My best friend Allison & godson Riley bought me the best X-mas/birthday combo present that anyone could ever gift someone. For me, that best gift ever was a weekend trip to NYC! Allison hadn’t been in many years, and Riley had never been, so I was eager to show off the city I love most.

I headed to Greensboro to spend the night with them just in time to do some laundry. Recall that the night before, after 30 days on the road, I hurriedly switched out suitcases and loaded my hamper with dirty clothes. In my haste, I only brought dirty t-shirts and boxer briefs. Luckily, I was wearing a fresh sweater and new jeans. The universe had decided what I would wear the following day. Furthermore, it meant that I absolutely had to buy new clothes in the city.

Although we previously talked about the trip, we didn’t make any proper plans. The rough outline was as follows: flight from GSO just after 5 am, arrive in Newark before 7:30, ride the train into Manhattan, check our bags at the Grand Hyatt, & do all the stuff. Oh, and I need not forget to mention that the temperature was never supposed to get above freezing.

Since it would be so cold, I suggested that we get passes for one of the double-decker bus tours. That would allow us to cover more ground and hopefully stay somewhat warm and hopefully prevent frostbite. We chose the two-day New York Pass because of the variety of options it would allow us to see.

Being mindful that tour buses and architecture might not be compelling to a 14-year-old, we asked Riley what he wanted to see. He is really into Urban Outfitters, but Allison made it clear that we didn’t need to spend time going to places we can visit here in NC. He mentioned that he’s like a Louis Vuitton wallet….and I said that I knew where we could get one in Chinatown. So, we watched a few Youtube videos on scoring designer items on street corners (aka counterfeit goods). We talked until we only had about 5 hours before getting up and heading to the airport.

Not sure if I mentioned it before, but I absolutely love flying. Looking down at the Earth is like looking at a giant map. I really wish that there was an interactive map in the airplane so that you knew what town you were flying over. The sunrise from whatever thousand feet was spectacular.

We landed quickly and promptly wandered a bit aimlessly around JFK Airport (it’s enormous). There was a gift shop storefront that was a tacky replica of CBGB’s. I genuinely wish that I had been around in the heyday of that club. I can only imagine how cool it would be to see the Ramones in their natural element! Each time I go to NYC, I imagine an alternate world where I’ve lived in the city and experienced all the things! But I digress.

Because no trip is complete without planes, trains, & automobiles….we hopped onto the Air Train to connect to the commuter train. It’s typically an easy venture, but I had never attempted it during the morning commute. Our suitcases placed us at a definite disadvantage because space was at a premium. I could see the questioning looks on Riley and Allison’s faces as we crammed into the passenger car. Their looks got even more concerned when the train stopped for about 5 minutes for no apparent reason.

You can imagine how busy it was when we arrived at Penn Station right at 9 am. I shepherded us toward the Subway tracks. I wanted them to experience coming up from the Subway into Grand Central Station. So instead of taking an Uber to the hotel, we meandered up to Times Square on the 1 train. As we approached the 42nd Street Shuttle, it was clear that we would be in another crush. Rush hour is no joke, especially with luggage. I excitedly gave Allison & Riley a few quick highlights of Grand Central trivia (spiral staircase in the ticket counter, Zodiac mural that’s backward, & the black ceiling tile). Fun fact: the terminal officially opened on February 2nd, 1913….I, too, was born on Groundhog Day.

The Grand Hyatt is adjoining the terminal. It’s a great place to stay on any NY trip, especially if the weather might not cooperate. You won’t have to go outside to catch a train which will allow you to pop up at your destination like a….groundhog!? The travel gods, St. Christopher, or just plain luck allowed us to check into the room instead of checking our bags. That meant that we were able to sit for a moment to collect our thoughts. It also allowed us to layer up. The temperature wasn’t going to get out of the ’20s.

Allison & I had talked about how we would like to see our friend Leigha, but neither of us was organized enough to reach out. I messaged her on Facebook in the off chance that she might be available to meet us at all. As luck would have it, Leigha’s office was only two blocks from our hotel. Now we had a lunch date planned with one of our favorite friends from our old days in Greensboro.

One of my priorities was to find clothes to wear. Uniqlo is a Japan-based clothing store that I like. Their clothes are affordable and fun. I combed through their sale racks to find two pairs of pants, two button-down shirts, & a sweater, all for $95. I challenge anyone to find a better deal!

We walked for miles and miles, for hours and hours looking at things. I tried not to be that person who won’t shut up about architecture and things. Not sure that I accomplished holding all the trivia in, but I think we all had fun on the first day.

For dinner, we chose something different and a bit risqué with a 14-year-old. Lucky Cheng’s restaurant features a set menu where you choose an appetizer, an entree, & a dessert. There’s only one seating each evening with a show following dinner. The hook in this delightful adventure is that the servers and performers are all in drag! Because we looked like a happy family, we were welcomed with much excitement. Riley & I quickly became the focus of attention. We got various shout-outs during the ad-lib performances. I even got pulled on stage and molested )for the sake of comedy). There are pictures and possibly videos of me being stripped of a sweater and whipped with my belt. If the point of this trip was to break out of my reserved shell, this evening helped to do so. It was a memorable evening for each of us!

We woke early the following day, which happened to be my birthday! It was the start of my 45th journey around this sun. In the blog description, I said that I’d be acute if my age were an angle. Now that I am 45, I am halfway to being right!

On tap for the morning was activating our NY Pass with a visit to the Top of the Rock. It’s my favorite observation deck in the city so far because you get an unobstructed 360° view of the entire island. Unfortunately, the subfreezing temperature at 9 in the morning meant that the wind on the 70th floor was ferocious! It was hard to keep our eyes open for our selfies. But rest assured, we got some great pictures.

We decided that getting on a double-decker bus was the best way to warm up and cover more ground. From Times Square, we headed south for our first stop…Chinatown. Riley spotted a lady who had some of the counterfeit “menus” that we had seen in our pre-trip reconnaissance videos from the top level of the bus. We got off at the next stop to backtrack and see if we could get solicited.

The plan worked, and it was as sketchy as I had suspected it would be. There were two handlers on the street, one older man who lured over an older woman. They did indeed have a few men’s Luis Vuitton wallets, but we had to follow someone into one of the luggage/NYC paraphernalia stores. The guy inside had another menu. After Riley picked his style, the man pulled a generic I Heart NY bag from a ceiling hook. Inside was a plethora of genuine fakes! Wallet in hand, the guy asked if we wanted anything else. Riley asked for a Gucci belt, to which the guy said, follow me. He stepped a few feet before pulling on the grid wall. A door swung open to reveal a bathroom stuffed with more generic bags. I first noticed that the back of the door was lined with metal (the stuff out of kidnap movies). He asked me to pull the door behind us, but I kept my foot back just in case. He did have the belts, but they were much bigger than the size needed, so we turned him down.

Being jazzed up from that experience, we decided to walk over to Little Italy for lunch. Allison wanted to try authentic NY pizza, so we headed to Lombardi’s, which bills itself as America’s first pizzeria founded in 1905. We got in relatively quick and sat in their intimate basement area. They were able to enjoy a pie, and I got their antipasto.

We hopped back on the bus to head down to Ground Zero. The difference in tone for the day was drastic. I had been there a few times during its construction, and once it opened to the public with the museum. This visit was different for me. My first visit to the memorial museum was somber and reflective. This visit was raw and emotional.

The first thing that I noticed going down into the 9/11 Memorial & Museum was the flooring. The floor is actual wood. It lends a solidity to the space that is warm despite the cavernous openings that lay ahead. The existing footprint of the Twin Towers is shown along with wreckage that was salvaged in the cleanup.

The part that we chose to walk through was not one that I had seen before. The signage on the outside of the cube-like structure warned that the material you’d see was emotional. Additionally, a strict no photography rule was in place for anything beyond the revolving door.

Once inside, the story of 9/11 was told through first-hand storytelling. Some of the portrayals were from in the victim’s voices. Some were the answering machine messages that family’s received from loved ones trapped in the towers. Others were recordings of the flight attendant’s distress call to tower control. I was not prepared to hear the voices, some of which were the last words that they may have said. I thought of the survivors visiting the museum and having a mixture of heartbreak and comfort at hearing their spouse’s voice again after the years. The rooms were almost silent except for the immediate area surrounding the individual displays. As I started to choke up, I caught the eye of a young lady who had begun to weep. At that point, I couldn’t hold back either. My tears flowed as I took deep breaths to calm myself. It was moving and somehow appropriate that I shared it with a stranger. It’s fair to say that Allison & Riley were moved as well. We left the museum with a sense of calm reverence.

After the full day we had, we needed to refuel. We headed uptown for my birthday dinner at my favorite local burger chain, Bare Burger. I’ve been a fan since they only had 2 locations. I was excited that they had both the Impossible Burger & the Beyond Burger, which I had tried earlier on my trip. I decided on the impossible burger on a GF bun. Allison got hers wrapped in collard greens. She was pleased with the texture, saying it was a much better option than a lettuce wrap.

Despite the frigid temperatures, I convinced Allison & Riley to venture a little further to show them the Palace & the windows at Bergdorf Goodman. Riley spotted Apple store & Louis Vuitton across the street. So, we ventured even further into the brutal cold (not complaining because I was in my favorite place in the world). Inside Apple, I snapped a selfie with the best camera phone in the world, a/k/a The Pixel 3. Have I mentioned that I’m not an Apple fan? LOL. Then we headed to Louis Vuitton, where Riley posed with his new wallet. All that excitement capped out a wonderful birthday!

The temperatures the following day were a bit more approachable. The forecast said that it would get up to a balmy 39°. We headed west toward the Hudson to visit the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum. I knew that we would be walking through an aircraft carrier, but I didn’t realize all of the other things we would see. There were helicopters, fighter planes, a Concord jet, a submarine, & a NASA space shuttle! This adventure was such a fun & touristy thing to do. There happened to be a Norwegian Cruise Line docked beside of the museum. I snapped a picture to send to my friend Pam who works in their customer service department.

The weather was so delightful that we were able to walk for most of the day. Walking in NY has always been a favorite activity. We started east with no real destination in mind. Riley was excited to see Billie Eilish up on one of the massive digital screens in Times Square.

I checked a variety of apps & websites to find a GF restaurant before settling on Bistango at The Kimberly Hotel. Anything on the menu could be prepared as a GF option. Their GF flat breads were out of this world! This meal was fitting of our last meal in the city. It capped of a wonderful weekend of food & family.

The sumptuous lunch made eating snack food for dinner in La Guardia a big letdown. But alas, our time was up. We needed to return to the real world. For Allison, it meant work. For Riley, it meant school. And for me, it meant starting a new life.

Up next: lessons for the future.

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