Macy's Thanksgiving Parade -- we had to see it

... New York, New York, it's a wonderful town ...

by Don Norris

That's Broadway near 37th Street, approaching the end of the Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day parade. For years we have seen it on television, and now, we can say, we've been there, done that. It was a grand occasion.

The itinerary: I had a date with three of the most beautiful women in the world. All of them were married, but what the heck, this was an opportunity too good to miss. It happened in late November, and involved an intimate weekend in the ultimate holiday place, New York City.

Not a bad deal for a 74-year old. It cost me a mere eight hundred bucks, for two days of sheer bliss. Well, two days of really good times.

And let me tell you, I was one worn out dude when it was all over.

Inside Info: First, let me tell you about the players in this little menage-a-trois -- actually it was a menage a seis, six of us, and the total bill for all of us came to somewhere over two grand for those 54 hours of titilation.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a straight shooter, and I love my wife. And my kids. In fact, two of three ladies on this odyssey were my beautiful daughters, and the third was their mother. My wife. The two other travelers were the partners of those two beautiful young ladies. In short, we are family ...

That's Lorry at the left, Nancy and Joanne, trying to decide which way to go. It's easy in New York. Streets go east and west; avenues, north and south. Or is it the other way ... ?

It began when the youngest, Joanne, called with an ultimatum. "Hey Dad, life's too short. Let's run down to New York to see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade."

"In fact, let's take the train," she said. What a novel idea for this family that lives for airborne transportation. The fact is, to get a last-minute tickets on Thanksgiving weekend on ANY airline on this of all weekends -- is virtually impossible. On the train, hurtling along at an occasional 150 miles per hour, we had our choice of about 50 percent of the seats. After all, this was Amtrak's Acela express. Spread out, relax. Nice.

Involved were Joey and Jeff Phillips, Nancy Norris and her partner, David Seavey, Lorry and me. Dave and Nan opted to drive to Stamford in Connecticut, then board an Amtrak for the balance of the journey, while the other four of us jumped on the Subway at nearby Oak Grove and were at South Station an hour early. We left Boston at 6:20 p.m. and arrived at Penn Station in Manhattan just about on time at 10:00.

Getting an edge: At this point I have to explain that Lor and I scouted out our connections beforehand, and found out that if we got a redcap at South Station in Boston, left our bags with him, then we could get early seating -- for there are no reserved seats on the Acela. And that worked out just fine. In fact, our redcap took us into the Acela waiting lounge (usually reserved for first class travelers), where we had access to overstuffed lounges, television, free goodies such as coffee, buns, soda or bottled water.  

And since this was the evening before Thanksgiving, there was a huge bulge of riders waiting in the lobby. Getting in early was fortuitous, to say the least.

Riding the Acela is restful. Lots of folks catch 40 winks, a few were diligent laptop slaves, some (like us) gabbed facing seats with a table between and carried on like any family going on vacation. Lor had ordered four turkey wraps at the Bread 'n Bits in Melrose, so long about Providence, we broke out the cocktails and goodies. What a delightful way to go.

The Empire State Building with low clouds.

Not so good: Penn Station's main entrance faces 32nd Street in midtown New York, and it was only a long block-and-a-half walk to our hotel, LaQuinta. As it turns out, 32nd Street is also the home of Little Korea, and on a holiday eve, there were a multitude of young people out on the sidewalks -- most with an attitude. It was a minor inconvenience, threading our way through the crowds. But a taxi for a block and a half seems ridiculous.

There was a mix-up at the registration desk, and we were forced to get an extra room -- at $150 a night. The plan was to have the two younger couples share a suit. And while our rooms were clean and neat, they were small. I estimated ours to be 13-by-13 feet, plus a nice bathroom. But the $150 rent was relatively cheap for the Big Apple, and the hotel was convenient, right in the heart of midtown. We were only two blocks from Macy's in Herald Square, four blocks from the Empire State Building, and half a block off Broadway.

All 'A's for good times: All in all, we give a "C" for our accomodations, although we realize that's all a $150 expenditure will buy. We did have a fair continental breakfast, included.

The Flatiron Building on Fifth Avenue.

However, the whole two-day trip gets all "A"s for good times. Food is spectacular, selection of restaurants and delis seems endless, transportation is convenient to everywhere, attractions are endless, and the people are upbeat. We saw more on-duty cops than I have ever seen in one place -- attribute that to crowd control on a holiday weekend; and the cops are outgoing, friendly, ready to joke with you, to provide whatever help you need.

One cop in the surging Fifth Avenue crowd and I had a laughing discourse over the fact that I found one Christmas lighting display 'tacky', and he told me to wait a few minutes when those neon snowflakes started dancing -- and then I'd not consider them tacky. They still were. We laughed, as thousands of people ambled by. I didn't tell him I was from Boston and a Red Sox fan. That would have been bad karma.

... 37th St. at Broadway ...

The parade from on high. On Thanksgiving morning the six of us walked the three minutes west to Broadway, then turned north to find a place to watch the parade. But almost immediately we (and a million other people) were facing barricades that shuffled us off on a side street, back over to Fifth. A cop said we could get back to Broadway at 37th.

And when we got back to Broadway, the crowds had filled every empty space for miles, it seemed. They were packed against the store-fronts, overflowing down the cross-streets, hanging out of windows as far up as we could see. I found a spot on the steps of St. Francis Church on 37th, about 100 feet west of Broadway. Lorry and Jo were up against a barricade, a little closer, and David and Nan had disappeared into the masses on Broadway itself. Jeff, meanwhile, had climbed a telephone pole and was shooting photos as fast as he could -- with a new digital camera.

I shared my eclesiastical perch with a tribe of English ladies who were recording every float with a videocam. At one point, getting cramped, I opened the door of the small St. Francis, and went inside. It was beautiful. It was quiet, calm and peaceful. There was only one other person there, a lady in the front, on her knees, reciting the rosary. It was so beautiful and quiet -- compared to the 2.5 million parade-watchers outside.

Jeff, up a pole, Lorry helps. Middle, a truncated Miz Liberty accompanies a couple of celebs. At right, honor to the businessmen of New York.

Macy's Parade is, frankly, better seen on TV. Being there is a wondrous experience, but the television folks are able to edit out all the empty spaces, the waiting between good floats and not show the lesser displays. If you do go to New York, it's the people, the masses of people, who provide the really good show. We the people are something else. If you're there (and above on St. Francis' steps), you can see the individual people, all those thousands of faces, all the colors, all the shapes, the funny ones and the handsome ones. It is a unique and uplifting experience.

If you do go to New York, and stay to the end of the parade, you'll see one of the messiest places ever. And yet, as soon as Santa goes by, the clean-up crew follows, sweeping. Amazing. They think of everything.

A flight over the city: So what do we do after the parade? Eat pizza. Lots of pizza, thick, heavy, loaded with cheese, pieces of pizza, different kinds, all with different toppings. With beer. For lunch. Great. The six of us jammed into a corner table. There were a hundred people crammed in there, where the limit was probably 60. It was intimate, rubbing hips with some lady I had never met. Right there at Broadway and 37th.

It took us about ten minutes to walk to 34th and 5th Avenue, to the Empire State Building. Already the line to ride the elevators to the top went around the block. But we walked right by them all, jumped on an escalator to the second floor, right to the ticket window -- to the Sky Ride. This is really something else! It is a 3-D ride in either a space ship, perhaps a helicopter, all through Manhattan, plunging from great heights down into the canyons of buildings, skimming along the tops of yellow taxicabs, then soaring over the trees and ponds of Central Park, buzzing the very tops of skyscrapers, flying inches above the water in East River, under the Brooklyn Bridge, then off into space.

Meanwhile your aircraft -- the one in which some 40 passagers are strapped in -- pitches and yaws, up and down, then jerks left, then right, reacting to the flight on the screen in front of you. It is immensely realistic, so much so that I saw several passengers covering their eyes. There are screams and laugher, of fright and joy. It is a remarkable simulation. Unfortunately it lasts only 10 or 15 minutes, I estimate. Cost was $16, $14 for seniors.

We the citizens of the world come in all shapes, sizes and colors. The two ladies at the left are from London. The lady at the right appears to be a native New Yorker.

We felt everything was expensive in New York. Like a subway ride is two dollars. The American Museum of Natural History was about $14 -- although it is considered a donation. Sandwiches in a deli run $8-$12. But they are sooo good!

Times Square at night: By this time we were all in need of a rest, and it had started raining. Since we were only a couple of blocks from the hotel, we returned and flopped down on the bed and the two chairs in the Phillips' room. Out came the cocktails; Jeff fell asleep, Dave nodded off, half on the bed, half on the floor. Nan dozed. Lorry, Don and Jo partied, lightly. And we laughed.

By dusk -- which came early on a cloudy day, deep in the canyons of New York -- we started out again, this time for the 12 block walk up Broadway to Times Square. The little triangular park near Herald Square -- Horace Greeley Park -- was subtly sparkling with Christmas lights; the crowd of people were lined up neatly in front of Macy's windows, each window decorated with a traditional Christmas scene. We could see the top of the nearby Empire State, now aglow with green and red lights. The clouds of the past 24 hours had gone away, and the temperature plunged.

Times Square is a blast. It is even more, much more, than it was in the '40s, when our family then lived in Jersey, just 15 miles across the river. The lights were spectacular, the advertising signs a work of glowing art. The sidewalks were jammed with people, the streets were packed with cars and taxis. It was, um, fantasia in huge disproportions. The whole side of one skyscaper was a gorgeous operating advertisement.

Not the last time I was there, but I was right here in August, 1945, on VE day -- Victory in Europe day. At that time Times Square was packed with people, soldiers and sailors, and endless beautiful women who were kissing any guy in a uniform. Me, I was in full Boy Scout uniform, but that didn't make any difference, the ladies gave me a quick lesson in passion. I was 14.

Young entrepreneurs: Back to present-day Times Square, we found a new industry at work here -- young peddlars, hawking fashionable wear or jewelry or pocketbooks or watches. Every once in a while a bunch of these free-lancing souls would quickly pack it up and run like hell -- for the cops were coming. Other such entrepreneurs had bought the city license, and tsked their compatriots who had to take flight. Like, tsk tsk.

Jeff is a pocket wheeler dealer. In two days of encountering these free-lancers, he bought not just one, but four watches. The first was a Rolex, whose original price must have been over a thousand, if it had been in a legitimate upper-class shop. He flummoxed that salesguy and ended with a Rolex for ten bucks. He later bought two other brand-name watches, two-for-$25. And on Fifth Avenue, in front of Saks, he bought a second Rolex which he got for fifty dollars -- and handed it to me as a Christmas present.

I asked one of the Fifth Avenue cops about these kids -- most of them were young blacks, male and female -- and he told us about the street license, and that they get their merchandise down in the commercial district -- in the area of 31st and Seventh Avenue. When I asked if the watches were hot, he sort of gazed off into space, and said something like "Not necessarily." I still can't figure out this system.

I checked my new Rolex against one I saw in a fancy jewelry store on Fifth Avenue, and it was exactly the same, down to the smallest detail. I can't vouch for the works, but I did find out that most Rolexes are self-winding -- no battery. I also checked the Rolex website (which offered no prices), but my watch was the spittin' image of the real thing. I asked another New Yorker about this system, and she said she had bought one, and it ran for one year. Period.

A bemedalled police officer was kind, helpful, busy, good looking ...

Dinner in New York: Times Square is where Nancy and David left us for their trainride back to Stamford, where they had parked their car. The rest of us (Jo and Jeff, Lorry and me) shopped the Square, watched the people who were watching us, poked our collective noses into whatever shop looked interesting, and bought some souvenirs for the kids/grandkids. I also bought a $19 knit hat in a brand-name store, then later bought another at a shop way south on Fifth, three for ten. Just look around, you can find a deal.

The four of us wandered down Broadway again, looking for a place to get a Thanksgiving dinner. New York at Christmas time is brilliant. It seems so sophisticated, the lighting displays, the signs that are really works of art, the atmosphere, the ambiance. The differences. The vast gap between middle-to-upper class and that of the millions of New Yorkers who never get to buy anything at the fancy shops along Fifth Avenue. But we saw only a very small number of homeless folks on our two-day tour. Maybe we weren't looking too hard.

We ended up at the Hotel Pennsylvania, after rejecting maybe a dozen other restaurants along the way. We had to sit in the lounge until a table became available, but that was just fine, for we had a chance to sitdown and relax with a drink and laugh with a bunch of British tourists. Dinner was excellent -- cost was no factor since Joey's boss had handed her $500 bonus, and told her to have a good time.

At the 37th Street firehouse, there was a plaque for the three members of that company who died on September 11 2001.

Dinner and the bar bill, for four of us, was well over $200. We can recommend "Joe O's Restaurant" at the Penn Hotel, 7th Avenue at Pennsylvania Station. Jeff and I opted for the filet mignon, which was outstanding. Nice turkeyday dinner.

So ends the first 24 hours.

Getting religion: Like I said, Lorry and I grew up in Jersey and spent a lot of time in the city. In fact, my parents were married here, in New York, at the "Little Church Around the Corner". And would you believe, that church was located on 29th Street, just three blocks from our hotel. And so, first thing on Friday morn, we struck out to find this little piece of our history. It wasn't exactly where we thought we'd find it, but when we did, it was a fantasy come true. In a world of skyscrapers, here was this little one-floor rambling brick building, reflecting the architecture of old England of 1450. It was gorgeous.

But it was locked. We rang bells and knocked on doors, and took a million photos in the courtyard, and finally we got the attention of a fellow raking leaves from the gutter. He was about six feet seven, gnarled, slavic, big. In strongly accented English he told me "Da church closed now." He was Russian, I was sure, so, remembering some basic greetings I learned at Tufts, I talked to him in Russian. He was surprised, and couldn't figure out if we were the KGB or really American tourists.

We chatted a few minutes, and finally he signalled us to follow him. He unlocked a small, discrete door that looked like it was from the days of knighthood and fair maidens, and led us in. He said nothing, but we kept following him as we went through modern offices, and finally into the church itself. If St. Francis was good, this Church of the Transformation was the best. It was so beautiful, the pews old and worn, some with the private family pews we see in Boston, alcoves that served such as the Bridal Chapel, an alcove for christening, a special chapel for some other purpose --- it was just too beautiful to describe. Warm, rich wood structure inside, and deep red rough bricks on the outside. Steep roofs with lots and lots of oxidized green copper ... such an anomoly in New York City where most everything is granite, marble or stainless steel.

The Little Church Around the Corner, where my parents were married in 1925.

I asked my Russian friend which wing he thought my parents would have been married in, and he sort of pointed in an obsure direction and said something I couldn't understand. But it must have been the small Bridal Chapel, in a wing that formed part of the Cross. The church is Episcopalian.

We stayed as long as we thought was appropriate, and I slipped the custodian a ten dollar bill. He was gracious, and said that there would be a mass at 12:10, as there is every weekday -- except Thanksgiving.

A good deal: We left the Little Church Around the Corner and headed west on 30th, headed for the garment district in the area of 31st and Seventh. A cop had told Jeff that he could get a really good deal on a watch from some of the shops in that area. We experienced several on 31st, but when I asked one clerk if I could buy a watch here, he asked, "One watch? No, we only wholesale." He wasn't being curt. He just didn't speak English well.

We saw lots of shops, small mostly, mostly dusty with vague shop windows (vague=dirty), but lots and lots of bright colored cloth on hundreds of bolts. All wholesale. It was fun, but we couldn't give our money away. It was wholesale.

Looking east across Central Park in winter dress, from the viewing tower 1n the American Museum of Natural History on Central Park West.

Ironically we were right back at Penn Station for the third time in the first 36 hours. Jeff and I were anxious to see the American Museum of Natural History, so the four of us plunged into the depths of the multi-layered station, and bought tickets on the Eighth Avenue subway. As the train pulled into the 81st Street station, there was the dedicated entrance to the AMNH -- with yet another line to wait in. That's what New York experience is: waiting in line.

It would take many days to see the whole of this fabulous museum and we had allocated a few scant hours. To make matters worse, we were running short on energy, our feet hurt, our backs hurt, and we were already tired. It was just after 1pm. We passed quickly through the wild animals of pre-historic America, took the express elevator up to the gems and minerals display, and spent an hour gazing at some of the world's rarest and most expensive gems.

Yet another Russki: It was against probabilities, but I ran into another Russian native; she was one of the security people in the gems display, and I recognized the gutteral accent. She was thrilled to hear the Russian language again, even though it was pretty low level stuff. Jeff told me later that she wanted to know more about his father-in-law, how old was he, was he, ah, "awailable", and he seemed like "a very nice man." I smiled. He laughed.

Our new goal became having lunch at Zabar's Deli, three long blocks to the west on Broadway. It gave us a nice opportunity to see residential New York -- which looked very much like residential Boston. Brownstones. Neat steps up, an apartment under. Just like home. In fact, it brought back memories of similar streets we saw in Dublin and London.

Zabar's was a bust, for us. Most of it is a grocery store with a small area for lunch -- which was jammed with people, and with a longish line waiting to place an order. So off we went, back to Amsterdam Avenue, one block back. And there we found McAteer's Pub with a really sweet-looking barkeep. We ordered things like corned beef on rye, Guiness beer and other New York deli favorites. Man, that was good. Lots of laughing and kidding around, good food and good beer.

Jo, lost in the crowd at Rockefeller Plaza.

Ladies' choice: Next, the ladies had the choice: Grab a cab, drive back east through Central Park, the turn south on upper Fifth Avenue and see all the magnificent, classy apartment buildings. We left the cab at 65th Street and starting walking, the ornate skyscrapers on our left, Central Park on the right. Traffic was jammed, and the sidewalks were crowded for the holidays. The fun began at 50th, the end of Central Park and the beginning of the Fifth Avenue shopping district.

Talk about ritzy, this was it. Gold and diamonds, fur and fancy clothes, all big bucks. Lots of smiling cops, lots of greeters in each store, schmoozing, putting on the dog. It was fun as we traipsed through store after store. And yes, we did drop a few dollars here and there -- for memories. We went into Radio City mall, but the crowd around the ice skating rink was so deep that all I could do was to raise my arms as high as I could and snap a flick blindly.

Things are looking up -- at the spectacular architecture of New York City. All four shots were from one place, opposite St. Patrick's Cathedral.

Fifth Avenue was a madhouse. It was a moving mass of people, all pleasant people, smiling, talking, walking arm in arm, enjoying the richness of their surroundings, the wealth of this place, the classy atmosphere.

New York is a great place, especially if you're with friends. And it helps if you know your way around. And do your homework beforehand. I mean, we had six people, only 48 hours, and a million places to see. For our trip, it worked out beautifully. Maybe because we're all family.

The remaining few hours we had to get back to the hotel, tote the bags over to Penn Station, find the Amtrak and Acela lounge. And as it happened, we arrived an hour early -- just in time to catch a 7p.m. express back to Boston. But there was one last Good Time. There was a New York deli in Penn Station, and Jo and Jeff dropped another 30 bucks on New York deli sandwiches -- to go.

And that's how it went. For 48 hours. With family and friends.

January 7, 2005

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