The freezing Big Apple

IF you're planning on being a tourist in New York City in December, take the bus with a lid on it. Riding on an open-top double decker as it breezed through Manhattan's upper west side was like hurtling through a freezer.

"Think warm thoughts," urged the guide, breath steaming.

Hotdog. Plenty of those in New York. Hot-blooded murder. By now we were cruising past John Lennon's grand old haunt, the Dakota, still home to Yoko Ono. Hot rod. Santa Claus was climbing out of a Cadillac - a topless one - next to Central Park. Most of the tourists on the top deck had more padding on than him but still, we empathised.

I'd arrived in the Big Apple during an unprecedented cold snap. It had struck so quickly, motorists in nearby Buffalo had been left stranded in their cars overnight.

In the city, temperatures hovered between -3C and-2C.

Even New Yorkers were complaining.

A bitter breeze sliced into any exposed skin surface; on the first day I wore fingerless gloves and realised quickly how they got their name. By the time the snow came, I was no longer doing double takes at hooded figures in balaclavas, skulking out of the subway. Having bagged the world's thickest beanie at the Union Square Christmas markets, a woollen scarf at a packed Macy's and pulled every drawstring available, I looked like Shrek the sheep as I burned up New York's sunlight-starved pavements.

The plan was to jump off the bus at the park for a wander around but the trees were skeletal, the air frigid. Instead I headed indoors to the Natural History Museum which had been heated as if to recreate Mumbai. The school children traipsing through the gigantic Brain exhibition - where else but New York can you literally walk through the electrical circuitry of a huge, man-made brain - ramped up the heat even more.

How do New Yorkers stay stylish in such arctic climes? Plenty don't bother, opting for what amounts to a sleeping bag coat. Others blazenly defy the dictates of PETA, the animal rights people - the best-looking dames shopping in the West Village wore long fur coats, fur hats and fur stoles. A Kiwi friend who likes quick access to his guitar wore fingerless gloves with a mitten pouch attached.

According to the movies, there's no better place to be at Christmas time than New York.

The reality is a bit more challenging, as Wall Street reels from the recession, and elderly buskers dressed as Santa sit hunched over keyboards or beg for change on the subway. Still, the mood on the street smells more like hot donuts and hot cider than recession. The National Retail Federation is optimistic, expecting retail sales this month and last to be up 3.3 per cent from the same time last year. It's not hard to believe judging by the hordes lined up to watch the puppet window display at Macy's, or grabbing at racks inside as late as 10pm.

Nor would you have any inkling in the swarming grid of Times Square, one of the few places on Earth where you can be completely surrounded by people and still freezing.

There's a lot of yelling goes on in this area. I'm sure this goes on all year round but in December, the Salvation Army volunteers jingle their bells and dance for attention, competing with the hip-hop artists passing out CDs, and actors hawking comedy gigs, trying to divert your eyeballs from the big Japanese brands lighting up the billboards.

Meanwhile the NYPD cops try their best to direct the traffic, which streams from every direction.

"Honey, I found the big balls!" shrieked a woman as she hauled her husband over to be photographed in front of an oversized display of shiny red globes in Rockefeller Plaza. Presumably she'd already found the big fairy lights and the big Christmas tree.

Then there were the young men who leapt out in front of tourists on street corners.

"Excuse me. Uh you Joowish?"

They were lurking outside a surreally cheery, pimped out Happy Hanukkah van, the suggestion being that an affirmative reply would lead to being ushered inside.

"No," I lied, walking on.

But my hotel was another six blocks away. I couldn't feel my fingers. And it looked warm in that van.

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