I feel word-challenged today for some reason, so I chose a familiar face for Travel with me Thursday – New York City.
I grew up only a short Transbridge bus ride away from the city that never sleeps, and as a child my grandmother truly believed in the arts and, let’s face it, the shopping, that New York City provided. I was her constant companion for Broadway plays like Phantom of the Opera, CATS, Anything Goes and a laundry list of classic original cast productions. She even ventured off Broadway to take me to see the first production of Rent, which I confess I was waaaaay too young to comprehend fully, but now completely love and sing along with at the top of my lungs.
When we went to New York City, we had a predicable routine that only varied insofar as the time of year and whether or not my grandfather came with us. We’d almost always arrive early, have breakfast at the Hilton Hotel (honestly I am not sure why), spend the late morning
browsing big box iconic stores like Bloomingdales, Sax Fifth Avenue, FAO Schwarz (gone but now reopened!), or any that struck our fancy, go to St. Patrick’s Cathedral for a few minutes of prayer and to light some candles, then take in a matinee and have dinner at Benny Benson’s Steak House (now shuttered, due in no part to the mysteriously missing steak knives that would show up in my grandmother’s silverware drawer the next day).
Sometimes we’d walk through Central Park and go to the zoo (my grandmother always claimed I learned to swim by watching the Polar Bears there) and one of her favorite spots for a meal was Tavern on the Green (since closed, remodeled and reopened but I have not been back). If we stayed later, we might pay for a horse and carriage ride around the park, or meander to the Plaza hotel to meet my grandfather at the Oak Room Bar (also now closed). It was all sooo old school New York.
On the days my grandfather didn’t make it into the city, we could make a point to have dinner at the Carnegie Deli (their landmark store is now closed, but there is one at Madison Square Garden and also 2 in Las Vegas) and then head back to Grand Central Station for the bus ride home. But we’d always bring a pastrami on rye home with us (for my grandfather) and I remember the smell (and the grease) permeating the thin foiled bag double wrapped in my grandmother’s purse on the way home, mixing with the smell of her Carefree sugarless bubblegum (yes, it’s as unappealing and as nauseating as it sounds).
My hometown was also close enough that we would take school field trips into the city, to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, connecting us as students to our pasts and our ancestors with living history that I didn’t quite understand then, but now really want to know alll about and more (all my great grands came through Ellis Island so I am only a third generation American by definition. #immigration #notgettingpoliticalbutjustsaying
The holidays were the best, though. Christmas in New York is like nowhere else in the world, and it’s still my favorite time of year to visit. The city lights up and decorates and comes to life, the storefronts becoming breathing masterpieces that, to a child, are nothing short of walking into a dream. And the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular is truly that. I could write a whole blog post on Christmas in New York. But we’d also go right before Easter and buy our Kielbasa, freshly made, hanging from the deli ceilings, to put in our Easter Basket.
But despite my many, many fond memories, I confess that my view of NYC was myopic. Trailing after my grandmother, experiencing the city through her eyes, was my start. But I’d never ridden the subway, never stepped foot into the art museums the city is famous for, and never went anywhere outside of midtown Manhattan. But as I aged I found my interests leaning much differently for my ideal day. I found myself mapping my own route, still whizzing by the iconic edifices of my childhood, and continuing to participate in some (Broadway, of course, and the Plaza Hotel but this time for drinks at their Champagne Bar) but also found myself shrugging off some of the activities as too touristy (the zoo, the carriage ride, Times Square) in favor of the Public Library or the Lower East Side (see my blog post on that here) and even going farther afield to such novelties as the High Line and South Street Seaport, or being Boho in the artistic epicenter of the East Village, or diving into the coffee culture food scene via Chelsea Market and Little Italy.
There’s a more serious vibe to the city now, especially the closer you get to Ground Zero. I’ve walked through there, somberly, and through the 9/11 museum. I was lucky enough not to lose anyone when tragedy struck on that fateful day, but being so close to the city, the impact on the people I knew was still palpable. I remember watching the towers fall on TV and thinking I could have been there. I used to ride the elevator to the top of the World Trade Center to see the view with my grandmother. It all hit so close to home. My heart aches, still. But the city has recovered, and while it will never forget, it has certainly moved forward, teeming and thriving with a pulse you can feel the minute you step out onto the sidewalks and into the sun.
New York City is best done in small bites. There’s no way to do it all in a day, or even a weekend. I have a few tips below, but in truth, the most important advice I can give you is go, and go again. Because it’ll be the same yet different every time. And today, when I go, no matter where my interests lie, I always make time to stop in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and say a prayer for the repose of the soul of my grandmother, for all she taught me, and the foundation upon which I am built.