Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Suzanne and Abigail's Amazing Adventure


My daughter Abigail and I took a long-awaited trip to New York this summer. Due to receiving a small inheritance and passing the half century mark, I decided we would celebrate by going on a trip! We decided to go to New York, since my daughter really wanted to see it, and then to Lancaster County in Pennsylvania, because I like the country, and then we finished by visiting relatives in the Pittsburgh area where I grew up (go Steelers!).

We drove out to Pittsburgh (really Bethel Park) to stay one night in my mother's house, and then drove on to New York. The Indiana and Ohio turnpike are rather flat until you get to eastern Ohio, and the blue hills of Pennsylvania start to loom in the distance. This is always the most exciting part of the trip for me, the part when I feel like I'm finally home. I've lived in Chicago more years than I lived in Pennsylvania, but I still call Pennsylvania home!

The Pennsylvania turnpike is a different story. I had only been on it as a child and teenager, when vacationing out East with my family. I didn't pay much attention to the scenery then, since it was all I knew. It's a very different experience as an adult. The PA turnpike is wild and lonely-looking, and resembles a scene out of Lord Of The Rings. The road curves almost constantly, and most of the time you are either going through or around a mountain. The thick forest is a constant companion, and the turns afford spectacular views of the countryside and occasional farmland. The scenery is entertaining enough, much better than the sleep-inducing flatlands of Indiana and Ohio.


We stayed in New Jersey for the week, having found a decent rate at Studio 6, an offshoot of Motel 6, which offers small suites instead of basic motel rooms. It was very affordable and saved us a bundle on meals.

New Jersey has one of the most bizarre highway systems I've ever seen! The motel where we stayed was very close to the New Jersey Turnpike, on a state highway. We got off the turnpike at the proper exit, and began searching for the motel. There it was, right on the other side of the highway. We went to the next intersection, which did not allow a left turn. Several intersections later, I saw a sign on the right that said all turns must be made from the right lane. So I moved over to the right lane, no mean feat on this very busy unfamiliar highway, and drove to the next intersection, which had a sign that stated "No turns"!! A few more intersections later, I finally noticed a poorly marked sign that said U-turn. Apparently on this highway, the only way to make any kind of turn was to find an ill-marked access lane to the right, usually before the traffic light, but not always, (just to continue the confusion, I suppose) and make your turn from there. So I finally got to make a U-turn, but ended up passing the Motel 6, having to make another U-turn (which was the last one in East Brunswick - if you missed it, you had to go to North Brunswick to turn), and take the access lane, which crossed the highway again and led to the back of the motel. It was an hour from the time I first spotted the motel until I pulled into the parking lot. (On the opposite side of the highway was a Days Inn, which I swore I would stay at next time, just because it was on the right side of the road.


The next day we took our first trip in to New York City. We took a local train from Edison, NJ to Penn Station. We skimmed by houses, fields, marshes, and finally entered a tunnel, at which point the air took on a dank, watery smell. We must have been under the river. After deboarding, we climbed a very narrow staircase with our fellow passengers up into the station. I made a mental note which exit we had come from so we could find our way back that evening.

I had printed out some maps of NYC before leaving home. I was thankful that I had them with me. NYC is laid out rather logically (the Lower East Side is exactly that) but having a map of the neighborhoods helps out a lot. Penn Station is at the midway point, if I remember correctly, in Manhattan. After we walked a few blocks the wrong way, we asked for directions to Times Square. A passerby told us it was about 14 blocks away. (BTW, all the people we talked to in New York were very friendly - not at all the rude stereotype). Now. in Chicago, 14 blocks is almost two miles. Abigail and I had already walked what appeared to be about 5 or 6 blocks on our map, but it wasn't a long distance at all. Abigail and I walked our 14 blocks to Times Square, which I think must have been the equivalent of about 5 or 6 Chicago blocks.

NYC is very, very loud. Everywhere. The stores blare loud music, and even the Starbucks, (most of which in Chicago are havens of peace and quiet, where yuppies and boomers alike work and read) played music so loud that we could hardly hear each other speak. Times Square is a hodgepodge of tourists, large and impressive flagship stores and street performers. It's several blocks long, though not too big to walk. We saw the Hershey's store, M & M store (you can see where my interests lie), the Toys 'R' Us store, which actually has a 3-story tall ferris wheel in its atrium and the largest revolving door I've ever seen, which unfortunately got stuck when my daughter and I tried to pass through it. (The doors were so wide and large that we were able to dart out back inside the store when it got stuck.)

I also found out that New York is very, very expensive. I knew that the cost of living is higher than other parts of the country, but the prices were amazing! We ate dinner at a TGIF in Times Square, and the price of a soft drink was $4.95, which would have cost less than $2.00 in Chicago.

While wandering around in Times Square, a gentleman on the street sold us some tickets to a comedy club performance for that evening. After I expressed some skepticism about the validity of the tickets, he was able to convince me they were genuine (apparently, this is a common practice in NYC. After buying my tickets, I saw a couple more street vendors selling similar items). The comedy club was taping for a performance on cable, so I bought the tickets. We wandered around a bit after dinner, killing time until the 9:00 p.m. performance, and then headed to the theater, a little hole-in-the-wall place off Broadway. Like other old cities, a lot of the streets in New York are very narrow, and the east-west streets seem like little more than alleys, except the taxis zip down them at an alarming pace. (While trying to navigate and cross the streets without being killed, I kept vaguely wondering why the cars drove so fast up and down alleys, until I actually looked up and saw the street sign, and realized it was a real street, not an alley). After arriving at the theater, we were escorted with some other people down a narrow staircase to a basement stage with some tables and chairs set up in front of it. I told Abigail going to basement theater is a very New York thing to do. Most of the comedians were very funny, with only the last one being so blue I looked askance at my daughter. A lot of them talked about their religious life, without being profane, something that surprised me. (Typical joke: I'm Southern Baptist, so I told my girlfriend if she got pregnant, I would have to kill her!)

Afterwards, we hied ourselves down to Penn Station so we could catch our train in time, to get back to New Jersey. Another uneventful ride, thank goodness.


The next day we went to the Jersey shore. I wanted my daughter to see the ocean at least once in her life. When I was a teenager my family and I vacationed several times in a beautiful little Delaware town called Fenwick Island. I was enchanted by the laid back beach culture and fell in love with the ocean itself. It is so big, so mysterious. so powerful. It's a very good thing to see the ocean.

We drove to a small town called Seaside Park. The day was overcast and misty, which kept the sand from being too hot, and gave some interesting views of the water. But, oh the glorious sound of the waves, the salt tang in the air! I waded in the water and finally convinced Abigail to try it - the enormous waves made her nervous. She became so comfortable that she waded far out enough to let a wave knock her over - on purpose! After rinsing and lots of brushing sand off of ourselves, we went to a local restaurant where I enjoyed a lobster dinner - yum! - though I was embarrassed by my soaking wet jeans, which were damp in spite of rolling them up while wading, and smelled a little salty.

The next day I was tired, so we stayed at the motel, and only went out for dinner. The weather forecast had called for some rain, but late in the afternoon I was horrified to discover that a tornado had touched down in Brooklyn!!! My boyfriend called me soon after I learned of the tornado, and told me that the news were saying that the transit system was a total wreck in NYC. Apparently, several of the subway lines were under water, so the buses and other trains were swamped with people. The police were at Penn Station, the station we had arrived and departed from two days before, for crowd control. I was very thankful indeed that we had not gone into the city that day.


While searching for weather-related news stories online, I discovered that the train we had taken from New Jersey on Monday had broken down on Sunday while in the tunnel, and had to be evacuated. So I searched for a different means of transportation, and decided upon the Staten Island ferry, which was already on our to-do list because it provides some great views of the Statue of Liberty. We drove to Staten Island, crossing a very long, high bridge to do so, and parked at the ferry station. Staten Island is a very pleasant little suburb, older looking and very hilly, and reminded me a bit of Pittsburgh suburbs. The ferry runs very frequently and is free. We waited with a group of people in the station, and boarded when called. The ferries have several decks available, and we chose an upper one so we could see the bay. The lower decks have coffee shops in an inner area with windows, and also have outdoor seating near the railings. There is ample seating for all. The ferry trip was quick and uneventful. The only sounds were the lapping of the water and the conversation of other passengers. What a pleasant, peaceful way to start a workday.

After deboarding at the ferry station and managing to annoy the locals by not figuring out the Metro Card machine, we proceeded to what is known as the Lower East Side. Vendors of souvenirs and all things New York crowded the sidewalks. We bought a couple of things, inquired our way of a local bus driver who was very helpful, and managed to find our way to Central Park.

Central Park has a very distinctive look to it, which I can't quite put my finger on, but since our return, whenever I have seen it on TV or the movies, I have always been able to recognize it. It is much bigger than it appears on a map. There were a lot of people out, joggers, casual strollers, tourists, families, and people playing sports etc. We stopped to watch a group of people filming a scene, possibly for a commercial or print ad and stayed until the people in charge shooed away the large group of spectators. We had arrived on the east side of the Park, and wandered through to the Tavern On The Green, an upscale restaurant with outdoor and indoor seating, where we enjoyed a lovely, albeit expensive meal. (When the busboy arrived to pour our water, I was asked if I wanted some Fiji water, which I of course opted for, having tasted it before. They brought a liter bottle and poured it into a glass, and left the bottle with me. Afterwards, I was horrified to find that the bottle cost $8.00!!! So, after we finished, I poured what I hadn't drunk into the bottle, and took it with me. You can tell we're from Chicago!) There were carriage drivers waiting outside the restaurant after we left, but it was just too expensive, so we continued our stroll through the Park to the west side. Abigail had been longing for a portrait done by a street artist, so we stopped at a group of them made up primarily of Asian gentlemen, and got her portrait done. She is a good subject since she is so pretty! Afterwards we strolled down Fifth Ave. and then took a taxi to the ferry station, and had another peaceful journey across the bay.

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