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On the way to New York City, I dreaded the anticipated traffic nightmare and white-knuckle driving. There was a pause at the tunnel but nothing too bad. And the city streets seemed just fine. Of course, this was Sunday. Our escape from New York would be a much different endeavor.
Our hotel was squeezed in amongst the concrete jungle. It was as if someone purchased a little patch of land and built a tiny square floor plan straight up as high as umpteen stories. The width of the building made me feel like I could wrap my arms around it. Inside we were greeted with the most friendly hotel staff we had ever encountered.
“How un-New York like,” we joked privately at the broken stereotype.
When we exited the elevator, we could literally walk 12 paces either way and be at the end of the hall which turned and continued around the square interior. The hallway was very narrow, too.
We unloaded and decided we had time to explore Times Square. Unlike D.C., we decided not to hoof it, heading for the subway instead. That was more of a stereotypical New York experience. But we enjoyed it and marveled at its efficiency. There was one recurring problem. It may have been user-error, I don’t know. But whenever we used the subway, we had to purchase tickets and I always seemed to get shorted.
Times Square was just as it seems on television. It was full of pedestrians – mostly tourists like us – and digital advertising everywhere you looked. I spun in a 360-degree turn with my video camera to try and capture it all. That’s when life-size Elmo walked up and put his arms around my two kids and motioned for my wife to snap a photo.
“Oh, how fun is this,” my wife smiled and took the photo op.
Then Elmo, rather un-Elmo like, made arm motions demanding money for his services. So much for Elmo seeming like the good-will ambassador of Times Square. I reached in my wallet and gave him a bill. His body-language suggested dissatisfaction. He didn’t hesitate to grab a couple of other kids in a bid to shake down more tourist-parents.
Our mission at Times Square was laser-focused on going to M&M Headquarters to find out what kind of M&Ms we were. This little adventure resulted from a word-of-mouth campaign that came from a kid my son knew back home. It somehow made it onto our must-see list. Not on my list mind you but I was outvoted 3-1. So it goes.
Every turn inside and outside was met with shoulder-to-shoulder bodies hustling and bustling as you may expect from a stroll through Times Square. The M&M building was even more crowded. Finally, we located the screens that would reveal our inner M&M. One by one, we were analyzed and then our color and personality description posted to the monitor overhead for all to read. Really, it was just a high-tech version of those vintage, wooden, carnival fortune-telling machines.
Another stop was to the 9/11 Memorial. It’s complicated emotionally to be at a place that marks such tragedy and yet is a tourist attraction. In this coveted and jam-packed real estate space in Manhattan, the vast openness of no skyscraper looming immediately overhead is noticeable.
Instead of something extending skyward, the perimeter of what was the foundation of the old World Trade Center’s twin towers streamed almost glasslike downward. Black granite walls went straight down along with water pumping gently down all four sides from just underneath the memorial railings. They were topped with flat angled displays with the names of the unfortunate etched in plaques that stretched around where both towers once stood. The water pooled but there was yet another descent. In the middle of the pool, another square of granite walls went straight down again, appearing to the eye, infinitely so. And again, water seeped over the edges in glasslike fashion.
The design is called “Reflecting Absence”.
We stood silently among hundreds of other quiet onlookers surveying the scene and pondering the loss and the enormity of it all. There is a spirit there. I think everyone standing at the edge of the abyss senses it. But that spirit soars in the open air above, much like the two new nearby towers casting shade on the old site.
You can knock us down but we will always rise again – stronger than before!
As we walked some more, our path met with what became known as The Survivor Tree. The Callery pear tree stood right there at ground zero and inexplicably survived the terrorist attack. Roots snapped, branches broke and burned, yet it clung to life. It was rescued, rehabilitated and returned. It is a symbol of our resilience.
Although our children were too young to reflect on that infamous day in human history, they appreciated the 9/11 Memorial just the same. And it opened a thoughtful dialogue over dinner at a nondescript New York eatery that we enjoyed so much it served us two nights in a row.
The next day we were very happy that we pre-purchased tickets for the ferry ride to Liberty and Ellis Islands months ago. The incredible droves of people standing, waiting in line boggled my mind. We got to walk right past them.
As we left the dock and drifted toward the Statue of Liberty, the view of the skyline in our wake seemed to make New York look like a cozy town instead of the mega-metropolis it is. Then, we floated by the Statue of Liberty making a turn toward her harbor. It was a sunny day with blue sky and just a smattering of fluffy white clouds to accent the canvas that was air.
With Lady Liberty standing tall just a stone’s skip away, I just stared, thinking, “That’s the Statue of Liberty – That’s the Statue of Liberty – Hey kids, that’s the Statue of Liberty.”
I tried to see the statue through the boyhood eyes of my grandpa as he approached this new world. My wife was trying to see it through her mom’s childhood eyes. The symbolism and hope must have been immense.
What I enjoyed most about our visit to Liberty Island wasn’t the fascinating stories told to me through my audio tour headphones. It was the many interesting views of Lady Liberty that you don’t normally see in photos or video (see the photo montage below).
Over at Ellis Island, I had the cool opportunity to walk in my grandpa’s footsteps and see what he was met with upon his arrival to America as a young boy with his family from Sicily. Oh, how his eyes must have been like saucers. But the surreal sensation that that must have had on the imagination of a great life ahead in the land of the free was sure to have come crashing down when the reality of Ellis Island hit him. Ellis Island was either a house of horror or just a quick processing to the promise of a better life. The preserved graffiti on walls transcended the timeline as much as the old architecture from original ceilings to staircases – some parts haunting and others liberating.
At Ellis Island, we were pretty much limited to exploring one building, grand as it was. But the adventurer in me wanted to roam the island and explore the other buildings and grounds. Still, the museum inside the main building was excellent. It tells the stories of the immigration process in vivid detail. You can even look up your immigrant ancestor’s records and see a photo of the boat they came in on and the manifest with their name.
The main building was built in 1900 and was the nation’s busiest immigrant inspection station for much of its time before closing in 1954. Between 1892 and 1954, some 12 million immigrants funneled through Ellis Island.
Once we had had our fill of appreciation for the roots that brought us to these shores, we went outside to fetch a return ferry. There was not a pre-purchased ticket line this time. The line was four wide and wrapped from the front of the main building around the side and beyond the back. The wait between ferries was long. When a ferry filled up, the line moved sluggishly forward. It took three or four ferries before we could board.
When we left NYC the following morning, it was the nightmare – only worse – that I had expected upon arrival. Fighting from lane to lane with New York cabbies during the midweek morning rush hour in Manhattan made me revert into “Travel Dad.” This was a nickname given to me by my kids earlier in the trip. I become “Travel Dad” when I become super intense behind the driver’s wheel under stressful traffic conditions.
Once I could breathe easy, away we went to what would become our favorite stop of our Magical History Tour but notably the least attractive attractions. Go figure.
By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!
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Last Stop: Philadelphia
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