New York

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On the 20th December 1947, mum and dad were married, and on the 19th December 1971, Peter and I were married. This year, thanks to the magic of the International Date Line, we celebrated our anniversaries at the same time. So even though we have never been further apart on these dates, in a wonderful way we were all very much together.

There must be about a hundred songs about New York and Broadway and I have been singing them all. Don’t you feel sorry for Peter?!

Going to New York has been a long time dream and our anniversary trip there has been planned for many months. I have to admit I was a bit nervous about flying this time and although airport security has undergone significant changes since September 11, media reports have suggested that there are still a lot of changes to be made before flying is really safe. Security is noticeably tighter. Armed guards are evident inside and outside the terminals. Passengers are advised to arrive 2 hours before departure time, and I could see how it might take that long. It took us about an hour to get through security on each of the four legs of our journey. To get to the boarding gate, we had to join queues that we could not see the end of. All passengers were screened and frisked, and all hand luggage was scanned.  Random searches were also conducted and Peter was randomly selected for X-ray surveillance of his checked luggage at Indianapolis and either his or my hand luggage was subjected to additional scrutiny three out of the four times. I would have felt happier if they picked someone else. I already knew we had no bombs in our luggage! Apart from the tedium of queuing, our flights were uneventful.

The real adventure started when we boarded the shuttle bus from Newark Airport to take us into New York. The shuttle was a 12-seater minivan and we took off at great pace. The young driver roared along the freeway at breakneck speed, exceeded 90kph through the Holland Tunnel (speed limit 60kph) which runs under the Hudson River, and then performed feats of driving that had all passengers gripping their seats. Apart from the accelerator pedal, he also had a more than glancing familiarity with the van horn. The traffic was chockers, and his first drop-off point was in the street next to Ground Zero where many roads are still cut off, and traffic was understandably chaotic. We roared into the area, honking at anything that had the temerity to stop (even for a red light or a foolhardy pedestrian). Intersections were clogged so that even when lights turned green there was nowhere to go. Stopping at green lights prompted even more horn honking, abusive gestures, and shouting from our driver. We passengers looked at each other in disbelief and with a shared sense of impending doom. I had never been on a ride like it in my life. Our driver performed incredible feats of automotive combat and remarkably hit nothing or no one.  We were like shape-shifters as he wove us through bumper to bumper traffic, changing lanes at will. He took that van through spaces that I didn’t think a bicycle would get through. He yelled abuse at a police officer who suggested he desist from driving through a group of pedestrians. She cautioned him to relax. But then, maybe it was me she was talking to. I was sitting white-knuckled and ashen just behind him. Welcome to New York!

To our absolute amazement we did arrive in one piece at our hotel. Still high on adrenalin, we unpacked and headed off to explore. The weather was cold and slightly damp but we only had a couple of days and planned to make the most of them. We went to Central Park and visited John Lennon’s “Imagine” mosaic in Strawberry Fields, and strolled down 5th Avenue dropping in to Tiffany’s where the price tags were discreetly tucked away so as not to spoil our browsing pleasure, Sak’s, and many other expensive and chic shops.

Two ladies in a boutique in the Trump Building wrapped me in silks and furs. I somehow managed to escape with my fortune (or lack thereof) intact, but I enjoyed being elegant for a moment.

On the outside, New York is in holiday mode with lavish decorations and more fairy lights than I have ever seen. However, the reminders of September 11 are everywhere. Huge flags drape many buildings and people really did seem friendlier and keen to talk. A young woman customer we shared a table with at Starbuck’s noticed our accents and started chatting. She thanked us for coming to New York. I recalled our experience after the cyclone in Innisfail and how pleased we were to have out of towners come to visit. In one way, I think I wanted others to see just how bad things were, and in another way it was good to talk to someone who hadn’t been through the same experience. It made me feel better to know there were places where things were still okay. In New York I think they need people to come so they can have crowds and horn honking to help restore their feelings of normalcy. They certainly need the tourist dollars to help rebuild their economy. And tourists are in short supply.

Night had well and truly fallen when we took the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. Unlike at the Sears’ Tower in Chicago, there were no long queues here. We got straight in. The views were superb. The ESB experience is more exhilarating than at Sears’, as the observation decks are outdoors, and the full force of the evening winds made us vitally aware that we were in a special spot. Smoke could still be seen rising from the WTC site, although the fires were officially declared to be extinguished the following day. We then took Hannah’s dining recommendation and found the “Olive Garden” Italian restaurant on Times’ Square. Having started our day with 4.30am time calls from Bev and Hannah, having stood in queues and being scrutinised by armed guards for the early parts of the day, and then having walked around New York for about 6 hours, we decided it was time to head back to our hotel for some well-needed sleep.

The next morning was our anniversary and we commenced celebrations with breakfast from a street vendor before I dragged Peter down to the Rockefeller Centre to join the throngs who gather outside the NBC studio waiting for their quarter-second of fame as the cameras pan the crowds before going to the breaks in The Today Show. I don’t think I even got my quarter-second, but I had a front row spot and we enjoyed a live performance from the Times’ Square Church choir. We also watched the skaters enjoying the facilities at the Rockefeller Centre rink.

We then bought subway tickets and headed down to Battery Point to catch a ferry to see Liberty and Ellis Islands. The subway took us directly under the WTC site which was a bit chilling. Some sections of the subway have been destroyed and the station which serviced the WTC was closed, but the tunnel has been shored up and the line was passable with care.

The Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island have been closed since September 11 until security precautions could be introduced, but we were able to tour the harbour and river by boat and get quite close to both of these significant sites. We also had a spectacular view of the Manhattan skyline and could see the gap left by the terrorists. We rode under the Brooklyn Bridge and learnt much of the history of the area from our informative and interesting guide (who also thanked us all for coming). The ferry was carrying only about a tenth of its normal capacity, but that was probably because the islands were going to reopen for tourists the following day. It will not be possible to actually climb the Statue for some months to come.

We then located the TKTS stall where they sell half price tickets for that day’s Broadway shows. We were delighted to get best house tickets for the 8pm performance of 42nd Street.

We were still down the bottom end of Manhattan and decided to walk up to Wall Street and to Ground Zero. It’s amazing how much restoration has been achieved in three months, but there are still scars everywhere. Underground services have been unearthed for repairs and the narrow streets are made even more congested by barricades. Armed police and security guards are everywhere, and we were again thoroughly searched and our cameras examined before entering Federation Hall, the site where George Washington was inaugurated as the first US president.

Most of the work at the WTC site is now at ground level and below, so there was not much to see in that area apart from the huge space. In a part of town where buildings are cheek to jowl and soar forever skyward, that space is eerie indeed. We spent some time walking by the chain wire fences where people have posted memorials and tributes to those who lost their lives in the attack. It was a moving experience to read their stories and the many messages of support sent from all over America and indeed the world.

There are many interesting neighbourhoods which make up New York and we found China Town and then the Italian section. Both of these were exciting bustling places with open markets and shops selling everything from live fish to fine leather handbags. We bought the lunch special at a Sicilian restaurant, and then decided to do a bit more exploring via the subway. From the ferry I had noticed that the subway went across the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn,  so we decided to take that trip. We emerged into the cold winds of Brooklyn, did a very brief run around the block and got back onto the subway to return to Manhattan. We wandered through the artists’ section in Soho, enjoying some wonderful exhibits and store displays. There we found a public phone box and rang mum and dad to wish them a Happy Anniversary. Further uptown, we went into Macy’s to take advantage of their one-day pre-Christmas sale. Riding on the bus, we chatted with some other locals who noticed our accents. One old lady told us not to believe what they say about New Yorkers. “We’re really warm and friendly, you know,” she said. “We just pretend we’re not. If everyone knew how nice we really were, they’d all want to come and live here, and there’s no room for them.” We laughed heartily, but I think she might be right. I told her we’d keep her secret, so please don’t pass this on!

Our evening at the theatre was great. The songs, the music, the sets, the costumes… !!! We rewarded the cast with a standing ovation and I left the theatre on a cloud. In the back of our program was a message from Mayor Giuliani thanking us for coming. By this time, we were starting to feel positively altruistic! And this for having one of the most memorable experiences of our lives. I had dressed for the theatre (I wore your black velvet dress, Dorothy), and had abandoned my walking shoes with orthotic aids for something more glamorous. I had not walked far when I realised what a mistake that was, but I hobbled slowly and happily back through Times’ Square and along 6th Avenue to our hotel.

We had a few hours to continue exploring on Thursday morning before we had to check out at noon and take the exciting shuttle ride back to the airport. We hunted for a few more souvenirs and located the Flatiron building (the one with the very acute front angle) and the Chrysler Building which had somehow eluded us on previous explorations. We wandered back up 5th Avenue for the last time and returned to the hotel to pack.

The flights back involved more searches and security checks as well as delays and over-bookings. However, we were thoroughly exhausted and thoroughly delighted with our New York adventure. I hope we can return for our 60th anniversary.