This past weekend, my wife and I visited New York City for the first time in our 40 years of life. The closest I’d ever come to visiting the Big Apple was in 2006 when my wife & I travelled to Kenya for a medical mission trip (my first, and I’m far from medically inclined). Our return layover had us making a stop in Newark, so I was able to get a glimpse of NYC. I remembered how vast and basically absurd it looked. I remember thinking about how I’d been to Chicago many times, and Chicago’s a large city, I thought, but then I glimpsed New York. The buildings seemed to go on forever, and I really wanted to visit.
Well, it took 10 years, but we finally made it, and this post won’t nearly do it justice, but let me say: NYC is my favorite city I’ve ever visited and I don’t think it’s close. We stopped over in Singapore several years ago on our way to Indonesia, and I certainly think Singapore could rival NYC, but we weren’t there long enough to confirm.
We flew direct from Louisville to Newark early Friday morning. Why do I still get flight anxiety? I’m not a Platinum Frequent Flier Club member by any stretch, but I’ve flown enough to have seen and believed the statistics that one is more likely to die walking down the street than in a plane crash, but for some reason I get pre-flight anxiety. I don’t know, maybe it has to do with soaring through the air 5 miles above the ground that still seems surreal and daggone dangerous. Yet people do it everyday, and there’s rarely any issues. Add to it that this was different in the sense that we were flying to the city of 9/11…more about that shortly. So my pre-flight anxiety was quickly calmed when our flight was one of the smoothest I can remember.
We arrived in Newark and hailed a “VIA” at the suggestion of our AirBnB host. VIA is like Uber apparently. Anyway, our driver, Fernando, was absolutely delightful. He was enthusiastic in what has to be one of the more monotonous jobs. Yet, if I had to travel back and forth between two locations all day long, I’d want it to be in New York.
Similarly miraculous as the feat of air travel, Fernando took us through Lincoln Tunnel. This is a tunnel that actually routes under the Hudson River. This is dumbfounding to me and freaky. Does it ever leak? Would it be possible for an earthquake to break a hole in it and for it to fill with water? These are the kinds of questions I have. Apparently, my fears are irrational because thousands upon thousand of people drive through that tunnel everyday.
Once we passed into New York, there were the buildings. There are somewhere around 8.2 Million people who call NYC home. LA is second largest US city with under 4 million residents. So tall, vast buildings are an absolute must for a city so densely populated, but until you actually see the skyline, you can’t imagine it sufficiently. Until you drive through it, the immensity of the expanse is mere myth. Fernando was eager to point out Trump Place as we passed by the series of five or six buildings clustered together. I must say (and this isn’t a political statement): they are ugly buildings. They are boring though shiny. They lack the character and architectural wealth of NYC’s older buildings. But that’s all I’ll say about that.
Our AirBnB was on West 95th Street which is located on the Upper West Side. Uniquely, New York’s main reference point is Central Park. So we stayed near the northwest corner of this behemoth of behemoth city parks. Its Olmsted design was familiar to us as we have several city parks in Louisville which Frederick Law Olmsted designed. We loved the neighborhood in which we stayed. It was relatively quiet compared to the hustle and bustle of Times Square. We were able to drop our bags off at the basement apartment on W 95th much earlier than our check-in would have allowed (yet another reason why I’ll try to never stay at a hotel again). A picture of W 95th Street near the apartment in which we stayed is above. It’s a charming street straight out of the Cosby Show (sorry to bring him up but the street reminded me of the Huxtable residence).
It was a clear, beautiful, though chilly day, and since we had to wait for the apartment to be cleaned, we walked the 2 blocks over to Central Park. It was stunning, but of course, being the rookies that we are, our phones and thus our cameras were dead. After buying a portable charger from a somewhat sketchy and less than ethical shop, and finding out that it was a total ripoff, we were left without means to capture our first venture into this grand park. So our memories will have to suffice. A couple features of note: Central Park West runs north-south forming the western border of the park. The street is lined with towering apartment buildings and condominium high rises which must have some of the prettiest views in the United States. Up around 95th Street is Jacqueline Onassis Reservoir around which is a jogging track. This is a relatively large body of water and from our vantage point, was picture perfect (if our damn phones hadn’t zonked out on us!) with views of the Upper East side and Manahattan skyline in the distance. There’s really no adequate method to describe the row of high rises flanking such an expertly designed Park with one of the world’s premier skylines as the backdrop. The other amazing feature are the rocks that protrude from the ground in the park. When we were there Friday these black lava looking rocks undoubtedly acted as a seat warmer for the Michael Stipe look-alike we saw who was sitting on one (I referenced Michael Stipe to my wife, and she hadn’t a clue to whom I was referring!). Central Park is a worthy reference point in describing location in one of the world’s greatest cities. You simply must go there!
Hungry and tired and still without cellphone power, we walked over to Elizabeth’s Neighborhood Table which had been recommended to us by our host. Brunch and hot coffee were definitely in order, and Elizabeth’s didn’t disappoint. We arrived just ahead of a modest lunch rush and very much enjoyed the farm-to-table eggs, bacon, spinach, and sausage!
Since we weren’t yet able to get into our apartment, we decided to familiarize ourselves with the subway system, purchase our passes, and do a test run. Where to go in NYC on a Friday afternoon a couple weeks before Christmas? Times Square of course! We purchased a 7-day subway pass each even though we were staying a mere 3.5 days since it allowed us unlimited travel on the subway, and we would need it! West 95th is only a 2-stop express route all the way down to Times Square at 42nd Street. The subway is fantastic. It’s easy to navigate, it’s cheap, and it’s the proof that peaceful diversity can and does exist. One thing my wife & I noted about NYC was not just the obvious and expected diversity, but the way in which the subway is a kind of equalizer. Light & dark, poor & rich, if you ride the subway, you don’t have the luxury of hunkering down and ignoring all those people you’d rather not acknowledge or begin to understand. Rather, you are confronted with the colors, styles, diction, and volume of every type of person you can imagine. And you know what? It works. It really does. Even in the insanity of the 42nd Street subway station, people coexist, they move briskly, but with a keen sense to ask the tourists who look lost (us) if they/we needed help. I’m not naive to think that the race relations in the City that Never Sleeps are perfect. I’m sure they’re not, but given the sample size which is substantial, NYC’s subway system proves diverse inclusivity is possible, and it is a glimpse of the Kingdom.
So Times Square…it was busy and loud and lit. We were there a few times over the weekend, and it was crazy every time. Is it a tourist trap? Absolutely. Is it worth seeing? Absolutely. You gotta go. Just know that those friendly folks dressed up as your favorite super heroes don’t want to take your picture with your camera for free (yes, we managed to buy a portable charger that actually works). They will want a tip, and that’s when you realize it’s very possible to spend a few dollars per minute in New York.
Finally, we were able to get settled into our apartment. It’s a very simple but modernized space. It’s comprised of a kitchenette, an updated full bath with steam shower, and a large bedroom with private rear courtyard access (though it was too cold to enjoy what appeared to be a lovely outdoor space). That’s it, very simple and adequate. Comfy bed and nice TV. Perfect.
Our inactivity was brief, however, and we needed to get ready for the evening. We’d gotten great seats to see Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway. I’d researched restaurants all week trying to figure out what dining spots matched up with our loose activity schedule, and for Friday night I was intrigued by the Tavern on the Green.
So that’s where we went. It was an easy subway ride and for me, the big draw was that it was literally in Central Park and has a cool name. We’d been advised by veteran NYC travelers to get reservations to restaurants a month in advance, but we’d failed to do so. Turns out they were right. Unless you wanted to eat dinner after 10 p.m., there was no point in trying to make reservations a week in advance like I did. Whoops! So we chanced it that if nothing else we could get a bar seat at Tavern on the Green Friday night ahead of our 8 p.m. show, and by the Lord’s good grace, we did! We basically walked right in, and their only concern was whether we would be out of there fast enough due to a private event. We were elated. The building was old-school. It was charming with a large circular bar and a diverse set of dining spaces. We got seated on the edge of the bar next to the loungy but good jazz band. The quarters are tight but friendly. Our server was great. I actually ordered a Lefthand Milk Stout Nitro and my lovely wife drank “The Queens” signature cocktail. We ordered the lump crab cake for an appetizer ($17!) and we were off & spending copious amounts of cash by our standards, but in New York, that’s par for the course. Good crab cake, better atmosphere, onto the main course. Angie had the diver scallops. They were awesome and plentiful. Unlike the meager $17 crab cake, we enjoyed more than enough scallops. I had the short rib which was tender and enhanced by the polenta & grilled corn. It was, again, an atmosphere that outperformed the food but the food was good. No complaints.
We were off to the show! I hadn’t even thought about Fiddler on the Roof since I was in 8th grade, and we read it and watched it on video. My how tastes change! It was outstanding! Aside from the $48 bar tab…for 2 drinks (!), Broadway Theater was charming, the crowd was awesome, and the performance couldn’t have been better. NYC’s Jewish population is substantial, and nothing exemplifies that more than the neighborhood in which we stayed, but to see that show amongst such a large population of those it pointedly addresses was fascinating and subversive. The synagogue is literally built into the community. It’s such a beautiful representation of how God tabernacles with us even in our sickness. The Jews have a clear understanding of Yahweh as the Faithful One who will not abandon His people and will even dwell among them in the temple in close proximity to their homes. I envy this sort of community faith and worship. The synagogue a few houses toward the park from us was active. It is a sign to the neighborhood that there are people of faith living there. I was moved by this witness.
As we were leaving the theater we heard firsthand how the performance had moved several patrons to passionate dialogue about its contents. That’s what makes artistic expression so indispensable. As Brueggemann says, “A memo won’t do what poetry will.” Time for bed! Subway back to W 95th, great night’s sleep, and we slept in (amazing what you can do with kids boarded at grandmother’s!).
Saturday got off to a slow start. We were content to sleep in and ponder breakfast or coffee. I got coffee for us at Birch Coffee on Columbus at W. 96th. Great Ethiopian blend. We eventually decided to check out Soho and Greenwich Village so we took the Subway down about 80 blocks. Soho is awesome. Apparently it’s the Garment District. Lots of ritzy shopping but also a very charming neighborhood. Of course, since we chose coffee over local brunch we were hungry on arrival. This was about 1:30 pm, and Balthazar, a popular and highly recommended French restaurant, was a hopeful destination. It wasn’t to be. We walked in there, and it was was absolutely a spectacular scene. It looked and felt delicious, but we could not deal with an hour & a half wait. We opted for quicker service, but where? We called a couple of places but all were booked. Then we called Despana, and they basically hung up on us, so we thought that was a good enough sign to walk a few blocks and give it a try. We did, and thank the Lord we did! Despana is a Spanish gourmet grocery and tapas eatery, and it was damn near perfect. Not a lot of seating but we were able to commandeer a spot from a kind gentleman whose company had yet to arrive. I had a craft IPA, Angie had a specialty tea, and we ordered a variety of small plates: tortilla Despana, tortilla Serrano, Mojamma, among other awesomeness. Despana also has an amazingly generous offering of samples. We bought several gifts for friends at home based on these generous samples so take note retailers: FREE SAMPLES WORK!
After some shopping in Soho and a quick & all-too abbreviated visit to Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park which borders NYU, we had to return to the Upper West Side to get ready for our night out at The Town Hall for A Prairie Home Companion hosted by Chris Thile.
So having eaten a late lunch in Soho, we were sorta prepared to eat dinner after the show at the Town Hall. After all, it started at 5:45. We got there early enough to get another $48 round of 2 drinks(!). Now to get to the Town Hall, one must traverse Times Square on a holiday season Saturday night. It’s not for the faint of heart! What a crowd! It was a blast but gave us a preview of what it must be like (and then some) on NEW YEARS EVE! Anyway, it was busy.
The Town Hall is a classic theater. It was a bit beat up compared to Broadway but had a certain charm to it. I was never a fan of A Prairie Home Companion. Don’t get me wrong, I tuned in when the guests were right but even though Garrison Keillor was an icon for many, I never dug the show enough to tune in. BUT CHRIS THILE! Now that’s an emcee I can dig! I can even put up with the random skits that interrupt the otherwise world class music if Thile is involved. But it wasn’t just the mandolin virtuoso that made this night special: his guests included Steve Martin (yes, the comedy guy AND the immensely improving banjo guy) & his inherited band The Steep Canyon Rangers, Yo-Yo (freaking) Ma, and Edgar (freaking) Meyer. Plus some comedian (who was really good) who’d I’d never heard of but nonetheless enjoyed. I could go on & on here about Thile and his playing Bach with Edgar & Yo-Yo or his banter with Steve Martin, but I’ll leave you with this:
What a show. Hard to top. We had a blast. We left there figuring we needed to complete the journey and hit Rockefeller Center so we did. It was absolutely surreal the number of people acting relatively peacefully and the number of people in general. I’ve never been in a crazy situation like that. We did it in order to experience it, and I’m glad we did!
Looking to escape the madness that is Times Square, we took the subway back to “our” neighborhood on the Upper West Side where we hoped to find a relatively quiet place to eat a late dinner. We remembered our host’s recommended neighborhood sushi restaurant and thankfully we’re seated right away. Kouzan Japanese Restaurant was amazing. One would think/hope that the sushi in Nee York would be better than that which one can find in Louisville. We in Louisville have a very good sushi selection in my opinion, but Kouzan blows the doors off. Angie got their Mojito and I went with a Sierra Nevada. It was the perfect spot to end the evening before getting some much-needed sleep equipping us for our final full day in NYC.
Sunday, December 11, 2016
As we say in the Thomas household, Sunday means church. So having the rare chance to visit a church in which one of my heroes of preaching and teaching has served for decades, we took the early morning subway ride to around 13th Street to the Salvation Army where Redeemer Presbyterian meets and Tim Keller preached for so many years. Leading up to the trip, I looked online for signals that potentially Keller might be the one to preach on the date of our visit but found no clues. So I was pleasantly surprised to see him on the modest stage awaiting his turn to take the mic and deliver a sermon on a few particular verses in John 1. The service was nice. We attend a large mega-church with all the lights and sound one would expect and yet lately, we’ve longed for a smaller liturgical gathering. Redeemer fit the bill. My wife said to me after Keller’s sermon: “I wouldn’t really call that ‘preaching’.” I thought that was funny. Having heard dozens of Keller’s talks and sermons, it was what I expected though it is amazing to hear a guy rattle off references to obscure French philosophers and even a John Wesley nod in a 45 minute gig all designed to point the hearer to the supremacy of Jesus of Nazareth.
After church, we planned to head to lower Manhattan to see the 9/11 Memorial and a few other monuments, but first, we needed to eat! So we found Minetta Tavern at 113 MacDougal St. near NYU and Greenwich Village. From the outside, this Tavern which sits on an alley-like street where Bob Dylan and Ernest Hemingway used to stroll, looked shady. I was surprised by its dark appearance and wasn’t sure about going in but we were so glad we did! The interior is well-lit but cozy and seemingly very old. We didn’t have reservations so we were very fortunate to take a seat at the bar and order brunch. I also had a Seelbach cocktail. Oddly enough, The Seelbach cocktail had just been outed in the New York Times as a drink with a fabricated origin. The big thing for me, however, was it’s a Bourbon drink named after our famous Louisville hotel, and I could order it in New York. So of course I did, and it was great. The brunch was delicious too. This stop was my favorite dining stop on the trip.
We jumped back on the subway and headed down to the 9/11 Memorial. This was on the list from Day 1. For many people, 9/11/01 is the most significant day of their lives. Maybe not personally, but collectively, 9/11 was a defining day in our nation, and I will never forget so many odd details about that particular day so visiting the memorial was very important to me.
My first impression of walking near the site of the memorial is the eerie silence. You’re in New York, there are people everywhere, and everywhere else you’ve been in the city has been buzzing until you walk alongside one of two stunning memorial pools. People are taking it all in, snapping pictures, and speaking softly. The names of the victims provide sharp reminders of the barbaric act that occurred on the site. It’s a bit surreal.
Our AirBnB host made a chilling statement the morning of our departure that he’d never been to the memorial. He hadn’t been back down to the southern tip of Manhattan since before the attacks occurred, noting he had many friends in the towers that day and preferring to remain ignorant of the beautiful attempt to memorialize the tragedy. I certainly don’t blame him. I knew no one who died that day and I was moved to tears walking around the memorial and inside Trinity Church. We spoke to a worker at the memorial who also had friends who perished in the attacks. He was incredibly engaging and gave us the perspective of someone who lived through it. Our visit with him will always be one of the highlights of the trip.
After sitting in a pew at Trinity Church, we walked right outside onto Wall Street. Being that it was Sunday, the hustle & bustle of what is surely one of the most heavily travelled sidewalks in the world was reduced to curious tourists like ourselves. We made our way past the Wall Street Bull and down to the boarding station for the Staten Island Ferry. As our AirBnB host aptly noted: “It’s the only free thing in NYC, so you gotta go.” We we’re glad we did. We wanted to see the Statue of Liberty but weren’t in need of a tour so we buzzed by it as well as Ellis Island and then back to our departure port.
At this point, we were pretty tired so we took the subway back to the quieter confines of the Upper West Side, and took a nap.
Our last meal was a perfect ending to a pretty exhausting yet exhilarating weekend in the Big Apple. About a block from our W. 95th apartment is Buceo 95, a tapas & wine bar. It’s a very cozy space so get there early! It was relaxing, and as always, tapas are a great way to go since you order and they just keep bringing food out.
After a great night’s sleep, we took a VIA to Laguardia for the flight back. Laguardia is a dump but it appears to be undergoing major renovations so that should improve things…
Regardless of that, what a trip! I am so glad to have made NYC’s acquaintance and can’t wait to return!