Back in the BIG APPLE for the holidays

The last time I went to New York City, I was carrying my son on my hip as we sipped iced tea at 30 Rock. Hes 28 now. So its been awhile since I took in the sights of the Big Apple. I went down to spend a couple of days in New Jersey with my old high school pal Sue. Much to her horror, I told her I really wanted to go into the city and see the Christmas decorations on Fifth Avenue, shop in FAO Schwarz and Tiffanys and all that other tourist stuff. Sue spent much of her career in the high-powered retail business in New York and New Jersey, and she wasnt standing behind a counter for 20 years. So the idea of visiting the site of her former employment was less than inviting. But she did it for me, and Im sure she had some moments of regret as I snapped pictures, giddily looking up at the skyscrapers and watching the city people hustle by. I arrived at her home in Northern New Jersey on Saturday, after surviving Route 17 near Paramus on the way. Her two twenty-something sons were still asleep and her husband Rob, (you may remember Rob, a man of few words but many grunts) was out. Sue and I puttered around her kitchen awhile, and I introduced myself to her boys as they sleepily came down the stairs. We spent the afternoon touring the area that I called home until the 70s when I went off to college. Little was familiar. The house I grew up in, a green ranch, was gone, replaced by a rather large brick monstrosity. As we stopped to take a picture, a woman came to the door and yelled, Why are you taking pictures of my house? I lived here, a long time ago, I hollered back. Well, its not the same house, she replied. No kidding. And she wasnt even blonde. Sue drove me by the home of mystery writer Mary Higgins Clark, a sprawling and interesting house on a quiet lane. So many of the newer houses were huge, and I wondered why a family of two, three or even eight needed a house that could comfortably hold everyone in Chestertown. And what the heck did these people all do to afford these mcmansions, as many are called by the rest of us who live in more modest abodes. Sunday morning I woke up early, very excited about our day trip to the city. The house was silent, so I went downstairs and got myself some tea and hooked up my laptop. Sue came down, and she warned me that there was a possibility that we couldnt find a place to park, and may just have some drive bys. I Googled NYC parking garages in midtown Manhattan, and ranked them by cost. Sue had also warned me that it could cost 60 bucks or more just to park. Undeterred, I made a long list of the cheaper parking garages in midtown. Can we go now? I started whining like an impatient kid. I dont think the stores are even open yet, its Sunday, she said. So I Googled a few of my favorites. FAO Schwarz has been been open for a half hour already, but Tiffanys doesnt open until 11, I told her. She just shook her head. We finally left, and I was tremendously relieved that Sue was driving. The George Washington Bridge was pretty open, but the West Side Highway was full of fast moving city drivers. We reached midtown Manhattan and I pulled out my list of cheap parking garages. Finding specific addresses while on one-way streets filled with cabs and city drivers proved to be a challenge. One guy even made us back out onto the street; apparently he didnt accept SUVs. I looked at Sue as she tried to get back into traffic, backwards. Her face was tight; she clearly wasnt enjoying this, and I began to feel a little guilty about dragging her into the city. You OK? I asked. This is a little stressful, she said. Will you be OK when we find a place to park? I asked. She looked at me with a weary smile. Ill be fine, she said. We found one of my cheap parking garages that took SUVs. I was ecstatic, and I could see that Sue was also relieved to get out of the car and onto the street. Our first stop was Trump Tower, which didnt exist the last time I was in the city. We managed to resist a snack at the Trump Cafe, the Trump Bar and Grille or the ever-present Starbucks, and even escaped without buying a Youre fired! T-shirt. But I had to check out the Trump restroom. The marble and gold hallway led us to a large restroom, where a friendly woman would wipe every toilet seat after it had been used, and would wave in the next person with a happy smile. What a job. I wondered what she was paid to wipe the toilet seats in Trump Tower. We headed to FAO Schwarz, where there was a short line to just get into the place. Inside, the stuffed animals were glorious. I had to have a kangaroo with its joey, and Sue tried to repress her fetish for teddy bears, surrounded by thousands of them. The Lego displays were incredible, including a 9-foot Lego Santa, a life size (I think) SpongeBob Square Pants and several Harry Potter characters. We shopped until we almost dropped, so we finally left with my huge red FAO Schwarz bag, filled with Christmas goodies and my new kangaroo and headed for Tiffanys. Tiffanys was just as busy as its neighboring toy giant, but I dont think many of the people were actually making purchases. I looked around, marveling at the beautiful pieces and their immense price tags, and realized I probably wouldnt be buying anything there. Sue said that the third floor had sterling silver, less expensive than the gold and diamonds on the first, so we got on the elevator with about 20 other people. There was a nice man running the elevator, and he gave us a nice spiel about what we would find on the third floor, wishing us all a Merry Christmas. Nice touch. So much for the cheap stuff at Tiffanys. I couldnt find anything under $100, and none of the clerks even looked my way. Clearly, I didnt look like an authentic Tiffanys shopper. After a whirlwind tour of Bergdorf Goodman and its elaborate holiday windows, we escaped to the Chocolate Cafe for a late lunch on the third floor of Henri Bendel, whoever he is. I told Sue lunch was on me, and so we ordered a sandwich and a glass of iced tea. The check came and my jaw dropped: 40 bucks. Smiling, trying to look like this was no big deal, I paid for lunch and we were off. Around 4 p.m., we both were done in, and we headed back to our cheap parking garage. Ill get the check for the car, I said. I was really very grateful to Sue for giving up a day to spend in the dreaded city with me, and it had been great fun. And according to my calculations, the parking check should be around $25. Wrong. Add on the New York City taxes, fees and the $10 extra for driving an SUV, and another 40 bucks flew out of my wallet. Sigh. That old adage is still so true today, at least for me. Its a great place to visit, but I wouldnt want to live there.

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