there was an anxiousness when i finally arrived outside of the station, the designated meeting spot. having never met this huang lei and only spoke to her through a few e-mail exchanges, there was a risk she'd been crazy or annoying in person and that would ruin my whole trip. my parents had seen her one time, and said she seemed very mature, like a big sister, whatever that meant. i noticed there was some police presence, i'm assuming in anticipation of the bruins parade happening later. i saw a confused looking asian woman come out from the station. that's got to be her. i waited for a brief second, thinking it still might be somebody else, but when she saw me, say asked, "tony?" "huang lei," i responded back. she was gawky and nerdish, from her long hair that went all the way down her back, her buck teeth, her crimson sweatshirt emblazoned with big harvard letters, and her white pants with matching white backpack. she definitely drew some attention, which meant she'd would fit right in with the parade participants. we made our way to south station.
the last time i was in new york was for the halloween parade. history repeats itself since i was also bringing down a astrophysicist for his first new york city experience. the reason for the first was also for a parade.
we got to the bus station early enough that we managed to catch the 6:00 fung wah. the first bus of the day is always crowded with like-minded people hoping to get a head start on their new york city activities (tip: to beat the crowd, try the 7:00 or 8:00 bus, those are usually empty). i let huang lei have the window seat so she could look outside. on the subway ride and on the bus she expressed her excitement on a few occasions, this being her very first time in manhattan. "i can't believe i'm finally going!" she said to herself, gently pumping her fist. although she sort of expected to be like her hometown shanghai. "new york city is no shanghai," i told her.
during our chat we discovered we actually knew a lot of people in common. obviously there was zhu zheng, my shanghai roommate from last summer who was here for 2 months, the one who knew a lot about western culture because she watched all our television shows, streamed illegally in china. she and huang lei used to be roommates together back in shanghai (for 5 years, that's almost like a marriage), and huang lei was the mysterious friend zhu zheng told me about who wandered by herself to tanglewoods then later niagara falls (so this was just her second time in boston). she also knew an tao, the very first chinese astrophysicists i ever hosted (2006-2007). back in shanghai they're fellow coworkers. welcome to the small world of shanghai astrophysicists!
it wasn't too long before huang lei fell asleep. so did i, in that restless way one sleeps on a moving transport. our driver didn't stop for a break so we made it to the manhattan chinatown in record time before 10:00. it was early enough that restaurants weren't even open yet so we wandered around little italy and chinatown a little bit. chinese fruit vendors were setting up their racks along the main streets. huang lei began snapping photos with her cellphone camera. she was most amused by the numerous chinese chain restaurants that were also found in shanghai. we ended up having an early lunch at that noodle place i always go to, king of casserole (21 division street). there are plenty of other noodle places in chinatown, but the one time i deviated from the norm it wasn't a good experience, so i keep coming back to casserole. they're also one of the few places that's actually opened at 10:00, and a decent bathroom, 2 important criteria. huang lei got the hand-drawn beef tendon soup while i got the knife-cut lamb noodle soup. it wasn't that good and the only reason why i finished was i was hungry.
by 11:00 we went to grab the subway from the canal street station. we caught a Q train to coney island, with more than 20 stops in between. the Q is actually one of my favorite trains, with its updating LED station map. it takes a long time (i want to say an hour) but it never feels very long because the train is on the surface for much of the journey and the comings and goings of new yorkers is always a pleasurable source of live entertainment. we arrived around 12:20.
stepping off the train into coney island station on mermaid parade day is a shock to the senses. suddenly you're in a sea of costumes, flesh, glitter, piercings, and tattoos. this being my 6th mermaid parade (2006 2007 2008 2009 2010), i played it cool, putting on my jaded mien. already people were lining up down both sides of the parade route. out of the station, for a second i thought i was lost. since my last visit, developers had razed a vast swath of buildings, hidden behind muraled plywood fences. gentrification is a cruel mistress. we wandered through the amusement park (at least that's still there for now) and then to the beach. huang lie said her mother would get a kick out of some the rides, since both her parents were in the military (just like boot camp training!). at the beach huang lei rolled up her pants and put her feet in the cold water. she'd been to the beach one other time, to revere beach, but she said this was better. with about an hour to go, huang lei suggested we go back so we could get a good spot. it was already crowded, but we found one of the only few spaces behind a long strand of metal barricades. now we wait.
i don't mind the standing (i could always leaning on the barricades) but the heat and the thirst is a different story. weather is always a deciding factor when it comes to parade success, but the mermaid parade works just as well dry or wet. rain is only a pain for photography (and the danger of getting poked in the eye with an umbrella spoke). when it's too hot though, standing on the sideline can be unbearable. today was hot but it wasn't too bad. the sun would come out from time to time, but mostly it was a warm haze, very good for shooting. i kept looking for a rolling refreshment vendor that never came, and i didn't want to step out and go to a store because i didn't want to lose my spot.
we didn't see the parade procession until almost 2:30. where i usually stand is right across the street from the train station exit. that way i can see all the costumed people coming out, sort of like a sneak preview. this time i camped out a little bit further ahead. this is actually the better spot because it's not near the intersection that always seems to swell with people when end up crowding into the street. the police also set up the barricades different this time. people on the north side had to stand behind a double barricade of wood and metal, which meant they were a full lane car lane behind the folks watching from the southern side. i thought they'd move forward the barricades once the parade started, but they never did (i guess it's for emergency reasons why they keep one lane open). that meant the parade marchers were mostly focused on our side of the street, preening and posing for cameras.
the parade was still ongoing but we decided to head out by around 4:30. it'd take us about an hour to get back to manhattan and we still had some NYC sightseeing to do. by that point it seemed to be mostly a showcase of muscle cars anyway, which for me wasn't all that interesting. we tried to cross at the intersection in front of the coney island train station but the police wouldn't let anyone pass, much to the chagrine of angry new yorkers who nearly rioted. "i got a baby!" one man shouted, somebody screamed, "stop pushing!" huang lei and i quietly slipped out, deciding to go around the parade route instead of across it.
we caught the Q train from the west 8 street station (NY aquarium stop). from there it was about 20 more stops before we got off at dekalb avenue, transferring to an R train that would take us into the financial district. we got off at rector street.
after using the bathroom at syms (where a suited security guard followed me around the store while i waited for huang lei), we first visited the world trade center site, followed by trinity church (it was closed by that point, 6:00). a short walk led us to wall street, then another distance was bowling green, site of the charging bull. huang lei was intrigued by the statues outside the old customs house after i told her how each represented a different world region (americas, europe, africa, asia). we went to battery park to see the statue of liberty from the shoreline.
by that point it was 6:40. my original itinerary was to take the train to the flatiron building (23rd street) where we'd then walk 5th avenue north, seeing the empire state building, ending up at grand central (42nd), where we'd also check out the chrysler building, before walking towards time square, followed by rockefeller center and a final stop at central park before returning to chinatown to take the 8:00 fung wah bus. with about an hour left, that was impossible to accomplish. the new plan was to basically head straight to time square, take a look around, and then start heading back.
so from bowling green we took the number 5 train. we were lucky to take that instead of the 4, because it only made a few stops before arriving at grand central, saving us a lot time. then took the S shuttle train to time square, arriving at 7:00.
with one eye on the clock, we tried to walk to the other side of time square, but there was so many people, we gave up about halfway through and started heading back. at 7:30 we grabbed the Q train (3rd time today) which once again was quite fortuitous since it was just 3 stops to canal street (we would've never made it if we took a local train).
with 15 minutes left we started walking to the fung wah depot. the fruit vendors were still on the streets. huang lei bought a bag of rainier cherries ($5) while i got a bag of regular bing cherries ($5). i was still looking for somebody selling guava when huang lei asked me if we had enough time, which suddenly reminded me we still had a bus to catch. we bought our tickets with 10 minutes to spare. buses going back to boston this time of the day are never crowded so i wasn't worried about not getting a seat.
we went next door to the popeye's to get some fried chicken takeout. we got out just when the bus arrived and they began boarding. there was enough space on the bus so that everyone could have their own pair of seats. i stretched out, relaxed, and ate my tasty fried chicken with the air conditioner blowing overhead and the bus lurching towards home.
8:00 is the latest boston-bound fung wah bus i can take while still having the MBTA subways be running when i get back. rarely needing to take the T so late, i couldn't remember when the last train was. midnight? 1:00? i just knew there might be a slight chance the MBTA would be closed if we got back late.
we arrived at south station at midnight. from there it was speed walking to the subway station. that fact that we were allowed into the station at all was a good sign that the trains were at least still running. there was a good crowd of people, all waiting for this late train. a few wore bruins jerseys and had foam bear claws, evidence of the parade that happened in boston earlier.
we got off at harvard square, were i pointed out to huang lei which direction she should walk to get back to her apartment. i cut through the harvard campus on my way home. the house was nice and empty when i got back. it'd been a long day, felt like squeezing 2 days into 1.
after throwing away some bad images, my haul from this trip was 2761 photos (9.45GB worth of data).