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Lower Manhattan in the rain

Started: 2013-06-21 20:59:28

Submitted: 2013-06-21 23:17:53

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator recovers his camera, tours Lower Manhattan in the rain, and tries to explain September 11 to a preschooler

By the morning of my fourth full day in New York, I was ready to go home but I still had two days left. Bethany did a great job helping me take care of Calvin, but he was always ultimately my responsibility. I had to chose our activities carefully to pick something he'd appreciate, or at least tolerate between playground visits, which left me shut out of the city's finest art museums. I'm not sure I can say that I'd experienced New York City as an adult, but rather as a parent.

Bethany took Tuesday off work to join Calvin and I for one more day. When I woke up, the Top of the Rock wasn't yet open for me to call them in search of my camera. If all else failed, I considered buying an inexpensive point-and-shoot camera for my last two days in New York so I would at least have some pictures that were better than I could get with the little camera on my mobile phone. (I was, after all, in a heavily-urbanized region of an industrialized western nation where I could count on merchants to speak my language and take my credit cards.)

I called the Top of the Rock when their website said the office would be open and talked to a human in the management office who said that my camera was in fact there and I could come by and pick it up. Once Bethany returned from her PT appointment and I'd fed Calvin breakfast we headed out to Whole Foods, where I got a latte from a barista with a giant handlebar moustache (in the absence of any other information I assumed he was a hipster from Brooklyn). We caught a cab to Rockefeller Center, found the management office, and I was reunited with my camera, to my great relief, forestalling any mid-vacation shopping for electronics.

We caught a downtown B/D/F/M train a few stops, transferred to a downtown A/C train, and got out at Fulton Street in lower Manhattan. I left Calvin with Bethany in the light drizzle and headed to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, where I had a guided tour at 11:15. I found the right entrance (on Maiden Lane), went through a security check, and waited in the old teller lobby, where bankers would come to do business with the New York Fed.

The tour guide arrived presently, a young man in a crisp suit, and told us about the Federal Reserve system and the history of the bank. The group was mostly international tourists: many seemed to be European. (Americans were not especially well-represented on the tour on a gray Tuesday morning at the end of May.) The guide led us to the elevator and took us down five floors below ground level, where the gold vault stood on solid New York bedrock. We watched a video on the vault, its construction and what it's used for, then walked past a small row of cubicles through the open steel door, permanently set in concrete tied into the bedrock, into the vault itself.

Inside the vault was a phone, a bunch of security cameras, and a locked fence separating us from the cages that actually held the gold, resting quietly on the bedrock because it'd be too heavy anywhere else. Almost all of the gold in the vault was held by friendly European governments, who moved their reserves to New York during the Cold War lest their own central banks be overrun by Soviet tanks. These days the idea of the Red Army marauding through Western Europe is a hilarious anachronism, but the gold remains, despite the best efforts of some of their governments to repatriate their hoards.

The tour ended back on the main level, in a set of exhibits describing the Fed that looked like they dated from 1980. I skipped the theoretical and interactive exhibits but looked at the handful of actual artifacts on display, which I believe included historic bank notes and bonds, some photographs from the Fed's history, and a few large sacks of shredded currency. Upstairs, off-limits to me, were the offices and conference rooms where Timothy Geithner and his staff tried to forestall the end of the financial world as we knew it in the fall of 2008.

I left the New York Fed into a light rain and headed to Wall Street. I found the heart and soul of American capitalism wrapped up in one giant facade facing Broad Street. This was the closest I could get to the New York Stock Exchange; I went on a guided tour on my first visit to Manhattan in 1991, where I recall marveling over the trading floor from an upstairs viewing gallery, but the public tour closed in the intervening years.

New York Stock Exchange
New York Stock Exchange

I found Bethany and Calvin a few blocks away at Pearl Street Playground, where Calvin was playing in the sand while holding a hastily-purchased umbrella to protect himself from the rain. (I had his rain coat in my backpack, which I took with me to the Fed because Bethany didn't want to try to carry it and Calvin simultaneously.)

Calvin plays in the rain
Calvin plays in the rain
Calvin plays in the rain near Wall Street
Calvin plays in the rain near Wall Street

We caught a cab to The Meatball Shop, somewhere between the Lower East Side and Little Italy, whose menu included excellent vegetarian meatballs in a variety of servings. As we wrapped up lunch, Bethany called into a conference call and tried to remember anything important as we headed back to Lower Manhattan. She didn't want to take the subway, so she could stay on the call, so we tried to catch a bus that ought to take us in the right direction, but after waiting for twenty minutes in the rain the right bus failed to arrive, so she hailed a cab and we headed along FDR Drive to the southern tip of Manhattan, headed under Battery Park, and ended up in front of the World Trade Center memorial.

The rain abated briefly as we queued for tickets and went through yet another security check. (Once the construction is complete, the memorial plaza is supposed to fully open to the public, without the overwrought security. I'll believe that when I see it.) The rain picked up again as we followed the crowd around the barricades to the memorial. At first glance it was just an open park with large shade trees, grass, and a couple of waterfalls, but the waterfalls were shaped in exactly the footprint of the original twin towers. Aside from the names carved into the black granite panels surrounding the footprints, the memorial was entirely devoid of context. I walked along the path surrounding the footprints, looked up at the new One World Trade Center (recently topped-out, but still under construction), and fought back tears as I tried to figure out what to tell Calvin.

The narrator and Calvin at the 9/11 memorial

I told Calvin that bad people made planes crash into very tall buildings and made the buildings fall down, and that many people were hurt. He said, "That makes me very sad that many people got hurt," and I said, "That makes me very sad too." He asked whether the police had caught the bad people and put them in jail, and I hesitated, thinking about a decade of the War on Terror and Guantanamo Bay and CIA black sites and extraordinary rendition and waterboarding and Afghanistan and Iraq and Abu Ghraib and Osama bin Laden at Abbottabad and simplified the whole mess into "Yes, they did." We can fill in the details when he's older.

September 11 memorial, in the rain
September 11 memorial, in the rain

We left the memorial to the tiny gift shop, which tries to add a bit of the context that the memorial itself was lacking, but doesn't have much space to work with. It will, eventually, be replaced by a proper museum next to the memorial itself. Once we'd dried off a bit we followed a network of raised covered walkways to the World Financial Center, across the street from the once and future World Trade Center, and sat in the atrium at the Winter Garden between the two modest towers, where palm trees grew under glass, and had a snack before heading back in search of a train uptown.

The rain abated again as we wound our way past the construction at the World Trade Center site to Trinity Church, but Bethany meant to take us to St. Paul's Chapel a few blocks away. (After reviewing our route I realized we'd walked right past Zuccotti Park, the former site of Occupy Wall Street, without even knowing it. Given the failure of the leftist populist movement to actually accomplish anything not even noticing the park seemed entirely appropriate.) St. Paul's Chapel was a couple of blocks from One and Two World Trade Center and served as a respite for the rescue and recovery workers at Ground Zero. (The chapel also predated the United States and preserved the Governor's Box where George Washington sat when he attended church there, so it's seen its share of history.) The days and weeks after September 11 were memorialized in a series of displays around the edges of the church, including photos and letters and artifacts. This was the context I needed to appreciate the devastation and human cost of the attacks.

We caught an uptown 4/5 train toward Bethany's apartment. As we rode, Calvin wanted to draw; I pulled out the clipboard and crayons and he drew a recognizable subway car, then colored black all over it to indicate that the train was traveling in a dark tunnel.

Calvin and Aunt Bethany in the subway, headed uptown
Calvin and Aunt Bethany in the subway, headed uptown

We dropped by the apartment, then walked down Second Ave to a nearby sushi restaurant for dinner. (Calvin ran three blocks, and wanted to be carried the rest of the way.) Calvin liked the edamame (served in the pod, as we often do at home), was not quite sure what to make of the vegetable tempura, and wouldn't even touch the maki rolls. (When I served him one, just for him to try, he immediately picked up his chopsticks and returned the roll to the serving tray.) I wasn't exactly sure he'd gotten enough to eat, but I at least enjoyed my meal.

Once I got Calvin to go to bed, I planned my final day in New York, including our triumphant return home. I wasn't sure how much of our plan I'd manage to execute, but I thought I had a good shot.