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Features and Series
Part four in a series
NEW YORK – In 1652, Willem Traphagen stepped off a ship and wandered into the wilderness that was soon to become New York. At best guess there were fewer than 3,000 people living there, far different from the great city he had left behind in Europe. There was virtually nothing in this strange place, and some of the people almost certainly must have seemed odd to him, but Willem had found a home – it was the happening place to be.
|The 86th floor observatory on the Empire State Building provides a stunning nighttime view of New York. Taking a page from the script of An Affair to Remember, I was to meet my wife at the top of this building. And, as Cary Grant did in the movie, I left alone. Mitch Traphagen Photo|
There were many times more people than that at John F. Kennedy International Airport when my flight arrived from Minneapolis. Walking down the concourse, it seemed as though every language in the world could be heard. Outside the terminal was a cacophony of people, taxis, buses and honking horns. It seemed as though everyone was in New York on that day – clearly, this was the happening place to be.
Some people love New York, some hate it and some love to hate it. In my mind it is the world’s greatest city. Simply put, there is no place else in the world that can compare. London and Paris are vibrant and beautiful cities, but history now plays a dominant role – their time has come and gone. New York, on the other hand, is still, in many ways, the center of the world. It is still all things to all people.
Like it or not, this city has a hand in shaping how the world defines America – to many people, it is the very identity of this country. It is a place of haves, have-nots and have-a-whole-lots. Even the most ardent New York basher, if he honestly thought about it, would have to admit that without this city, the United States wouldn’t be much more than a second-rate nation that grows a lot of food and makes a good movie every once in a while. For much of the world, New York is a gleaming panorama of power, wealth and success that carries an open invitation for opportunity along with a “don’t mess with us” attitude.
Leaving Kennedy Airport during rush hour is an adventure in itself. On the shuttle into Midtown Manhattan, a barely controlled form of anarchy is playing out on the roads. Lanes, more often than not, mean nothing; merging is done with all the free space of a thread going through the eye of a needle and following distance is reduced to inches. A few people appeared truly insane, driving with abandon and providing entertainment that far surpassed any reality television show. There was no point in worrying about whether you would die, you either would or would not – but probably not. There was nothing that could be done about it anyway – except to sit back and enjoy the show.
At some point the tide turned and the crawl turned into a steady lope. A sign on I-495 into the city said that litter removal was courtesy of Estelle’s Dressy Dresses. I wondered about the death rate of Estelle’s litter removal crew. Surely, it was a job only for the suicidal.
Once in the city, the lope returned to a casual stroll. The average speed of traffic was likely 5 mph, but it was all done in short bursts like repeatedly getting launched on a rocket.
It was the twilight of a Friday night on a holiday weekend and everywhere there was a mass of people and cars. Taxis streamed through like salmon migrating upstream, honking at anything that could possibly impede their progress. The people appeared as fluid as a river moving up Fifth Avenue.
At Grand Central Station were tired office workers, young people out for a night on the town, police officers and even families with luggage making their way to the train platforms. Outside the Grand Hyatt Hotel, high-school kids congregated in their finest dress – it was prom night at a nearby school.
On the street there were couples and families and mothers-to-be. There were kids and young toughs and Guardian Angels with their red berets. There were people from Indiana in new clothes and shoes purchased just days ago at the discount center in their small town during the exciting days before this, their trip of a lifetime. The looks on their faces were of astonishment and wariness – they were overwhelmed by what they saw but could still hear the horror stories of their neighbors back home who spoke with authority, but without firsthand experience.
I hate to be the one to blow their cover but here’s the truth: New Yorkers are friendly people. Linger over a subway map for too long and it is likely that someone will offer assistance. In restaurants, waitstaff seem genuine in hoping that you will enjoy the meal they served you. In hotels and shops, people smile and ask how you are. And in the many small neighborhoods that make up the city, there is a tolerance and patience that I was surprised to find.
All of that is true, except, of course, on the roads – there seems to be no patience in traffic. The sound of honking car horns is so incessant and it blends into the background of the towering buildings so completely that people almost seem to not hear it. And that, of course, makes the horn honkers honk even more.
|A moment in time in Grand Central Station: May 25, 2007, at 7:31 p.m. Mitch Traphagen Photo|
Outside of the traffic, however, the patience I found in this city is a virtue for anyone hoping to visit the Empire State Building. It was not so much that the lines to reach the observatory were so long – it was that there were so many lines. Just when I thought I had reached the end of one line, I could see another line around the next corner. Even a fast ride up in the express elevator didn’t bring relief from the lines – there were more lines, and lines to get into a line for the final, short ride to the observatory on the 86th floor.
Under normal circumstances, I would have run screaming – but this wasn’t ordinary. I had an appointment at 11 p.m. to meet a beautiful woman at the top of the city. It all seemed romantic when we planned it – it was to be an affair to remember – but the lines did little to enhance that notion. Somehow, I simply could not picture Cary Grant standing in these lines nervously checking his wristwatch.
I arrived at the top early enough to position myself in the coolest place I could find – right near a man playing a saxophone. The crowds were thick and the wind occasionally howled through, but I had my place with a good view of the door – thinking my wife would soon appear as planned.
By 11:30, I began to wonder if she was going to show up.
By midnight, the saxophone player had taken a break and I tried to think of what Cary Grant would do. My only conclusion was that I’m not Cary Grant.
By 12:30 a.m., I began to think about leaving. In fact, I even got into a line for the elevators to the street, only to duck out again at the last second. I began to think perhaps the building was cursed.
By 1 a.m., however, I did give up. Down on the street, I found a bench on Fifth Avenue in front of the building and waited along with a couple of gentlemen speaking quietly in Korean, a guy selling fake Rolex watches out of a small suitcase and someone appeared to be an expensive prostitute. The latter two vanished into the night at the sound of a nearby police siren. New York may be the city that never sleeps, but by the time my wife finally did arrive, it was certainly beginning to nod off a little.
|Near New York’s Central Park, children play with abandon while families picnic in the sunshine, couples walk arm in arm down peaceful pathways and the homeless sleep in the shade of the trees. Mitch Traphagen Photo|
This is not a cheap city. The two nights in our Midtown hotel cost nearly as much as the double occupancy price of my five-day cruise up the Pacific coast. There are ways, however, to minimize costs. Taxis are relatively inexpensive if traveling as a couple, and the subway is fast, convenient and only $7 for an entire day. For meals, Chinatown can simply not be beat in terms of value.
On a previous trip to the city, we stepped into a restaurant and sat at a long table filled with men and women speaking Chinese. Our waiter, apparently, did not speak English, so we ordered by pointing at things we thought we recognized on the menu. When the check arrived, the total was only $8. I caught the attention to our waiter and tried to tell him that he forgot to include one of our two meals. He looked at me for a moment, grabbed the check, and changed the amount … to $6.
But some of the best parts of the city are available at no charge. Central Park is a wonder, with families picnicking in the sunshine, homeless men sleeping in the shade and children everywhere playing with an abandon only they possess. It also made me wonder how quickly the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners would issue the permits for development if something this beautiful had somehow wound up in their care.
In Little Italy, the cars were blocked off as families took to the streets for a festival, and in Times Square another festival caused headaches for cab drivers and crowds on the sidewalks. Most anything you could imagine was for sale on the sidewalks of Canal Street, and the lights of Broadway were still the glorious garden of wonder that writer G.K. Chesterton had seen nearly a century before. Everywhere this city was – and still is – alive.
And in all places, the very best entertainment to be found was available by merely looking around. Simply watching people held all the fascination of a riveting novel – it was difficult to look away.
As we left the city, my eyes were glued to the skyline through the window of the shuttle. I tried to imagine my ancestor more than 350 years earlier looking around in awe at the small civilization carved from the untamed wilderness. I could almost see him there, his head swimming in thought – until his reverie was broken by the sound of a horn from a passing horse-drawn carriage.
Coming up next week, the final installment closes the loop on this journey around America. Find out what it’s like to race around the country using one-way airline tickets purchased at the last minute. Also, with all of the bad news in the world today, check in next week to see that things aren’t nearly as bad as they might seem.
|Although taxis make up fewer than 13,000 of the more than 800,000 vehicles that pass through the city each day, they seem to dominate the roads. Pictured above, a line of cabs seems to form a gauntlet across Sixth Avenue. Mitch Traphagen Photo|
New York City Tourism Bureau: www.nycvisit.com
Includes information on hotels, restaurants, and transportation around the city.
The Empire State Building: www.esbnyc.com
Includes information on the history of the building as well as the opportunity to purchase Observatory tickets online. Pre-purchasing a tickets allows you to skip out on one of the many lines.
The Grand Hyatt Hotel: www.grandnewyork.hyatt.com.
Nothing unusual about this hotel, per se – except that it is at Grand Central Station in the middle of the action – or at least within walking distance of it. For those who have never been, prepare for a little sticker shock…
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