Wednesday, October 10, 2007


Years ago, my husband and I trudged to the top of the Empire State Building and peered out at the vast view of buildings and streets beyond. It was a foggy day, so the full view was impossible, but it was thrilling to think about that many people living in the city amid those towering skyscrapers and winding streets.

Today, it will cost you to make that same trip. You will stand in line, wait your turn, and walk down a corridor of ropes, walking from room to room to encounter more roped pathways, until you finally reach an elevator, where small groups of people are allowed to travel to the top. Once there, the view is breathtaking, if you can find a place to look at it amid the crowds of tourists.

Somehow, this seemed to take the romance out of it all. For the life of me, I cannot imagine Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan stopping to pay their way, then standing in those lines. Somehow, the whole experience must have been whitewashed for the sake of Hollywood hype.

However, the view is still thrilling. It still boggles the mind to see those buildings, those streets, those millions of people going about their business. It is a far cry from a small town in the Midwest, where on a nice day, you might see ten people on the street. Our traffic jams are mild compared to the constant, nerve-jangling, horn-tooting pile-ups that take place in New York City every minute of every day and night. Our sidewalks are clear of the constant parade of pedestrians in New York, the ethnic differences, the hurried pace, the air of constant and frantic excitement.

One should not visit New York without a trip out to the Lady. There she stands, torch uplifted, the first sight of America that must have brought many an immigrant to tears. Now, they arrive by the millions from across the Southern border, but back when our country was in its infancy, they arrived by the boatload to Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty was a symbol of a new life to them. I cannot look at it without tears, for my mind goes to the hopeful awe of that immigrant family, leaving behind their poverty, their troubles, their struggles to enter the gates of a new land.

My ancestors did not come through that gate, but were on a ship off the coast of the Carolinas. As the story goes, there were seven brothers aboard this ship when it sank. Only one brother survived. They had come from Germany to America, leaving behind....what? According to the story, they had come from the Berg Castle...or Burgh Castle...where another brother, the heir, had the property and the money, so the others made this journey that ended in tragedy. The surviving brother made his way to land and became an indentured servant, eventually ending up a free man living in Pennsylvania.

This is the story of my mother's family. My father's ancestry is clouded in mystery. He once told me his family was Welsh, but that is as much as he knew. Whether his ancestors came through Ellis Island remains unknown. They are faceless, nameless, and mysterious. Everyone concentrates on Mom's family, because of that connection with the Castle. It seems that most people like to think they are related to royalty. They can be dirt poor, but there is some comfort in believing that your bloodlines are as blue as a clear lake on a windless day.

It's like being Indian. Everyone likes the thought of having a drop or two of Indian blood. It's exotic, and gives one a right to be a true native of this country. However, not too many people want to be a full-blooded Indian. We've all seen too many old Westerns for that. Those Injuns were mean, vicious people, riding up around rustic cabins to circle and burn. They wore feathers and painted their faces, torturing and kidnapping and killing. Pure terrorists, in our minds.

The truth is, we invaded their country and settled in their territories. We swept them up and put them in segregated camps. We completely gutted their camps, their villages, their culture and their lifestyles. Then we proceeded to make them the enemy and make heroes of killers like Custer. But a drop or two of their blood is something to brag about.

What is the best part of New York City? Central Park, without a doubt, that huge span of land that offers its citizens a glimpse of greenery, the shade of trees, the illusion that the buildings and streets and millions of pedestrians do not exist. Try as I might, I could not get my companions to be interested in exploring this expanse, since this huge stretch of land reminded them too much of Midwestern living. Even though I reminded them that people like Yoko Ono and John Lennon had paid tremendous sums simply to live with a view of the park, a short buggy ride was as far as they would go.

Take your walking shoes, if you are visiting New York City. And hang onto them. I lost a new pair of sneakers in a restaurant, where the workers developed a bad case of Me Only Understand Spanish when I went back for them. There are more Spanish immigrants than pigeons in New York City. They work in every menial job. One of them is wearing my brand new sneakers.

The garbage, when piled on the curbsides, forms a high cliff in the city, almost as high as the skyscrapers. What they do with all that garbage is mind-boggling. But it is not a dirty city. It is clean and proud, for the most part. I am sure it has its ghettos, crammed with minorities walking along dirty, greasy streets, but I didn't see them. We were in a hotel in Times Square. The architecture alone makes the trip worthwhile. It is not stodgy and grim, like London, but a bright and smiling city. People walk up and down those sidewalks, but they will still nod as they pass.

It was a happy trip. Undoubtedly, while we were hiking those streets, there were countless deaths in Iraq, countless crying children left without parents, countless jobs lost in our country, countless people worried about losing their houses. Undoubtedly, the president made a speech about his Successful Surge and tossed in a few untruths. But, for a little while, there was a moment of relaxation and excitement. For a little while, that ugly reality faded away, and life was without care, without worry. That's what a brief vacation will do for's exhausting, but it takes you away from it all. You don't listen to the news. You don't think about what is for dinner. You don't worry about that leaking pipe in the bathroom. You don't go to the mailbox for the bills. For a short while, you are living in another place, another time, another galaxy.

When a friend asked me, when I told her I had just returned from New York City, "Weren't you worried about a terror attack while you were there?" I had the perfect answer for her.

"Not too much, although I was alert. You see, I am not a Republican."

I love these little jibes aimed at rightwing friends. It's like a fresh load of fodder for a horse, a bushel of grain for a chicken. Fear not, saith the Lord....and I take him at his word.

I saw Ground Zero, still an empty lot, just sitting there, awaiting whatever actions will eventually be taken. There is a feeling about that plot of ground, the same feeling one gets while viewing the ocean, a sense of awe, a sense of forces capable of sweeping you up and carrying you away. It is a burial ground to so many souls, so many good people, and I hope they remember that and do not descend to erecting just another skyscraper.

Because, like the Statue of Liberty, it has become a symbol of the freedom and liberty, invaded by those who resent freedom and liberty, who prefer a stilted life of regimentation and rigor. To look at Ground Zero, one can only say "God Bless America!" and vow to keep our country as vigilantly and purposefully safe as those determined men who fashioned it in the first place.