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Stateside With Rosalea - New York, New York


Stateside With Rosalea - New York, New York

Columbus Day this year was observed on October 14. As usual, it wasn't observed by everyone, including my employer, so I had to take a day's leave in order to have a long weekend. But it was a holiday for most schools and federal and state employees, so it was a different kind of crowd on the streets of New York. The train coming in from upstate NY bore a strange brew of families and businessmen, punks and travelers.

I caught it at Garrison, the village that passed for 19th century Yonkers in the movie 'Hello, Dolly!' Twenty-first century Yonkers is just a few towns down the track, with owl decorations on its carpark lights, and a big billboard for a TV talk show: "Be Thinkful. Donahue's back." For a thoughtful read about these lower reaches of the Hudson, I recommend the first part of William Least-Heat Moon's 'River-Horse', his account of crossing the United States in a little boat he called 'Nikawa'.

One of the moms who got on at Yonkers was almost the spitting image of Barbra Streisand, and her daughters and their friend were standing on the seat saying "We're going to New York City" with as much excitement as I felt. For you can never be too excited about going to New York or too old to enjoy it. The train from the north enters through the Bronx and Harlem, crossing the Harlem River (which is really a canal joined to a strait) just after you pass Yankee Stadium.

For what seems like miles you pass clusters of tall brick apartment buildings, most in good shape but some in disrepair or being renovated as work lofts (a species of gentrification). Then you enter the underground world - a cause for tearful alarm for the youngest daughter when we stopped in the dark and she was teased by her older sister that this was where we had to get off the train.

It is scary down there. There are dozens and dozens of subway and train lines separated only by slim poles performing the seemingly impossible task of keeping everything on Manhattan Island from collapsing into this netherworld. Metro-North's teminal is Grand Central, which is described in my Fodor's 'Up Close' guide to NYC as "an architectural jewel, one of the world's greatest public spaces... a masterpiece of urban design, a 1913 beaux arts shrine to space and transportation." Fodor's does not usually wax so lyrical, so believe me, this is one special place.

If you take the 42nd Street exit from its cavernous hall and turn to your right, it's just a few blocks' walk to Fifth Avenue, and right there on the corner is the beautiful (inside) NY Public Library with its two lions, Patience and Fortitude, outside and Bryant Park around the back. Another block up 42nd Street is Times Square. Although I didn't stay in NYC this trip, when I was there in 1999 I stayed in the Portland Square Hotel on W. 47th Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues, very handy to Times Square, cheap, comfy, and with good security.

The good oil about getting around NY is that if you want to get somewhere relatively quickly and you don't mind crowds, heat, and stairs - take the subway. If you want to see the city in comfort and don't mind spending about $30, take a tour by bus or boat. If you want to see a lot of things on a small budget, take the commuter buses that go to practically every street and attraction in NYC. The Manhattan bus map issued by the MTA is free and includes a panel detailing which routes to take to various attractions.

Of course, New York City is much more than just Manhattan Island, but I was only there for a day so I had time for very little, and I had one particular objective in mind. After lunch in Bryant Park I headed downtown on foot, thinking that I might go up the Empire State Building along the way. On my 1999 trip the view from the top was of only a few blocks because the clouds were surrounding us, but this year was a beautiful clear day. I changed my mind when I saw the huge line stretching up the street waiting for entry.

So I kept on walking downtown, through the garment district and on into Chelsea, with its brick buildings and art galleries. According to Fodor's, this area was at one time the country estate of Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote ''Twas the Night Before Christmas'. Eventually I caught an M20 bus, which would take me to my destination - the World Financial Centre, almost at the tip of Manhattan Island. I was heading there to see and hear "an eclectic group of site-specific sonic works by four of New York's most visionary artists" - Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Marina Rosenfeld, and Ben Rubin.

Man, am I daft! I must've skipped over the bit in the newspaper article that said it didn't start till 3 days later, but inadvertently I discovered what I think is the best way to see the "World Trade Center Site", as that place is now called on the latest MTA map. M20 - which you can catch anywhere along 7th Ave - goes down the Hudson River side of the site, and terminates at the World Financial Centre.

That is the building complex which includes those two shorter buildings with round tops that you see in footage of the 911 disaster. If you go into the WFC at the entrance by the M20's final stop, and go up the escalator and turn left, you can take the glass-walled South Bridge, which runs parallel to Liberty Street, across the bottom end of the site and meet up with Church Street, which goes up the city side of it. Still thinking that I was going to see the Sonic Garden installation I headed off towards the art gallery instead, and found myself seeing view after view of the site from the big windows on the public walkway inside the WFC. The first thing is - the site is so small. I'm such an old fuddlehead I thought that 16 acres was bigger than a 10 hectare lifestyle block, but it's much smaller than that. It's a very tidy hole in the ground, with workmen working there and a huge sign on one nearby building - a graphic of a starred-and-striped heart saying: "It's not the size of the act that counts, it's the size of the heart."

"They were shadows in the sun" said a faded poem fixed to a fence outside a school in Washington DC, where I'd been two days earlier. The poem was asking people to be kind to the children who'd been traumatised on 911. A bright, clear, sunny day just like this one I was spending in New York, where - even sitting in Bryant Park among the loveliness of growing things - I couldn't keep myself from looking up to see if some dark, jet-screaming shadow would fill the sky.

What to put in that void at the corner of Liberty and Church? Before going there I thought it should be a kind of theme farm, the crops and animals changed every few years to reflect the nationalities of the people killed when the twin towers fell, but I see now that it's too small a space. A park where people can sit and enjoy the sunshine would be wonderful, especially as there is now so much light, where once there was the darkness of the buildings themselves and the selfish shadows they threw all around.

Some people say that not to rebuild there would be some kind of admission of defeat, but I think it would be a mark of greatness. To count those innocent lives lost as having more value than all the riches in all the world - which is what the World Trade Centre was built to represent - would be the statement that gave this nation the ultimate victory in the war for the hearts and minds of people the world over. And by winning that war, the war on terrorism is won.

There was a lovely spot to sit and contemplate life outside the World Financial Centre, where Nelson Rockefeller Park abuts the Hudson and the commuter ferries go to New Jersey, Liberty Island (not to be confused with Ellis Island where the Statue is) and around the tip of the island to Wall St. A young man with a camera was asked by security guards not to photograph the building, which has a lovely glass wintergarden in between its two towers and plenty of eating places inside.

I sat and watched the busy river, now constantly patroled by water and air, listening to some teenagers play volleyball on the court behind me and watching tourists ask strangers to take their photograph with the Statue of Liberty way down river in the background. Near the volleyball court is the wall that commemorates police officers who have lost their life in New York, their names inscribed simply and with just a leaf-like decoration to distinguish the list of those who died on 911.

It was a lovely day, and I'm glad I ended up at the place I was actually trying to ignore. While looking into that gap I could simply put to rest the turmoil of events the past 14 months has seen, and pay my simple respects to those who were this city's "shadows in the sun".

But walking to the WTC subway station to catch the E train to Jamaica Station and my flight home, I had to walk up the city side of the site, where - like blowflies around an open wound - the street hawkers are selling books, photographs and mementoes. Nearby, at the corner of Fulton and Broadway, is St Paul's Chapel, its wrought-iron railings decorated with items left in memoriam and with thousands of origami cranes. Modeled after St Martin-in-the-Fields, it is the oldest surviving church in Manhattan, built in 1766. George Washington said his prayers there immediately after being sworn in as the USA's first president.

So, as the sun set on the Hudson, I burrowed underground for an hour-long subway ride to a station within half an hour of JFK airport, and emerged to a harvest moon, slung low in the sky. The JetBlue shuttle picks you up there at the Jamaica Station, which also serves the Long Island Railroad line, and for $5 it drops you right at their terminal. Which is right next to the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal - the epitome of cool, but currently under renovation. The staff on board the shuttle print your boarding pass and check your bags as well.


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