When last we left the intrepid Holy Bee, less than two hours after arriving in the Big City, he and four of his students failed to make it off at the correct subway stop, and were barreling into parts unknown…
If I were alone, this moment would have produced a tingle of excitement. A challenge! But since I was nominally in charge of four eighth-graders who foolishly assumed I knew what I was doing, the moment produced nothing but a sort of grim, quiet panic. They were all relatively bright kids, but as far as navigating the perplexing N.Y.C. subway system, they were drooling idiots. (I found myself making a snap judgment of their intelligence to determine if they could be in any way helpful, as obviously my little miscue proved I was far from Mensa material myself when it came to urban public transportation.)
Luckily, the subway cars were copiously supplied with mounted and framed subway maps, so I pushed my way through to the nearest non-defaced one. Ah, a quick hop onto the Yellow Line at Queensboro Plaza should save our bacon nicely. We could get off at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, and hoof it six blocks south to the Museum of Modern Art. A doddle, as the Brits say.
Maybe the fact that my plan worked so flawlessly caused me to have a moment of giddy euphoria as we emerged from the subway station into midtown Manhattan just south of Central Park. My earlier glimpse of Metropolis at Penn Station was hurried and distracted. Now I drank it all in. It felt like a movie set, as if the whole thing were created as a massive special effect. I loved it immediately. But we had to hustle — the MoMA closed at 5:30 and it was already edging past three. We all broke into a jog, slipping and squeezing our way through pedestrian traffic. At least one of us pretended he was a Ghostbuster. We arrived at the MoMA a mere fifteen minutes behind the main group, who’d used the “correct” subway connections.
Museum of Modern Art, 3:11 p.m. The Musuem of Modern Art was originally founded by Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and a group of like-minded rich socialites. John Jr., who believed modern art was some kind of communist plot, allowed his wife to indulge her pinko hobby but vowed that not a penny of the family fortune would be used in its service. Mrs. Rockefeller raised the funds independently. The building in which the collection now resides, at 11 W. 53rd Street, was opened in 1939 (and built on ground grudgingly donated by John Jr.) Six floors, surrounding a central sculpture garden and built in the International Style, feature works such as van Gogh’s Starry Night, Picasso’s Les Diemoiselles d’Avingnon, Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, Warhol’s Campbell Soup Cans, Cezanne’s The Bather, Matisse’s The Dance, Monet’s Water Lilies, Wyeth’s Christina’s World, and thousands of others (more than 150,000 total in the museum’s collection.)
The reason for our school’s visit was tied to our overall project (see Part 1) — an exhibition called Talk To Me: Design and the Communication between People and Objects. We were supposed to see if we could apply some of the concepts on display to our “Design For The Other 90%.”
From the Talk To Me section of the MoMA website:
Talk to Me explores the communication between people and things. All objects contain information that goes well beyond their immediate use or appearance. In some cases, objects like cell phones and computers exist to provide us with access to complex systems and networks, behaving as gateways and interpreters. Whether openly and actively, or in subtle, subliminal ways, things talk to us, and designers help us develop and improvise the dialogue.
The exhibition focuses on objects that involve a direct interaction, such as interfaces, information systems, visualization design, and communication devices, and on projects that establish an emotional, sensual, or intellectual connection with their users. Examples range from a few iconic products of the late 1960s to several projects currently in development—including computer and machine interfaces, websites, video games, devices and tools, furniture and physical products, and extending to installations and whole environments.
The students freely ranged from display to display, in clusters of two and three, diligently scribbling into their little blue notebooks (provided by us at the start of the trip.) Some scribbled more diligently than others. I know I found at least two of those blue notebooks, uncracked, left behind in various lobbies.
Neat as it was, it seemed a bit unfair to keep the kids rabbiting away on their projects when some of the greatest works of art in the world were merely a floor away. With only 45 minutes until closing, I rounded up a small group of art lovers to do a fast-motion dash through the gallery floors, Ferris Bueller-style.
As sunset rapidly approached, we all began to feel a distinct rumbling in our stomachs, the fare from the Amtrak dining car having long been burned off. Since our itinerary was planned to a T by Our Principal (still in absentia, remember, with the flu-stricken Elizabeth), our dinner reservations were just a few blocks away…the world-famous Carnegie Deli.
Carnegie Deli, 6:12 p.m. The Carengie Deli, located at 854 Seventh Avenue, opened in 1937, and has been operated by three generations of the same family. Famous for its one-pound pastrami or corned beef sandwiches and cheesecake slices the size of a tombstone, the deli boasts the motto: “If you can finish your meal, we’ve done something wrong.” It quickly became a popular hang-out for celebrities, especially comedians. The walls are lined with autographed photos of its famous and somewhat-famous customers.
As we were ushered past the main deli counter to the dining area in the back, the wall decorations grabbed some of the kids’ eyes. Knowing I harbor a deeply uncool knowledge of archaic show business, they asked about some of the people in the pictures.
“That’s George Gobel.”
“What’s he from?”
“Uh…The George Gobel Show.”
“I never saw it, either.”
“Then why do you even know about it?”
“Because there’s clips of him on YouTube when he was on The Dean Martin Show. There’s more on YouTube than video game walk-throughs, you know.”
More blank stares.
The famously surly Carnegie Deli waiters were not surly so much as totally inscrutable. They made no acknowledgement when we placed our orders that they even heard us. A request for extra napkins was met by a very familiar blank stare. (The napkins eventually arrived.) Coincidentally, a reality show, The Family Pickle, featuring the rather colorful family who runs the deli, was making its debut on the deep-cable Retirement Living TV (RLTV) that very night. The first episode played on an endless loop on a huge wall-mounted flatscreen TV. The bellowing voice of the eccentric deli manager, Sandy Levine, hectored us in 5.1 surround sound for the duration of our meal.
The meal itself? Pretty good for what was basically a pound of shaved meat dumped on a comparatively flimsy slice of bread. The physics involved of actually eating this monstrosity eluded me until I decided the throw dignity to the wind and unhinge my jaw like a Komodo dragon swallowing a goat. Too much meat? Wanna share? Sharing is $3.00 extra. And no free refills on the tiny Cokes. Thanks, Sandy. We could have thanked the great man personally as he swanned through the room halfway through our dining experience. He noticed Lana’s meal choice.
“Macaroni and cheese?! Whaddaya, SIX?!!”
Lana was nonplussed, and ignored him in a way only eighth-grade girls can ignore. (I overheard her later tell someone, “I was gonna say ‘So why is it on the menu, motherfucker?'” Lana is delightfully potty-mouthed for a 4.0 GPA bespectacled Asian girl.)
For much of the meal, I had been on the receiving end of increasingly desperate texts from Our Principal, who was traveling on foot from Penn Station to Carnegie Deli, with the recovering Elizabeth and all of their luggage in tow, and her cell phone GPS was sending her in the wrong direction. I slipped out of the dining room on the pretext of waving at our wandering waifs as they appeared, guiding them their final block or so, but really just trying to dodge the calculation on twenty dinner checks, all paid separately plus tax and tips. Too much math. At long last, Our Principal and Elizabeth — in her pajamas — staggered up Seventh Avenue, just as our surly waiters were about to give us the bum’s rush.
Then we headed just where a sick girl in her PJs would want to go — TIMES SQUARE!
Times Square, 8:38 p.m. Where Broadway meets Seventh Avenue is the heart of New York City’s Theater District. Every building for blocks around is lit up in one of the most eye-wateringly bright blasts of animated neon and LED advertising ever conceived by the mind of Man. It somehow manages to be both garish and lovely. It’s named after the New York Times, the headquarters of which is at the heart of the Square (and home to the New Year’s Eve ball drop.) The so-called “Crossroads of the World” is also the most-visited tourist destination in the world, at 39 million visitors annually. It was closed to traffic in 2009 and became a pedestrian-only plaza, complete with bleachers for seemingly no other purpose than to let Nebraska hicks stare at the billboards without getting run over.
We spent a good twenty minutes gawking at the billboards ourselves before the shopping bug hit. The retail venues that everyone decided to throw their hard-earned (not really) spending cash on were the massive, competing candy stores that faced each other at 48th and Broadway. If the multi-story Hershey chocolate store couldn’t sate your sweet-tooth, then its neighbor, the M&M store could. Every square inch of floor space in these stores was occupied by teeming humanity, so I decided my presence was not needed. Elizabeth, still getting her sea-legs, agreed. We lounged near the entrance. (I almost began this entire blog series with the statement “How I came to be standing in the middle of Times Square with a thirteen-year-old girl in her pajamas might require some explanation,” but figured it might be construed as somewhat tasteless. It plays better in context.)
Once everyone got their fill of chocolate and chocolate-themed souvenirs, we decided on our last stop for the day. Originally, it was to be a trip to the top of the Empire State Building, but Mark and I decided on the cheaper, much less crowded Rockefeller Center. The capper on the decision was the fact you can’t get a spectacular view of the Empire State Building from the Empire State Building.
Rockefeller Center, 10:06 pm. Rockefeller Center is a complex of nineteen buildings ranging from 48th to 51st Streets between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. Considered the center of mid-town Manhattan, the whole shebang was personally financed by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (the same old sourpuss who refused to spend a dime on modern art.) The complex includes Radio City Music Hall, and the centerpiece is the the 70-story, Art Deco GE Building, more commonly known as “30 Rock.” Home to NBC for decades, at various times The Tonight Show, The Today Show, Late Night (Letterman and O’Brien), and NBC Nightly News all broadcast from the various production facilities scattered throughout the skyscraper. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Saturday Night Live, and (of course) 30 Rock are currently in production here. Oh, and the incredibly smarmy Dr. Oz is here, too. I thought I spotted a trail of his slime in one of the hallways. Anyway, on the 67th floor of 30 Rock is the “Top of the Rock” observation deck, and that was where we were heading.
We were ushered into 30 Rock, past a wall-sized screen showing highlights from the GE Building’s (RCA Building until 1988) storied history toward the elevators — glass-ceilinged elevators, which were a little unsettling as they shot us upward sixty-plus stories at approximately 5000 miles per hour. The group oohed and aahed over the the night-time Manhattan skyline, snapped pictures that mostly just reflected off the plexiglass safety walls, then took the less scrotum-shrinkingly intense ride down to the bottom. The restrooms that everyone decided they needed desperately at that point were located off a food court next to the famous Rockefeller Plaza ice-skating rink, abandoned at this hour and looking much smaller than it does on TV.
Back to the subway station. The N.Y.C. subway cards were a little different than the D.C. Metro’s. On the Metro, you waved your card in front of the sensor and the turnstile unlocks. (Some of the kids waved them so enthusiastically for so long a time, they used up their pre-paid amount and had to get new ones out of their own funds.) In N.Y.C., you slide the card into a slot and slide it back out to unlock the turnstile. Take it out too soon, or leave it in too long, and you’re locked out for fifteen minutes. Most of the kids mastered the timing of the “swipe” immediately, but Vincent, who had the motor skills of a marionette operated by someone with Parkinson’s, could not do it. He ended up crawling under more subway turnstiles over the next two days than a fugitive tagger. That would have been bad enough, but he insisted on blaming the “faulty” turnstiles.
Thursday, October 27, 2011. The United Nations Headquarters, First Avenue, 9:02 a.m. Bad weather rolled in early Thursday morning. Wind, rain, and bone-chilling temperatures greeted our awakening, and dogged our every step through the day. Today would supposedly feature the primary reason for the entire trip — a visit to the United Nations, where the inventions created by the “Design For The Other 90%” innovators were on display…in what appeared to be the basement. Little blue notebooks in hand, the kids prowled the displays, in search of inspiration for their own original designs, which they would pull together in the spring semester.
Soon — too soon — a pretty high percentage of our designers-in-training were curled up asleep on the comfy benches that lined the display area. I thought they were zonked at the Library of Congress, that was nothing compared to the somnabulism on display at the U.N. Mark and I awoke them, and through clenched teeth explained to them that this was the whole reason for the trip and that they had goddamn jolly well better wake the fuck up. (This is not a direct quote.)
In their defense, the stage may have been set by the less-than-riveting tour of the famous General Assembly Hall, where I kept expecting Dr. Evil to appear on a large screen and demand “one meeeel-yun dollars.” The center of international diplomacy looked like it was completed in 1952 and not touched since — featuring fake leather seats with massive cracks and huge water stains on the walls.
Slightly better was the part of the tour dealing with the U.N.’s humanitarian efforts through the decades (this may have actually inspired more projects in the end than the museum displays.) Cade got to try on one of the famous light-blue U.N. “Peacekeeping” helmets.
11:08 a.m. As we were exiting the U.N. and heading toward the security tent to recover our bags and backpacks, we were treated to an unexpected surprise: the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon hopped out of a limousine not fifteen feet away from us. Seeing a group of schoolchildren, one of the most important people in the world put on a cheery grin and gave a wave — and was totally ignored because no one had any idea who he was. (The fact that the U.N. had a Secretary-General, and it was this guy, was something we had neglected to brief them on.)
Bracing our umbrellas against the onslaught, we headed toward Grand Central Station for our next port of call — the entirely outdoor, exposed-to-the-elements National September 11 Memorial & Museum. On the way there, we were treated to a performance by a group of subway performers — middle-aged African-American guys who busted out some close harmony doo-wop. They were pretty damn good, and made a fortune off our soft-touch students.
The National September 11 Memorial & Museum, 1:07 p.m. The area that was once the World Trade Center was still basically a huge construction zone. We got wetter by the minute as we snaked our way through an insanely long line, past tarps, scaffolding, cyclone fencing, and open, muddy pits. The only people who looked wetter and more miserable than us were the Occupy Wall Street protesters living in their tent city in Zuccotti Park. The new One World Trade Center (formerly the “Freedom Tower”) loomed over us, nearly completed. We wondered how much more crowded it would be if there weren’t a monsoon currently in progress.
We finally emerged onto the memorial site itself. I was disappointed that the Museum portion was still under construction, but the Memorial had been open for a little over a month (on the tenth anniversary of 9/11.) Within the footprints of the original Twin Towers are two one-acre reflecting pools, sunk deep into the ground, with the inner walls featuring the largest man-made waterfalls in the U.S. The outer walls are inscribed with the names of the 2,977 9/11 victims (plus six who were killed in the 1993 WTC bombings.)
On September 11, 2001, I was less than a month into my first full-time teaching position at the school where I still work…I was commuting about fifty miles in from Marysville at that time…It must have been about 6:45 in the morning when I got into my car and turned on the radio and heard the news…the South Tower was about fifteen minutes from collapsing…Both towers fell during my drive…I got to school and our “big” TV had been wheeled into the principal’s office…no cable, but a paper clip jammed into the coaxial hole gave us some fuzzy Fox…you take what you can get…no Internet in the classrooms yet, either, just in the computer lab…I think we scrounged around for a radio, but couldn’t find one…all our updates came from that snowy TV…teachers drifted in and out of the principal’s office…If I had been the “experienced” (i.e., old) teacher I am now, I would have kept the kids informed and started discussing the situation…But I was a newbie, and tried to doggedly stick to the day’s lesson plan…I gave up before noon, when half the student body had gone home…
Whatever reveries I was experiencing during our time at the Memorial may or may not have been shared by our nineteen eighth-graders, who were in the midst of potty-training when the attacks happened.
We weren’t getting any dryer, so we headed for the tiny gift shop, along with about a thousand other drenched visitors with the same idea. Stretching ahead of us was a totally free afternoon, where we could divide into small groups and explore the city at our leisure. We were now subway veterans.