"Hey, free bagels."
These are words with enough New York capital to divert the rampaging bulls rumbling out of the subway station on lower Broadway. A local bank is dishing out bagels as a promotion for a new checking service. It's the lure of the deal. Men and women in $1,500 suits line up halfway down the block to save thirty-five cents. After grabbing a bagel off the table, they resume marching toward Wall Street, a crooked strand of asphalt in the shadow of skyscrapers whose peaks glow in the morning sun.
Another day opens on Broadway, the Big Apple's grand boulevard. Think of Broadway and the Great White Way comes into focus. Neon lights. Magic in the air. Joel Grey and the old soft shoe. Savion Glover and the new, hard stomp. But Broadway, The Street, is a long-running play all its own, complete with characters, an ever-changing set and a different rhythm in every neighborhood. There's no better way to experience the diversity of Manhattan than a day's journey along one of the world's longest streets.
The curtain rises a few blocks south of the bagelmania at Battery Park, where you can see the Statue of Liberty shining in the harbor, awash in the light of a between-seasons morning. From there, Broadway's street stage curves 21 miles north, closing on the border of the Bronx and Yonkers, a neighborhood so different it may as well be in another city.
"Broadway is New York intensified -- the reflex of the Republic -- hustling, feverish, crowded, ever changing. Broadway is hardly surpassed by any street in the World. It is cosmoramic and cosmopolitan. In its vast throng, individuality is lost, and the race is only remembered," wrote Junius Henri Browne in his 19th Century book, "The Great Metropolis."
A century later, it is only more so. Longer, louder, more eclectic. Broadway's diagonal bisects what Le Corbusier, the French modernist architect, called the "Euclidean clearness" of Manhattan's grid. It crosses neighborhoods that are still remarkably different, despite the incursion of generic chain stores and restaurants.
My plan is to walk north from the southern tip of Broadway. I'd be following the path of development in Manhattan. And, most importantly, I'd be headed for the restaurants and bars of the Upper West Side, rather than the Battery Park neighborhood, which shuts down after dark.
On lower Broadway this morning, the uniform is pin stripes and women's suits amid the brightly colored jackets of traders, anxiously puffing cigarettes and sipping bitter street-vendor coffee outside The New York Stock Exchange. The street down here has a language all its own. A "buck" is the million-dollar bonus a trader earned last year.
I think of another Broadway morning a few weeks earlier that sharply delineates the difference between far uptown and far downtown. That day, I stopped by a makeshift flea market one hundred and seventy blocks north. There, the language was Spanish, the attire jeans and ragged shirts and the attraction was homemade salsa tapes from Frank and Richie Records selling for $3. I picked up the cleverly-titled "Salsa #55."
A few blocks north of Wall Street, I stumble upon a McDonald's tailored to the neighborhood, a sort of platinum upgrade of the Golden Arches. A white-gloved doorman greets me with a nod. Inside, a Dow Jones ticker flashes quotes. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Uniformed servers offer table service. Overhead, perched on a balcony, a tuxedoed young pianist plays a show tune on a baby grand. Unfortunately, the one thing unchanged is the menu. So I opt for a soda, deciding to wait for more indigenous fare. The pianist plays on. How, I wonder, did he get the job? Is he flipping burger tunes while waiting for his big break at Lincoln Center, several dozen blocks north on Broadway? I'll never know. There's one way to his perch: up a ladder. It's been pulled aside.
By the time I leave, the morning rush has passed. It's easy to concentrate on the people parade on Broadway and fail to set your sights higher. Where Park Row intersects, though, the higher view demands a pause. To the left is the Woolworth Building, an ornate Gothic cathedral of commerce. To the right, rises New York's Municipal Building, a graceful palace of power.
A few blocks more and I'm in Tribeca. Robert DeNiro's restaurant and John F. Kennedy Jr.'s loft represent the neighborhood's new glamour, but along Broadway the look is still inelegantly industrial. At Canal Street, Manhattan's outdoor bazaar of cheap knockoffs, there is bin after bin of cheap watches, sunglasses, and necklaces while T-shirts and knapsacks hang from ceilings.
North of Canal Street I pass remnants of the area's industrial past, the textile manufacturers with names like Broadway Fabrics, Hymo Textiles and Paragon Fabrics. I'm in Soho now. As I move towards Houston street, the boundary between Soho and Greenwich Village, the facades and signs become more refined, less gritty. Soho is the suburban boutique of Broadway's commercial stage set, packed every weekend with tourists and serious shoppers. So packed that the shops have largely run the art galleries that made Soho's reputation out of the neighborhood. There's Guess?, Banana Republic, Armani, The Pottery Barn, Kenneth Cole and Victoria's Secret within a few blocks.
I just can't face Ken and Vicky on an empty stomach. So I decide to cheat a little. At Spring Street I turn right off Broadway and walk a block to Balthazar, currently one of the restaurants of the nanosecond. Jerry Seinfeld is a regular at the former leather factory transformed into a bistro of mirrors and warm, dark wood. The prices are reasonable though the breakfast fare isn't fancy. OJ, coffee and a basket of waffles cut into triangles and wrapped in a napkin came within minutes.
Meanwhile, it is impossible not to be drawn into the sad soap opera scene being played out by two women to my right. Yes, yes, eavesdropping is rude. But the tables are so close. And the Times wasn't nearly as fascinating. The tightly-wound, younger woman is explaining that she's been in therapy since the divorce. And while the breakup had been traumatic, at least she sold a movie script to a major studio about it. The older woman understands. It sounds like dialogue from a Nora Ephron movie. Heck, it probably already is a Nora Ephron movie.
I make my escape back onto Broadway and into a more meditative place at the corner of Prince Street -- the downtown branch of the Guggenheim, which this day has an expansive exhibit of Chinese painting, particularly muted landscapes. It's a tranquil respite from the race. The museum is uncrowded and I linger. Black is dominant as a uniform color, though there's also a German trio in tie-dye, platform sneakers and Day-Glo hair.
Leaving behind the serenity of the paintings, I plunge a few blocks north across Houston and into Greenwich Village, where Broadway is a more crassly commercial boulevard. Clothing stores, electronics outlets, nondescript delis and shoe stores -- oh, New York's footwear fetish --- dominate the stretch north of Houston. I avoid a potentially expensive excursion into Tower Records mega-store at Fourth Street.
Just south of Eighth Street, a twentysomething man, dressed in black jeans, a black sleeveless T-shirt and boots, ambles along wearing a boa constrictor tastefully wrapped around his neck and his waste. A very large boa constrictor. For a couple of blocks I watch a bit of slapstick comedy. One after the other, head-down walkers lift their gaze just in time to notice Snake Man and veer widely out of his path. Finally, he stops, pulls out a black cloth bag, coaxes Bubba Boa into it and slings the bag over his shoulder, heading east off of Broadway. End of scene. Still, I imagine some unfortunate pedestrian following a bag he thinks contains merely smelly laundry.
A few blocks north at Twelfth Street, I succumb to the beckoning of The Strand, the used bookstore without peer. It resembles a packrat's attic more than a modern store with its warren of bookshelves on the main floor and in the basement. In the architecture section, there's a copy of critic and architect Rem Koolhas' "S, M, L, XL" that my wife, a landscape architect, has been coveting, for $37. There's just one problem: it weighs more than the barbell I use to do curls. I can't see lugging it dozens of blocks uptown. I'll return another day.
Union Square is a few blocks away. On the way there, I happen by an episode of New York's "quality of life" campaign. Two cops are packing a street vendor's bootleg videos into the trunk of their cruiser and carting him away. Among the tapes seized are copies of the Spice Girls' "Spice World" flick. It's the perfect political bust: the only people who will be offended aren't old enough to vote.
At Union Square, it's a Greenmarket day. Yes, the farmers come to Manhattan on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It's an incongruous sight. The Empire State Building looms as a backdrop. Chains like Foot Locker, Wendy's, Barnes and Noble Booksellers and Toys R Us ring a square filled with makeshift grocery stands. Among the stands, I find the usual farmer fare and more -- gourmet blue potatoes, sugar-free baked goods, aquaculture trout, homemade goat cheese, beeswax candles and even fresh lamb.
It's after 1 p.m. and my hunger has returned. I opt to eat in the park -- Luna Park, an open-air restaurant tucked beneath the trees of the square open during warmer months. If you didn't know this summer oasis was here, you might miss it. Geraniums and oleander provide the color amid small tables sheltered by umbrellas.
My waitress, a halo of frizzy blonde curls dressed in a white slip, brings my order, a mahi mahi sandwich with mango salsa and a lemonade. The food fits the relaxed outdoor setting. It's fresh, easy to enjoy. The waiters are beautiful enough to moonlight as models. And the luncheon crowd, with few exceptions, looks like it worked hard to appear so casually put together. I count three cellular phone conversations. It's a mini-scene for Manhattan, but one nonetheless.
On the way to Herald Square, there's a chance to admire another piece of architectural artistry, the Flatiron Building, which fills the triangular site between 22nd and 23rd streets. I press on past Macy's at 34th Street, where the afternoon crush of shoppers fills the sidewalk as tightly as a subway car at rush hour. Times Square awaits.
There's nothing quite like entering Times Square from the south. All the neon. All the traffic. Two rivers of skyscrapers merging. It's a grand show. Especially these days. The "Crossroads of the World" has been transformed from an anything-goes red light district into a pulsing symbol of squeaky clean, yet still-crass commerce. It's the invasion of the media conglomerates.
At the southern end of Times Square the Warner Bros. Studio Store and the Disney Studio Store -- banner carriers for the "theme park" Times Square -- battle for attention beneath Calvin Klein underwear ads featuring a buffed, block-long picture of Antonio Sabato Jr. Sex still sells in Times Square. It's just big, corporate-funded designer sex.
The seedy Times Square unique to Manhattan is being elbowed out by fare you'll find at the mall or on the main drag of Everytown, U.S.A. The Olive Garden, Howard Johnson's, Popeye's, McDonald's. Typical is the Warner Bros. store, where you can purchase your favorite cartoon character in a silly number of ways. There's a green Bugs Bunny Statue of Liberty and Tasmanian-devil baseball caps. What stops me cold, though, is footwear featuring the faces of Tweety Bird and Scooby Doo labeled "Adult Plush Slippers." Ah yes, [ITAL]adult[ITAL] slippers.
Leaving Looney Toones Land, I head up Broadway and into the maw of Times Square. Sidewalk traffic here is a mix of no-nonsense natives in suits hustling between offices and gawking, camera-ready foreigners in jeans or brightly-colored sweatsuits, somehow the choice of the weary traveler. Downtown black has faded to the shadows.
Though most of the theaters are a few blocks off Broadway proper, I do pass some shows. There's Toni Braxton in "Beauty and the Beast" at the Palace Theater at 47th Street. "Cats" has seemingly more than nine lives playing at the Winter Garden Theater at 50th Street. And "Miss Saigon" goes on at the Broadway Theatre at 53rd Street.
The monstrous signs -- I count more than 40 -- make the new Times Square a touch of Vegas in Manhattan. Speaking of Vegas, it's time for a late-afternoon cocktail. I duck into the Marriott Marquis planning to zoom up to The View, it's 46th floor revolving lounge. But the line to get on the elevator is longer than the Yankees' ticker tape parade celebrating the World Series win. I settle for the less formal 8th floor lounge, which also revolves, though the lower altitude means I spend half each turn looking in at the hotel's restaurant. Still, it's a pleasant half an hour.
The sun has ducked behind the canyon walls of Times Square when I head north again, passing Columbus Circle, where the flea market is closing its shutters. One vendor is taking down a row of black T-shirts with the simple white message: YOU ARE HERE. Ok, but I'm not there yet. My urban hike has blocks to go before I sleep.
At 64th Street, limousines pull up at Lincoln Center, dispatching patrons for this evening's series of performances. I'm on the West Side now and the scale is grander, one ornate apartment building after another, one store and restaurant after another. Parents, no doubt some home from a day on Wall Street, stroll their children. Zabars and Citarella, food bazaars for the gourmand, are buzzing. I keep going. Past the Apthorp building north of 78th Street, where some architecture buffs are gawking through the iron gate into the impressive courtyard. Past the Banana Republic and the Starbucks and Time Cafe and even Murray's Sturgeon Shop at 89th Street. If downtown attire was monochromatic and midtown fashion was the neon eclecticism, then the representative wear up here is Gap, in shades of tan and white.
Above 90th Street is Carmine's, a welcoming Old World restaurant for a weary hiker. Up a few steps inside is a big, loud room with tables beneath fans and a tin ceiling. The menu is straightforward Italian-American. Nothing fancy. Lots of pasta. Lots of garlic. Lots of red wine. And slow, slow service, which on this night is just fine.
I resist the urge to roll on home and continue north, stumbling across Augie's, a hole-in-the-wall jazz club at 106th Street where the Michael Weiss Quartet is playing a cooly contemplative jazz set. Weiss on keyboards and Eric Alexander on sax -- along with an ice cold bottle of Pete's Wicked Ale -- dish out a relaxing coda. Time slips away and so does the day's race.
And then I'm out on Broadway again, headed south this time. Headed home. The stores are shuttered. So are the restaurants. But the bodegas remain open. A man, tie askew, leaves one carrying a bunch of fresh, pink daisies. At 80th Street, the steamy smell from H&H Bagels calls. They're open all night, churning out tens of thousands of bagels a day. Half a dozen divided among sesame, poppy and sourdough will suffice.
Outside, I think about grabbing a cab. But I decide to walk. Just a few more blocks. The curtain hasn't closed yet on this long-running show.