Sunday, May 1

Coney Island

Coney Island: With a forecast of sunshine and temps in the 60s, we set off for the mythical amusement park. Despite all the times I’ve read of Coney Island, I had no real image in mind of what to expect. Or at least I thought I didn’t – when we arrived, I realized it looked exactly as I would have pictured it. Bigger than a small-town fair, smaller than the Southern  California amusement parks I grew up with, Coney Island consisted of more vintage rides than new, game booths lining every row with the requisite barkers trying to entice us into playing.

On one side, two hundred-foot poles stretched into the sky. We watched in horror as a small globe shot up between them as if fired from a slingshot. Giant rubberbands prevented the two inhabitants from being launched into space. As the trajectory was cut short, the spherical cage dropped back toward Earth, then bounced up, each time slightly less high, until the ride ended and the patrons stumbled out. Not my thing. What I like are rollercoasters and Ferris wheels. Fortunately, my brother concurs.

The four of us lined up for the infamous Cyclone ($8), a beast of an old wooden coaster. The creaks, squeaks, squeals and screeches heightened our anticipation as we waited in line for the first car. Now, I grew up on the serious thrills of Magic Mountain’s high-end rollercoasters, but decades have passed since I took a spin on the Colossus, Revolution or Viper. Adrenaline pulsed as we clacked up the ramp to the first drop. And what a first drop! We tilted over the top and I couldn’t even see the tracks leading down, the angle was so steep. I may have screamed at this point. I definitely screamed as we rocketed quickly to the  second drop. The cars maintained a speed that surely was too fast for us to make an upcoming hairpin turn – despite my alleged confidence in our safety (I’d promised K we’d be fine), I wouldn’t have been surprised if we’d launched right off the tracks. We survived, however, faces plastered with grins, eyes watering from the air tearing at them, the Cyclone’s shakes and shimmies lingering in our necks. We giggled. “That was so fun! Oh my god! That was crazy!”

Endorphins cranked, we moseyed up to the boardwalk, looking for some carbohydrates to steady us. On the menu: knishes ($3), fries ($2) and funnel cake ($6), which we gobbled up on the boardwalk, Atlantic pulsing against the sandy beach stretching in either direction. To top off this experience in East Coast decadence, Tag, Jen and I sidled up to one of the ubiquitous pina colada stands. “Eight dollars, ten dollars, twelve dollars gets you a free refill. You want some rum, you give me a big tip and you get some more,” the woman behind the counter informed us. She was short and thin, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, plenty of black eyeliner and a ring of red accentuating her Brooklyn-accented patter. We opted for the $8 version, but tipped her well enough she was generous with the rum. Which she tapped out of a plastic bucket, the kind you use in your garden for hauling compost around. I immediately regretted this whole transaction with the first sip: the cheap rum had an aftertaste of acetone. Or maybe it was just the plastic cup offgassing. Either way, it was like drinking nail polish remover albeit nail polish remover flavored with pineapple and coconut.

Drinks thus in hand, we strolled back out to the beach, dipping our toes in the Atlantic just because we could. Not warm, but not as icy as back home.

On the Wonder Wheel!

Next on the list, the Ferris wheel. Despite surviving the Cyclone, both K and Jen claimed intimidation when it came to the Wonder Wheel ($6), so our quartet was reduced to a duo. While waiting in line, some smart-ass with a Napoleon complex cut ahead of us, using his three small children as props. Tag and I rolled our eyes at each other, but remained patient. The wait lasted only another couple minutes and then we were secured in our personal booth – unlike most Ferris wheels, this one has cages, two bench seats to each. The view, spectacular. We waved to Jen and K, waiting patiently a hundred fifty feet below.

After that, we thought we’d concluded our Coney Island adventure. We were wrong! For what did we pass but the Coney Island Circus Sideshow! The Human Blockhead! Sepentina, the Snake Charmer! A fire-eater! Sure the show would be worth the $7.50 entrance fee, we handed over our money and ducked behind the curtain just in time to watch the aforementioned Blockhead further hammer a nail into his head. The show only improved from there. With great cornball humor, the performers served up their acts without the slightest trace of irony despite the lack of actual shock value to anyone who has interacted with modern culture past 1962. We were charmed by the corsets, amused by the hypnosis, willing to pay an extra $1 to see the contortionist in her box and happy to applaud the fire mistress’ grand finale. Wonderful!

L&B Spumoni Gardens: Ready for a real meal, we boarded the train for our next destination, L&B Spumoni  Gardens. Originally a horse-and-cart operation, the restaurant has grown into a multi-roomed dining facility. Tag discovered it after a formerly Bay Area friend of his asked a member of the NYPD, “Hey, where do you go for the best pizza in New York?” and the cop waxed eloquent on the heavenly qualities of the Queens-based L&B. The joint was packed with folks who could’ve been extras in any and all mob movies from the past several decades. Autographed photos of James Gandolfini and the suave cat who plays Silvio on The Sopranos greeted us as we cut into the main dining room. We ordered a Sicilian – what else? – and sure enough, that was some damn fine pizza. As we left, I tugged Tag’s arm and pointed at the black Cadillac Escalades parked right outside. “Look!” I whispered. “It’s just like the show!” Once again, life imitated art imitating life. Which is kinda New York in a nutshell.

Monday, May 2

Lady Liberty

Staten Island Ferry: One of the many things I love about this city is the full spectrum of free and cheap public transportation. Not least on that list is the no-cost Staten Island Ferry. We exited the subway to six-foot tall letters proclaiming “STATEN ISLAND FERRY,” so we were assured we’d landed in the proper place. The boat ride itself takes 25 minutes to reach Staten Island, with impressive views of both the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty along the way. Once at the island, you can hang out or, as we did, hop back on for the return ride and proceed to your next destination.

Ground Zero/World Trade Center memorial: I’d stayed up late reading the news reports and Facebook reactions about the killing of Osama bin Laden. How that development colored our experience, I’m not sure – in the sense that I don’t know if the crowd would’ve been different the days before.

Surely the fleet of news vans wouldn’t have lined the streets. Perhaps the NYPD presence would have been less. Definitely the young man holding a sign with MLK, Jr.’s quote (sort of) about “the death of one man diminishes all of us” wouldn’t have been there with that particular message – and the rage that his presence invoked wouldn’t have been part of our experience.

Advocating against celebrating killing.

“Did you see that motherfucker?” New Yorkers raged after walking by. “Who the hell does he think he is? What the fuck does he know?” K overheard some other young men boasting they should follow him and beat him up. We worried for his safety. I get it, that sense of offense taken – “Who the fuck does he think he is?” – but last time I checked, this was still America and here we were celebrating the U.S. A. and come on, free speech is a big part of that, even in New York, even at the World Trade Center memorial. Don’t like the sign, roll your eyes and walk on by.

At Ground Zero.

My own thoughts about it all included fully relating to the visceral pleasure taken when someone who has wronged you gets theirs – and walking through the preliminary memorial, the grief remains tangible, the collage of “Missing” posters is enough to make one’s heart shatter – as well as an uneasiness over reacting to the killing of someone with, “Woohoo! Time to par-tay!” Ultimately I decided a substantial spectrum exists between ’Mericans who can’t think further than a flag and a beer, and those who twist every political action to point out America’s flaws – as if no other wrongs matter because our government commits some pretty gross missteps, too. I would love to hear news breaking “War is Over,” for that I would dance in the streets. At this moment, however, it’s not my place to condemn those dancing on bin Laden’s grave, much as I prefer a quieter contemplation.


Chelsea Market: We left our seriousness behind and tripped up to Chelsea Market, flush with gourmet foods galore and, right at the start, cupcakes and cookies boasting decorations more artful than many paintings I’ve seen hanging from walls. Of course, we stopped. I had the frosted bunny cookie ($3) and K chose a sparkly mini-cupcake ($3). We also cruised the Manhattan Fruit Exchange, which specializes in exotic fruits and cooking basics of all sorts. Inspired, I decided to make dinner at the apartment instead of going out later. Sage, carrots, farfalle, arugula, cucumber and lemons set me back about $14, which included some tamari almonds for our too-soon return plane ride.

Peace Fountain/St. John the Divine’s Cathedral: The Zinester’s Guide to New York City’s listing for the Peace Fountain tempted us up to Harlem. First, a medieval-looking church came into view, then the fountain itself with its winged angel of Good having vanquished the force of Evil to the delight of a variety of animals joyfully embracing each other and our hero. More sculptures ringed the fountain, a peace circle of sorts, as well as a paean to Noah’s Ark. But fantastical as the fountain was – and it was! – nothing prepared me for the awesome, breath-taking, stunning, all in the most literal sense of those words, St. John the Divine’s Cathedral. From the outside, the ornate structure imposes over what must be an entire city block.

Peace Fountain and St. John's Cathedral

From the inside, one nearly believes the Rapture must be at hand. How else to explain something so grand, so glorious, so humbling? A ceiling curving at least one hundred feet overhead, stained glass windows lit up like God’s own glory, at every turn something profound and beautiful awaits, whether a memorial to FDNY firefighters who perished performing heroic deeds or a collection of candles burning in prayer for the sick, the needy, the afflicted. I could’ve stayed for hours.

But we had to go.

Roosevelt Island Sky Tram: Tag joined us post-work for a ride on another of New York’s forms of public transportation, this one a sky tram connecting Manhattan to Roosevelt (formerly Hospital, then Welfare) Island. All it took was our all-purpose Metro pass to board – it didn’t even cost anything extra to trundle alongside the Williamsburg Bridge, witnessing million-dollar views. A quick stroll along the south end of Roosevelt only heightened the ongoing appreciation for how the various skylines continued to  impress.

View from the Roosevelt Sky Tram.

Back at the apartment, I sautéed the carrots and sage in olive oil and butter, mixed them in with the al dente farfalle, squeezed lemon juice over the whole thing, dashed it with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes, threw together a cucumber-arugula-grated carrot salad, dressed it with some quickly mixed oil-vinegar-mustard-lemon, set out the bread Tag had purchased and we all sat down to a lovely dinner. He’d also picked up a couple bottles of nice white wine, so we toasted to our good fortune and happiness.

Tuesday, May 3

Our last day! Saddened, we started earlier than usual, determined to get a few last sights in before catching our afternoon flight out of JFK.

The High Line: An unused formerly elevated train track has been turned into a public park with a walkway stretching (I think) a mile-and-a-half lined with native plants. Not merely functional, the High Line exhibits well-planned design in both form and function. We elevated up to discover an oasis of peace and order above the city’s noisy, chaotic streets. Well done, New York, well done.

View from The High Line.

Grand Central: We returned to Grand Central Station so we could snap photos in the daylight – the nighttime ones failed to capture the loveliness of the station. It really does put the “grand” in “grandeur.” In addition, we’d been clued into the famed/secret Whispering Wall and hoped to give it a go. For the record, it’s all true.

Madison Square: Back over to midtown, where we met Tag for a last lunch. For our last day, the sky had cleared and the air so warmed that we sought the shady side of the street on our way. Given the pleasantness of the day, it made sense to eat outside. We scored crepes from a truck, one chocolate-strawberry and another a Swiss-tomato-scallion concoction, both of which K and I shared as the three of us sat on tree-shaded benches in Madison Park, amused by the dogs and their owners parading to the dog run and further marveling at the riches New York City had provided us.

JFK: After reluctant good-byes, K and I journeyed back to Brooklyn to pick up our things. The clock warned that we were starting this leg later than I’d planned, but I didn’t start worrying in earnest until the last of the three-part train ride, which we were still undergoing a mere 45 minutes before our scheduled takeoff. As we dashed into the airport, lugging our suitcases up stairwells and rolling them around those with the luxury to dawdle, bad news emanated from overhead. “Last call for Virgin flight VX27  bound for San Francisco. All passengers immediately proceed to Gate B25.” Lacking a printer, I still needed to get our boarding passes, plus we’d have to get through security in time to beat the clock. We ran. Where the hell was the Virgin check-in? I mentally calculated our options, or rather, option – all I could think was I’d have to eat the cost of paying for a later flight, a consequence that would spawn many more given how many bills were due today.

There, past all the other airlines and around the corner, there was Virgin. With no line! I zipped up to the counter. “Hiwearetryingtomakethat4:35flighttoSanFrancisco!” The attendant frowned. “Name?” I told her. She punched information into her computer and frowned some more. “OK,” she said, “but you’ll have to run.” In her hand, our boarding passes. I plucked them from her, shouted, “Thanks!” and K and I hightailed it to the next stop. Security.

A bolder, smarter person would’ve announced to the crowd, “We’re about to miss our flight!” in hopes strangers would be compelled to kindness. I, desperate but still shy, figured we had 20 minutes and the line was only a couple dozen people and moving fast, waited. Even as another “last call” announcement wafted through the speakers. Ten minutes later, we slipped our shoes back on, crushed our liquid-containing Ziplocs back into our suitcases and sprinted for the gate.

“Final boarding call for flight VX27 bound for San Francisco. Final call for passengers Savage –“

“Here!” I gasped, skidding up to B25. “We’re here!”

Now, you’d think that under the circumstances, the folks at the counter would hurry us through, but instead, the ticket attendant took 30 whole seconds to purse her lips and shake her head in dismay. “All right, but be quick,” she admonished.

Quick we were and so relieved I nearly entered the plane with a surely dopey grin on my face. Fortunately, the gangway went on long enough for us to regain composure. We walked on, brisk, but casual. “What? We made it. No worries.” An attendant helped us stash our bags overhead, we found our seats and with that, our NYC excursion shifted into fond memories and fervent hopes to return some day.