Our trip to New York City seems like a lifetime ago, but the Smithsonian Student Travel excursion to the Big Apple my wife Kathy and I sponsored actually took place in June. I reported on the first couple of days in last month’s column. What follows is an account of the final two days.
We departed on the ferry from the New Jersey shore at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, which is like the crack of dawn for New Yorkers.
The Statue of Liberty is something you have to see at least once. But, we found Ellis Island more intriguing. The old buildings feel haunted by historical figures. Like the Metropolitan Museum of Art the day before, there was not enough time to adequately soak in all that this stop had to offer. We could only imagine what the immigrants to the United States must have felt as they were being herded, sorted and, in some cases, turned away. We learned that at least one family was split up over something as benign as a black fingernail.
After viewing the historic landmarks, we sailed back to Manhattan, where we landed at Battery Park on the tip of the island. It was here that many people fled the collapsing World Trade Center buildings in 2001.
From the park, we headed up through Lower Manhattan to Wall Street. We made our way to the site of the 9/11 tragedy. A visit to the monument is free with a ticket. The security was extraordinarily tight. We had to pass through several checkpoints before we could gaze at the two water features, built to look like bottomless pools in the footprints of the former buildings.
Across the way, we could see One World Trade Center, now the tallest building in New York City despite still being under construction.
We stopped briefly to view a tribute to the firefighters who lost their lives during the attack and the ensuing rescue efforts. I experienced a brief moment of panic as I lost sight of the tour group. I was not paying attention as Cathy, our tour leader, and the crew rounded a corner. By the time I woke up, I had no idea which direction they went.
I soon remembered that I was carrying my cell phone, so I was never too worried. When I spotted the group up the street and caught up with them, I did have to ask my wife how long it would have taken for her to miss me. She claimed she had been trying to call me the whole time I was AWOL.
After the trip to Ground Zero, Cathy asked our bus driver, George, to take us on a spin through Times Square. If you want to get a sense of what this area is like at 4:30 p.m., think of maneuvering a coach through the middle of Hillsboro’s annual arts and crafts fair at 10 a.m.
Despite his misgivings (I believe George said something to the effect, “You want me to do what?”), our driver slowly guided our bus through the mind-boggling sea of pedestrians. We could have made use of a cow-catcher-style plow to push the mass of humanity out of the way.
After an hour of crawling through Times Square, George informed us we had attained a distance of less than one-half mile. But, eventually, we arrived at our destination for our meal. We were a bit ahead of schedule, so several of us sneaked off to visit the Naked Cowboy, whom we had spotted as our bus inched by. He is famous for standing around Times Square, getting his picture taken with women. He sports a pair of tighty whiteys and a guitar. He “works” year round, and Cathy told us he is rumored to make a six-figure income. You can see more on this human oddity on his nakedcowboy.com website. Personally, I saw more of him than I cared to.
Our supper was served in one of the strangest dining facilities I have ever seen. When I was given the itinerary before the trip, I saw that we would be eating at a place called Bowlmor Lanes. I was told that this was no ordinary alley. The building encompassed several floors and included dining rooms and bars and a number of bowling lanes scattered throughout. We were served family-style chicken tenders and sliders.
Everyone was anxious to experience Times Square, so nobody took the time to knock down any pins. A showcase in the lobby featured many that had been signed by celebrities who had bowled there, however. We ended our evening with some free time on the Square.
Thursday brought our final day in the city. After breakfast and a trip in from New Jersey, Cathy took us on a walking tour of Central Park. The morning was breezy and cool, and we were shown lots of locations made famous by movies. We saw a dog walker with half a dozen pooches on leashes and viewed some of the most expensive real estate in NYC.
We emerged from the park in Columbus Square, which is not a square at all, and we were given a choice of visiting the Apple store (believe it or not, the No. 1 tourist draw in New York City) or the famous toy store, F.A.O. Schwartz. That’s the place with the giant piano from the movie “Big.” Of course, like everything else in the Big Apple, tourists lined up here to pay to have their photos taken playing the keyboard. We decided to pass.
We walked on down Fifth Avenue, eventually slipping into Trump Tower. While the women went to check out the extravagant restrooms, I feasted my eyes on the gold-plated motorcycle parked in the lobby. I had seen the episode of “American Chopper: Senior vs. Junior” on which this chopper was created. Honestly, the bike didn’t look all that rider friendly.
Our last few hours in New York City were spent checking off a few more items on the NYC tourists’ bucket list. We returned to Rockefeller Plaza, where a couple of our group members managed to get themselves videotaped standing outside the “Today Show” windows.
We crossed the street for some true New York pizza. It tasted good enough to justify the risk we took dodging traffic to get to the small cafe.
At this point, the El Paso contingent left with Cathy. Their flight was set to leave several hours before ours, and Smithsonian was kind enough to order us some transportation for a later trip to the airport. That gave us a couple of hours on our own.
Wife Kathy became our fearless leader, and she guided us to the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Terminal and the New York Public Library (think “Ghostbusters”). Our bus came around to pick us up there and whisked us off through Queens to La Guardia.
Though I still prefer trips to Europe, this was actually much like traveling out of the country; it was so different from any other U.S. city I have visited. I am glad I experienced the Big Apple, and I wouldn’t mind returning some day. Quite honestly, four days was enough, however.
So, what did I learn during my visit to one of the largest cities in the world? The people are friendlier than I expected. I was surprised at how many privately owned vehicles were on the streets. There was not as much honking as is generally shown on TV. Times Square is as crazy as is generally shown on TV. The population is diverse, and NCY truly is a melting pot.
Mostly, I learned the old saying is true: it was a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.