An early wake up call accompanied by fresh Starbucks prepared us for the Grayline Hop On-Hop Off Express Bus to Battery Park. We bought tickets in advance for the bus and Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island tours. The fewer lines we have to wait in the more we can see! While everything else has continued to climb, the Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island tour is one of the last great values in New York – $12 for a ferry ride and two island stops!
We agreed to forgo the line to walk the stairs inside the Statue of Liberty and opted instead to spend more time at Ellis Island, both part of our National Park Service. Every time I step off the ferry onto Ellis Island I think of the 12 million or so immigrants who made that trek. I spent 20 minutes on a ferry; they traveled a couple months on a wooden boat, leaving behind friends, family and everything familiar. They endured sickness, sleeplessness, weather – and for what? What did they really know about this strange land called America?
When the immigrants arrived, if they were observed with labored breathing, a limp or anything that might be a red flag, they were pulled out of line to a different holding area for further inspection. Now they’re separated from their family, without cell phones, without an address to meet at, in a place where few people probably speak their language. Most of the immigrants spent up to five hours going through various inspections and inquiries. They had a "6 second checkup" from a doctor who scanned them for serious illness. They went through another line and answered questions about how much money they had, how they were going to make a living, etc. When I look at the pictures, particularly of couples with young children, I look at their eyes and search for what was going through their minds. What kinds of hopes and dreams did they have? What made them decide to leave?
In recent years they have compiled all of the ship manifests and records into a central Ellis Island Database where you can search to find your immigrant ancestors by name, ship, departure country, etc. We could have spent a whole day looking up family names. We found a Josef Pirkl from Bohemia (which would have been my mom’s grandfather), and whether it the Josef Pirkl or not, it was very cool to see the signatures of these hearty souls who arrived from the “old country”.
Standing where they stood, especially the Kissing Post and Stairs of Separation, gives me a chill. The Kissing Post is where immigrants were reunited with friends and family who preceded them to America. The Stairs of Separation are three flights of stairs next to each other – one leading to the railroad, one to the New York Ferry, and one to a detention room. One of the reasons it’s important to me to share this piece of history with my nieces and nephews is to highlight the fact that millions of people endured great hardship to come to America, to live in this land where there is so much freedom and opportunity. We were lucky enough to be born here through no effort or merit on our part – just a lucky spin on the roulette wheel. Even though things have changed in our world considerably, there are still millions of people who would like to live in America. Let’s not take for granted what came to us naturally. I don’t know if that message sinks in to an 18 year old; honestly, it probably wouldn’t have when I was 18. But at least they’ve been exposed to that part of history in a very real, very tangible way.
After a lot of lines and a lot of history, we are ready for lunch! We hopped on the bus for a visit to the South Street Seaport area. I love this stop because it’s such an unexpected slice of Manhattan. This was one of the many ways Kay found this to be the "City of Surprises". Just blocks away from Wall Street, the financial heartbeat of the nation, is a seaport complete with fish markets, old sailing ships, and waterfront restaurants. This is the site of the original port of New York and was one of the busiest places in the city. When I look past the modern mall and shops, this area transports me back in time to New York in the mid-1800s with the restored early 19th-century building and cobblestone streets. Part of the South Street Museum also contains the largest privately owned fleet of historic ships in the country.
We rested our feet and soaked up some sun while enjoying our outdoor table on the third floor at MacMenamin’s Irish Pub. We had a very friendly server whose accent we couldn’t quite pinpoint. Is he from Australia? From New York? It turns out he’s third generation Irish, from the Bronx and gets the "Australian" thing quite a bit. Since we were just blocks from the World Trade Center, we asked if he was working here at that time. He was going to college very near WTC and shared his story of that morning.
A 9/11 side note…After we struck up a conversation with this server about his experience of 9/11, we wondered if it’s something people mind talking about or if they’d rather not talk about it. Over the course of the weekend we found – at least with the people in the service industries – they not only don’t mind talking about it…it’s like it continues to be part of their healing. Several people shared stories about where they were, who they lost, what they went through. We listened with heartfelt attention to each one’s story.
After refueling, we hopped on the bus to the Waldorf Astoria. On our way we went by the Brooklyn Bridge…still chilling to think of the images of 9/11 survivors covered in white dust marching across the bridge with dazed and confused looks in their eyes. I love the history of the city and won’t attempt to compete with Wikipedia here; but I will share just a few highlights that interest or amuse me. When the Brooklyn Bridge was completed in 1883 it was the longest suspension bridge in the world. Since most people hadn’t seen this type of engineering, PT Barnum was brought in to squelch doubts about the bridge’s stability by leading a parade of 21 elephants over it. I wonder how often today we question the strength and stability of a bridge or other construction?
We did a quick walk through of the Waldorf Astoria, since it is not our main objective on this bus stop. The chandeliers, tile, flowers are all beautiful - yes, even in the restroom! After whizzing by The Helmsley Building, a few blocks away is our destination: Grand Central Terminal. With its 12 story high ceiling with a Zodiac constellation, it’s a worthwhile stop not only to think of over 500,000 people a day passing through here, but also for the beautiful architectural elements. This was another addition to the "City of Surprises". Kay didn’t know where we were headed as we were walking along a bustling street. She looked up and it was one of the side entrances, so a very unassuming sign said "Grand Central Terminal". "Is that the Grand Central Station?", she asked. Once we were inside and walked down one of the passageways to the main area, she couldn’t believe all of this was hidden inside that little entrance. One secret I’ve read about and experienced for the first time this visit: Outside the Oyster Bar is the Whispering Gallery. You can stand in one corner and whisper, and the person in the opposite corner will hear you loud and clear. If you want to see Grand Central Terminal come to life in an interesting social experiment visit Grand Central Freeze.
Back on the bus we finished the Downtown Loop which took us past Catherine Hepburn’s apartment, Rockefeller Center, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, to name a few.
- Greenwich Village
- Times Square
- Empire State Building
- Flatiron building
- Union Square
- Little Italy
- Lower East Side
- East Village and more.
Just past Macy’s (think Miracle on 34th Street) we hopped off at the Empire State Building, which is back to being the tallest building in New York City at 102 stories. Lots of people suggested we visit Top of the Rock for a view that’s “just as great with shorter lines”. My opinion is, when you get a ginormous gorilla to climb around 30 Rock, I may consider it. For now, I’m happy visiting the iconic Empire State Building. We hit the perfect time of day (just before 6 pm) and were able to bypass many of the endless rooms and floors of queues. It was a beautiful evening with clear views to Central Park, Statue of Liberty and yes, New Jersey.
We grabbed a yellow cab to take us the few blocks back to our hotel. Our plan for the evening was simple and low key: take out pizza from Abitinos Pizzeria on Broadway and authentic New York cheesecake to go from Junior’s. I can’t think of a more relaxing way to end the day than enjoying our tasty treats in the hotel room while sharing stories and impressions of the day: Awesome. Grand, majestic size of everything – over the top. Diversity, diversity, diversity. Hustle bustle. So many people born and raised here, love it enough to stick around and be a server, taxi driver, tour guide. History. Contrasts – the very rich next to the street poor; the very talented next to the…not as talented. Fun. Exciting.