A man for all seasons: escaping New York’s summer heat
Compromises must be made, strategies thought out. Up on the High Line, the old elevated subway track recently transformed into a garden walkway, and listed everywhere as a must-do New York attraction, packed crowds of European tourists are shuffling along in the pounding sun of early afternoon, complaining about the heat and humidity. This is the sort of error that must be avoided, like walking on the sunny side of the street, or descending into the Hades of a midtown subway station at rush hour, or neglecting to drink copious amounts of water.
The best reason for coming here in August is the intensity of the experience, but it can batter and overload the senses. The racket of construction, as the city ceaselessly devours and rebuilds itself, the wailing sirens, the incessant honking, the yelling and barking of street crazies — all of it eats into you a little deeper when it’s 35C with 80 per cent humidity.
The need for sanctuary and refuge increases, and there’s no better time of year to linger in the air-conditioned museums and art galleries, or float around Central Park lake in a rowing boat with your sweetheart and a chilled bottle of Sancerre.
Float around Central Park lake in a rowing boat (Alamy)
My sweetheart, Mariah, a great lover of fine food, is particularly excited to be here for “restaurant week”, an August tradition by which 150 of New York’s best restaurants offer three-course set menus for a fraction of the normal price. This year lunch costs $24.07 a head (24/7, as in the city that never sleeps), and dinner costs $35. After careful deliberation, we elect for a late lunch at Café Boulud, a French-inspired restaurant run by the celebrity chef Daniel Boulud, although Robert de Niro’s Nobu was also extremely tempting.
We’ve heard that some restaurants seat the prix fixe cheapskates in a separate area from the main clients, but the sleek and impeccable staff at Café Boulud welcome us warmly, and seat us in the main dining area with complimentary pre-appetisers and fresh-baked breads. The French waiter brings out the first course: chilled watercress soup with a poached quail egg and crispy prosciutto for Mariah, and romaine heart salad with charred corn, queso fresco and avocado for Monsieur. Slightly hungover from the night before, we forgo wine, which costs extra.
The appetisers are superbly executed and presented, and from there the meal only gets better: freshly-made goat cheese ravioli with shishito peppers, roasted pork loin with wild mushrooms and mustard spatzke, followed by two desserts so good that we both start laughing. Finally, the waiter presents us with a complimentary basket of miniature fresh-baked madeleines. With two litres of sparkling water, three espressos, tax and a 20 per cent tip, the bill works out to just under £30 a head.
A 20 per cent tip? That’s right. Fifteen per cent is considered stingy here, and you have to tip the bartender when you’re drinking in bars. yes, it’s his job to pour drinks, but waiters and bartenders get only a token wage in the United States, because they’re expected to live on their tips. a dollar a drink is the standard tip in a bar, and more for an expensive cocktail. And if you tip well on two or three drinks, the bartender will often give you the next one free — a “buy-back”.
Last night, we got into a deep conversation with a bartender on the Lower East side, and he just kept filling our glasses when we attempted to leave, and refusing to accept payment. when questioned about his August strategies, he told us about the Adirondack, an 1890s-style pilot schooner with teak decks and mahogany trim that sails away from Chelsea Piers at 6.30 on summer evenings. for $60, you get a two-hour sunset sail and unlimited beer, wine or champagne, although drunkenness is discouraged. “We like to keep it elegant,” says the captain as he welcomes us aboard.
He chugs out into the Hudson River and then the crew hauls aloft the four sails. The champagne is sparkling wine from upstate New York, surprisingly good. Even more intoxicating is the cool, fresh, ocean-scented air, which we gulp down in great draughts, realising how shallow our breathing has been in the city, as if we’ve been guarding ourselves against all the rank summer smells.
In 20 years of coming to New York, this is the first time I’ve seen the city from the water, and never has it looked more astonishing or improbable. I marvel at the density of the bedrock that can hold up the concentrated weight of so many skyscrapers, right down to the water’s edge. The sun sets over New Jersey, we sail right past the Statue of Liberty, and then turn around on a freshening breeze towards Manhattan as the world’s most photogenic city turns on its lights.
I have a love-hate relationship with New York, but I’m never bored here, and the thing I love most is the city’s capacity to generate random spontaneous occurrences that linger in the mind for years afterwards. Chance encounters, weird snapshots. a 6ft 5in transvestite coming out of a store with a case of baby formula and a lavatory plunger. a hand-scrawled sign on the counter of a newsagent: “no crying. no stories. Pay for porn in advance.” We’re sitting in a bar at one in the morning, and in walks T Berry, “World’s Greatest Storyteller.” he proves the point in rhyming couplets, and we’re delighted to tip him $10.
A few minutes later, in walks a midget with a trumpet who performs a beautiful rendition of an old Louis Armstrong song.
Columbus Circle, Manhattan (Alamy)
Three days later at Columbus Circle, on the southwestern corner of Central Park, we see a group of musicians unpacking a tuba, saxophones and tambourine. The dapper young man warming up his melodica is Jonathan Batiste, we discover, the latest prodigy from the Batiste clan of musicians in New Orleans. a crowd is gathering; there’s a sense of something about to happen.
We follow the musicians down into the subway station, which is hot and sticky, and already filled with music from three Latino buskers playing Oye Como Va by Santana. will there be a confrontation, a turf war? without missing a stride, Batiste and his world-class jazz musicians start improvising along to Oye Como Va, to the amazed delight of the buskers, and people on the platform who start clapping, cheering, dancing, smiling.
We follow the musicians on to the a train, where they play hot funky New Orleans jazz, delighting some passengers and not impressing others, and down to 2nd Avenue, where they emerge from the subway station and parade along Houston Street to their gig at Rockwood Music Lounge. Carried along on the momentum, we buy tickets to the show, and after many years of scepticism Mariah finally understands how and why people can get excited about jazz. a kind of spontaneous combustion has to take place, and it has to be witnessed live.
Up on stage is Batiste, a young black man from New Orleans, now performing extraordinary feats on the piano, a 15-year-old Asian saxophone phenomenon, a 72-year-old Scotsman on baritone, a young white hipster on drums, and other musicians dropping in and out. The music is so joyful, exuberant, uplifting, and the black woman next to us is yelling out encouragement and instruction — “Bring it, baby! say something!”— and standing there with my spine tingling in the crowd, I’m thinking, where else but New York? This is America at its best.