I had been to New York City twice before...and loved it. But in November 2001, a number of things fell into place ("harmonic convergence?"), and I ended up going one more time.
Here's how it started:
On my November 12, 2001 show, I interviewed Stuart Hample, who had compiled a book of radio comedian Fred Allen's writings. I spiced up the interview with some clips from Allen's shows. During the breaks, Stuart said he was amazed I knew so much about Allen and old radio. He also invited me to a seminar about Allen and the book at the Museum of Television and Radio in New York later that month, saying I HAD TO BE THERE! I said I'd "try to put something together."
When the show ended, Stuart said, "I'll see you at the Museum." Yeah, sure, I thought. But as time went on, I started to think, "Can I do it?"
Everyone at KPQ told me to go for it. So I asked my friend Shelley Costello, who then worked at the Wenatchee Red Lion Hotel (which, at that time, was part of the Hilton chain), if she could put something together. She invited herself along, getting a room at the employee rate. I made reservations on Jet Blue from Seattle to JFK. We put together a long weekend package - leaving early Thursday, returning early Monday, and cramming in as much as we could in between.
Jet Blue was great. At the airport, the clerk asked us if we wanted better than the row 23 seats we had reserved, like row TWO! Of course we would!! (Twist our arms!) We asked, jokingly, "How about first class?" The gal smiled and said, "It's all first class." She wasn't far off - clean plane, leather seats, satellite TV at every seat (never mind most of the channels just ran infomercials). No meals, but they still gave us drinks and snacks. A smooth, quiet flight on the Airbus jet, aside from a worrisome buzzing noise for the first five minutes or so after our 1 a.m. takeoff.
We arrived at JFK on time (9 a.m. NYT) and took a shuttle bus into midtown Manhattan. The weather was drizzly, but warm. The bus went through the bad part of Queens. Dilapidated houses, non-existent yards, almost ghetto-like. Traffic moved at a snail's pace. Shelley was amazed - how can people live like this? How can they DRIVE like this? Our bus driver, we're convinced, was insane, darting in and out of the smallest holes in the traffic.
We checked into the New York Hilton in Rockefeller Center at 11 a.m. (I had dreamed for many years of staying there.) Our room was on the 37th floor - a nice room with a view of office buildings and a peek at Central Park.
That evening, I went to the seminar at the MT&R, which was about a block away from the Hilton. The place was packed. The seminar was fun and informative, with as many celebrities in the audience as up on the stage. I brought a microphone just in case, but unfortunately, I didn't get any interviews, since most of the participants (including Alan King, Kurt Vonnegut, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.) didn't stay for the reception afterwards. There was wine, drinks, cheese, lots of mingling, and FINALLY, I got a picture with the guy who started this whole thing.
After the seminar, Shelley and I went out to see NYC at night. The drizzle had stopped. No coats were needed. We walked around Times Square and Rockefeller Center, with a side trip to Grand Central Terminal, until well past midnight. The traffic was heavy, the sidewalks were packed with people, and we felt completely safe.
Friday, November 30, started off at Rockefeller Center to stand in the crowd outside NBC's "Today" program (Nancy Kerrigan was skating in the ice rink). Then we hopped on the subway and headed for lower Manhattan and "Ground Zero" (I hate that name, so henceforth I'll call it "WTC").
The first stop was Saint Paul's Chapel. Built in 1766, it's not only the oldest church building in Manhattan, it's the oldest public building in continuous use in the city. Located across the street from WTC, it was a relief station for the rescue workers after the attack, where they'd eat, drink, and catch a nap. The chapel is surrounded by a iron bar fence, on which people from everywhere had put banners, flags, quilts, poems, missing person fliers, hats, caps, t-shirts, you name it.
It was a scene repeated all around the city. There were similar memorials at Grand Central, Penn Station, and any firehouse in the city. The mood around each was the same - somber, hushed. Conversations that were going on would stop as the people slowed down and passed by, then resumed once they were past.
It was indescribable, anyway to me. But not to a guy doing a great job talking about it on his cell phone. I figured he could be in radio, so I hung around until he was finished. When he hung up, I told him it sounded like he worked for a radio station. He did - he was Kirby Wilbur from KVI in Seattle (my home town and 130 miles away from Wenatchee). Turns out he and his wife were there on a weekend trip as well. Here are the two of us in front of the fence.
Shelley and I walked down to the end of that block, looked to the right, and there it was. This was the view from the corner of Broadway and Fulton Streets.
We stayed there for more than an hour, just looking. I honestly didn't know what to feel. I had been there several months before, only three weeks before 9/11, and it was inconceivable to me that those magnificent towers were now a horrific pile of rubble. I was afraid I'd cry or break down or something like that, but I didn't. I just felt numb, I guess. Shelley called into the morning show on KOZI in Chelan, and started to cry as she described the scene; I called KPQ and mumbled something for the Morning Update.
About a block down, we came upon another view - this is from Broadway and Dey Streets.
The structure to the left of WTC is the Winter Garden, which led into WTC from Battery Park.
(I remember walking through there on a hot, muggy night back in mid-August, during my previous trip there. It was beautiful, gleaming, and empty - it was near midnight. We went out a side door and one of the friends I was with said, "Look up." There was the south tower, going almost as far up into the night sky as I could see. We then walked into the plaza between the two towers, and I couldn't help but think to myself that some idiots had set off a bomb here some years ago, and wondered if anybody was thinking anything up now - and if so, what? I was ashamed of myself for thinking that - I didn't dare say it out loud. Who would've thunk?)
Here's a shot I took the next day from the Circle Line tour boat, it gives a view from the other side, and shows a bit more of the damage.
From there, we started walking toward Wall Street.
The New York Stock Exchange had lit their Christmas tree a couple of nights earlier. We were going to come back at night to take more pictures, but never made it. I hope somebody did - it would make a beautiful Christmas card.
That picture, by the way, was taken from the steps of Federal Hall, just a few feet from where George Washington was inaugurated as President in 1789.
We came across this advertisement at the entrance to a subway station. Its message seemed eerily appropriate:
We then walked back up towards City Hall (which is just a few blocks away from WTC). We caught the subway, and headed uptown to 65th and York Street. It's an area on the East Side where all the major hospital and research facilities are located. Our destination was the Rockefeller University, a private school on the bank of the East River (there are no signs advertising it, and you have to check in at the gate to enter). We were there to meet Dr. Barbara Levine, then the head of the University's Human Nutrition Department and a frequent guest on my show.
Unfortunately, I never got a picture with Dr. Barbara (she owes me!). She had to leave after lunch, so Roy Green, the doctor's public relations specialist, took us around for a tour of the grounds. Here we are overlooking the East River and Roosevelt Island. That's the Queensboro Bridge in the background.
Then it was back to Rockefeller Center for the Radio City Music Hall Christmas Spectacular - something you must see, if only once in your life.
If you're wondering about the people of New York, and if they have changed since 9/11, I'll only tell you that the people Shelley and I encountered throughout our four days there were very nice, polite and smiling. They seemed genuinely happy to see us.
(As to the famed "rudeness" of New Yorkers, I've come to a conclusion after multiple visits there - they're not "rude." They're simply "focused." Life is busy and hectic there, so much more than almost anyplace else, and they have to be fast and laser-like to keep going. It's simply misconstrued as being rude. Now, there are certainly rude and less-than-polite people in NYC - you'll find them in any city. If you have a question, a New Yorker is (usually) glad to answer. If you're genuinely in trouble, they'll bend over backwards to help. But otherwise, they simply keep on, keeping on.)
The rest of the time was spent sightseeing. Saturday, we took the Circle Line boat tour around Manhattan Island the next afternoon. The weather was magnificent, sunshine and 69 degrees - for the first day of December!
The Circle Line tour was the biggest letdown of the trip, and here's why: at more than three hours, it's awfully long, and the last hour or so gets a bit boring because there's not much to see on the northern tip of the island. Also, where you're seated becomes very important if the boat is full. Since the boat travels counter-clockwise around the island, those on the port (or left) side of the boat get the best views of Manhattan, while those on the starboard (or right) side are stuck with great views of New Jersey, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. (One plus on the right side, though: the Statue of Liberty.) What's more, since people moved around to get the best pictures, the boat always tended to lean to the port side, which can make you feel a bit woozy at times.
So here's a tip: save some time and money and take the shorter cruise that doubles back after midtown. It's about an hour shorter, and you get a chance at decent pictures no matter which side of the boat you're on.
Saturday night we took the Gray Line Christmas light tour, sitting on the top level of a double-decker bus passing by all the big attractions in midtown. It was the place to be - the sidewalks of Times Square and Rockefeller Center were jammed, the streets all through midtown clogged with traffic. It seemed as though everyone wanted to shake off the gloom of those last few months, and revel in the mild night air.
Sunday, we went to the top of the Empire State Building (New York's tallest structure once again), and got a great shot of lower Manhattan. The only thing was, something seemed missing.
We headed down that way again afterwards, taking a bus tour of lower Manhattan. Soho, Chinatown, Little Italy, the financial district. With that, we were done - tired, and almost broke. It was back to JFK for the flight home.
Jet Blue was great again - row two seating, no hassles in getting on, and something I had never experienced in a plane before - a continual acceleration from the time we left the gate. Somehow, we were first in line for takeoff - we just went from the gate to the approach, and then...WHOOSH!!
The one picture I wish I could have would be from the plane as we left. As we ascended into the clear night sky, we flew over Brooklyn towards the ocean. I glanced out the window - there was New York, all lit up. I could make out the outline of the coast, the streets below, the people out walking and riding their bikes, the cars moving along, Manhattan in the distance. The city was alive and sparkling like a gleaming jewel.
I wish I had a picture to show you. But then again, as they say, you had to be there.
Text and pictures copyright © 2002-2009 Kenneth I. Johannessen.
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