It was an absurd trip to agree to. One day in Manhattan is not close to enough. But one day is better than none. So for the same reasons we went to Rome and Paris for one day, we went to New York.
My son, Fox, is 9. A perfect age for the city. Manhattan is his oyster.
Manhattan is also mine. I grew up in and out of the city and my memories are well etched. I couldn’t wait to show him the city I loved at his age. To breathe it in with him.
We flew for a day and arrived late.
His first yellow cab ride. A late night dinner of a massive pile of greasy pasta at the nearest diner, before collapsing into bed on the 19th floor.
“Welcome to the city, kid! Make sure to jump high, a few seconds before the elevator stops. See? You can fly!”
The warm metallic air wafts up from the subway grates. The din of horns and bus brakes are a soundtrack on a decades long loop. At every midtown corner the salty pretzels are slightly burnt. The smell is wonderful and terrible at the same time.
In many ways the city is the same, exactly the same, as it lives in my memory.
We begin our tour at Grand Central Station.
I want the element of surprise so I lead Fox in from one of the nondescript side entries. The walk thru underground corridors is long and boring. He complains. “Where are we going?” and “How much longer?”
I flick open the camera on my phone so it’s ready when we finally emerge in the terminal, and it’s worth it.
His “Whoa” lasts for a full 60 seconds. He counts the constellations and names the gods painted on the ceiling. I’m sure it’s been renovated since I last saw it. I don’t remember it being this lovely shade of robin’s egg blue.
Then it’s time to play my other card.
“Come downstairs,” I tell Fox. “We’ll get lunch at Shake Shack and I’ll show you something really cool. Go stand in the corner, over there by the Oyster Bar. Now lean in with your ear. Listen. I will go to the opposite side and whisper a message to you.”
I am still ridiculously delighted by this trick of sound. My son is too.
I’m the cool mom. Not a moment I have long to bask in. The city is already waking from a catnap, stretching in the afternoon sun.
Visiting Superman’s office is a happy accident. We cannot resist popping into the Daily News building to gawk at the giant globe.
Then off to Bryant Park, and my father’s former MadMen workplace. How many times did I make the trek up from Penn Station to visit him?
As we pass by, I remember I used to imagine myself roller skating down the curved facade of the Grace building. I’m not sure why I imagined myself skating sideways. I also dream skated through the Holland Tunnel, looping up and over the cars.
“Pop-pop had a pair of binoculars and I would sit way up there in that office, on the corner, spying on people down here in Bryant Park,” I told Fox. ”Sometimes Pop pop would give me $20. That was a lot of money back then! He’d tell me to go shopping but stay below 50th and above 42nd street. Not more than one block from Madison, either direction. That was my grid. No going off the grid!”
Fox doesn’t get my joke, but that’s ok.
“I didn’t go far,” I confess, ” I was scared I’d get lost. I liked to sit on the steps of the Library, and watch people.”
There is an excellent exhibit on children’s books inside the New York Public Library and we linger, a little sad we can’t stay longer and read to the ghosts. The library conspires to hold us. Departure is a dare. The brass revolving door spins alarmingly fast, a warp speed blur of humans both coming and going. Fox bravely goes first, then me. One deep breath for courage before getting spit back out on the street.
Dusk colors the sky purple and the buildings golden. Time to stand in line for discount Broadway show tickets. Times Square is just waking up now, costumed characters crawling out from under city rocks.
It’s a short walk to the theater. Enough time to pat the horses along the way.
Our seats are for Cinderella. Midnight strokes. Ball drops, before we know it our fever dream of a trip will be over as well .
But not yet. Still more to do! Times Square after dark. A late meal. A group selfie with an urban aunt and uncle.
At midnight, ignoring the hour, we head south towards the Empire State Building.
It’s perfect night for our two elevator trip up to the 86th floor. This late, there are no crowds, no long lines. The viewing platforms stay open till 2am. My son pretends he is Percy Jackson, and asks to be taken to the 600th floor.
City lights sparkle, strung out like jewels for miles. The bridges are spiky tiaras, crowning the horizon.
“There’s the Chrysler Building, the Flat Iron building, the Freedom Tower, and Lady Liberty in the water!” We pick things out. We point, shiver, and look together.
Just a few short hours later we fly home. Awake in California, I wonder if I had a dream. I can still almost smell the pretzels. I can roller skate all the way back in my mind.