Monday, July 18, 2011

33 hours in New York (plus a few in Princeton)

With major consideration to You are missed, Steven Bicknell!

My shuttle to the airport was due at 6pm. But first I had a friend over to borrow some music. I was reading the foreword to the new book "The Quotable Hitchens" by Martin Amis. Next on the list was returning to "How to Survive in a War Zone", which had exactly the same shade of red for a cover. My friend and I swapped observations on whether private cars or taxis were more affordable. I almost never even take a taxi if I can help it... but then I've never actually visited a war zone, aside from the interior of my room. As my friend helpfully pointed out.

Then my parents skyped me for the 5 minutes my internet managed to work, I grabbed my bag (everything in my laptop bag again; the less you take, the quicker it is to pack!), and headed for the exit. On the street I found the shuttle, which was also waiting for another Caltech person. His name sounded familiar, and it was N, who was on the Mt Whitney climb! He arrived in the nick of time (for a conference in Boston or something), and together with an expert in magnetism, we set out on the nerdiest drive to the airport I have ever had. We discussed zeolites, rare-earths, hydrogen storage, and the ever-increasing uses of superconductivity for magnets, including large windmills. 

I had taken an early ride to avoid traffic jams associated with 'carmageddon', or the complete closure of the 405 for the weekend. In the end we made good time, and soon enough I was opting out of the security scan, starting a trend, and asking the TSA personnel pointed questions about their own radiation safety. After I received the definite highlight of my week (up to that point, at least!) I put all my stuff back in my pockets, ate dinner, navigated the interior of terminal 6 (I think) STILL being renovated (since at least last November), boarded the plane, and located my seat. Fortunately I was not seated next to an overweight person, but somehow Spirit managed to recreate the experience (and after being forced to shell out about another $160 to check in and bring a bag, even when done over the internet!). Both the aeroplane and the seats were ancient and worn, and after a beautiful climb out of LA over the lights (it looks better in the dark), I folded myself up into a shape resembling the Chinese character for 'intestines', I attempted to snatch a few hours of sleep. Pretty soon we caught up with the dawn at Detroit. Because we were in a plane, we could see it while the city lights were still on down below.

After a short break in Detroit (which has a charming airport terminal, at least in comparison to LA), I boarded a short flight to NY La Guardia. Having paid $10 to print my boarding pass (at home) I had a terrific window seat view of Manhattan on approach. The plane ground to a halt metres from the wet, splashy end of the runway, and soon I was on a bus through Astoria (home of the American Steinway factory) and Harlem to Columbia University. One short subway ride later and... oh bugger. Someone was murdered where I want to get off, and now the police are holding things up. Soon enough I popped into a grocery store and bought a loaf of bread for breakfast, then met my couchsurfer. Normally one meets couchsurfers in an at least semi-public place, but here I knocked on their door. "A, I'm Casey", "Come in, come in!" I ditched my luggage, unpacked, and chatted for a while. A had misplaced her phone, so we had to organise 'old school'. I actually prefer that. We headed downtown, ate some oatmeal-dark chocolate biscuits for lunch (travel = bad diet!), and caught Harry Potter 7.2 (in 3D!). "HARRY!!!!!!" I screamed a few times during interminable pre-show advertisements. And later, during the climactic show down between good and evil, with a decent quantity of teen hormones thrown into the mix. I compulsively cheer whenever people on screen kiss. Ever since I started watching "Bones", where it took about 7 seasons to get around to it...

After the movie we headed further down town to High Line Park, a recently built park on a disused section of train line above the traffic. It was quite crowded and rather nice! A departed to 'do work' or something equally unlikely for a fellow grad student. I headed up to 42 and Broadway to check out Times Square and the theatres. I was seconds away from buying a frightfully expensive ticket to see D-Rads in "How to succeed in business without really trying" or whatever it is when I got a text message from A. A different A. I think we're up to three. This was the A I couchsurfed with in April 2010, just after the Caltech prospective grad student open day. K (the other CSer from last year) was having a roof top party on the Lower East Side, and I should totally come. So I did (catching a bite to eat on the way). I arrived before A, before K, indeed, before everyone. So in due course I helped carry stuff up on the roof, ate some food, and caught up on 16 months of news! It was, I think, the first time I've ever seen a CSer again, and it was nowhere near as bittersweet as I thought it might be. Ordinarily, the fuse of friendship burns bright and fast with couchsurfers, since there is an implicit time limit. In this case, at least, there was at least a little bit more to go. The city formed a wonderful backdrop to party as the sun set over New Jersey.

At 10:30, my spidey sense told me that I should leave to avoid inconveniencing my host on the other side of the magical island. I got lost only once on the subway, and was soon standing beneath the first shower with good pressure I've been in this year (at least), which prefigured a delightful 10 hours of sleep (making up for the one hour the previous night) on a very comfy couch.

Next morning I woke, folded the sheets, checked email, and had a single slice of bread for breakfast. I stopped by at the cathedral of St John the Divine in case they might be playing the amazing pipe organ (on which the story linked to at the top is based), but no such luck. I swung past central park on my way to Penn Station, where after the requisite period of wandering around deciphering signs, bought a ticket and caught the appropriate train with whole minutes to spare. Two thoughts struck me as the crowd belched down the stairs onto the platform. First, why did they add escalators that destroyed the stairs (making them too narrow for people to pass). Russia could teach them a thing or two about station design. Second, I hadn't eaten lunch. Travel is like that.

Atop 800 tonnes of American engineering, I zoomed south down the BAMA to Princeton Junction, where the passers-by became conspicuously more nerdy. I have a nerd-radar. Soon I had boarded Princeton's little 'dinky' train to the main campus, and began walking with a couple of other guys towards the Institute for Advanced Study. They were somewhat perplexed by my light packing. My hobby: sow discord and confusion with my travel habits.

Soon I was registered and had retrieved a lunch with an intact cookie and an iced tea. I don't think I've ever had iced tea before. It's basically pure sugar. I was so sad! The beef sandwich bread had melted cheese on top, so I sacrificed the top piece of bread. Underneath was more cheese (the weird orange american sort), so that too got the flick. After finishing the first half, I realised the bottom half too was cheese melted. I mean, I understand that with skim milk there's a huge abundance of cream to be processed and eaten, but REALLY, people? I was losing enough weight just from forgetting to eat for a few days here and there, and now I've been cheesed. Worse, I've been crypto-cheesed!

The accommodation is on the comfortable side - certainly nicer than the Catalina apartments, and I look forward to settling in here a bit over the next two weeks, with a possible weekend jaunt back to NY. I imagine the rest of the workshop will be rather less interesting for non theoretical physicists, but we did get one last adventure. My housemates (A and S) and I went into town for dinner and a few supplies to last us until the shopping trip tomorrow. The dinner was the definition of unremarkable, but we took a shortcut across the golf course on the way back. While there was some risk of being bitten by a tick or something, we saw about a dozen fireflies, which was pretty awesome.

If every day could be filled with as much interest and joy as the past two have, I would be a very happy man indeed!

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