"Was that Samuel L. Jackson," I wonder as my bus sweeps along a midtown Manhattan street.

Later as I walk back down the same block, I spot him again.

"The man" looks tres cool, as though he just stepped out of Jackie Brown or Pulp Fiction.

A young Asian woman stands grinning beside him, posing for a picture. Finished, she waves him farewell but the dude doesn't move. He can't. "Samuel", I realise, is wax.

As brilliant as Mr Jackson's clone is, this West 42nd Street sidewalk outside Madame Tussauds wax museum is probably as close as I'll get to most "must dos" in New York. There are simply too many.

New York is no longer the overdosed homicide zone of Taxi Driver or Bonfire of the Vanities.

These days the annual murder rate is so diminished (around 500, compared with 2245 in 1990) that criminal lawyers are going broke and people stroll the streets safely at all hours. Which means any visitor to this, the greatest walking city in the world, really should pack good striding soles and relish its extraordinary grid of north-south avenues and east-west streets.

"New York City, such a beautiful disease," sang Norah Jones, without further explaining the affliction or its symptoms. Perhaps fascination with almost everything is one of them.

Trite as the observation is once you begin walking, the sheer enormity of the elements of Manhattan hits you: the size of average buildings, not just the superstar skyscrapers; the shoals of yellow cabs, 12,778 of them; the flood tides of commuters who pour in daily, almost doubling Manhattan's 1.65 million population; and the vast, honeycombed world of the train system and its 468 stations.

New York City is no less than a monument to its own enormity.

Another fascination is that when you do bump into one of those "must do" icons, they rarely disappoint.

The Empire State Building and the far more elegant Chrysler Building loom like pole stars over midtown. Look up and one or the other is always peering down at you.

Central Park's 340ha are far more vast and lush than I had expected, but also full of their own surprises. One is the little Strawberry Fields monument to John Lennon (off West Central Park at 72nd Street) and, just across the avenue, the gloomy Gothic hulk of the Dakota Apartments where Lennon lived and died too publicly.

As I explore the 21.5km length of Manhattan Island by foot (OK, also by taxi, tour bus and subway), I realise there's no way I'll have time to explore NYC's four other boroughs: the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

On my wander I hit a great bookstore, Strand (828 Broadway), the stupendously seductive Apple Store (13 Prince Street, SoHo) and the venerable B&H camera emporium at 420 Ninth Avenue.

B&H is run by Hassidic Jews and, as Sydney writer David Latta puts it: "Walking into this enormous store and being surrounded by guys in buttoned-up white shirts, black pants and ringlets is like stepping into a Woody Allen sketch."

Without really searching for it, I stumble across the fabled Chelsea Hotel, a large Victorian building on 23rd Street.

Its lobby is a riot of artworks left perhaps in lieu of rent by the creative types who've haunted it for almost a century - among them novelist Thomas Wolfe, the Jefferson Airplane, Arthur C. Clarke (who wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey here), Leonard Cohen, Jimi Hendrix, Brett Whiteley and a pair of poetic Dylans.

Indeed, a front door plaque commemorates Dylan Thomas "who lived and laboured here last . . . and from here sailed out to die". The Welsh bard expired here in 1953, to be followed in 1979 by another, much lesser British talent, Sid Vicious.

In-between, another Dylan, Bob, found himself "stayin' up for days in the Chelsea Hotel, writing Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands for you".

Going to extremes, I hop on an open-top tour bus to the northern end of Manhattan, to visit the Cloisters museum of medieval art. It's what happens when the Rockefellers make a takeover bid for the Round Table - a sort of Camelot art salad in which, regardless of the juxtapositions, every priceless Flemish tapestry, illuminated icon and knightly marble sarcophagus is exquisite.

At the other extreme of the scale - geographically and culturally - I spend my nights in the music bars and restaurants around SoHo and Greenwich Village.

There's quality blues-rock at Terra Blues (on Bleecker Street) and late-night, zonked-out jazz at Arthur's Tavern (Grove Street), all for the price of a few beers and a donation to the tip jar.

My cousin, a long-time village dweller, continues to enthuse about his neighbour- hood's musical feast: "There are so many fantastic - but 'nobody' - musicians playing here all the time."

So much to see, so few lifetimes. What have I missed? The Guggenheim, the Frick, Macy's, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Times Square, the Meatpacking District, Staten Island ferry, the giant bronze bull down by Wall Street, Grand Central Station and about a hundred more "should-dos" - some of which I do, in fact, do.

Throughout it all, I'm pleased to see that the famous New Yorkers' sense of humour is alive, well and biting. In this often irony-deficient country, I see one woman providing a healthy supplement via her T-shirt which reads, "So many fundamentalist Christians - so few lions".


A flat fare (un-metered) taxi fare from JFK International to anywhere in Manhattan is $US45 ($50) plus tolls and tip; say $US55 all up. Elsewhere in metered yellow cabs the official oxymoron advises: "Tipping is not mandatory but a 15-20 per cent gratuity is expected."

For information about museums, see www.ny.com/museums/all.museums.html.

Broadway shows are expensive and it's hard to get good tickets at short notice. Schmooze your hotel concierge or join the Playbill Club, which offers significant discounts on shows. See www.playbill.com.

New York City's population is 8.25 million. Forty-three million international and domestic visitors spent $US24.71 billion here in 2006. NYC has 72,250 hotel rooms, with an average daily rate of $US280. There are 18,696 eating establishments, charging an average price for dinner (including drink, tax, tip) of $US40. In some 17,000 of those eateries the coffee is near undrinkable, but the tap water's fine.

The Visitor Information Centre is at 810 Seventh Avenue (between 52nd and 53rd streets). See nycvisit.com.

Time Out and The Village Voice have extensive "what's-on" lists.

The West Australian

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