How do you celebrate a milestone birthday? Last summer as I enjoyed some friend’s photos of NYC, I realized that it’s been almost a decade since I visited the Big Apple. I decided my upcoming birthday was a perfect time to fix that!
I made hotel reservations on Expedia and researched the Broadway shows. Doug booked the train tickets. The events on my calendar were a promise of festivity and fun through the busy months of ministry this fall. (I started serving Leesburg Presbyterian Church as a full-time Interim Pastor last July.)
Read on for a long and detailed report that includes lots of photos.
On Friday morning we took the 10:00 Acela Amtrak from Union Station in DC. We bought coffee, breakfast sandwiches and a fruit cup onboard, all surprisingly good. Arrived at Penn Station at 1:00, right on schedule. The photo below is what I posted on Facebook before signing off for the weekend.
Our hotel, Arlo Midtown, was on 38th St between 8th and 9th Avenue. The name of their restaurant is “Nearly Ninth,” which helped me remember the address. It was too early to check in but they gladly stowed our bags.
Times Square, Rockefeller Center
A visit to Midtown Manhattan is all about the city streets! We walked up Sixth Avenue to Broadway to Times Square — and reveled in its huge neon signs, electronic billboards, and the throngs of people who were doing the exact same thing. Street performers caught our eye, including two fellows who got strangers to give them money, then lined them up and had them bend from the waist. Then one fellow somersaulted over their backs to great applause. To do that in such a crowded area struck me as especially nervy and enterprising.
We walked up to Rockefeller Center with its immense Christmas tree. Pennants blew in the breeze and people ice skated below. The decorations are on an enormous scale, including a sculptural pile of red ornaments. Radio City Music Hall is across from Rockefeller Center — just follow the angels that line the path to the Christmas tree. That is, if you can squeeze past the crowds.
The Radio City marquee advertised the Rockettes, just as it has since I was a teenager. I’ve seen the marquee many times, but have never been inside the hall. The picture is from later in the day, when the marquee was lit up.
Saks Fifth Avenue
Saks Fifth Avenue is known for its impressive window displays. This year the ornamentation was above the windows, splashed across the outside of the building. I’m really not sure what it was supposed to represent, an old-time elevator dial? We popped inside and rode the escalators up and down to see the wares.
St. Patricks Cathedral
Then we crossed the street to St. Patricks Cathedral. Doug took a photo of me by the “massive doors” — which refers to the first line of my first book, Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land.
We went through a quick security check to get into the church, then sat for a bit in the sanctuary. To the left of the chancel was a life-sized nativity. We walked around the apse to get a close-up view — the nativity included a dog (most likely a golden retriever) near the manger, which was empty except for straw.
Museum of Modern Art
Walked up to MoMA and bought tickets at a kiosk. I will officially be a Senior Citizen tomorrow, so yes, I took advantage of the discount! We saw the first floor, which seemed to be the main exhibit space. Each room was an exhibit grouped by a theme, often quite eclectic. I especially enjoyed one room about “Identity” — the piece about facial hair, pictured below, was in that space.
In an exhibit about “Systems” we stopped to watch a brief film about a guy who got fired from Google for trying to speak with some underpaid workers who do the scanning for the Book Project. Interesting. Sad. Not a bit surprising. Exploitation is everywhere.
The most memorable art, for me, was a huge display in the lobby area, two stories high, that shifted like sand, continually changing in texture, shape, and color. I read later that this piece was supposed to recapitulate the history of art. I had no clue of that at the time but found it mesmerizing.
We took a break in the restaurant and split a grilled cheese sandwich. Then stopped in the kids area and made art using stencils on paper. Not too surprisingly, both of our pieces featured the words Happy Birthday and the number 65.
Ritz Carlton Drinks & Supper
Now it was fully dark. We walked further uptown to the bottom of Central Park. Passed the Bergdorff Goodman store with some amazing red and green window displays. I took pictures of my two favorites which were very striking — one was of jungle animals, one was of a woman surrounded by books, viewed from above. Photos below.
We were headed to the Plaza Hotel for advertised “cocktails and light fare” but could not get in, as they were only admitting hotel guests. I felt like I should be able to spin a quick and convincing tale, but nope. The doorman said the Ritz Carlton was around the corner, so we headed there. A lot of other people were similarly disappointed.
At the Ritz Carlton the lounge area was high-ceilinged and wood-paneled, with a very large Christmas tree in the center and couches all around. We were taken through that room to a bar area with windows, which had more modern decor. We were seated at a small table against the window, and could see the liveries lined up at the bottom of Central Park. Bar service was very slow but we eventually ordered. My drink was a “French 75” made of gin, champagne and St. Germaine with a squeeze of lime. (This is my second time encountering St. Germaine, which is a liquor made of elderflowers. It pairs well with champagne.) Doug had a martini. Then we ordered dinners — Doug had a hamburger and fries, for $35. I had an appetizer trio of scallops and a Caesar salad with anchovies.
We walked all the way back to Arlo and got checked in. Our room, #1214, was on a corner of the 12th floor with a great view toward lower Manhattan. Small room, king sized bed, nice bedding.
Rainy day. Slept in. Lazy morning. Went to the hotel’s “Nearly Ninth” restaurant for breakfast around 9:30. A bit of a disappointment, a typical hotel restaurant with lots of family groups and not enough servers. Had to wait a long time for coffee. Ordered eggs, sausage, toast. Because of the rain, we went back to the room.
Doug gave me a birthday card that said “Here’s to the woman who’s not afraid of anything . . . Not the world and it’s unknowns, Not the hard work it takes to make dreams come true, Definitely not another birthday!” The cover was dark purple and gold with some glitter, and Doug was very pleased with having found it. He also gave me a gift of jewelry.
In the early afternoon we took our packed umbrella, plus the one hanging in the room, and headed toward Times Square again. Lots of walking through the rain, which is pretty much my memory of other trips to NYC. We had trouble deciding where and what to eat, just decision fatigue, I think. New York City is a lot of a lot.
We ended up near our hotel at a tiny hole-in-the-wall called Uyghurs, referring to a region in northwest China. Pronounced WEE-gers. It’s a Muslim region where people are persecuted. We ordered a lamb dish (halal) and the flatbread of the region — which is a type of naan, round, and baked in some kind of stamped mold. The bread is pretty to look at but not particularly delicious, rather dense and dry. We chatted with another customer, an Asian woman who lives nearby. She talked at length about the various types of lamb served in Asia and the Middle East, and where it’s grown. Doug enjoyed the lamb and ate about half of it. We took the leftovers with us. I didn’t want to eat before our dinner out.
We went back to the room for a break and to get changed for our night out. Doug wore some dressier pants and his lavender dress shirt and a tie. I wore black trousers and an animal-print-inspired blouse, very sheer, and my sparkly jewelry.
We walked into midtown and stopped for a drink at a corner bar called “Rosie O’Grady’s.” The place was hopping but we were lucky to find stools at a corner of the bar. Doug got a beer, I ordered Prosecco. The barkeepers were fun to watch, and also the customers. There was an Ernest Hemingway doppelganger (you can spot him beyond Doug).
We walked down Broadway toward Times Square to see what reduced-price tickets were for sale at the TKTS booth. Along the way we noticed a crowd gathered outside a stage door. It was the Winter Garden Theater and the marquee proclaimed Hugh Jackman in The Music Man. We joined the crowd, right up against the railing. We only had to wait 10 or 15 minutes and Hugh came out. He was masked and wearing a dark orange sweatshirt. Everyone applauded and cheered as he greeted the crowd. He posed for pictures and actually engaged in conversation. I was impressed that he took his time with two young girls, at different spots in the crowd. Doug got a picture with both me and Hugh in the frame, which was fun.
The TKTS Booth
At the TKTS booth we got in a long queue. A pair of women took some great photos of us in the glow of Times Square, and we returned the favor. Then it started to rain. We hadn’t brought the umbrella because the forecast called for a dry evening. I didn’t want to give up our place in line, even when we got wet. The picture is from just before it started raining.
Fortunately the line thinned out and we were able to get tickets for the next day, to see the Rockettes “Christmas Spectacular” at Radio City Musical Hall at 2:00.
I made reservations at Sardis months ago. I love the history of the restaurant and its involvement with Broadway and various struggling shows and artists. Fun to be part of this tradition. Framed caricatures of celebrities cover the walls. It would be our third time eating there.
We walked through the rain to Sardis and arrived at 5:30 for our 6:00 reservation. They were able to seat us immediately at a small table in a nook. In addition to the caricatures, there were festive Christmas swags and ornaments.
Because I was soaked I went upstairs to the women’s restroom to attempt to dry my hair with paper towels. An assistant was there and sympathetic. I felt bad I left my purse at the table and didn’t have any cash for her tip jar.
I love the wait staff at Sardis, young good-natured Italian guys who really hustle. I wondered if it’s hard to get their job, and where they live. We each ordered a glass of wine, Riesling for Doug and Cabernet for me. Once we got settled, I called Tavern on the Green to cancel reservations for the next day, which would now conflict with the Rockettes. (I had timed the reservation for an after-church brunch.)
We ordered an appetizer for two, which was a work of art — bruschetta, shaved prosciutto piled on chopped cantalope, smoked-salmon wrapped asparagus, a shrimp perched on tapenade, and marinated mozzarella with pickled peppers. I don’t usually do food photos, but I couldn’t resist this one.
We ordered the house specialty, a cannelloni with meat filling (beef, veal and pork, plus porcini mushrooms), and the lasagna, intending to share both dishes. The meat lasagna had sold out (so early?!) so we got the spinach option. Both dishes were delicious. I would opt for the cannelloni again.
It was nice to have time to linger — we ordered dessert and decaf coffee, which came in a metal pot and was delicious. I got tiramisu, which they put a candle in, and Doug got a chocolate lava cake, which he loves.
We took a photo as we exited, because we were finally dry!
On Broadway: SIX
Then we walked over to the Lena Horne Theater (on 47th St and 8th Ave) for the 8:00 show of SIX. The premise of SIX is that the six wives of Henry VIII are in a girl band and are vying to be the lead. Each wife tells her story, pleading that she got the worst end of the stick. “Divorced. Beheaded. Died. Divorced. Beheaded. Survived.” Huge female energy on the stage including a 4-piece band, who they introduced early on. Not a man on the stage. Truly a night celebrating female empowerment.
The theater is old, and small, seating just 1,000 people. The line for the women’s restroom was hilariously long, especially on a night celebrating women. But I made it back to my seat just in time for the opening. We were in the second row of the mezzanine, center. Fabulous view!
Luckily the weather cleared overnight. We were up by 8:00 and went to a coffee shop around the corner from our hotel. It was called Cafe Aroma, on 38th and 9th. The guys behind the counter were incredibly efficient. We each ordered a bagel with smoked whitefish and some coffee. The tiny place was packed, but we got a table.
Fifth Ave. Presbyterian Church
Then we walked over to Fifth Ave. Presbyterian Church for the 11:00 worship service. The walk was further, and took longer, than we expected. We arrived just as the service was beginning. The gorgeous old church was beautifully decorated for the season, and the worship service was a class act in every way. A traditional Presbyterian liturgy with four clergy up front. The organ and choir were in a high balcony up front, with the choir members all in red robes.
Rev. Dr. Scott Black Johnston preached on the phrase “Mighty God”. A wonderful sermon. Personal and also profound. He talked about hearing the praise-and-worship classic “Awesome God” in Austin, not long after a friend’s tragic death. What does it mean that God is mighty?
We participated in the Lord’s Table.
Israel / Palestine Adult Ed
After church there was a 12:30 Adult Ed opportunity to hear about the history of the Israel/Palestinian conflict. We didn’t want to miss that. There was a long line for the elevator so we ducked up some stairs and got a bit lost. A few floors up we walked into a room with refreshments and met Ashley Gonzales, the non-ordained Director of Engagement (or something similar). I asked her about her seminary career and her hopes and dreams for ministry.
Then had to skedaddle to get to the class. First we loaded up our plates with hot delicacies like pigs in a blanket and spinach triangles. The room for Adult Ed was long and narrow and the only available seats were up front. We wound our way there, clutching our jackets, our plates piled with goodies and full cups of coffee, and murmuring “Excuse me.” When I was younger I would have died of embarrassment. Now I thought it was humorous.
The presenter, Dr. Ross Brann from Cornell University, did a good job of moving through the history. Indeed, as he said, there is no going down the middle on this subject. Doug and I felt he was too sympathetic to the Israelis. Riding the elevator, we met a woman who felt he was too sympathetic to the Palestinians. (So maybe he did go down the middle!)
The reason the church sponsored this event, and others on the subject, is because of the controversial resolution passed by the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly last summer, which names the situation in Israel as “apartheid.” Such a loaded word. I was glad that Dr. Brann said, specifically, that to use the word apartheid is NOT anti-Semitic. That epithet gets lobbied about too quickly — and people feel unable to criticize Israel. What the Israelis have instituted against the Palestinian people is indeed apartheid.
(Whether or not you agree, I invite you to come with me to the Holy Land in April of 2024 — my next trip. Use the Contact Me button.)
Radio City Musical Hall
Cultural whiplash is part of the NYC experience — from considering a century of intractable conflict we hurried to enjoy a century-old entertainment. We left the church almost at a run in order to get to Radio City Music Hall in time for the 2:00 show.
There was a big press of people entering, but the crowd moved quickly. A huge crystal chandelier hung in the lobby and the wall coverings were ornate, in deep red. Broad staircases led up up up to the second mezzanine.
Such fun! I had never read about, or seen, any part of this show. I understand that it doesn’t change much from year to year. Began with dueling organs, then a full orchestra, then the Rockettes enter to do their opening high-kick number. Then Santa comes onstage and the audience members don 3D glasses for a sleigh ride, which was surprisingly delightful. Then the Nutcracker with silly costumes, a NYC bus that rotates, Santas that multiply, Frost Fairies, and the Rockettes as wooden soldiers who fall down very slowly.
I thought the show was over, only to discover that a nativity comes on, complete with live camels, sheep and a donkey. Oh my!
Such a busy day. By now it was 4:00 and we hadn’t eaten anything since our snacks at the church. So we walked quickly back toward our hotel and stopped at 2 Bros. Pizza on 38th and 8th for a couple of slices of cheese pizza. We took the box through the drizzle to the hotel lobby, and ate there.
I enjoyed watching the guys make the pizza and keep the ovens loaded, with 9-12 pizzas at a time. But selling them for $1 a slice? That’s only $8/pizza. Does it even pay for the pounding their hands take, stretching that dough? (this is how you start to think as your body ages)
Our next tickets were for an event called “The Edge” at Hudson Yards, which is south and west of the hotel. We walked there, another 30 minute walk. We had timed tickets for 4:40 and didn’t arrive until nearly 5:00, and still had to wait in line for an hour.
The process was trying — it reminded me of a theme park. They blast video at you to distract you from the fact that you’re waiting in a long line and cannot see the end. The goal was to access an outdoor platform giving a view of Midtown. Later we realized we could see the platform from our hotel window — see if you can spot it.
Fortunately the night was clear and the view was good. The viewing platform was crowded but not crazily so.
I had pre-ordered 2 glasses of champagne, which came in stemless flutes. They looked good but didn’t clink, as they’re made of silicone or something similar. (They’ll be handy in Big Blue, our truck camper.)
Indoors there wasn’t a place to sit. Outdoors it was too cold to sit.
The Hudson Yards area is apparently a new development — that strange confluence where everything is aggressively “eco” but also extremely pricey. The Edge is located in a skyscraper that’s basically a glitzy mall — the stores were very high end.
There were maybe six floors of escalators, decked out in the most gold and silver twinkle lights I have ever seen in one place. We took some photos. I went into one store to examine a heavily sequined purse. It was chained to a table and a salesperson materialized. I smiled and said “I just wanted to touch it.” I wish I had noticed the brand. (Obviously I am a retail failure.)
There was a lit-up building called “The Vessel” that is open at other times, for walking.
Walked home along Ninth Avenue, through the Hells Kitchen area. Had earlier noticed a store front called Steak Frites. Small place, seemed quite old. Two customers on their way out raved about the food, and the hospitality guy at the door was warm and inviting, so we went in and got seated.
I ordered steak frites (the choice seemed mandatory) and Doug got a Croque Madame. He ordered beer; I had a Bordeaux.
I chatted up the hospitality guy, Derrick. He told us that he was new in town. He moved to NYC because his boyfriend is on Broadway. I asked if they lived in Brooklyn, and he said Bedford/Stuyvesant. He’s been in hospitality for a long time and loves it, sees it as his career.
His dad is a pastor in an independent Baptist church, but is accepting of his gay son. Derrick said, “He texts me every other day, how’s it going?” I was so glad. I’ve had enough of the church causing family heartbreak because someone is gay.
Our food was delicious. It turned out that the restaurant had opened just four nights previous. Ha!
Our last day, our first blue-sky day. We had a lazy morning in the room. Checked out, leaving our luggage in storage. Breakfast at the Cafe Aroma around the corner again. Then we figured out the subway to get to lower Manhattan to visit the Tenement Museum — we had timed tickets for a tour at 1:15.
Stopped at the Washington Arch in the SoHo area. A fellow was playing a public piano, lots of people milling about even on a Monday before noon. That area is the NYU law school.
Walked further south through the Bowery area, to the Tenement Museum on the lower east side, on Orchard Street. There’s one building open, they’re working on another. It’s not a museum where you can walk in and see exhibits — you have to do a tour, and there are 3 or 4 options. Ours was called “Finding Home.” We arrived early and they were able to bump us up an hour. There was one other family group of 3, so we had a nice small group. The tour guide did an excellent job.
I kept thinking that my dad would have loved seeing all this, as he loved old buildings and history. Tenements had 5 floors and each floor had 4 apartments. No bathrooms or running water. Water was carried up from the ground floor. Chamber pots used. Grim.
Quite moving to hear the stories of these families and be in their space. Quite a contrast to the luxury we’ve been enjoying all weekend.
Navigating the NY Subway
I wanted to see a couple pieces of public art that are new since I’ve been to the city.
Back underground. An older woman, a local, offered to help as we pondered a subway map. She grew up in the Village and never left. “I never got married” she said. “Which is when all my girlfriends left. But I have a nephew who works [some sports team?]” (When a train went past it was hard to hear.) Apparently she travels somewhere each year to see a game — she named places like Phoenix and Seattle. I asked her about work, and she said she was a phlebotomist at a hospital until she retired. “Now would I rather live in LaJolla California? Yes.” she said. “But this is what I know.” She was taking the subway to get to the eye doctor, I believe.
We took the subway north along the west side of Central Park — we purposely overshot the park to see a Harriet Tubman memorial in upper Manhattan. It’s named “Swing Low” designed by Allison Saar in 2004. Huge statue. From behind, Harriet is ripping through roots. Harriet Tubman was enslaved near where we live and there are a lot of new interpretive sites being opened, we seek them out.
Then we hopped back on the subway and got out in Central Park to see “Strawberry Fields” which is an homage to John Lennon, whose apartment building, Dakota, was nearby, and which is where he was shot (12/8/80). Very lovely spot, on the top of a knoll. There’s a mosaic circle in the pathway, spelling “Imagine.” Someone had left a green apple there.
A young man was playing the guitar and singing “Here Comes the Sun.” Two vendors displayed their photos and artwork. People came and went, never very crowded. We took a selfie by the mosaic.
Tavern on the Green
Then, because we could — we had time and could get a table — we had lunch at Tavern on the Green. Kind of nice since we had bumped this from our schedule the day before. I wanted to eat there because of a memory going back to high school.
The restaurant is done up in an “early American” motif, similar to Old Ebbitt’s Grill in DC. I joked to Doug that I detest Currier & Ives images, but I apparently love decor in that motif!
We were seated in the bar, which is circular and fully surrounded by a banquet upholstered in scarlet. My back was to that beautiful plush upholstery, with buttons, which felt glamorous.
Doug ordered beer and I ordered Prosecco. People at the bar were celebrating and Instagramming.
I chose salmon on a bed of lentils, and Doug chose lamb paillard (smashed thin). Both of our dishes were delicious. Feeling decadent, and knowing that our trip was on its last legs, I ordered coffee and “birthday cake” for dessert. Boy howdy! It was a huge slice, exactly right, with a scoop of ice cream, a candle, and “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate.
By now it was falling dark and we had a long walk ahead. We trucked down 8th Avenue at a good clip for a solid 45 minutes, collected our luggage from the hotel, and hurried to Penn Station.
Three hours later we were back in Union Station in DC. We collected our car and were home again in another hour.
What a fabulous weekend — the most decadent and celebratory birthday of my life! I’m so grateful to have the time, resources, and company to take such a trip.
Sixty-five, here I am!
More of My Writing
If you enjoyed this write-up, check out my 3 books, which are forms of memoir, and my travel blog on Substack about our adventures in a truck camper. We plan to be back on the road next May, Lord willing.