Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Playing tour guide in New York City

My aunt and uncle spent the past weekend visiting New York for the first time. They live on a farm in southwestern Minnesota, near a town whose entire population could probably squeeze onto a pair of subway cars. They arrived Thursday afternoon, left Monday morning and in between walked about 19.8765 miles, give or take .0023 miles - at least according to the gadget on my uncle's cell phone.

I love having friends and family members visit the city but it hasn't happened often the last six years. When they do come east I go into full tour guide mode. If it's someone's first visit, they certainly want to see the most famous tourist spots - Times Square, Empire State Building, Central Park. On subsequent visits you might hit a few more museums, or a few more out-of-the-way spots. After that, they're showing me new parts of the city.

I love playing tour guide because I love living here and want to show people just some of the reasons I do savor every day in this city. I love playing tour guide because it helps keep me from becoming complacent about where we live. It helps me appreciate the fact I live in a city that's often at the top of people's desired destinations. Perhaps most of all, I love playing tour guide because when you visit a landmark or a building or a park with someone who is seeing it for the first time, it helps you see it through their eyes. In a way, it's like seeing it for the first time yourself, as you notice different things about sites you might otherwise look at without a second glance, even though most people in the world spend countless hours thinking about seeing them just once.

Mary and Steve came out for her 50th birthday, which was on Friday. Steve bought her tickets to the Twins-Mets game that night at Citi Field. The seats were down the third-base line, just past the Twins dugout and the section where photographers sit. They were basically on the field. If I had decided to run out onto the field, I'd have been twenty feet out before a security guard could have reacted. Great seats. We watched both teams take batting practice and before the game we wandered up to the Delta Club, where we bought overpriced beer but only after being asked to prove we were of legal drinking age. But we wanted to be near the action.

The worst part about the seats - the only negative - was the possibility of dangerous foul balls rocketing toward our faces. The security guards and usher warned us multiple times to be aware at all times. One guy told the tale of a woman who had her face smashed after her boyfriend ducked out of the way. During previous times to a stadium, I've probably ridiculed people who brought their gloves to the game. What were the chances they'd need to snare a ball while sitting in the upper deck in right field? Now I wished I had my old Fred Lynn-signed special. I debated the chances of catching one with my bare hands. I thought about whether I'd throw myself in front of my aunt. It was her birthday, after all. Hopefully Steve would be doing the same thing, so maybe my sacrifice wouldn't be necessary. On Monday, I talked with a friend at work about these internal discussions. He said my courage reminded him of Martin Sheen's character in the movie The Dead Zone. Specifically, the final scene.

Come on, I'd never put an infant in harm's way like that. In the end it didn't matter. Foul balls did rocket down the third-base line, but they stayed away from our little area.

We met a great group of characters who mingled with us, from fellow fans to the workers. Mr. Met even showed up.

One of the ushers was a man named Gil, an elderly fellow with a quick wit and an endless library of anecdotes. Gil first worked as an usher at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson made his Dodger debut. He hated the Yankees during his days at Ebbets and disliked them to this day. Even after the Dodgers left the city, he refused to cheer for the Pinstripes, and he's now a fixture with the Mets, who started play in 1962. When Citi Field becomes obsolete in about 2035 and they build another new stadium, Gil will probably still be wearing the same green shirt, still serving as an usher.

My aunt's favorite player is Minnesota's Michael Cuddyer. She has the type of ballplayer crush that's cute and endearing, until the restraining orders come into play and everyone - including her children - becomes a bit creeped out. But Friday night she wore her Cuddyer jersey and entered the stadium hoping to secure his autograph. Shortly before first pitch, Steve finally got Cuddyer's attention. The big lug wandered over. He signed her autograph and also took a picture with her. Mary's never washing the shirt she was wearing again. At the end of the first inning, Denard Span fired the ball into our section as he jogged off the field. Steve caught it and they had yet another souvenir.

We saw everything and we saw it up close, except for a Twins victory. Unfortunately, I don't think Mary made it on TV back home. She came with a Circle Me Bert sign, a placard she spent 30 minutes creating back home and hauled halfway across the country, in hopes that Twins broadcaster Bert Blyleven would circle her with a telestrator during the Twins telecast (I know. It's a Minnesota thing).

If anyone in Minnesota saw us let me know. It would have been a (just turned) 50-year-old woman holding up a bright yellow sign while two men cowered next to her out of embarrassment. To her credit, she stood up after every half inning, held the sign and turned toward a camera, any camera. Some Mets fans probably thought she was one of those criminals who's sentenced to a bizarre penalty by a wacky judge, like the guys who have to stand on a street corner with a sign that reads I BOUGHT BEER INSTEAD OF PAYING CHILD SUPPORT. To the fans' credit, they never threw hot dogs or a baseball at us, though that might have changed if the Twins had ever done anything on the field. In the later innings, a group of kids even broke out into song, serenading Mary with "Happy Birthday."

After the game we hit a bar near the Hotel Pennsylvania, where Mary and Steve stayed. We sipped on our drinks in peace until a pair of blowhards dressed in Mets jerseys stumbled in, freshly ousted from a nearby establishment. They were drunk, loud, obnoxious, fun (for three minutes), graceless, tactless, and annoying. When most people think Loudmouth New Yorker, these guys' voices are what they hear. When they call into talk radio to complain about Jerry Manuel or A-Rod, they're Vinnie from the Bronx or Billy from Brooklyn. They claimed to hold important jobs with "Fortune 500 companies," though that was impossible to confirm and I still have my doubts. Boasts about careers have as much credibility in bars as tales of bedroom conquests.

The bouncer at the previous joint kicked them out because one buddy convinced a total stranger to punch his friend in the face, which the guy did. The friend, taking exception to the blow, punched back. Mayhem ensued. Very funny, according to them. I'm guessing you had to be there. Like all drunks, they kept telling the same story over and over, getting sidetracked from baseball talk by another retelling of the hilarious punching tale. I began to see why that complete stranger found the idea of punching one of these men so damn appealing. We left shortly after their arrival. My guess is they were still telling the story three hours later.

On Sunday afternoon, following a visit to the Intrepid, we took a three-hour tour around Manhattan on a Circle Line cruise. Four women sat in front of us. After one overheard Steve talking about hog barns, they started talking and it turned out they were from Amboy, Minnesota, a small town in southern Minnesota that's maybe a half hour from Janesville. It's a big city, but still a small world.

We all enjoyed the cruise, a relaxing three hours that go by quickly as you coast south down the Hudson before going north up the East River. We saw the Statue of Liberty and all the bridges and even our neighborhood Target. Our tour guide provided a running commentary, though some of his information was wrong, leaving me to wonder how much other incorrect information he delivered. To be fair, he was probably delusional from the oppressive heat. And after delivering the same lines while wearing the same white shirt day after day, a slipup has to be expected. But he had a few. He told us the Intrepid fought in the Korean War (it didn't). He pointed out Governor's Island (it was Roosevelt Island). He told us the Statue of Liberty's index finger was 2-feet long (it's 8 feet).

At one point, near the end of the adventure, numerous people on Jet-Skis came flying past the boat, splashing waves near the people on the lower level. Some passengers (like Louise) even got soaked. The guide told us the cruise has previously called the Coast Guard on the "hooligans" and while he chuckled as the crowd enjoyed the show, it seemed obvious he was just waiting for an excuse to call in the machine guns and air support to take out the miscreants. It must be an ongoing war, the cruise lines versus the Jet Skis. On the 4:30 cruise on June 27, the personal watercraft prevailed. But Bill the guide will again have his day.

Throughout the cruise - and again at the end - he reminded us that if we wanted to thank him "personally" that would be very much appreciated. He said this while clutching a roll of dollar bills, evidence of the thanks he had already received. He repeated the refrain four or five times, as persistent as any subway panhandler. As we walked off, it looked like people gave him plenty of thanks, despite the fact they'll be spouting off several wrong facts about New York to their friends.

Mary and Steve hopped back onto a taxi Monday morning and were back in Minnesota by late in the afternoon.

They saw a lot on their trip, from Ground Zero to St. Patrick's. They discovered several little Irish pubs in the neighborhood and even adopted one as their own. We took them to a couple of cool New York City restaurants during their stay, both on the Upper West Side: Flor de Mayo and Carmine's. They walked countless blocks and rode on a horse-drawn carriage. They effortlessly swiped their MetroCards. They drank plenty of beer and ate some new food. They bought a mug at Mickey Mantle's restaurant and some shorts at Macy's. They spoke with lifelong locals and fellow tourists, with Muslim taxi drivers and folks from a bible camp.

They had a fun time. They probably appreciated the return to the farm and a bit of silence, but I think they'd love to return again for another visit.

If they do I'll be here ready to again play tour guide, anxious to show them the city I now call home, a city I never stop appreciating. A city I love seeing for the first time, time and time again.

1 comment:

beth said...

I talked to Mary in Walmart Tuesday night and saw her picture with Cuddyer, but your blog really brought their trip alive. Wish we'd been there with them! Maybe next time -- beth.