It was 4 am, our planned arrival time so as to avoid the infamous traffic. My eyesight is very poor for nighttime driving so I was calling out the turn by turn directions to my daughter, Toni, who was driving. It was drizzling for the first time on the trip, and the moisture was creating smears across the windshield that added yet another dimension to our fear of the unknown. After leaving the safety of the well-lit and nearly vacant Lincoln Tunnel, we were making our way into the lane we needed for a turn, two tenths of a mile ahead, when a car stopped right in front of us.
Driving somewhere we are comfortable or familiar with, this would not have been a situation to cause us alarm. But our well laid out plans of arrival time turned out not to have been such great plans after all. The streets were no less crowded than they were in the daytime in the “city that never sleeps”. We were literally stuck in the traffic behind this stopped car with a never ending barrage of taxis, limousines and the occasional “normal” cars zooming by, all of whom would blare their horns as they made their way around these two cars just sitting there in the right lane!
But the streets weren’t the only things that were packed with traffic. People were everywhere! Loud and boisterous people, who were screaming and motioning to anyone he or she could get the attention of. After having just traveled the long, dark quietness of the New Jersey Turnpike, this sudden change had us quite a bit on the edge of our nerves. And in the midst of all this, I looked up and saw the largest horse I had ever saw in my life! Forgetting that some of the New York City Police Dept use horses on duty, this beautiful, huge animal had my undivided attention and I wasted no time in speaking my mind on this matter to Toni.
It is at this point that I was brought back to reality quite suddenly, as she screamed at me “I don’t care about the stupid horse, help me get out of this mess!” Let me say here that my daughter is extremely careful over her car. She routinely checks for scratches and nicks and is a professional now at what products work best to remove them. In traffic, she is so nervous that her car is going to be hit by other traffic, that if possible, she has someone else drive, namely me. This night that was impossible due to my blindness and here she sits in front of me scared to death!About this time, someone knocks on the window next to me! We turn to see a group of guys walking beside the car. Toni and I just sit and stare at each other. The guy keeps knocking until he finally reaches the back of the car and leaves. This was all it took for Toni to force her way out from behind the car and its rude driver.
The next step on our road trip map of directions would have had us turning right onto a one way street – going left! So we had to do some calculating of our own to back track a street and finally arrive at our hotel on the East River. But upon finding it, where were we to park the car? The streets were lined with tall buildings and sidewalks – no parking places. Directly beside the hotel we spotted the entrance to a parking garage so we stopped there and Toni waited in the car while I went in to get us registered.
Everything went smoothly for me. The hotel had our late arrival noted on our reservations and I was quickly and efficiently given our room card keys and told to unload our luggage and leave it with the attendant in the lobby while we drove behind and beneath the hotel to the parking basement. I felt relief! We had finally made it safely and were within moments of a place to rest! When I got to the car and began telling Toni to help me with the luggage, again she didn’t want to hear anything I had to say! “Just get in the car” she repeatedly told me with such a sense of desperation that I finally just gave up on the luggage and got in. She said there was a man who had walked around the car several times and was standing over to the side watching us. As I spotted the stranger, the dread of hauling our heavy luggage all the way to our room suddenly diminished as we made our way to the basement.
Little did we know we were in for yet another unanticipated initiation to the city. The parking attendant spoke or understood no English. We were met with a waving motion of his arms and we thought he was telling us to park the car. After creeping slowly through the first level of the basement and finding no empty spaces we proceeded to the lower level only to find the same problem. Cars were parked three deep with what appeared to be less than an inch between them. We made our way back to the attendant and he greeted us with more waving, a ceaseless stream of “sounds” we couldn’t understand and finally a simple, quiet hands up signal to STOP. He motioned for our car keys, took them and opened the trunk, motioned for us to remove our luggage, gave us a claim ticket and waved us towards the exit.
With Toni feeling great trepidation about having just turned her car over to a complete stranger, we were finally on our way to our room. We had a corner suite on the 16th floor and upon arriving we immediately raised the shades on the almost floor to ceiling windows that encompassed all but one wall of the room. The side windows overlooked the double-decked Queensborough Bridge and overhead trolley that carried passengers back and forth to Roosevelt Island. The windows across the front of the room faced the city. The view was breathtaking. The lights of the enormous city reflecting on the water of the river cast beautiful prisms of every color imaginable. We sat staring, trying to calm ourselves from the shock to our systems that we had just experienced for the past hour. Exhaustion finally took over as we both fell asleep considering an early checkout and a return to less threatening, more familiar surroundings.
We awoke around 11 am, knowing that we had missed the checkout if we were seriously planning on high-tailing it home. Instead of making a final decision on whether to stay or leave, we decided on what we would most like to see in one day and set out on the adventure of actually getting there. Driving was not an option, and our destination was Ground Zero, the site of the World Trade Centers, over six miles away. We set out on foot. We had walked almost a mile when we came upon Bloomingdale’s. Naturally we wanted to go in this famous store along with what seemed to be everyone else in the city. This store is so huge one would have to actually visit it to understand. There are many different floors with many different elevators and escalators, all of which looked the same and was a fact we failed to notice until we started trying to exit. Our mistake was in not noting which entrance we had entered by. We couldn’t find our way out! A clerk noticed our exasperated confusion and pointed us to an exit, any exit, at this point we just wanted out!
We should have clarified our exit wishes more clearly because the exit she directed us to was directly into – were we country bumpkins ready for this? – the subway! Yes, we needed transportation to Ground Zero, but now? Were we brave enough to tackle the subways yet? Feeling trapped, we once again had no choice but to do as the New Yorkers do – take a subway. After procuring our tokens from yet another non-English speaking attendant, I absolutely refused to get on before finding out where we should get off. I went back to the clerk at the entrance to Bloomingdale’s where we had just exited who I knew had spoken English. She was very helpful and soon we were speeding along under the city. I felt a sense of elation! We were on our way to Ground Zero and everything seemed safe around us on the subway. Until Toni finally convinced me that we were heading in the wrong direction. I didn’t want to believe it – we were heading toward Harlem! A little elderly lady sitting in front of us who had been discreetly watching us all along came to our rescue. She could only understand the words “world trade center” but as she left the train at the next stop she motioned for us to follow and pointed us to another train. Wishing we knew how to thank her, we simply waved as she hurried away. Her directions did in fact lead us to our next awe-inspiring discovery.
The first thing we noticed as we saw daylight leaving the subway station was the sound. The sounds of the city are very loud. Between the traffic and the people, there was a constant noise that we quickly grew accustomed to shouting over. Even sixteen stories up in our hotel room, we noticed the noise quickly. The exit off the subway at Ground Zero lacked these sounds. Instead, although the traffic and the crowds were dense, there was a silence. Along the fenced wall of memorials, which would bring tears to even the most hardened heart, sat a man playing the flute. In the silence, acutely aware of Ground Zero looming to our left, the tune of “Amazing Grace” put a somber mood on the crowd. My heart wanted to scream, “Take this pain away – why did this have to happen?” Visions of what we all watched on television on 9/11/01 came to mind, knowing I was standing where all the horror had happened. The unmatched silence surrounding the area and remembrance describe the sites today better than any other words can.
Coming away from Ground Zero, Toni and I remained quietly to ourselves for the remainder of the day. We were still in awe of every corner we turned but none of our experiences thus far compared with the deeply introspective mood we found ourselves in. After dining, we were ready to make our way back to our hotel, and since it was by this time nightfall, we decided to be cautious and not chance the subway. A taxi would be best but what do we do – stick our thumbs out as if we’re hitchhiking? We walked on until a taxi stopped in front of us letting someone out and we jumped in. We shocked the driver with our heavy Southern accents so much so that I had to write the address to our hotel down for him to understand. Minutes later we were back where we had started some eight hours earlier. We had conquered the city for the day! Fears had been abated enough for us to stay instead of running for home. We went to sleep with the alarm clock set early, looking forward to venturing out again.
The next day we calculated that we walked over eight miles, most of which was in the rain. Our destination was Times Square but on the way we just happened upon Grand Central Station, Trump Plaza and Towers, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Central Park, Tiffany’s, Saks Fifth Avenue – I could go on and on. Knowing we needed rest for the long drive home the next day we bid the heart of the city farewell and made our long walk back to our hotel. We left early enough the next morning to avoid the heaviest traffic, leaving the city within only minutes and arrived home exactly 12 hours and 45 minutes later.
Overall, our trip gave us a sense of confidence that we had conquered our small-town fears and were able to explore the city for two days. We took each step, however, with a constant awareness that we could actually reach out and touch what up until this point we had only heard about – culture shock. Our thanks and hats off go to the Big Apple from these two country bumpkins from the South! And….to valet parking!
(Written as part of a college English class in 2012, posted today as a memorial to lives lost on 9/11/01)