In a New York minute, everything can change

Peter
Peter Jackson
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We were on a 12:30 p.m. northbound train out of Secaucus, N.J. when my wife learned her mother had died.

A missed message on her cellphone spurred her to call her sister back. Her mother had passed away two hours earlier, about the time we'd been zipping across Times Square in a cab on our way to Penn Station.

It was Independence Day, but the crowd was not much bigger than usual, those city dwellers who'd escaped Manhattan for the long weekend replaced by tourists who had come for the annual fireworks extravaganza. We watched the display on TV from my uncle's house in upstate New York, where we returned to gather our luggage and prepare for a premature flight home.

We were on a 12:30 p.m. northbound train out of Secaucus, N.J. when my wife learned her mother had died.

A missed message on her cellphone spurred her to call her sister back. Her mother had passed away two hours earlier, about the time we'd been zipping across Times Square in a cab on our way to Penn Station.

It was Independence Day, but the crowd was not much bigger than usual, those city dwellers who'd escaped Manhattan for the long weekend replaced by tourists who had come for the annual fireworks extravaganza. We watched the display on TV from my uncle's house in upstate New York, where we returned to gather our luggage and prepare for a premature flight home.

We knew her mother had taken a turn the night before. We ordered pizza and retreated to our 40th-floor hotel room, sitting on the floor and staring out over a forest of skyscrapers, like children in a treehouse. The layered crown of the Chrysler Building gleamed in the foreground. Behind and to the south, the top of the proud Empire State Building was lit in patriotic colours.

We'd been in Manhattan for only 48 hours, but had managed to fit in the kinds of things we enjoy when we've been there in the past. On our first afternoon, we walked to the theatre district to check out the Broadway shows. The conventional wisdom is to line up at the Times Square "same day" booth, but we've had better luck at the box offices. We stopped for lunch and a cold ale, only to emerge into a torrential rainshower. Cheap umbrellas in hand, we waded through ankle-deep rivers of water towards the theatres. People dashed and ducked under awnings, laughing. A foul-weather entrepreneur leapt into action: "Umbrell-ahs. Get yer umbrell-ahs here."

Within a few minutes we had scored two tickets to the "sold-out" remount of the 1960s hit "Hair." How'd we do it? Simple: we asked.

Back at our hotel, I left the lobby to run an errand. Outside, a man stood chatting with the doorman, a leashed dog at his feet. I doubled back to see if I could pet the dog.

"Is he a guide dog?" I asked, realizing immediately that I was off-base. Guide dogs have harnesses, and their owners are rarely dressed in paramilitary uniforms.

"Bomb dog," he replied. "And it's a she."

As I bent down, she rolled over to let me scratch her belly.

"We have a golden at home," I said.

"She's a half-and-half," he replied.

Only after I left did I even mull over the fact that our hotel was a risk for terrorism, situated across the street from the United Nations Building.

I told my wife, and she made a point thereafter of petting whatever dog was on duty at the time.

That evening before the show, we ate at a small Turkish restaurant. An elderly couple on one side accidentally splashed a partial glass of wine in our direction. My wife's white pants got the worst of it. At the table on our other side, a young woman frantically tried to wipe an imperceptible speck of red wine from her sweater, like Lady Macbeth removing her damned spot. One of her older companions jumped up and marched to the elderly couple's table.

"Her sweatah. You got it on her sweatah. You shouldn't be drinking red wine."

Having thoroughly scolded the couple's choice of vintage, she returned to her seat. My wife tried to reassure the couple that it was no big deal, just an accident, but the woman was inconsolable.

"You're so kind," she said, humiliated.

New York can be cruel and kind at the same time.

When your world is suddenly turned upside down, it can seem an uncaring, unforgiving place. It's the city that never sleeps, and always wants to move on to the next big moment. If you can't move with it, it won't wait for you.

But even given our sad turn of events, our adventure there this year will remain, as always, unforgettable.

Rest in much deserved peace, Elizabeth Ryan.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be contacted by e-mail at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Penn Station, The Telegram

Geographic location: New York, Times Square, Manhattan Secaucus, N.J. Broadway

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  • Bob
    July 02, 2010 - 13:22

    Peter,
    Six of us drove from Boston to New York on Thanksgiving weekend in 1956. We found out later four million left the city and seven visited that weekend. Having done the tours to the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building et al, the following day we roamed Times Square with nothing in particular in mind other than the sights and sounds of The Big Apple. Somebody suggested we see a show. If memory serves me it was My Fair Lady. We went into the theater and approached at ticket booth. I was first and asked the guy for six tickets. He said When you wann'em for ? I said tonite . He gave us an incredulous look and said come back in six months!! .

  • Bob
    July 01, 2010 - 20:07

    Peter,
    Six of us drove from Boston to New York on Thanksgiving weekend in 1956. We found out later four million left the city and seven visited that weekend. Having done the tours to the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building et al, the following day we roamed Times Square with nothing in particular in mind other than the sights and sounds of The Big Apple. Somebody suggested we see a show. If memory serves me it was My Fair Lady. We went into the theater and approached at ticket booth. I was first and asked the guy for six tickets. He said When you wann'em for ? I said tonite . He gave us an incredulous look and said come back in six months!! .