WARNING: Travel logs can be some of the most boring reading out there, as well as long stories about other people’s kids (especially if you don’t have any), sitting through someone else’s vacation slide show, and self-reflective indulgences. So if you choose to skip over the following self-reflective, travel log, father-son, photographic drivel, I will not fault you. If you just want the photos and don’t care about my drivel you can see them here on flickr.
So without further dissuasion:
This past weekend seemed to be about embracing the individual pasts of both me and my wife and passing it to the children. We didn’t plan to pack both into one weekend, it just worked out that way. Two more different backgrounds you could find than mine and my wife’s. On Sat. we went on a hayride, complete with turnip picking, animal feeding, and pumpkin picking. My wife comes from a farming background. I went along to take photos, even though the farmer laughed at me when I asked if the hay in the wagon was hypoallergenic. My wife assured me that it’s been washed and cleaned with antibacterial soaps.
On Sun. I took my five-year old son Marcus to NYC in an attempt to give him his first big city experience on his way to developing an appreciation for all it has to offer. I grew up on Long Island with constant access to The City. Every school trip I went on from Kindergarten through high school was into The City. My family took me there for all sorts of occasions, and from a very young age, I was allowed to wander it on my own or with friends. I have profound appreciation for it, an intimate knowledge of it, and a catalog of experiences you could not replicate elsewhere. Ultimately, these opportunities cultivated my desire to explore, which I indulge everywhere I go, not just in The City. I have tried to instill this quality in my kids, we call it going off the beaten trail, and if you ask them why we go off the beaten trail, they will tell you because we like to explore.
Living in the CT woods has had its benefits with regard to raising a family, but they come at a cost. I have always wanted to offset that cost by giving my sons some of the experiences I had. So, I planned a basic intro trip to The City for Marcus. Trains, subways, Empire State Building, NY style pizza, Ferries, and the Statue of Liberty. There was only two miscalculations in the beginning and an unfortunate incident at the end. So the day started and ended badly with a lot of good in between.
We started our day up at 4:30 AM and hit the road to the Metro North station at New Haven by 4:45. With no one on the road, I was confident we’d make the 5:55 train putting us at Grand Central just before 8AM. The empire state building opens at 8AM, so I expected to avoid the lines by being there early. We did make the station in time but I parked too far away (miscalculation #1), and we had to walk an extra block to get to the station. Once inside I hurried us down to the tunnels to catch the train. There is a main tunnel that has 14 stairwells up to 14 platforms. You can’t see the tracks without ascending the stairs but each stairway has a board for the details. Because of this, I did not check the main board for the track number we needed (miscalculation #2). We ran up and down the main tunnel only to find that none of the boards had any information on them. I was forced to run back up to the main room and check the main board. Track 14! The furthest down the tunnel. I picked up Marcus and ran. We arrived on the platform (along side another person) just in time to see the train leave.
If I had parked closer, or checked the main board first, we probably would have made that train. We had to wait and hour for the next train. No big deal. We had breakfast. We watched the sun rise over the trains on the platform.
We arrived in Grand Central Terminal about 8:40 AM. Often called Grand Central Station, Grand Central is truly one of the great crossroads of our times. It gets more visitors than any other landmark in the city. It’s never quiet, never empty. The stream of activity ebbs and flows between gentle crowds and torrents of people; all going somewhere to do something. New Yorkers are prone to exaggeration, and one of my favorite expressions from my past is used when some otherwise quiet area like a store, or a parking lot, or a neighborhood street suddenly gets busy to the point of frustration. “All of sudden it’s like grand central station in here!”
I had seen GCT when it was falling apart and I’ve seen the progressive restoration of it. The ceiling itself was so covered with tar and grime from tobacco smoke, you could not see the art work. It simply appeared black. I recognize GCT in countless movies, and I find it to be one of the most timeless places in the world (despite the fact that there is a big clock in the center and the whole place was designed for the sole purpose of catching trains according to particular time tables).
This early in the morning, when it was the least hectic it would ever be, a TV show shoot was set up. They were shooting an episode of Friday Night Lights. I’ve never seen the show, but I saw the film. How a TV show about a Texas High School football team found its way to GCT I’ll never know. I didn’t wait around to find out, we had places to go and things to see, just like everyone else there.
We hit the subways for a short hop (10 blocks) to get to the Empire State Building. Marcus has always liked trains, we took him to see Thomas when he was younger and he’s enjoyed the Trolley Museum here in CT, but I didn’t realize how much train riding he was going to get, nor how excited he’d be about it. He never wanted to sit down, preferring to stand and hold the rail. I remember doing the same as a kid and enjoying the feeling that I was somehow surfing the train. I totally get it, everywhere else he goes he’s strapped in, be it car or plane, or amusement park ride. I showed him how to spread you feet front to back so you can absorb the movement without falling down. He seemed to like that.
At the Empire State Building we waited on long lines, and went through airport-like security. I’ve been there 13 times previously, all before 9/11. There was never security like that, but that’s just a sign of our times. My 13th time was with a Bosnian Supreme Court Justice and his chief of staff. They were visiting for a law conference and had never been to NYC. My role was work related. I parked the rented town car, in midtown, and called my boss from the top of the Empire State Building on the rented cell phone just to say, “hello guess where I am.” There is a whole other interesting story right there.
I see the Empire State Building as kind of a starting point for the whole NYC experience. The building was the first building to reach 100 floors, and held the top spot as the tallest building in the world for most of the 1900s. But more importantly, it stands in the center of the city, and from it you can see the entire city. I take people here first as a way of saying, there it is, all of it, now get out there and explore it.
Once you finally reach an elevator, you fly up to the 80th floor, where you have to get out and take another one to the 86th floor. That means waiting on another line as it snakes around the building. We had just gotten on the end of this line when a door right next to us opens up and an employee standing there says to those of us in the vicinity, “Who want to take the stairs, six floors to go, you can skip the line if you can make the climb. But once I close the door the chance is gone.”
“We will!” Along with a handful of others, we climbed the last six floors of stairs to the top.
Marcus was thrilled with the view, we had a clear day with no wind. You could see five states, and up to 80 miles around, and almost all of it covered in concrete. He took pictures with his camera, and I took photos of him until he was tired of it. I pointed out the names of the buildings I knew, and before you knew it, tourists were asking me what certain things were, and which way they could see this that and the other thing. I answered their questions, but I wondered if it made it any more or less enjoyable to know what you are looking at. Does it matter what the names are? It doesn’t change the view. In a way it’s kinda like looking at stars. Does knowing the names of the constellations or the stars make it more spectacular? Marcus really didn’t care what the names were. The sight of it was what mattered most to him.
It must matter on some level, because you could have bought a $4 map that tells you what you are looking at from the salesmen hocking it every 20 feet down the line. Of course that’s a ridiculous price for a piece of paper, but they must make a ton of money on it or they wouldn’t be pushing it.
Speaking of rip offs, I know everything in the gift shop is over priced, and I know I can get everything there on the street for less, and I know as a former native, I should know better, but I also think there is no shame in being a tourist and doing tourist things. It’s part of the experience. Marcus wanted the first thing we saw in the gift shop, a little ESB statuette. I had one similar when I was a kid. So, what the hell, yeah it’s pricey but we bought it. He held it the rest of the trip, and wouldn’t let me stash it away. Somehow I don’t think taking him to chinatown to get it from a street vendor would have had the same impact.
Pizza. There are so few places outside NY to get real Italian NY style pizza. All the pizza in CT is Greek and being half Greek I can tolerate it, but the natives here have grown a taste for it, and as a result they shun any NY style pizza place that opens. I frequent them when I find them, but my business alone is not enough to support them and they quickly go under. And even during some recent trips to the city, it was hard to find what I was looking for, amid so many chains and independent joints looking to make a fast buck.
We walked 5 blocks to have lunch at a place started by the Italian boxer Rocky Marciano who was the heavyweight champion of the world from 1952 to 1956, with forty-three knockouts to his credit (87.8% knockout rate). He remains the only heavyweight champion in boxing history to retire having won every fight in his professional career, and he knew good pizza when he tasted it. He’s gone now, but his restaurant lives on, complete with dining tables adorned with boxing gloves. It was everything I was looking for. Small quiet no-frills joint, actual Italians making pizza just the way I like it.
Marcus may grow up liking CT pizza better, but not for lack of comparison. However, he did take offense when I told him I thought this was the best pizza in the world. He said that didn’t show any respect for Mom’s pizza. Okay, so clearly he’s Italian, talking about respect and loving his Momma’s food above all else. I really couldn’t argue with him (she does make great pizza).
We were done with lunch a little after noon. We walked back a few blocks to the subway, needing to get downtown to Battery Park to catch our ferry to the Statue of Liberty. The 4,5,and 6 trains were not going all the way downtown this weekend because of construction, we had to reroute on the fly. No problem. We arrived at 12:30 PM with our tickets for a 1:30 boat. We sat and watched street performers in the park for fifteen minutes.
Finally we got on line. More crowds, more security, more waiting. I hate waiting.
But if you pay attention you can sometimes see interesting things. I talked with a professional tour guide, who had a large group she was leading. Attaching myself to her while we were online was not only interesting but we always made the cut when they started and stopped the line. While waiting at security, a man behind me asked the agent to speak to the officer in charge. He came over and I saw and overheard this guy as he brandished his badge, identified himself as a detective, and asked if he could slip through to watch someone. They let him through, and he stood on the other side and watched, occasionally looking over the crowd. Was he tailing someone? Investigation one of the employees? I don’t know. But regardless, a flash of a badge gets you past security with your concealed weapon. And I know a place online where you can buy those badges.
We made our boat and got off at Liberty Island where the statue is. We were not able to obtain passes to go inside because I booked too late, but instead we wandered Liberty Island for a bit. We took pictures of the statue. We had ice cream, talked about freedom, this country, how lucky we are, immigration, our ancestors, and all that comes from the idea of The Land of Opportunity. We took pictures of the back of the statue because we’re pretty sure no one ever does. We took pictures for tourist who needed people to take pictures of them. We did this for Australians, French, English, Latin Americans, Indians, Asians, and Germans. We were in no rush. I love that there are so many different people in NYC, of course if I had to live there, they would just be in my way. It’s one thing to see them as interesting when you have nothing to do but wander, it’s entirely different when you have to get to work and they are stopping in the crosswalks to look at the tall buildings. I think that was the problem with the boatman, he was working, not wandering, we’ll get back to him.
We went to Ellis island and saw the exhibits, we did not spend too much time here because most of it was over Marcus’s head and it was getting late. We talked a bit more about people wanting to come here and the reasons why and then we got on the long line waiting for the boat back to The City.
The boats come every 20 minutes, and one had just left 10 minutes ago, so we were first on line along with an Indian family. we were held back by a gate, the kind you see in cities used for crowd control. The boat men swing it open to let people in and close it to stop people. On the other side of this gate, is a bench, not more than 3 feet away. The boat guys are just sitting there smoking cigarettes and waiting for the next boat. Their entire job is to set up the plank and then tell people when to go and when to stop. They are not security or even National Park employees, they work for the boat company who has a lock on the travel to and from these islands (no one else is allowed to dock there).
This Indian man had a family, with a little girl not more than 2. He kept saying “excuse me” to the three boatmen who ignored him. Eventually he got one of them to pay attention to him. He said, “Can I use the bench to change a diaper?”
The 20 something boat man responds with, “diaper change?” and he pauses in that way that I know signifies he’s searching his tiny head for a reason to say no. “You can go back inside where they have stuff for that.”
“Yes but the boat will be here.” the indian responds. Meaning, he doesn’t want to lose his chance to get the boat.
And this guy knows that, but instead he says, “these boats come every 20 minutes.”
The indian says, “yes but it will take 20 minutes to walk back and wait in line again, it will take 3 minutes to do it here.”
The boatman thinks again, looking for a reason to say no and then he says, “but these benches are for elderly and handicapped.” And then he turned around to smoke some more with his fat assed buddy who was SITTING ON THE BENCH. I wanted to scream, gesturing to his buddy, “he must be retarded then because he ain’t old!” I wanted to take this guy’s photo and then excitedly tell the guy next me that I got photos of Lady Liberty and a genuine NYC asshole. I wanted to ask this guy how exactly the elderly and handicapped were suppose to get to it, what with it being blocked by the gate. But I had a 5 year old with me, and I needed to get on that boat, and I knew at the very worst he could delay that.
But before I really thought everything through, I heard myself say, “Hey buddy. I’ll give you 10 bucks if you let the guy change the diaper. C’mon the girl is crying and she needs it.”
The guy looked at me for a bit, either considering it or stunned that I said anything at all. Eventually he turned away to go smoke with his buddies some more, never acknowledging me at all. I couldn’t let it go that easy so I said, “you’re a real humanitarian, pal!” He continued to ignore me.
The Indian managed with great effort to change the diaper in the stroller and thanked me for trying. The boat pulled up and they let us on. As we got on, I saw the Indian go to the boatman and ask his name. They guy refused to give it. Fucking coward, I thought. If you chose to stand on the rules, or principle or whatever, and you think you’ve done everything right, they you should give your name and stand by your decision, but his fear of giving his name tells me he knows he acted wrongly. Judging by similar situations I saw on the other islands, the gate is suppose to be placed on the other side of the bench so the people have access to it. These schmucks probably realized that they could move the gate and have a place for them to park their fat assess between boats.
Whether this schmuck did it because of the rules or because the guy was Indian, or a tourist, or because he was just a dick, the irony of this happening at the Statue of Liberty was not lost on me. The symbol of freedom and equality stood in the background while a local dick treated a guy like cattle because he was different or not from around here. It makes me embarrassed to be a New Yorker, even if I’m not really one anymore. But I know two kinds of New Yorkers. This guy is one type and it gives the rest a bad name. The other type is hard to describe. They are hospitable in a unique way, like stopping to take pictures for tourists and answer questions about the sights. They are happy to see people enjoy their city, and give directions and advice to visitors. They are open and friendly, and before you laugh about that, I realize it’s not the common type of friendly that shows up with a cake and a smile when you move to the neighborhood. It’s more of a blunt in your face friendly. They don’t sugar coat things, and don’t mask their feelings behind fake smiles, and they tell you to your face exactly what they think. They are fiercely in your corner when you befriend them, but can easily be a confrontational asshole to another asshole if the need arises.
Maybe it’s only my imagination, but that’s the kind of New Yorker I was raised to be, and growing up we were surrounded by similar people. My kids won’t be New Yorkers and I’ve come to terms with that, I’m not really sure I am any more either, but they will have the qualities of New Yorkers that I admire, that much I know.
Marcus and I returned to Battery Park and made our way to the subway, we bought cotton candy and a hot pretzel from a street vendor. I love that every corner has handheld food for people on the go. And I love that the prices are negotiable, especially as the day goes on and they are faced with tossing food for a complete loss.
A lot of the old city, the one I use to know is covered up with a new facade, the skyline has changed, the people have changed, the subways are new and shiny, but if you look carefully, you can see remnants of it here and there.
Taking the subway back to GCT we arrived just in time to catch the 5:07 to New Haven. Marcus fell asleep on the train and two hours later I had to wake him up to get off and go to the car. On the way home we stopped at McD’s for dinner and he was tired and worn out. He starts to get a little upset.
“I don’t want to leave NY,” he sobs.
“Sonny, don’t you want to go home at tell Mom about all the fun we had?”
“Why can’t she just come here? (he doesn’t realize we’ve left NY behind already). I don’t like it when we have to leave places I like, like Ohio (where my parents live) AZ (where Laura’s parents live), Cape Cod, and New York. It makes me sad.”
“I know it’s hard to leave, but all those places aren’t in the same place, so we have to leave one to get to another, but we can always come back, they will always be here.”
“But it makes me so sad.”
“Do you know how lucky you are? So many people never get to go to any of those places, they never leave the place where they live, they never explore the world around them.”
“I don’t know son, I really don’t know.” I almost never say that phrase to him, but in this case it’s the only answer I have. “But we do,” I continued. “We get off the beaten trail every chance we get, right?”
“Yeah. Because we like to explore,” he smiled.
On the way home he fell asleep again. I pulled in the driveway at 9 PM and carried him to bed. The next morning he woke bright and early and constructed a skyscraper from blocks complete with a tunnel under it and train tracks going through the tunnel. He really did like the subway, more than anything else.