What began as a simple trip to the Big Apple to meet my literary agent for the first time blossomed into a “sampler” tour of NYC for our 17-year-old son. A memorable spring break. Family time before he heads off to college. Etc., etc., etc.
That’s what I told people, anyway.
As for the nostalgic yearning that had been humming in the back of my mind for years, I kept that to myself.
I have never lived in New York. I’ve only visited a few times. To be honest, I generally loathe big cities. But this particular city – its people and streets and sights and sounds and smells – ensconced itself in my memory decades ago.
My father lives in that memory. Side by side we roamed the avenues, skipping up the steps of St. Patrick’s, squinting at the inscription behind Prometheus at Rockefeller Center, flipping through our playbills for A Chorus Line – a show he probably shouldn’t have taken me to (I was on the young side), but did anyway. This makes me laugh, for in my purse are the tickets I bought for my own family to see the irreverent musical, The Book of Mormon, on Broadway. I probably shouldn’t have, but did anyway.
The following is a chronicle of our whirlwind tour of NYC, from the somber to the silly, the historical to the hilarious.
Disclaimer: Everything we did on this trip is considered “touristy.” Get over it. And get over yourself while you’re at it. Or, in NYC terms, “da fuck outta here!”
Since we spent Day 1 in the Atlanta airport because of snow in NYC, let us begin with Day 2…
9/11 Memorial & Museum:
Cold, gray, and bleak. The weather is as much a shock to our senses as the scene before us: the memorial fountains at the former World Trade Center site. I have seen so many photographs, so much footage – from that terrible morning in September of 2001, to the final unveiling of the memorial, but still the tears come. To stand on that hallowed ground, to feel the fountain mist mingle with my tears, to touch the inscribed names of those who never for a moment expected that beautiful fall morning to be their last – it transcends words, roiling into raw emotion.
My husband and I come back later that night to see the fountains lit up. I gasp. Unseen in the daylight, there are reflections leading off in all four directions like ethereal pathways from the epicenter of the horror. They disappear into the mist, to a place we are not yet meant to follow. Truly, this memorial speaks loudest at night.
Also nearby is the Survivor Tree, the last living thing recovered from the rubble of the WTC towers. Singed and broken, the Callery pear tree was taken to a nursery in the Bronx for a long convalescence before returning to its home at the WTC site in 2010. Branches covered with hopeful young buds reach from the scarred trunk this night – a poignant symbol of resilience, survival, and rebirth, indeed.
Turning our gaze across Liberty Street, we see Fritz Koenig’s Sphere – now battered and worn – watching over the plaza from Liberty Park. The twenty-five foot high bronze sculpture was located between the North and South Towers. Ironically, it was meant to symbolize peace through world trade.
We shuffle in to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum for our tour. (Note: If you plan on going, plan ahead and book the tour. Trust me on this.) The first thing we see as we descend the stairs into the bedrock are two steel tridents, both from the North Tower. My eyes sting. I pat my coat pocket to make sure the tissues I’d tucked in it earlier are still there.
Waiting for the tour to begin, we sit on a bench in the lobby area. It is dim and sober. A place to reflect; a place to steel yourself. People are talking and moving, each in their own world. Just as people did that fateful morning, I think to myself.
Our tour guide Marcus bears heartfelt witness to the events of that day and to the people lost. He is not here to put us at ease. Against the advice of his supervisors, Marcus draws our attention to a now familiar photograph and tells us the name of the woman standing at the gaping hole in the North Tower. Her name was not “Tumbling Woman.” It was Edna Cintron, and she worked on the 95th floor.
We walk past a series of photographs: the last known photograph taken of the skyline just minutes before the first impact, followed by a time-lapse series of photos. From the dark ceiling above us come the voices of survivors, recounting their experiences. I pull out my first tissue.
Part of the memorial addresses the ongoing health crisis for those who worked/lived near the WTC. They were told the ash and debris would not harm them. Turns out, the dust, ash, jet fuel, and human remains they breathed in had the same pH level as Drano. Sixty different types of cancer. That is the horrible legacy of September 11, 2001, as experienced daily – still − by these people and their now adult children. It took eighty – yes, 80 – testimonials before Congress to even begin helping these people. Words, phrases play in my head:
“On behalf of a grateful nation…”
But they are just words.
Our tour ends in front of the only artwork in the museum, a watercolor mosaic by Spencer French consisting of 2,983 tiles in different shades of blue. A visual representation of the lives lost in the 1993 and 2001 attacks. Appropriately, the work is titled “Trying to Remember the Color of the Sky on That September Morning.” In the center of the mosaic is a quote from Virgil’s Aeneid: “No Day Shall Erase You From the Memory of Time.” Each letter was crafted by artist Tom Joyce from WTC steel. Behind this wall is the repository for unidentified remains.
Free to roam the rest of the museum on our own, we walk past enormous pretzeled chunks of metal. The once unbreakable, now contorted and grotesque. We walk past a timeline of events, shuddering to learn there was an announcement encouraging people to return to their offices because the buildings were stable.
We saw dust-covered artifacts – personal items, airplane parts, crushed fire trucks, whole store-fronts. In one corner was a television re-playing footage from CNN. I noticed that those of us old enough to remember that terrible day gravitated to it, just as we had back then. For days on end.
The Vesey Street stairs, the only way out for countless survivors still stand in place. The museum was built around them, which gives you an idea of how much higher the new plaza is.
A young lady, maybe eight or nine-years-old, and her dad stop next to me at a photograph of United Airlines Flight 175 plowing into the South Tower. She is confused by this. “You mean, that’s another plane?” Her dad nods. She looks from him to the photo and back again. “On purpose?” I listen to a father explain terrorism to his young daughter.
I have no tissues left.
One World Trade Center:
We came! We soared to the 102nd floor in a really fast elevator! And we saw…absolutely nothing! Unfortunately for us, the tallest building in the western hemisphere happens to be shrouded in cloud this afternoon. I’m sure it’s an astounding view on a clearer day, but we already had our tickets and only a little window of time in which to cram a very full schedule. Still, the view from the outside is pretty darn astounding!
On our way from the WTC site, we step inside the relatively new (2016) Port Authority Oculus Hub terminal. Architect Santiago Calatrava’s design is evocative of the Greek Phoenix myth of rebirth from ashes. The $4 billion structure connects eleven subway lines and a shopping mall.
Wall Street and the Terror Attack You’ve Probably Never Heard Of:
Wall Street. Home of the New York Stock Exchange. Also home of the worst terror attack on American soil prior to the Oklahoma City bombing. The deep pockmarks on the façade of 23 Wall Street whisper a story few have ever heard. At noon on September 16, 1920, a horse-drawn wagon full of explosives detonated in front of the building, killing 33 and injuring 400. Those responsible were never caught and no one ever claimed responsibility.
Federal Hall (26 Wall Street):
Outside Federal Hall, a bronze statue of George Washington watches the comings and goings on Wall Street. He is not amused.
The disappointing thing about this building is that while it IS the location where George Washington took the oath of office, is NOT the same building. The original was demolished in 1812 and sold for scrap to the tune of $425. (No, I didn’t forget any zeroes there.) THEY ACTUALLY TORE UP THE PLACE WHERE GEORGE WASHINGTON TOOK THE OATH OF OFFICE FOR $425! It was also where the first Congress was held and the first Supreme Court convened. Surely that was worth another buck and a half!
Fortunately, they kept the slab on which he stood. Unfortunately, they still managed to break it.
The Inaugural Bible is sometimes on display here. Occasionally. When the mood strikes the St. John’s Mason Lodge No. 1. Not sure what’s up with that, but I can tell you it pretty much sucks for the general public who’d like to see it.
Trinity Church (74 Trinity Place):
Moving to the end of Wall Street, we duck into Trinity Church, where our first president went to worship after the inauguration. It’s beautiful. The flowers are spectacular, with grand cascades of roses and lilies.
Outside, we find the grave of Alexander Hamilton and his exceedingly patient wife, Elizabeth (Eliza) Schuyler. The author of the Federalist Papers, member of the Continental Congress, and first Secretary of the Treasury was quite a character. I won’t bore you with that here, but look it up when you get a chance. His life was anything but boring! A little shady at times, but never boring.
St. Paul’s Chapel (209 Broadway) – a.k.a. The Little Chapel That Stood:
A few blocks up from Trinity is St. Paul’s Chapel, where George and Martha regularly attended. They sat in the Presidential Pew, which, of course, has since been removed. (New York is great, but it sure lacks reverence for anything of historical consequence.)
The chapel is the oldest surviving church in Manhattan, escaping both the great fire of 1776 that burned down Trinity Church, and the 9/11 terror attacks, without so much as a broken window. In the days after 9/11, St. Paul’s served as a kind of “home base” for those working in the rescue and recovery efforts. During that time, thousands of visitors left messages, notes, and keepsakes on the chapel’s wrought-iron fence, transforming it into a temporary memorial.
The Second Presidential Mansion (39 Broadway):
How about that? We actually got a “George slept here” plaque! Well done, NYC! Well. Done.
Granted, it’s not terribly impressive, but the Washingtons thought it a heap-load more impressive than the FIRST presidential mansion on 1 Cherry Street. They couldn’t even make it a whole year in that teeny-tiny place! Of course, what did they expect for rent of $845 PER YEAR? (By the way, you can’t actually see the first presidential mansion. It was torn down to make way for the Brooklyn Bridge. Imagine that.)
The Bowling Green (home of the Charging Bull and Fearless Girl):
Bowling Green was the first public park in New York and has shrunk exponentially over time (there will clearly be no bowling here today!). According to legend, Peter Minuit purchased the island of Manhattan from Native Americans in 1626 for what now amounts to $24. (Nope, didn’t forget the zeroes here, either.)
In other historical news, hours after the Declaration of Independence was publicly read on the steps of Federal Hall (the old building, that is), rioters came down here and toppled a statue of King George III. The story goes that it was melted down to make bullets used in the Revolutionary War.
The 7,000-lb. Charging Bull has been grazing on the Bowling Green since 1989, a creation of sculptor Arturo Di Modica to celebrate America’s “can-do” spirit. Mr. Di Modica was NOT amused when the 50-inch-tall Fearless Girl was installed in front of the bull last year. He didn’t like the way it portrayed the bull as something that should be stopped, nor did he like the commercialization of the whole spectacle. Understandable, I suppose. The Fearless Girl was commissioned by State Street Global Advisors to advertise a new index fund comprised of gender-diverse companies (NASDAQ ticker symbol: SHE). It doesn’t get much more commercialized than that. Still, I like her. Lots of people do, apparently. She might not stay in Bowling Green, but NYC is deciding on a permanent home for her. (Is that a nod to posterity I detect???)
Castle Clinton/The Battery:
Day 3. It’s windy and rainy and only slightly less cold as we set out from the hotel. First stop: The Battery and Castle Clinton National Monument to pick up our tickets for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Castle Clinton is The Battery’s main structure and takeoff point for ferries to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
Funny place, this. It used to sit 200 feet offshore and was erected during the War of 1812 to defend the city. As NYC grew, construction dirt and debris was dumped into the harbor, thereby expanding the island and engulfing the landmark. Kinda gross, when you think about it.
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island:
We go through yet another round of security before boarding the Lady Liberty for the trip to Liberty Island. (Given all the security-related radiation we’ve been exposed to thus far, we’ll be lucky not to bring back tumors as souvenirs.)
We cannot see the statue from the dock. Or from the boat. Or even when we dock on Liberty Island. Looks like the clouds are messing with us again.
Undaunted, we head right for the pedestal and museum.
But wait, there’s more! I planned ahead and got tickets to climb ALL THE WAY to the crown! Flashing our special green bracelets to the park rangers, we shed our jackets and begin the trek upward. It’s not nearly as glamorous as it sounds. It is, in fact, a narrow, cramped, steeply winding staircase. And given just enough of a gale-force wind, Lady Liberty sways – sometimes up to three inches. No extra charge for that experience.
We make it to the crown! YES! We came! We climbed up the equivalent of a 22-story building! We saw…absolutely nothing! Again.
Well, that’s not entirely true. We can see the bottom of the torch from our vantage point over Lady Liberty’s right eye. And each other. “Take a picture of me,” I say to my husband. “But you can’t even tell you’re in the−” I shush him with a look. “Just take the damn picture.”
Back on the pedestal level, we look up to see the tangle of supports keeping the statue upright. It’s amazing, really.
Check out the size of those bolts!
By the time we head back outside, the sun is poking through the clouds in fits and starts. It’s enough to see the statue and enough to finally see a proper view of the Manhattan skyline. We are pleased. So pleased, in fact, we take entirely too many pictures.
Not to be outdone, the clouds come back with a vengeance, flinging rain on us as we wait for the boat to Ellis Island. I remind myself that it’s a silly inconvenience compared to what so many immigrants endured while crossing the same water.
Ellis Island is interesting. I don’t feel a personal connection to it, as most of my ancestors were here long before it opened, yet I try to imagine what it must have felt like to be in a strange place with strange people speaking a strange language, and to be that exhausted and wrung-out. I think about those who were turned away for various reasons, and what that must have felt like. Especially when the rest of their family was cleared to stay. I think about how different things are now…and how much is the same.
Surviving a Car Ride Through Manhattan 101:
Don’t look. Really. Just don’t. Or, if you must, look up at buildings, or at people on the sidewalks. If you are truly fearless and decide to gaze unblinking at the traffic around you, know that the lines on the street are suggestions and nothing more. And that the horn is as integral to the trip as the steering wheel.
Otherwise, the experience is fairly educational. After all, we saw Madison Square Garden, and my son saw his first transvestite. Not exactly on our bucket lists, but it’ll do.
Rockefeller Center (and surrounding area):
Dropping our bags in our next hotel, we set out to explore Rockefeller Center. Along the way, we pause to snap pics of Radio City Music Hall, NBC Studios, and The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon.
Once we get to Rockefeller Center, we realize we’re standing on the exact spot where they put the enormous Christmas tree.
Watching the ice skaters below, we make our way to the other side, so we can get a better view of the golden Prometheus. My husband and son are snapping away on their cameras when some random guy comes around the corner and yells, “HOLY SHIT!” Without a beat, he walks off, hands in his pockets. We tourists (because let’s face it, only tourists go to Rockefeller Center) look at each other and laugh. Apparently that was New York-ese for “Welcome to Rockefeller Center!”
St. Patrick’s Cathedral:
On a slightly more reverent note, we cross over 5th Avenue to St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
Inside the 19th century gothic style cathedral are three altars; two were designed by Tiffany; the third, by a Medici. The Pietá in the southeast corner is twice the size of Michelangelo’s. We exit out the same door through which my dad and I entered so many years ago. I whisper, “Hey, Dad.”
Inching our way down 5th Avenue, we come to Tommy Bahama, where we have a delightful dinner with my husband’s cousin (first cousin once removed, for you genealogists out there). A bright and lovely young woman just starting out in the “big city” with an exciting new career.
After dinner, all four of us head to Times Square, where the lights are bright and the energy crackling!
This is the part of New York that truly never sleeps. And with good reason. There is so much to see! The M&M store, for instance…
Day 4. Truly, there is no better way to get to know a city than to walk its streets. And so we did. Not only did we cover most of the area from the WTC to Battery Park to Wall Street and back in one day, we also walked from Times Square to Gramercy Park, back up to Central Park, through the maze of walkways in Central Park, then back to our hotel near Times Square. Had we taken the subway, we would have missed so much! Besides, the last time I took the subway in NYC, a homeless man walked up to me, unzipped his pants, and relieved himself right there on the platform. As you can tell, it scarred me for life. In any event, I didn’t relish the thought of a repeat performance.
By ditching the subway, we get to see cool stuff like the Flatiron Building, a 22-story wedge of a building at the junction of Broadway, 5th and 23rd. Completed in 1902, it resembles a clothing iron.
And Madison Square Park, where, in 1876, the Statue of Liberty’s right arm and torch were put on display to help raise money for completion of the statue. Today, the Eternal Light Flagstaff – dedicated on Armistice Day in 1923 − still stands in commemoration of army and navy troops returning home from WWI.
My son and I stop to gawk at the bronze statue of William Seward. Who is that, you ask? Only Lincoln’s Secretary of State. The one who was also attacked by one of Booth’s conspirators the night Lincoln was assassinated. The one who brokered the purchase of Alaska from Russia. Come on, people! Brush up on your history!
With a turn down 20th Street, we reach our true destination: The Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.
It’s an obscure little brownstone nestled between buildings, and if you don’t know to look for it, you’re probably going to miss it. But I do know to look for it. I’m a fan of T.R. All three of us are, actually, but for slightly different reasons. To me, Theodore (he HATED being called Teddy) was somewhat of a real life super hero. I mean, who else but a super hero can get shot at close range, then go on to deliver a 90-minute speech? (The bullet was never removed, by the way.) And the dude could read three books A DAY! I could go on, but it’s time for the tour…
In typical New York fashion, the original house was torn down in 1916 in order to build some sort of commercial building. However, following Theodore Roosevelt’s death at the age of 60 on January 6, 1919, his two sisters started a movement to re-purchase the site. They succeeded, with a little help from their friends, and in 1923, the fully reconstructed home was opened to the public. It was donated to the National Park Service in 1963. Sixty-percent of the furnishings are from the original house or provided by family members. The other forty-percent are from the time period during which the Roosevelts lived at 28 East 20th Street.
After our tour, we trek up 5th Avenue toward Central Park, stopping for a close up view of the Empire State Building. No giant apes shinnying up the side today!
A bit later, we come to the New York Public Library, which is guarded by the lions, Patience and Fortitude, out front.
Off to our right, we eventually catch sight of the Chrysler building.
And other various and sundry establishments…
Finally, we come to something I’ve never seen in the south: a gold-leaf covered statue of William Tecumseh Sherman.
We have officially arrived at Central Park, which is, to be honest, kind of underwhelming this time of year. But we do our tourist duty and make our way to Bethesda Fountain, which is currently void of water and sporting an abundance of workmen.
Crossing over the scenic Bow Bridge (it might look familiar if you’ve ever seen When Harry Met Sally), we make our way through the Ramble to Belvedere Castle, where we are met with chain-link fence and Keep Out signs. Surprise, surprise…it’s undergoing a renovation.
We exit Central Park about mid-way up on its west side. Long enough to see the American Museum of Natural History (Night at the Museum, anybody??) and get a close up of my beloved T.R.
Next door is the New York Historical Society, where my son humors us by allowing himself to be posed AND PHOTOGRAPHED next to a life-sized Abraham Lincoln. (This is not the kid’s first rodeo. He knew he could either cooperate or endure another “Do you know how long I was in labor with you?” story.)
Full of morbid curiosity, we scamper down the street in search of the Dakota apartment building. We find it. And we find the spot where John Lennon was shot, according to a security guard, anyway. There is no marker, no plaque, no nothing. Perplexed, we cross the street back into Central Park to Strawberry Fields. There we find our marker…
I split ways with the guys here, meandering my way down through the park to 6th Avenue for coffee with my agent at Maison Kayser, while the guys head back to the Historical Society to check out the 3,000 square foot exhibit on Vietnam.
Running a little early for my appointment, I take a turn up West 57th to Carnegie Hall. How I wish I had time to go to a concert here! Still, it’s a thrill to see the building from which so much of my “writing music” comes. (I often stream WQXR, New York’s classical music radio station.)
I meet up with the guys at the hotel. They show me their pics from the Vietnam exhibit, including the Pentagon Papers (very cool, given we watched Spielberg’s The Post recently) and a jeep.
With little time to waste, we head to a little Italian spot on 48th for our last dinner in New York. I check my purse a second time. Our tickets to The Book of Mormon are still there. I smile, remembering my date with Dad to see A Chorus Line. I suspect Dad is smiling, too.