‘A Day in New York City’

Travel Time with Roger Tweed

I decided to spend this past Halloween in New York City.  It wasn’t the fact that it was Halloween that made me want to go to New York.  It is just that “going to New York for the day” had been something I had told myself that I could do (and would do) once I had retired.  But almost 14 months after I ended my work-a-day life, I somehow hadn’t gotten around to making the trip from the Washington, DC area.

I’m no fan of cold weather, so it was understandable that a trip north had been ruled out for the months from November through April.  And although I had traveled elsewhere and done other things during the other seven months of my retirement to that point, it still nagged at me that I hadn’t taken the train or a plane – I don’t trust the really low fare buses that swarm the highways of the Northeast and besides, too much of a day trip to the Big Apple would be taken up by travel if you were to use the bus – to spend the day experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of New York.  So, with October slipping away from me, I decided to take the plunge.  If I didn’t make the trip by Halloween, I figured that my next chance to get to New York wouldn’t come until after the following Memorial Day.

After checking out the rail and flight schedules, I decided to fly round trip.  American Airlines was offering American Eagle flights to JFK at $59 each way at the time, and not only was this competitive with the then current Amtrak fares, but the travel time would be reduced to 1 hour each way.  The train has the advantage of dropping you off in Manhattan, but I had things I wanted to do on the Brooklyn side, so a JFK arrival would fit my plans very nicely. 

Looking at the calendar, Monday, October 31 seemed to be the only day that would fit my schedule.  And when I read about the 38th Annual Village Halloween Parade scheduled for that evening, the deal was sealed.  Fortunately, American Eagle had a 9:40 pm departure from JFK to Reagan National, so I would at least be able to see the parade participants getting ready, but I would miss the parade itself.

I don’t remember the exact date when I was last in New York City.  It was a business trip where I visited my agency’s offices at 26 Federal Plaza in Lower Manhattan.  I stayed with a college friend at his apartment in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn and took the subway downtown.  I also remember sitting in Battery Park one afternoon and looking out at the Statue of Liberty surrounded by the scaffolding associated with Lady Liberty’s refurbishment.  So, this must have been in the late spring or early summer of 1986 before the Statue’s rededication in July of that year.

Wonder Wheel and Cyclone from Steeplechase Pier

Wonder Wheel and Cyclone from Steeplechase Pier

So, after a 25 year hiatus, what is the first thing I wanted to do once I was back in New York City?  I wanted to see Coney Island and have a hot dog at the original Nathan’s Famous at Stillwell and Surf, of course!  I have seen many documentaries on Coney Island, have eaten Nathan’s hot dogs at other locations, and I have seen the July 4 Hot Dog Eating Contest on ESPN, but had never experienced Coney Island and its wonders for myself.

Next, I went online and reserved a ticket to tour the 911 Memorial at 3:00 on Halloween afternoon.  You should reserve your tour ticket online in advance (the tickets are free, but you will be asked to make a donation, which I did) or risk being shut out from that day’s tour schedule if you try to obtain one of the “same day” tickets handed out at the temporary Visitors Center, which is known as the Preview Site, located on Vesey Street between Broadway and Church.  The 3:00 pm tour time would give me time to ride the subway into Lower Manhattan from Coney Island, and a few minutes to look at the exhibits at the temporary Visitors Center.  These exhibits will move to the permanent Visitor Center at the Memorial site upon its completion and will be greatly expanded.  I would also get my first glimpse of the Occupy Wall Street camp as I walked from the Preview Site to the Memorial Site.

After the 911 Memorial, my plan was to have a half pastrami/half corned beef sandwich for dinner at Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.  This would put me only a few blocks from the Village Halloween parade route up 6th Avenue, and after I visited the parade site and saw the participants getting ready, it would be time to take the subway back to JFK for my flight home.

I had also wanted to visit the Tenement Museum at 103 Orchard Street (enter the Visitor Center at Delancey and Allen), very close to Katz’s, to see the Sweatshop exhibit, but I realized that I just would not have the time to fit that in to my schedule.  Just like the sailors in “On the Town”, I had just one day.  The Tenement Museum would have to wait for my next visit.

On Halloween morning I headed for the Metro carrying just my camera, my NYC map, my 911 Memorial ticket, and my boarding pass for American Eagle #4418 departing DCA at 9:15 am.  My trip to Reagan National was the usual Monday morning commuter experience.  Trains crowded with folks trying not to make eye contact.  The equipment for our flight was a small ERJ manufactured in Brazil.  We took off at 9:26, and just 35 minutes later we were on the ground at JFK!  I think our flight plan was mapped out by a sports fanatic, because three minutes after take off you could see Nationals Park (the home of the Washington Nationals) off to the left.  Within five minutes FedEx Field (home of the Washington Redskins) was in view, and within eight minutes M&T Bank Stadium (home of the Baltimore Ravens) was just below, along with Oriole Park at Camden Yards.  Later on as the flight crossed the Delaware River at Delaware Bay, I saw the Salem Nuclear Power Plant off to the northwest.  A few moments later we were flying over the Atlantic Ocean having left New Jersey just south of what I believe was Ocean City.  The casino towers of Atlantic City came into view shortly thereafter, and then before you knew it Manhattan was just ahead of us on the right.  Now it was time to head east below Long Island to line the aircraft up for the landing at JFK.  Crossing back over land probably just to the east of Long Beach, we touched down at 9:51 am.

The Original Nathan's

The Original Nathan's

Out of the aircraft and through the terminal, it was time to board the Airtrain to take me to the Howard Beach MTA station.  Of course I got on the wrong Airtrain – the one that only circles the terminals and doesn’t go to the MTA stations – causing me to miss the first Howard Beach-bound Airtrain.  But, you have to live and learn.  If you take the Airtrain out of the airport, it costs $5 (paid as you exit at the MTA station), and you can make that payment as part of the purchase of a reusable MTA farecard.  You even get a discount on your farecard for doing so.  I had trouble getting my credit card into the slot in the farecard machine and, with a crowd gathering behind me, a very helpful MTA worker assisted in getting the farecard machine to accept my offering.  None of us who were going into Brooklyn or Manhattan had to be in a hurry, as the next west bound train didn’t show up for 20 minutes.  It was still cold that morning, especially when the winds would blow, so staying on that platform was no treat.  But, eventually the A train arrived and I was off to Jay Street where I would catch the F Train for Coney Island.

Having been a regular commuter on the Washington Metro, I had become accustomed to the very short distances of most typical trips.  So it surprised me how long it took to get from JFK to Coney Island, and from Coney Island to Manhattan.  The New York subway system is very large, with trips of very long distances, more stops in between, and slower train speeds, so when I arrived at Coney Island after noon I realized that transit time was going to be more extensive than I had originally planned.  Timing was going to be critical if I was going to make all my stops before returning to JFK.

You can see the rides at Coney Island and the signs decorating the walls at Nathan’s before you get out of the train at the Coney Island/Stillwell station.  The sight of the Wonder Wheel and the bright yellow, green and red colors of Nathan’s filled me with anticipation along with the feeling that I had finally arrived!  It was supposed to reach 50 degrees in New York on this day, but it was not quite that warm as I emerged from the subway onto Surf Avenue.  The sun was shining, salt and surf smells filled the air, and I made a bee line for Nathan’s.  I ordered one dog with a diet Coke, and after applying the brown mustard I bit into it and was rewarded with the snap of the natural casing and a taste that was somehow better than the Nathan’s dogs I had eaten at any other venue.  When it comes to Nathan’s hot dogs, you have got to come to the source, to the place that Nathan and Ida Handwerker established in 1916!

Parachute Drop from Steeplechase Pier

Parachute Drop from Steeplechase Pier

Taking my soda with me, I walked west on Surf past many of the seasonal shops and arcades that were now closed for the off season.  Then I came to MCU Park at 19th and Surf, the home of the Brooklyn Cyclones.  The Cyclones (named for the famous Coney Island roller coaster) are the New York Mets affiliate in the New York-Penn League (Single A).  The park is located in what was the Steeplechase Park Amusement Park from 1896 to 1964.  The 277 foot tall Parachute Drop tower from the 1939 New York World’s Fair, brought to Steeplechase Park in 1941, still stands along the boardwalk.  Most memorable of the sights I saw at MCU park were the plaques honoring the law enforcement officers, fire fighters, and other emergency personnel who died during 911 that line sections of the east exterior wall of the park, and the statue of Pee Wee Reese putting his arm around his Brooklyn Dodgers teammate Jackie Robinson on April 15, 1947 in Robinson’s debut at Crosley Field in Cincinnati.  Robinson broke the color barrier in major league baseball that day, and was being taunted and cursed by fans in the old stadium.  When Reese, a southerner and the Dodgers Captain, openly displayed not only his acceptance of but also his friendship for his African American teammate it set the course for Robinson and baseball.  It was a huge act of courage on the part of both ballplayers.

Passing through the parking lot of MCU Park, I came to the famous boardwalk.  Off season repairs had already begun and the restrooms/bathhouses were closed.  Some of the food venues were still operating, and a large number of people were sitting on benches in the sun or just strolling down the boardwalk like I was.  I walked out the 700 foot Steeplechase Pier for a good look back at the boardwalk and Coney Island.  I saw some of the largest seagulls I have ever seen perched on the railing waiting for someone among the folks fishing that afternoon to bring something edible out of the ocean.  After seeing several interesting looking buildings, like the Neptune Ballroom, looking off in the distance to the west to see the Statue of Liberty (the only time I would see it on this visit), and getting a close look at the Wonder Wheel and Cyclone, it was time to head back to the subway for my trip to Manhattan and the 911 Memorial.

I stopped at the farecard vending machines to increase my farecard amount, but none of the machines wanted to take a credit card.  Fortunately, I had some $1 bills and a few nickels to feed the machine to give me what I thought to be enough for a few more trips.  Now it was back on the F Train to Jay Street where I would once again board the A train, this time headed for Fulton Street in Manhattan.  As you emerge from Fulton Street station, you walk north up Broadway past St. Paul’s Chapel then turn left on Vesey Street.  The Memorial Preview Site is on your right before you get to Church Street.  If you have reserved your tour ticket but have not yet printed it out, you need to get your ticket (upon showing your identification) at the Preview Site.  Although the Preview Site had some interesting timelines and artifacts, it seemed to me to be geared mostly toward merchandise sales.  If you already have your ticket, you won’t be missing much if you skip the Preview Site.

One World Trade Center

One World Trade Center

I found the directional signage that was supposed to be leading me to the Memorial site to be contradictory and confusing.  But I decided that if I walked toward the towers being built toward the lower end of Manhattan (you can’t miss them) I would eventually arrive at the entry point.  My trek took me past Zuccotti Park on Church Street, the site of the Occupy Wall Street encampment.  Everyone there – the “occupiers”, the police standing by, and the tourists taking in the spectacle – seemed to be in an affable mood.  A bank sign said that it was now 56 degrees, so even though it was overcast in Lower Manhattan, at least it was a warm day.  Turning right on Thames Street and heading toward Greenwich Street, you finally see the entrance to the Memorial at Albany Street.  The entry way is a large serpentine array of fixed stanchions with occasional breaks that can be closed or opened by personnel depending on how backed up the line becomes.  The line is split into twos as you proceed toward the entrance, which is really a processing center where tickets are taken and security checks are made before visitors are allowed to enter the site.  The name on your ticket must match that on your photo identification.  No large bags are allowed at the site, and there is no bag storage available.  There are no restrooms at the Memorial Site.

The site itself is a beautiful open area enclosed on three sides by the new buildings being erected.  The two massive pools fed by 30 foot waterfalls take up the footprint of the two destroyed towers, and the names inscribed on the bronze panels on the parapets surrounding the fountains are those of the people who worked in the respective towers and who perished as a result of the 9/11 attacks and the February 26, 1993 parking garage bombing.  The names of the emergency and law enforcement personnel who responded to the attacks and were killed when the towers collapsed are inscribed on the panels at the south pool, and are listed by their respective agencies.  The passengers and crew of United Flight 93 which crashed near Shanksville, PA are listed on the parapet surrounding the south pool, as are the names of the passengers of American Airlines Flight 77, which crashed into the Pentagon, and the names of those in the Pentagon who perished as a result of the attack.

The “survivor tree”, a Callery Pear that was planted at the World Trade Center site in the 1970s and was found in the rubble after the attacks was replanted just to the west of the south pool prior to the opening of the Memorial Site.  It now stands over 35 feet tall and will be joined by more than 400 swamp oak trees when the memorial is completed sometime in 2014.  One World Trade Center, the 1,776 foot tall building under construction just to the north of the north pool will be the tallest building in the United States, while Four World Trade Center, under construction to the east of the south pool, will be 72 stories and 977 feet tall.

There are electronic displays in the vicinity of each pool so that visitors can find the location of names surrounding each pool.  During my visit I found the name of Todd Beamer, one of the leaders of the passengers’ revolt on Flight 93, at Panel S(outh) 68.  I used the electronic directory to locate William J. Meehan, Jr., who was Chief Market Analyst for Cantor Fitzgerald.  Bill Meehan was a very popular stock market analyst who appeared frequently on CNBC and also regularly contributed to online investment sites like TheStreet.com (now known as “The Street”).  Although I didn’t know Bill personally, I felt a sense of loss when it was reported that he wasn’t heard from after the attacks and was presumed dead.  I had a certain sense of closure seeing his name on Panel N 27.

Panel S-68, 911 Memorial

Panel S-68, 911 Memorial

After viewing the pools, looking at each panel and looking at the site and buildings being erected, it was time to head uptown to Katz’s Delicatessen for dinner.  As I made my way back to Fulton Street Station I passed the detail of New York Police that was about to go on duty at the Occupy Wall Street site being given their instructions by several commanding officers.  At Fulton Street I found that the farecard machines did not like my American Express card, but they did take my MasterCard, and I made my way to the platform to catch the Z train to Delancey Street/Essex Street station.  (I could also have taken the J train from this station).  Fulton Street station is a real subway station in my opinion, concrete platform, gleaming white tile walls, and the station name displayed in colorful tiles along the station walls.  It was so unlike the more modern subway stations I am used to that I just had to take a picture.  A few minutes later I was walking north on Essex Street trying to find Houston.  I asked a traffic officer where “How-ston” Street was, and she confirmed that it was to the north.  As I walked along Essex I noticed that children with their parents had already begun trick or treating.  And I found it interesting that the trick or treaters were visiting the various businesses along Essex Street and emerging with candy!  I turned left on Houston and a block later my eyes caught my first glimpse of the red neon KATZ’S sign.  The same sense of anticipation that I had when I saw Coney Island from the F train came over me again as I was about to enter a place I have wanted to visit for many years!

From the moment I walked through the door, Katz’s was everything I had imagined.  The aroma emanating from the counter alone is worth a trip to New York.  I ordered my half pastrami/half corned beef along with sour pickles.  I wanted to compare this sandwich to the triple decker “Fiddler on the Roof of your Mouth” pastrami/corned beef I had at Ziggy and Moe’s in Houston (pronounced Hew-ston) the previous February.  At Katz’s you get a ticket with your order, and you dare not lose it because your ticket is how you pay your bill on your way out.  If you don’t have your ticket, you might not be able to leave!  I decided to skip the matzo ball soup, and I ordered a bottled iced tea.  I should have gone with Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda instead.

In the main seating area there is a sign suspended from the ceiling above the table where Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal were seated when the very famous scene from “When Harry Met Sally” was filmed.  As the sign says, “Hope you have what she’s having.”  The main seating section was crowded, but there is additional seating in the back and to your right that no one seems to know about.  The rest rooms are also located back there.

My sandwich was fantastic!  Just the right amount of spices in the pastrami and the corned beef literally melted in my mouth.  As good as the sandwich at Ziggy and Moe’s had been, this one was better.  And it was a good thing that I had decided against the matzo ball soup, because when I finished the sandwich I was full!

Fulton Street Station

Fulton Street Station

Now it was getting close to 6 pm, and I needed to hurry down Houston to 6th Avenue to catch the preparations for the Village Halloween Parade.  New Yorkers are known to have a flair for the dramatic, and their Halloween costumes, at least the costumes being worn by those who were going to participate in the parade and even those who were just going to line the parade route, were elaborate.  Every woman I saw who was dressed as a witch went well beyond just wearing a pointed hat.  The exposed flesh (hands, face, ankles) of each was green just like Margaret Hamilton’s in “The Wizard of Oz”.  I didn’t see any half-hearted attempts, like sticking your head through a bed sheet and calling yourself a ghost, among this crowd.  The costumes all looked professional, as did the make up jobs.  New Yorkers take this parade seriously.  As I got to 6th Avenue, the Police had cleared the parade route.  I took side streets to get to Broome Street, the beginning of the parade area, and stood in a sea of costumed potential paraders who were lining up waiting for the parade to begin at 7 pm.  But alas, I would not be able to stay for the official start of the festivities.

Satisfied that I had gotten a taste of what the parade would be like, and knowing that I had a plane to catch at JFK, I headed back east toward the Delancey/Essex station.  Street closures and crowds meant that I could not simply retrace my route.  I found myself going further south through SOHO and even entering Chinatown and Little Italy, places I hadn’t been since the late 1970s.  At one point I looked up Lafayette Street and caught a glimpse of the lights of the Chrysler Building (my favorite skyscraper) in the distance to the north.  Finally, I came to Essex and was able to retrace my steps back to Delancey/Essex Station for the long J Train ride to the Sutphin Boulevard/Archer Avenue/JFK Airport station and the Airtrain to JFK.  It took about 50 minutes to get out to the Sutphin/Archer/JFK station.  Some passengers who were getting on in Brooklyn were obviously going to Halloween parties.  Folks seemed to be in a festive mood all in all.  At the Airtrain entrance I made sure my fare card had a least $5 on it and then passed through the fare gate to the train platform.  In what seemed like no time, I was back at the American Eagle concourse at JFK boarding my flight for Reagan National.

Like my flight that morning, the aircraft was another small ERJ.  But unlike the flight that morning, the trip took 53 minutes from the time the plane left the ground to the time it touched the runway at Reagan.  I have no idea why the trip south would have taken so much longer.

With my Metro ride back home, my day in New York was now officially over.  I really enjoyed being able to see sites that I had dreamed of seeing for many years, seeing the 911 Memorial for the first time, getting caught up in the Village Halloween Parade, and finally getting to taste a Nathan’s dog at the source and experience Katz’s Deli.  All in one day!  Of course, New York is full of sights to see, and one day cannot even begin to scratch the surface.  But now that I know how a visit to New York can be accomplished in one day, I will be putting together many more such trips in the years to come.  Just don’t look for me in New York City between Halloween and Memorial Day.