A Christmas in Manhattan
It was the Christmas of 2012 and what started as a crazy spontaneous adventure, ended as a rich appreciation of the human spirit unveiling the true meaning of Christmas
It began as a last minute whirlwind idea to take the kids to visit Manhattan Island and experience the magic of the Christmas season: the FAO Schwartz toy store, Dylan’s candy store, Serendipity ice cream and Crumbs famous bakery, betting who could eat the most cupcakes in one sitting.
The plan was simple: my daughter and I were to meet my sister, Melanie and her three children in Manhattan. Easy enough. Yet, having polarized spending philosophies, traveling together was quite the challenge.
If you die with money in the bank you did not have enough fun.
(mind you, this is the same girl that parks in the red zone and appreciates her parking ticket as a valet charge).
Save for a rainy day. And in the backdrop of the devastation of Superstorm Sandy held a lot of merit.
Needless to say, here we were, meeting in the Big Apple...she staying at the much envied Plaza Hotel (would you expect anything else) and I staying down the street.....waaaayy down the street.
Taking the subway to meet her, was being transported from a world of cigarettes and poverty, to emerge in a whole new world of exquisite smells of perfume emanating from the opulence of 5th avenue.
How did these two worlds exist within a 7 minute subway ride?
We made our way through the crowds overhearing conversations about doing the windows, which I suppose meant window shopping, yet with an aire of elitism and a dash of aerobic exercise. Who would think? Window shopping in New York City as a sport? Regardless, I was thrilled to be there...Bergdorf Goodman, Louis Vuitton, and every girl’s dream.....Tiffany’s.
THE PLAZA HOTEL
There it was The Plaza Hotel...with the beautiful red stairs escorting you into the world of the Rich and Famous. As I paraded up the stairs, I was having my own “red carpet” experience before being abruptly detained by the doorman
who might as well have asked for a passport to the land of the privileged.
“Excuse me Madam,” he said with an aire of accusation scanning over my less than fashionable attire, “are you staying here?”
“Not exactly,” I confidently replied back. “but I am visiting my sister on the top floor suite.” I replied as if I trumped him in a game of cards.
Making my way down the glorious hallway to my sister’s room, passing a bodyguard shielding entrance to a rich and famous person’s room. I thought, “Hmmmmm, I wonder who it is?”
Once seeing my sister we embraced, and instantly our worlds became one. We were in New York city!
We did not come to New York for a cultural experience, nor an intellectual appreciation of the arts, this was merely a fun trip in search of Crumb’s cupcakes and FAO Schwartz Toys. Yet, with one caveat- The New York City Dare: the quest to shock people out of their inhibited sophisticated shells.
My brave daughter started the challenge. Cascading down the staircase of the Plaza Hotel lobby while guests were enjoying tea, she belted out her heading turning rendition of Whitney Houston’s I will always love you.
Good one. I was proud!
What the Heck, I took the next dare...dancing Gangnan style across the Plaza lobby past the doorman. I don’t know who it did more good, he or me, but dancing past him gave me a sense of newfound freedom! New York City, here I come!
THE ADVENTURE BEGINS
First stop... Fao Schwartz..an endless menagerie of toys and sweets shamelessly surpassing even Mr. Wonka’s Chocolate Factory in the land of want-to-be dust.
Next stop...Natural Museum of Art. Our Motive in going was not from an anthropological interest, nor an interest in the famous sayings of Theodore Roosevelt, but rather to witness first hand, where Ben Stiller was chased by the infamous Dinosaur in The Night of the Museum. While others left the museum with archeological enhancement, we left with pride of being “on-the-set.”
Our next Dare Challenge....amongst all these intellectuals, would anyone notice if we broke out in freestyle yoga? The challenge was on. Melanie’s son Will, was the first to go, committing to center stage on the marble floor. With the intensity of twisted positions, and grace of movement, Will achieved the BS yogi award, confusing even the most sophisticated patrons, “I didn’t see this in the program?”
Hysterically laughing and hiding behind our hot dogs, we had to rise to the occasion. What would Owen Wilson do in a time like this? Yes, of course, join in! Twisting and turning, performing headstands and back bends with one legged poses on the famous floors or our forefathers. This was indeed..land of the free, home of the brave!
A great first day in New York City! Walking Melanie back to her room to say goodnight, I passed the stoic bodyguard yet again wondering “who is in that room?”
Waking up early the next morning for a jog through Central Park, I secretly anticipated the possibly of running into Madonna. You never know. After all this is the Big Apple!
New York City was simply breath-taking, especially during Christmas with all the magic of the lights and horse drawn carriages. What was I doing slumming it in a city like this?
Suddenly, I had an urge to jump ship and join the other side.....I wanted to stay in these fancy hotels with, okay, I’ll admit it....doorman who would not grant entrance without a key.
I summoned up my courage. I mean c’mon... if I could do fake yoga poses in the Natural Museum of Art, couldn’t I go in a hotel and ask for a discount? Wasn’t this land of the free..home of the brave?
Sucking in a deep breath of Central Park air (which I knew had more oxygen than where I was staying) I went in the turn style.
“Excuse me,” I sheepishly asked, “you don’t have an extra room do you?”
“No, sorry..sold out.”
I went to the next hotel, “By chance, do you have any rooms left?”
“No, sold out.”
Hmmm, I wondered, sold out, or sold out to me, wearing these shabby jogging clothes.
Okay, I had to get honest here. I went in this time transparent.
“Excuse me, my sister is staying at the Plaza Hotel, and I have to take subways just to get here. She brought her kids and I brought my daughter. I really can’t afford this, but I just want to be next to her. I’ll take anything, actually the worst you have... no view, a single bed..skip the complimentary shampoos and conditioners...anything, if it’s available.”
She looked me in my eyes, with a kind of...yeah, I understand look...the type of look that says, let me help you.
“Well,” she said, “Our normal rate is...”
“Oh, that’s okay,” I quickly interrupted. I needed to leave as soon as possible before I embarrassed myself.
“Wait,” let me see what I can do. “
There was something about the way she said it, that made me wonder when she had been on my end asking for help? I could only imagine what she had been through, and how much of her own life crumbled with the Twin Towers or washed away with the recent storm only months prior.
Compassion filled the space between us, and I don’t really knew if at that moment I felt more for her, or if she felt more for me.. or if she was vicariously helping all those who suffered from the devastation of the past tragedies.
She looked up and smiled, and handed me the adjusted rate on a piece of paper, “Merry Christmas.”
I opened it up, shocked with gratitude. Though I whispered the words thank-you, our eyes said more than words could ever say.
What took me thirty minutes on the way up I covered in fifteen minutes on the way back. I was sprunjing...sprinting, running and shouting for joy all at the same time.
Helmsley Park Lane, here we come!!! Somehow, I just could not refrain from singing:
Start spreading the news I am leaving today I want to be a part of it New York, New York These vagabond shoes They are longing to stray Right through the very heart of it New York, New York
I want to wake up in that city That doesn't sleep And find I'm king of the hill Top of the heap
My little town blues They are melting away I gonna make a brand new start of it
In old New York If I can make it there I'll make it anywhere It's up to you New York, New York!!!
A LOST LITLE BOY
Grabbing a cup of coffee in one hand, and my daughter in the other I was off, yet not before I noticed a little boy in the lobby staring at the pastries, inquiring about the prices.
“How much is a bagel?” he asked.
“Three dollars,” the girl behind the counter answered.
“Well, then how much is the muffin?”
“The same,” she replied again.
“Oh..” was all the little boy could muster up.
Where were his parents? Why didn’t he have any money? Wasn’t this me just moments ago? Didn’t a stranger show me undeserved kindness? I handed her a $20 bill before leaving.
“Give him whatever he wants, and keep the change. It’s Christmas!”
THE MYSTERIOUS BODYGUARD
As I ran to meet my sister that morning, to tell her of my good fortune, I passed the bodyguard once again in an awkward moment of pretending it was the “norm” to have a bodyguard positioned outside your room.
Desperately wanting to summon the courage to at last ask, “who is behind the closed doors?” It was finally Kylie, my 7 year old niece, who broke the silence.
“Who are you guarding?”’ she simply asked. That was brilliant, why didn’t I think of that before? Just ask.
“The Princess from Saudi Arabia with the royal family.” was his straight-forward reply.
Now even I was star-struck.
“A real princess! can I meet her?” Kylie asked innocently.
“Well, I can surely ask her,” the bodyguard answered, who now became a voice instead of an awkward frozen soldier.
Funny, why do we complicate things so much? Why are we afraid to approach each other? or ask? Why does it take a 7 year old to show us simple honesty?
Today was going to be a great day. We were off to see the Statue of Liberty, something I had been looking forward to for a long time. The taxi cab driver careened between people and cars, until he reached our final destination~ South Street Seaport, Pier 17.
I was shocked, experiencing first hand the damage of Superstorm Sandy. The hustle and bustle of the seaport, that once thrived was now vacant, condemned and closed to the pubic, like a beautiful woman who had been battered and abused. To make matters worse, was the empty space of where the Twin Towers no longer existed.
Our ferry left for Ellis Island at 2:00 p.m., the last boat out that day. The others tours had been canceled as if to honor grief of the recent devastation. Passing through the Brooklyn, Manhattan and Williamsburg Bridges, even from a distance, there she stood more radiant than ever before, the Statue of Liberty.
With her arms held out in mercy, compassion and love, her spirit cried out in the inscription:
"Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of you teaming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
How many immigrants did Lady Liberty save? How much of her own strength did she give to others so that they could live? Yet, now, she was on her knees, asking for help in the same way she so sacrificially gave it. She was beautiful to me, what she stood for, and now in her own vulnerability of the passing storm, and the fall of the towers, even more so.
Getting off the ferry, we decided to walk, rather than take a cab back. suddenly giving me time to soak everything in. How is life so fragile? Strong one minute, and vulnerable the next?
I felt embarrassed at myself for being so caught up in my little world of 5th Avenue “upper side” of Manhattan, when only blocks away, was still the memory of 9/11, that even Hurricane Sandy could not wash away.
Squinting to block the reflection of the sun glaring straight into my eyes, I opened one corner to see where the culprit rays were coming from. It was glorious! Majestic! There were no words to describe what stood before me...The reflection bouncing off the panels of the beginning structures in rebuilding the World Trade Center Towers.
In reverence of the heroic men who rushed in and sacrificed their lives, was a pool of rushing water built at the base of where the Towers once proudly stood, now as a symbol of strength.
Yet, now there were to be five towers. Five....a spiritual number representing God’s grace, to cope with the tremendous loss, to bless us with all we need to start again and give us hope for a new beginning.
Five World Trade Center Towers to surround the memorial of the past, and two pools of cascading water as if to symbolize the shed tears that would probably go one for a long time to come. In a city where space is so precious and rare, the memorial was a statement of eternal honor .
My superficial New York City adventure unexpectantly pulling at my heartstrings, was easily remedied with a cab ride to the famous Crumb’s Cupcake Bakery at 53th and Broadway..
Seeing all those cupcakes in a row with different colors, different shapes, and what I call frosting art, was a poor man’s version of doing the windows. How could you possibly decide which would be better? ~ the chocolate black out, toffee crumb, peanut butter/chocolate swirl?
There was only one answer to my dilemma. Why choose? Get one of each on the first row.
We lined up 16 cupcakes, sat down on the ledge by the window, grabbed plastic forks and dug in. You would think this was a New York Dare, of how many cupcakes you could eat in one siting, but it wasn’t....we were as serious as a Saks fifth Avenue semi annual sale, savoring every morsel and took the Crumbs to go returning to the Plaza.
MEETING THE PRINCESS
Now making eye contact with the bodyguard who actually smiled back betraying his stoicism, announced,“The Princess would be glad to meet you at 5 pm today,” Swirling and dancing, to Kylie this was better than Cinderella, Snow White and Belle put together. She was going to meet the princess in person!!
We went back to our room, (okay, my sister’s room, but at least I was just down the street instead of waaaayyyy down the street) to prepare while endlessly waiting to meet the princess.
When the appointed time finally arrived. Kylie and my daughter, proceeded down the hall to her room. Hiding in the wings so as not to appear as paparazzi, my sister and I were camera ready with iPhones to document this event. It’s not everyday you meet a real princess.
Kylie, in her little purple striped dress and knit hat, thanked the bodyguard and then respectfully curtsied in anticipation for the door to open. My daughter, being a little more shy, stood breathlessly still and waited as well.
Finally, the door opened. Only 26 years old, her beauty surpassed her age. She was stunning...,her long black hair cascaded past her shoulders attired in a saphire silk gown and diamond studded necklace. Bowing down she took Kylie and Allie’s little hands into her own, with an unmistakable twinkle in her eye.
I watched on as the princess and my little girls laughed and chit chatted about trivia. “Huh,” I reflected, “so this was the mysterious rich and famous person behind closed doors...a beautiful soul sharing love that now spanned over two continents.. two completely different cultures. She smiled for the last time saying her good-byes and turned around to reenter her palace at the Plaza.
“Wait,” she said, “I have something for you.”
I could have only imagined what it would be. A bracelet from the royal family? A jewel from her personal jewelry box? The anticipation was too great to bear. Coming back moments later, she reemerged with a 3‘ high box of Nerds for Kylie, and a 4‘ high Starbursts for my daughter Allie. I laughed... the perfect gift..far better than princess jewels to a 7 and 11 year old.
We left that evening to ice skate at Rockerfeller Center. Passing by the princess’s door and her bodyguard, which now seemed like personal friends, we dropped off a squished cupcake and note which read:
Thank-you princess for taking the time to see us, love Kylie and Allie
THE GROUP HUG DARE
Taking elevators in New York City is brutal. Maybe it’s because all day long fighting for enough space just to walk, and now fighting for enough space just to stand, created obvious unspoken anxiety, and so the announcement of the Group Hug during the elevator ride was the perfect dare. As daring as I have always been, doing yoga in the middle of the American Museum of Natural History seemed amateur compared to this.
My sister took the challenge.
“Okay, gather in everyone, (was it possible to be any more gathered than this?) group hug!” Her annoying cheerfulness just added insult to injury. People looked around in a mixture of disbelief and disgust, yet she persisted, “Group Hug!” A she stretched out her arms to draw people in even closer than they already were in the crammed cubicle, I backed her up, hugging them all with my newfound compassion.
“Merry Christmas!” she relentlessly continued, like trumping us with the Ace of Spades, who could refuse the Spirit of Christmas? Suddenly, the tension melted, and aggravation subsided. Laughingly conceding, everyone gave a heartfelt group hug before the doors opened to freedom.
Beholding Rockerfeller Center during Christmastime is spectacular. There is something about seeing the towering Christmas tree sparkling with lights giving way to the famous bronze gilded statue beneath. Steam coming up from the subways, feel as if Marilyn Monroe would walk out from amongst the crowd posing for her famous scene, holding down her dress while caught in a gust of wind. You could almost hear Frank Sinatra singing over a sax in a near-by bar. It’s right here, in this Center, where the overwhelming feeling of, “Wow, I really am in New York City,” envelopes you.
Overwhelmingly inspired, the real question was who would take the next New York Dare: to dance ballet to the Nutcracker Suite around the Christmas tree, infused with leaping pirouettes.
Sean, Melanie’s brave 11 year old son rose to the occasion, with the next Christmas Dare..
Laughing until our hats fell off, spilling hot chocolate on ourselves, even we were flabbergasted this dare was taken. Ironically we were accomplishing our mission: to shock people out of their sophisticated shells and enjoy the absurdity of life. Our laughing was contagious and soon spilled out over the crowd just like the chocolate we attempted to hold.
Looking down at the ice skating rink below, it was amazing that it all started as an accident..a temporary rink just to attract more business to the lower level. A simple accident, a coincidence, an unknowing gesture that turned out to be so monumental. I wondered how many of those little gestures we all do, that effect so many lives around us. I wondered about the rippling effect of even one sincere smile, or charitable act, and the incredible impact it had on others. I brought my thoughts back to the swirling, laughing skaters bundled up in scarves and hats, only to witnesses another huddled in a corner trying to keep warm. I dropped some money in her basket. “Merry Christmas,” I said, “God Bless you.”
TIMES SQUARE CHURCH
It was my last day, so I woke up early that morning to do my run through Central Park, still hoping to see Madonna. What a crazy, exciting, somber experience these last days had been. There were so many pictures in my mind of the recent events, like pieces to a puzzle that I couldn’t quite put together, as if Someone was trying to tell me something.
I stopped off at Starbucks for my usual~ large cup of coffee with an extra shot of espresso, the breakfast of champions. Replacing all the calories I just burned off from my run with the cream I was now pouring, did seem a bit ironic, but what the heck, it’s Christmas, and gaining weight is part of the tradition, so I topped it off with chocolate. The familiar chorus to Hark the Herald Angels Sing was playing in the background, but hearing it now seemed to have more meaning.
Hark the Herald angels sing Glory to the newborn King Peace on Earth and Mercy mild God and sinners reconciled.
Suddenly from nowhere I had this overwhelming desire to go to church. Ironically, it was early Sunday morning. Coincidently, close by Times Square Church on 51st where I had always wanted to see. Founded by Pastor David Wilkerson who authored The Cross and the Switchblade, was the unbelievable account of a young pastor outraged by the murder of an innocent 15 year old boy by neighborhood gangs. Every day his hate grew as the story of the innocent boy unfolded.
One day, Pastor Wilkerson writes about the stirring from God to go and save the boys who committed such a heinous crime. Supernaturally his love and compassion grew for the teenage boys he had once hated. Dangerously risking his life he went in the heart of the gangs with nothing but a cross and the love of Christ. Saving many from a life of destined destruction, Pastor Wilkerson started the movement of what is known today as Teen Challenge.
Time Square Church founded by loving the unlovable.
Returning to the hotel room, I packed up, and went down to check out, handing my credit card to the same women who helped me out only days before. She winked, I smiled, as if to say..I will return the favor to you one day.
One last stop before we headed for the airport~ the Empire State Building.
Going all the way to the top, I stepped out of the elevators to witness a view that was indescribable. I said good-bye to a city knowing that I would leave differently than the way I came, and would always remember:
The woman at the Helmsly Hotel whose generosity was unfounded. The lost little boy who did not have enough money for a bagel.
The Princess who held little hands in her own, reaching past all erected boundaries of prestige, beliefs, and differences.
The Statue of Liberty...representing strength and vulnerability at the same time.
The rebuilding of the World Trade Center witnessing the human spirit that rises higher than the devastation of the soul...the courage to start over when all is lost.
The Ice skating rink which started as an accidental gesture, turning into a monumental landmark,.
Pastor David Wilkerson who risked his life to save others.
Was this the Spirit of Christmas? Opening your eyes to poverty...giving generously to strangers...feeling compassion for the lost...grabbing another’s hand and putting in your own...having the courage and faith to start over...being vulnerable when you are strong.....doing small gestures that ripple forever...but most importantly, sacrificing your very life to save another.
The Spirit of Christmas, Christ reconciling us back to God. The season of being restored, Peace on earth, goodwill to men, and joy to the world.
I left New York City with so much more than I came for. I now saw the truth in my sister’s philosophy; spend everything you have, give with everything you have to give, and die with nothing left but your life poured out.
Yet, in the end is it possible to give away everything and die rich?
My last New York City Dare: Would I reconcile my life back to God, and live a life poured out for others with the true Spirit of Christmas? I guess only time would tell.....
For now A Christmas in Manhattan would never be forgotten.
Lisa Hamilton/ The Hamilton Post/ Christmas 2020