Quack if You Love Manhattan

Sunday, May 4, 2008

11:54 a.m. It's cloudy and a little cool, but it's going to work out, right?

I mean, all I really want to accomplish on this trip is to take a Duck tour of Manhattan. I've been to New York hundreds of times, having grown up in New Jersey, and the idea of making a spectacle of myself quacking at passersby as I rumble through the streets atop an amphibious vehicle is irresistible.

Since I checked in at my Midtown hotel, though, it's gotten cloudier and cooler -- not great weather for tooling around on the Hudson. I walk over to Rockefeller Center, where tulips are blooming and chilled tourists, many underdressed (layers, people, layers . . .), occupy every seat. Many are clutching coffee.

I watch ice skaters skitter around below and consider checking out "The Office" souvenir junk at the NBC store, until I realize that there's a line just to get into the place.

1:30 p.m. After a brisk walk down Broadway to 34th Street, I dive into Macy's. I always stop at the department store, because a) Santa works there and b) I dig those old-time wooden escalators. It's crowded, but in a cool "let's spend our lunchtime shopping" sort of way. And it's nothing like what awaits me a few blocks away, at the Empire State Building.

The line is long and loud and unpleasant, but I queue up anyway. Bored kids ( and adults) are constantly shoving forward, and the ground is icky-sticky. I give up when a guy returning from the observation deck advises me that "the visibility from the top isn't so hot, unless all you want to see is Jersey."

3:10 p.m. I get lost looking for the Gray Line Visitors Center on Eighth Avenue, but I blame the excitement. Inside, I pick up my ticket for the 4:15 p.m. Duck tour -- and the $2 green quacker that I'll wear around my neck.

The tour leaves from nearby Times Square, so I head in that direction. I buy a huge $2 chocolate chip cookie that could feed the Waltons, then amble around taking in the scene.

Man, I {heart} New York.

4:20 p.m. The Duck is late, and it's starting to drizzle. I'm huddling outside a Jamba Juice with a family of four from Jersey, trading quips and quacks with a 6-year-old. I'm the source of the ruckus, and even I'm annoyed by it.

The vehicle finally arrives, with my new friend screaming, "It's the bus boat! It's the bus boat!" About a dozen people disembark, but instead of being invited aboard, we watch as the guide and driver pace about talking on cellphones. We know what's coming, but still . . . .

"Sorry, folks," we're told. "The river is fogged over and it's just not worth going out. You'll need to try tomorrow."

Suddenly, I'm starting to not {heart} New York so much.

5:15 p.m. Nothing like St. Patrick's Cathedral to set things right. Just need a little peace and quiet to gather my thoughts, and that's what I get -- after the guards at the front door rifle through my backpack. People are scattered about, looking at the ceiling, taking pictures, lighting candles and trying to ignore the homeless guy sleeping in the pews.

I walk the perimeter of the church and, head properly cleared, pop out a side entrance.

6:45 p.m. I'm finishing dinner in a window seat at Pooket, a Thai restaurant on Second Avenue. Plenty of restaurants in the area, but I had a hankering for pad Thai and, well, this place had an empty window seat.

There's more than an hour to go before I have to be at the American Museum of Natural History for its "SonicVision" show in the Hayden Planetarium. Which leaves me with a decision: Walk or cab or bus or subway?

I walk. It's always one of the great pleasures of a trip to New York, and though the sky looks as if it's about to swallow the island, I start the long haul north toward West 81st Street. At East 60th, I cut over to Central Park, now partially enveloped in fog.

It's an eerie, wonderful feeling. Bikers and joggers zip by, dogs tug on leashes. I can hear a group of kids playing on a hillside and, far in the distance, the distinctive caw of bagpipes.

8:05 p.m. The museum is closed, but a small crowd -- most younger than I by more years than I care to think about -- is gathering inside near the magnificent white orb that houses the star show. I'm happy to see that after the Duck setback, this show will definitely go on.

It goes on. And on. "SonicVision" features a soundtrack of alternative music mixed by Moby and accompanied by computer animation on the Hayden's dome: dancing robots, psychedelic bubbles, roller-coaster vortexes. It's exhilarating, dizzying and, ultimately, tiring. I'm not the only one who feels this way; by the time Coldplay cranks up, there's a discernible hum of people talking to one another.

9:25 p.m. I head south on foot, but for this long haul, I stay out of the park. I talk to a couple walking a combination dachshund/floor mop, and consider stopping in to Tavern on the Green or the Plaza Hotel for a drink. Eh. I sort of look like a dachshund/floor mop myself at this point, so I grab some veggie lo mein from a noodle shop and call it a night.

10 a.m. Curses. The morning's first Duck tour is canceled because of fog. But there's hope: As a guy dressed like a duck bothers pedestrians, a company rep tells me to come back in an hour, when the weather is expected to clear.

11:54 a.m. At last, I'm sitting on the Duck. And it's moving. Every seat is full, and the skies are sunny.

(While I was waiting in line to get on, a guide stuck her head over the side and asked me if I was the dude who kept showing up for the canceled tours. Yep, that's me; must have been that big "L" across my forehead. Then she invited me to board first and told me where the best seat was. I'm not sharing.)

The roof-less "bus boat" -- which looks more like a Viking ship and is higher off the ground than Ducks I've taken in other cities -- winds down Broadway past Macy's and the Empire State Building, then plunges into the Hudson for a 20-minute cruise. Our guide, a former NYC cop, does a fine job pointing out that which must be pointed out, but I'll remember him most for the family stories he tells and the occasional cuss words that sneak out.

I'll also remember him for never once encouraging us to use our quackers. Then again, I'm the only person who bought one.

-- John Deiner

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