Gotham Blog 4: The Limo from Hell

What’s a trip to New York without a horror story to take back to Flyoverland?

Our trip had been without significant incident; we hadn’t lost the 11-year-old in the crowd in Times Square or ended up on the wrong side of a subway door from her, and we’d even enjoyed a bucolic day at the New York Botanical Garden (it’s really worth a visit if you want to, or have to, pull your eyes away from the whirligig of the city). The final step in our last day in Manhattan was to move base camp from midtown to a hotel near the Newark airport.

In reviewing the options for our exit plan we quickly saw that it cost about the same to hire a car service recommended by our hotel to transport the three of us as it would to use the SuperShuttle, plus the car would take us directly where we wanted to go. We made the call and our limo, an older Lincoln, arrived on time and our driver appeared.

She was a very short, very stocky woman of unknown ethnicity and dialect but with forearms like Popeye. She assured me she knew how to get us to the Courtyard Marriott by Newark Airport. As we crept uneventfully downtown through the traffic toward the Holland Tunnel I couldn’t help noticing that our driver’s eyes barely cleared the knobby steering wheel of the Lincoln. She was humming to herself in a high-pitched, off-key manner that was almost drowned out by the loud radio in the car tuned to the news and traffic report. I was afraid that if I asked her to turn the radio down that she would lose what visual connection she had with road so I opted to ride it out.

New Jersey was a new challenge, however. On the highway and nearing the airport our driver grew more hesitant in her movements, patting the accelerator with her foot so that the car repeatedly surged and fell back in little increments while she wavered between lanes (as did our confidence). She spotted the exit she wanted, but it was too late to make a move. Rather than risk ending up in Pennsylvania she pulled over to the side of the highway – then started backing up toward the exit.

I’m looking out the rear window at the onrushing traffic while simultaneously searching for an ejector seat button and thinking how rich our surviving daughter back in Minnesota is going to be when the insurance pays off. Miraculously the only thing that hits us are the horns of the other drivers and then we’re going up the exit.

It’s not the right exit after all, however. We drive the frontage road but don’t see our hotel and then get back on the highway where we soon see our hotel – but it’s on the opposite side of the highway. Unfortunately there isn’t an exit handy that we can take – either in forward or reverse. Our driver finally finds an exit that takes us into a neighborhood, where she then runs a couple of stop signs trying to get back to the highway to go in the opposite direction. Her humming is now a loud keening, and I don’t know if it’s her response to stress or if it’s the traditional death song of her people.

We get back on a highway doing a dazzling 40 mph (38 mph, 40 mph, 38 mph, 40 etc.), but it’s not even the highway we were on before, so we do not see our hotel even after driving a ways. What our driver does see is another limo on the shoulder of the highway ahead, and she pulls over in front of this car and gets out to ask directions. I have my cell phone, but my briefcase with the hotel’s phone number is in the trunk. I’m trying to decide whether to call 411 or 911. I’m also eyeing the distance and service roads we’d have to cover on foot if we abandoned the car right there and trying to evaluate our chances of reaching safety when our driver returns and tries to explain where we’re going, waving one hand vaguely toward the windshield while lunging back into traffic.

We take another exit and still no sign of our hotel, but I see a large Marriott sign ahead and – in as calm a manner as I can muster – tell the driver to make for that. Since Courtyards are part of that hotel family I figure if we can just get to the Marriott I can have them call the shuttle from their sister hotel to come get us. After coasting through another stop sign we finally pull up under the Marriott’s portico, giddy with relief and feeling as if we should kiss the Jersey earth.

“Don’t worry about the tip,” our driver tells us. We don’t.

Gotham Blog 3: The Secret to Getting to the Top in New York

New York is so complex that it can embrace and celebrate both the Populist and the Power Elite and unabashedly claim both as its own without feeling the faintest hint of inconsistency.

As you keep pace with the throngs on the street you can within the space of a few steps, literally rub elbows with people who look every bit like power brokers to people who appear to be just broke and yet feel as if you’re all contributing equal shares to the spirit that makes the city great. On the subway someone wearing Brooks Brothers can be sitting next to a brother in full gangsta regalia, who is turn sitting next to someone wearing a kind of psychedelic Little Bo Peep outfit and give each other room and barely a glance.

Yet Privilege also has its place and its uses and is often wielded by those who have devoted their lives to understanding its science and dynamics and appear able to bend their surroundings to suit them as if by magic. And sometimes a powerful talisman falls right into your hands.

Our last morning in Manhattan is sunny with only a little haze and it looks like our best opportunity for getting a good view from the observation deck of the Empire State Building. My wife and I had been up there before, but Patience hadn’t and wanted to go. Two nights before we had tried to take that tour and encountered a sign in the lobby of the building indicating a 90 minute wait. We were hungry and visibility wasn’t that great anyway then, so we opted for getting something to eat instead and ended up at Playwright’s Tavern and Grill on 35th St., around the corner from the ESB.

The food was good and the waitress very friendly and engaging. In talking to her we mentioned the long lines at the ESB and she told us that the restaurant had a few VIP passes for its customers that would allow us to bypass every line and go straight to observation deck. Unfortunately that evening all the passes were in use, but she told us we could come back anytime during our stay and ask for a pass. Now that we had a clear day it seemed like the perfect time to score.

We went back to Playwright’s and swapped a drivers license for one of the laminated, holographic passes, and the bartender told us all we had to do was show the pass to any guard at any line we ran into and we were golden. We then headed over to the ESB and saw the lines were even longer – and at least four people across – outside the building. Feeling a little Minnesota sheepishness at walking past all these people I lead my family up to the main door where the guard turned, ready to banish us back to the end of the line. I tentatively flash the card at him.

Now, in Minnesota, my sense is that if we were in a similar circumstance the guard (who would be dressed like the sheriff in the movie “Fargo”) would look at the card, squint and loudly say something like, “Yah, sure you got that there VIP pass now, doncha? Well I guess that makes you Mr. High and Mighty like you were some kind of three-cheese hot dish, eh? What are you gonna want next – a pass to use the HOV lanes? Well, we’ll just let youse guys on through ahead of all dese other fine folks then, but you might want to be thinking about what Wellstone would do.”

In Manhattan, however, the guard sees the pass, nods his head, steps to one side and opens another door for us. We breeze through feeling a bit guilty and turn a couple of corners and there’s one of those winding lines and another guard. Flash. A nod and a sidestep and a path around the line is revealed. We zoom ahead and there’s another checkpoint. By now we don’t even break stride and the next thing we know we’re in an elevator for the ear-popping ride to the observation deck. Total time from the front door to the deck: 12 minutes. I stifle my maniacal laughter when I look over the railing and down to the street below where the line still stretches.

We had had an express trip to the top in New York and didn’t even have to sell our souls to get there. All we had to do was eat dinner!

Gotham Blog Day 2: A Hard Working City (and How to Get a Job in the Arts)

One of the things we’ve always noticed about New York is how busy everyone is. Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, and even at the edges of your vision when you’re looking, people are working. Trucks are being driven and unloaded, sidewalks are being swept, goods are being stacked on shelves, other goods are being pushed on carts through the streets and everywhere – everywhere – food is being sold.

It takes a lot of work to feed a city of some eight million, not to mention the daily surge of tourists like ourselves. We stop for a bagel or huge pretzel at a sidewalk cart and I start thinking about how much flour it took to make every bagel and pretzel that was going to be needed today in Manhattan alone, and how much wheat it took to make that flour, and how long ago the wheat had to have been planted, then harvested, then processed and everything else that was needed to put a soft, hot treat under our noses that we could either purchase or ignore. How many people had a hand in that process along the way, confident in seeing some reward for their labor – and how many people around the world would line up right now for the unused bagels being thrown away as I type this?

Today is overcast and raining steadily. That means the Empire State Building or a trip to the Statue of Liberty or the Botanical Gardens are pretty much lost causes. So what do you do on a rainy Saturday in Manhattan? Museums, of course. That answer is so obvious that the line to get into the Museum of Modern Art snakes back and forth across the lobby, out the door and nearly to the corner of the block where it then bends into an outdoor holding area laid out for more snaking back and forth. Did I mention it was raining? The street vendors selling umbrellas from carts appear to be doing brisk business. Fortunately we came to see the Museum of Art and Design across the street from the MoMA. Once inside we browse the galleries and I notice another important Manhattan job: every gallery has a guard in a coat and tie to make sure we don’t step over any lines – literally or figuratively.

After the museum we’re out on the street looking for our next destination. Suddenly my wife grabs my arm and Patience gasps audibly and freezes. What? Did some threat get past my radar? My wife directs my attention to the opposite corner of the intersection and I see that we may indeed be in line for a mugging. It’s American Girl Place.

A year ago I had no idea of the marketing volcano that was about to erupt under our feet. Then some black-hearted scoundrel slipped Daughter Two an American Girl catalog – the first one’s free, kid – and her life changed. American Girl dolls are a vertically integrated economic powerhouse. The dolls themselves go for nearly $100 a pop, but that’s just the threshold – the dolls represent different eras and ethnicities in American history and most are the stars of one or more books put out by the company and has full line of accessories, not to mention the magazine (catalog) that appears regularly at our house. My daughter and her friends now can recite model numbers, back stories and accessory details with each other the way my friends and I once were able to argue the finer points of a ’63 Impala or ’67 GTO.

When Patience picked her favorite from the catalog – an American Indian called Kaya – we said that if it was that important to her she would have to earn the money herself. A born entrepreneur she quickly grasped the profit and loss mechanics of a lemon-aid stand and the economic rewards of an untapped market – extra chores – to build liquidity. With a seed loan from Mom she bought lemons and sugar, and with marketing advice from me (“put ‘Fresh Squeezed’ in big letters on your sign”), along with her natural charm and location, location, location she quickly covered her start-up costs and had money to plow back into her business as well as show a profit. This was repeated a couple of more times, and along with the household moonlighting she soon had the necessary discretionary income to buy her doll.

And now we were unwittingly across the street from Mordor, I mean, American Girl Place. It was like setting out for Oz and finding Mecca along the way. I looked around and saw a definite flow of young girls, many with dolls in arms and all with parents bobbing in tow, converging on the store from all directions. We were swept up in the current – as if we ever had a choice – and into the store. The store is impressive in both detail and scope, with three floors of merchandise and a restaurant where you can have lunch with your American Girl doll for just $22 per person. If I’m going to spend that much for lunch with a doll, I want to see the doll cook the meal and then serve it and then give me a quote on painting my garage. Nevertheless the store is jammed on every floor and countless cashiers and floor associates are – like everyone else in New York – working hard. Fortunately there were no meltdowns to be observed such as those we’d witnessed at Toys R Us in Times Square the night before, but I did notice a lot of earnest young faces making a case point by point. After Patience parted with more of her profits she’d been saving for this trip we went elsewhere for lunch (Kaya would just die if she knew we’d eaten at American Girl Place without her) and then, since it had stopped raining, we went over to the Central Park Zoo.

We arrive just in time for the Polar Bear feeding and to see another New York career option – bear feeder. At this zoo they feed the Polar Bears by first luring them out of the habitat enclosure and into their dens where they can presumably be locked up. Once that is accomplished a zookeeper enters the habitat and hides buckets of food – fish, apples and some veggies frozen in a block and smeared with peanut butter – in the enclosure. While we’re watching this preparation we speculate that there’s probably some initiation for rookie keepers where, once they’re in the middle of the enclosure with bear chow and an open jar of peanut butter, someone plays a loud recording of a Polar Bear huffing and roaring.

Finally we find ourselves in Grand Central Station, which happens to be hosting an arts and crafts show. As we browse we come across a booth where an Oriental couple – Japanese, I think – are selling lovely printed scarves and pocket squares. Patience knows how to fold and tie pocket squares so that they look like a rose, and is demonstrating this to her mother when the woman in the booth notices her skill. She asks Patience to show her how she does that, and then shows Patience a couple of new techniques for doing other flower shapes with longer pieces of silk. They have a great time trying these out and then the woman asks Patience if she lives in New York, and would she like a job? When that proves impractical she asks if Patience wants to work there at the booth the rest of the evening, tying flowers for potential customers.

Patience turns to my wife and I, “Please, please, pleeease?” she begs. My wife and I look at each other and consider, then agree she can for as long as we’re at the show ourselves. The deal is closed and when we return later we stand off a little ways and watch as Patience ties a scarf into a flower for woman in front of the booth and shows her how it can be worn over the shoulder. We collect our daughter and she collects her “pay” – a scarf of her choice from the inventory. As we leave I think Patience could easily replace the light bulbs in the constellations inlayed into the arced ceiling of Grand Central Station’s main concourse.

Not bad, only in New York two days and she’s already had a job in the Arts.

Gotham Blog Day 1: Why Gunpowder Was Invented

Friday was Day One of this trip for Night Visions and I and our youngest daughter, Patience, and it was mostly spent in travel to New York and in waiting in various lines at the Chinese Embassy for visas for a trip NV and Patience are taking later this summer. I believe I read somewhere that the Chinese invented bureaucracy. This would certainly explain their later invention of gunpowder.

It was a pleasant day, so when we got free of the Red tape we headed down to Canal Street and started walking north in order to take in parts of Soho, Chinatown and Little Italy. Actually, Chinatown has been expanding and encroaching on Little Italy for some time now, though it’s still pretty Italian on Gennaro and Mulberry Streets – or not. We browsed one of the sidewalk shops on Mulberry featuring Italian-themed items and tee-shirts and buttons with phrases like “Fuhgedaboutit” and “Bada Bing” prominently emblazoned. The only staff we saw in the store, however, were Chinese.

It was a good warm-up for the weekend’s sightseeing. NV’s pedometer registered 6.6 miles. I don’t know how much of that came from shifting from one foot to another while waiting in lines at the embassy.

I’m out here for business reasons every year about this time, and usually try to tack a few days on either before or after the business is taken care of for some personal time. This is the third time NV has joined me, and the first time for Patience, who has been counting the days since I brought the eldest daughter here with me in 2002 (I was a finalist for Cool Dad of the Year that year). The older daughter was 13 then and hard to impress.

Me: “This is Grand Central Station.” Her: “Hmmm.”

Me: “Here’s the Empire State Building.” Her: “Neat.”

Me: “Let’s go out to the Statue of Liberty.” Her: “Whatever.”

Me: “Well, this is Times Square.” Her: “LOOK, DAD! SHOES!”

NV and I came out here for the first time in April of 2001. We didn’t know what to expect other than the images we had in our minds from movies and TV shows about what a jungle New York is. We were nearly overwhelmed, however, by the friendliness and helpfulness of people we talked to. Invariably whenever we’d step to one side to consult a pocket map to figure out where we were, someone would stop and say, “Where you going? Naw, you don’t want to go that way – here’s how you do it.” And they’d be right!
That year we bought a sightseeing package that would get us in to nine attractions for the price of six. This included the Empire State Building, the Guggenheim, the Museum of Natural History and others. On our last night we were really flagging and had one last attraction left: a trip to the observation deck of the World Trade Center.

We wanted to go at night to see all the lights of the city, but after stopping for dinner in Midtown we felt wiped. We were thinking about skipping it, but the after-dinner coffee revived us. Though it was getting late we decided to make a dash for it and try to arrive before the Observation Deck closed. We made it with 20 minutes to spare, and were the last ones allowed up. The guard warned us that there wasn’t much time left and we should really come back, but this was our only chance and we were going for it. We got to the top and did a circuit of the building, the guard shadowing us all the way lest we linger. It was a spectacular view – we felt as if we could see lights all the way to Philadelphia.

Even though it was rushed, we were glad we made the effort, especially since we discovered a Krispy Kreme store in the plaza on our way out. NV had never had a Krispy Kreme, and though it wasn’t really doughnut time, we decided that whatever happens in Manhattan can stay in Manhattan. We indulged. What a night!

It was a special memory, made even more so in September of that year. We were so glad we made the effort when we did. As we watched the news that horrible day I kept thinking about that night, our mad dash through the streets, and the long, slow walk the survivors were now making. The view we had enjoyed and marveled at was no more – certainly not the only view that changed that day.

The next year when First Daughter and I planned our trip to New York I really wanted to pay a visit to what was being called “The Pile.” Once we were in town, however, I couldn’t bring myself to go. Somehow, for reasons still hard to explain, it just didn’t seem right.