Dave and Cathy's Family Blog

March 26, 2012

My First Trip to New York City

Filed under: 2012 New York,Mom and Dad,Vacations/Trips — dave9169 @ 12:14 am

You believe you’re ready. You’re ready for the elements with your new winter jacket (the Kelvinator), fleece long-sleeve for extra warmth underneath, new shoes and socks. You’ve packed a tube of Airborne tablets and a handful of oranges to fortify your immune system against anything that could sabotage your trip – a cold, the flu, bronchitis, some virus you can’t pronounce. You’ve also got your playlist of songs and a list of things you want to see and do when you get there:

  • 911 Memorial
  • Statue of Liberty
  • Ellis Island
  • Time Square
  • Central Park
  • Guggenheim
  • See a show on Broadway
  • Eat real New York Pizza
  • Empire State Building
  • Chrysler Building
  • Flat Iron Building
  • Museum of Modern Art
  • Washington Arch
  • Highline Park
  • Chelsea Market
  • Cross the Brooklyn Bridge
  • Grand Central Station
  • Pose with the Lions at NY City Library
  • Go Out with Your Cousins

It is a pretty ambitious list considering you only have 3 days to do it. You never thought that you would be 42 years old before visiting New York city. Sure you’ve been lucky enough to see plenty of other cities – Los Angeles, Seattle, Las Vegas, Portland, Fairbanks, Phoenix, New Orleans, Chicago, Miami, Minneapolis, Orlando, Bristol (Rhode Island), Dallas, Atlanta, London, Santiago (Chile), where you lived briefly, Madrid, Barcelona, Nice, Zurich, Lucerne, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Prague, Milan, Venice, Tangiers, Gibraltar, Lahaina, Cabo San Lucas – and a few others you can’t quite recall off the top of your head. But for one reason or another New York had never panned out until now.

You also never thought you’d be going to New York in the middle of winter, but your 25-year old Chilean cousin, Renata, who is an artist, and visiting New York for the first time keeps encouraging you to come along and at least join her for part of her stay there. You also happen to have two other cousins living there, a brother sister combo named Mario and Andrea. Mario happens to be in New York on a special assignment for JP Morgan Chase. One of the fringe benefits of that arrangement is getting to stay in a swanky apartment complex called “The W” (or simply “the Dub”) in downtown Manhattan. You saw him last year for the first time in 15 years when you raced a triathlon together in South Beach Miami. He also tells you it would be good for you to come out now – even though it’s the middle of winter as you keep saying – because he doesn’t know how much longer this nice living arrangement will last and you are more than welcome to stay in his place for your visit. His sister Andrea, who you also haven’t seen in more than 15 years, and now lives in Brooklyn, also writes you to tell you that she is looking forward to your visit. If you were looking for signs, they couldn’t be more apparent so you say screw it, I don’t care if it is winter, I’m coming to New York baby!

Day One
You take the red eye and arrive in New York at 5:30 AM. You don’t think you got much sleep on the plane, but it seemed to take no time getting from Los Angeles to New York so you must have at least dozed off for a few hours. You are glad you bought the winter jacket and the fleece as you are making the transition from the balmy 70 degree climate of southern California to morning low temperatures that are in the 30s. Your cab driver is from Nepal. He assures you that the temperatures this winter are mild in comparison to other New York winters. He has a thick accent and he speaks rather softly. But you believe he has told you that he has a friend who also lives in California (although he can’t seem to recall where exactly) and that he climbed Mount Everest with him many moons ago. That’s quite an adventure you say.

You are looking forward to your own adventure today. Your cousin Renata has reviewed your list of things to see and do and has held off on doing those things until you come in to town. She got about a one week head start on you and lets you know that even though she knows no English she has managed to get around just fine in New York and has become quite good at navigating its subway system. You are happy to hear that news because you figure you can rely on her to navigate the city. It’s one less thing that you have to worry about. You’ve exchanged several e-mails with her and have told her that you can help her with translating English to Spanish. She said that’s cool, but the reality is that she’s run into so many spanish speakers there that my translation services probably won’t be needed all that much.

Your Nepalese cab driver is stumped in trying to find your cousin Mario’s apartment. He drops you off somewhere he thinks is close and you begin your adventure of walking up and down the streets of Manhattan looking for his building. This is when the Smartphone you keep refusing to buy would come in handy. Of course if your cousin had just told you he was staying at “The W” instead of providing you with nothing more than an apartment number and street address, locating his place would have been no problem. In any case, with the help of very friendly pedestrians on the street and a few phone calls to your cousin (who is barely awake) you manage to find the place and see your cousin before he heads out to work.

He tells you that he is happy you made it out and is sorry he can’t stay and show you around but he had already made plans to see his girlfriend, who he hadn’t seen in weeks, on the same weekend you arrived, and that canceling his trip to see her would probably not be a wise boyfriend move. He assures you that you will get a chance to see him Sunday night however, which is the night before you head back to LA. No worries you tell him. You are just thankful that you have such a nice place to stay – right across the street from the 911 Memorial with clear views of the memorial fountains, the new Tower One, and the Empire State building. Your cousin tells you that the rent here is 5K per month and also lets you know that a new celebrity has just moved into the building, none other than New York Knick phenom, Jeremy Lin (can you say Linsanity?).

You unpack your stuff and lay on the bed for a few minutes as you know Renata will be showing up shortly and then it will be a non-stop parade of sight seeing. On tap for today are:

  • Statue of Liberty
  • Ellis Island
  • Time Square
  • Central Park
  • Guggenheim

You get up and head down to the hotel’s BLT café with the vouchers Mario left you for breakfast. You are digging into your delicious 3-egg white omelet with spinach tomatoes and sausage when Sarah from the front desk calls you to let you know your cousin has arrived and that she is heading up to your room to meet you.

You surprise your cousin upstairs and tell her to come join you for breakfast downstairs. Downstairs the three Mexican girlfriends she studied with in Brazil are also waiting for her. These are friends she also convinced to come out and visit her in New York. So on this first day it will be the five of you seeing the sites. You definitely don’t mind being in the company of four very attractive young ladies. It feels weird to call them young ladies, but even you must admit they look much younger than you.

On your way out, Manuel and Sarah from the front desk tell you to remember to come back later because they plan to review your list of things to do and then provide you with detailed instructions on how to get to each place on your itinerary. You are already loving how helpful New Yorkers seem to be. The Mexican girls all have their iPhones but they can only use them when they have a WiFi connection available, otherwise they get charged exorbitant rates to access the Internet. You suspect it will be okay though. If you need help, you will just go “old school” and ask somebody face-to-face.

The first sites you visit are the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. You are ferried out there on a ship called the New Jersey. There is a closed cabin and an open-air deck upstairs. Even though it is still in the 30s you choose the open-air option which gives you all plenty of opportunities to snap pictures of the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty. On our way out to Liberty Island, the gals – Renata, Monica, Janeth, and Veronica – start to inquire as to how the statue became so special. For example, why did the US get the statue and how did it get so iconic? You begin to fumble around with some explanations about the French helping us in the war against the British and how the statue was a gift from them. You also recall that one of the reasons the statue has become this larger than life symbol is because millions of immigrants took their first steps toward becoming American citizens from Ellis island, and the nearby Statue of Liberty was one of the first things they saw before entering the city, setting the stage for what would become a lifelong emotional connection with lady liberty.

It takes about 2 hours or so, plus the one hour or so you waited in line, for you to conclude your visit to these historical sites. You and the gals are starting to get hungry. You decide to take the subway to Time Square where you will attempt to find a real New York pizzeria to satiate your hunger. You enjoy walking up the steps of the subway and having a new scene display before your eyes. In fact, since it’s your first time here, every exit of the subway provides this sense of anticipation and excitement. Time Square doesn’t fail to deliver. It is pure sensory overload – skyscrapers of different sizes and shapes, giant digital bulletin boards advertising movies, TV shows, Broadway plays, electronics companies, and beer companies, hundreds of people walking the street (even though it’s the middle of winter), and steam rising up from the manholes just like you see in the movies. Your quest for food gets side-tracked as the gals remember that they want to see a Broadway show, the Lion King. You get in line and buy tickets for about $100 each. The show is scheduled for 8:00 in the evening and none of your seats are next to each other. That means you won’t have anybody you know sitting next to you to help keep you awake if you start getting drowsy – after all, you’ve been up since 5:30 AM with nothing but some interrupted plane slumber to sustain you.

You begin looking for pizza places in Time Square, but before you get there you stop to take a few pictures with Morgan Freeman (his statue, that is) outside Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. Apparently, Morgan is one of Renata’s favorite actors. Next door you hear Alicia Keys singing about the concrete jungle of New York and where dreams are made of in her song Empire State of Mind, one of the songs a friend of yours suggested you put on your musical playlist for the trip. You record a snippet of the song with your camera as a keep safe for later.

Finally, you find a pizza place called La Famiglia. The pizza isn’t anything special but you all appreciate it because you’re hungry and you’re finally having New York pizza (so you think). Later, your cousin Andrea will laugh out loud when you tell her this story because apparently the place is a chain that comedian John Stewart performed a comedic diatribe against when he found out that Donald Trump had taken Sarah Palin there so that she could experience “real” New York pizza (here is the original clip from the John Stewart show). To make a long story short, La Famiglia is a chain owned by some Albanians and the quality is nowhere close to the authentic pizza places you can experience in New York. Luckily, your cousin Andrea takes you to a real New York pizzeria the next day, Lombardi’s in Little Italy which is the oldest pizza place in New York (established in 1905 – a place John Stewart highly recommended in the comedic diatribe mentioned earlier).

During lunch you learn about how the girls met in Brazil. You learn how Renata was a little standoffish at the beginning because she thought these girls partied a little too hard, but later on she ended becoming roommates with Monica and soon after she became friends with Janeth and Veronica. And now they are all here together again reunited in New York. The girls are all from Monterey, Mexico and Renata affectionately refers to them all now as “las mexicanas.” From what you can see they all appear to be very close.

Ten months studying abroad together will do that for you, you tell them as you share a similar experience of when you studied abroad in London. Cherish your friendship you council them sounding more like a wise older man than you’d like to admit. Out of the five room mates you had in London when you were 21 (half the age you are now), you remain close friends with only one of them, but at least you manage to see him and his family once a year or so in San Diego. The gals agree that they will stay close.

After lunch you head to Central Park. You are surprised by the number of people walking, running, and cycling through the park. It seems much too cold to be doing these activities, but these New Yorkers are undeterred. And so are you. Kind of. You still accept the offer by a persistent Frenchman to shuttle you around the park and to the Guggenheim via a bike taxi. After all, you’ve already walked a lot today. The gals decide to walk and meet you at the museum which is fine. You figure you need to save your energy a little. The bike taxi is a so-so experience. It’s good in that it gets you off your feet, but not so good in that you don’t really take your time to see the few sites the Frenchman shows you. You’re glad that you negotiated the price down from $35 to $20.

The Guggenheim is impressive but you don’t spend a lot of time there because there is a special invite-only showing. You at least get to witness the architecture and relish the few minutes you get to spend inside getting warm.

You manage to stay awake through the Lion King. Your tickets are in the first row. Off to the side, but first row nonetheless. The performances are excellent. It is probably not the ideal seating for a stage performance, but you get to see the actors up close and a change of perspective is not a bad thing. After the show you meet the gals in the lobby, walk outside and discover it has begun raining. You and Renata say goodbye to las mexicanas and then make your way to the subway in the rain. You get a little lost on the way back, reminding you of your arrival this morning, but manage to find your way back. You first help Renata set up the pull-out sofa bed. You wash up. You get to sleep. The clock reads after midnight.

Day Two
You begin day two at the BLT for breakfast. It is how you began day one and also how you will begin day three – a place and routine you and Renata will remember for years to come for the food, conversation and friendly staff (Brian and Hans – Renata can’t believe how good you are at remembering names). Before heading to the BLT, Sarah surprises you both with a map in which she has listed all the places we must see while we’re here in New York for the first time. You jokingly tell Sarah that you need to start crossing items off the list and not adding to it. Then you thank her profusely since she has gone through so much effort. You also feel compelled to visit some of these places and are glad some of them are already on your list.

This day is the one Renata has been looking forward to the most. She is an artist who has studied art in Chile for many years and is currently pursuing her masters. Most of the coolest exhibits she has studied and seen in her books are housed in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). That is where you are going today and the ride there is made even more pleasant when the concierge tells you he has arranged for the complimentary Acura shuttle service to take you both to MoMA’s so that you can avoid the rain. You can’t believe your luck. On the way to the museum Renata confesses that she is excited at the opportunity to see the works she has read about in person. You are excited for her too. You remember when you studied modern writers in college as part of your English Lit degree. You remember The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, Gertrude Stein. You are happy to see the glee in your cousin’s eyes as she takes in the classic works by Picasso, Dali, and Van Gogh, while introducing you to and teaching you about artists you don’t know anything about, like Cindy Sherman. She occasionally scribbles notes into her book. She is having a great time. She jokingly calls you “viejito,” but she humors you and tells you that you still look young. You are glad she invited you on this trip.

The next stop is the Metropolitan. The early morning rain has given way to blue skies (more good luck) and temperatures of 55 degrees, which is practically tropical weather when compared to the first day you arrived (sure, that was only yesterday but it already seems so long ago). The Met is ginormous. Central Park is right next door. It is a beautiful day. These three thoughts enter your head as you walk through the front doors of the Met and see the mass of humanity waiting in line to go through security. You don’t over think this one. It’s a “Blink” moment. You walk out and tell Renata, you know what, “I’m all museum-ed out.” Lets go to the park instead.

It’s a great call. You see way more people running and biking today. You take another hundred pictures. You sit down on a park bench and watch the people. They watch you. You take in the lake, the fountains, the view of the highest buildings on the West side. You call your cousin Andrea. You’ve been texting and keeping tabs on each other all day so that you can meet up and eat at some point. She is busy wrapping up all the details that she needs to complete for a film shoot and preparations for SXSW, where she will be with her fiancé next weekend in Austin to screen their first narrative film, Booster. Life seems exciting for everyone right now. You decide to meet her at Lombardi’s in Soho.

You experience another one of those dramatic scene changing moments when you exit the subway station in Soho. The buildings shrink — quaint red-bricked structures against a wonderfully lit blue sky. You never tire of the contrast in panoramas from one subway station to the next. Before heading to Lombardi’s you go to Washington park and take a picture of the arch. You ask a police officer for directions. He seems to be the most helpful policeman ever. He’s very nice. He takes his time and steers you in the right direction. You are almost there when Renata takes out her map to confirm you are heading the right way. Within seconds a lady approaches you and asks you if she can help you find anything. She points the way. You can’t believe how helpful people in this city are. Aren’t New Yorkers supposed to be impatient and rude?

At Lombardi’s you give Andrea a big hug. She confirms it’s been at least 15 years since she’s seen you when you were in your 20s and on your way to Chile or Europe with your wife Cathy. She wants to hear about Cathy, your daughter Lilah and your son Luke. You give her the quick version. You also introduce Renata to Andrea. They are cousins too but for one reason or another they have never met. You have a few beers. You talk for a couple of hours and eat almost an entire large pizza (topped with homemade sausage, tomatoes and red onions) between the three of you. You have a lot to catch up on. This is when you learn about the John Stewart diatribe that disses the pizza place you ate at yesterday. The three of you laugh. You are all speaking in Spanish. You have never heard Andrea speak Spanish because there has never really been a reason to do so until now. She speaks very well, perhaps even a tad better than you. You all bond. You have a great time and agree that you will all go out tomorrow night and have some paella at a great little Spanish restaurant called Soccorat Andrea knows about. Your cousin Mario (her brother), will also be there. You all look forward to the reunion. You love these type of reunions.

Later that night you’re invited to another reunion of sorts – a birthday party for Renata’s friend Abby in the West Village. Abby is the girl Renata has been staying with since she arrived in New York. Abby had a boyfriend in Chile when she studied there. The boyfriend was a very good friend of Renata’s. That was the connection. Renata confesses she hasn’t really been able to hang out with Abby too much because Abby has a lot of school work to do. Hanging out with her tonight at the bar in the West Village gives them a chance to catch up and you a chance to meet Abby and her friends. They are all so young, but you don’t feel so apart from them anymore. Renata has convinced you that you’re only as old as you feel. You love your cousin’s energy, the person she’s become and the journey she is on. You are glad to be part of that journey.

Day Three
The itinerary for Day Three is a beast:

  • Empire State Building
  • Chrysler Building
  • Flat Iron Building
  • Wall Street
  • Highline Park
  • Chelsea Market
  • Grand Central Station
  • New York City Library
  • Dinner with Andrea and Mario

As always you begin the adventure with a hearty breakfast at the BLT and some conversation with Hans, your server who likes New York, but prefers the weather and more relaxed pace and lifestyle of South Beach, Miami which is where he grew up and plans to move back to some day.

Today buildings feature prominently on the agenda. Your first stop is the New York city library. You climb up one of the lions and have Renata take your picture. Then you switch roles and take a picture for her. You don’t go inside. There is lots to see and do and you have to prioritize. Next stop is Grand Central station, the largest train station in the world. You do go inside here. The Grand Concourse with its marble floors and pillars, high ceilings, immense arched windows, and beautiful turquoise ceiling featuring the signs of the zodiac is truly impressive and worth visiting.

Now it’s on to the Empire State building. Initially, your plan is just to take pictures from the outside and come back later in the evening to see the lights. So you take a few shots, lie on the floor and shoot up to try to get a better perspective and then walk in to find out how much it will cost to visit the top. The art deco lobby featuring a brilliant ceiling mural of the sky in 23-karat gold and aluminum leaf is tastefully done so you take a few moments to take it in and capture more photographs. After finding out the price for a visit to the 86th floor ($22) you get ready to leave, but one of the ladies who works there asks you if you are sure you want to leave now and come back later because there is virtually no waiting to get to the top. This is not common. In fact, many people have told you about waiting in line for hours to see the vista from the top of the Empire State building. You take this as yet another sign of the friendly New Yorkers all around you leading you in the right direction. You and Renata buy your tickets and realize the lady was right. It takes you 10 minutes, maybe 15, to get to the best view in town.

It’s definitely worth the $22 you spent. It’s a 360 degree panorama of the city. You realize that Alicia Keys was right, it really is a massive concrete jungle. It’s immense, spectacular, inspiring. With views of the Manhattan skyline, the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty, Chrysler Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Queens, Brooklyn, the financial district and so many other places that are too numerous to list.

Next you get out at the Flat Iron building subway station and begin walking toward Macy’s figuring you will bump into the famous edifice eventually. After walking forward for ten, twenty, thirty yards or so it occurs to you to turn around. You start laughing as there is the building you were looking for – it was right behind you the entire time and you were right next to it when you exited the subway station. All you had to do was look up. Your cousin breaks out into laughter too.

Okay, you have gotten all the big buildings out of the way. Now it’s time to head Chelsea which Renata has learned is a very popular place with artists. Highline park is also located in Chelsea. It is famous because it was built on 1.45 mile elevated section of the former New York Central railroad. This open greenbelt is a relatively recent addition to New York as the park was officially completed in 2011. You don’t see much green however, reminding you again that it is winter. You can still use your imagination to visualize how people would come here in the spring or summer to sun themselves on the wooden lounge chairs or simply sit and have lunch on one of the many benches that overlook the water.

As you leave Highline Park you and Renata wonder what you are going to do for lunch. Both of you take pride in the fact that you shoot with your Canon DSLR cameras, instead of using a device like an iPhone. By doing this, you can typically count on documenting your trip with at least a few frame-worthy shots. You and Renata also bond over the fact that you are one of the few dinosaurs left who doesn’t use a Smartphone. But right now, this is not doing you any good. You need to find a place to eat.

You approach a lady at an intersection. You tell her this is your first trip to New York and you want to go somewhere special or quintessentially New York for your next meal. She tells you the diner across the street is nothing special but the steakhouse behind it is pretty famous and has good quality fare. She then thinks a bit more and comes to the conclusion that we should go to Chelsea Market, a meat packing building that was converted into an indoor shopping and eating center. You thank her and she wishes you the best. More good New York karma.

Chelsea Market is cool. It’s like a dungeon, only much more artistic, inviting and homey. You and Renata have sandwiches (hummus for her and chicken salad for yourself) then go visit a cafe for a little coffee and cookies for dessert to build up energy for the grand finale – a walk across the Brooklyn bridge and dinner with Andrea and Mario at Soccorats. Renata tells you that she can’t get that Alicia Keys song out of her head. You take out your camera and play the part of the song you recorded while walking by the wax museum yesterday. No wait, that was the day before yesterday. You are already losing track of time. Renata smiles.

You flag down a taxicab and tell him you want to go across the Brooklyn Bridge. He said you are lucky because he was about to call it a day and head for home, but since home is in Brooklyn he agreed to take you across the bridge. You are also lucky because your driver happens to be Ecuadorian so the three of you talk in Spanish and you learn a little bit about his story. Gustavo is his name and based on his story you realize he left his native city of Guayaquil and came to this country at the same time you were a in high school — your cousin wasn’t even born then yet. He is very nice and drops you off in a nice spot by the waterfront where you witness a bride heading to her wedding ceremony or reception.

There you have yet another view of Manhattan (now at dusk) so you and Renata take more pictures. You are at well over 300 pictures now for this trip and Renata is competing rather nicely with you in the amount of images she has taken during her sojourn here as well. Later the two of you will tag each other on Facebook and also share shots with the Mexican girls that accompanied you on your first day. Las Mexicanas will also share their pictures with you later too.

You start your trek back around 6:30, but the walk across the bridge takes longer than you expected. Well, that’s because you have a 20 minute walk just to get to the entrance to the bridge. You will be cutting it close if you plan on having dinner with Mario and Andrea at 8:00 PM. You walk at a decent pace across the wooden planks of the Brooklyn Bridge, but you can’t resist stopping along the way and taking more pictures. You are told on one, two, and now three different occasions to stay on your side of walkway as you have an inherent kid-like knack for wandering onto the bikeway. You laugh it off. The trip is almost over. If this is an example of New York rudeness, you’ll gladly take it as there have been so many countless examples of kindness on this trip that this sudden reversal is somewhat of a welcome relief. Not to mention the fact that it is your fault.

You make it back to your place to refresh yourselves. The staff greets you kindly as always and you thank them for the wonderful maps, directions, and treatment they have given you so far. You both give Sarah a hug because she tells you she will not be here in the morning when you leave. That’s right you will be leaving soon, a fact that just kind of hits you for a moment.

Within 15 minutes you are back on the road, headed to the subway station so that you can get to the restaurant. You are hardly ever late, but there is no way you will get around it this time. You get to the station at ten minutes before 8:00 PM (the time of your reservation), but it takes the subway train more than ten minutes just to get to your station. Andrea texts you to see where you are. You explain the situation and she writes “no worries,” she will wait. You get on your train and it turns out to be “an express” which means it is going to pass the stop you need to get off at and you’ll have to take a cab to get you to the restaurant. Before this your cousin Mario sends you a text asking “Where the hell are you, I’m starving.” Then another one, “I’m going to punch you in the face for making me wait.” It’s all in jest of course and once you and Renata arrive (40 minutes late) all is forgotten and forgiven. Mario even picks up the tab, just like his sister did at Lombardi’s the day before. You are proud of the way both of these cousins of yours have grown into young adults – well at least younger adults than you.

For Renata, this is a chance to meet another cousin she has never met. This is also the first time you have spoken to Mario in Spanish. You are all speaking in Spanish, a language that reminds you of your parents. So much so that you start sharing stories of where you were born. Mario can’t remember some of the exact details and ends up calling his dad to confirm a few things. You do the same and call your dad right there from the restaurant. You all share a good laugh and picture your parents calling each other to talk about how great it is that their kids are getting together. Mario reminds you that the iPhone he used to call his dad can also be used to get directions, find places to eat, get to places on time, etc.. You thank him for the advice and tell him that you and Renata still prefer face-to-face encounters. You talk a little bit more about your upbringings, your parents, where you lived and places you have seen in common. You discuss the possibility of a trip to Machu Picchu together one day. You realize that things could have been a lot different if you had all grown up near each other, but you are thankful that your parents kept in touch over the years because in a way you feel kind of like you have grown up together. And even though you must say goodbye and go home soon you feel like this reunion will just be one of many more in the years to come.

Thank you Renata. Thank you Mario. Thank you Andrea. Thank you New York!

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