Big Apple Birthdays

If you ever have a lot of activities that you want to pack into an excursion, Tyler is the man to take along on your trip. When we originally talked about taking advantage of JetBlue’s inexpensive, direct flights to NYC to celebrate my and Jack’s birthdays, he suggested that we fly out Saturday at 6 am, stay the night, and return on the first flight Sunday morning. I thought about the idea for about a minute and decided that, in the interest of staying married (and out of jail for killing my husband), we needed to depart Friday night since getting up in the middle of the night two days in a row on a weekend is the last thing Jack or I would equate to birthday fun. 

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perfectly captures the sentiment on early rising…

With just a backpack per person, we departed Savannah around 7 pm and our direct flight whisked us to NYC in no time, all while the friendly crew provided “good” snacks (as determined by the junkfoodaterian snack king, Jack) and took the time to announce, and lead the passengers in a cheer for, a group of veterans on our flight. When we arrived at JFK, the first thing we saw outside of the jetway was Dylan’s Candy Bar, so of course we stopped to ooh and aah over the dazzling array of colorful confections and Jack managed the ultimate-level of restraint, purchasing a single lollipop. We asked a not-entirely friendly airline worker at the information counter for which subway we needed to take to get to mid-town and we were off.

Destination Subway

As we wandered the deserted underground platform from to the E train, a giant subway rat scurried past us into a trash can and then darted down onto the tracks (what could be MORE authentically subway!?). When we disembarked from the subway a few blocks from our hotel, despite it being almost 11 pm, we were all wide-eyed and energized by the adventure of travel. I hadn’t been to NYC since Jack was a baby (in the spring of 2006 when I went on an art-buying trip for Sprint), and Ty and I were both excited to share the wonders of New York City’s architecture, population density, culture, and more with Jack. There was a full moon shining above, and we pointed out the Chrysler Building, Grand Central Station, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Saint Bartholomew’s along the way.

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We were staying at a Marriott property on Lexington at 48th. When the front desk person was unable to find our reservation, she asked if we were staying at the Marriott Lexington, because we were mistakenly trying to check-in at a Marriott on Lexington which was literally across the street. Crises averted. We fell into bed, knowing that Ty would have us hitting the pavement before the sun rose on Saturday.

At about 5:30 am, Ty started trying to rouse us, despite our efforts to burrow under the covers and pillows and beg for 5 more minutes of sleep. In Marion-family record time, we were dressed and on the street by 6, in search of item 1 on my NYC to-do (more accurately, to-eat) list: authentic bagels. With a little help from Google maps, we headed off in the direction of a deli that seemed promising. As we stood on the sidewalk across the street from said deli, gaping confusedly as it was not yet open, an old man who seemed maybe to be a security detail in front of another (also not open at such an ungodly hour) restaurant asked if he could help us. We remarked that we were on a quest for bagels, to which he waxed poetic about “back in the 80s,” when you could get a good bagel, but now, alas, 90% of the delis all get their bagels from the same place in Brooklyn, so basically we should abandon all hope for our bagelicious quest. Sleepy and hungry, we settled on a bodega on the next corner which had an actual person cooking food on a grill. Jack and I happily ordered toasted everything bagels and Ty got some kind of breakfast sandwich. We grabbed drinks from the cooler and our total bill for breakfast was $11. The same, albeit vastly inferior, breakfast at Panera or even McDonald’s would be at least 2x as much–who said you can’t eat cheap in the big city?!

Appropriately fueled, we made our way to the day’s first stop: the Empire State Building, arriving before they actually opened but there were still about a dozen other early birds in line before us. At precisely 8 am, we were ushered in to the luxe Art Deco lobby and wound our way through a series of rooms which would no doubt be teeming with crowds later that day. We bought our tickets and hopped into the express elevator (operated remotely by the ESB staff to my delight), where we were treated to a cool video in the elevator’s ceiling panel showing the progression of the building’s construction.

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We wandered around the 86th floor, me sticking to the interior, nerdily reading all of the content that some curators and graphic designers spent endless hours on and therefore should be appreciated (and not at all avoiding my fear of heights). I eventually joined Ty and Jack and was delighted to discover the view finders were free (free being a relative term since tickets to the top were $100+ a pop). The view was indeed amazing and the quietness of being so far removed from the traffic and city noises below was equally zen.

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After taking in the view from all sides of the top, we headed back inside. Despite Jack wanting to drop another C-note in the gift shop on all things King Kong and Empire State Building-related, I limited him to a ‘fridge magnet and bottle of water (rookie move–I could’ve gotten a bottle of water on any street corner below for a third less than the gift shop price).

We wandered in the general direction of Times Square, stopping to admire the sheer size of Grand Central Station’s interior and trying to impress upon Jack the glitz and glamor of the lost era of train travel.

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Along the way, we passed another opportunity to teach Jack history. Very meta to take a picture of a phone with my phone, no? Ain’t no way I was gonna pick up the germy receiver just for the sake of a photo op, though.

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We took in all of sights and sounds of Times Square, and knew enough not to get scammed by the costumed weirdos wanting money to take your picture with them, although Ty did fall prey to the fake monks and made a donation in exchange for a beaded bracelet. Sidenote: Ty can be absolutely anywhere and someone will come out of nowhere to hit him up for something. Honestly, he could be wandering lost and alone in the Sahara Desert and someone would appear out of a cave to panhandle him for something.

Big Red Bus tours must be one of the bigger employers in the city–those hustlers were everywhere! Literally, one guy would try to give us a brochure, we’d demure, and then the next guy 1 foot away would try to give us one, like, well, we didn’t want his brochure, but we’ll take yours. Perhaps they spied Jack’s telltale Tibetan monk bracelet and thought we were suckers.

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We wandered around Rockefeller Center and took in the ice skaters, the amazing Lego store and its recreations of all things Rockefeller Center-related in brick, along with a host of fancy sports cars parked on a red carpet, because it’s NYC! We even stopped to get a hot dog from the street vendors. I prefer the Sabrett ones to Nathan’s, and, although Ty regretted his choice to add chili (always go with the nekkid dog, bro), Jack was pretty delighted with his soft pretzel that came with a squeeze of cheese from a bottle.

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We bought I ♥ NY t-shirts for Ty and Jack, not thinking to hold them up for a size check, so Ty’s XL became Jack’s shirt and Jack’s L will become Krypto’s.

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The one thing that Jack really wanted to do was check-out the flagship Nintendo store (something related to Pokemon). When Jack saw the line looping around the block, he was crushed knowing that Ty and I would not have the patience to wait, but since we were in “vacation mode” with no real agenda for the day, we humored him. Turns out, those suckers were all in line to play some new video game and since he just wanted to look at Pokemon stuff, we got to skip the line altogether. However, he was quickly disappointed again when we only agreed to buy $10 of the $100+ in stuff he wanted.

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We decided to head back to the hotel so Jack and Ty could change into shorts…as we turned onto Lexington, a huge street festival had popped up in the interim since our 6 am departure. Meats grilling al fresco is one way to Ty’s heart (bacon is another), so he wandered around like that cartoon dog from Quick Draw McGraw who floats when he gets a dog treat,vowing that lunch would be enjoyed on the street. Every culture and grilled meat you could think of was represented, from Jamaican jerk, Greek souvlaki and gyros, Mexican tacos and carnitas, savory or sweet French crepes, smoothies, goat, and more. What was truly amazing to me is the stark difference of when we bbq in the yard and every fly within a 50 mile radius seems to find us, but there was nary a fly anywhere in the blocks and blocks of grills, coal fires, and mounds of cooked meats on display.

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street festival

Apparently, overalls are a thing again?

In addition to being the best unpaid cruise director since Captain Stubing’s daughter Vicki, Ty is also our family’s official photographer. Which is why, as I pull this post together, I am laughing that there are 4x the amount of shots depicting the street food than anything else.

Jack and I opted for 99 cent slices of pizza, which were a total disappointment as far as tasting like “real” NY pizza (the poster in the window looked promising, but the product inside was a classic bait and switch); considering we were out like $5 total for lunch, I was willing to shrug it off. Ty finally decided on a grilled meat option for his lunch, and we were off in the direction of Central Park.

We entered the park adjacent to the Plaza Hotel. My mom had insisted we take a horse-drawn carriage, but as someone who rages every time I get stuck behind a trolley/pedi-cab/hearse tour/horse-drawn carriage ride when I am downtown Savannah, I simply couldn’t do it.

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I did, however, love the snatch of conversation we overheard between one of the drivers and a little girl marveling at his horse: My name is Vinnie, when I come back, you feed the horse a carrot, ok?!

Having been warned against interacting with street performers, we couldn’t pass up the allure of a gold robot man, complete with platform shoes, standing perfectly motionless. We gave Jack some money to put in his cup, and he immediately sprang to life with robotic precision and noises like the guy from Police Academy used to make.

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Then, because we’re great parents, we let Jack run wild and play on the rocks while we sat on a bench and lamented how we were too old to walk so much and how good it felt to sit down. I decided an Italian ice would be prefect, but every damn street cart we saw just had Good Humor ice cream (in retrospect, this would’ve been an easy task for Google to assist me with).

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We passed by the Metropolitan Club, where my dad had been a member and my brother JKB and I used to stay when we visited him in NYC. My brother and I were in high school, and we went to see Purple Rain in a 2-story grand theatre where we sat in the balcony and relished that we had managed to get into an R-rated movie sans ID. Since we obviously seemed so at home on the city streets, people frequently asked us for directions and my brother was the king of just making stuff up and sending them on their way. For my 21st birthday, we again stayed at the Metropolitan Club, as my dad had arranged for JKB and I and our 2 best friends to see SNL taped and eat dinner at the 21 Club. Even not caring a whit about professional basketball, you couldn’t be from Chicago (as we were) and not love Michael Jordan, who just happened to be the host that night. Still hands-down my best birthday ever.

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Nerdy high school kids impressed by flock of big city pigeons

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Goody bag from 21 Club in hand. Pretty sure that was a corduroy shirt from the Gap with a suede collar paired with a suede skirt-so fancy!

We decided to splurge on a cab (uptown? downtown?) so we could catch the Staten Island Ferry and see the Statue of Liberty. The SIF is free to ride and it passes right by the iconic landmark, and since we had no interest in walking around Liberty Island, we saved ourselves the $25 apiece tix, but the ticket hustlers for these “official” Statue of Liberty tours were every bit as pushy as those Big Red Bus tour people–do they get paid a commission based on people they convince to buy tickets? Bonus points awarded because the ferry had a snack bar, but bonus points quickly retracted because the drinks we got were room temperature.

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From there we headed to the World Trade Center and Freedom Tower. The memorial was beautifully executed and a visually stunning way to honor those killed in the tragedy of 9-11. We didn’t go into the museum but wandered somberly among the grounds and found ourselves drawn to what we learned was called the Oculus, a beautifully-rendered work of architecture that soared above us and reminded me of the flying buttress-esque forms of the Milwaukee Art Museum that was featured in one of the Transformers movies. (I was disappointed in myself for not knowing via some kind of internet-based osmosis that this amazing structure exists based on my previous life as an art historian).

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A clear example of how I can try to capture the same image as Ty but his will always be better (but at least he’s in one!).

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Tyler had wanted to get a reuben sandwich at Katz’s Deli, but I found something within walking distance on Google and we picked up crappy deli sandwiches for which they totally screwed up our order: Ty ordered a side of pasta salad which they forgot and I asked for a panini and got a cold sandwich. Jack loved the mac ‘n’ cheese, but I believe that we’ve established he’s the furthest thing from a food snob. As a bonus, they included somebody else’s order of pancakes (!?).

As we sat eating our poor excuse for dinner on some benches in front of a fancy condo building and enjoyed the incessant cacophony of honking taxi horns, a fancy Mercedes pulled up curbside and the woman in the passenger seat was yelling at us for directions to the Four Seasons. We laughed at the fact that they were driving a super expensive car en route to their super fancy hotel, but didn’t have Google maps or OnStar?

On Sunday, Ty had us up at 4 am to ensure that we’d get to the airport without incident for our 7 am departure. As I sleepily stepped into the elevator, I gasped from the amount of patchouli the previous elevator occupant had left lingering. I hate the smell of patchouli, so guess who I got to sit next to on the hotel airport shuttle in the last available seat? Mr. patchouli himself! I couldn’t get the smell out of my nose or clothes until I came home and showered and changed into clean clothes! Surprising (to me anyway) was the lack of bagel availability at our terminal in JFK. No Dunkin’ or Starbucks, nothing. I found a chocolate croissant for Jack and a blueberry muffin for me. So we had an action-packed trip but didn’t get to eat a good bagel, authentic pizza, or an Italian ice, but there’s always next time…

All good things must come to an end. Travel is a privilege and a pleasure, but it’s always great to come home.