My partner Rick and I recently took trip to New York with a large part of the Steves Family: his son Andy, daughter Jackie, sister Linda, youngest niece Caleigh, and eldest niece (and amazing artist) Nicolina. Part family vacation, part art tour of Nicolina’s works, we got to know the city better than we ever had. While we’re still no experts on this most famous metropolis, we hungry for even more of the Big Apple. In this multi-article series, we’ll explore NYC through past experiences (with my parents), new discoveries, standards of tradition, and current innovations. I hope you’ll join me and the Steves and Tejada families on this trip to New York, NY.
New York City and the Jersey Shore shimmer like gilded jewels nestled on a swath of black velvet. Their geometries create intricate, yet somehow logical, patterns. Wide, golden lava paths force themselves through sparkly polka-dotted grids and taper into delicate strings, softening into singular gentle curves. Even from 10,000 feet, this city that never sleeps has a pulsing energy that mesmerizes me.
We arrive in town too late in the evening to do much. Tomorrow will be here far too soon, and our agenda demands an early start. The planning stages are well behind us. Countless emails among the family about tickets, flights, train tickets, sights, activities, restaurant preferences, and schedules have been filtered down into a logical, intense yet manageable plan. We’ll see how close we stick to it.
Everyone in our family is a fairly well seasoned traveler, but we also embrace our inner tourist. Getting barely 40 winks before the sun rose, we set out into the biting wind and cold and caught a cab to make our 8:45 reservation for our first site: NBC Studio at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
A peppy page shares historical tidbits and humorous insider details about the architecture, personalities, studios, and shows associated with this home to the National Broadcasting Company. Rick, Andy, Jackie, and I all hope to visit Jimmy Fallon’s (now former) studio for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, but that is not in the cards. Andy gets to sit in a chair from “The Voice” (in the waiting area for the tour) and we all geek out on seeing where the magic happens for Brian Williams and the cast of Saturday Night Live.
Photos are “strictly prohibited” but I took that to mean they’re only prohibited if you get caught. Actually, I do follow the rules until…well, until Jackie gets picked to be an on-screen meteorologist. One simply does not pass up the chance to get a photo of a loved-one using 30 seconds of her 15 fifteen minutes of fame.
After the tour, we head up to the Top of the Rock to get our first elevated views of the concrete jungle. “Stunning” and “breathtaking” hardly do justice to describing just how glorious the city looks from 70 stories up.
Central Park, dressed down in its winter apparel, is a welcome island of flora on an island full of structures packed like vertical sardines. Sardines though they may be, there are some whose elegance, history, and mere existence have elevated them beyond their physical height to iconic status. There’s the GE Building at Rock Center–upon which we stand, the Empire State Building, and the work-in-progress 1 World Trade Center building. These exclamation points of tenacity, ingenuity, community, and pride become the images that shape not only the physical landscape of the city but also the symbolic landscape of this city. What began as the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam has become an emblematic and international beacon of opportunity, culture, and innovation.
But this city has a grittiness that keeps her from getting too big of an ego. Her flair is complemented well by her no-nonsense edginess. It keeps her real…relatable…charming.
With 1.6 million people inhabiting Manhattan (some without an actual roof over their head) and 52 million visitors a year, this town works hard to be efficient and accessible. If you don’t take the subway, hail a cab. While the rules say no more than 4 passengers, Nicolina (Rick’s niece and East Village resident) assures us that cramming in 5 or more without getting caught is like a sport for New Yorkers. We got caught twice.
And riding through town in a cab lets you quickly see so many facets of the city and her people. Her glamorous side is bejeweled with seemingly endless avenues of stores that most people I know (including me) are too intimidated to walk into. Her hipster side sports urbanites in thick-rimmed glasses and expertly donned scarves made to look as though “I just threw this on.” The briefcase-toters in newly shined shoes stride confidently to their institutions of financial religion to close their latest deal. And outside almost any bodega or small corner grocery store, you’ll find the least pretentious facet of the city: neighbors chatting up neighbors and getting their daily necessities.
When we pause for sustenance at a corner diner, we’re the only non-New Yorkers in this greasy spoon, and the Puerto Rican waitress looks visibly unimpressed by our patronage. The tight corners of her mouth seem to have lost the muscle strength to lift upwards into a smile. The diner’s name suggests a Greek heritage, as does the huge black-and-white photo of the Acropolis mounted above the bar counter. The decor has seen little change over the decades. It lends a certain gravitas (as much as any diner can muster). The food tastes quite good here. The service is decent but incredibly cold, almost as cold as Rick’s dish (the only one of our orders that wasn’t up to par). He asks to have it warmed up in the microwave, and I almost think I see daggers fly out of the waitress’s eyes and into Rick’s chest.
I want desperately for her to like us. I don’t know why, but I just don’t want to be the tourists this woman hates today. When she comes back, I bust out with my most polite Spanish, apologizing for any inconvenience we have caused her and asking her if she would be so kind as to bring the check because we have an appointment to make. Although her smile muscles still don’t work, her dagger eyes turn to twinkle eyes and she responds to me in Spanish with a soft and warm tone.
As we head out, I say to her, “Gracias, señora. Todo sabía riquísimo. ¡Que tenga buen día!” (Thank you, ma’am. Everything was delicious. Have a nice day!) And finally, a giant smile beaming across her face. With a hearty wave she says, “¡Igualmente, querida!” (Same to you, darlin’!)
That next appointment is for the observation deck of the Empire State Building. The weather has changed drastically in the last couple of hours, and there’s really nothing to see but clouds, clouds, more clouds, and snow. And man, is it cold! Long johns, jeans, a tank top, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater, a wool coat, a scarf, a hat, and boots are dreadfully insufficient at this moment and all I think is “I want hot cocoa” as my teeth chatter to the point of near breakage. I pity the poor security guards who have to stay out here all day, but I forget all about them as soon as I retreat into the civilized warmth of the energy efficient ESB. Thank goodness we got our view shots at the GE Building this morning.
Even with as much sightseeing as we’ve done today, there’s much more to do in this fair city. I don’t know if five days is enough. But I do know that the more I get to know New York, the more I love her.