Snow falling on the Big Apple

First New York snowstorm of the winter

It's the first blizzard of winter and New Yorkers select from their white-out wardrobe and take to the streets in high-style mittens, mufflers and snow boots. Thousands step forward to clear the sidewalks, at a price. As soon as there is snow to support them, there are skiers in Central Park. Photo - Gareth Huw Davies

The first New York snowstorm of the winter is one of the world’s great urban sensations, like the opening deluge of the Delhi monsoon, or the start of spring in Paris.

The dumping of several thousand tons of chilled moisture is a routine in which nothing grinds to a halt. In the land of free expression and boundless opportunity there is no ‘wrong’ type of snow.

An entire city glides, prepared, primed and uncomplaining, into heavy weather mode.

New Yorkers select from their white-out wardrobe and take to the streets in high-style mittens, mufflers and snow boots. Thousands step forward to clear the sidewalks, at a price. As soon as there is snow to support them, there are skiers in Central Park.

Statisticians record these big weather events as the British archive cricket scores. So the storm that struck the city on the first day of our visit, December 5th – a spectacular event to our snow-starved eyes, particularly in that traditional-craving few weeks before Christmas - was the earliest in New York since 1938.

Look it up - It’s in the files: how long it lasted, the depth and even the weight of snow, to be measured against the great storms of Manhattan Island history.

But first it had to start, and that was foretold, almost to the minute. We woke to a shivering city, strafed by a north easterly out of Newfoundland. Weather forecast wars were raging on the TV news channels. Correspondents spaced along the turnpikes of New Jersey (under road heating keeps traffic flowing nicely) charted the advance of the low pressure system which had been menacing up from the south west for the past three days.

A TV station had a helicopter up over the Hudson. It showed the first live shots of the out-runner snowflakes. They had predicted a 7.15 am start; the snow actually arrived in Midtown at 7.25. It fell all day.

In this well ordered city you can conduct your business, or your tourism (provided you dive indoors whenever you can), undeterred by the great white withto breakfast.

One golden rule of the Big Apple visit is take your breakfast out. It’s each to his speciality in this town. You don’t sleep in a restaurant, so why should you eat in a hotel? Starting at daybreak there’s massive culinary opportunity out there, from standard diners to early-opening restaurants.

We headed to Sarabeth’s on Madison Av where New Yorkers were already meeting friends, doing business or sitting alone with the papers at shortly after 8 am. A waitress in long apron was at our table with the coffee even as we were sitting down. Outside a fashion parade of children trudged to smart schools through a thickening stratum of snow on the sidewalks. We ordered a Goldie Lox (scrambled egg, salmon and creamed cheese), and Banana Blueberry Breakfast Blizzard, with a side order of Abricadabra, a house concoction of apricots with fresh pineapple and currants.

Sustained by Sarabeth’s we took on the mighty Metropolitan Museum of Art, on 5th Av and 82nd - two million works of art gathered from the world. But first to the Medieval Sculpture Hall for the Christmas tree, with its warm aura of the Mediterranean. 18th-century Neapolitan angels and cherubs sat in its boughs, above a Baroque crèche. This annual display was set in front of the 18th-century Spanish choir screen from the Cathedral of Valladolid. Tasteful recorded music of the season played – Bryn Terfal greeted our entrance.

When we emerged from the Met, from a random route around French impressionists, African art and 1930s costume, the storm was at full blast. We rode the subway to Times Square, thus combining two great NY institutions recently rescued from perdition.

The subway is clean, unmenacing, and it works. We bought the all-day Metrocard ticket, for unlimited travel on both under and over ground transit systems. Sure, each subway journey is still an adventure. In London trains either run or they don’t. In NY, if you don’t watch, something steady and slow is liable to change into an express, hurtling you from Midtown right past Central Park, missing out 20 streets and pitching you up in Harlem.

Times Square was rescued from near terminal sleaze by the power of the market. They chased out the tawdry sex shops and restored the greatest city light show on earth. The neon pulsed and danced above us under glowering clouds while busy ladies in vivid day-glo coats charmed the traffic to go where they asked as the snow obscured the white lines.

We checked up on home in EasyInternetcafe ‘biggest in the world’ (W42nd between 7th and 8th Av) and then dipped tentatively into some light buying. It turned into a head-on collision with the ‘Yes, we will sell it to you’ culture of the world’s leading trading nation.

We wanted a NYPD police car for a nephew. A search through four floors of a vast toys emporium was fruitless. Just as we were leaving a shop walker spotted our frustration. ‘We give up.’ ‘Nobody gives up on my watch. NYPD? Sure I can do that.’ She led us to the elusive item. I think she really meant her parting words: ‘I love my job.’

It was near here as a student visitor that I first encountered the amazing generosity of this often perplexing country. I’d gone into a bar on my first night. ‘Are you English?’ demanded the bartender. I forgave the slur on my Celtic roots and agreed. ‘Have this drink on me.’

Outside, the weather was probing a weak point. New York’s snow control couldn’t handle the gutters, now brimming with slush; a foot out of place and we were in, ankle-deep. So, slapping the icy patina off our coats, we dived into Macy’s on Herald Square, projecting warmth and cheer like some retailing supernova, alongside the mere stars of lesser stores. You could wander for several days in here. At every check out they were selling – in effect - Macys the Movie, the original Miracle on 39th Street.

Macy’s is the hub of the US Christmas experience. Weather permitting, a fulfilling shoppers evening stroll takes in the Rockefeller Centre Christmas tree. We had seen it lit the night before by some high city figure, protected by a cordon of cops the size of giant redwood. Then to Lord and Taylor, on 5th Avenue between 38th and 39th , usually voted the most elaborate window displays – ‘These windows stop traffic!’ - followed by Saks 5th Avenue.

We called a shopping truce next morning and rode the Staten Island ferry. Applying literally the ‘everything has a price in the US’ dictum, this short crossing would cost $50, maybe $100; instead tramp and billionaire alike troop on for nothing. You ride this ferry from the toe of Manhattan, of course, not for the trip out but for the return. This is how it was for all those immigrant millions approaching NY by water – and even they had to pay.

On our return it was too cold to step on deck. The Island was etched against clear deep blue chill. From this distance the Twin Towers void is filled by the many other high points. When we stepped off, we thought we might respectfully slip by Ground Zero. We hadn’t intended to go there, feared forced sentimentality, and a tasteless memorabilia trade.

But the site is so big that, in this constricted part of the island, it’s hard not to pass right by it. We were drawn in by a profound reverential hum, as in some great cathedral or WW1 battlefield. Any stray sound flittered around briefly then is swallowed up in the vast space. There was poignancy in the tiny detail; a Welsh flag in a fence, a random bouquet of roses.

Afterwards we headed up town, a lazy diversion through Greenwich Village, until we found a Belgian restaurant of exceptional zip and bustle, all antique wood and mirrors. Just one among NY’s full United Nations of restaurants. Full, so come back at 3.15. We did. In New York anytime is the sensible time to eat.
We set aside our last day for shopping, after a morning in the Natural History Museum. A Saturday, and the big stores were bursting. An hour in a crammed Bloomingdale’s taught us either to wander with no method at all and buy things as you fancy; or carefully plan your route by Internet or guide book. Our easiest purchase was a camera (about £100 off UK prices) at the massive B&H Photo on 9th Av and 33rd St in the softest of sells (‘why, it’s entirely up to you’). Our goods were zipped in an overhead conveyor to the checkout. Takashimaya, Japanese department store, was a stylish reprieve from the masses.

On an icy day in NY one of the finest (free) places to stay warm is the splendid, renovated Grand Central Terminal, architect Whitney Warren’s epic 1913 building behind a triumphant facade featuring statues of Hercules, Minerva and Mercury. The photograph of the Concourse – travellers spot-lit by four shafts of sunlight - adorns many a student wall.

It took the intervention of Jacqueline Kennedy and others to save this Beaux-Arts marvel from possible termination. Four years of restoration was recently completed. Nearly every surface has been cleaned or repaired, including the half-acre of Tennessee marble in the Concourse, and that astonishing map of the Galaxy on the ceiling.

Out of 24 restaurants or food outlets we chose the Oyster Bar, under vaulted ceilings of Gustavino tiles. You forget this is still a railway station, not some great secular cathedral full of space and light and gold fittings and elegance. We headed back up 5th Av to our hotel. Behind us the setting sun caught the tip of the biggest Christmas decoration of all, the red and green of the Empire State building.

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