Charlotte, New York

I got back early this Sunday morning from New York. Man, do my dogs hurt. But it was a wonderful, if not whirlwind, trip.

While I could complain about the minor discomfort of [not] sleeping on a tour bus the night before a long day of traipsing about NYC, it wouldn’t be worth the effort. There are so many other high points to ramble on about instead.

Our bus left western Pennsylvania at 12:30 AM on a very dark, very rainy Saturday morning. Surprisingly, most of the group was my age. Many were even younger. Sure, there were your requisite blue-hairs milling and shuffling about the bus depot, but not a lot of them. It’s likely that the physical challenge of negotiating Gotham for an entire day on foot had kept most of their peers away.

One of the spry seniors waiting with us was a petite little thing in a raincoat and tennis shoes. Unlike the other older passengers, she didn’t have sackfulls of things to bring on board. She was armed with just a thin, nylon bag and a sweater. She saw my friend, M, and me standing by the door and struck up a conversation.

“What are you girls planning to see?” she asked M. M told her that we didn’t really have a plan, just a few places we wanted to wander, and that we had figured the weather and our ability to navigate the subway would kind of lead us around. I asked what was on her itinerary. Turns out she had lived in New York when she was in her mid-twenties. She wanted to go back to see her old stomping grounds, which she hadn’t seen in a few decades. At seventy-five years old, she figured she needed to go now, or she probably never would.

The conversation petered out as our bus arrived. We all piled on, M and I finding seats mid-way back. I noticed that the old lady had sat down alone in the first row of seats. My friend and I busied ourselves with arranging our bags, getting comfortable, and then chatted for a couple of hours before dozing off.

We stopped around 6:30 AM for a bite of breakfast. The bus parked in front of a Burger King, and everyone scrambled to get in lines for the restroom or food. M and I spied a Dunkin Donuts across the street. Now, if you are like me, you will agree that the Double D has some of the best fast-food coffee going. Top it off with the fact that they sell multi-grain bagels, and you’ve got the makings of a reasonably good junkfood breakfast. So, while everyone else on the bus dutifully followed each other into BK, we hopped across the way and indulged in slightly better fare – with no lines, to boot.

Back on the bus, we sipped our javas and talked about what we wanted to do in the city. I wanted to visit a Japanese market and gift shop, hoping to procure some bento fare and cooking supplies (a whole ‘nother post topic, forthcoming) and possibly visit Greenwich Village. M wanted to see Central Park, Little Italy, and Rockefeller Center. Since it was still pretty drizzly and overcast, we decided to let the weather dictate where we started: the Park if it was clear, or Chinatown if not.

Shortly, the driver announced that we were minutes from Manhattan. There would be two dropoffs: the first was on Fifth Avenue near Radio City Music Hall; the second was in front of Macy’s at 34th & 7th. Everyone on the bus craned to see glimpses of the Big Apple out of our tinted bus windows.

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Finally, we reached the first dropoff point. More than half of the bus debarked, with a flurry of bags and coats and umbrellas. I noticed the old woman up front, still in her seat, alone. M and I decided it might be nice to meet up with her for dinner, since she didn’t seem to have made plans with anyone. As the bus lumbered towards Macy’s, I went up to the empty row next to hers to extend an invitation.

The old woman was pleasantly surprised at my suggestion that we have supper together, but doubtful that we would be able to meet up since she didn’t carry a cell phone. So, I asked if she wanted to just join up with us for the day. We didn’t really have a firm plan, anyway, and would enjoy seeing some of the sights from a former native’s perspective. She agreed heartily. We introduced ourselves, and she told me her name was Charlotte.

Charlotte was delightful. She readily agreed to our loose plan of Chinatown first, due to the light drizzle that was still threatening, so we all headed toward the subway and Canal Street. After second-guessing ourselves a few times, we figured out which train we needed. We bought metro cards at the station, swiped them at the turnstile, and were off.

On Canal Street, we wandered through the kitschy, crowded shops that looked more like overflowing closets than retail establishments. Every few steps, a young Chinese- usually female, but sometimes not- shoved glossy cards with photos of knockoff designer bags and watches at us. Sometimes, they would approach us and rattle off lists of designer names, hoping to pique the interests of potential customers. M did buy a few t-shirts for her girls. I found a small grocery with an enormous supply of “medicinal” teas, such as Longevity Tea and Good Bowels Tea. As a joke, I bought my DH a box of Horny Goat Weed, guaranteed to improve male virility. (As if he needs it!)

We eventually worked our way out of Chinatown and into Little Italy. The latter neighborhood was celebrating the Feast of San Gennaro, and the streets were decked out with booths, vendors, balloons, and lots of delicious smells. We realized that we were quite hungry, and decided to stop for an early lunch at one of the outdoor eateries. We found one right on Mulberry Street with a wonderful view of the goings-on, and enjoyed a hearty lunch at Da Gennaro’s. I even indulged in a mimosa. Hey! I’m on vacation here!

After lunch, we wandered through the festival. I got myself a chocolate cannoli at a street vendor and was very glad about that decision, as it was just as decadent and tasty as it looked. M tried a dish of cannoli cream with strawberries, and was equally pleased. Poor Charlotte was so full of lasagne that she didn’t have room for dessert, but she said her lunch had been worth it.

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We hopped back on the subway at Bleeker St and headed up towards Central Park. The sun finally came out in full force, but pleasantly so – perfect for walking. We took our longest subway ride of the day all the way up to 96th Street, planning to see some of the famous park and visit Charlotte’s old neighborhood.

As we came up out of the subway, I noticed that Charlotte seemed different. She had kept a lively gait all morning, but there was definitely more zip in her step. Her shoulders were square, she was much more chatty, and her eyes glistened with a mix of joy and nostalgia at the memories that were so obviously flooding over her. I was very moved by all of it and had a hard time fighting back my own sappy emotions. We made our way to the corner of 91st and Lexington, where she used to live in a basement apartment. Charlotte practically bounced as she led us to where she used to live.

She slowed down, almost reverent, as we reached the corner where her home once stood. Her row house had been demolished years ago, but she had been back since then, so the buildings that replaced it weren’t a surprise. But you could tell that she saw a different street-corner there in the late morning sun. I choked back a lot more sappy tears as I watched her, seeing all the memories flickering over her lightly lined face.

I wanted to ask her about her life here. Not just the superficial things we had already talked about, like where she worked or what her apartment was like. I wanted to know the real story of her short time in New York. What was it like for a young girl from western Pennsylvania, living away from her family in the big city? Did she and her roommate spend their evenings walking, or seeing museums, or taking in the nightlife? Did she ever have suitors knock on her basement apartment’s window?

M didn’t succumb to the poignant moment, though. She was impatient to see the park, although she did wait kindly while Charlotte went half a century into the past and back again. After a few minutes and several pictures, we moved on. We headed back down to 90th, turned west and crossed Park, with Charlotte chattering fondly about the routes she used to take and the places she used to go.

As we neared Fifth Avenue, we saw that some of the streets were blocked off for a parade. Apparently, it was not only the Feast of San Gennaro for the Italians in New York, but also Steuben Day for the city’s German-American contingent. The parade was just kicking off as we neared the park. We watched for a little while as floats and marching bands made their way through an ever-growing crowd of onlookers.

Charlotte walked with us into Central Park, and we stopped to rest a bit near the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir. Here, we decided to split up for an hour or so. M wanted to see more of the park, while Charlotte wanted to see the Egyptian art exhibit at the Met. I felt a little obligated to join M, but also felt a little bit of guilt at leaving Charlotte alone. She was fine with separating, though. We agreed to meet up in front of the Met in an hour.

Just after 2pm, after seeing Belvedere Castle and The Ramble, we came out of Central Park and went searching for the Fifth Avenue entrance to the famous art museum. The parade was still going on, nearly two hours later. We walked up Fifth to the huge steps in front of the main entrance. Just as I was wondering how we would find Charlotte in the crowd that had assembled for the parade, M spotted her. She was sitting on the upper steps, enjoying the view and the weather. She seemed happy to see us, and gave a glowing report of the Egyptian Art exhibit. Her only complaint was that they didn’t allow her to bring her leftover lasagne from Da Gennaro’s into the museum.

After a bit more chat, we decided to start heading south and try to find Katagiri, the Japanese market I had hoped to visit. It was only 20 blocks down from where we were in front of the Met, and just east of 3rd Avenue. We decided to take our last subway ride of the day.

Getting off the subway at 59th, we headed east to the corner of 3rd Ave. I spotted the market just a few doors down. M and Charlotte waited outside while I went in. The market had a lot of the things I wanted to try, including kombu (dried seaweed), dried shiitake mushrooms, and soba noodles. I picked up an assortment of things, but didn’t see any bento items. At the checkout, though, a sign proclaimed that “Katagiri Gift” was located two doors up. Stuffing my purchases into the backpack, I went out to tell the other two.

At Katagiri Gift, M and Charlotte politely browsed through the Japanese-branded fragrances, beauty items, and trinkets. I immediately found a small but beautiful collection of bento boxes, and picked a square lacquered one out for myself. In the back of the store, I found rice molds and child-sized chopsticks with cute characters on them, perfect for the kids. I also picked up a pair of Hello Kitty snack bentos for the girls. Success!

By now, we were all getting hungry again. Charlotte and I were getting worn out and wanted to sit for a few minutes, and maybe get something cold to drink. We ducked into a Wendy’s and got floats while M looked through our guidebook for some place promising for dinner. We settled on Ted’s Montana Grill, which offered bison meat and other “comfort foods”.

Ted’s was located near Rockefeller Center, which did factor into the decision to eat there. We wandered the 9-odd blocks south and then headed west, taking in St. Bart’s along the way. At Rockefeller, I took pictures of M and Charlotte looking down into the flag-encircled skating area, which was still set up for outdoor dining from the summer season.

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We found Ted’s easily, and went inside. It was only four- o’clock, and the restaurant was practically deserted, but we were hungry from all of the walking. My feet were really starting to hurt, and I was glad to sit down and enjoy a glass of wine. The menu was definitely full of comfort foods, much of it centering around beef and bison dishes. I tried the bison in a pot-roast form. Charlotte got a naked bison burger which, we had been led to believe by our very witty waiter, involved him serving it to her while nude. Unfortunately, it was the burger, and not our waiter, who arrived at the table without clothing. More’s the pity.

We had a lovely time together, enjoying our meal and reliving the day’s highlights. The food was good, and we discovered that “Ted” was actually Ted Turner. Apparently, he owns several of these restaurants. Not bad, if you’re looking for bison.

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After dinner, we went in search of a coffee for me and Times Square for M. Charlotte was visibly tired, but still in a great mood. She gamely went into the M&M store with us, then we made our way down 7th, over to Broadway, and into Times Square.

By now, the sun was setting fast, and the colored lights were becoming more vivid against the growing darkness. Times Square, with all its neon and flashing screens, looked like the Las Vegas strip smashed into a couple of blocks. It was crowded, with people heading to theatre or clubs or dinner. There were limousines lined up everywhere. It looked like… well, it looked like typical New York on a Saturday night.

We made our way over to Macy’s, and found a cafe in the cellar of the store. There was a small cafeteria, where we all got sodas. I picked up some chocolates for DH. The day was catching up with us, fast. I could hardly keep my eyes open, and it was only 8PM. Our bus was due at 8:45, and I guiltily wished that it would hurry up and get here.

Finally, we went outside and found our stop. Most of the rest of the group arrived shortly after we did, and then the bus pulled up to the corner of 34th and 7th. M and Charlotte and I hopped on right away. Most of our group had done some serious shopping, though, and were frantically stuffing packages and bags underneath the bus before boarding. I was glad to only have a little backpack.

The ride home was pretty uneventful. We stopped every few hours for the drivers to switch off, but after the first two or three stops, I didn’t even wake up. You know you’re darn tired when you are dead asleep on a bus.

Finally, around 4:30 AM, we pulled into the bus depot. I was really ready to get home and kiss my pillow. M and I said goodbye to each other. As I turned to find my car, I saw Charlotte, walking ahead. I yelled out a goodbye to her, too. She stopped and waved. I caught up to her, and she thanked me for asking her to join us.

On the way home, I thought about Charlotte in New York. I felt really good for having shared the day with her. She mentioned that she works evenings at a store near the bus office. I think I’m going to print out some of our pictures and stop in there one evening to give them to her. She gave me some really nice memories. I’d like to return the favor, perhaps.

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3 thoughts on “Charlotte, New York

  1. jen-hope you remmeber me…a friend of melinda’s….stumbled on your blog through hers. you are a beautiful writer. i loved the new york story and actually fought back tears of my own. i am very close to my maternal grandmother (she is 80) and i am constantly reminded to see our world a bit differently because of her. how wonderful that you included charlotte in your adventures! best to you….k

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