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San Antonio Express-News
A family's summer trip to Washington and New York finds unexpected enrichment in the poignant aftermath of 9-11.
Common sense inspired our family's summer vacation plan to go to New York and Washington, D.C. We'd thought about Europe, but our 12-year-old had never been to the nation's capital and the 16-year-old was contemplating New York University. Four Rapid Rewards freebies on Southwest sealed the deal. We'd be doing our patriotic duty spending our money where it's needed most, I'd joked, but 9-11 really wasn't a motive. Or so I thought.
Since security has tightened around all airports, we arrived at San Antonio International a full two hours before departure on a Sunday morning. With long check in lines at curbside and the ticket counter and a thorough security check, we made it to the gate with fewer than 30 minutes to spare. We drove to D.C. in our rental car from Baltimore-Washington, got lost, and entered the district through Alexandria, navigating to our West End hotel, the Park Hyatt.
We walked back into Georgetown, then strolled toward the White House. Barricades a block away and a significant police presence were the first signs of stepped-up vigilance. Still, we were able to walk to the gate separating the White House from Lafayette Park. Along with us were a handful of tourists from Sweden and Japan, and we visited briefly with an anti-nuclear protestor who'd been at this very spot along with his partner for 30 years.
We woke up the next morning to a Code Red Day with which Tom Ridge had nothing to do. It was a bad-air day, so bad that schools in Virginia cancelled classes, but still nice enough to allow us to walk four blocks to the Metro, where I finally felt like a tourist. I thought I understood the directions to buying tickets from an automatic machine and using them in the turnstile, but a man in uniform materialized to show me what I'd done wrong.
The boys picked up on it quick enough to get us on the right train to the Smithsonian. The Air & Space Museum was as great as I remembered it, once we cleared the security check of personal items at the entrance. The free admission made me proud to be an American, though I quickly learned how expensive "free" can be after the family watched a 20-minute show on the universe in the planetarium ($7 each) and the boys rode in a flight simulator ($12 each).
Kris snuck out to the Corcoran Art Museum, where we caught up to eat lunch. Then we all detoured to the Smithsonian's "castle" head quarters, drawn by the ground-floor photo exhibit on the World Trade Center disaster, which kept us riveted.
By the museum's 5:30 closing time, we were exhausted. Thankfully, the kids mastered the Metro ticket system well enough to get us to the hotel without assistance. The local and national TV news was buzzing with stories about Jose Padilla, the accused "dirty bomber," along with graphic explanations of how many people would have been killed on the Washington Mall if a dirty bomb had exploded there. Evidently, a mock drill had been conducted several days before, so we were treated to video portrayals of bloody victims crawling around the same grassy lawn we'd just walked across. We shrugged.
We found our way to Adams Morgan, a loose, hip, multicultural neighborhood, unlike the government part of the district where we were staying, and ate Ethiopian, something hard to find in South Texas, enjoying the rich curried stews and the communal style of eating, but not the spongy bread that's used like a spoon, in the tradition of tortillas or tostadas.
New York, still familiar
The five hour drive to the Big Apple the next day pretty much boiled down to paying tolls every 10 or 15 miles and stopping twice at rest areas on the New Jersey turnpike, the cleanest restrooms I've seen on a major highway in the country. One even had a Dickey's Barbecue franchise from Dallas, though not many customers.
Finally, we spotted the New York skyline through the haze. All eyes focused on the south end of Manhattan Island, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center used to be. Not seeing them was like a missing tooth, or an amputated limb, but the skyline was still plenty stunning.
We descended into the Holland Tunnel to get to Manhattan. Despite the hundreds of other vehicles doing the same, my wife and I later admitted to one another we couldn't help thinking of terrorists during the five-minute drive underneath the Hudson River. I felt a sense of relief leaving the tunnel, no matter how congested the Lower Manhattan rush hour traffic we drove into.
It's the same New York, I learned over the next four days, reconnecting with some of Kris' and my old haunts. But it's a new New York, too. I'd already seen the effects of Mayor Giuliani's clean-up campaign over the past 10 years, but this time people really were nicer, happy to give directions to lost, clueless, out-of-towners, and more than once, after hearing me speak, asking where I was from.
The kids loved Times Square, especially the new Toys R Us at 44th and Broadway - the biggest toy store in the world, effectively haven stolen the thunder from the storied FAO Schwartz.
While hanging out at Virgin Records Superstore, right across from where MTV stages "TRL," the 16-year-old noticed someone giving away tickets, and we managed to hustle seats for my wife and him, passing Jake off for 18, the minimum age to be in the audience. Since I'd already been before, I hung out with Andy
We saw "The Graduate" on Broadway, taking advantage of the TKTS half-price booth in the middle of Times Square, and witnessed the Upright Citizens Brigade comedy in a small venue in Chelsea. We spotted the Naked Cowboy, a local character in a cowboy hat, white underwear, boots, and guitar, entertaining tourists in the middle of traffic in the heart of Broadway. I contemplated taking advantage of the street hustler holding a sign that advertised, "Pick up lines, $1,' and the kids bought bootleg Oakley sunglasses from an African man clutching a black trash bag on Fifth Avenue, right in front of Tiffany's jewelers, two for $15.
We ate the best 75-cent hot dogs in the world at Gray's Papaya on Broadway, "Nobody, but nobody serves a better frankfurter" and scarfed some mighty fine thin-crust pizza at John's on Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village. We had very inexpensive, very authentic Chinese at the Wo Hop in Chinatown, and not so inexpensive Italian at Due Amici in Little Italy the night after mobster John Gotti died. My friend Joe Angio, editor of Time Out New York, a weekly guide to the city, later advised Little Italy is really just one big restaurant serving the same red sauce and pasta and that you have to go elsewhere for the good Italian.
We shopped at Canal Jeans, where I bought a Billie Holiday T-shirt for $2.50, heard and saw some wild stuff at the Museum of Broadcasting, and at the boys' request, went to the world's largest Pokeman store near Rockefeller Center. We went back to Times Square just to bask in all the lights.
At Andy's suggestion, we went to the World Trade Center site, a quick subway ride downtown. We had to ask where to get off: at Chambers, on the E or the 1 or 2 train, or City Hall, on the N or R trains, since the World Trade Center stops listed on subway map no longer exists.
Sad feelings, good things
People directed us to the overlook at Broadway and Liberty Street. The site had officially been cleaned up 10 days earlier, but the crowds hadn't stopped. We walked up the catwalk, adjacent to an 18th-century church cemetery. The ramp's plywood walls were decorated with memorial posters, tributes, and messages from all over the world. From the overlook, 20 feet above the street, we viewed a vast, empty swath, with only a scattering of heavy equipment and workers milling about to interrupt the flat, abstract landscape.
No one said much. Kris and Andy took pictures. Mostly, we just looked. The same sad feeling that haunted me at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, and the Day's Inn in Corpus Christi came over me again: something very bad happened here, something fueled by hate.
We walked along the southern perimeter of the site to the World Financial Center, just west of the WTC. Around back, where the plaza faced the Hudson River, Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty beyond, the composer Randy Newman was playing for free, just him and his piano. He was singing about his birthplace New Orleans and riding the train across Texas, reprising his song from the film, "Toy Story," but making no note whatsoever about the place where he was playing. It was a good thing. It meant life goes on, even at ground zero.
A writer friend who lives in Tribeca, less than a mile from the twin towers, allowed how the absence of the Twin Towers has brought the ornate Woolworth Tower, once the tallest building in the world, back into prominence, as well as other architecturally significant buildings that were dwarfed when the World Trade Center went up in the '70s.
I saw what he meant on our last day, when we hopped the Staten Island Ferry, the best free ride in the Big Apple, past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. On the way back from Staten, a crowd gathered at the front of the ferry to look at the skyline, many of them taking photographs, including a family of four from South Texas.
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