Jun 20, 2012

Third Year

The End of the Road, CAA Class of 2012.  I love this photo of my graduates this year, there's something really elegiac about them all walking away, arm in arm.  Plus it's the only group photo I can use online and meet the permissions requirements of the parents of a few of the students.

The third year is something of milestone. You're done with the first year learning curve where your getting your bearings and learning the lay of the land.   You have no reputation to precede you and must forge one.  It's serious business--because you get it wrong and you'll be undoing those mistakes for years to come. Second year, you're solidifying your gains from year one, but there's still a fair amount of getting situated, as in many classes you are teaching new content.  You've known most of the kids only a year as the school year starts, and while the kids may know what kind of ship you run and what your expectations are, they're still getting to know you.

Third year, though, is where you finally hit your stride.  You are finally firing on all cylinders and now have the wherewithal to start figuring out how to raise your game, to take it to the next level.  You are past survival mode and your are seeking to thrive.  Your eighth graders will now be students you've been working with for going on three years and you have a different kind of relationship, one that's been  growing over years instead of months.  Even the new students benefit from the third year boost.  They are "grandfathered in" as it were, and reap the closer connection right along with the veterans.

This year was a tough year, but a really good one. I faced  challenges, fell short in some, rose to others.  In spite of whatever difficulties I faced with my students, I felt really good about each of my kids (even, and perhaps especially, the most challenging ones).  That affection will remain as each student goes on to carve out his or her future in high school.  I hope to stay in touch with them, and I pray we meet again.  Perhaps in New York City once again sometime in 2016 (we still have to see that Broadway show), definitely in that Greatest of All Cities, where by God's grace I'll see them all again, this time walking towards me instead of away.

Jun 18, 2012

Nothing Like New York

Central Park.  Monday, May 21, 2012

There are different stories going around about how we ended up choosing New York as our class trip destination this year, but this is what I remember.  We were considering Miami, California, other destinations, and were about ready to make a decision when Mr. Russell, the grandfather of one of my students raised his hand:

"Mr. Maycock, I just have to say, there's nothing like New York."

And just like that, the conversation turned.  And the rest is, as they say, history.

I never got what the big deal was with New York.  Indeed, I was kind of tired of New York this, New York that.  Every movie, every TV show seems to be set in New York.  How many cities have so many songs singing its praises?  What was so special about New York?

Well, now, having been there, albeit very briefly, I get it.

There are two overall conclusions I can state with certainty after my brief time in New York:
 Four days didn't even begin to scratch the surface of this great city.

And Mr. Russell was absolutely right.

Herewith just a few things I observed that, in my opinion, make New York like no place in the world.

Greenwich Village. Monday, May 21, 2012
I found the diversity within New York City to be staggering.  Sure there are "Irish, Italians, Jews, and Hispanics" as U2 once noted, but beyond the cultural diversity which is typical of most of the big American mega-cities,is the multitude of distinct neighborhoods in a tiny geographical area.  I less experienced this kaleidoscopic element of New York, and more sensed it.  We only got to the neon dazzle of the theater district surrounding Times Square, the steel and glass of the financial district on the south end of Manhattan, including the famous Wall Street (a very narrow street, to my surprise, and now closed to vehicle traffic apparently due to security concerns), the fire escapes clinging to brick-faced buildings you've seen in a thousand movies in the area around Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village, a taste of Chinatown, Harlem, and the area near the South Street Seaport, a mere glimpse of Little Italy and some of midtown near the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center.  That was it.  There were whole areas of Manhattan that we never got to explore, and then there's the other boroughs which we didn't enter at all--Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island.  In hindsight I feel like we barely went to New York at all, given how much we missed.  And yet what we Experienced was so rich and fascinating that I found myself eager to experience more.

Looking up.  Lower Manhattan. Monday, May 21, 2012

The kids look to Brooklyn. Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Manhattan, which is all of the City that we got to experience is geographically tiny, but feels huge.  It's a mere 23 square miles and just over 2 miles wide at it's widest point, yet it's got well over a million people living there (and I'm sure a million more that merely work there).  The above mentioned diversity makes it feel still larger, and I found it interesting to note that some Manhattanites seemed to be only familiar the parts of the borough where they lived and worked. I understand that, as west Columbus might as well be in another state as far I'm concerned:  I never go over there and know nothing about getting around in places like say Hilliard.  But it was particularly remarkable in New York where unfamiliar parts of the city might just be a mile or two away.

Central Park
Poet's Walk in Central Park.  Monday, May 21, 2012

Central Park deserves it's own special mention.  I've never seen anything like it.  Oh, sure every big city's got their green spaces these days.  But there's something especially striking about such a huge green space right in the midst of such a monster city.  Central Park is huge!  Green space isn't the right word.  Sure there are some classic park features--manicured gardens, ponds, ball fields and such, but there are parts of the park that feel like, well, the woods!  Wild land in the middle of Manhattan!  Frederick Law Olmsted was some kind of genius!  There are towering trees, looming hillocks that block out for the moment the Manhattan skyline, places where the vastness of the park muffles the bustle of the city to near-silence.  We spent all afternoon on Monday, May 21, traipsing through the park and got through maybe about half of it.

Some of the students contemplate Bethesda Fountain in Central Park
The Bandshell at Central Park

"The Scientist" clowning around with various Central Park statuary (left and below)

The Hustle
Street Performers outside Battery Park.  Tuesday afternoon, May 22, 2012

 "New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There's nothin' you can't do
Now you're in New York"
                       --"Empire State of Mind" by Jay-Z (feat. Alicia Keys)

One thing that fascinated me was the sense of infinite possibility in New York.  This is one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the United States,and  all kinds of world-famous names call this place home.  You'd think ordinary people would feel priced right out of this neighborhood (and I'm sure many are).  Yet there is this very American sense that you can show up in New York and have some kind of shot at Making It, or at the very least at making some cash.  New York is about the hustle, and it seems the ambitious can be found not just on Wall Street  but on every street corner, every subway platform, any old public space.  Musicians of every stripe, dancers, performance artists and "regular" artists, hawkers, vendors, "religious nuts and political fanatics in the stew, living happily not like me and you" (U2 again).  There were dozens of people dressed up as various cartoon characters wandering about Times Square--Elmo, Cookie Monster, Mickey and Minnie, Spiderman etc--and I got the feeling that these people were not hired by the giant Toys'R Us on the corner (for one thing many of them will talk to you--we had quite a conversation with Spiderman.  I did not know he was from the Caribbean!).  It seems you can go get yourself a costume and start wandering Times Square making a living off tips from photos with the tourists.

"Smile" on left, and "Free Spirit" pose with a character on Times Square.  I don't know who this is, but the kids were very excited to see him.

We came across these street performers as we were leaving Battery Park after our tour of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  In addition to being quite talented acrobats these guys were edgy comics as well.  They kept up a running commentary throughout their show that crept up to very edge of offensive, perhaps even dashing across the line and back again before you even had a chance to register.  They boldly--and hilariously--tackled taboo topics such as race and sex while priming the audience for their next stunt.  Even the process of passing the hat for tips was a funny part of the performance.

Our principal Mrs. Arthurs chats up one of the performers after the show.

New York Nice
One of my favorite things about New York is the people.  Yes, you heard me right, the people.  Before I want to New York I had all kinds of stereotypical images of the New Yorker.  Loud. Tough. Impatient. Tell it like it is. In a hurry. Ambitious.  Nice, however is not one of the words that came to mind, I confess.  I expected, as tourist to be brushed aside by impatient commuters, yelled at by jaded subway employees, honked at by taxis.   I did not have this experience at all.   Instead I found time and again patience with our tourist bumblings, and a willingness to help us out even when we didn't ask.  Passengers on the subway would overhear us puzzling over how to get to this or that point and kindly interject to provide us good advice.  I sensed a fierce pride in their city among the New Yorkers we met, and a desire to make sure we visitors knew what a great place we were visiting.  A lot of people say New York is a great place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there--it's stressful, expensive, not as dangerous as it used to be I hear, but still you know its Big City living with it's privileges and pitfalls.  I can't speak to living there, but I can say that the people I encountered in New York made it a great place to visit.   In a city of millions I guess you can't really generalize about everyone, but either we got extraordinarily lucky or there really are a lot of nice people in New York.

After, an enjoyable few days I too can say:

There's nothing like it.

"One hand in the air for the big city
Street lights, big dreams, all lookin' pretty
No place in the world that could compare"
                                   "Empire State of Mind"

One visitor to New York made this nice collage of New York City images and set it to the U2 tune "New York" which I referenced several times in this entry.

Jun 14, 2012

Experiencing Today

Host Sarah Haines prepares us for our ever-so-brief stint on national television  on the Kathie Lee and Hoda segment of the Today show on NBC. Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Here in America we love the idea of being on television.  Something about the idea of our images being broadcast to millions is extremely compelling.  I don't know why this is--despite feeling the draw myself.  All I know is that  most of us would jump at the chance to be on TV.

Today begins too early.  I could sleep for another couple hours easily.  After all, I've gone to bed at around two in the morning last night--around the same time I've gone to bed for the past two nights--and each day it's harder to roll out of bed at 7:30 in the morning.  The late night/early morning routine taking it's toll on the kids too--even they, with their adolescent energy, are beginning to flag.

We groggily wolf down our fee hot breakfast from the hotel buffet--grits, eggs, hash browns, washed down with OJ--in an effort to leave the hotel in time to catch our train.  We miss the train anyway, as we have every day since we've gotten here.  I've gotten in the habit of aiming to get on one train sooner than the absolute last one that we can take, so that way if we miss our train we won't also miss our tour.  Today, I've done the same, though again as in days past, we will now be cutting our arrival very close.

Today, we are going to tour NBC Studios at 30 Rockefeller Center.  This is the very first tour we booked, months before we left Columbus, and we are all excited to get a firsthand look at the inner workings of big-time TV and some familiar shows.

Outside Rockefeller Center

That's if we can make it on time, of course. We have been warned that late arrivals will miss the tour, end of story.  No refunds, no rescheduling.  We have been told that we need to be at the studios thirty minutes in adavance of the tour.  But trouble at the PATH fare card vending machines ensures that we will not make that deadline.

We arrive at NBC with minutes to spare, and have just arrived in the waiting area for the tour when he hear the siren call for the first time:

"Hey, you guys want to be on TV?"

The answer is instinctual--Yes!

We are herded over to a couple of couches and chairs where other would-be TV stars are gathered and we are told to wait for further instructions.  Don't worry, we are reassured, you'll all get to be on TV.  Someone with the Today show arrives to provide us with more information:  "Now everyone is okay to be here for awhile?" she asks, "You don't have anywhere you need to be or anything?"  We eagerly confirm that we have absolutely nothing else to do besides be on TV.  Truthfully, we don't even really think about it.  Being on Today trumps all.

But I wonder. . .I have to ask.

"Excuse me, ma'am.  If we stay here, does that mean we'll miss our tour?"

"Yeah, I'm afraid so."

And we have a decision to make.  Be on TV or take our tour.

I hesitate, but only for a moment.  We paid for that tour (or really our donors did), and there's no way I'm going to lose what we've paid for.  "Come on guys, we're going on the tour," I say.  And so we wistfully leave our chance to be on TV and join the queue waiting for the tour to begin.

The tour is quite interesting.  It is led by two young interns--one from Ohio, remarkably--who are looking to break into the television business as writers.  This internship is a common starting point for those that ultimately go to work for NBC.  The two women take us on a fascinating tour of three studios--The Dr. Oz Show,  Football Night in America, and the big prize, Studio 8H, home of Saturday Night Live.  The studios themselves look smaller than life, far less glamorous than I would have expected.  Granted, all three are not currently in use--which is why we can tour them in the first place--and are hardly camera ready, with cluttered floors and the massive banks of television lights turned off.   NBC actually  appears to be using the famous SNL stages as storage space during the off season.  These famous spaces appear quite ordinary in real life.  It makes me wonder if those that appear on those stages aren't actually quite ordinary too.  And isn't that why we want to be on TV in the first place?  So that we can be more than ordinary?

A highlight of the tour is the chance to sit on a sound stage and be taped as if on television.  Most of us just get to sit in the anchor desk and have our picture taken (photos available for purchase at the end of the tour), but "The Scientist" is lucky enough to actually tape a segment.  He sits in the anchor's chair, and reads a prepared script from a teleprompter.  He does a credible job, doesn't look half bad on camera, as we watch him on the monitors.  A kid from another group does the weather report, and his job is much harder as he has to gesture at the blue screen at the graphics that only we viewers can see, while still reading from the teleprompter too.  He struggles mightily.

Before we know it our tour is complete and we are back where we started--just in time to find that there's still a chance to be on TV!  Today was to be our "catch up" day, after the studio tour, so we hadn't scheduled anything per se.  So, now we really do have time.  We return to the waiting area and are told that they will be taping a "Kathie Lee and Hoda" Today show segment.  Several people have somehow been pre-selected to ask pre-selected questions on camera to the two cohosts, and the rest of us will have the privilege of standing in the background.  Once again we are assured that everyone will be on TV (I've since come to believe this is something they say to people keep from elbowing their way into the shot to be sure of getting face time).

And so our remaining minutes in New York tick away, while we wait to be on TV.  Finally, Sarah Haines, who is hosting this segment (Kathie Lee and Hoda are actually across the street in another studio) sweeps in to give us--or really the lucky few who will actually talk on camera--some final instructions.  Sarah is pretty in the way that everyone who is on television for a living is pretty, and she is friendly and seems genuinely interested in her subjects. She works up some sort of shtick to do with the interview.  A group of recent college graduates develop some wordless cheer consisting of repetitive arm motions which Sarah instructs them to do throughout their segment without explanation and with a straight face.  For a second group, situated just in front of me, a young family, the baby in her mother's arms is all the shtick that's needed.   The camera, lighting and sound guys arrive and set up quickly and professionally.  Just another day at the office for them.

Before we know it, we are rolling, and just as quickly it's over.  The crew packs up their gear as quickly as they brought it out and leave.  Sarah bids a warm farewell and disappears as well.  We are told that our segement will air at 10:22 A.M. on Friday, May 25.  (Its was funny to hear Kathie Lee and Hoda excitedly talking about how "It's Friday!" when it was actually Wednesday).

Despite the promises that all of us would be on TV, I'm pretty sure most of us won't be.  The camera pulled in tight on Sarah and her interviewees and from what I could see on the monitor during the taping, only Benin Lee is visible throughout the second interview.  (I will later see the clip online and discover that more of us are actually visible--who can miss "The Scientist" waving frantically in the background--but you have to look fast.  Blink, and you miss us.  Although, I must say it's a bit ironic that in the screen shot  of the video below the only member of our group visible is. . .your's truly! Take a look and judge for yourself:)

I think we all sense that our time on TV was a bit anti-climatic, and so we wander across the street to where we can look in the windows to the main studios of the Today Show.  We can see people buzzing around inside, setting up for a taped segment.  We crane our necks looking for glimpses of Kathie Lee, Hoda, or some other star.  If we can't really be on TV perhaps we can at least get a real-life look at those that actually are.  And hey mabye they'll set up a shot right in front of this window and we'll get another chance, to really be on TV this time. . .

Hanging around outside the Today show studios.

And slowly but surely the fever breaks.  We are in New York City.  This is our last day!
Finally, one of the students asks, "Mr. Maycock, what are we doing here?"  And it becomes clear to me, far better than being on the Today show, is to make the most of Today.

Today we are in one of the great cities of the world. Today I am with  my students, who I've taught for the past two or three years, who I've shared this amazing adventure with for the past two or three days.  A week from now our time together will come to a final end.  In 24 hours we'll be back home in Columbus. We have only a little time left.  Forget about live TV, let's live life.

"Come on guys, let's go" I say. And we head for the subway station.

Today is not about what or who is on TV.  Today is about the people right in front of you in real life.  These guys-my kids--are what Today is all about:


"The Rapper" and "The Scientist"
"Free Spirit"
"The Quiet Man" and "Smooth"

"The Organizer"
"Supremo" with Benin Lee

Today is the greatest day I've ever known
                                                  --Smashing Pumpkins

Jun 13, 2012

Empire State of Mind

The Empire State Building as seen from the 86th floor observation desk of the building itself looking up towards to the pinnacle.  Tuesday, May 22, 2012.

Two of my students, "Free Spirit" and "Supremo," had been to New York many times. They both had family in the area, and for them New York City was sort of old hat.  Kind of like how Orlando is for me, I suppose.

 My goal was to blow their minds.  I figured if I planned a trip that they found spectacular, I'd get the rest of the class for sure.  By the time we arrived at Tuesday evening--our last night in New York--I wondered if I'd succeeded.  I asked "Supremo" and got an unequivocal yes.  I asked "Free Spirit" and she responded with a rather cryptic "yes and no."  I wondered what she meant--wondered if she was referring to our being unable to see a Broadway play after all.  It was one of the things we'd had at the top of our Must Do List in New York, but we just couldn't swing it.  If the transportation costs hadn't been so much higher than anticipated we probably could have made it happen.  But the funds weren't there, and I figured, our trip had already been so amazing we'd be all right without it.  But now I wondered, if after all we'd done we'd really done enough.   There were other things we'd wanted to do too--we really hadn't even scratched the surface of all that this great city had to offer.
A tough crowd to please: "Supremo" on left, and "Free Spirit" on right.

But the day was drawing to a close.  We'd gotten back from our Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island tour around four and made our way to the South St. Seaport for dinner.  Now it was after seven and we were determined to squeeze one more larger-than-life Experience out of our day before we began our long trek back to New Jersey.  We headed for the Empire State Building.

By the time we arrived at the iconic skyscraper the sun had nearly set.  By the time we had made our way through the lines (which were short in length, but many in number--line to entrance, line to first elevator to 80th floor, ticket line and security line, and line to final elevator), darkness had fallen completely and I was a little disappointed.  I'd really wanted to take in the panoramic view in the daytime when we could really see.  As we meandered through the inner bowels of the building admiring the beautiful Art-Deco interior design and the informative displays on the building and it's construction, I wondered what view could really be had at night?  But the tickets had already been purchased the day before and there was no way I was going to throw that money away.

The gorgeous mural of the Empire State Building found in the main entrance to the building.  Thanks to  "Supremo " for the key photos of our visit to the Empire State Building.  I found I used my phone a lot during the trip--mainly for the on the go planning for our trip and I used a lot of battery.  If I wasn't careful I could run out of battery, as happened on Tuesday evening, preventing me from taking any photos of my own of our epic visit to the top of the Empire State Building.

It turned out that the view was spectacular, and perhaps more grand, with entire city lit up in billions of lights and all the great New York City landmarks glittering before us: the Chrysler Tower, Rockefeller Center, the Flatiron Building, One World Trade Center rising in the south, the famous bridges, the neon glow of Times Square flashing off the canyon walls of the city, Central Park defining itself in negative space--a great absence of light stretching in the distance, and so many more definitive landmarks, all easily identified amidst the sparkling glow of the city.

None of us got a proper panoramic shot from atop the Empire State Building so I ripped this one from the web, just to give a you a sense of what we saw.  Still, the photo doesn't begin to capture the magnificent grandeur of the view.

The 86th floor observation deck was packed--one had to wait at a turn at times to get a spot on the rail--but it felt strangely hushed to me, as if the very altitude muffled sound some how.  A glance through the railing gave one a vertiginous thrill--the cars crawled inaudibly like ants below us, and bits of confetti like paper drifted in the updrafts.

The experience was truly awesome, and say we spent close to an hour just beholding the city from various vantage points and taking it all in.  At some point during our time there, "Free Spirit" came to me and said  "Mr. Maycock, you succeeded."

And that was enough for me.

And we still had the tour of NBC Studios the next day!

Me and "Free Spirit" on the observation deck of the Empire State  Building, Tuesday night,  May 22, 2012.

Jun 12, 2012

Experiencing the Gift of Liberty (and Ellis Island)

This could be just a postcard photo or photo ripped from the web.  It sure doesn't look much different than a run-of-the-mill photo of this American icon.  But it is different, because I took this photo myself, standing with my students on Liberty Island.  What an Experience!  And it wouldn't have been possible without the help of a lot of generous people!

Ask most Americans what they think of when they think of New York City, and I guarantee the Statue of Liberty will be one of the top icons of that city.  Ask people around the world what symbolizes America most besides the nation's flag, and again, I betting the Statue of Liberty will again top the list.  Clearly Lady Liberty was an absolute Must See for this trip.  But here's the thing:  A week before we left for New York it was crystal clear that we would not be able to visit the Statue of Liberty.

The bottom line was, well, the bottom line.  We didn't have enough money.  The 7th and 8th grade class had borrowed some $900 or so from the 8th grade class (classic case of robbing Peter to pay Paul) to meet the needs of our annual Heroes Reception and the Family Fun Day we'd planned to pay back the 8th graders had been a monetary bust.  We had enough money to get to New York, get around in the city (or I so thought then), eat, and have a comfortable place to stay.  Beyond that, there was nothing left.

The weekend before the trip, I weighed my options.  We could just walk around and look at free stuff for the whole trip--and really there is a lot to do that's free in the city.  But I wanted the kids to have Experiences, and how could we go to New York, especially on an educational trip and completely sidestep the lady in the harbor? I was tempted to slap it all on my personal credit card and be done, but I knew that  be patently irresponsible with another child on the way and serious family expenses looming.  Furthermore such apparent generosity would be sham designed to cloak my own perceived failings as a class sponsor and prevent me from having to really humble myself.  Because there was a third option that I hated to contemplate.  One that would push me out of my comfort zone and make me do one of things I hate doing most of all:  I could ask for money.  I could publish to friends far and near that a week before the class trip I was short on money and needed help.

After much prayer, I knew that asking for help was the right thing to do.  And so I sent out the word on Facebook, via e-mail, and face to face hat-passing.  And God came through.  He moved generous, thoughtful hearts all across the country to respond with gifts big and small.  I sent out my requests on Saturday night  May 12and Sunday  May 13 and by Tuesday, May 15, just a week before my students and I would board the ferry for the jaunt across the harbor to the Statue, I had commitments for over $1000!  Praise God!  And thank you so much to all of you who made this day, Tuesday, May 22, 2012 from start to finish possible.

My favorite photo of Lady Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. I took this photo as the ferry was beginning it's approach to Liberty Island. Tuesday, May 22, 2012
On Liberty Island.  The island itself is quite small.  You can walk around the whole island in about ten minutes.  Readers who know Saipan:  Think Managaha Island  transported to New York harbor with a giant statue plopped won in the middle.  We arrived just in time to catch a scheduled guided tour of the island.

Me and the Lady from a distance (left, on the ferry approaching the statue) and up close (below). Unfortunately, the Statue was undergoing renovations so we could not go into the base or up to Liberty's crown as we normally would have been able to do.  Full access to the Statue of Liberty is set to resume in October.

Our next stop was Ellis Island, the immigration processing center where at one time 70% of the immigrants to the United States, 5000 people per day at its peak, entered the United States.  I chose Statue Cruises over several other tour operators because they were the only ones that actually let visitors get off at Liberty Island and Ellis Island.  If my students were really going to learn anything about these important artifacts of our American heritage they were going to have to get off the boat!

The Great Hall of the former Ellis Island Immigration Center , now Museum.  Essentially this was once a giant waiting room where immigrants would wait to be seen by doctors and prepare to continue on to the mainland.  The complex at Ellis Island included a hospital, laundry, school, and many other facilities to care for immigrants that ended up being quarantined there.  We were fortunate to have outstanding guides on both Liberty and Ellis Island.  Our Ellis Island guide was so impressed with our group that he took us on extended tour to some of the sites on the island not on the standard itinerary and normally unavailable to tourists.

I'd like to extend a special thanks to my cousins Nicole Koeningshof, my cousin Yvette Saliba and her colleagues, Janelle Thomas, Alyssa Minisee, Jessica Lee, Greg Wedel, and Aaron Knowlton and his 8th grade class at Redlands Adventist Academy.  All of you gave us the ability to do all the fun and enriching activities we did during our New York trip.  Thank you so much!

  Aaron's class decided to donate some of their own class funds  to help us with our New York trip.  The kids made this short video post card for their peers in Redlands while on Liberty Island:

Me with "Smooth" (left) and "The Scientist" (in front) on Liberty Island with the Manhattan skyline in the background.  Note in the background the new tower at the World Trade Center site under construction.  Once you get away from shore you can really see how much taller the new Freedom Tower is than everything else in Manhattan.

Jun 10, 2012

The New York City Culinary Experience

Digging into delicious.  Dinner at Sylvia's in Harlem, Monday, May 21, 2012

When we first arrived in New York City on Sunday afternoon, every one was hungry and we debated where to eat.  The adults wanted a classic (some might say cliche) New York culinary Experience.  The kids were set on McDonalds.  In the end, speed and convenience won out, and we ended up at the jam-packed two-story McDonald's on Times Square.  Surprisingly, that turned out to be an Experience in it's own right.  The place was a madhouse and the Mickey D's crew did not play around.  They were cheerful and friendly, but loud and all about business.  You needed to have your order ready when you finally got to the front of line, you needed to speak UP when you placed your order, and then you needed to get OUT OF THE WAY quickly so the next customer could order.  Most of our students (and few of us adults) were a little flummoxed by the high pressure atmosphere and arrived at the counter mumbling, asking all kinds of questions about the menu and what substitutes for this or that item might be made, and hovering uncertainly by the counter after the order had been made.  Needless to say a few things we ordered didn't materialize and I had to go back and get them.

The McDonald's at Times Square that we ate at on Sunday, May 20, 2012.  I didn't take this photo, but snagged it off the web.

Still it was an Experience, and if we were going to go some place is ordinary as McDonald's while in New York, that was the way to do it.  Still I was determined that would be the end of our chain-restaurant dining at least for a few meals, and indeed we had a number of great dining Experiences afterward.

Sunday evening we found ourselves in Chinatown and had a late supper at decent but unremarkable Chinese/Thai place down a neighborhood side street.  The food was good, and the kids had the chance to experiment with family style dining.

On Monday, after a reflective morning at the 9/11 Memorial we met up with my old friend Dan Shor.  You'll have to go back to some of my oldest blogs--five years or more--to find the last time this great guy and good friend made an appearance on these pages (Dan left Saipan in the spring of 2007--I wrote about his departure in my Springtime in Saipan entry.  My tribute to his influence in my life can be found here).  Fortunately, though we haven't seen each other in a long while, our friendship has remained intact, and he was excited to meet up with us and take us around his city for a little while.  He and his lovely wife Jie Hua met us outside the 9/11 memorial and we set off to explore the city, doing a half a decade worth of catching up as we walked.  It wasn't long into our walking tour that we all agreed that lunch should be on the agenda, and Dan guided us to the best pizza in New York (and thus, he says, the best pizza in the world.  Having eaten there now, I can't say I'd argue with him).

The gang ready to chow down at Johns on Bleeker Street. Lunch, Monday, May 21, 2012.   I  stood blocking the  path to the entrance to take this photo, while Dan and Jie Hua, seated on the right at the end of the table, were next to the entrance.  Great pizza, like many good things, can come in small packages.  You can see the outstanding staff huddled in the back ready to serve us.

John's Pizzeria of Bleeker Street is an unassuming little place.  The dining space is small--we took up virtually the entire center of the restaurant with our group of 16--and the names of previous patrons have been carved into every square inch of wall and furniture place.  But this is a place, like all restaurants that feature flat-out unparalleled food,  that doesn't need to put on airs.  The pizza speaks for itself: a thin, crispy crust baked to perfection in their brick oven, delicious sauce, and melted mozzerella.  The toppings we got were all good--the fresh garlic was my favorite, but I could have been happy with just plain cheese.  The staff was patient with our massive group, and they met our many demands quickly.  As I was looking for a good link for this blog, I came to discover that Johns has got a massive location near Times Square in a renovated old church complete with a grand staircase and seating for what looks like thousands at tables clad in white linen and candlelight.   The pizza is surely worthy of such fancy trappings, but it doesn't need them.  The pies are just as good at the scratched-up walls, hard-luck furniture, cash-only, no reservations, no "by the slice" orders (whole pies only), straight-up, no-nonsense Bleeker St. property.

One of our students added his mark to the myriad others scratched into the chairs , tabletops and walls of Johns.  When we came in the first thing I saw was the first name of one our students' who was not able to come standing out among the scrawls on the wall.  It was poignant moment for me.  She was just the sort who would not have missed a chance to leave her mark.  I wished she could have been there.

After having Experienced the best pizza in New York, we bid farewell to Dan and set out to explore Central Park for awhile.  More on that adventure later--for now let's fast forward to dinner time.

The famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, as photographed from our bus during a short hop on our  way into  Harlem, ultimately to Sylvia's. 

Harlem hadn't been on our original itinerary but our principal insisted that no historically black school was going to go to New York and not go to Harlem.  I had to admit she had a point, and so we took the subway uptown to 125th street and the heart of Black America.  We arrived late, and there wasn't much to do beyond walk past the Apollo Theater and some other landmarks of the neighborhood.   We were all getting hungry and a discussion ensued about where we should eat.  While we deliberated, we found ourselves walking towards and eventually into Sylvia's, the famed soul food kitchen of Sylvia Woods.   Benin Lee advocated a buffet joint further on that allowed us to pay by weight, ostensibly saving us some money.  Sylvia's was on the pricey side and would eat into our food budget a little. But in the end, I decided to stick with Sylvia's.  After all, we were already there and besides how could we miss a chance to eat where everyone from Barack Obama to Oprah Winfrey had dined.  This was the pinnacle of soul food cooking to be found outside the kitchens of mom and grandmothers across the land.  We couldn't pass it up.

My meal at Sylvia's in Harlem.   As you can see I'd already started gnawing on that chicken when it occurred to me to take the picture.

It was a good call if I do say so myself.  The food was unbelievable.  They began with round after round of cornbread.  I don't even like cornbread, ordinarily, but I scarfed this cornbread down with abandon.  It was moist, just the right amount of sweet--rich with flavor, even without pats of butter.  My main course was the fried chicken with a side of collard greens and buttered corn.   The chicken was crispy perfection, the corn a culinary delight, and the collard greens--well, I'd never had collard greens until that night (I know, I know, what kind of black person has never had collard greens--long story), but I am definitely a fan now--at least as long as they taste like Sylvia's.  The principal, Mrs. Arthurs, offered me some of her sweet potatoes and she didn't have to ask twice.  By the time the dessert menu was passed around, I was too stuffed to eat another bite.  So, I ordered some peach cobbler to go and ate it back at the hotel late that night.  It did not disappoint.

Granted, Sylvia's was about all we got to experience of Harlem, but Syliva's cooking proved to be an Experience all by itself.

The next two days our schedules were so hectic that we never really had the chance to sit down and eat together as a group again.  On Tuesday we had a late lunch/early supper at a food court in the Pier 17 mall at the South St. Seaport, just a stones throw from the famed Brooklyn Bridge.  On Wednesday, we ate on the run as we hustled through one last pass of Times Square before rushing back to New Jersey to catch our flight.  The boys grabbed Subway with Mr. Lee and the girls were so consumed with shopping that they didn't eat until we were in the airport waiting for our flight.  But in the midst of all this, I found time for one more New York Culinary Experience, just for me.  While Benin was with the boys doing the chain-fast food thing again, I ducked into a little delicatessen off Times Square and ordered a Reuben sandwich.  It was heaven in paper wrapping, just like you'd imagine getting at a New York deli.

I know we didn't even begin to touch all that New York City has to offer in terms of culinary delights--how can you, really, with thousands of great restaurants to choose from?  But I'm glad that, at least for a few meals, we were able to eat like we could nowhere else in the world.

Just had to throw this photo in here though it's not food related.  When we got off the subway at the 125th St. station in Harlem, they had large map featuring all the sites of note to be found in Harlem.  Among them was this--the original Ephesus Seventh-day Adventist Church.  We never did get to see our sister church in Harlem, but I did get this photo of it's place on the map.

Jun 9, 2012

Experiencing Ground Zero: The 9/11 Memorial

The 9/11 Memorial, New York  City, Monday, May 21, 202

Monday, May 21 dawned cool and rainy, conditions that added a certain poignancy to our visit to the site of the defining tragedy of our time, the place they call Ground Zero.

In the 30 or so years before September 11, 2001, tourists flocked to this place to see the iconic towers of the World Trade Center, maybe even ride to the top floors, and perhaps dine among the clouds in the Windows on the World Restaurant.  Now that the towers are gone, along with thousands of lives, the tourists keep coming.  Only our gaze no longer looks up to the now empty sky, but down into the gaping void where the towers once stood.  The names of those who died that awful day live on, carved into granite surrounding the twin pools.  That misty morning the raindrops rested appropriately like tears next to the names on the monument.

I found the memorial quiet in the midst of the bustling city, and even with the rumble of the construction on the new towers going on nearby. . .

  I found it beautiful, a fitting and respectful tribute to those who died.  I found it a solemn place, one that led me to reflection. . .

 Three times, I found myself moved to the point of tears.  Once, when I saw the bouquet left by a widowed wife for her husband. .  .

Again when I noticed for the first time  the acknowledgment of the unborn children who died with their mothers and thought of my own wife and second child on the way. . .

. . .and last while watching the short video in the gift shop where relatives of the victims shared their stories.

I wasn't sure how I'd react to being on some of the most sacred ground that can be found in America.  This isn't yet history like Gettysburg, where all those that could long remember what they did there are long gone.  This is fresh, and for many who knew and lost someone here, the wounds are undoubtedly still palpable even ten and years and more on.

"Supremo" at the 9-11 Memorial during a break in the rain showers.
And then again, for the kids, it really is, already history.  They were just babies when the towers came down and the world changed into the shape they now take for granted as normal.  But it was an important Experience for them to have nonetheless--perhaps all the more important because they didn't live through it. We who can never forget must make sure that they learn, understand, and remember too.

The Survivor Tree.  This was the only tree to survive at the site of the collapse of the twin World Trade Center towers.  It was removed and kept alive and growing in a nursery before being returned and replanted here at the memorial.  The students gather to look at this remarkable symbol of survival and resilience, and "Free Spirit" reaches out to touch it's battle scarred bark.