Monday, May 27, 2013

I [Heart] NYC!

*Side note: I realize this is a very long blog post, but I wanted to write it all down so I would always remember the details of our amazing trip to New York City. But I hope you might take a few minutes to read it...and I've thrown a lot of photographs in here too.

A couple of years ago, while cruising the internet and idling on Facebook, I received a private message that went something like, “Woohoo Denny Hamlin!” It was a simple message from a Brit living in New York City, who just happened to love NASCAR. At that moment he wanted to celebrate a victory by his favorite driver and had no one else but me to express his joy to. At the time we were both writing for (a NASCAR website) and while we had little to no interaction before that moment, little did I know at the time that it would be the beginning of a very important friendship to me.

Me and Danny after church.
We chatted on Facebook a lot over the next few months, first about NASCAR, then about everything. Over the course of the next couple years, we also talked a lot about me coming to New York City for a visit. I had always dreamed of visiting New York, ever since I was a kid dreaming of being a pop star and traveling the world, and he thought it would be an amazing experience for me. With him living in NYC it was a perfect way for me to visit, to have someone to show me around, and also have a free place to stay. While I always said I would do it – someday – I’m not sure I ever really believed it would happen.

But several months ago, I discovered my time for free room and board was running out as Danny became engaged and planned to be married by the summer. If I wanted to go to NYC and have a free place to stay, it would need to be done soon. It suddenly got serious!

I talked to my mom into going with me and by February we had picked the date – May 9-12.; by mid-March we booked the tickets - $260 each, round trip, non-stop, Kansas City to LaGuardia; and at 11:40 on Thursday, May 9th, we sat on a Delta plane on the tarmac at KCI, looked at each other and said, “We are really going to New York City!”

It was my first flight since traveling to Charlotte for a race weekend in 2002 (where I also met up with friends I had met online but had never actually met in person), and my mom hadn’t flown in several years.

Our first real “New York Experience” (of which there were many), was of course the taxi ride from the airport to the city. I was all excited about it, having seen and heard about the craziness on TV for years. The ride was also pretty uneventful, which is good, but it is interesting to see first hand how they maneuver into the tiniest holes without running into other cars or people.

When we arrived at Danny’s doorstop in the West Village, I’ll admit I was nervous about finally meeting in person someone I’d talked to for a couple of years. You start to wonder if you will get along as well in person as you do through the words you type, or if they will spend some time with you and wonder if they’ve been talking to someone else the whole time. But it didn’t take long at all before it felt like we were just hanging out with an old friend, and I knew that it was going to be relaxed “be myself” kind of weekend.

With just 3 days to see it all, we had a pretty packed schedule. Because of his work and packing/moving schedule, we were pretty much on our own during the day, with plans to meet up for dinner in the evenings.

One of the first things I learned while visiting is that New York City LOVES their furbabies! I can’t even count the number of dogs we saw, or that Banana (their French Bulldog) stopped to talk to on our walk our first night there. The weather was perfect and made for the perfect night of people watching, as Danny showed us around his neighborhood. We passed by cozy little restaurants, matching brownstones that must cost a fortune, cute little bakeries, and stores so fancy the store associates walked around serving wine and champaign to customers. We strolled through Washington Square Park, dodging pigeons and Frisbees as we listened to the music and singing that filled the air.

Once our walk was complete and Banana had thoroughly sniffed the entire neighborhood, it was time to meet up with Stephanie for dinner. I hate to say it, but I don’t know the name of the restaurant that served us our first NYC meal, but it was cute, cozy, dimly lit, and the food was delicious. 

After dinner it was a short walk to our home away from home for the next three nights, and time to get some sleep so we could be well rested for our next adventure beginning in the morning. We climbed the roughly 66 steps to the fourth floor apartment that wasn’t much bigger than a dorm room and got ready for bed. With no AC in the apartment, we actually slept all three nights with the window open, no screen, and shockingly we never felt a bit nervous or scared, even with the fire escape at the window (and the only bug that got in was one fly). There was the sound of laughter from the restaurant down the street, some occasional yelling, sirens, honking, and what sounded like the nearby restaurant dumping all of their glass bottles from the day, but it was all strangely soothing and we fell and stayed asleep pretty easily.
Our view for the weekend, from Danny's fire escape. It's one of my favorite pictures from the weekend.
Friday morning (and every morning actually) we were woken up at 5:45 a.m. by some very happy and chatty birds perched on the fire escape. It wasn’t enough to keep us awake, but the sun was already shining and another beautiful spring New York day was in store. When we did finally wake up for the day, we quickly got ready to begin out adventure.

It started with a walk on High Line, a historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side. When they stopped using it years ago, it was overgrown with weeds and left unused and neglected until a group got together to save the High Line. What they created is a beautiful landscape of gardens, scenic views of the city and Hudson, and art pieces scattered throughout the 1.45 mile walking path. (To red and see more about it, go to

One of the beautiful flower gardens planted on the High Line.
View of the West Village from the High Line.
Some of the many condos located along the High Line. I love the architecture in NYC!

Another street view from the High Line.
We walked with Danny and Steph to right near Danny’s office, then Steph helped us find a bathroom (thank you Starbucks), some Tylenol, and put us in a cab headed for Rockefeller Center.

For some reason, Rockefeller Center always seemed bigger in my mind. When we walked up to the center of the plaza, which is most famous for hosting the skating rink in the winter but holds a cafĂ© and seating area in the summer, somehow I thought it would be…bigger. But it still left us in awe and repeating what would be a familiar phrase: “We are really at [insert name of famous NYC landmark here]!!” I took tons of pictures of flags, buildings and people, and then we ventured to the other side to get a better photo of the large, golden Promethius statue and infamous 30 Rockefeller Plaza building.

During the winter, it's the famous ice skating rink. In the summer, it's an outdoor cafe.
The home of NBC.
The GE Building, also known as 30 Rock, among other nicknames, is the headquarters
of the NBC television network. It's also the host to the Top of the Rock observation deck.
Mom and I in front of the Rockefeller Plaza and the Prometheus.

200 flagpoles line the Plaza. During US holidays, every pole carries the US Flag, but when we were there they
were decorated with the flags of the United Nationals countries.
 Across the street, next to the NBC News building, we noticed a small crowd gathering around the barricades, so we wandered over that direction to see what all the interest was about. Turns out, they were setting up to begin filming Access Hollywood Live (which I didn’t even know existed), and the show’s special guests would be Rod Stewart and tennis legend Jimmy Conners. So we stayed around, snapped pictures of the hosts Billy Bush and Kit Hoover, and eventually Conners and Stewart.
Billy Bush interviews Rod Stewart for "Access Hollywood Live." It was a nice surprise, to be able to stand in the Plaza and watch a live TV show taping.
Our next stop was a trip to the NBC store, where I had to pick up a few “F∙R∙I∙E∙N∙D∙S” items, before heading to the Top of the Rock to get a fabulous view of the entire city. We opted to go to the Top of the Rock instead of the Empire State Building, and we weren’t let down because the view was amazing.

Entrance to the NBC Studios and the Top of the Rock.
View of Central Park from the Top of the Rock.
Some buildings from the Top of the Rock.
Some more buildings from the Top of the Rock.
View of the Times Square Ball on display.
Some bridge...wish I knew what it was.
After taking lots and lots of pictures, we took the elevator ride down from the 67th floor, stopped by the souvenir store, and then decided to head up to Central Park.

Before we started our walk to Central Park, we stopped at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is right across the street from Rockefeller Center. Although the outside was covered in scaffolding, and there was plenty on the inside too, it was amazingly beautiful!

The walk to Central Park was interesting, watching the people hurrying about their business, New Yorkers rushing to get to their homes or their jobs, or their happy hours, mixed with the tourists taking pictures and oohing and ahhing over their surroundings.

I’m not sure what I expected Central Park to be like, but like so many other places we saw, it just seemed different than it looks in movies or TV’s. We stopped for a bit to sit in the grass by the pond, eating the Lindt truffles we picked up on the way, then went off to tour more of the park and take more pictures. Again, the park was filled with people and dogs, tourist and locals…and like every other place we visited, it was great for people watching!  

Lounging by the pond on the south side of the park.

After spending an hour or so walking around Central Park, we decided it was time to walk to Times Square. On our way out, I noticed the subway entrance and we decided to head down, just to take a peak.

The entrance to the subway right outside of Central Park --
our first subway experience.

We were worried about taking the subway for the first time alone, but once we got down there, it didn’t seem as intimidating as we thought. Armed with the life-saving Hop Stop app on my phone and already feeling pretty good about what we had accomplished by ourselves so far, we decided to throw caution to the wind and take the subway. By ourselves!
 After receiving help getting our metro cards, we slid through the turnstiles and I almost couldn’t contain my excitement about actually riding a famous New York Subway! After consulting with some fellow tourists on whether or not we had the right train, the subway stopped, the doors opened, and we jumped on! It wasn’t as crowded as we feared it would be, and honestly, it was all a lot cleaner than I expected.
Look!  A real NYC subway!
I was actually surprised at how clean and not scary the subway was.
This guy, however, is kind of creeping me out now.
 We reached our stop, jumped off, and emerged from the tunnel below to see the beginning of the large electronic signs that signaled we had arrived at Times Square. I quickly consulted my map, and we headed off to the heart of Times Square. 

I couldn’t help but walk around in awe of my surroundings. Of all the amazing places contained within New York City, Times Square and Broadway were probably the two I had known about the longest, and the first thing I always thought of when I thought of NYC. We wandered the streets, taking pictures, more people watching, and decided after awhile we should head back to the apartment before it got too dark. And instead of the taxi, again we decided to take the subway.

After arriving at the apartment, freshening up and resting a little, we met up with Danny for dinner at a very good burger restaurant (and once again I can’t remember the name). I had a bison portabella burger, french fries, and the best ketchup ever! After a night of great food and great conversation, we returned to the restaurant to prepare for our trip the next day to the World Trade Center.

Originally, Danny and Steph were going to join us for our trip downtown, but a last minute change of moving plans meant we were on our own at the WTC Memorial. But first, we walked to the Union Square area of Greenwich Village and roamed the streets as Danny and Steph took their Soul Cycle class. We walked through Madison Square Park, took pictures of the Flat Iron Building (a NYC icon and one of the coolest buildings I’ve ever seen), stopped for a drink at a very large Barnes & Noble, and then strolled the Union Square farmers market while waiting to meet up with Danny.
The iconic Flat Iron Building, one of my favorite buildings in NYC.
Pop trivia: the building is depicted as the headquarters of the "Daily Bugle" for
Peter Parker in the Spider-Man movies, but is really a functioning office building.
One of the buildings we spotted during our walk through the Union Square District (I think it is). I just loved the colors of the buildings along with the architecture.
After their class, Danny hopped the subway with us and took us downtown to the courthouses and World Trade Center area to give us a brief tour.

The Thurgood Marshall United States Courthouse, home of the US Court of
Appeals for the 2nd District and the US District Court for the Southern District
of New York. It's also within walking distance to the Brooklyn Bridge and the
World Trade Center site.
I don't know what it is, but it's in downtown and it's beautiful.

Another building in downtown NYC that I don't know the name of, but loved the architecture.
 After the tour of the area, it was time for him to head back up north and time for us to get ready for our tour of the World Trade Center Memorial. We snaked through the long, slow security line with the other families and tour groups. There were several school groups as well. High school kids. Kids that couldn’t have been more than four or five years old at the time of the attacks. I wondered what the experience would be like for them. If they’d fully understand the experience.

As we entered the area where the two towers once stood, you couldn’t help but feel the emotion. Staring at the south pool, seeing the names of those who were lost, trying to imagine what it was like. How a place that at one moment was so full of pain, fear and desperation is now a place so calm and tranquil. I truly felt honored just to stand there and pay silent tribute to those we lost. We walked to where the shell of the museum stands, still under construction, peering in the window to see two of the trident’s from the original building standing in place, while lots of work remains to be done inside. We wandered over to the north pool, watching the water fall down the marble walls and sink into the smaller hole in the middle, the one that looked as if it went on forever. I silently prayed that those souls who may still be lost would soon find peace. Their loved ones, too.

The south reflecting pool at the 9/11 Memorial stands in the footprint of the WTC South Tower.

The names of all those who perished on 9/11/2001 along with those who died in
the 1993 bombing circle both the north and south reflecting pools.

The museum (bottom of the picture) and the new World Trade Center,
both still under construction, serve as a reminder of the New York spirit.
The steel beams, known as Tridents, were pulled from the wreckage of the
original WTC and sit inside the 9/11 Museum.
 We made our way through the courtyard, through the trees, until we came to one very special tree. The “Survivor Tree” stood in the middle of them all, secured by ropes, draped in flowers, and surrounded by a metal border to keep people from getting too close to this battle scared tree. The Survivor Tree was the one original tree from the World Trade Center complex that was found partially intact. Workers pulled the tree from the wreckage a few weeks after the attack, and it was taken to a nursery and, although wounded and damaged, still produced lush green leaves and today stands as a symbol of the resiliency of the city.

With the sky growing darker over head and some ominous clouds hovering over the New Jersey skyline, we decided it was probably time to head out in search of cover. With over 1,000 people and not a lot of cover, we didn’t want to be among those scrambling for shelter. We made our way out of the memorial and stopped at the gift shop, before heading for somewhere to eat. As we made our purchases, the thunder got louder and the crowd instead the store grew larger. We exited heading south towards the Hudson, a security guard at the store assuring us there was a restaurant a block away. We made it about halfway there before it all broke lose. We were in the perfect position to duck into a parking garage entrance when it hit. First a little wind, then a lot of wind, followed immediately by rain and hail, all within seconds. We watched as crates and trash cans rolled down the street in front of us, the driving rain backing us up against the garage doors. Fire trucks roared past us heading towards the Hudson.

With the rain lightning up, we decided to head down to the restaurant, but first, I let my curiosity take over and we headed a block past our stop to the edge of the island where the fire trucks had stopped. As we got closer, we noticed all of the firemen leaning over the side of the wall, looking into the water. At first I was afraid we’d witness a water rescue, and I soon realized they also had no idea what they were looking for. It wasn’t until we all looked to our right and saw a very large tree laying on its side against the building, that we realized why they had been called Not just because it had broken, but it had been completely uprooted and turned on its side, landing on a restaurant patio where, just moments before the storm, several people sat enjoying a Saturday afternoon lunch. Thankfully no one was injured, but the rain began picking up and we decided it was time to head for lunch. Unfortunately, we weren’t as lucky as the first time, and with no shelter in immediate sight, the sky dumped again and by the time we hit the restaurant, we were drenched!

We were shown to our seat, handed extra towels so we could try to dry off, and order some kind of house salad with tomatoes, pumpkin seeks and jicama. It was good, but not sure it was worth the $10 it cost. However, it was nice to have somewhere calm to sit and get away from the rain, as we hoped it would die down soon so we could continue our trek to the Staten Island Ferry.

Shortly after we had finished our food, the skies began to lighten and the rain had pushed away. We headed back to the end of the island and walked along the edge for as long as we could. We spotted several other large trees that had been uprooted and knocked over by this recent storm, and heard a doorman tell another tourist that the trees had been so weakened by Hurricane Sandy, the wind they got that afternoon was just enough to topple them over. We also saw some remnants of the devastation left by Hurricane Sandy, but enjoyed our quiet walk along the Hudson. We walked by Battery Park, but did go in because from our vantage point, the park was blocked off and unavailable during construction, and we had to get to the ferry and back to the subway before it got dark.

I’m not sure I really had a vision of what the Staten Island Ferry would be like. There is a VERY large building with two entrances to the ferrys. It departs every 30 minutes and takes people back and forth from the City to Staten Island. As the time grew near, everyone huddle in front of the large doors, waiting for them to open and the boarding to begin. When they do, it’s a mad dash. You can pretty much tell the regulars from the tourists. The tourists all rush and line up on the right side of the boat, pretty much right up against the window, all wanting a view and photograph of the Statue of Liberty. The regulars head to the middle or the lower level, put on their headphones or read their books, and wait out the 25 minute ride.

Waiting for the ferry.
The Staten Island Ferry.

We were one of the tourists. I must have snapped about 20 pictures of Lady Liberty on the way there, and just as many on the way back. When the ship docked on the other side, we made our exit and promptly joined the crowd waiting to get on. 25 minutes later, we were back on the City side and began our trek back through downtown in the direction of the memorial.

This was probably the only time we sort of got lost. I wouldn’t really say “lost”. We were heading the right way, we just couldn’t exactly find the right street to find the subway entrance. I used my map and the HopStop phone app (Love it!), but with a dying battery I started to worry we might have to just hail a taxi back. This was the only time I made a call to Danny informing him we MIGHT be lost, but just about that time, we received a sign! A real sign. The sign that said where the subway entrance was, just a block or two down. Of course, when we found the station, we discovered that the particular train we wanted – the E Train – wasn’t serving that station right now. Thankfully, there was someone in the booth who could tell us which train we needed to take, and while we missed our stop by one, with a little help from the app and the map, we made it back to the apartment safe and sound, and ready for our final dinner in NYC.

Dinner that night was special and definitely the perfect way to spend our last night in NYC.  Although they had spent most of the day moving boxes, Danny and Stephanie joined us for a late dinner at this cute, cozy little Mexican tapas restaurant in the West Village called La Bota, and I’m kicking myself for not taking any pictures of this place.  I guess by that time we got there I was just so tired of having a camera around my neck and constantly taking pictures, it didn’t even register. We started off with a pitcher of Sangria (so, so good!) and then proceeded to order about 16 separate items of the menu – some better than other, but all really, really good! I even tried my first anchovy – a good way to kick off a summer where I am determined to take chances and have new experiences! The food and the atmosphere were amazing, but not as much as the company and conversation. I truly think it may have been one of my favorite moments of the trip and one of the things I will remember the most fondly.

That night was bittersweet. I laid in bed still in awe of and inspired by all that we had done while in NYC, but knew that there wasn’t much left of this amazing trip, and I wanted to take it all in. Sunday morning we were supposed to meet Danny and Steph at 9:15 to head with them to church, so we got up and out a little bit early so that we could grab breakfast at Amy’s, a local bakery, and take a little morning stroll through the streets while they were still a bit quiet and peaceful. I could have stayed in that moment all day – the cool morning air, light breeze, beautiful buildings and the gorgeous morning sun. However, we had plans to meet up with Danny and Steph for church at Hillsong, so we hopped in a taxi and off we went to Irving Plaza near Union Square.

From the moment we pulled up to the club/church, I knew this wasn’t going to be anything like I was used to. Let me first say, I absolutely love my church and my amazing church family. Our church service is very traditional and in the past I haven’t been too fond of contemporary services. But this was felt different. The music, the atmosphere, the energy…it was hard to believe all of this was happening at 10:00 in the morning on a Sunday.

Hillsong Church started in Australia and has locations all over the world, but the church in NYC is the only one in the United States. They generally have six services with the day beginning at 10:00 am and ending at 11:00 pm. When the taxi pulled up, the first thing that caught my attention was the line of people waiting outside. It looked more like a concert than a church services, which was fitting since it was being held in a nightclub. We were fortunate enough to get to sit in the fourth row, which was awesome because it really allowed us to be right in the middle of it all and get the full experience. The service began with praise and worship, complete with a full band and Hillsong original songs, and including free pop tarts. The pastor came out like a rock star, complete with tattoos and shaved head, but also with an inspiring sermon that left me wanting more. I sang, I laughed, I smiled, I was moved and inspired, and I am so glad that we were able to experience it. It was another one of my favorite moments of the trip.

And with the end of church, it was also the end of our time with Danny. Work called him away to Indianapolis, so he had to go directly from church to the airport and we said our goodbyes with a couple pictures and some hugs.

With a few hours to kill before we had to head to the airport, and the absolutely most perfect weather to do it in, we began walking and looking for a place for lunch. With a plethora of options, we selected Patsy’s Pizzeria, a cute little pizza shop with seating in the windows that allowed for a sort of outdoor eating. We opted for caprese salad (my favorite summer meal) and pepperoni and mushroom pizza, and it was good!

The rest of our trip was spent roaming the streets of Greenwich Village, looking at the buildings, the gardens, the parks, and enjoying the entertainment from street performers in Washington Square Park. We took pictures of the townhouse used as Will Smith’s character’s home in the movie “I Am Legend” and of one of probably the biggest tourist attractions in the West Village, the brownstone used as Carrie Bradshaw’s home in “Sex and the City.”
Will Smith's town home in "I Am Legend"

Carie Bradshaw's home in "Sex and the City"
And to conclude are NYC adventure, we decided to walk to the west edge of the island – just because we could, and just to say we did.

New Jersey

More New Jersey (I think it's Hoboken, but I wont swear by it)
Another view of the new World Trade Center tower and downtown NYC.
Then came the hardest part of the trip – going back to the apartment and packing. While I missed my kids like crazy and couldn’t wait to see them at the airport in their pj’s, there was still so much I wanted to see and do, I wasn’t quite ready to leave. But it was inevitable. We headed to the airport pretty early, we wanted to make sure we got there in plenty of time, and we did.

It seems weird to me that it’s been two weeks since we were in NYC. It was such an amazing experience, so inspiring, and I’m so proud of us for seeing so much of the city on our own – especially riding the subway and the ferry!

I know I will return, and hopefully I’ll be able to bring my kids with me the next time. It’s such an amazing place, so full of life, and art, and music, and inspiration…I am truly grateful to Danny for making this whole experience possible, and truly grateful to God for putting Danny in my life.

I find it amazing that you can meet someone online, talk to them on Facebook, and become life long friends before you’ve even met in person, only to finally meet in person and realize…you were right about them all along.

Random shots from the Greenwich Village