Unbelievably, my first New York morning started with a wake-up alarm malfunction that led to the only time in history I have applied makeup while running down the stairwell of a New York City hotel. Thank God for sunglasses since I could hardly do eyeliner that way. All this managed to shake me to the ground, over which I’d been floating since arriving in the City, for thirty minutes or so while our guide led us on the subway changes required to get from the upper west side to the Southstreet Seaport where we would depart on a ferry to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.
I started floating again about the time we stepped onto the ferry, eyeliner having been applied while waiting to board. It was a gray, cloudy Wednesday that didn’t actually rain on us even once. And therefore it was beautiful. I shivered on the ferry a little, both from the cool air off the water and from the thrill as our guide regaled the history of the Statue of Liberty and recited its inscription from memory. When he was through, the passengers applauded, and nope, I’m not confusing my real life with a movie. THIS WAS MY NEW YORK.
We opted out of the full Statue of Liberty experience, simply basking in its wake as we cruised by, then staying on board for the little jaunt to Ellis Island. “You can’t really know where you are going until you know where you’ve been.” They should inscribe that line from Hitch at the opening to this amazing museum, because it makes you think about a million things – who we were when we began, the many places we came from, the type of lives we led and the lives we’re allowed every day to pursue now that we’re here. It’s so strange and wonderful to imagine that the children and grandchildren of people who arrived on a boat on the level tragically known as steerage might very well have died with land of their own, small businesses with their name on the window, and children who never doubted but what they could be millionaires one day if they just worked hard enough and got a good enough idea. As with all the other attractions on our trip, we walked much too quickly through this one – just glancing at it really, as I jotted down as many thoughts as possible in my little travel journal, incomplete sentences, bald facts, and only a few poetic thoughts despite being in a place that could have inspired so many. I’ve written before that you should build a lot of time into an itinerary, and I was so right.
Still, the purpose of this trip was neither intense exploration or deep introspection, so we were soon off – back to the ferry, then walking through Battery Park and the financial district to the World Financial Center for hands-down the most moving part of our tour.
Inside the World Financial Center, past the indoor palm trees of the Winter Garden, there’s a second-floor landing with floor-to-ceiling windows and a full, breathtaking, view of the World Trade Center rebuilding site. My tour guide, as I wrote on Facebook, would be so proud of me for calling it that. It’s no longer Ground Zero, after all, because Ground Zero is a place of tragedy and fear and rubble. He showed us pictures of Ground Zero, of the planes, the Towers, the fleeing residents. He showed us a picture of Winter Garden – the place we stood in now – right after the fact, debris and steel hanging from its palm trees. He told us of his former coworkers in the restaurant on one of the top floors of one of the Towers, of the friend who’d gotten his shift covered that day and fought horrible survivor’s guilt for years.
My tour guide’s name was Matthew Cummings with CityWalksNY. He fights back when vehicles honk in anger, he sports tattoos, tells stories of sneaking out to the city at night when he was a kid, and doesn’t hesitate to gripe about corrupt law enforcement officers or the people who dress up like the Statue of Liberty in Battery Park and annoy him with their irreverence for the actual majesty of the landmark. But when he finished his World Trade Center presentation, he said this, and he cried:
We are New York.
We’re very proud. Our city is better than yours. We are better than you. We are right. And you are wrong. But on 9/11 we were humbled. Not by the attack, but by the outpouring of love and support from around the world. If you’ve never been thanked by a New Yorker, you are now. So, Thank You.
After that amazing presentation we wandered through the exhibits in St. Paul’s Chapel, the pews still scarred from the belts of firefighters and policemen who volunteered their time during the rescue. And we noticed the almost-hush that presided over the most respectful construction site we’d ever seen.
And that was just the morning of my Wednesday in New York. Unbelievably, the Awesome had only begun.