The fall went fast and there is another blog in the queue, but I wanted to share this year’s feast — and, not the turkey croquette leftovers. I’d been planning on doing the big bird in the big apple since last May when I was swept off my feet by a little Manhattan magic. Sadly, Thomas couldn’t come. But Philip and I did a good job of scouting all the primo activities so that we know exactly where to take him next time. In typical Van Bogaert fashion, moderation was damned and Philip and I packed a ridiculous amount into a short time. I got home about 11:30am Sunday and promptly soaked my blistered right foot.
Making Friends with Homeland Security or Scents Pay Off
The weekend before Thanksgiving, I made turkey breast with dressing, potatoes (from scratch) and gravy, and cranberry sauce. Philip and I had already discussed that trying to find a traditional turkey dinner in Manhattan might lead to unfortunate comparisons to our family favorite dishes and agreed to find an alternative befitting the surroundings. In some part deciding to make a turkey dinner was for my benefit. I wanted the roasted bird smell in my house and leftovers. But mostly, it was about trying to send Thomas a turkey CARE package. Early that week, he was talking about spending Thanksgiving day watching football with friends. A mother suffers when her kid isn’t with family and too much food on the eatingest day of the year. So I cooked. A turkey breast instead of a full turkey. Chocolate chip and macaroon cookies instead of pie. I made it all and ate it all and then parceled out packages and set off to find a styrofoam cooler to send them in. I looked at sporting goods stores, convenience stores, restaurant supply houses. I even asked the butcher at Trader Joe’s for cast offs. No luck. Finally settled for sending Thomas a tin of cookies and a check for a good dinner. What’s a mother to do?!
Philip’s cookies were hand delivered at LaGuardia. They almost didn’t make it. If you want to distract Homeland Security bring food. Warm cookies are best. The guards oohed. They aahed. They sniffed and struggled to refuse when offered a sample. I sailed through screening.
There is something indescribably wonderful about seeing the faces of your people when you arrive at the airport. I don’t often get met that often so it was sweet to see my 25 -year-old grinning from ear to ear. We left LaGuardia for our hotel in midtown. In my most determined manner, I tried to check us into the Marriott. Foolish only because I had booked the Radisson two doors down. Please! I started at 4am! It’s called sleep deprivation. At Lexington and 49th in midtown, we were strategically placed for easy subway access and only blocks from Times Square, Broadway, Rockefeller Center, and Central Park. Once we were finally settled, I focused on the itinerary I’d prepared in flight. Usually, I’m inclined to let a fair amount of serendipity guide my vacations. In this case, I was not about to chance missing the unmissables on Philip’s first trip. Here is how it played out.
Day One: The Big in Big Apple
Two must-dos head the list: pick up the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular tickets in Times Square and see the Thanksgiving Day Parade balloons being inflated in Central Park. Philip learns quickly what I did my first trip to big, bad NYC — the people are nice, friendly, mostly funny, and helpful.
We go to the more than big Times Square to get our tickets for Radio City. I have been waiting since spring to see that look of big amazement on Philip’s face as he takes in the his first exposure to the city’s center. I am not disappointed. He is visibly overwhelmed. The big screens and images and carousel in the Toys ‘R Us store. A big wow.
A tip from the ticket agent about a good and inexpensive family Italian pizza place leads us to Bella Napoli just off the square. We eat big slices of pepperoni and spinach pizza pies and head to the subway and Central Park.
The New York subway is not the Washington Metro for those who haven’t had the pleasure. It takes me a while to reorient to the big maze of thoroughfares leading to trains bound for different parts of the city. Philip gets his first taste of the subway show. A piano protege (10 to 13 years old probably) passionately plays classical selections while his Dad mans the hat.
We exit around 89th Street. Even equipped with my iphone, I am unable to find out on which side of Central Park they will be inflating the parade balloons.
We opt for the eastside and figure out we figured wrong. After a trek across big Central Park, we come out the other side where we follow the big herd circling a block of reclining, and yes, BIG, Buzz Light Year, Sonic, and the Pillsbury Doughboy balloons. There are big heaps, dare I say, overflowing trash cans providing substantial evidence of Starbucks big coffee and cocoa sales that night.
Day Two: The No Apple Thanksgiving
After a 4am start on Wednesday and the late preview of the parade in the evening, Philip and I agree there is no need to convene with the roosters on Thanksgiving. Afterall, we aren’t cooking. We awake at 8am. Eat a generous and free but uncelebratory breakfast at the hotel and head out for the parade with no dinner reservations. The weather is spectacular. Sunny and perfect for a light jacket. We walk down 49th past the huge scaffolded Rockefeller Christmas tree and get redirected to 51st where we stand 20 deep watching Kermit the Frog crawl across the intersection. There is no need to be any closer. In fact, being on the street’s edge would have caused the same kind of neck problems you get sitting in the front row of a movie theatre. We see Santa and Macy’s “Believe” balloons and are fully satisfied with one hour of tradition.
Having a couple hours to kill before the Radio City show, we head back to 30 Roc to see if we can find a sports bar for a beer, a burger, and some of the Packer’s game. One of the city’s finest directs us to Bill’s Bar and Burger where we have a few, share a dog, and nibble the fries. I did not know when I purchased the Radio City tickets that the show was right in the middle of the Packer game, so I feel a twinge when I realize I will be dragging my son away during another holiday tradition — football. But he is a sport, and philosophically asserts that he can see football anytime, but not New York. Nevertheless, the Christmas Spectacular is really more for me and being able to say we’ve seen the Rockettes than to answer a boyhood dream he never had. And so, I am convinced that there are football deities and they are smiling on us when the Pack scores their last touchdown as we prepare to leave for the show.
Yes, the Rockettes are a little Busby Berkley blast from the past. But the real star of the show is the art deco hall resplendent in its glittery glory with great curved arches and ceiling; fabulous rounded, clean lines; and platinum and gold appointments. (See http://nyc-architecture.com/MID/MID061.htm).Wow! Oh to be there in something shiny back in the day. The show itself is a little bizarre. Very secular until suddenly smack in the middle the theme shifts to a nativity pageant complete with religious carols and live camels. Shortly after, we experience a 10-15 minute interruption when a special effect fails to perform. Evidentally, it can’t be fixed because when the curtain finally rises again, there is a mysterious and unexplained gap in the story. But as one would expect, the show goes on. Once the curtain falls, we offer good wishes to the folks from New Jersey we befriended during the unfortunate special effect malfunction and head back to the bar to address the question we have avoided all day — what do we do about dinner?
Earlier we’d agreed to do “A Christmas Story” repast. Chinese. We stop enroute to the bar and procrastinate once again by taking a trip to the top of Rockefeller Center. The view is breathtaking! The Empire State Building is decked out in autumn color and I fondly think of the scene from “Sleepless in Seattle” and imagine a big red heart flashing on its side. Back at the bar, I encourage Philip to flirt with the barmaid and get some insider tips on good Chinese restaurants and possibly a date. She is equal to the task and has us licking our lips with tales of a buffet and all-you-can drink at a restaurant on the upper eastside. We even ask for a back up recommendation. By this time it is 7pm. Off into the bowels of the city again. More hiking side streets and a half hour later we are peering through dark windows at a “closed” sign. I know now that my son has grown up. There is no ranting or dramatic complaints. He’s been well-trained to look at adversity as the makings of a good story. We just hope this one will have a happy ending and head for Plan B, Ruby Foo’s in Times Square. Thirty minutes later, we are convinced that we are pawns in a cosmic joke. The “closed” sign is front and center in Ruby’s dark front door.
Now it is 8:15pm. Hope is dying but stubbornness prevails. We will not stop to eat until we find a restaurant that is NOT a chain. OK. Philip might settle, but I am damned if I will tell people I travelled to Manhattan for Thanksgiving and ate at Sbarro’s. In hindsight, maybe we should have. We find Virgil’s Texas Barbecue on 42nd and, it IS the turkey. Not even a good margarita to crow about. We think we have the makings of a great “Home for the Holidays” sequel. But this is not the story climax. That is reserved for the scene we create when Philip shakes a barbecue sauce bottle that I neglected to securely close. Though no one applauds, sauce sprayed across the upper story window and onto the only hoodie Philip has brought attracts attention from the next table. Finally, his reserve is rattled and I fall from my position as respected role model to that of ignorant sidekick. But the drama passes quickly. So that Virgil’s is not our last memory of Thanksgiving Day in NYC, we walk down the street to the AMC and see “Hugo” in 3-D. On the walk back to the hotel, I realize this year’s feast is not one for the stomach, but for the eyes and mind. Despite an overpriced and underachieving holiday meal, we go to bed stuffed with amazing images, colors, light, and memories.
Day Three: The Pilgrimage
Somehow my four previous trips to New York centered on, except for one, explorations of mid and uptowns. Last May while contemplating this trip, I fantasized about how wonderful it would be to to visit the Ellis and Liberty Islands where all four of my grandparents and my sons’ great-grandparents entered the country of their dreams. So the islands are prominent on this trip’s list. Ground Zero is also a must-see destination. My new duties leading the design team of the World Trade Center Health Program website will make that visit all the more meaningful.
By now, my choice of warm rather than comfortable shoes for this trip has already taught me a lesson—buy the Grayline tour tickets. We head out on an open top tour bus on the glorious sunny and soon-to-be 64 degree day. We pass Parson’s School of Design (a shrine to my guilty pleasure “Project Runway”), the garment district, Macy’s, the Empire State Building, and striking Flatiron Building, etc. A block from the WTC Memorial, we jump off. Bad news when we reach the visitor’s center, a three hour wait for tickets. We grab a street stand hotdog and decide to try to get in Saturday. For today, we continue to Battery Park and the gateway islands.
Not even the most fabulous photos of Lady Liberty do her justice. We are in awe. Construction keeps us from a tour of the statue. Because long lines keep us from getting seabound before 2pm, we have to pick which island to tour. We both choose Ellis. My sister, Laura, nephew Charlie, and Mom went to NY the year after Dad died. They’d found Grandpa Van Bogaert’s name on a monument acknowledging those who had contributed to the restoration of the Statue of Liberty back in the 50’s. I am anxious to see if for myself. When we find his name, I think about what Grandpa and Dad would feel seeing it there.
For me, walking the institutional halls of Ellis Island is profound. I imagine my 19-year-old Lithuanian grandmother arriving by herself, struggling with the language, and quietly standing by as they change her last name because they cannot pronounce her given one. I imagine my Belgian grandpa and his brother coming through, nervous but determined. And I feel sad that I never talked to my Lithuanian grandfather about his experience. I think about the life I have now because of the big decision they made to leave the homeland. I contemplate how different the lives of each generation succeeding them has been — my parent’s, mine, my siblings, and my children’s. Our lives have been unequivocably influenced because of the trip they made.
Ah, Where art thine beckoning neon lights?
“Wait!” I hear those mental exclamations of wonder. I have detailed three days in the land of thespians and have not once mentioned Broadway. Oh, you of little faith. In what parallel universe, would a Donna Van Bogaert miss the opportunity to introduce a her child to the greatest theatrical experience on earth?!
Because I have been here before and will be soon again, I ask Philip in the months before we depart, to figure out what he would like to see. Finally, it is the ninth hour and we agree (with not many other alternatives at our disposal) to be true to our gypsy natures and let chance choose. In other words, we came with no plan hoping to get cheap last minute tickets to something we hoped we’d enjoy.
We sadly accept that we must forget “House of Mormon,” which would have been our first choice. Tickets are sold out. I lobby for “War Horse” but Philip can’t get excited about horse puppets no matter how sophisticated. He finally suggests “Relatively Speaking,” three- one act plays by Ethan Coen, Elaine May, and Woody Allen. I could not be more pleased.
The tickets aren’t cheap, but we rationalize that our decision to eat deli will compensate for the theatre extravagance. I am surprised to see Marlo Thomas is in the cast. Philip is excited that Steve Guttenberg is appearing. For my money, Marlo is particularly good. Still some of “That Girl” left in her. Yeah, it is a great introduction to the Great White Way for my kid.
The walk home is long. The time is late. And we slip off to sleep almost before slipping off shoes. Visions of ancestors, movie stars, show houses, big statues and big buildings all dance in our heads. We are off to a good, mild winter’s sleep.
Day Four: Unforgettable Footprints and the Quest for Dim Sum
We’d pledged the night before to peal ourselves from the beds early in order to be first in line for WTC Memorial tickets. Surprisingly, I am up at 6. Philip gets up at 7:30am. We do not pass up our free breakfast. And, we do not head for the subway until 8. Of course, we do not beat any workers to the streets that day, but we do find out that 8am is still early for our purposes on this Saturday of a holiday weekend. Not even the shoppers are making things crazy until after 10am. Now masters of the subway system, we make it to Ground Zero in short order. They are just starting to hand out tickets. Perfect timing.
We must wind around a block before we can enter. People become more and more quiet the closer we get to the entrance. We can see the Freedom Center building and others growing out of the block that is sheltered from view by a huge blue canvas fence surrounding the perimeter. Once inside, we go through airport-like security. And then, we are released to enter. The couple ahead of us says little. He is a slight man with tears in his eyes and she holds a small bouquet of daisies. She looks at him sadly. It is a sight that would break any heart. Later we see the same bouquet carefully placed by the name of a fireman and wonder if the fallen fighter was father, uncle, brother, or friend.
I remember all the controversy surrounding the stark simplicity of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. This, too, is simple but more obviously symbolic. The deep foundations of the original buildings are now lined with black granite walls over which water flows. At the center bottom of each foundation is another square hole where water drops through as if to the other side of the earth. These vacant holes are poignant shadows of what was once there. Surrounding each footprint, a brass frame suspended above a watered ledge. There, the names of those who perished at all sites and those who lost their lives in the earlier Center attack are engraved — each name large and surrounded by space. Easy to see. Easy to read. Not easy to forget. Especially, the ladder numbers and the names of women followed by the words “… and her unborn child.” There really are no words. Go. See it.
We walk quietly for a while and, gradually, begin to notice life around us again — sunlight, street noise, and the forest of tall, tall buildings. Philip decides he’d like to get a closer look at the tall ships at Pier 17, so we head that way. We pass Trinity Church, the final resting place of founding father, Alexander Hamilton; businessman and victim of the Titanic sinking, John Jacob Astor; naturalist painter, John James Audubon; and actor, Jerry Orbach, among others.
At Pier 17 we stop for hot chocolate and plot our quest to find good food in Chinatown. We are convinced this will wipe away any memory of our unfortunate experience at Virgil’s. Would I succumb to sore feet and forego the long walk to Chinatown? Perhaps I should have. But no, we tramp on past the famous courthouses so often seen in the many Law and Order series. We see art and clothing, street vendors and kids on skateboards and, finally, we see Canal Street. Oh, the humanity! If I have ever I doubted the wisdom in moving to an iphone with a GPS app, I resolve never to question it again. My little Apple wonder recommends and leads us to Ping’s, a small family restaurant a few blocks off the beaten path. I want to introduce Philip to Dim Sum. My first and only encounter with this Chinese tradition was in Chicago long ago with Paul and Kathy Yih, Dwight and Marsha Grenawalt, and my former husband. Dim Sum is like attending a street fair where you don’t know the language. People come by with carts or trays and offer you something you can’t quite identify and they can’t describe. You take a chance and hope you like what you choose and guess what it will cost in the end. It is a little crazy but absolutely delightful. We have a marvelous meal and Philip discovers a passion for Jasmine tea. Before leaving the area, we buy gifts for Thomas and a few items for Christmas giving.
By this time, I willingly admit that my feet are barking. Philip is ready to move into a more restful pace now that we were in our the last day. But one “must do” is left on my list. Philip needs to see vanGogh’s original “Starry Night.” I pull myself together determined to persevere through one last charge. Yes, the museum is crowded. But, today there is no one surrounding vanGogh’s most famous painting—at least not for now. I am ecstatic. We can walk right up and peer within inches to examine the intense color and texture of each individual stroke. Like me, it seems smaller in person to Philip—but neither of us is disappointed. We walk through the Impressionists, Fauves, Expressionists, Surrealists, and Warhol. For us, vanGogh reigns supreme.
With the arts behind us, at least for this trip, we head back to Bill’s to watch Wisconsin lord it over Penn State. Still full of Chinese food and anticipating our 4am wake up call, we opt to skip dinner for snacks and decide to catch an early movie at the hotel. As luck would have it, “Midnight in Paris” is available through OnDemand. The film, Woody’s Allen’s latest and an homage to the artist’s of the 20’s whose work we have just seen in person, could not be better scripted for our final night. I mean, really, the movie’s poster features Owen Wilson strolling down the Rue du Something with “Starry Night” photoshopped into the skyline. Ya gotta love poetry.
Day Five: Leaving on a Jet Plane
Poor Philip’s departure is five hours later than mine. But, in solidarity, we sit at LaGuardia at 5:15am sleepy-eyed but happy to be together. Missing Thomas but knowing that there will be another time when we (including my Snooty’s red suede jacket) experience Manhattan’s legendary magic and much more.