New York City Journal

Copyright © 2004, Glenn Story

This is my first day in New York City.  I am here with my wife and younger daughter.  We are visiting my older daughter, Elizabeth, who lives here.

This morning we visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  We saw exhibits on Chinese art, Japanese art, photography, and musical instruments.  We saw a piano made by Chistofore, the man who invented the piano.

We next went up to the roof garden and looked out on Central Park and the Manhattan skyline.

Then we walked to Elizabeth’s old apartment and had lunch in a neighborhood eatery.  It seemed to be shared by two proprietors, one Greek, and one Italian.  We had Greek food.

After lunch we rode the subway to Grand Central Station.  We wanted to see the transit museum but it was closed for renovation, so we rode the subway back to Elizabeth’s current apartment.

I love riding the subway.  I like trains in general.  The thing that makes the subway especially interesting is the people.  Where I live, only people who can’t drive their own car use public transit, but driving in New York City is madness and everyone rides the trains.  We saw business men, mothers with babies, school kids.

Some guy got on with us and immediately addressed the other passengers:  “Could I have your attention please.  My name is _____.  I’m here today selling candy.  To tell you the truth, this is not for no basketball team; this is not for no school.  This is just for me.  It is to give me something positive to do, so I can make something of my life.”

It sounded persuasive e but no one bought it—or the candy.

At another stop two guys got on and announced that they were going to entertain us.  They set up their conga drums and began to play.  Then they passed a hat around.  This time a few passengers did give them small amounts of change.

I soon came to learn that both the candy sales and the musicians were very common.

Later a rowdy bunch of teenage boys got on and made quite a commotion, running around the car pretending to fight each other.

Walking the long passage between two trains at a transfer station, my wife and I fell behind our daughters.  On the way, two guys came up and very openly began flirting with them.  The girls ignored them.  I wonder what the guys would have done if they had realized that the girls’ parents were shortly behind them.

Walking on the streets is another opportunity to observe the fascinating people of New York.  There was a Rastafarian with dreadlocks piled high on his head.  A Hasidic Jew with his unique style of hat and pigtails.  Lots of sexy young women.  (Women seem to spend more time on their appearance here—everyone is making some kind of style statement.)  Nannies pushing strollers.  School kids.  Tourists.  (I strive not to look like a tourist—no camera around my neck; no shorts.)

After lunch we visited Elizabeth’s current apartment.  She subleases one tiny room in an apartment shared with three or four others. There is a small shared kitchen and bathroom.  They also share a computer which is located in the kitchen.  It is small and expensive—the price she pays for living in Manhattan.

Then my wife and I walked back to our hotel.

Even the streets seem famous here:  Madison Ave., Park Ave., Broadway.  Our hotel is on Broadway.  There are no theaters here—just shops, restaurants, and hotels.  They’re all small.

I’m writing this from the lobby of our hotel.  Supposedly, our room is air conditioned, but it is only marginally effective, whereas the lobby is quite comfortable.  The lobby, like the hotel, is small.  There is one couch and four chairs here.

The hotel guests come and go, but they’re much more bland and uniform than the citizens of New York.

August 4:  Last night we went to see a stage show, Avenue Q.  It’s actually a puppet show.  They’re muppets in all but name. In fact, the guy who designed the puppets once worked on Sesame Street.   The themes are much more adult than Sesame Street—including two of the puppets having sex on stage.  Funny but not erotic.  The play contained lots of social commentary.  There was one number about putting up with things in your life.  “Just for Now.”  They listed things they (we) put up with “just for now”.  When they listed “George Bush” the audience went wild with applause and cheering.  I guess W won’t be getting many votes in NYC.

But my favorite song was “We’re all a little bit racist.”  The point was that even though we know it’s wrong, we all have racially prejudiced thoughts.  It’s better to acknowledge that we have such thoughts than to resist and suppress them.  When I was a child, racism was socially acceptable and openly expressed.  Now, it’s politically incorrect to express such thoughts.  So now we (I) deny we have such thoughts.  How can we ever overcome such thoughts if we don’t acknowledge we have them?  So I confess:  I too have prejudiced thoughts at times.  I say it with shame, not pride, but in the hope of overcoming what is fundamentally an error in thought.

It would be all too easy to have such thoughts in New York City.  There are lots of minorities here:  primarily blacks and Puerto Ricans.  Also groups I don’t even think of as “minorities”:  Italians, Irish, Jews.  It’s the very mix of all these minorities that gives New York its character.

After the show the audience spilled out into the street.  It was almost 11, but the streets were teaming:  tourists, theater goers and New Yorkers.  We went to Cold Stone Ice Cream.  The place was jammed.  Elizabeth recognized one of the employees.  They hugged and kissed and somehow we didn’t get charged for everything we ordered.

We stood on the street and watched the throngs of people as we ate our ice cream.  Then we rode the subway back to our hotel.  Even though it was almost midnight, the train was packed full.  It was our first subway ride without Elizabeth.  It was ac actually easier since Elizabeth travels everywhere at breakneck speed.  To her, walking down the street is just walking down the street; to me it is a chance to savor the city and its people.  I warned her that moving back to Palo Alto would seem slow and low energy after New York.  (The same thing happened to me when we moved back from Tokyo.)

[At this point we got sufficiently busy that I didn’t find any more time to make entries in this journal.  What follows is an after-the-fact summary.]

The next day we went bicycle riding.  We had intended to ride in Central Park, but the bike shop was closer to Riverside Park, which runs along the Hudson River, so we went there.  The weather has been very hot and humid.  The humidity is caused by rain in the summer, something we don’t get in California.  Although it makes the heat more uncomfortable, it does have its advantages:  the greenery is very green here, and there is a surprising amount of greenery for such a large city.  I always envision New York as being packed with buildings, which it is.  But there are still tree-lined avenues, and parks.  I think the human spirit would wither without some amount of greenery.  Anyway Riverside Park is very green.  Even the playgrounds, which would be in the sun in California, are covered with tall trees.  It is as if we are riding through a lush tunnel of greenery.  My own ride was cut somewhat short because I got a flat tire, but the bike shop was only a few blocks from the park, so I walked back.

After lunch we went to see Ground Zero, the site of the former World Trade Center, attacked and destroyed by terrorists on September 11, 2001, the day that America changed.  Changed for the worse, in my view; since that time we have lost some of our civil liberties, and now live with a constant sense of tension and fear of future attacks.  My own experience in the airport is an example:  I was thoroughly searched because metal objects embedded in my arm from bygone injuries trigger their ever-more-powerful metal detectors.  All because of September 11.  The Ground Zero site itself is just a big hole in the ground, generally indistinguishable from any construction site.  Except that the perimeter if filled with memorials to lost fire fighters, police, and ordinary citizens who were all killed that day.  Maybe it’s those memorials, or maybe it’s just knowing what happened here that gives the place a somber feel.

Next we went to Battery Park and sat on a bench along the waterfront.  In the distance we can see the Statue of Liberty, with her back to us.  I worry that Lady Liberty has indeed turned her back on us.  She represents the spirit of America.  But it is not she who has deserted us:  she is there as vigilant as always.  It is, instead, our government leaders who play upon our fears to cynically increase their own power.  That’s why the audience cheered at the thought of only having to put up with Bush “just for now.”

I think of the words that have been inscribed at the base of the statue:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Do we still welcome those yearning to breathe free?  Do we as Americans still have that yearning?  Or have we become a brazen giant with conquering limbs astride from land to land?

Yet Lady Liberty is still there:  with her arm still stretched up, torch in hand.  I can see her in the distance as I sit on that park bench with tourists and joggers moving by.

While we were in New York, the Statue of Liberty was reopened to the public—the first time since September 11.  But they only let people into the base; you can no longer climb up to her crown and look out over New York Harbor—too dangerous.

That night we had dinner with Elizabeth’s boyfriend.  He turns out to be a stereotypical theater techie geek;  he works as a theater electrician.  He seemed bright and articulate and we swapped theater “war stories”.

After dinner we went to see our second Broadway show:  Phantom of the Opera.  This is a darker story than Avenue Q.  The music is better.  It includes the spooky title song as well as the beautiful, “That’s All I Ask of You.”  The composer, Andrew Lloyd Weber, is, along with Richard Rogers, undoubtedly one of the great composer of musicals of the 20th Century.

The next day, Thursday, was our final day in New York.  In the morning the girls went shopping.  I tagged along for a while and then went off on my own.  I visited Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a huge, ornate edifice whose gothic architecture seems somehow out of place amongst the chrome and glass of New York’s midtown shopping district.

Then I went to the NBC studios in Rockefeller Plaza and wandered around their shops.

After lunch we went to the Museum of  Television and Radio.  This was a somewhat strange museum.  As they explained at the door, it is not a museum of “artifacts”, but rather a venue for watching collections of old television shows.  We watched a presentation on the history of political advertising from the simplistic, black and white “I like Ike” ads of 1952, up to and including spots from the current Bush vs. Kerry campaign.  As you might guess the ads have gotten more sophisticated in their production values, more subtle in their message, and dirtier (in the sense of negative tactics) over the years.

That night we had dinner at the restaurant where Elizabeth works.  Her manager paid our tab.  Then we went to another spot that specializes in deserts.

The next morning at 5 am we awoke, finished packing and headed by hired car through the pre-dawn streets of Manhattan back to the airport and home.

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