Sunday, October 14, 2012

Venturing Out

Our son, Dru, just turned 21 and the family went to New York City to celebrate. Though I lived there for a while in my early twenties, years spent in Virginia have morphed me into someone who looks at Manhattan like it’s a different country, or maybe a different planet. The place is an amazing amalgam of razzle dazzle superimposed upon some very poignant moments in time.

We stayed in a hotel that wanted to charge more as a fee for our dog than most people would expect to pay in total for a night’s stay. And the world of hoity-toity has a few surprises to it. Like, only the front half of the tub shower has a door on it. Not sure why they do it this way, but your naked little tookus has to stand exposed and a lil’ chilly there at the back. And what’s with the sink that looks more like a dish than a place to wash up? It couldn’t be more than two or three inches deep without the first hint of counter or even a lip around it: total splashing, all over everything. You end up soaked from the shirt to the feet and then you almost slip and fall in the pool that’s all over the floor.

Our daughter, Kirstyn, drove in from Boston to meet us. When she called around eleven o’clock Friday evening to say she was pulling up in front of the hotel, I was of course already in my comfies. I’m talkin’ plaid flannel pants, with matching top, and gun boat sized slippers. I guess it was a lapse in judgment but I decided I could sneak down to greet Kirstyn and help her carry things up. The elevator opened onto a lobby filled with the City’s trendiest and most glamorous Out-and-Abouts. It looked like a modeling agency had unleashed its client list on some gala event. These people were decked and coiffed and made-up like it was to be their finest hour. I was ready for bed and they were lined up, willing to wait hours for a chance to go to the hotel’s rooftop deck and drink with others who were willing to do the same thing. Kirstyn took one look at me and all but shoved me into her car to hide me away. “Mom! You’re in your pajamas,” she gasped. I’m sure the walk back through the lobby was painful for her and threatened never to end.

Out exploring the next morning, we moved with the crowds, en masse, from street corner to street corner whenever the zipping cars yielded territory by allowing a two or three foot gap to come about between them. You move quickly in those circumstances. The gap doesn’t last long.

We took the subway downtown. At the entrance, a woman sang opera by herself on the steps. As soon as the doors to the subway car closed, a mariachi band popped out of nowhere and treated us to a lively south of the border set. When they moved on, two guys jumped up and switched on what looked like a BoomBox from yesteryear. They took turns clapping while the other swung from handles, did flips in the air and contorted his body in very impressive fashion. The rest of us could hardly keep our balance while seated and these guys were doing a full acrobatic routine while the train raced down the track at what seemed like the speed of light.

A woman and her three young children sat across from us. The kids were adorable. The mother was frightening. She punched them and snarled into their little faces and spoke through gritted teeth. It was all I could do to mind my own business. Others sat and looked straight ahead, as though it were commonplace to see a mother cower her children in public for unapparent infractions.

We made our way to Battery Park at the southernmost tip of Manhattan. From the subway we walked by Castle Clinton, one of four forts built in the early 1800’s to defend the New York Harbor from invasion by the British. The fort is made of brick. In its day, it was armed with 28 cannons, each one capable of shooting a 32 pound cannonball a distance of 1.5 miles. Imagine such a defense today. Openings for the cannons were placed every few feet. You could almost see the barrels protruding in anticipation of a harbor full of Tall Ships and British soldiers dressed in their white pants, tall black boots, and short jackets crossed with the white stripes from shoulder to shoulder. In those days, life looked much different. There were no paved streets filled with cars just itching to run you over. There was no subway and there were no skyscrapers. It’s hard to picture a New York City of 1812, when Americans were still fending off invasion from our Mother Country.  

We cruised the harbor out to Ellis Island and were humbled by the beauty and impact of the Statue of Liberty. Like many people, I tend to take my citizenship for granted. As we circled this amazing symbol of aspiration, I felt like a tourist. I must have taken fifty pictures, none of which was much different than the one before it. But the aura was so powerful I felt I had to keep memorializing it. Finally, I stopped and just watched in silence as she passed before us. I couldn’t help but think how daunting it must have been for the thousands of immigrants who arrived at our shores in the early days, sick and weak and often alone, a small bag in hand to stand for the entirety of their worldly possessions. They struck out against terrible odds in the hope of finding the freedom and opportunity of a new land that had managed to sparkle with the promise of those things and more. I am mindful of how lucky we are to live in this country, as we listen to so many criticisms and accusations swirl around as part of the Presidential election.

From Battery Park we walked to Ground Zero. Beautiful new towers are in the midst of their construction, but the footprint of that terrible day remains to remind us of what terror looks like up close. I remember the photographs of thick smoke billowing down the street, overtaking people as they ran for their lives. Wherever the ravages of war take up, whatever the particular mechanism of delivery, it is all so horrifying. Trials and tribulations of everyday life in Roanoke, Virginia, or anywhere else, seem so trifling when you stand before a monument to senseless devastation.

At the end of the day, we dined at a restaurant that, from the street, looked like a nice Italian eatery. Once inside, after it was too late to turn and run away, I felt like a peasant who’d wandered outside my element. Elegance oozed from every corner and the wait staff seemed like royalty compared to us. There must have been half a dozen courses, with little gifties from the chef brought out now and again all decorated and sauced up and garnished on the plate. We had so many attendants at the table I couldn’t keep them all straight. There was a Prix Fixe, which is Fench for Incredibly Expensive. When the bill came, I couldn’t bring myself to look at it. I just signed quickly at the bottom and let the kids figure the tip. When that particular credit card statement comes in, I’ll have to have a drink before I open it.

Our last stop of the night was at the Gotham Comedy Club. There was an MC, the most foul-mouthed individual I’ve ever heard. She made us laugh constantly. The warm-up act was also hysterical and, by the time the headliner came out, we were ready to laugh out loud at everything the man had to say. And we did. If John Heffron comes to town, I recommend him as a very funny comic.

On Sunday morning, we ate leftovers in our room and called it brunch, then sang Happy Birthday to Dru around the cake we had made ourselves and brought with us. We were all in our comfies this time. Our dog, Harley, sat among us begging for food as any dog worth his outrageous keep will do. 

We chatted about the weekend. There’d been some decadence, for which we will pay dearly over the next several years at about 18%. We rubbed elbows with a way of life that seems utterly un-doable to me, but which excites and enthralls millions of people. Remnants of history and remnants of tragedy made themselves available so we could travel to different times and unfathomable experiences that put other things in context. Then, full of a mixture of so many thoughts, we laughed our butts off and watched our baby boy do his part by drinking up his two drink minimum. I’d spent his whole life keeping him away from the stuff. That night, I helped him pick out good cocktails and watched him get a buzz on. I’m still a little conflicted about that.

Anyway, a trip to New York City. Very full, and we had a great time.

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