Saturday, July 31, 2010

I Love the Island Manhattan

I don’t know what it is about New York City. For all the times I’ve gone there – and hope to continue going there – I still feel like a little kid at Disneyland the minute I disembark from whatever mode of transportation brings me into Manhattan.

You’d think by now it would be a rather routine matter to take a plane, train or automobile into the city and kick around for a day or two. After all, I’m almost 60. I’ve been places. I’ve done things. And I’ve been going to the Island Manhattan since I was a teenager.

It’s not a new experience. But in a strange kind of way, I can identify with New York newbies who come up out of the subway and just stand there with their mouths agape at the sight of tall buildings, busy people and a pace that seems to eclipse a jack rabbit on speed.

It’s because I get swept up in it too … and I’m anything but New York newbie.

I came to conclusion that it’ll always be this way after spending two days in New York with my son this week. It was the annual father-son bonding trip. Usually, it’s to Fenway Park, where I buy the tickets and he buys the hot dogs and beer. And on a few occasions, we’ve taken the bus into New York, kicked around for a day, seen a show, and taken the late bus back home.

That’s a long day, and I had no stomach for it this time. If we were going to go, I told him, we were going to spend the night and at least get some sleep along the way. But Manhattan hotels in the summertime (and I’d say the ones not infested by various and sundry insects, but apparently the little critters are inhabiting the five-star ones too) are way out of any sensible person’s price range.

So, in the words of the immortal Archie Bunker, “try Joisey.”

That worked. We got a room at the Day’s Inn in North Bergen, where it’s a 10-minute ride to the Secaucus commuter rail station (thank you Frank Lautenberg). Six minutes from Secaucus and you’re at Pennsylvania Station (pardon me, sir, is that the Pennsylvania Station?).

The Day’s Inn was what it was supposed to be … a place to sleep. That’s all we did there. We were elsewhere the rest of the time. So there’s no use expounding on that, except to say that if you have a reliable car, and don’t want to spend all outdoors on accommodations, it’s the only way to go … unless you want to trip the night fantastic in Manhattan. The commuter rail does not run 24/7, but pretty damn close. The last train hits Secaucus around 1:30 a.m.

New York is a great walking city (so is Boston). And with all the things to do there, that’s what I like to do best … walk around and check out places and people. I don’t care about double-decker buses (though I did one of those once), and I’ll be damned if I spend all that money to go to New York and end up riding the subways all over the place. No thanks. I’ll walk.

We only took the subway twice … once to CitiField (you can’t very well walk from midtown Manhattan to Willett’s Point) and again, late on the second day, from Herald Square to Rockefeller Center (again, we were pressed for time, and had to get there and back in a reasonable amount of time). Otherwise, we walked. Everywhere.

That includes all through Central Park, up Fifth Avenue on Central Park East (where we saw Woody Harrelson – without a joint – walking the other way), to Seventh Avenue/Central Park West (where I pointed out The Dakotas and the evil looking foyer where John Lennon was shot); and Strawberry Fields.

We did the obligatory loop that takes you through Rockefeller Plaza (actually did the observation deck), and down to Bryant Park (where we saw a very nice – and very free – Broadway revue consisting of “Wicked,” “The Addams Family,” “Next to Normal” and “The Lion King.”). I think, all told, we went from 72nd down to 30th, zig-zagging along the way. I told my son that I felt like a bus going up and down Seventh Avenue, because that’s all we seemed to go.

Of course, the reason for that is simple. Penn Station is on Seventh Avenue, and, well, if you want to go anywhere coming out of Penn, you have to go through Fashion Avenue and the Garment District.

But for an old guy who has spent years watching life go by due to assorted physical issues, I think I did all right.

But by far, the highlight was “Jersey Boys,” the show Andrew and I chose to see. Picking a show is serious business for us. He’s much more current on what’s playing on the Great White Way than I am, and he has his tastes and I have mine. Sometimes, the biggest debates we have revolve around what shows to see.

The last time we went, we saw “Rent,” which is a show I swore I’d never see. I mean, if you’re going to go to the theater, and escape into the wonderful world of entertainment, why would you want to see a show about heroin addiction and AIDS? I can open up a newspaper, or turn on the TV, and see as much of that as I want.

But I liked it, despite the sometimes depressing subject matter.

This time the choice was easier. It was between “Billy Elliot,” and “Jersey Boys.”

Now, I like Elton John, but I don’t like him that much. On the other hand, as a kid growing up in the sixties, the Four Seasons were cool … even Frankie Valli’s ear-piercing falsettos. They were the soundtrack to my youth. “Walk Like a Man,” “Rag Doll,” “Dawn,” and “Sherry,” are among my favorite songs of early-to-mid-sixties, which, to me, represented the best of the decade. I was a kid, oblivious to the more sinister part of life, and spent endless summer days playing baseball, or playing cards in my basement (the coolest part of the house) with my friends, with the radio on and the Four Seasons, Beatles, and all the rest, blaring in the background. Life was good, the music was great, and the times were oh-so-innocent (at least to me they were).

So “Jersey Boys” it was. And can I just say that I was not disappointed? It was tremendous, even if some of the history is a little skewed (Tommy DeVito absolutely disputes the claim he never changed his underwear, for example). And even though I’m a huge Four Seasons fan, there are things I never knew … such as the rough-and-tumble backgrounds, the fights, personal issues, and the fact that Joe Pesci and DeVito were childhood buds.

The show was excellent. It was funny when it had to be, it had its sad moments, and you couldn’t beat the music … especially the harmonies. It really put a smile on your face.

From there, it was a quick walk back to Penn Station, to take the subway to CitiField for the Mets-Cardinals game. As many times as I go to New York, I still have to ask people how the hell to get anywhere on the subways. New York and Boston are opposite in a number of ways, but the biggest difference is in streets/subways. In Boston, the streets (except for the Back Bay) are twisted in all sorts of directions and it’s easy to get lost. But an imbecile and figure out the subway system.

In New York, the streets are laid out like a grid. Streets run east to west; avenues north to south. If you want to know where anything is in New York, it’s “34th and Fifth.” You can go anywhere with those simple directions. Street and Avenue.

But go underground and forget it. You need a Ph.D. to figure the damn subway system out. So even though I’ve been to New York more times than I can count, I still had to ask someone “how do I get to the Mets game.” And again – typically – the subway cop I asked didn’t know. Now, he had a badge and a gun, so there’s no way I’m going to ask him “how the F*** did you become a New York City subway cop and NOT KNOW how to get to the Mets game????

Turns out, there is no direct train from Penn Station to Willett’s Point. You have to subway hop. Sometimes, that can be real chore, as the underground stations are mammoth, you can feel as if you walked the entire island underground to make your connections. I’ve been in airports where it takes less time to make connections.

This time, though, it wasn’t bad. Two stops up, to 42nd Street, and we got right into the “7” train (express, no less) to Queens.

CitiField is a very nice park, with roomy seats and lots of legroom. And when I go to parks like this, it makes me wonder how in hell come the Red Sox couldn’t do this, and why – even though I think Janet Marie Smith did a Hall of Fame job with renovating it – it continues to be the least fan friendly place on the planet.

The game started out as a total dud. No Jason Bay (concussion) and Johan Santana was horrible. He gave up six runs in the first inning!

But the game got interesting, as the Mets pecked away until -- thanks to Matt Holliday (who apparently has trouble catching balls hit right to him) – they tied it up with four runs in the ninth.

Understand, now, we have to go from Willett’s Point (which is near LaGuardia Airport) back to Penn Station, get on a commuter rail, and get back to Secaucus. We had the choice of staying through what would prove to be a 13-inning game (won by the Cardinals, 8-7) or leaving after the ninth inning – or whenever Albert Pujols got up one more time. We chose The Great Albert Pujols (who singled to lead off the ninth) and an early exit.

The game was still on when we got to Secaucus, and ended just before we got back to the Day’s Inn.

Day Two was when we did all the walking. I consider these Andrew’s trips, so I generally do what he wants to do. And he likes to bop around Times Square looking at marquees (we actually saw a poster that had someone he grew up with, Mark Dancewicz, on it. Mark is in the chorus in Mama Mia!).

We saw the Broadway show in Bryant Park, went to Rockefeller Center (twice), Central Park, Herald Square, scouted out a hotel that a friend is staying in later this summer, and all sorts of things in between.

Soon enough (too soon) it was time to leave. Back to the commuter rail, back to Secaucus, get the car, get on Route 95, gas up for the trip home … and then sit in traffic for hours and hours because night work on highways is the new thing. At least four times (including the George Washington Bridge), there were major detours on highways that caused massive traffic jams.

This makes me blow a gasket, and the only time there were any cross words spoken between father and son came during these traffic jams. Otherwise, it was a perfect two days.

Next time I go (and there WILL be a next time), I can assure you of one thing: I’ll disembark from the train station, or the bus, or the subway, with my mouth wide open and this feeling of panic over the fact that I’m in New York, with the entire city staring me in the face, and not the slightest idea of what to do first.

Just like a kid in a candy store.

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