Despite all my world travels, I had never really been to one of the greatest American cities, New York City. (I once had a long layover at JFK and spent about four or five hours in NYC, but didn't really know where I was or where anything else was, so it was mostly a wasted trip). Last week, my sister called to tell me that she had a long layover in Newark on Saturday and Sunday, which coincided with Labor Day weekend. I took advantage of the free hotel rooms and took the bus up there. (Quick bus review - miserable experience, but the price was right).
Coming around a bend somewhere in New Jersey, I looked up and caught my first glimpse of the Manhattan skyline. I actually gasped at the sight. It really is beautiful. After winding our way through the city, we finally disembarked at Penn Station, ninety minutes late. I hustled my way towards Hell's Kitchen to watch Nebraska's season opener against Southern Mississippi at the local Nebraska bar. My cousin Bob really talked up this bar to the point that I was actually a bit disappointed (missing most of the 1st quarter due to satellite errors certainly didn't help). It was a pretty cool bar, but I actually like Union Pub in DC better for Nebraska games.
It was dusk by the time the game ended, so I decided to try to catch the sunset from the top of the Empire State Building. I ignored the hawkers half-heartedly trying to sell me tickets to "skip the line" as I entered the tower. Upon arrival to the second floor, I saw a relatively short fast-moving line and thought I might make it up to the top just in time for sunset. What I didn't know is that this was merely the first of approximately sixteen lines that I would have to wait in. I swear that the most unrealistic aspect of "Sleepless in Seattle" is how little time it takes for Meg Ryan to get to the observation desk. Needless to say, I did not make it up before dark. The deck is so crowded that you stand three deep just to get to the ledge and look out. Despite all the hassles and lines, the view was spectacular.
Sunday morning, Shelley and I made our way back into the city and headed downtown. We purchased tickets for an evening show, had an unmemorable lunch, and then headed towards the Statue of Liberty. In battery park, we waited in lines to take the ferry to Liberty Island. Standing in the park, in the shadow of the unfinished Freedom tower, I remembered the scenes from 9/11 of terrified individuals scrambling to get on boats and off the island. Standing there, I realized how trapped they must have felt with the towers looming over them and the water sealing them in on the edge of the island.
The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island greatly exceeded my expectations. Arriving on Liberty Island by ferry with the Manhattan skyline in the background and Ellis Island next door, I felt transported back in time to 1908. My great grandfather, Cirino Caniglia, 17, arriving in steerage on The Prinzess Irene, looking up to see that majestic statue. The joy, the fear, the excitement - all captured by the majestic lady in the harbor. The free audio tour provided some fantastic insight about the statue and made the trip to Liberty Island worth the wait (even though the crown isn't open yet).
As a history nerd and an immigration geek, I was really excited to visit Ellis Island. For years, I had wondered how these huge ocean liners had docked at this fairly small island. Turns out that they didn't dock there. They usually docked in Manhattan and unloaded the steerage passengers on ferries to take them to Ellis Island. The first and second class passengers were processed on the ship and admitted directly into the U.S. without physically passing through Ellis Island (though their names would likely still be recorded there). Moreover, most passengers spent only an afternoon on the island where they were met by long-lost family or sent on to their onward destination (a train to Omaha for my great-grandfather). While I enjoyed the immigration tour, I was disappointed that they did not have any of the historical documents - the manifests, etc. - on display. I thought I'd be able to give them a name and have some librarian pull down the old manifest, flip to the correct page and show me my bisnonno's name. None of that was available. The only historical research tourists could do there was the same internet search you can do on their website (which is pretty cool, if you've never done it).
After we returned to Manhattan, Shelley and I rushed to midtown to watch Avenue Q. The show is an adult version of Sesame Street mixed with a Broadway musical. The puppetry (muppetry?) is amazing and the songs are hilarious. Some of the highlights were "It Sucks to Be Me", "The Internet is For Porn", "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist", and "If You Were Gay." Plus, how many times do you get to see muppets screwing like rabbits? (Yeah, they went there).
On Monday, Shelley had to fly again, but I spent the morning exploring Midtown. I did a mini-walking tour past the NYC Library, Grand Central Station, Rockefeller Center and St. Paul's Cathedral, before finishing at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This museum is fantastic and full of great artists. The highlight for me was Van Gogh's "Starry Night." The painting is so much more impressive in person than in prints. It conveys so much more motion and emotion. Other great artists included, Dali, Picasso, Warhol, Jackson Pollock and more. I spent three hours there and I could have easily spent five.
After the museum, I picked up a Pastrami on Rye sandwich from the Carnegie Deli and headed to Central Park for lunch. I loved Central Park because it is perfect for people watching. My favorite moment of the day and perhaps my favorite moment of the whole trip was watching this slow-pitch softball game. Most of the players were old-timers in their late 40s, 50s, or 60s, with a few young guys sprinkled in. One player just absolutely oozed New York City. I can't be sure of his ethnicity. He may have been Dominican, or Puerto Rican, or a light-skinned African American or a random mix of a dozen places. He wore tattered Yankee pinstripe pants with a wife beater and an inexplicable fanny pack. He talked smack on and off the field in an accent I could not place to save my life. He oozed joy at playing the game. Simply put, he was a kid who loved baseball who happened to be an old man.
(Pictures to be put up later on).