American Dream

Times Square by night

This is my first trip to the USA. There are five of us to go. The trip will be both full of valuable experiences and shocking confrontations. Especially from the perspective of a person who previously lived in Europe only. New York is the most multicultural urban area in the world.  This is evident at every step. New York City has much to offer and the will to get to know it is enough to make most of your stay here. Minority districts, high skyscrapers, bustling Times Square, the Bronx and endless suburbia are just a few of the attractions waiting for visitors to the Big Apple.

First Impressions

Just like the entrance to another world. That’s the first feeling after landing at JFK airport in New York. First questions is how to find our bus, with no idea where the bus station is. A tall black man shows up. Mumbling under his breath he suggests that the bus we are looking for is over there. This is an easy country to get your things done, also to travel around. The first ride on Manhattan is like a scene from the movie. Everything seems to be large, stunning, breathtaking and overally different. We arrive at the Grand Central Station on 42nd Street. Jiffy waiting for the train is enough for a short walk on the 42nd. I raise my head to see the whole glamour of monumental Chrysler Building. We take the train and then a local taxi to arrive to Elmsford.

Times Square during the day

Previously arranged accommodation via the Internet proved to be very decent one. It has an indoor swimming pool. We pay only $100 a week, a special price for long term hotel residents. This is the beginning of our summer Work & Travel trip. The idea is based on working for a few months and then spending the saved money on traveling in the United States. It’s very late, so we go to sleep.

We live in a small town Elmsford, about 30km north of Manhattan. Unfortunately it is far from everywhere. It takes up to three hours to go to Rye Playland amusement park, our workplace. If you are lucky it takes still around two hours. To that end the distance is only 10 miles, however the buses run very infrequently. After all, Americans drive a car everywhere, so no one needs a bus here.

All of us work in the same amusement park. We take up funny positions in different shops, starting with hot dogs and tortillas at the Mexican fast-food, ice cream and then disgustingly greasy cookies, called funnel cake. Working at an amusement park may not a decision of the highest scope, however it is surely quite an interesting experience. New people, a good chance to speak English, see what Americans eat and how do they spend their free time. Exactly. The first confrontation with Americans is extremely interesting. The first day my colleague from the Bronx asked me, if we also use US dollars in Poland.

Our rooftop view on Manhattan

People eat huge quantities of food. They often fail to finish one meal and try to arrange another. This place is full of fat people. They are practically everywhere. Their laziness has no limits. If one person has a choice between going extra fifty meters to another stand to buy exactly the same fat funnel cake,  he would prefer to stand still and wait fifteen minutes on the spot until the cakes are prepared.

It took me just a few days to get accustomed to a typical Americans visiting our amusement park. It is a tubby woman with two plump seven and nine year old daughters ordering another hot-dog. She has a mouthful of semi-munched food, two hamburgers, French fries and a big cup of Coke in her hands.

We also have some additional attractions on the way back home. Substantial food court at the mall in White Plains has almost a dozen of different fast-food restaurants to taste all the latest fast-food trends.

There is one liquor store in Elmsford. Imperial system of units (1 ounce = 1 oz. = 1 ounce) and the American tendency to do big things gives us the opportunity to buy a beer with capacity of 24 oz., 32 oz. and even 40 oz. (40 ounces to just over 1.1 liter). Sometimes there are available even in greater sizes. More interestingly, the seller of a beer is a man who looks as if he stepped inside a barrel, took it up and put on a enormous-size shirt to cover everything. We have a definitely good live here. Including night parties on the hotel swimming pool, our room cleaned daily and breakfast ready as soon as we wake up. You can live this way, but after two weeks you feel like missing something. Luxury and wealth is not enough. It is all about living in the city. We made a decision to abandon our steady, happy-go-lucky life to move to New York City. Hoping for the best.

Welcome to New York

Crabs in Chinatown

We have found a nice apartment in Astoria in Queens. This is partially an Arab district, so on every street corner there is an Arabic water pipe, called sheesha. We have three large rooms. There are fire stairs outside the window, which work well as a balcony. Place to do your laundry, grocery store and Chinese to-go restaurant are also quite handy. It takes less than half an hour to get to the Times Square. Considerable advantage of our location is the roof on the top. The whole majestic skyline of glimmering Manhattan can be seen in the evening. I have about three more months to live in New York City, a gigantic metropolitan area and an amazing place at the same time.

The architecture and layout of the city

New York City comprises five boroughs. Manhattan is in the middle,  the Bronx in the north, Queens and Brooklyn, respectively north and the south-east and the detached Staten Island in the south.

View from the Empire State building on Manhattan

Manhattan and some of the remaining streets have a simple layout, which is like a ruled notebook. This allows for a very easy navigation to go everywhere. Most importantly, it is even harder to get lost. Avenues run vertically to intersect at right angles with the streets. That’s a pretty simple scheme. New Yorkers can’t be bothered with the fancy nomenclature of the street names, therefore the name of most streets is simply their number. Addresses are given in the format 42th & 7th (street & alley) and it carries the information on which intersection is that. Such is the almost the entire Manhattan Island . The situation is somewhat complicated in the southern part, where this system is somewhat changed.

Manhattan is not just skyscrapers. The vast majority of them are located in two areas. It is either between 34th and 68th street, which correspond to the southern boundary of Central Park and the Empire State Building, or the financial district in Lower Manhattan, which hosts the second cluster of skyscrapers. Other parts of the city are dominated by relatively low buildings.

NYC is proud to have a number of bridges, several of which are worth to mention. George Washington Bridge located on the Hudson River is the oldest one and looks particularly impressive. Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge, both connect Manhattan and Brooklyn. Triborough Bridge is a unique idea to link together three districts – the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn. Each bridge looks different and their common feature is being available for both cars and pedestrians.

Local store to buy a Colt 45 malt beer
and meet our friend Fauzi

Urban transport runs perfectly. Even during rush hours, despite corked streets with no trouble you can reach from one end of city to the another. Just take the subway. I admit that someone has planned well all of the metro lines, which are logical and practical. Even if you reach the place where subway does not operate, we can always take the shuttle bus. In general the distance is so short that even some Americans choose to walk for a few minutes.

Financial district and the New York Stock Exchange

New York is undoubtedly the world’s financial center. Just to pass the Wall Street along is enough to smell the money in the air. There is a big crowd of  financial sector employees walking out of the New York Stock Exchange building everyday after the trading hours. Then the crowd enters subway. Warren Buffett, the billionaire used to say, Wall Street is the only place that people ride to in a Rolls Royce to get advice from those who take the subway.

NYSE. The largest stock exchange in the world

This part of the city has the most expensive ground and it is a big effort to get every single square meter. The city has four major stock exchanges. NYSE (New York Stock Exchange) has the largest capitalization in the world. NYMEX (New York Mercantile Exchange) where among other commodity contracts the major traded one is Light Sweet Crude oil. AMEX (American Stock Exchange) was established as an alternative for smaller companies, in response to the mainstream New York Stock Exchange. NASDAQ (North American Stock Dealers Automated Quotation) is a fully electronic stock exchange bringing together technology companies. It is growing rapidly and unlike all the other stock exchanges, it is located not on the Financial District, but on the Times Square. During my stay I visited all of the exchanges to ask for permission to go inside. The guards always refuse, as after 11 September 2001 not organized visiting is no longer possible for individuals. Particular attention is paid to the safety of NYSE. There is continuous surveillance, street barriers, armored cars and police armed with machineguns. Like a private army on standby.

Museum of Financial History is worth visiting. Lots of interesting information is given in an accessible way. Old fashioned devices, such as a machine resembling telex used to send market quotes at a distance and interesting trivia describing major points in financial markets history.

Not to be confused, Manhattan is not only a financial center. It is the United Nations headquarters and hosts many other international organizations and companies outside the financial sector.

The center of the world

Time out with housemates on Times Square

Intersection of Broadway and 7th Avenue. The area of around eight streets forms a spectacular city center. The heart of Manhattan. Giant skyscrapers that have big screen, shining ads exposed. The famous shops, theaters, headquarters of global corporations and countless crowds of people. A luxurious hotel in the middle. Right next to it, the NASDAQ stock exchange. Souvenir shops all the way along. The biggest toy store on the right. Endless fast-food restaurants, cafes and bars. People from all over the world. The building where MTV just broadcasts live a program. Right now they film a crowd of random people on the street. Celebrities here and there, proudly stop by to get off their limousines. Many neon signs and other street lights make this place look at night almost as bright as during the day. Lots of street artists, painters, photographers and Coca-Cola vendors. Every day Times Square is visited by hundreds of thousands of people. Tourists with cameras and busy workers in neat suits. Sometimes during rush hour the pedestrian traffic blocks completely. Late in the evening gets calmer. The crowd slowly goes to sleep. A little less people though there is always something happening.

Leisure time

George Washington Bridge,
built in 1931

New York has a lot of green places. You can get lost in the city park in Manhattan. Central Park is the largest green urban area in the world. There of course some other, smaller parks. It is easy to find a nice places to relax, see street artists’ show, play chess and drink coffee. Bryant Park has a free summer cinema during weekdays. Bowling Green Park is a tiny relaxing place in lower Manhattan. Union Square is another interesting spot. It is usually visited by crowds of people, not for no reason. Evening time magicians, comedians, breakdancers and other street artists come across to perform their shows.

Speaking of popular tourist destinations. The view from the Empire State Building is breathtaking. It reaches far beyond Manhattan, a dozen miles away, including Long Island. On the other hand, the famous Statue of Liberty is by far overrated. Monument is may be impressive on postcards, however on the actual background of Manhattan skyline looks pretty miserable. The former World Trade Center site is called Ground Zero. In 2005 they are still taking out the ruins of the highest Manhattan buildings.

Madison Square Garden on 34th Street is a huge indoor sports hall. It hosts a number of high-level boxing, NBA games and in general, lots of sports and cultural events.

Shakes, Cones, Sundaes

I recommend visiting two museums, the Museum of Modern Art and much bigger one, the Museum of Natural History. The latter consists of several sections. I suppose that an in-depth visit could easily take a whole day for each of the sections. At the riverbank of the Hudson River there is an aircraft carrier Intrepid.

Try to avoid walking alone the 125th Harlem street late at night as long as you are not looking for trouble. The main streets of the Bronx are nowadays relatively safe, even late at night. Although extra precaution is better than nothing. I usually try not to walk into small, dark streets, because they tend to look quite shady. No matter what, I stick to the version that New York is simply a safe city. Safe, but hot and stifling.


There are several ways to survive through the heat. It starts with iced coffee. Most shops, restaurants and cafes, as well as the entire underground subway system have air conditioning. Taking a shower in humid atmosphere doesn’t help. Just take the yellow or orange line subway to get you straight to the sandy beach at Coney Island in southern Brooklyn.

My personal most enchanting place is located in the southeastern part of the Manhattan harbor. You sit on a wooden pier to admire a beautiful view on Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island and two lighted bridges. Thousands of lights, out there. Romantic scenery, absolutely peaceful on one hand, yet you can feel the presence of a huge great city, which is quite nearby, but not too close.

Various spots

World Trade Center site

It appears that almost every country has its own little corner in New York City. China Town is a place where you get a good Chinese food, buy unusual spices, have live crabs for dinner and fortune-telling cakes stuffed with mashed red beans for dessert. Whenever I’m in a place where there are Chinese people having an intense discussion, I wonder if the rapid intonation of individual words means that someone tells a joke to the others, or they are arguing or maybe just about to start a big fight in front of all customers. That’s the Chinese language.

Little Italy is the area controlled by the legendary Godfather. Today also the New York’s capital of Italian pizza and spaghetti. It takes just a short trip to the Greenpoint in north-west Brooklyn to taste the original Polish steak and have a refreshing, ice-cold ┼╗ywiec beer. Once I found a McDonald’s restaurant with menu in Russian alphabet.

There is also plenty of Middle Eastern, Moroccan and Egyptian places. The locations have always thick water pipe smoke floating around. You can have your own sheesha with any of a wide range of fruit flavors. Have it along with a strong, sweet mint tea and you are almost in an Arabic country.

East Village is the place where the view of a used audio tapes seller and his dog happily laying on the products is not surprising anymore. If you explore small corners of the city you would definitely encounter some real freaks. The diversity adds the city even more charm and genuine atmosphere.

Everything is a matter of coincidence

Moving to New York is really interesting experience. It starts when you have to find a place to stay. My apartment is full of cockroaches the size of a quarter. I have already had enough time to get used to their presence and noise in the corners when someone lights a lamp at night.

Triborough Bridge traffic

Before settling down in Astoria we considered living in the eastern part of Brooklyn. The location is unusual. I walk a few hundred meters from the metro station and I don’t see a single white man. Little black kids are watching us, pointing their fingers at me, just as if it was the first time they see a white guy. I ask our black landlord whether it is a safe place to stay. She replied, “Guys, look at me. I’ve lived here all my life!”.

Changing a place means finding a new job. That is a pretty hard part, because the middle of the summer in a large city is the worst time for job seekers. Despite many adversities, ups and downs, it takes about two weeks for all of us to find a job. I work in a Starbucks coffee shop downtown, right in the Times Square and I really enjoy this job.

A laid-back black friend named Shavonne invited me to her house in the Bronx. It is extremely interesting to see the Bronx from the inside. I get to know her friends. The whole community consists of a few blocks of flats. Almost like a small ghetto or a big family. It looks exactly as on the movies, except this time it is real.

Gluttonous fast-food evening

A small anecdote

I start to explore a new place. Gradually I do not need to ask for directions, nor use maps. I keep walking, visiting, talking and getting to know. I do not ask people how to get to a particular place anymore. Some time later they start to ask me for directions. The final step is the moment when you don’t look like a tourist anymore, people ask about the way, moreover they get the right answer. Two months is enough to feel like a real New Yorker. I know where and what to eat, where to go shopping, have a beer in an interesting place and go for an evening jogging session on stadium. It is good to know what it takes to live in a bustling cosmopolitan city.

A few interesting facts:

  • the map of Manhattan, is rotated about -45 degrees on purpose. It is to obtain plain system of horizontal-vertical streets of the island
  • there is more than 90 McDonald’s restaurants in Manhattan
  • New York subway system has 468 stations; the traction network has more than 1000 km
  • all Manhattan taxis are yellow
  • city has more than 8 million residents and the entire urban area has more than 22 million inhabitants
  • the New York airports served together more than 100 million passengers in 2005
  • NYC Metro operates the largest annual number of passengers in the world. It is also one of a few in the world that operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year
  • New Yorkers throw away everything. You can easily complete your furniture and get a working stereo set in a short run along the streets in residential districts. Plain sailing.
  • tickets for the subway work on a single entry basis. The entire network is like the underground city, therefore many homeless people simply live there and rarely come out to the surface
  • the name “Wall Street” comes from the big and tall wall built right there in end of the eighteenth century, so that merchants selling shares were not harassed by Indians
  • the total value of companies listed on the NYSE is more than 25 trillion U.S. dollars
  • almost every fireman wagon has the inscription “We will never forget. 9 / 11” with a few names of firefighters right below, commemorating the heroes who helped to save people from the ruins
  • Americans are aware that Europeans consider them stupid. Once I even heard “You guys think we are stupid, but we are not!”
  • once fully soaked during a sudden and intense downpour. Then I walked into a shopping mall and saw a young American woman, who, with an amazement on her face and  undisputed curiosity asked, “.. is it raining outside?

June – September 2005