Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Sightseeing in NYC: Expect the Unexpected

There is nothing like seeing New York through the eyes of someone discovering it for the first time. As a bonus I learn something new about the city each time I eagerly volunteer to play tour guide in my old hometown.

Grand Central Terminal. Photo: Jason Paris

On Sunday, I waited for a friend by the Grand Central Terminal clock, that classic meeting place. She was visiting for the first time. As I waited I plotted a day sure to "wow" her but New York had it own ideas - it was determined to play host in its own special way.

First, the announcement: "There is no train service in or out of Grand Central Terminal due to signal problems" And then laughably, "Sorry for the inconvenience." Oh no! Our perfect day was off to a terrible start! My directions to Grand Central for Sophie, an artist with a preference for the great outdoors rather than the chaos of big cities, hadn't included any details about how to navigate detours into Manhattan.

An hour later there was Sophie, all smiles, her curls bouncing above the crowds of tension filled travelers that were now gathered in the terminal waiting for service to resume. I was awed by her ease and positive spirit in what I'd imagined as a stressful situation but as it turns out New York had taken that unusual twist in the day and shaped it into a welcome adventure. Fellow travelers had invited Sophie to share a cab ride into the city, accompanied her on the subway ride to Grand Central and kept an entertaining conversation about Manhattan going the entire time. Way to make an excellent first impression, New York! I was so proud of my city.

We walked Fifth Avenue chatting, making our first stop the Eloise painting at The Plaza Hotel - fun for us fans of children's literature - then we crossed into Central Park at 59th Street. There came the next surprise - swarms of Red Admiral butterflies, beginning their migration south five weeks early and in the greatest number on record, turning ordinary bushes and bright t-shirts worn by visitors into colorful displays of nature. It was as if the city knew Sophie was a nature girl and was determined to impress. Ten extra points and special mention as "Host with the Most" to our town for that delightful surprise!

Photo by Stig Nygaard

We made our way along Central Park's Literary Walk to Bethesda Terrace, people-watching and pausing to watch a magic show. A Christian band played Grateful Dead-like tunes at The Naumburg Bandshell. The sun brightened an already lively scene at Bethesda Fountain where nearby row boats dotted the lake.

We explored The Rambles, enjoying the bird sanctuary it has become over the past decade and Sophie marveled at the peaceful setting in the middle of Manhattan. We climbed rocks just downhill from the 77th Street exit near The American Museum of Natural History to find the perfect spot for a Central Park South skyline view. Right on cue a friendly Upper West Sider appeared with two beautiful Golden Retrievers. I couldn't have planned the moment any better for my friend who is looking to adopt a Golden. Pleasant conversation and lots of useful information about dogs later, we were on our way to Lincoln Center. Another friendly interaction with a random New Yorker had proven yet again what few out-of-towners believe: New Yorkers are friendly and helpful. The city was just showing off now, I laughed, so happy with my city's successful efforts to be at its best in front of company.

Photo by Stig Nygaard

The short walk from park to cultural icon became a highlight of the day because it offered a peek at the pleasures of ordinary life in the city instead of another look at postcard, movie set Manhattan. I loved seeing the effect the pretty Upper West Side brownstones, with their stoops and curved windows lined with flower pots, had on Sophie. Neighbors stopping to chat or sitting with the Sunday Times and a coffee on a bench were welcome sights that seemed to whisper, "See, it's not all rushing and noise in the city." I didn't need to explain the scene. New York seemed to be doing just fine on its own.


After Lincoln Center we jumped into a banged-up taxi. Here New York decided to inject a bit of adreneline into what had become a soothingly ideal Sunday. From the first moment it was speeding, near misses, lunges, dead stops and screeching breaks all the way to the West Village. We exited onto the quiet charm of West 10th Street grateful to have survived. The city had delivered what almost every visitor expects - the scary cab ride story. Well done, NYC!


Photo by Stig Nygaard

We zig-zagged charming little streets and popped in and out of tiny boutiques to reach Soho where a dashing Italian tourist/model/body-builder chatted us up near Dean & DeLuca. He was so tan, so groomed, so stylized that he seemed almost pretend, as if New York had pulled him out of thin air just for giggles. And we did then headed toward Little Italy.

We enjoyed one of the worst meals with some of the worst service along with some good wine at a perfect table. Our table was positioned right at one of the busiest, most colorful corners of Little Italy. It was like being at a crossroad between best and funniest, craziest and most entertaining. A physical representation of life in the city where everything that is greatest and least desirable about living comes at you in a rush all of the time. I couldn't have crafted a better synopsis of New York if I had tried. Once again, the city was proving it needed no assistance from me to make an impression.

Photo by Stig Nygaard

In Chinatown, Sophie led me past a ragged metal door into a shadowy alley. Beyond it was a maze of buildings beneath a patch of sky criss-crossed by crowded clotheslines. I'd been to Chinatown countless times and had never seen anything like it. Next she walked us into a nearby park to watch traditional Chinese music being performed and tradtional games being played by groups of elderly residents of the neighborhood. It reminded my of another great pleasure of sharing the city with a first-time visitor - the joy of following their curiosity and discovering something unexpected.

Photo by Stig Nygaard

Views from Brooklyn Bridge and sunset along Wall Street and later the East River capped a lovely Sunday during which New York had played the role of tour guide masterfully. Back at the Grand Central Terminal clock, where we said our goodbyes, Sophie offered me the best compliment I could ever hope to receive. "I've seen highlights of New York but today I feel like you've shown me the heart and soul of the city." It was a beautiful statement that flooded me with happy but all the credit belonged to New York. Afterall, it had been the city taking the lead and guiding us from one highlight to another all along.

  Photo by Stig Nygaard