I made a good start at integrating into 'the city that never sleeps' by waking up at 4am on Thursday for my 6:05 JetBlue flight to JFK. After successfully navigating the AirTrain and subway system -- a victory unto itself -- I made my way to the Court of International Trade to meet my gorgeous friend A. She gave me a quick tour of the court (chick is a big shot, let's face it) and the key to her place; I fumbled through the subway again, walked to her apartment, dropped my bag... and headed back out onto the city streets of New York.
It was intoxicating, honestly; on this first day, there were moments where I found myself giggling aloud just from the sheer delight and disbelief of being there. Sunshine, blue sky, dizzyingly tall skyscrapers, streets teeming with noise and activity... all the cliches are perfectly true, and no less magical for it.
I stopped off at Katz's Deli (consistently ranked one of the top delis in NYC) for some heavenly potato latkes, then hopped back on the subway and headed toward Battery Park, figuring I should get my outdoor activities and photo ops out of the way before the forecast rain and wind arrived on Friday. After walking around the park and taking a few pictures, the first thing I did was ride the Staten Island Ferry, which is free and provides some great views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline. Quicker and cheaper than trying to do one of the organized tours, for sure. The wait for the ferry plus the round-trip ride took about an hour and a half all told, so it was approaching 2pm by the time I headed toward Ground Zero on foot.
It was strange. I've never been to NYC before, and yet I kept looking up at the sky as I walked, half expecting to see the Twin Towers still standing, and feeling uneasy each time I didn't see them. I noticed that the crowds were thinner here than at any other area in the entire city, and I don't question that phenomenon for a minute. Honestly, I don't know how the locals do it. Sure, it's been ten years, but I still don't see how true New Yorkers can walk past Ground Zero every day. The negative energy is unbelievable; it was making me physically uncomfortable. The closest thing I can compare it to was my visit to Auschwitz, but that was a different vibe, much quieter. Juxtaposed next to the vibrant city, still so shockingly alive, this was just plain wrong. The cranes and backhoes and construction workers could have belonged anyplace, but it wasn't just any old place, it was here, this site that we all watched for hours via our TVs on 9/11/2001. It was a Tuesday; I took an AP biology exam and then heard the news as I walked into calculus class. I was 17 years old, had never heard of Osama bin Laden or al-Qaida, had no connections to New York City, and had no concept of how this incident would irrevocably shape my perceptions of the world in the years to come. And now there I was, walking down the same streets through which I had watched people fleeing thick walls of choking smoke, my feet covering the same ground where terrified people had jumped from towering windows. I couldn't handle it; I had to leave.
On a recommendation from a classmate, the next thing I did was walk the Brooklyn Bridge. There's a promenade down the middle, between the two directions of traffic, which resembles a boardwalk in the center. It was a pretty good hike, but I enjoyed every minute of it: the beautiful views, the excited tourists, the continual parade of joggers (I would run there every day!).
Once reaching the Brooklyn side, I found my way to Grimaldi's, a fairly well-known pizza joint which is tucked right beneath the bridge. It was jam-packed and the line was out the door, but because I was by myself, I was able to walk right in and be seated immediately, at a table next to a couple from Chicago. ("How did you know when to come?" the Italian owner asked with a grin.) The pizza was delicious, New York-style thin-crust with crushed tomato, thick mozzarella slices, and basil leaves.
My feet were screaming at me by this point, so I decided to take the subway back to Manhattan rather than walking the bridge again. This was where the magic started. I had sucked up the $100+ cost and bought a Broadway ticket for the 8pm show of Wicked over a month prior, knowing that I'd be upset if I ended up missing out on it once I actually got to NYC. As of February 1st, the role of Elphaba on Broadway is being played by Teal Wicks, who was on the L.A. and San Fran productions for years and whom I had always desperately wanted to see. (Look her up on YouTube; you won't be sorry.) However, I also knew there was a Wicked lottery at 5:30pm, where 25 front-row tickets would be given away for $25 to those lucky winners whose names were drawn. I had told myself all along that, since I already had a ticket, I wasn't going to build my whole day around the lottery and wasn't going to plan on being there at the expense of potentially missing out on something else -- but that if I happened to be in the area at the right time, well, then, we'd see.
Anyway, what with all the excitement, the show had barely entered my mind all day, but as I was walking to the Brooklyn subway station around 4:30pm, I started seeing taxis with Wicked on their roof advertising bar. And not just one, but six or seven, all in the span of twenty minutes or so. With all the taxis in NYC, and even with all the walking I'd done, I'd had yet to see a single Wicked ad -- and for the next two days of my trip, I would see only one or two more. But in Brooklyn, they started coming at me thick and fast. "Interesting," I thought. I got on the subway and started heading toward the theatre district of Manhattan -- next on my list was Times Square, anyway -- telling myself that we'd just see what time I got there, and play it by ear.
45 minutes later, ascending the subway stairs to the streets of the theatre district was, again, pure magic. Night was falling, there was a new chill in the air, and the city's lights were coming on, with giant Broadway billboards everywhere I looked. More Wicked taxis kept flying by me, and the show was really starting to move to the front of my mental radar screen, so I made the conscious decision to walk just a couple of blocks out of my way and go past the Gershwin Theatre before heading to Times Square.
As it happened, I got to the Gershwin at 5:32pm -- and was greeted by a massive lottery line. "Well, that chaps THAT in the ass," I thought cheerfully. I took a picture of the mob and texted Liz, saying, "I am sooo glad I bought a ticket and didn't depend on the lottery!"
I stood there debating for a minute, wondering if it was selfish of me to even enter, given that I already had a ticket and there were so many folks standing there who clearly didn't. "Well, I'm already here," I reasoned, "and if I'm not meant to win, then I just won't win. What do I have to lose?" So I got in line after all. The two girls behind me turned out to be PTs from Virginia, so we started 'shop talking' a bit, and the line moved forward quickly. It took over 30 minutes, but finally, the theatre staff quieted us all down and started calling names. People whooped and hollered as they won, pushing their way to the front of the crowd. Eventually, they reached 24 winners plus guests, and needed a single-ticket hopeful to fill in the 25th and final seat. The man walked back to the basket, pulled out one final slip, and read the name.
It was mine.
I couldn't believe it! My first reaction was almost guilty -- how can I possibly deserve this? But I stuck my hand in the air and yelled "Here!" and pushed forward to the winners' line. After paying my $25 and securing my 'I Won the Wicked Lottery!' button to my shirt, I put on my best smile and asked the box office attendant if he had any suggestions for what to do with the ticket I already had.
"Well, you can take it out front and try to sell it yourself... or you can leave it here with us and we'll try to sell it for you in the cancellation line." He winked at me. "I'll do my damnedest for you!" I couldn't believe it was that easy! (And he was true to his word; when I stopped by the next day, I was handed a crisp $100 bill and change.)
Still marveling at my good luck, I realized I only had 90 minutes left before the show, so rather than try to take in any more tourist sights, I broke my rule about 'no food that I could just as easily get in Durham!' and stopped by a Starbucks to let my phone spend some quality time with an electrical outlet. (My iPhone was absolutely indispensable on this trip; it served as subway map, city map, camera, subway timetable, notepad, communication device, and music player, in no particular order.) Along with the table-sharing at most restaurants, the other unexpectedly delightful conversations of my journey mostly happened during these Starbucks stops -- or, on one occasion, when I plopped down on the floor by the only visible outlet in the ferry terminal! :)
At 7:30, I headed back to the theatre and sat down in my front-row aisle seat. My knees were literally brushing the stage; I could lean forward and talk to the musicians in the orchestra pit without leaving my seat, and there was a trap door right in front of me. If I'd been so inclined (read: an asshole), I could literally have reached out and touched the actors. I couldn't stop trembling; I'm pretty sure I was emitting a force field of excitement. When the show began, the flying monkeys came vaulting out of the trap door, sending me reeling backward at their proximity; they and the ensemble members were literally locking eyes with me as they capered about during the opening seconds of the show. Absolutely breathtaking.
I'll spare you the detailed play-by-play of the show itself (read my June 2010 entry for the Charlotte version if you're that curious :)) but I will say that when Teal made her initial entrance, I was the one to lead the audience in applause (and shout "Yeah, Teal!"). It was only her third week on Broadway, and I wanted her to know she had a friend in the front row. :) She had me a little worried at first -- her first big song ('The Wizard and I') felt to me like she was holding back a bit, and she kept the 'angry' side of Elphaba's character going a bit longer than might have been strictly necessary -- but once she and Katie Rose Clarke (Glinda) started their verbal thrust-and-parry, she relaxed into the role and was absolutely amazing from that point forward. Her 'I'm Not That Girl' was heart-wrenching, with every facial expression and gesture utterly perfect. That's never been a song I've particularly cared about until now, but will never forget Teal's version. I was really grateful for my front-row seat, because I could see more detail than I ever had. 'No Good Deed' was similarly fantastic for the same reasons; the character's internal agony came through loud and clear. And suffice it to say that I have never heard a 'Defying Gravity' like that... never. Not from Anne Brummel, not from Vicki Noon, not even from Idina Menzel herself. Teal's last note, while suspended high above the ensemble, pierced my soul. A-freakin-mazing. I never wanted it to end. I was thoroughly engrossed, enjoying every minute, and at the same time, there was a continual voice in the back of my head repeating, "Remember this! This, right here, right now. Wicked, Broadway, front row, Teal Wicks, NYC... don't ever forget this moment!"
I'd made sure to ask at intermission where the stage door was, since I knew from the Charlotte performance that the actors are ridiculously fast at getting out of their costumes and out the door, so as soon as the final curtain call was over (and I'd yelled Teal's name a couple more times :)), I grabbed my coat and dashed out of the theatre as fast as I could. It was raining, but not horribly so. I queued up outside the door with about 50 other people, and we got Katie Rose Clarke (Glinda), Etai Benshlomo (Boq), and several others to sign our playbills. I congratulated Katie on a great show and told her she had been cracking me up with 'Popular', which was true; she smiled and thanked me. What I forgot to mention was the catfight scene in Act II where her wand got stuck in her dress; she played it off very well (ad-libbing "I got it! I got it!"), and I'd meant to mention that to her and hear what she had to say about it, but unfortunately forgot.
Of course, it was Teal we were all really waiting for, and so when the security guard came out to say, "That's it, guys, everybody's out," there was a collective groan. Unexpectedly, I felt my heart drop to my feet, and the beginnings of tears. I'd thought that all I really wanted was the chance to see Teal perform; I didn't realize how much it had meant to me to meet her until the chance seemed to be gone.
Most people shrugged and dispersed right away. I walked around to the other side of the theatre with a NYC native who said he'd occasionally seen actors come out a different door; we had no luck there either, so he wished me well and headed home. The heavy disappointment was still with me, the rain was still drizzling down, and I had nowhere else to go, so for lack of options, I found my feet carrying me back toward the stage door.
And... standing on the sidewalk was a petite girl about my age, with long red hair and a black hat. She looked vaguely familiar.
I looked at her; she looked at me. I smiled, a question clearly in my eyes; she smiled back, an acknowledgement, and said, "Hi."
I opened my mouth to speak, and heard a voice behind me say, "Hey, were you the witch?!"
She hesitated briefly, and I felt the pang of her 'uh-oh' moment right before she found a new smile and said, "Yes."
It was like a magnet; there was an instant collective rush inward, and we found ourselves at the center of a circle of 15-20 people. I felt bad for Teal; since the guard had told us to go, clearly she hadn't particularly wanted to 'run the gauntlet' tonight. But she was extremely gracious for all that, signing playbills and tickets. I told her thanks for a fantastic show and said, "I was the annoying one yelling your name in the front row." She laughed and said, "Were you yelling 'Elphaba', or...?"
I said, "No, I was yelling 'Teal', actually!"
She said, "Oh! I didn't hear you!" (And here I thought I was being so loud!)
I said, "Yeah -- you were the Elphaba I'd always wanted to see, but I'm from North Carolina and you were always in Cali, so I never thought I'd get the chance. You were phenomenal."
She thanked me for making the trip and signed my front-row ticket in silver Sharpie (surprisingly, a perfectly legible signature!). Then I asked the people next to me, "Can I be super annoying and ask one of you guys to take a picture of us?"
Teal smiled again and said, "I don't find that annoying."
We posed, I thanked her again, and then she headed off down the block on foot.
Seriously -- how is it possible that I have this much good karma with this show?!?! I had a similar experience in Charlotte last June, but this was even sweeter... because it was Broadway, and Teal, and NYC, and front row. Really... I have no words.
Anyway, the night was young, so after a moment's brief squealing with a girl from South America (she'd seen my disappointment when we thought Teal was gone earlier), we all went our separate ways. As planned, I headed toward the Empire State Building -- I knew it was open until 2am, and, rain or no rain, I had no desire to stand in the (by all accounts) two-hour line to get in during the day. I was able to walk in and go up with zero wait time whatsoever, and found myself looking out over a beautiful sea of light, stretching as far as the eye could see in all directions. Stunning.
At one point on my first trip around the observation deck, I found myself standing near a young couple about my own age, who were snuggled up against the corner of the fence kissing. I felt a brief stab of annoyance and loneliness... and then made the conscious decision to put those emotions away. They were young and in love and here in this magical city, and I am fortunate enough to know firsthand what all of those things feel like. They had every right. So I chose, instead, to smile, to be happy for them, to appreciate that there was that much more love in the world tonight, and to linger for just a moment before continuing my loop around the building.
When I reached that same corner again, a new couple, clearly just recruited, was holding a camera and taking pictures of the kissing couple. The girl tried to pose and smile for the photo -- then was taken aback as the guy dropped to his knees in front of her and opened a small red box. His back was to me, but the question was obvious. "Yes, of course!" she said, and I started clapping. The second couple did the same, and the three of us started congratulating the guy and girl, who turned out to be Sarah and Alex from Memphis, TN.
"We're headed out to have a drink -- want to come with us?" Sarah asked. I tried to defer, saying that I didn't want to interfere with their moment, but she said, "Well, they're coming" -- indicating the other couple -- "so you should come, too!" Far be it from me to argue... so we all headed downstairs and around the corner to a bar called Legends, which turned out to have great food and music. The five of us hung out until past 2am, just having cocktails and shooting the breeze and swapping Facebook info. Such a delightful and unexpected surprise. Only in New York!
We all parted ways around 2:15, and I decided to walk back to A's neighborhood rather than taking the subway. It turned out to be a 45-minute walk, but I loved every minute of it -- the rain, the lights, the taxis. I know a lot of people don't feel safe on the streets of New York, but my (albeit brief) experience was that there are always so many people around, whether at 3pm or 3am, that it actually feels a lot safer to me than the streets of, say, Durham. :)
Around 3am, I finally made it back to A's neighborhood, right as she texted me to say that she was almost back to her neighborhood. We tried to go to 'her' bar, Parkside, which is right on the corner of her street, but it turned out to be closed. Her roommate was at another bar around the corner, so we went there instead and met another of her friends. We finally crawled into bed just before 6am.
I didn't sleep much that night -- A had to be up at 7:30 for work, but slept through her alarm, and went flying out the door over an hour later than planned. I dozed for an hour or two after she left, then got up myself, showered, and went to Katz's again, for the pastrami this time. It was the beginning of the lunchtime rush, so for lack of options, I shared a table with a Ukranian woman (who said she had come all the way from Staten Island just to try this deli). I was still reeling from last night's experience, so after eating, I stopped by the post office and wrote a quick thank-you card to Teal, then headed to the Gershwin for my ticket refund. I talked to a security guard from Raleigh who said that his NC accent had earned him a lot of work when he first got to NYC, because people loved hearing him talk. :) After that, it was a bunch of wandering and picture-taking... Times Square, Grand Central Terminal, and so forth. The rain slacked off in the early afternoon, but the weather was still a lot colder and windier than on the previous day, and I made a couple of Starbucks stops just for the chance to warm up.
While I was at Grand Central, A called to say that she was going home to take a much-needed nap and that we should go to dinner afterward, so instead of going and standing in the discount Broadway ticket line (there are SO many more shows I need to see!), I took the subway to Central Park and wandered around as night fell. I chanced across some absolutely stunning views of the skyline over the reservoir, which literally made me gasp out loud. The city is such a paradox -- often seedy and gritty up close, but heart-wrenchingly beautiful as a distant whole.
Around 9pm, the two of us took a taxi to Brooklyn and had drinks, followed by a delicious dinner at a charming little Italian place. Pasta, pork, potatoes, pear cake, coffee, and a bottle of red. I was, and am, so grateful for A's presence in my life; without delving into gory details (those who need to know already do), she has 'been here' emotionally in every sense, and really understands me perfectly right now, which was such a gift.
After dinner, we walked a few blocks to a bar called Ginger's, and one of A's old flames came to meet us. Lots of drinks, lots of dancing (the DJ laughed outright at A's 'Hold It Against Me' request, but played it anyway)... lots of fun. I haven't danced like that in ages. I can't tell you how long we stayed there, but we eventually took another taxi back to Manhattan (the driver was really funny and got us into a long conversation about zodiac signs and I don't know what-all else) and then ended up at the same bar we'd been at the night before, which was a lot more crowded on a Friday than a Thursday. We only stayed for a few minutes before heading home; we were in bed by the much more reasonable hour of 3:30. :)
The next morning, the three of us slept late and then went to brunch. A's roommate has a food blog, and was able to tip us off to the recent opening of Gaia, a hole-in-the-wall Italian cafe just a few blocks from their apartment. It was a quintessential NY-style place, below street level, complete with exposed brick and hardwood floor, and I loved it. For $12, we each got fresh fruit juice, a panini (chicken-tomato-pesto for me, prosciutto for A -- which she pronounced as being 'smack-yo-momma good'), a Nutella brioche, and delicious coffee. After we ate, we headed into Soho to do some shopping; I bought a hat at H&M and A bought a couple of things for work. After this, we somehow decided to go play some pool -- because it just seemed like the thing to do in the middle of the afternoon -- so headed back to Parkside, pooled our quarters, and played seven games. (For those who have never tried vodka and Vitamin Water, it is a surprisingly good combo, and could possibly be considered a performance-enhancing drug when pool is involved! :)) Afterward, we went to the Remedy Diner (which is right down the street, with decidedly average food, but which, interestingly, Lady Gaga has been known to frequent) and had chicken fingers and cheese fries and coffee. I left at 7pm, thinking I was going to have too much time before my 9:50 flight, but due to altered weekend train schedules and a JFK security snafu, ended up hitting the gate right as they started boarding. I had never flown JetBlue before this trip, but I adore them now; they even have seatback TVs. (However, I will say that the lowest point of this entire experience was spending the flight home watching Virginia Tech beat Duke on those seatback TVs... sigh.)
Anyway, not gonna lie -- I'm already planning my next trip! There's so much that I didn't do, so much that I did do and want to repeat, so many more restaurants to try and shows to see and streets to walk. Simply put, I love that city -- already! I love that you can share a table with a stranger and leave with a new friend. I love the public transportation system. I love that you can set your 'NYC Soundtrack' by navigating the city with headphones on (which seems to be what all the locals do, and, interestingly, I now realize is exactly what I always did in Utrecht, too -- whether on foot, bike, bus, or train, I always had my headphones!). I love that random mariachi bands can jump onto a subway car and start singing, and nobody even really looks up. I love that if you decide you want Greek food at three in the morning, that that's completely possible, even normal. I love that there seems to always be room for one more -- that the people, as a whole, are amazingly tolerant of everyone and have a great sense of humor about themselves. I love the hidden treasures that abound, whether it's a random sidewalk furniture sale in Soho or a plate of melt-in-your-mouth prosciutto on the Lower East Side.
In short, the city really got inside my heart in the brief time I spent there -- and I can't wait to go back.