Travel Domestic

#1 The Philadelphia Inquirer, January 28, 2007


Take Two: Scenes to last a lifetime


“What does New York mean to you?”  I ask my husband, as we sit in a knot of traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike.  He stops drumming the steering wheel.  “Seinfeld, Saturday Night Live, Woody Allen,” he says, then pauses and adds, “Walt Whitman.”  My six-year-old son’s introduction to the city comes from Stuart Little and A Cricket in Times Square, so captivated was he by authors E.B. White and George Selden that New York was number one on his list of places to see.  “When’re we gonna to get there?” he asks for the umpteenth time from the backseat.  The traffic unfurls and eases forward.  Then in the distance emerges a dense mass of brick and concrete, steel and glass.  “There it is,” I say.  My husband and son have never been here before.  Neither of them can find the right words.

 To me, New York runs like grainy clips from an old home video.  I am buying tickets for a Henri Matisse retrospective at The Museum of Modern Art from a scalper in a knit sock hat and coarse pea coat, his breath billowing in the cold air.  I am entering a nightclub with a girlfriend, dressed in my Azzedine Alaia dress.  I am crossing Park Avenue in Uptown on a wet day, pausing in the middle of the street breathless at the beauty of the rain-washed brownstones rising on both sides of me.  I am catching up with college friends over drinks in the toasty Oak Room of the now-closed Plaza Hotel.  I am hailing a cab to JFK airport with one hand, a weekend duffle clutched in the other.  Visiting New York when I was single and living in Los Angeles was different from what I was about to experience with my husband and son.

 It is the day after Christmas.  My family and I barrel down 52nd Street in our SUV, which we keep parked during our stay apartment-sitting in Midtown.  We pass a day-late Santa furiously pedaling a tricycle and neon lights stubbornly glowing in the Theater District in broad daylight.  We drive between buildings reaching for the sky.  “Look both ways, as well as up,” I say.  The broad one-way streets layering Manhattan in tiers like a wedding cake show the horizontal scope of a city defined by verticality.  “Oh, I forgot, Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” says my husband as we cross Fifth Avenue, crowds lurching at the intersections.  We finally pull up just shy of the East River at our destination where smartly uniformed door attendants help us with our luggage.  In the lobby, a menorah glows as brightly as the ornaments on a Christmas tree.

 After unpacking, we head out to eat.  Early dinner in the neighborhood works best with a young child.  We are turned away by an empty, elegant eatery once the maitre d’ catches sight of the six-year-old hugging our knees.  Despite this, all our restaurant experiences are good, starting with our first at Pasta Presto on Second Avenue, where we tumble into a candlelit booth with crayons and a bottle of Chianti.  We eat succulent mussels in a rich tomato broth and ravioli plump with walnut pesto.  Another night, we grab grilled cheese sandwiches at the Nations Café.  Our favorite meal is at the East Japanese Restaurant on 44th Street, where grill specials are half price the night we go.  We sit at the grill bar, much to the delight of our son, and in addition to standard grilled fare, we devour skewered delicacies such as meaty gingko nuts and delicate quail eggs wrapped in slivers of bacon.

 Pacing our sightseeing during the day is as important as eating near home at night.  Our first activity is ambitious.  We have purchased advance tickets for a trip to Liberty and Ellis islands.  After a brisk walk up 42nd Street, we ride the Lexington Express from Grand Central Station to Battery Park, both subway ride and train station fascinating to our boy.  Less interesting is the throng of people we encounter upon arrival.  Despite our preplanning, the line for clearing security and boarding the ferry zigzags like the letter zee.  Stale pretzels from a street vendor help.  I hope one day my son will discern the difference between stale and fresh food, but for now, I am relieved he finds distraction from the long wait by nibbling on a pretzel as large—and tasteless—as a small steering wheel.

 The ferry ride to Liberty Island is pleasant.  Excitement is in the air, a fraction of what immigrants felt when they entered New York Harbor at last after their crossing.  The Statue of Liberty, built by Frenchman August Bartholdi, grows immense as our boat nears the island, and when we dock people of all ages, races and nationalities pour ashore, necks tilted.  When erected in 1886, she was the tallest structure in New York.  In the museum built into the pedestal a life-size replica of the statue’s face reinforces her vast scale, my four-foot son the length of her nose.  Most impressive was seeing the Statue of Liberty’s elaborate internal framework designed by Gustave Eiffel before he built the Eiffel Tower.  This engineering feat holds up the statue’s thin copper skin.  Though ascending the torch or crown is no longer possible, views of New York and New Jersey are all around and no less scenic.

 After lunch, we ferry hop to Ellis Island.  From 1892 to 1954, Ellis Island served as an entry post for millions of European immigrants.  Today the main building is a museum filled with tourists instead of with those seeking political freedom, religious expression or job opportunities.  We slip into an auditorium to watch a short documentary about the island.  Later, we take a quick look around the exhibits, skipping the historical resource center where records of passengers are kept.  The experience also has a dark side.  Most of the immigrants were poor steerage passengers and some of the inspections were inappropriate to our times.  “I’m tired,” says our son.  He has done well and we plan to return when he is older—and better rested.

 Often getting to a destination in New York is as fun as being there.  One morning my son and I set off for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while my husband deals with unexpected work.  The sun is shining, lighting up the building tops like candles.  The sounds of the city—the incessant thrum of traffic, the intermittent beeping of trucks, the sharp honk of car horns and the rollicking pitch of jackhammers—captivate my son.  He claims a piece of New York by naming the black trash bags heaped on sidewalks ‘gourmet garbage,’ a reference to the white-jacketed restaurant staff hauling them out.  We see women in parkas with fur-rimmed hoods, a man rifling through a trashcan, hordes of people once we turn onto Fifth Avenue.  I get my rings cleaned at Tiffany’s as we sit on sofas plush as jewelry boxes.  Back outside, Christmas decorations are everywhere, glittering on lobby trees, gleaming in shop windows.  Holiday season in the city is a bonus.

Before my son has an inkling of being tired, we arrive at Central Park Zoo, where the instant charm of the intimate zoo enthralls him until my husband joins us for lunch.  Polar bears, red pandas and sea lions are among the animals on view.  Our favorites are the penguins up so close and personal we could be frolicking with them in the icy water.  After pizza at the Leaping Frog Cafe, we stroll through Central Park with its open land and big sky.  We walk past the Boat Pond populated with ducks, along paths with plaques identifying trees like the lumpy-barked European Horned tree, and up to the pristine façade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  People swarm on the steps.  We plan to spend a couple of hours looking around, about the right dose of culture for a six-year-old who has been on his feet for the better part of the day.

 After perusing the Musical Instruments, admiring the Christmas tree and snacking in the busy basement cafeteria, we split into two groups.  To attempt all we want to see with all of us is simply too much.  My son and husband take to Arms and Armor, followed by a dig around Egyptian Art, while I sweep through Nineteenth-Century European Paintings and Sculpture.  This strategy serves us well another day, when my husband spends time looking at guitars in Manny’s Music store, while my son and I wait in yet another ticket line and get a jump-start on the vast fourth floor of dinosaur exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History.  That is all we manage to see, but it proves enough, as my son blurted out the other day that the closest living relative to dinosaurs were birds, a fact learned at the museum.

 I have my solo adventures too.  One afternoon I grope for the end of the line at the bustling entrance to The Museum of Modern Art and stumble into the placid American Folk Art Museum next door.  The architecture alone is fascinating, a tall building fronted with bronze panels.  In keeping with the folk art theme, I find out the panels were cast manually in molds on the foundry’s concrete floors.   Inside, there are four spacious stories filled with folk art ranging from quilts and needlepoints to decoys and weathervanes.  My favorite pieces include a primitive painting of a girl in a red dress and a model of the Empire State Building made of wood pieces using no glue or nails.  My son would have loved the golden tower assembled with painted chicken bones and the quirky American-flag gate.  I make a mental note to bring him here another time, because kids would love this museum.

 Less for kids to love is The Frick Collection, which does not admit children under ten.  The reason is Henry Clay Frick’s European art remains largely as it was when he lived in the Uptown mansion.  I spend a morning there, ambling through spacious rooms filled with fine antiques and 18th century French furniture, on the walls oil paintings by artists such as John Constable and Sir Joshua Reynolds.  As I stand in the East Gallery mesmerized by four of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s elegant life-size portraits, I agree this is not a domestic setting for kids.  After conferring with my husband and son—who abandoned ascending the Empire State Building after two hours queuing for tickets meant two more hours queuing for security—I lunch alone.  Sitting in Via Quadronno, I enjoy an open-faced sandwich of wild mushrooms and Fontina cheese, followed by a perfect espresso. 

 We leave New York at 7:00 am on New Year’s Eve, zipping through Times Square, now deserted though later packed with revelers.  I think about the new images added to my home video.  My son is pressing against grimy glass nose-to-nose with a puffin at the zoo.  My husband is watching the bright disc of a red sun rising over the East River on our first morning in the city.  My husband and son are standing by a lion statue outside the New York Public Library, faces flushed and beaming as I join them.  The three of us are walking back to the apartment at night past empty office buildings, open corner stores, a woman pushing a shopping cart and singing Broadway tunes.  “That was great,” says my husband.  I snap out of my reverie.  “Can we come again next year?” pipes my son, clutching his stuffed penguin, the only toy we bought.  “We’ll see,” my husband and I chant back in unison, behind us the city’s skyline slips into the horizon like a setting sun.