Saturday, January 12, 2008

Our Most Excellent New York Adventure

Each year Meredith and I take a trip right after Christmas to upstate New York (Schenectady to be exact) to visit my sisters, brother, stepmother and their families. This year we expanded our travels to tack on a trip down to New York City so she could visit some of the graduate schools where she has applied and interview some of the researchers she hopes to work with. We were blessed with a lull in the
bitter cold and a respite from the barrage of snowstorms and so enjoyed some worry-free travel.

The upstate portion was our usual stay with Sally, my wicked stepmother (hey, that's what SHE calls herself!) and the obligatory dinner at my sister's house to exchange gifts and pig out on lasagna and spaghetti pie. Unfortunately, my Florida sister and her family couldn't come this year. (We missed you, Bets!) Here are some shots of my wacky family. We definitely put the "fun" in "dysfunctional!

John may have been flashing a peace sign but Lynny and I were definitely putting bunny ears on Sally, who, for her part, was clueless to what was going on behind her.

Sally looks downright disgusted at her grandchildren's behavior and, for the record, Meredith knew she was being "bunny-eared" by her cousin Paul. What a crew!

After two days of that merriment it was time to head downstate to the Big Apple. We are blessed with wonderful friends who put us up very graciously. Chubba has been Brendan's best friend since childhood. He is a senior finance executive for the Metropolitan Museum, a fact that figures in one of our misadventures for the trip. Diana, his wife is a most gracious hostess with a large Italian family, including Meredith's new best buddy, Johnny, who loves the Yankees as much as she does. Johnny and his wife, Linda joined us for dinner that first night. My favorite experience was listening to Meredith trying to explain Molecular Genetics and her graduate programs to the rest of us. All Johnny cared about was that he would have a buddy to go to Yankee games with him for the next few years!

Here is Chubba with his new "baby", a 2-seater hard-top convertible Mercedes. He took us each for a spin and it is quite a machine.

Monday we headed into the city. We took the train in with Chubba and all went to the museum which is closed to the public on Mondays. Chubba showed us his office, we discussed a rendezvous point later and then Meredith and I began our exploration of the vastness of the museum. We explored the ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, which reminded me so much of our trip to Italy last Spring. Then we headed over to the Egyptian artifacts, which includes an amazing number of mummies and a full temple donated by the Egyptian government in the 1960's when the Aswan Dam project flooded a large area adjacent to the Nile. Suddenly a guard approached me and asked for my staff badge. I explained that we were guests of one of the museum's executives and he told us we would have to leave if we were unaccompanied by a staff member. He was initially a little nasty but then softened when he realized that it was an innocent mistake. Chubba hasn't worked there all that long and we were his first guests during closed hours. The guard escorted us upstairs where we told Chubba that we had been busted and would have to leave. He felt terrible and walked us out with some suggestions of other places to go. We just laughed it off. After all, how many people can claim to have been thrown out of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? We didn't even have to try to steal or vandalize anything to accomplish it either!

The rest of Monday we explored the East side, finding the Rockefeller Campus where Meredith's interviews were to be held later that day, and then heading uptown to find Columbia's Medical campus at 168th Street. That's where our second adventure of the day occurred. Apparently the program that Meredith applied to must be a special secret program because no one knew where it was. We got four different sets of directions, followed each one dutifully, only to find out we were NOT in the right place. One person suggested that we go to the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital Emergency Room because "they have a directory of everybody." That would have involved crossing a major street for the third time so we just popped into a building called the [insert la-di-da name here] Research Center. The building guard there directed us to go back across the street and "right next to the homeless shelter -- just look for all of the people outside smoking"... not what a Mom wanted to hear in THAT neighborhood. One very well meaning woman pointed out a tall building that she described as the library and told Meredith to go up to the second floor. At that point I waited outside, rested my feet sitting on a bench and took a couple of pictures of the area:

She was gone for a while so I thought maybe we had finally hit paydirt. I thought wrong. She came out eventually, shaking her head and told me that the front desk guard had told her the program was NOT on the second floor but in room 313 on the third floor. He directed her to an elevator in the back of the building and she emerged onto the third floor to find the entire floor to be nothing but empty classrooms. She couldn't gain access to the second floor at all so decided to give up and come back outside. We admitted defeat and took the subway back over to the east side to grab some lunch. We had lunch in a quintessential NY Jewish deli. The owner, a little old Jewish man, even offered to pay for my lunch if I didn't like it. He got to keep his money because it was delicious! It was almost time for Meredith's interviews at Rockefeller so we walked over to York Avenue. The guard recognized us from our reconnaissance trip earlier and called to announce us. She was delightful but made a remark about everyone working there having an attitude that shook Meredith up a bit. The Rockefeller property was exquisite, overlooking the East River. I wanted to take pictures but Meredith gave me the evil eye when I touched my camera so I refrained. Here is a picture of their entrance from the web:

She had two very productive interviews and fell in love with the place. And it was easy to see why. It is clear that this is a serious research place -- lab coats all over the place. To my little lab-rat cookie, this is heaven on earth. Unfortunately, it is also the most competitive grad program on her list so I have all my fingers crossed, have started a few novenas, implored all my dead ancestors to pull any strings they can with the big guy, and wished on every first star I've seen to make this come true for her. It would be HUGE!

Needless to say, we were exhausted after our first day. We met Chubba in Grand Central and took the MetroNorth home for a quiet dinner and an early bedtime. Day Two promised to be just as active, but with a lot more funstuff thrown in.

And we were back at it bright and early on Tuesday. Diana drove us to the train and we went by ourselves. We headed over to NYU's medical campus which is also on the East Side but down in the 30's. Meredith has an interview scheduled with them in February so she just wanted to check out the neighborhood briefly. Not as ritzy as the east 60's but still very nice. Then we treated ourselves to a trip to the top of the Empire State building. I have been there a couple of times but she had never been. When she was much younger we opted to take her to the top of the World Trade Center instead and, of course, now I am so glad we did.

Back in high school she did her senior project on the Chrysler Building and fell in love with the Art Deco building style. Built only a few years after the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building eclipsed it and became a more famous example of the Art Deco style. It really is a classy gal. This is the entrance lobby:

Is that freakin' magnificent or what?

Being a Tuesday, it was very quiet but we still had to walk through miles of roped-off trails to first pay our $38 for two tickets, secondly go through security (who confiscated my knitting scissors...oops!) and thirdly get our souvenir picture taken so they could shake us down for a ridiculous amount of money when we came down. Finally we took the elevator to the top, yawning to pop our ears as we reached the 86th floor.

It was a little hazy up there, probably due to the warmer than usual weather NY was experiencing. Oh, and a wee bit of smog from all the traffic below. But the views were still spectacular. Here are some of them:

Looking north towards Central Park and Harlem

West to the Hudson River. That looks like a ferry of some kind, maybe from New Jersey?

South to the Statue of Liberty and the construction rebuilding the area around the World Trade Center site. (No, I still haven't been down there...and I don't know if I ever will be able to face not seeing those two gorgeous buildings again.)

Northeast to the Chrysler Building and the Queensboro Bridge with Queens beyond

I took a couple of pictures of Meredith with her beloved Chrysler Building in the background...

...then we watched people do some incredibly stupid things (like hold their cameras out beyond the barriers without the wriststrap on to take self-portraits), visited the overpriced giftshop full of tacky chachkis, and then took the elevator back down. Worth $38? Probably not but I'm glad we went.

We walked over to Broadway, cruised through Macy's first floor and the Cellar as I reminisced about the way it was 25 years ago when I lived there, and then headed up to Times Square. Now THERE is a change for the better! What was once the porn and peep show capital of the universe has now become a thriving, exuberant symbol of the vitality of New York.

Ok, the corner hustlers are still there but they are dressed a lot better than they were 25 years ago and they don't reek of Mad Dog 20/20 and pee.

I didn't have the overwhelming urge to run home and take a shower when I got within ten feet of them. The flyers they were trying to stuff in my face were about cellphone deals instead of topless bars. Overall, a tremendous improvement. Good job, Rudy!

From there we headed over to Sixth Avenue and I took Meredith across West 47th Street, better known as "The Diamond District" for its saturation of jewelry shops with individual booths and bustle of jewelers. She was mesmerized by the endless windows of spectacular jewels, gold and silver. All along the street we heard the singsong "We buy gold" -- an invitation to make a deal of a lifetime. Thirty two years ago Brendan and I went there to buy my engagement ring. Fortunately for us, we met a wonderful elderly couple who recognized two babes in the woods and took us under their wing. Sophie and her husband (who never said a word in the years we knew them) were Austrian emigrants who fled from the Nazis in the late 30s with a few gems hidden in their clothes. They built a small business for themselves, primarily due to Sophie's keen eye for character and quality and her husband's jewelery crafting skills. Fate was smiling on us when we found them that November day. They are long dead but never forgotten. That day is a treasured memory among so many together.

Meredith and I then walked up Fifth Avenue to Rockefeller Center at 49th Street. We were lucky enough to find the Christmas tree still standing, although they were already in the process of removing the lights.

Despite the warmth of the day, there were quite a few skaters.

We walked through "30 Rock" with a quick trip into the NBC studio store and then out to Sixth Avenue where we checked out Radio City Music Hall (just the outside since we didn't have the time or the money for the full tour). We were getting hungry so we hopped on the subway and headed down to one of my favorite parts of the city -- Little Italy.

Exiting on Grand Street we were immediately plunged into the teeming masses of Chinatown. Once I got my bearings I found Mulberry Street and headed for Hester Street and my FAVORITE Little Italy restaurant, The Puglia. If you are going to be in Little Italy, write that name down. It is inexpensive, delicious and fun. Tables are long so seating is family style, a great way to meet people. Lunch is fairly quiet, although that day a busload of middle-schoolers were there on a field trip so it was pretty raucous. A new addition is a wood-fired pizza oven in the back of the restaurant, probably serving only for dinner to maximize its use. Dinner at The Puglia is a Little Italy experience, complete with a live singer who was diners up on their feet singing, dancing and waving napkins. Meredith and I enjoyed some fried mozzarella sticks and parmigiana, chicken for her, eggplant for me. It was WONDERFUL and we left satisfied but not too full to avoid a stop at our other Little Italy mainstay, Ferrara's, the dessert capital of the Western Hemisphere. I'll let the pictures tell THAT story:

Ok, $11 for two cannolis IS a little steep but we did choose table service, that included the tax and tip and, after all, they were FERRARA'S cannolis. Nuff said.

Now it was time to make our way back uptown to Grand Central, catch the train to Chubba and Diana's and say goodbye to Gotham City for now. Little did we know that there were more adventures in store. Remember Johnny? He works for MetroNorth and his offices are in Grand Central Station. He knows that place like nobody's business. On a previous trip he took us behind the scenes, showing us Donald Trump's indoor tennis court, the Campbell Apartment (formerly the private residence of a NY Executive and now a fashionable cocktail lounge), and the big kahuna, the switch room. He also took us up on the catwalks high above the Grand Concourse where snipers were stationed in those chilling post-9/11 weeks. I took this picture from up there last winter when we visited:

As we got into Grand Central on the subway, we remembered that Johnny had told us he would be off work at around that time. And we saw him just as he was getting off the elevator. He brightened when he saw Meredith and went into tour guide mode all over again. This time he wanted to show us the new Grand Central Market, an amazing array of individually owned booths for commuters to go "grocery shopping" on their way home...provided they don't mind leaving a lot of their daily wages right there. As Johnny told us, "It ain't cheap!" Here is a sampling of what we saw:

Every kind of sausage imaginable!

No stinky fish fresh it will slap you silly!

Prepared food more your style?

Here's the Beef! Where's your wallet?

Say cheese!

Ok, we were starving by now. So the three of us hopped on the train and set out for home. Along the way Johnny pointed out where the new Yankee Stadium is being built. Meredith was totally mesmerized. He might as well have been showing her heaven on earth. When we got to Croton-Harmon, Johnny gave us one more treat. We got to play engineer! There was a train engine in a repair area and he took us up to the cockpit (I guess that is what it's called) and we posed in the driver's seat.

Thanks, Johnny! You're the greatest!

What a great trip! We came back to Maine the next day with some great memories and some high hopes for a chance to spend a lot more time in the Big Apple. Meredith now has two interviews scheduled: NYU and Columbia and fingers crossed for Cornell and Rockefeller. She should know within the next couple of weeks and then it's off to the future, a very exciting place for her (and us!)

1 comment:

donni said...

Hi Mary Ann! Thx for your comment! I'm hoping that I can get back into the blogging groove again.

Your trip with your daughter looks like so much fun! Loved reading about it. Had to snicker about the comment about your daughter not wanting you to take photos. I GET THE SAME THING from my daughter! ha! Silly girls!

Take care! I'll be back to get caught up on your blog.