Monday, September 11, 2006

Embracing the homeland with baseball, bagels and blogging buddies

My emotions about this day, Sept. 11, bubble close to the surface.

It doesn’t take much to get me choked up. Little things like an old New York skyline Christmas ornament, or coming across a postcard or a photo of friends on the observation deck set me off.

Reporters develop sort of a protective patina because we see some unpleasant things, even on the education beat. We shift from "Oh, this is horrible" to "How should we cover this" pretty quickly. Another building in another city and I would have been able to make the shift.

But that day I was a wreck. And it was a real struggle last week to write our anniversary story and remain composed.

So I was a little worried about how I would handle a trip back to the homeland this past weekend for an education writers conference at Columbia University.

I have been back to the city just once since 2001, bringing my children to see some of my favorite landmarks in 2003. The closest we got to Ground Zero was Ellis Island. That was close enough. I knew what was missing from the view across the harbor; the kids did not.

Nevertheless, I was excited about the location of this conference because any trip to Manhattan is a glorious one. I was pumping my fist as the jet taxied to the gate and the spire of the Empire State Building poked through the trees around LaGuardia.

Speaking of taxis, I’ve decided that I hate those Bluetooth phone things that clip to the ear. The driver started talking as he thundered down the Grand Central Parkway. Since I was the only other person in the cab I assumed it was to me. I put my face up against the little window and said, "I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you." He looked over, shot me a look like I was crazy and dismissed me with a wave. Only then did I see the little gadget attached to his left ear.

I had about four hours of free time after arriving at the hotel at 79th and Amsterdam, and a couple places I wanted to get to before the conference started. The Mets were playing two day games — curses! — so I couldn’t get to Shea. I decided the Clubhouse Shop on 42nd Street would be as close as I could get.

I also was on a mission to get to American Girl Place for my daughter and to find something cool for my son and wife.

I figured I’d walk for a little while and eventually hop in a cab or figure out the subway, since I’d need to use it later in the day to get to Columbia.

Just a block south from the hotel was a classic New York bagel store. I’ve been in serious withdrawal since my local store closed, and even that was a Michigan version of a New York bagel, roughly similar to a Double-A baseball compared to the major leagues.
One of the two stores with awesome poppy seed bagels.

These guys never saw someone so happy to order a poppy seed bagel. It was as big as my fist and still warm as I munched and walked south on Amsterdam.

I had barely finished when I came upon Lincoln Center, my first stop. I wanted to find the New York Ballet gift shop to get something for my little ballerina and enjoyed talking to a police officer who offered directions. He, for reasons unclear, is a big University of Michigan football fan and was in awe that I had been to a couple games at the Big House. I was in awe that he gets to be in Lincoln Center every day.

With a nice dance top for my daughter in hand, I found a display of Christmas ornaments. There was a glass Yankees baseball jersey. I looked through the selection for the Mets version. There was none to be found.

How could this be? We’re the better team right now. Best in baseball!

Sadly, this shocking scene would be repeated throughout the weekend.

I walked a little farther, this time on Broadway, and soon came across Columbus Circle. Heck, Times Square was just off in the distance, so the walk continued, popping into souvenir stores, each time appalled at the lack of Mets items.

Soon the theaters started appearing — The Ed Sullivan where David Letterman tapes and the Wintergarden. I have not been in Times Square since the 1980s, and that was just a drive-through since it was a place deemed unsafe. I had heard it had been reclaimed. And how. It looked like an explosion in an neon glass factory, and was absolutely packed.

I spied the Hard Rock Cafe and thought that would be a place to find a T-shirt for my son. I thought the designs were horrible, which only adds to their coolness in his eyes. He must have liked it because he wore it to school today.

I then hit 42nd Street and turned left toward the block between Fifth and Sixth, where the Mets Clubhouse shop awaited.

It was both overwhelming and underwhelming at the same time. Lots of jerseys, T-shirts and caps. I was looking for things that I couldn’t easily get online, since luggage space was at a premium. I settled on a heavily discounted Kaz Matsui thing that looks like a Weeble, which wobbles but won’t fall down. The molded Kaz has a deer-in-the-headlights expression going. I decided it was perfect.

I also grabbed a Mets desk calendar, a little black batting helmet and postcards of Shea, Pedro and David Wright.

Having walked this far, and enjoyed every step, I decided to trek back uptown to Rockefeller Center, crossing through Bryant Park, which was abuzz with Fashion Week and packed with what I assumed were models or wanna-be models and guys who want to gawk at models and wanna-be models.

After checking out Prometheus, I ventured into the NBC store to find an NCIS T-shirt for my wife. This proved fruitless, especially because, as I later learned, the show is on CBS. The clerk was kind for not mocking me, at least not to my face.

American Girl Place is right across the street. There are only three of these stores in the world, and thank goodness. There might as well be a sign reading "Daddies, deposit your cash and dignity at the door." You can — and will — buy accessories for daughters, dolls and the dolls’ dogs. That damned Coconut is the best-dressed stuffed dog in the world.

I wanted to get back in plenty of time for the conference, so I started my trip back to the hotel, this time buying a sesame seed bagel from a guy who, once again, had never seen someone so excited about a sesame seed bagel.

That night and the next day was spent dissecting the federal No Child Left Behind Act and its effect on urban schools. It’s a fascinating topic for an education wonk like me. My job is to make it fascinating for our readers.

The non-conference highlight came Saturday night when fellow blogger Greg Prince of Faith and Fear in Flushing came to visit.

A beautiful thing about blogging is being introduced to people like Greg. I’m convinced that had we met as kids on Long Island we would have been best friends. He bestowed some glorious gifts to help combat homesickness and we enjoyed conversation and a meal at a street table at a place called Dead Poets, which we thought was appropriate for two live bloggers.

A street table on Manhattan is a joy because you get to see the world bustling by on a beautiful, busy Saturday night. The danger is that sometimes the world feels free to stop and talk to you — especially when you’re wearing a cool Carlos Delgado shirt and a sweet 1976 retro cap. Luckily, not everyone who stopped wanted money.

It was the first time Greg and I had met, yet it felt like we’ve been friends forever.

The conference wrapped up the next day. Columbia University is a beautiful place, though I did have sort of a Spinal Tap moment trying to take a shortcut through the engineering building. Found the boiler room and parking garage before eventually finding an exit.

I stopped at that bagel store one more time and grabbed a dozen. The guy tossed a couple more in the bag when I told him I was taking them back to Michigan.

The taxi driver taking me back to LaGuardia was talkative, and this time I made sure he wasn’t wearing a Bluetooth before responding. I learned a lot about the taxi business. Apparently the biggest obstacle is not double-parked trucks or inattentive pedestrians.

"People from Jersey," he said. "When ever I see a driver who has no clue what they’re doing, I look at the plate and they’re from Jersey.

He switched the radio to WINS 1010 as we crossed the Triborough and the announcer went live to Ground Zero, where President Bush and Laura Bush were laying a wreath. Out the window I could see the Empire State, the Citicorp and the Chrysler. I knew what was missing. The emotions came bubbling up.

On these days I try to dwell on the heroic instead of the wicked.

I’m not a huge Springsteen guy, but I think about his song "Into the Fire," a tribute to the firefighters of that day.

"The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire

I need your kiss,
but love and duty called you someplace higher

Somewhere up the stairs into the fire

May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love"


Mets Grrl said...

The sure way to tell the tourists from the New Yorkers downtown is where they look: the tourists look down at the hole. The New Yorkers look up, where the towers used to be.

jabair said...

growing up in bensenhurst and driving up and down the BQE.. the last time i was in NY in 2004, i couldnt even bring myself to look in the direction of teh WTC..

i hope they build the buildings back up... they gotta replace those towers... the skyline just seems incomplete.. every picture ive seen sinse 9/11 seems empty...

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