This past weekend, I flew out to New York City. I was to spend five days exploring as much as I could and I flew out on my 30th birthday. The idea was to treat myself and take some time to reflect and enjoy my life. And I did just that. I had an excellent time. Though I was fighting a bit of a cold, I was out and about everyday walking upwards of 13 miles a day exploring the city and what it means to be young and alive. The weather was sunny and warm for December and everything fell into place perfectly.
It didn’t dawn on me until I was flying back to Chicago just how much the specter of Death directed the course of my trip. This was amusing to me. I booked this trip to celebrate life, take time to personally reflect on what has happened to bring me to this point, and focus on my path ahead and what comes out of the unknown. The irony of this was just too rich.
Let’s break down just how much I was walking along with ghosts:
I land at LaGuardia airport and only have a few hours in the evening to kill. I wanted to see the World Trade Center memorial at night and this was the best time to do it during my trip. The last time I was in New York City, the memorial and One World Trade Center (Freedom Tower) were under construction. Now, the area is a gorgeous plaza with the two reflecting pools, the 9/11 Museum & Memorial, and Freedom Tower.
That evening, I slowly walked around both reflecting pools casually looking at the names of the people murdered in the 9/11 attacks. Some of the names had a white rose sticking out of the etching. I saw on a nearby note sign that the roses were placed there to signify it was that person’s birthday. It was my birthday as well and I was looking at the names of the people who shared the same date of birth.
While walking along the pools, I came across Betty Ann Ong’s name. I knew that name. I didn’t know her personally, but I had listened to her recordings from Flight 11 a few dozen times. She was a flight attendant. She is only one of a few people I can name who had perished in the attacks. I didn’t personally know anyone, but some stories just stuck with me. Hers most of all. I didn’t seek her name, but something guided me to turn my head and see her name. The light shining beneath the etchings and glowing. It was too much for me and I left soon after.
This was my first full day in the city. My first stop was Battery Park to see the Statue of Liberty over the horizon. When I booked my trip a month prior, all the tours of the statue’s pedestal and crown were booked. So, I didn’t have a need to go there. Along the way, I saw a heart-wrenching statue memorial to the millions of immigrants that passed through Ellis Island. Their emaciated faces showed joy, pain, grief, and jubilation as they reached the promised land.
I sat on a bench looking at Lady Liberty and thought about the duality of America. The reality is that there are two Americas; one that is promised and the reality. Many people have risk or continue to risk their lives to come to this country. Historically, America has been a shining beacon welcoming the tired, poor huddled masses. Freedom’s light shows them the path to pursue the limits of their own happiness and self-determination. This is a lie.
The idea of America should be what it needs to be for those who need it most. However, what many immigrants find are nationalists who turn them away, often with violence. They are forced back or face adversity in the form of discrimination and abject poverty. They continue to struggle and perish. Sure, a lot of immigrants have found success and great lives in this country. However, this nation is more polarized than ever with a government that is banning certain types of people from coming. That very action betrays what it means to be an American. I couldn’t help but think of all the lives America’s lies have damaged or destroyed. We’ve disappointed those who founded this country and those who seek refuge in it. I saw this in the faces of the people in that statue.
Later in the day, I returned to the 9/11 memorial and visited the museum on the grounds. The museum is underground and you walk the space where the Twin Towers’ foundations were and the excavation around them. This was one of the first places I had included in my itinerary to visit. The attacks on September 11, 2001 is arguably the most significant event of my lifetime based on the fallout and course of world and social politics that followed thereafter. It defines my world so much that I cannot even imagine where I would be if they didn’t happen.
Visiting the museum, you see the remnants of the destruction. The original foundation is visible, in the main area sits a burnt and melted fire truck, and a staircase that was integral to the survival of some people escaping from the towers. Walking through the museum, on display were a couple of steel beams. I read the plaque and it said these beams were the exact impact point of the first plane. They were twisted and bent. The beams looked more like a modern art masterpiece.
Standing by the beams was a docent. An older man, maybe in his 60s, with a large gut. He had an air of authority and sadness surrounding him. I asked him if he knew anyone who was lost in the attacks. He chuckled slighted and aid yeah. He then told me he was the sole survivor from his firefighting regiment. All his comrades passed. He also had friends in other regiments who died too. Plus, he lost an uncle on Flight 93. In total, he knew 85 people who died in the attacks. I couldn’t imagine what it must feel like with that resting on your shoulders standing next to the exact point of impact.
Later that day, I was venturing back to Times Square and Rockefeller Center. I was there the previous night to see the sites at night, but I wanted to see them during the day. Then, I remembered that it was December 8th. The day that marked the anniversary John Lennon was shot to death at the hands of deranged ex-fan Mark David Chapman. Lennon has a portion of Central Park dedicated to him called Strawberry Fields. Of all days, I had to be there.
I took the train to Strawberry Fields. A large gather was there surrounding the iconic “Imagine” mosaic. Some people had instruments and everyone joined together singing various Beatles and Lennon solo tunes. When I got there, they were performing the Beatles classic “In My Life.” I people watched for a bit and before the sun fully set, I walked across the street to the Dakota. Lennon resided there with his family and he was shot to death right in front of the building. Some people were there taking photos and lighting candles. I was looking for the spot where he lay. I don’t know what I expected to find, but I scanned the area. I don’t think I found it, but it doesn’t matter. I couldn’t believe I almost forgot about the date. I would be remised if I didn’t go to Strawberry Fields on that day.
Snow finally hit New York City. The city was expecting three to six inches of snowfall. It came down the whole day and the city was draped in a comforting gray fog that consumed everything. You couldn’t see where the ground ended and sky began. It was comforting.
The first stop that day was to see President Grant’s tomb in Riverside Park. I had never seen where a president was buried before and I knew it would be a quick visit before I ventured into the seemingly endless Central Park.
Snow was falling fat and heavy as I approached the mausoleum. It was bigger than I expected. Inside the rotunda was a viewing area into the crypt where President Grant and his wife lay in giant black marble coffins. Busts of the man surrounded the coffins. I was only there for about 10 minutes, but it was a thrilling site. The opulence of it was breathtaking.
Grant’s tomb wasn’t the only memorial I sought out that day. I was going to spend the days and explore the entire length of Central Park as best I could. My last stop, near the southwest corner of the park, was the Balto memorial. Having spent a lot of years in Alaska, I have an affinity for the place. I love Alaskan things. And hardly anything is more Alaskan than a hero sled dog. Anchorage is the only other place that has a statute celebrating Balto, but it isn’t that exciting. It doesn’t really depict him but rather just a general sled dog. The one in Central Park was THE Balto. It took me a few hours to get to the memorial, but it was worth it to see a tribute to a true Alaskan legend.
Though I was covered with windblown snow, I wasn’t done with my outdoor adventures. Next stop was Roosevelt Island to see an abandoned smallpox hospital. The weather was rough and the landscape of Roosevelt Island reflected that. The further I walked away from the train station, the more isolated things became. I didn’t see many people. The landscape was pure white and match the gray-white sky. Th hospital was fascinating to observe. It is a crumbling structure that is incredibly dangerous, so it is fenced off. However, it sits adjacent to a park commemorating President Franklin Roosevelt and will later see some additional development. It is amazing that is hasn’t been town down. I hope it stay because it is truly an amazing thing to see quietly snug in a city that is always changing and developing.
On my way to the smallpox hospital, I looked across the way to Manhattan as I passed the Queensboro Bridge. Something looked eerily familiar. Then, I remember the iconic shot of Woody Allen and Diane Keaton sitting on a bench for Allen’s film Manhattan. I googled the location of the bench and I was on the wrong side. Oh well. I’ll find it when I make it back.
Getting back to Manhattan, finding this spot was an impromptu addition to my trip. I had to go out of my way to find it but, luckily, I had time before the next item on my schedule. With the help of my map app, I was able to find Sutton Place Park North which contained some benches overlooking the water. Googling some articles about finding the bench location, I learned that the area had been redeveloped frequently since 1979 which makes sense. This meant that the original location of the bench shot is long gone. However, an article I found told me that this park was the best option to recreate the shot. It was still windy and snow and the park didn’t see a lot of traffic. Fortunately, there were two women there who helped take a photo of me sitting on the bench gazing out at the Queensboro Bridge. The area had changed, but enough of its legacy was there for me to make a kickass photo. Social media can certainly make one vain.
This day was a music history tour. I was going to spend the day finding important locations of New York City musical landmarks. This included famous venues, album cover locations, and other neat places.
My morning was spent finding the locations of five famous album covers. They were An Innocent Man by Billy Joel, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan by Bob Dylan, After the Gold Rush by Neil Young, Physical Graffiti by Led Zeppelin, and Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys. In the spirit of walking with ghosts during this trip, I faithfully recreated the covers of the first three albums. For Zeppelin’s record, the building looked the same. However, the business featured on the classic Beastie Boys album is long gone. It is currently a restaurant, but there is a mural paying tribute to the legendary hip-hop tribute. I liked that the current owners recognized the history.
During this album cover hunt, I made two pit stops. First was the former site of CBGB. I knew that the venue had been closed for several years, but I wanted to see the site. Fans have etched the sidewalk with the name of the legendary rock club and the year it was founded. Even though things change, it is always great to see some respect to history. However, that would be the end of seeing touching tributes and homages to great musical history.
Shortly after Joe Strummer died, a mural of him went up on 7th Avenue. I had found the location and included a visit in my itinerary. However, I was unaware that the mural was repainted in 2013. It was there for roughly a decade. The Clash were one of my favorite bands growing up and this was the equivalent of visiting a holy site for me. You can imagine the devastation I felt to see a sickly orange color where the mural should’ve been. The Latin restaurant that owns the building painted over it. I was crushed. However, life moves on and so I should I.
I then ventured to Greenwich Village. I had printed out information on a self-guided walking tour of over a dozen spots that were integral to the development of a blossoming young folk singer named Bob Dylan. The tour started in Washington Square Park where Dylan would sometimes watch performers. The tour then took me to places like the Bitter End, Café Wha?, and his former Townhouse. While the Bitter End and café Wha? are still open, many of the sites were not.
I knew going into this that these sites would be closed. A lot happens over 60 years and coffee houses and clubs can’t stay open forever. However, what killed me was that there was nothing at any of these spots to signify the important of the location. I was gazing at a cheap Mexican restaurant and wrapping my head around that Bob Dylan wrote “Blowin’ in the Wind” in there when it once was a coffee house. Now it was a place that advertised it had one of New York’s six best margaritas with no plaque or sign or any indication that history was made there. I was so disappointed. I accept change. But when people ignore or forget history, it is a hard thing to accept that everything is temporary and will fade.
The last remnant of Death on this day involved me seeing Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room. It is a 3,600-sq. ft. room that houses 280,000 pounds of dirt. I had a lot of questions. I asked if there is any vegetation. The docent told me that stuff used to grow years ago, but they were all picked out. The nutrients in the dirt have vanished a long time ago. I went to New York to see dead dirt and I’m glad I didn’t pay for it.
On the last day of my trip, I had a few hours to enjoy the city before flying out. I spent the morning on a guided tour of Bushwick’s thriving graffiti and street art scene. After that was done, I had two important stops before I left for the airport.
Also in Bushwick is the legendary Daptone Records. I first discovered Daptone when I got a copy of 100 Days, 100 Nights by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. That album changed my life and provided the soundtrack of my college years. I’ve been a fan of Daptone for a decade now and I couldn’t miss an opportunity to see the building.
Both Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, the leading figures of Daptone, passed away in the last year. Seeing where they made their art also meant paying respect to their work and the success they found much too late in life.
I saw the building in all its decaying beauty. The façade is tagged with graffiti and crumbling. Shingles and paint falling off the sign. The building had all the character of a dusty box of records you find in an attic. It was perfect and I was in awe.
With me running out of time, I had one more stop. Beastie Boys were one of the bands my dad forbid me to listen to while growing up. I have found this was the case of many people in my generation. Though the Beastie Boys matured as artists, our parents’ generation couldn’t get past the raucous frat boy persona that embodied when they first started.
Adam Yauch, also known as MCA, passed away in 2012. I was crushed. Since graduating high school and free from the shackles of parental supervision, Beastie Boys have become one of my favorite bands. I loved their attitude and way they blended genres seamlessly to create something raw and authentic.
Last year, a city park in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood was renamed for Adam Yauch. I have a friend who went there on the first day and beet Ad-Rock and Ben Stiller who were friends of Yauch. I visited the park and listened to some choice Beastie Boys cuts for about an hour before having to leave for the airport. It was quiet and peaceful with few visitors since most people were at work. Considerably less celebrities than when my friend visited.
I texted my dad teasing him that I was visiting a park named after one of the members of a band he said I couldn’t listen to growing up. He replied with a thumbs up emoji. Sitting peacefully looking around the park listening to music was the best way to pay tribute to Yauch and end my trip. I may have been walking with ghosts during my trip, but to end it peacefully enjoying life and its riches provided a rich balance and appreciation for being in that spot in that moment. We may be surrounded by ghosts and specters of the past, but it only means we motivate ourselves to live life the best way we can.
“New York Groove” is a cheesy, but fun glam rock song written by Russ Ballard and first performed by Hello. Hello recorded the single in 1975 for their debut album Keeps Us Off the Streets with a chugging clapping rhythm and a train whistle like harmonica.
The subject in the song is returning to New York after a year and falling back into is familiar groove to enjoy what he’s missed. He’s come back with a lady and fistful of cash to dance the night away. The song is about return and the jubilation that comes with that.
After eight years, this was my return to New York City. And I was doing it solo. Doing it my way. I set out to celebrate my life and create an experience that represented who I am and where I am going. I learned a lot about myself by creating my own path inspired by those who walked their own before me. I couldn’t have hoped for a better time to find my groove. I feel so good and my best days are ahead of me.