December 9, 2001: up early.
The day was cold, with temperatures in the low 40's with a cutting wind cutting. I was headed to Manhattan, but in a roundabout fashion.
· After checking out of the rubber-sheet hotel, I took a cab to the Baldwin station of the Long Island Railroad. As I stood on the platform, I took in the architecture of the houses, which I noted were decidely Atlantic. Many of them were Amityville Horror-type homes, with their bent and slanted roofs and windows like eyes. The houses were festooned with Christmas lights and many flew American flags. Most of the cars carried flags in the windows or had them tied to the antennae.
· I stepped into Penn Station amidst a throng of travellers; it was busy place, but not as busy as it would become later in the day. I purchased a ticket to Metropark Station in New Jersey, on the Northeast Corridor Line, where I was to meet my good friend Jim. After dropping my bags in his car, we would double back to Penn Station. From there, we intended to take in Manhattan for the day.
It was confusing to locate the right track for Metropark, but I found it after a brief search. Conductors yelled as they worked to get everyone aboard. After the train got rolling, the conductor for our car came through to punch tickets. He looked like the rapper Ice T, only shorter, and didn't smile much. Come to think of it, neither does Ice T.
· No sooner had I exited the train at Metropark than I spotted Jim walking toward me on the platform, against the flow of commuters heading to the exit. He told me he saw me first; my height and bald head made me hard to miss. Up close and in person, I was taken aback for a moment. Expectation and reality sometimes clash. I'd seen his face many times in photographs and on his web cam, but alive and animated, he presented a new facet. The one thing I knew was that Jim was as real in person as he was in our prior discussions: open and honest.
· Our first order of business was to find the Sunflower Diner. We exited Penn Station and began navigating the streets, making sure we were headed in the right direction. We were in our glory; we both had our cameras, and we weren't afraid of looking like tourists. Hell, we were tourists. We shot whatever caught our eye. We often passed by something, then stopped, upon which either one of us said: Did you see that? Then we did an about-face and went back to capture the image. It was fun being with someone who thought like I did, in photography and other matters.
· Jim had a cap and gloves with him. I didn't, so we stopped by a street vendor where I picked up a genuine New York NY winter hat and some gloves. If I didn't cover my dome and hands I would have been miserable before the day was out. I wore the hat askew, with the logo off-center, like the kids do. When in Rome...
· The Sunflower Diner was where we were to meet none other than the most famous guru of the Internet, Jeffrey Zeldman, for breakfast, based on his recommendation. The place was tiny and packed: a good sign that the food would be good. We also were going to meet Karen, another friend from the web we'd never met in person. She appeared after we'd arrived; we added our names to the waiting list and stood outside, taking pictures and looking for Jeffrey. Down the sidewalk he strolled, resplendent in a black leather jacket, with a beautiful lady by his side, the love of his life, Carrie. We did the group photo-thing, and soon thereafter our table was called.
The booths were small; the five of us couldn't fit. Jeffrey and Carrie sat on one side, while Jim and I sat on the other, with Karen on my lap. Once a chair became available, Karen appropriated it and we settled in to order breakfast. For two hours we chatted, took photos and discussed everything but the web. Everyone was warm, charming, down-to-earth and caring. When the topic turned to September 11, the gentle outpouring of emotion was moving. They were still affected by the tragedy and made no attempt to stifle their feelings. On our way out, everyone hugged as we made our farewells. I gave Jeffrey, Carrie, and Karen standing invitations to Hong Kong, promising to be their personal tour guide.
· As our breakfast had gone longer than we'd planned, Jim and I decided not to go to Ground Zero. In retrospect, I'm glad we didn't. I'm unsure how I would have handled it; it didn't feel right. Instead, we went to the Empire State Building. The queue outside wasn't too long, but once inside we realised it was longer than we'd thought.
It took about 40 minutes to go through the security check, down to the basement level to obtain our tickets and reach the lifts which spirited us to the 80th Floor. From there we went to another set of lifts which took us to the 86th Floor Observation Deck. The lifts were so fast they were unsettling.
· The deck was packed with people on all four sides of the building. Despite the crowd, the wind slammed us like a freight train, the chill numbed us in a couple of minutes. We were determined to take photographs, so we toughed it out, circumnavigating the structure and taking our time to get as many shots as we wanted.
We met people who asked us to take photos of them with their cameras, including a woman from England who'd flown into New York for the weekend to go shopping! Her shopping bags were proof she'd enjoyed her afternoon on 5th Avenue.
· The most sobering view was Lower Manhattan. A building adorned with a huge U.S. flag shouldn't have been visible, but it was no longer blocked by the World Trade Center. Intense.
· We stayed on the deck through the falling of dusk. New York glittered as the lights from buildings, street lamps and cars filtered up through the deepening darkness. It was beautiful. Had we not made other plans, we might well have stayed there, despite our frozen fingers.
· Once we cleared the ground floor lobby, we hailed a cab (no small feat on a busy Sunday evening) to take us to Rockefeller Plaza. We wanted to see the fabled Christmas tree. We were impressed with the way the cabby picked her way through traffic, nimbly avoiding other vehicles and making holes to shoot through.
· The tree was impressive; the square was lined with American flags. The ice rink was surrounded by a long queue of people lined up to watch the skaters. Jim and I looked at each other and knew we wanted no part of that. The square was much smaller than I'd thought it would be.
When Jim hopped atop a planter box to get an unobstructed shot of the tree, a tourist from India handed Jim his camera and asked him to take a shot for him. We were amazed at how friendly everyone was. The city had been through an awful lot, and it was reflected in the warmth of the people. We knew the people giving us their cameras weren't afraid we'd run off with them, not after they got a look at the gear we were carrying.
· Rockefeller was cool, but our real objective was down the block: St. Patrick's Cathedral. On the way there we took photos of the fabulous G.E. Building, which screamed Gotham City. St. Patrick's took our breath away. While nowhere near as immense as European cathedrals, it was huge by North American standards.
It was Gothic architecture at its finest. We were across the street and inside in a shot, eager to photograph the interior. We were delayed in our quest as we came in near the tail-end of a Mass. Jim, the heathen, was busted for taking a photograph during the service. Contrite, he offered his apology, which was accepted with cheer. Church staff were used to tourists with cameras.
· As soon as the service was finished, we took photographs. I stopped to light a candle in remembrance of my father; it's a Catholic thing. I may be way lapsed, but it was the right thing to do, and I felt better for having done it. I took an image of the candle rack to capture the moment.
We moved up the left aisle, around the altar at the head of the church, then down the right aisle, stopping in the center near the entrance. We took numerous images, working in low light without tripods, straining to capture the art and architecture in their natural ambience. Given the chance, we could have spent an entire day in there and not run out of beautiful images to shoot. It was a magnificent edifice.
· For dinner, went to a place called Jeckyll & Hyde's, a theme restaurant that was supposed to be a cool place to eat. I'd arranged to meet about six other people that I'd wanted to see while in New York, at 7.30. We arrived at 7.20 and sat in the bar for a Guinness. 7.30 came and went; no one showed up. I was a worried people wouldn't find the place, or worse, went to the other location by mistake. By 8.10, we knew no one would show. I'd been stood up, which was uncool.
I was disappointed, given the distance I'd travelled and that I had but one opportunity as I was only in Manhattan for the day. The more I thought about it, the more pissed off I became. Afterward, I learned via email why no one could make it; most had legitimate reasons. I realised some may have been skittish about coming to Manhattan, so I decided to cut them some slack.
We decided to stay; it was too late to go traipsing about looking for another place to eat. The restaurant wasn't quite as cool as it appeared to be, but the food wasn't bad.
· Exhausted from running all over Manhattan, we took a cab back to Penn Station, then connected to Metropark. A 90-minute drive down the New Jersey parkway took us to Jim's hometown of Toms River. He dropped me off at my hotel and headed home. He'd be back early the next day to pick me up for a trip to Barnegat Lighthouse.
· The hotel wasn't five-star, but it was a much nicer than the last one, though too close to the tavern downstairs. For about an hour I was treated to crappy, bass-heavy 80s rock songs, but I was bagged and the king-size bed was comfortable; I fell asleep regardless.
· The trip was just getting started.
January 25, 2002
Next Tale: Old Barney & The Sawmill