevoort St. (between Greenwich and Washington streets). 212-989-5779 or restaurantflorent.com.
Aroma Espresso Bar
-- 160 Wooster St. (between Houston and Prince streets), 212-533-1094.
The American Museum of Natural History
-- Central Park West at 79th Street. 212-769-5100 or amnh.org.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
-- 1000 Fifth Ave. (at East 82nd Street). 212-535-7710 or metmuseum.org.
-- temporary location at the Marriott Marquis Hotel - West 46th Street between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.
Ripley's Believe It or Not! Times Square Odditorium
-- 234 W. 42nd St., between Seventh and Eighth avenues. 212-398-3133 or ripleysnewyork.com.
-- 1604 Broadway at 49th Street. 212-262-1111 or spotlightlive.com.
-- Absinthe and La Vie at South Street Seaport, Pier 17. To book tickets go to spiegelworld.com or call 212-279-4200 (Ticket Central).
-- 25 W. 32nd St., Fifth Floor. 646-733-1330 or juvenexspa.com.
-- 767 Fifth Ave. at 59th Street. 212-336-1440 or apple.com.
New York City Convention and Visitors Bureau
-- 810 Seventh Ave. (at 53rd Street). 212-484-1200 or nycvisit.com.