Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Big Apple Christmas (parts 1 & 2)


The chillerins dropped word on us, several weeks back, to hold open the dates of December 17 through December 21…as if we ever have anything planned. Naturally, we assumed, given the broad window, that they were concocting some kind of trip. Being the anti-social type that I am, my first hope was that it would be to some remote corner of the country where there were very few people and maybe a lot of sand, cigars, and adult beverages. Maybe some place we could drive to in order to minimize my admittedly irrational hatred of air travel. But that was not how it turned out.

New York City, here we come.

We’ll fly straight from XNA to LaGuardia on Thursday, and by that afternoon, if, as my ol’ grandma used to say, “the Lord’s willin’ and the creeks don’t rise”, me ‘n the missus will be, for the first time in our lives, walking the streets of Manhattan with our big city-loving kids. And there will be other people there also, I assume. Millions of them.

Let me try to illustrate the gravity of this situation. A few weeks ago, James took his momma and me into a Wal-Mart in Bentonville to look at baby stuff (twins on the way in Spring), and, after about 15 minutes of being around those expanded-but-crowded aisles, I had to excuse myself and go sit in the car, and listen to a John Hiatt CD just to calm myself down. I know this is some kind of “condition”, but I swear I don’t know what you call it. Not like I’m afraid of people. Not a phobia. I just don’t like ‘em.

Is that wrong? Ya think?

After having some time to prepare myself, mentally, for this experience, I have come to the conclusion that the kids did the right thing. It is not foreseeable that we would have ever gone to the Big Apple on our own, and when the time comes to write my memoirs – like anybody would give a flying flip – how would I explain the fact that I’d never been to what is arguably the most important city in the world? Besides, I’ve about run out of stories about the other places I’ve been, and there’s gotta be new material there.

And pictures, just looking for somebody to shoot them. Above my desk here is a poster of a famous Bob Gruen photograph of John Lennon, standing, arms folded across his sleeveless white “New York City” shirt, atop the Dakota Hotel, shades on, just staring at me, like “Rick, I’m very disappointed that you haven’t been here!” You know, in a British accent. ‘Cause he was British.

People who go there seem to fall in love with New York the same way I have done with the mountains of Colorado and the Arizona desert and the Pacific Coast Highway and the narrow streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter. So, maybe it’s not such a bad place. Maybe I can put up with the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, for just a few days. Maybe.

And, who knows, maybe I’ll bump into George Costanza, and we can compare paranoien. That’s the plural of “paranoia” – I looked it up. But my spell checker still has a red line under it. Some kind of an anti-columnist conspiracy, I’m sure. Some Mafioso New York cabal attempting to shut down my rant in order to quell disparaging remarks about their precious metropolis. I’ll probably be walking down the street and get snatched up in Spiderman’s web and pistol-whipped by that buddy of Tony Soprano who plays guitar for Bruce Springsteen. Jersey guy, but close enough. After that I’ll probably develop a Bronx accent and a penchant for aftershave.

Whattaya gonna do?

Just to be on the safe side, I’m going to be traveling under an alias: Art Vandelay, importer/exporter. And my entourage can be a small but dedicated group of marine biologists. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.More on the return, youze guys. Maybe with pictures.


You people thought I was kidding in the last column, I’m sure, when I told you we’d run into Spiderman when we got to the Big Apple. I gotta admit, even I was a bit surprised when we saw him on the very first night there – considering we were in Manhattan and Spidey lives way over in Queens. But, sure enough, there he was, on 7th Avenue, hanging out with a hot nuts vendor. You should never doubt me on matters such as this.

What I was surprised to find, after thirty years or so of swearing I had lost nothing in New York and therefore had no reason to go there, was that it’s just about the friendliest place I’ve ever been – even on the subway, where a couple of people got up and gave my pregnant daughter-in-law their seat.
No hitches. No problems. Just a good time. I mean, if you don’t consider that top ten blizzard to be an issue.

It was almost dark when we got there on Thursday, so we took off walking (that’s something they do a lot of in NYC) to Times Square and had a late lunch at Bubba Gump’s. There, we met the next pop singing sensation, Jenna Marotta, who took us to task with Forrest Gump trivia while waiting on our table. From there, we strolled through the cold and windy streets over to Rockefeller Plaza to check out the big Christmas tree and ride the psychedelic elevator to the Top of the Rock, and looked down on the lights of Manhattan, about eyeball level with the top of the Empire State Building.

After tromping through the airports and that much walking, preggo-preggo (twins, you know) was ready to crash, so we escorted her back to the hotel and took in the Hard Rock Café for supper.

Day two, Friday, they started talking about the possibility of snow on the Weather Channel. Maybe as much as 5 to 8 inches for the city. But there was still a chance it could miss us. Meanwhile, Miami was getting flooded, and the whole system was pushing north. As luck would have it, we were north, but convinced that thing would rain itself out before it got into the cold weather, we endeavored to persevere. We slept rather late, stopped off for some pizza, then rode the subway to Battery Park where we ferried out to Liberty and Ellis Islands. It was a chilly day, by Arkansas standards, but Lady Liberty was basking in the sun against a clear blue sky. I know it’s an overused word, but it was an awesome sight.

That night, after we’d worn Megan down again, Me ‘n mama and James grabbed some hot dogs at Papaya – a place our limo driver told us not to miss – and then caught a cab to Central Park, where our Turkish driver (never understood his name) and his Clydesdale, Pegasus, took us on a carriage ride through. Of course, it was all lit up with Christmas lights and the short ride would have been great, but Becky had to see Strawberry Fields, so we had to pay extra for the long one. From there, we could see the Dakota Hotel, where John Lennon spent his last days. For you kids, he was a singer, OK?

After the ride, we spent an hour or so at the ESPN Zone, enjoying some warming beverages before heading back to the hotel to pick Meg up for dinner at the Rainbow Grille. Imagine our surprise when we got there and discovered it had been closed down for 8 months. So, having brushed up on our trivia, we went back to Bubba Gump’s, snagged a window seat above Times Square and watched the people down below; and the scrolling marquee across the street, warning of “blizzard conditions” coming our way.

Saturday we slept even later. About noon we walked, as the first snowflakes began to fall, into Hell’s Kitchen for some more pizza. It’s not exactly Manhattan’s main tourist attraction and I think Megan may have looked a little out of place with her high heels and white fur coat and fuzzy white earmuffs. A lady walked up behind us and, thinking perhaps we were lost, told us if we wanted to shop they had this big store called Macy’s just a few blocks over. We thanked her and went on into Mitchel London Foods where, oddly, they sold pizza, burgers, and cupcakes. It was split up into two sections – burgers & cupcakes on one side, and pizza on the other. And run by a Mexican dude, who was so surprised to see us in there that he gave us each a cupcake when we finished our pizza. Mine was like fudge. Best cupcake I ever had. Then the girls did Macy’s while we…didn’t.

Back at the hotel, we got a black cab to take us to Pier 61 at Chelsea, where James had booked a dinner cruise of New York Harbor on the Bateaux. By the time he picked us up in the Denali, the snow was sticking, and we were glad he had agreed to come back for us at 11:30 that night, because if it was going to snow like they said it would, the cabs might have some trouble.

Anticipating some trouble with traffic, and not really having any, we got to the piers early. The driver left. The blizzard started. Waiting for our boat to board, we sat in a restaurant at Pier 59, watching the snow out the window.
When the time came to get on the boat, visibility was down to about two hundred feet. It was a glass boat, but a blanket of snow covered it pretty much completely, so it was nearly impossible to see out. We braved the arctic blizzard a few times to go out onto the deck, but got run off of there a couple of times by the deck hands, shoveling snow. James and I did get to stand out there long enough to (1) freeze half to death, and (2) watch as we went under the Brooklyn Bridge. The snow was coming down so hard when we passed the Statue of Liberty that she could barely be seen. Luckily, we had seen her the day before.

Back at Pier 61, our Denali didn’t show up. We called the hotel and they said they’d get somebody out there, but it didn’t look like they were going to make it. The snow was deep, and the wind was blowing, rocking the sailboats, whipping their flags. We decided to walk out to the street and try our luck at hailing a yellow cab (the black ones aren’t supposed to pick you up unless you call them first), but just before we got there, here came our car – a long stretch Lincoln limo. Perfect for NYC blizzard transportation.

Dude only had to stop a couple of times to wipe snow off his windshield in order to see his way to drive us back to the hotel. And, amazingly, we made it.
It had been a long day, and this old fat man was ready for a good night’s sleep. The weather channel was warning of a thousand flight cancellations from New York. My mom was texting, asking if I thought we would ever get home. My sister texted, suggesting we rent a car and drive home. I texted her back, asking for suggestions on which direction to drive – since the deepest snow was still to our south and west, and there was that ocean out there to the east. The hostile nation of Canada to the north. She told me my nephew, her son, was stuck in DC with three foot snow drifts, and he wished he would have left to go home for Christmas a day earlier. Well, he didn’t. And neither did we. As they say in New York, “Whatta ya gonna do?”

So, we got the girls to bed, and I started to undress to lie there and study the weather channel, but the phone rang. It was James. He hadn’t had enough, and wanted to take our new rubber boots (who knew they had a K-Mart in midtown?) and walk back to Times Square to see what it looked like in a blizzard. My face froze, cracked, and fell onto the sidewalk three times before we got there. It looked cool, all the neon and snow, but there were only a few people, having snowball fights in front of the NYPD building. One car was trying to pull out of a parking spot and the snowdrift tore the front bumper off. He would have kept going had we not beaten on his window and told him. That was just about as much cold excitement as I could stand, so, after shooting some more pictures, we trudged back, getting to our rooms about 1:30 am, just as I was playing off the voicemail from Becky, wondering if she was widowed and stranded alone in the big city. By that time, I had determined that it didn’t make any difference what the Weather Channel had to say about us not getting a flight out. It was what it was.

Sunday morning the snow had all but stopped. It didn’t look that bad. The Avenues were clear and traffic was speeding up and down them as if nothing had happened. 39th Street was still pretty deep and the hot dog vendors were having a time pushing those carts out of the building next door to us where they kept them. Mayor Bloomberg was on TV, telling us they were working on the highways and 6,000 miles of other streets in the city, and offering $12 an hour to anybody who wanted to sign up to help. I thought about it, but only briefly.
Our driver, Victor, who James uses on every trip to New York, showed up like clockwork, and took us on the scenic route, through Queens, to LaGuardia. There were a few minor glitches with security and an icy plane, but nothing worth mentioning. All in all, again, it was a fabulous trip. And, amazed as I am to say it, I will go back.

One thing about the trip home: Flight Attendant Jo, on American Airlines, will be Googling to see her name in print, so there it is. She has flown for 16 years and never seen a UFO. I think she’s lying.

Every story has a moral, and here’s what I learned on this trip. There isn’t a more diverse city than New York anywhere in the world. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, black, white, brown, and yellow. Put twenty people in a room and you’re liable to hear 10 or more languages. And they all seem to put up with each other. Maybe oblivious to each other but, still, in harmony.
In the spirit of the season, here’s hoping the rest of the world can catch up to them.

© 2009, Rick Baber