2006.01.05 Seeking the unusual in NYC

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Are we going or are we staying? Well, are we going or not? I never had a definite answer to that question until sometime Tuesday.

The right alignment of holiday days for the Observer, free accomodations, etc., suggested that we go, so we took off for New York City last Wednesday morning.

Two years had passed since I took the 600-mile drive along I-80. I hadn’t been missing NYC all that much until I got there. Then I wondered why I waited so long.

New York is such an amazing place. With all the visits we’ve made over the years, it would seem like we’ve seen about everything there is to see, but that’s a silly thing to think. Even the people who live there haven’t seen everything. Sometimes it takes a visit from a tourist to get the natives out into the city.

That was the case with one set of my wife’s aunts and uncles. We met them at Tom’s Restaurant, which is famous to all “Seinfeld” viewers and to Suzanne Vega fans in her song “Tom’s Diner.”

The Muscarellas arrived and Uncle Ronnie double parked for the duration of the meal. I didn’t know it was so easy to park in New York City. It was no big deal. Others were already doing it.

We later walked a few blocks to investigate who’s buried in Grant’s tomb. Remember the old joke? The answer is that no one is buried there. Grant and his wife are in crypts on display inside.

It’s no surprise that this was my first visit to the General Grant National Memorial, but Ronnie and Mary have lived in the city all their lives and had never entered the largest tomb in America.

It’s a fantastic structure. Massive blocks of marble, huge columns, a domed top half a football field tall—and a fascinating stairway high up in the rotunda. I asked the park ranger about it—specifically, what it takes to get up there—and he handed me a brochure about Open House New York. On one October weekend a year, guests are allowed to visit places that are normally closed to the public, such as the upper reaches of Grant’s tomb.

There’s a narrow spiral stairway leading to an overlook high up in the rotunda. The side railings are cast to look like swords. The stairway we spotted from below leads up higher yet and there’s one more set of stairs that leads to the very top.

Now I need to schedule an early October weekend in New York so I can walk onto the roof of the tomb—or climb to the top of the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch in Brooklyn or maybe learn the secrets of Grand Central Terminal during a special tour. The city just got a whole lot bigger.

We knocked off another first-ever visit by piling into Ronnie’s small car for a drive-by tour of Harlem. Probably every restaurant visit was something new, also. At Gyro World in Flushing, I thought the woman sitting in the next booth was winking at me, but later I decided she had a facial tic.

At the Highland Café, the waiter asked us where we were from. Actually, he said, “Where are you from? You’re so polite.”

At the food concourse in the bottom of Grand Central, my miso soup came with seaweed and strange mushrooms that squeaked with every bite.

After my meal, I watched a man pick through a trash can. I figured he was looking for beverage cans, but when he found a partially-filled cup, he drank the leftovers. When he found a container with some food, he ate it. People are so wasteful. He found some really good stuff. That method of eating would take some getting used to, but yes, it could be done. It depends on how hungry you are.

If you go to New York City at the end of December, you’re supposed to watch the ball drop at midnight. That’s for the younger set. My wife and daughters have that story to tell. But we all walked through Times Square the night before, and even then we got caught in the crush of people. It can only be described as a human traffic jam. It forces a closeness that Midwesterners aren’t typically accustomed to.

That describes most everything about New York. That’s why I love going. It’s always filled with something I’m not accustomed to.

– Jan 5, 2006
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