Every year from 1999 to 2015 my wife Anne and I took a road trip to a different part of the United States and visited attractions, wonders, and events we didn’t have back home in Indianapolis. From 1999 to 2003 we did so as best friends; from 2004 to the present, as husband and wife. My son tagged along from 2003 until 2013 when he ventured off to college, leaving us empty nesters to do our own thing the past two years.
After spending his last two summers alone at his college apartment, my son had been dropping hints that he really wanted to tag along with us this year for a change of scenery and diet, no matter where we went. With his senior year imminent and next summer likely to be one of major upheaval for him (Lord willing), the summer of 2016 seemed like a good time to get the old trio back together again for one last family vacation before he heads off into adulthood and forgets we’re still here.
In honor of his all-time favorite vacation to date, one that was definitely in my Top Five, we scheduled our long-awaited return to New York City. We guys had been dying for an encore, and while Anne has her own Top Five list in mind, she was game for whatever. Her gracious acquiescence was especially appreciated when I suggested a major modification.
In November 2015 we took a second trip to Colorado Springs and flew for our first time. Like, up in the sky inside actual airplanes, which neither of us had ever done before in our entire lives because neither of us grew up in families with that kind of budget. The temporary hearing damage wasn’t endearing to me, but we enjoyed so many aspects of our first flight that I thought my son could benefit from trying flying as well. It helps that today’s airfare frequently costs thousands less than I’d imagined. All told, round-trip tickets for the three of us wasn’t prohibitively more expensive than our usual mode of a week-long auto rental plus multiple gas fill-ups.
This decision meant no official, week-long road trip for us in 2016 (and, sadly, missing out on a lot of quirky roadside stops between here and there), but once you get past our use of a different traveler delivery system, our NYC 2016 tour looks and feels much like any of our other trips. Super-sized historic memorials. Famous burial sites. A couple of shows. Singers, dancers, and cosplayers. Art, pop, and geek culture. Museums, zoos, parks, and statues. Comics, animation, filmmaking, video games, and spaceships. And most importantly, restaurants that aren’t McDonald’s or Subway.
We’re the Goldens. This is who we are and what we do.
But first we had to get there. Cue our second drive out to Indianapolis International Airport, for which we tried to prepare as much as possible. Rookies like us inevitably make mistakes no matter how ready we think we are. Tips we picked up from friends, movies, and complaining headlines:
* Constantly check your schedule. Thanks to internet travel magic, I learned in advance our flight would be delayed nearly an hour. That gave us extra time to rest at home instead of at the airport among strangers.
* Arrive early anyway because security. We’ve been told time and again the TSA are staffed entirely by those Zootopia DMV sloths. For our Colorado Springs flight, we were in and out of the TSA area in less than fifteen minutes on an early Sunday morning in November. This time, on a late Saturday morning in July: less than five minutes. Maybe someday we’ll have a TSA horror story to tell, but it hasn’t happened yet.
* Airports are like malls, so be prepared to do stuff. Light traffic plus TSA competence left us with two hours to kill before takeoff. We grabbed lunch at 96th Street Steakburgers, whose airport location is the sole survivor of this just-okay burger company. The mobile version of their website still listed all the creative topping options that the erstwhile Plainfield store once offered; at the airport, all of them were obsolete. Our order took three tries to communicate to the indifferent cashier, and somehow we wound up with an extra burger. Also, we bought the very last order of fries they had in stock, to the mild disappointment of several patrons behind us. After a few bites, I conceded they were the true winners, not we. I have some guesses why they haven’t expanded nationwide.
* Schedules are subject to change again and again. Our flight was pushed back a little farther, leaving us with still more extra time to rest at the airport among strangers, time that we’d hoped to save up for our Manhattan revelry later.
* Prepare for boredom. I always have reading material on hand, but I hate to shut out family who can’t say the same. So that’s when we indulged in our first experience with Pokemon Go. My son’s phone was sadly an older model that rejected the app, but I succeeded at downloading for the two of us. We caught a Bulbasaur at the table and wandered around for a few minutes toward spots that were allegedly PokeStops but whose corresponding markers weren’t there. I’m sure I looked goofy, but it was family quality time, so onlookers were cordially invited to stifle themselves.
* Make sure all your luggage and possessions conform to rules and regulations for your airline. Anne and I used the same carry-on bags and luggage as last time so we wouldn’t have to check anything. In all the excitement, with so much to juggle in all the planning and packing and research, somehow I’d subconsciously arrived at the flawed conclusion that because my son’s suitcase looked a lot like mine, he was therefore good to go and we need not concern ourselves with such petty tasks as measurement.
Delta disagreed. The clerk on duty eyeballed our stuff and spotted right away that his suitcase was a few inches too large for their overheard compartments. Whoops. Thankfully for us they were equipped to check his bag right then and there instead of sending us on a walk back several city blocks to the appropriate counter. The restless passengers behind us in line were a little less impressed with this on-the-spot transaction capability than I was.
Finally we boarded the plane and bade his suitcase a fond farewell forever in case all those distressing tales of lost luggage turned out to be the rule rather than the exception. Once aboard, I enjoyed my first daytime window seat and took advantage accordingly.
The flight itself was unremarkable except for the part where my son and I apparently didn’t properly chew our gum or vent our lungs or equalize our internal pressure or whatever, because the two of us could barely hear each other for the next few hours after we landed at LaGuardia Airport. We barely took notice of our surroundings except the signs leading us to baggage claim, where we lined up and spent several minutes thinking to ourselves, “AHA! IT’S GONE! They lost it! They kept it or tossed it out a hatch for fun or burned it for fuel and now it’s gone forever and our first two hours in New York will be spent replacing my son’s wardrobe and I don’t even know which borough or district is the best place to shop on a budget! This stinks! This is total BS! This is –” and then his bag showed up and we calmed down. Or maybe it was just me freaking out inside.
The important thing is we made it to New York City.
We joined the organized line to wait for the next available taxi, met our driver Jasbir, and took our very first New York City taxi ride, another milestone we’d skipped on our first trip. While Anne and my son took the back seat and relaxed, from the front passenger seat I had myself quite the educational experience, by which I mean I learned new levels of terror I’ve never experienced on Indiana roads. I consider myself a confident driver with above-average reflexes and a preference for steady traffic flow, by which I mean slow drivers are The Enemy. But Jasbir, no doubt an average driver compared to his Big Apple peers, was a man of few words who through a series of nerve-wracking demonstrations taught me tips and tricks for road survival and victory that I was never meant to know — intrusive ways to assert right-of-way while leaving at least two inches of free space between your car and the one you’ve just rudely cut off; how to turn left or right from any lane, not just the legally designated one; when to honk and when to really honk; how to decelerate from 60 to 0 and instantly position yourself a hair’s breadth away from the stopped car in front of you; and other stunts that, were I to practice them at home, would have me branded a public menace and exiled to Indy’s shamefully inadequate bus lines for the rest of my working days.
We had plenty of extra time for this high-octane thrill ride because Manhattan traffic was more stop than go. Once the interstate left Queens and dumped us into one of the grimy anti-tourist east-side parts of town, I had enough of the layout memorized to track our path mentally from there and assure myself that Jasbir was on the up-and-up and was taking us the most direct route possible from the Queens Midtown Bridge to our hotel a couple blocks off Times Square.
He did the best he could to minimize the drive time, barreling through every yellow light, pushing his luck and other drivers as hard as possible at every turn, switching to next streets over whenever gridlock kept us idle for too long, inching and inching and using every available bit of space to get us that much closer to our destination. I’m not 100% sure what normal Manhattan traffic patterns are like, but the areas leading up to Times Square were extra barricaded from some weekend event earlier that day, so the traffic-snarl threat levels seemed more escalated than he’d hoped.
Our hotel was wedged between other, taller buildings on West 44th between 8th and 9th, a narrow one-way passage whose parallel spaces were all full. Jasbir double-parked as near the front door as he could, to the consternation of several blocked cars behind us that had no room to go around, rang us up, and sped away to his next fare. I made sure we tipped him accordingly, both for the basic service and for the new driving skills I’d acquired that should serve me well in the road wars to come after the American apocalypse.
We were grateful to have made it to our hotel alive and before sundown. Once we checked in, we were free to use our remaining energy and minutes of consciousness to roam and explore to our hearts’ content. And to pinch our noses as needed as we paraded past a cumulative series of disgusting messes.
We tried not to stare at these fetid Oscar the Grouch pop-up piles, or to linger within contamination proximity. The important thing is we made it to New York City. Again.
To be continued!
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