Five Days in New York: Part 2 – Playing Tourist
They say most New Yorkers have never gone to the Statue of Liberty, and as somebody who lived on Staten Island, a borough of the City, for over thirty years, I was one of them, at least since Lady Liberty had her multimillion dollar eighties facelift. So Friday morning with on-line tix in hand for my combo tour of the Statue and Ellis Island, the entry point for tens of millions of immigrants from the 1880’s through the 1920’s including my own grandparents, I took the Number One subway down to Battery Park.
What awaited me was a Disney World line of fellow tourists who before you ever got on the boats to take you into New York Harbor had to file through a non-descript steel house to undergo a security check on par with any airport, minus taking off your shoes. Sign of our times.
It was a beautiful, cloud -free fall day and the ride over to Liberty Island gave you a spectacular view of the iconic New York skyline including the new Freedom Tower. And certainly the many foreign tourists who surrounded me on the boat and who I would rub elbows with throughout my five day stay only cemented in my mind NYC’s place as the tourist capital of the world. And given the wealth of Scandinavian I heard spoken, I guess those folks on the top of the world are doing real well.
I was proud of myself, as an aging cynic, climbing the over two hundred steps to the top of Lady Liberty’s pedestal, but it was Ellis Island, still under renovation when I left New York in 2002, that held the most fascination for me. After all, this is where it all started for my grandparents who came over “on the boat” from Slovakia and Russia around 1907. I still have my father’s father’s trunk that held all his worldly possessions in my living room to remind me of my humble beginnings.
For all the horror stories of families being broken up once they arrived in the Great Hall – if a child or spouse was found physically or mentally unfit, they were sent back – most were treated like royalty on this side of the Atlantic compared to their weeks long voyage as steerage passengers where accommodations were not much better than those faced by concentration camp victims decades later. (Actually handling immigrants proved to be a profitable business line for the steamship companies.) How any of them were able to afford it is even more amazing. The ship ticket cost twenty five dollars – a month’s wages back in the old country – and once here, a train ticket could run even higher. Family folklore says that my paternal grandfather who understandably knew no English had a sign around his neck which read “Ship Me To Montana,” where his older brother who was sponsoring him worked in the coal mines of San Coulee. My father, aunt and uncle would later be born there. And decades later, when I visited the little town, I was surprised to find a Slovak community still in place.
But what motivated all these millions to leave what they knew for a big unknown? Economic hardship, political and religious persecution were certainly factors. At the turn of the last century, Slovakia was under the rule of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire which was forcing native peoples to abandon their culture and even their language. I also learned walking through the living exhibits at Ells Island that many of these countries were run like police states.
On Friday, being an old film buff, I took the Turner Classic Movies bus tour of sites throughout Manhattan where scenes for some famous films had been shot, like the Upper West Side brownstone Audrey Hepburn “lived in” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” which recently sold for ten million dollars; or the little park by the 59th Street Bridge in Sutton Place, considered the most expensive neighborhood in the City and where Woody Allen shot a scene for his film, “Manhattan.” In the end, the tour was not just a smorgasbord of movie history; it exemplified the deep contrasts in New York between the ultra wealthy and the down and out. The following morning I grabbed an Egg McMuffin breakfast at a McDonald’s near my hotel where an obviously inebriated panhandler inside was hustling customers for loose change. A number of beggars stationed in their little spots on the sidewalk looked disturbingly young.
But the tourist site that got to me the most was the 9/11 Memorial Museum at Ground Zero. As I’ve mentioned before, I worked for the Staten Island Division of St. Vincent’s Hospital, and was in lower Manhattan at the “Motherhouse” (St. V’s was operated by the
Sisters of Charity of New York) where I not only witnessed that tragic day first hand, but was drafted to deal with the media circus that followed at St. Vincent’s, the closest hospital to the World Trade Center. (For my complete account of that day, visit my blog, str8gayconfessions.com, and check out the archives for September 11, 2015.)
While the reflection pools created at the original footprints of the two towers and where the names of victims are inscribed appears serene on TV, there is actually a beehive of construction going on around the museum and the new Freedom Tower, another example of the vitality of an ever changing city.
Again, 9/11 had a personal connection for me, and in the museum I saw the twisted fire truck which had been buried under the rumble of the collapsed towers that the secretary of our hospital’s CEO saw on TV that morning and instantly knew her firefighter husband was dead. Perhaps the most chilling exhibit was a series of voicemail messages that a financier in one of the towers following the first plane left on his home phone for his wife, oblivious to the reality that his life would end minutes later.
This is the only museum I have ever been in that maintains Kleenex dispensers throughout its exhibits.
Monday: NYC’s Men and Its Sanitized Gay Scene.
(Pix: the Manhattan skyline from Liberty Island; a late afternoon view of New York Harbor from Liberty Island; the Statue; Ellis Island; the Great Hall where immigrants were collected before processing; the 59th Street Bridge park used in “Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”; the remains of one of the Tower’s foundation walls as viewed in the 9/11 Museum; the reflection pool; the new Freedom Tower; the American flag that was retrieved from the rumble on 9/11.)