Note: I began writing this post late September 2014. Vivian just proofed the draft and photos tonight and has given me permission to publish!
A month ago today the Nice family returned from an epic East Coast trip. I’m not sure how many blog posts (or how long) it will take to document all we did, but today I’m “spreadin’ the news” (cue Frank Sinatra’s famous tune!) about Vivian’s and my adventure in the Big Apple.
New York is one of my all-time favorite cities. Starting when I was a child, my mom would tell me stories about the city that never sleeps, and I’d pore over a coffee table photographic book of Manhattan she’d bought when she lived there in the 1960’s. In 3rd grade, the same year I wrote my 33 page mystery, and lots of people asked me what I wanted to be “when I grow up.” My answer: a novelist in New York City.
So my childhood dream eventually morphed into a parent dream after visiting NYC in 1998 and again in 2010 – I wanted to take Vivian to New York for her 13th birthday. So, even though we’d talked about the trip for a while, there wasn’t gobs of planning that went into the trip. My main goal was exposure to America’s greatest big city, and an authentic way to experience our days. And the goal was to not bust the budget. Luckily, we scored free tickets, thanks to airline miles and having the presence of mind to book our flight (a red eye) 7 months in advance.
I chose to find accommodations on AirBnB because I wanted us to stay in the West Village and immerse ourselves in a real neighborhood, even for just a short time. If you’ve ever booked on AirBnB, you know that it takes a little groundwork first. You have to set up a profile, start searching, then send out inquiries. It’s similar to VRBO in that respect, but oftentimes owners tell you their place isn’t available (even if it is on the calendar.) I sent out probably 10 inquiries back in February.
We ended up at a charming place with a cool owner, Lauren. Lauren has a 3 bedroom, 1 bath apartment on a 4th floor walk-up, right in the heart of West Village, and she rents out one or both bedrooms on AirBnB. It couldn’t have been a better location, blocks from the subway line and awesome walkability. The price was right, too – probably half of what we would have paid for a Manhattan hotel room. There was one other young woman from Florida renting the 2nd bedroom, and we saw her more than we saw Lauren.
After a red eye with a stop in Houston, our plane landed at La Guardia about noon. Our driver, Ricardo, picked us up on time and drove us to “Equinox” – Lauren’s gym – to pick up the apartment key, then dropped us off at the front door minutes later. The hardest part was lugging our roller boards up four flights of stairs!
Within an hour we were rested and recharged, sort of. Armed with my Fodor’s NYC map and the knowledge that the Highline was our destination, we set off on foot and with one of Lauren’s umbrellas (yep, it was sprinkling.) After a block or two, I stopped to clarify directions, and this was the first of probably 25 times we would stop and ask for help. Every time, we encountered kindness and helpfulness. Vivian and I heart New Yorkers!
The Highline is one of New York’s newest attractions. Basically, it’s an elevated park constructed atop an old railroad trestle. We wandered around between the raindrops, took photos, people watched, and found refreshments – coffee for me and sparkling Italian lemon for Vivi – just basically steeped ourselves in the city.
Eventually we made our way to Chelsea Marketplace afterward for more browsing and a food-court-style dinner. I also bought some breakfast food and snacks, and after dropping $40 for such simple sustenance, realized that eating for the next few days was going to blow my budget expectations. “I can’t believe we’re in New York!” Vivian kept exclaiming, snuggling up to me. Those snuggles have become more rare since middle school and I cherished the abundance of affection she showered on me in The City!
Day 2 started slow. I slumbered for about 13 hours (the only night I really slept well) then had to wrap up a work project before Vivian awoke 90 minutes later. Our original plan was to hit 5th Avenue and Times Square since our Broadway show was that night.
Lauren gave me instructions via text which subway to take for “downtown.” After a couple stops I realized we were going the wrong direction. So I asked someone and he corrected me that 5th Avenue was uptown, not downtown.
Well, okay. As I formulated a plan, mostly “what the heck should we do next?” a kind woman next to me suggested we just stay on the subway at South Ferry because it turns around and heads uptown. “They tell everyone to get off, but just stay put. If the conductor comes up to you, say you went the wrong direction and need to go uptown.”
Sure enough, they blared over the intercom to exit the subway. We didn’t move as everyone poured out the doors; the conductor came onto the train and listened to my lame (but true) excuse, nodded curtly, then let us alone. Phew! Minutes later the subway lurched and we bulleted uptown.
As I studied the subway map and noticed that 42nd Street was one stop before 5th Avenue, I decided we should just skip 5th Avenue and go straight to Times Square, since we got a later start than planned.
We climbed up from the subway stairs to the glitzy lights and garish signs swirling around and lording over us. Vivian shrieked “It’s bigger than life!” An unforgettable moment.
She insisted we go to H & M first, since Aunt Molly suggested it. I was pleased to notice the New Amsterdam Theater right next to the subway stop, noting that it would be easy to ride the subway back that night after the show.
The minutes melted into hours as we hoofed it all over Times Square: H & M, Forever 21, Uniqlo, and others that are now a blur. We found Radio City Music Hall. Vivian informed me we’re coming back during the holidays sometime to see the Rockette’s Christmas show.
My friend Maria recommended Ellen’s Stardust Diner for dinner because the servers are all aspiring Broadway actors. Alas, it was a 90 minute wait when we finally found it and I didn’t want to rush before the show. Consolation: Planet Hollywood, which Vivian deemed uber-cool. Their chicken strips impressed her, and she knows her kids-menu chicken strips! 🙂
Finally, what we’d been anticipating all day – ALADDIN! No live theater compares to a Broadway show, on Broadway. The theaters are so intimate, it’s like you’re a part of the show. Aladdin was pure magic, intoxicating. The music made us want to sing and dance along. And the set changes were remarkable, not too mention the magic carpet ride of Jasmine and Aladdin. But the Genie stole the show. He was hilarious, an extraordinary talent. Not surprisingly, he won a Tony for the role.
It makes me smile, writing about that night. So glad Vivian and I shared it together.
I felt confident to ride the subway back to the West Village since the station was across the street from the theater. However, once we walked up to the street level, I could not get my bearings. Not good.
The darkness, the different exits, the diagonal streets in the village, my fatigue, all combined to make us “lost.” It was an uncomfortable, even scary feeling, that I did my best to suppress, as we wandered for probably 20 minutes (felt like hours) past a couple of drunken bars and apartments that looked familiar, but weren’t ours.
We asked for directions at a pizza place and learned we were basically a block away. Then Vivian helped us find the apartment – on the opposite side of the street. Relief rinsed over me as we trudged up the four flights of stairs to the apartment.
Our third day we headed to Rockefeller Center to snag sunset tickets to Top of the Rock.
Mission successful. The shops on Fifth Avenue beckoned for the day and we hit it hard: Tiffany’s, American Girl, FAO Schwartz, Lindt, Guess, and more.
The highlight of the afternoon was our 1+ hour pedicab ride through Central Park. Alex, our rider/driver, a fit 20-something from Eastern Europe, gave us an entertaining and informative commentary on the park. He provided just the right amount of stops and photo opps between pedaling: Bethesda Fountain, Strawberry Fields, Yoko Ono’s apartment building. This is the best way to make the most of Central Park in the least amount of time. He dropped us off at The Plaza and we peeked in the lobby. Opulent!
Then as we watched some street dancers, I checked my email and learned the exciting news that Vivian had made the Elite Performing Company team! She was so thrilled, she bounded and leapt up the steps, reveling in pure joy. I will never forget that moment, nor will she.
To celebrate, we went on the hunt for the Capezio store. Thanks to my smartphone and Viv looking up high (the store was located on the 2nd level), we scooted in 20 minutes before closing. Just enough time to try on and buy a new leotard!
Then it was back to Rockefeller Center for Top of the Rock. My experience to the top of the Empire State Building in previous years (crazy long lines) had me wanting to do something different this trip. My instinct was right this time.
We huddled in the dusky elevator and gazed upward. The glass ceiling showed the eery elevator shaft, illuminated with strobe lights as we soared to the top! Top of the Rock, in my opinion, is much better than Empire State Building. There are multiple levels and spaces for outside viewing, so it feels less crowded.
Being there at sunset was spectacular. Manhattan was awash with twilight hues of blues, grays, pinks, and violets. The glittery city lights twinkled as the night sky turned inky. Another moment seared in my memory.
After strolling around Rockefeller Center, we capped off the day with a slice of NY pizza and chocolate Italian ice at the neighborhood pizza place (where we got directions the previous night.)
On the fourth day, we meant to get an early start, but slept in. Neither of us were sleeping soundly due to the heat. Despite the open window and fan in our bedroom, it was extremely stuffy.
Alas, we had no huge agenda, and decided to take the ferry to Ellis Island. My great-grandparents, Mary and John Schechtel, came to America via Ellis Island around 1912. When I visited Ellis in 2008, I looked them up in the immigration records.
The line to the ferry was long and slow, both coming and going, but overall worth it for the Statue of Liberty views along the way and walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. The baggage room and registry room have been preserved as they were when the immigrants who entered America. Each person was subjected to a medical exam and legal inspection, and if they didn’t “pass” either, they were detained and separated from their family, sometimes for weeks!
My German great-grandmother was pregnant with her 3rd child (my grandfather) when her husband and two young daughters left Russia to escape poverty and persecution as Catholics. After landing at Ellis Island, they eventually made their way to Portland, Oregon and raised seven children! I still remember family reunions centered on Granny Schechtel’s birthdays – she lived to age 96!
The ferry returned us to Battery Park and we walked up to Bowling Green to catch the subway to the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, stopping at least once to clarify directions.
We trekked across the Brooklyn Bridge and back in about an hour. It is truly one of NYC’s architectural wonders. The clouds hung heavy, droplets sprayed over us, and we gorged on fresh, tangy mango slices between stops for photos, people watching, and taking in skyline views. Our tired, leaden legs successfully hailed a taxi to drive us back to the Village. Man, those taxis are sure quicker than the subway!
We finally met our landlord, Lauren, the next day. She was a 28 year old investment banker originally from a small town in Massachusetts. It was good to chat with her for a while in person. I’d been annoyed at some shortcomings in the accommodations – no place to hang up clothes or even towels, running out of toilet paper, lack of a/c – all of which seemed silly after we got to know her.
Our last and best NYC meal was at Westville, a small cafe we’d passed a few times enroute to the Christopher subway station. It had great online reviews for brunch, and our meals didn’t disappoint. Me: egg/spinach/mushroom scramble + gluten free toast. Viv: bagel, fruit salad, and hot cocoa. We were the first ones there, and good thing, as there were only about 4 tables. It felt very villagey and even better, very affordable.
After breakfast we meandered through Greenwich Village, and picked up a few mementos in local shops. Vivian found some black and white NYC art to hang in her bedroom, made by the artist and shop owner. The best kind of “souvenir”!
Then it was back to our apartment to drop off the keys, say farewell to Lauren, and gather our bags. We hustled to to subway for one last ride directly to Penn Station. Once we arrived, it felt chaotic. Probably “absolutely normal chaos” to a New Yorker, but I felt edgy because we had cut it close time-wise.
We soon found the right level, and after stopping not once, but twice to ask the Penn Station police (yes, police) for help, found the posted schedule. Then we stood with the masses, staring at the gigantic schedule and waited for the track number to pop up on our train. It finally did, just 10 minutes before departure.
We folded into the sea of humanity and funneled down the escalator to find our train. After a few minutes of searching, and kindly asking a young man to move, we cobbled 2 seats together. Finally, we could stow our bags and settle in. Our three hour ride rolled us through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. It wasn’t the most scenic ride, but it was comfortable and relaxing compared to air travel.
Finally, we rendezvoused with Jason and William at the Baltimore airport. The Nice family was reunited for a week in and around Washington D.C.!
Thank you, New York. My favorite city in the world lived up to my expectations – the perfect backdrop for bonding a 13 year old daughter and her fearless mom.