It’s funny how a few song lyrics can sum up an experience, evoke a memory, or even become a mantra representing a special time or trip. Early on the morning of May 30, when alarms sang out the 5 am wakeup call in approximately 25 houses across Walker County, someone should have told the morning DJs that we all needed to hear Sinatra.
“Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today
I want to be a part of it
New York, New York.”
We may have awakened in different homes across the county, but we were all a part of a large travel group ready to hit the ground running. Our destination – New York City. The song on the alarm could have summed it all for us.
“These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it
New York, New York.”
That morning I met 31 other people at Birmingham’s Shuttlesworth Airport, boarded a 737 that whisked us north to the city that never sleeps, and that afternoon we were literally singing in the rain as we bounded up 46th Street to 6th Avenue on our way to an early dinner.
No umbrellas, no rain goulashes, just hopeful attitudes and much anticipation. We were ready “to be a part of it,” rain and all. The drenched denizens stared at our silly antics and wet hair, but we just smiled as we passed. By the time we reached our destination, Junior’s Deli for that world famous cheesecake, the rain had stopped and we had forgotten about the rain-drenched clothes that clung to our bodies.
With our bellies were full, our hearts longed to explore.
Our first exploration was a discovery we made on the tarmac back in Birmingham as we awaited the “ok” for takeoff. A travel brochure tucked in the seat pocket revealed a bucket list of “to-dos” and “must sees” in NYC. So, we descended below the concrete jungle and the subway zipped us to Manhattan.
As we ascended the stairs and rounded the corner, there she was — the bridge that inspired poetry from greats such as Hart Crane, Harold Bloom, and Walt Whitman, the same bridge daredevils stunted from and some men lost their lives — The Brooklyn Bridge.
We traversed the promenade en masse as the sun set behind the stunning arc of the bridge that spans the East River connecting the two boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Our 1200 steps from one end of the bridge to the other along the wide-wood plank pedestrian walkway elevated above the traffic highlighted the evening. Even the occasional ringing bell from impatient bikers didn’t spoil the excitement evoked by those gothic-inspired stone pylons and intricate lacework of steel-cable webs.
“I have always dreamed of visiting New York for as long as I can remember,” recent graduate Calah Burton was telling the four or five people walking next to her. “I can’t believe this beautiful view from the Brooklyn Bridge. I want a picture of everything — the skyline, the Statue of Liberty, all these locks of love, the bridge. I don’t want to forget any of this. I have fallen in love with the big city.”
The evening sunlight bending through the dust and pollution on the horizon formed a spectacular optical phenomenon that only enhanced the beautiful backdrop provided by the New York skyline which included the Freedom Tower and the Statue of Liberty. Of course we all stopped for a variety of group pictures.
Whitman’s words about the Brooklyn Bridge claiming the scene is “the best, most effective medicine my soul has yet partaken” could easily have been etched in those pink and purple and blue hues in the clouds to sum up the perfect ending to our first evening.
The next days took us full force through both upper and lower Manhattan. We tramped several miles during our first night in the city, and our “vagabond shoes” were “longing to stray.” Central Park divides upper and lower Manhattan, and we stopped to (literally) smell the roses in the French and English Gardens. We brunched in Little Italy, bought goods from Chinese vendors in Chinatown, and hopped on a boat for a harbor cruise around the tip of Manhattan to see the Brooklyn Bridge from below.
“This is a trip like no other,” decided Tracey Garner who accompanied her daughter Elizabeth on her senior trip. “New York City is such an electric city with so much history. And of course it is definitely a shopper’s dream with three- and four-story department stores, Tiffany’s and the original Macy’s.”
We had seen the city from below on the harbor cruise, from the height of the Brooklyn Bridge, and now we would gaze into the expanse across Central Park and take in a bird’s eye view from above. The ascension to the observation deck felt more like the Rockin’ Roller Coaster at Disney than an elevator inside the Empire State Building.
We were laughing from the 0 to 60 ride to the 86th floor when the doors opened and we stepped into the setting afternoon sun. We never imagined the breathtaking view this world famous landmark has to offer.
Of course photos were essential and we were all snapping them. During the photo sessions with the New York skyline as our backdrop, Elizabeth exclaimed, “Everywhere we go there is something new that just takes my breath away, and this view is astounding.”
As I looked around and saw the memories everyone was making on the observation deck of the Empire State Building, I knew it was the perfect time to add a musical number to enhance the experience. From my cell phone Jay-Z and Alicia Keys belted “Empire State of Mind.”
“That’s perfect!” Erin Holly exclaimed as she sang along, “There’s nothin’ you can’t do, Now you’re in New York, These streets will make you feel brand new, Big lights will inspire you.”
Before the song ended, we were all singing its lyrics along with the “new Sinatra” (as Jay-Z refers to himself).
“New York is ours for the taking,” Erin continued. “There’s just something about New York that gives you the confidence to overcome obstacles. A place to become anything you want and be whoever you want to be. There’s nowhere else like it.” As Erin was speaking these words, she had no idea that later that night in Times Square, we would feel even more inspiration from those bright lights.
Awe and admiration filled those first several days and nights in the big city, and excitement and lots and lots of lights dominated the next nights. But before we could head to Times Square, we had to eat.
Five of us had searched for a Sushi Bar for four days before we found Sushi Zen. We weren’t really dressed appropriately for the plush restaurant. It was after five and many locals clad in business suits were enjoying happy hour. Our shorts, t-shirts, and flip-flops gave away our touristy-ness. The tall, elegant Asian hostess reluctantly sat us at the bar and not in the back quaint dining area.
However, the local sitting next to us wasn’t offended at all. Rather he was intrigued.
“Hi, I’m Van Thorne. I’m guessing you all are from the South.” As soon as we began to speak, anyone within earshot knew we were from the South. They just didn’t know which state. Even though he was finishing his sushi, he took extra time to help us decide which selections from the menu were best, he suggested the perfect combination with wasabi, and he enjoyed hearing all about the “touristy places” we had visited. This Managing Director for MetLife may have been a New Yorker, but he left in true gentleman style.
As we waited for our tickets that would total more than $150, the hostess who had seated us earlier approached and told us the gentleman sitting with us had picked up our tab and we were free to go sans bill. We were stunned and more than grateful.
The song lyrics from earlier still floated in our heads as we sang and talked about the sushi. We were meeting others from our group and heading toward the energy given off by those brightest of lights – the ones from Times Square.
We stepped out into Times Square, that brilliantly illuminated hub of the city that is tucked into the heart of the Broadway Theater District. It is a busy pedestrian block party surrounded by flashing lights, enormous colorful billboards, and busy side streets full of yellow cabs. It reeks of truck exhaust and cigarette smoke. Of pizza bars and hot asphalt. The deafening noise of rescue sirens blares constantly. Yet the bright lights and boisterous laughter shout there are fun times on every corner.
“The trucks and noise don’t bother me,” Tyler Fikes explained as a fire truck blaring sirens zipped past us. “I love the big city life and roaming the streets in Times Square.”
This was our last night in New York, and the energy in the city fueled our group’s desire for something special. American Eagle provided that opportunity. Erin entered the store and found the cameraman. Within ten minutes Jaxon Aaron, Brett Walton, Josh Duggar, Tyler, Capen Aaron, Morgan Kilpatrick, Kaylie Denny, Erin, and I found ourselves striding from the store to the gigantic billboard in the heart of Times Square. We had been chosen to enjoy “15 seconds of fame.”
As we waited for our moment of fame, we all giggled with excitement and kept our phones ready to document our success. As soon as our picture appeared larger than life on that digital screen, Jaxon turned to the other guys and said, “I really thought this trip would make me feel like a tourist, but being on this billboard in the center of Times Square makes this the trip of a lifetime. Sharing it with you guys makes the trip more than I could have imagined.”
Every 30 minutes that night, all of Times Square saw our faces high above the busy hub on the American Eagle billboard.
From my first visit in 2008, New York City has pulled on my heart. I didn’t know if it was the energy of the night or the pace of big city life that matched my pulse or the history of so many whispering to me, but I felt compelled to return with this wonderful group. And, I will return, soon.
As our group slowly walked the hall to our plane bound for Bama, I played the song one last time. The last lyrics summed up our New York experience, “One hand in the air for the big city, Street lights, big dreams, all lookin’ pretty, No place in the world that could compare, Put your lighters in the air, Everybody say yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” 78
This is PART 1 of a 5-PART story