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Disparate and Antagonistic Elements

New Jersey, New York and the Lincoln Tunnel

rain 10 °C
View Work Trips 2005 - 2006 on GregW's travel map.

My current project in New Jersey must be the most schizophrenic project of which I have been a part (where, I should point out, I use the term schizophrenic in the sense of “characterized by the coexistence of disparate or antagonistic elements” rather than related to the disease).

I won’t go so far as to say that it has been “a trip of contrasts,” because the use of calling attention to the “contrasts” of a location is one of the biggest clichés in all of travel writing. But I will say that there is a huge difference between by days and nights in New Jersey and my weekends in the city.

I took a rare mid-week trip into New York last night from my usual stomping grounds in Rutherford, New Jersey. Rutherford is on the cusp of the “Meadowlands,” which is some developer’s marketing-speak for the swamp that exists just across the Hudson River from New York City. It’s actually kind of pretty, in a strange way that I alluded to before when I said it reminded me of taking the train through Siberia. Driving through it, it’s hard for me not to feel comforted by the low lying, browning grass and pools of blue water reflecting the sun.

My hotel sits on the banks of this boggy area. If I get an east facing room, I look out over the bog and can see the skyline of New York, the Empire State Building clearly dominating the skyline of mid-town Manhattan, with “low” valleys of buildings spreading north and south until another sharp rise in height as you approach Times Square in the north and the financial district in the south. In an east facing room, you get to watch the sun as it rises through the forest of glass and steel towers, and as the sun slips behind you at the end of day, you can watch the lights of the skyscrapers flicker on.

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Looking out over the swampy Meadowlands towards the skyline of New York

A west facing room has me looking out on New Jersey rising away from the swampy Meadowlands. The view is of tree-covered hills providing a deep green camouflage to what lies beneath. I look out over a series of small towns – East Rutherford, Lyndhurst, Nutley, Clifton, Montclair and beyond. Driving along the highways radiating out from the bridges and tunnels crossing the Hudson River from New York City, the landscape in these towns is punctuated by malls with all the usual suspects of big box stores: Barnes and Noble, Applebees, AMC Theatres, Loews and Walmarts. These superstore alleys along the highways no doubt lead to the common New York impression of New Jersey – that it’s all swampland and ugly suburbs. But just a few blocks off the highway and the towns are mostly single-family houses built in the years just after World War II with small downtown streets full of quirky shops and non-chain restaurants.

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New Jersey heading away from New York, the trees indicate why it’s called the Garden State

On Tuesday night it was from one of these quiet, tree-lined streets of small town America that I walked out to the route 3 and caught the bus into New York. Within 40 minutes from boarding the bus, I am deposited at the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan. I walk out and see the mammoth structure of the New York Times tower under construction in front of me, and buildings rising up to form the walls of 8th Avenue.

This is where the “coexistence of disparate or antagonistic elements” is so strong – from tree-lined small town to one of the largest cities in the world in 40 minutes. Even the change by just spending the 5 minutes in the Lincoln Tunnel is impressive. Weehawken is the town on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel from New York, and while no idyllic small town, it’s 6,000 people per square kilometer density is nothing compared to the close to 26,000 people per square kilometer density in Manhattan. As the bus passes through Weehawken towards the tunnel, it follows a massive curve down to the entrance of the tunnel. Built right above the tunnel entrance is the baseball diamond for the Weehawken Indians, a high school baseball team. Sitting in the traffic, you can watch the local students play America’s pastime on the grass, and one still has the impression of being in small town America.

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The high density of New York city is obvious from this shot from the Empire State Building

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The buildings form walls along the streets. Broadway, pictured above, is called the “Canyon of Heroes” for the high building walls and ticker tape parades

From the 4 story high bus terminal at the Port Authority, I take the E train to Lexington Ave and 53rd street. From there, I wander down to the BearingPoint office on 3rd Avenue and 47th Street. I am in the city to take a short 2-hour course at my company’s office. The BearingPoint office is just blocks from the United Nations Headquarters, which is really just an excuse for me to introduce the fact that I took a tour of the UN building last Saturday, and took some pictures of the place.

In reality, the tour isn’t much. You get to look at a model of the building, a couple of pieces of art, some propaganda on what a great job the UN does and 4 meeting rooms. Of course, there is a certain amount of awe that one feels when entering the meeting places of the Security Council and the General Assembly. There’s been a lot of history made in those places, most famously probably when at a meeting of the General Assembly on September 29, 1960, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev took off his shoe and slammed it against the desk in anger.

The group touring the UN with me was a very international mix, to go with the international location and purpose of the buildings. Besides the Canadian (that’s me), there were 3 Americans, 2 Australians, 1 Russian (no shoe banging for him, though), 2 Germans, 1 Brit and 10 Iraqis. The Iraqis where split between two families, one that had been here for a while (their daughter was wearing a Slipknot sweatshirt and peppered her speech with the word, “like”) and a newly arrived family (the father struggled with English to ask where the Iraqis sat in the United Nations. The answer was in between Iran and Israel. Yikes!)

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UN Headquarters, New York City

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Did he just say that he'd bury us?

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Security Council Chambers

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General Assembly Chambers

But enough about the distant past of last Saturday and back to last night, and my trip into the city on a weeknight. After my course wraps up, it’s only eight o’clock and I decide I might as well have some dinner in the city (as opposed to my usual dining options in New Jersey of fast food). So I head down to Grand Central Terminal and their famous Oyster Bar in the basement of the station. I enter the restaurant and take a seat at the bar, grabbing a dozen oysters from Long Island and a pint of Heineken. The beer and oysters go well together, but I find myself still hungry. I order another dozen, this time from Washington State and another pint of beer. The Washington State oysters are amazing, just the right amount of salt to make them taste like the sea without tasting too much like rotten fish.

The bill comes, and it is outrageous – nearly sixty dollars without tip. But, what are you going to do? It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to eat oysters at an institution that has been serving travellers like myself since 1913. I know that I have had cheaper seafood, and certainly could probably even find it in New York. But some things just need to be done.

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Main hall of Grand Central Terminal

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Train track platforms in Grand Central Terminal. Used mostly nowadays for commuter trains to Long Island

I walk along 42nd street, through the south end of Time Square and back to the Port Authority in a light drizzle, amazed at how quickly after it starts raining that the street vendors have replaced their stock of sunglasses with a stock of umbrellas. Upon arriving at the Port Authority, I have half an hour to kill before the NJ Transit 192 heads back through the Lincoln Tunnel and along Route 3 to Rutherford, so I grab one last pint of beer at McAnn’s Pub. I sit at a high-top table, watching the other commuters chat with each other and sneak glances at the TVs showing baseball, hockey and basketball.

I sip my beer as I sit on the cusp of passing the line that separates the two “disparate or antagonistic elements” of New York and New Jersey. In one, I sup on oysters, take mass transit and chat with Russians and Iraqis at the United Nations. In the other, I drive a car on tree-lined streets and speedy highways, gobble down fast food and lie on a pillow-soft, king-sized bed watching the sunset over tree covered hills. It’s nice to know how close the two are, and how easy it is to switch between them.

Posted by GregW 16:43 Archived in USA Tagged business_travel

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