We emerged from the hole in the ground that is Penn Station. Half of Manhattan seems to exist below the surface. And we ascended to 34th St. and Broadway, right in the middle of the sensory overload that is New York City -- vibrant, dirty, exciting, noisy, smelly, teeming with activity, and the loneliest place on earth. For an unreconstructed introvert like me, it’s the worst place imaginable to settle down and spend a life, but it’s one of the best places imaginable to spend four days. And since I was here for four days, I resolved to make the best of it.
And I immediately felt out of place. It was 92 degrees and very humid. I was wearing shorts and sandals, and toting suitcases, and sweating profusely. Elsewhere, New Yorkers coolly and calmly walked the streets in long pants and business suits. I might as well have had the word “Tourist” emblazoned in big letters on my back. What is wrong with these people? And how do they keep from sweating?
We found our hotel, checked in, and “freshened up” (i.e., spent two hours primping in front of the mirror for the three Whitman women; spent two minutes wiping the sweat from my brow and then 1:58 alternately pacing the hotel room and trying to read a book for me). I am still not used to the World of Women. I suspect I will never be used to it, although you would think that with all the practice it would be getting easier. But I struggled that first day, as I did every day of our vacation. I love my family. And they drive me crazy. Then we headed off to a late lunch at Ben’s Deli at W. 38th and 7th Ave., where we were served corned beef sandwiches the size of Buicks, and priced accordingly.
Thus began our urban adventure. Mostly we walked. Wow, did we walk – probably ten to twelve miles per day because we really wanted to see the city. Over the next four days we shopped for clothes (H&M and Macy’s for the girls), attended a Broadway musical (The Producers, which, by some minor miracle, I thoroughly enjoyed), dropped by Grand Central Terminal and gawked at the outrageous gothic architecture, dropped by the New York City public library and gawked at more outrageous gothic architecture, shopped for more clothes (Urban Outfitters for the girls), and toured Rockefeller Center. We visited the American Museum of Natural History and looked at dinosaur bones and meteorites and gazed open mouthed at the dazzling show at the Hayden Planetarium. We strolled through Central Park. We strolled through West Greenwich Village, and I treaded as if I was on holy ground, imagining Bleeker St. forty-five years ago when The Gaslight and Gerdes Folk City played host to a twenty-year-old Bob Dylan. We ate and drank our way across and up and down Manhattan – two kosher delis, and authentic New York pizza, and great Chinese. We splurged at an upscale Italian restaurant, where I ate lobster-filled ravioli and irritated the waitress by refusing to order a $12 dessert. Great stuff, and I was stuffed.
While the Whitman women shopped for clothes I struck out on my own, in search of the Ultimate Music Store. And since the clothes shopping went on for seemingly interminable intervals, I had plenty of time to explore. Here is what I found:
- Rebel Rebel (W. Greenwich Village) – Nothing but punk and indie stuff, but a good selection of that. I picked up the latest Pernice Brothers album for full price and the first Matthew Ryan album (Mayday) for 99 cents.
- Retro Records (83rd St. and Broadway on the upper west side) – Great indie selection, but overpriced. No purchases, but a nice sales clerk who knew about Paste).
- Bleeker St. Music (Bleeker St. in W. Greenwich Village) – I don’t care if Bleeker Street Bob did know Bob Dylan back in the day. And I don’t care if he probably does have the best selection of oldies in the world. His CDs are overpriced. I’m not paying $20 for a Left Banke album, even if I am salivating to own it.
- Other Music (E. 4th St. in the East Village) --- Right across the street from the mega Tower Records store. And “other” here means anything Tower doesn’t carry, which turns out to be quite a lot. What a fabulous store. If it’s weird, it’s here. They had a Kraut Rock section that took up a whole wall. They had an electronic and minimalist section (Steve Reich, Lamont Young, Phillip Glass) that took up a whole wall. They actually had a card for Karlheinz Stockhausen. Plus the scruffy guy in the John Deere cap who was shopping next to me turned out to be Benicio Del Torro, who ended up spending $700 at this store (and you thought I was fanatical). I ended up with a hard-to-find Magnetic Fields album, the latest from British Sea Power, and the latest from The Decemberists.
- St. Marks Sounds (at St. Marks Place in the East Village) – Good selection of used CDs, but a little too predictable. And overpriced. I ended up not buying anything.
- Joe’s Music (at St. Marks Place in the East Village) – Mecca. A huge selection of used CDs, reasonably priced (everything in the $7 - $10 range). I ended up with a stack that included the latest Van Morrison, a couple from Beck, and new-ish albums from Ben Harper, Martin Sexton, Sonia Dada, Teenage Fanclub, and Superdrag.
On Thursday we again played urban hikers, shunning the subway, and we walked from our hotel on W. 35th up to Central Park, and then down 5th Avenue from Central Park to the southern tip of Manhattan, through Chelsea and Soho and Greenwich Village. For what it’s worth, Greenwich Village was arty and bohemian and impossibly overpriced, the counterculture neatly packaged and tied with a bow, ready to be sampled by capitalist consumers. Soho is gentrified and full of fashion boutiques with $1,000 dresses and shiny, neatly-coiffed beautiful people who look like they should be auditioning for soap operas. In the Financial District Kate and Emily and Rachel discovered Century 21, a department store full of funky clothes at bargain (for NYC, at any rate) prices. I knew they were in it for the long haul, and so we made arrangements to rendezvous in a couple hours. I was again on my own for a while.
It was very close. I knew it was. And so I hesitated for a moment, prayed, tried to sort through my motivations and emotions to determine whether the magnetic pull I was feeling was the product of genuine sympathy and compassion or simply my own morbid curiosity. It was a little of both; I finally determined. And it was okay.
So I wandered west for a couple blocks toward the Hudson River. It wasn’t hard to find; I just followed the crowds. And there it was: the gaping, charred, steel-twisted hole that used to be the site of the World Trade Center. It’s fenced off now, and you have to get up close to peer in to see the wreckage. Tour buses pulled up beside me, disgorged their occupants by the hundreds and thousands. And I experienced one of the strangest sensations of my life. I was literally surrounded by thousands of people, and none of them were talking. A few of them were weeping. A few of them thrust flowers through the chain-link fence, leaving behind an all too fleeting memorial for all too fleeting lives. They shuffled silently alongside the fence, read the posters and placards that have been hastily erected – photographs of the towers in all their pre-9/11 glory, photographs of the towers burning, photographs of the towers tumbling to the ground. And then a wall of names – almost 3,000 names – of people who perished in the burning and tumbling. I am not a fan of wave-the-flag patriotism. I am not a fan of revenge. But I am a fan of Gordon McCannel Aamoth Jr. and Edelmiro Abad and the other 2,900 people who were killed by hatred. And so I peered through the chain-link fence at this twisted concrete field of ruins, this negation of life, and I prayed for the families of the victims and for something better than an eye for an eye, a body for a body, a tower for a tower, to fill this hole in the ground and this hole in my heart. I understand revenge. I felt the anger simply looking at that wall of names. I wanted to lash out at somebody, anybody. But I prayed for the strength to love – if not the terrorists in Al Qaeda, then at least my own family. That would be a good place to start.
Philadelphia, where we spent the first 2.5 days of our vacation, was fun as well. We did the historical tour. We ate cheese steak. We visited a great art museum. And we spent inordinate amounts of time in our hotel room, waiting to leave. Or at least I did. And I struggled.
Driving home on Saturday, it again occurred to me that I won’t have to wait long for my family to leave. Emily is heading off for college in less than two months. And so I sat around at home most of Sunday in a kind of blue funk, saddened and depressed that our vacation was over, irritated with my own irritation, wishing that I didn’t react the way I do, wishing I could be more patient, more understanding. It was bittersweet. But we survived a week together, non-stop, and mostly we got along, and laughed, and enjoyed one another’s company. That’s the truth. It wasn’t all bad, it wasn’t all good. But it was life together, and that counts for a lot. I’ll probably be ready for another four days or so in a few years.