When we woke up on Friday, December 30, our task was to get from Trish’s house in north Jersey into New York City by noon.
This is not always as easy as it would seem, since if New York City achieved statehood it would instantly become the twelfth most populous state in the union and all within an area less than half the size of Rhode Island and about two thirds of the size of the county in which Our Little Town resides. Add in the fact that much of it is accessible only by bridge or tunnel, that it was the day before New Year’s Eve (the biggest New-York-City-centric holiday of the year), and that traffic in that city is a curious mixture of ruthless locals and bewildered visitors – in astonishing numbers – in the best of times, and it could have turned into a nightmare.
But it worked.
That is the amazing thing about this whole trip. Everything worked. There were things we didn’t get to try and people we didn’t get to see, time being limited and all that, but everything we actually attempted worked. We got where we wanted to go. We saw everyone whom we could reasonably shoehorn into our schedule. And we made it into New York City with time to spare.
This was important, because the big extravagance this trip out – our big Christmas present to ourselves – was tickets to see The Lion King on Broadway.
We had taken the girls to see Wicked when it came to Wisconsin in 2010 and they loved it. And both Kim and I have done a fair amount of theater on our own. Add in the fact that Keith, Lori, Josh and Sara actually live in Manhattan, and when Lori suggested that we all go in on tickets for the lot of us, we were in.
We unpacked our stuff all over their efficient New York apartment and even had time for lunch before heading out to the street to catch a couple of cabs down to the theater district.
Remember how I said that it was nearly New Year’s Eve? Keep that in mind.
It took a while to get two cabs to stop for us, since it seemed a significant chunk of the population was interested in heading to that exact place themselves and were coming from further uptown than we were, but eventually two did stop. The ladies left in the first one, and then the boys got the second, piloted by the chattiest cabbie in New York. He kept us entertained until almost two thirds of the way to the theater, at which point traffic congealed and it became apparent to everyone that getting out and walking would be faster.
We managed to find the ladies at the theater entrance. They had independently come to the same conclusion that we had, and had somehow managed to follow Lewis Black for most of their subsequent walk. We made our way up to our seats with – what? – minutes to spare.
The show was magnificent, as you would expect it to be. Most of the songs are familiar to anyone who has had to sit through the movie the sixty or eighty times that those of us with children under the age of 15 are required by law to do. The actors are top notch – it’s a lot of puppetry, and while I never did block out the actors entirely I thoroughly enjoyed watching them work those puppets. It’s a small stage but with a lot of vertical space and they used every bit of it. And my own interest in the lighting was greatly satisfied. We had a great time, and the kids did too.
And then the best part of all kicked in.
You see, Lori has a friend who is in one of the touring companies of The Lion King. And this friend has a friend who was there in front of us, in the Broadway company. Thus we found ourselves after the show, waiting at the backstage entrance for a tour.
There were a couple of other similarly fortunate groups waiting for other actors as well, which oddly enough made me feel better about the whole thing. It’s kind of nice to know that they do this sort of thing enough to have a set procedure for it.
James Brown-Orleans plays Banzai (the non-insane male hyena), and from what I could tell he is an absolute prince of a man. He spent the better part of an hour with us – far longer than I ever thought he would – and gave us an amazing tour. He is someone who clearly loves his job.
He took us all through the backstage areas, patiently explaining the costumes and puppets and how they work as well as pointing out the sound and lighting areas. All of the theaters I’ve worked in during my lifetime? This is what they wanted to be when they grew up.
Then he took us onstage, so we could look out into audience and see our seats from the other side. We asked about how the stage worked and he pointed out all of the neat features that made it do all of the things it did – they make the stage very uneven, though, so the dancing and running about that happens during the show is just that much more impressive.
And then he took out part of his own costume, showed us how it worked, and said, “Who wants to try it on?”
For a theater nerd – even a backstage one like me – that was an experience I’ll not forget, there onstage.
So you can imagine that we were in high spirits when we left. And since we had a while before dinner, we headed over to Times Square, where apparently the New Year’s crowd had already begun to form. There were more people in that square than in all of Our Little Town, by whole number multiples, and it was fun just to watch them go by.
There was even a giant billboard across the street from us that was hooked up to a camera, so we could see ourselves waving. Yes, it’s a touristy thing to do, but you know what? We were tourists. Deal with it.
It was even warm enough that we didn’t feel too bad for the Naked Cowboy in his tighty-whiteys, though Keith said that it wasn’t the real Naked Cowboy, just one of his imitators. Only in New York would there be enough men strolling through the streets in jockey shorts and boots, playing guitar, that you would need to make such distinctions.
Eventually we navigated our way through the crowd to the restaurant where we had dinner reservations, and there we met up with the Uncles Chris. We had a grand time catching up with them, and after dinner we all decided to walk back to Keith and Lori’s apartment.
This entailed a stop at 30 Rock, where Keith works. He led us through the building and pointed out what has now become Lauren’s favorite spot in New York. If you go through the ground floor of 30 Rock and look up at the ceiling, you will see all sorts of classical figures on the ceiling, including one massive gentleman with his legs spread apart in a fighting stance. Apparently, “meet me under the crotch” (or “UTC”) is a catch phrase there, and this tickled Lauren no end.
We also got to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Plaza.
Eventually, though, people got tired of fording their way through the crowds and we took a couple of taxis back to the apartment and hung out for a while. It was a grand day.
The next morning Kim and I left the girls with their cousins and had breakfast with Nathan. Nathan is one of the UCF, and I had not expected to be able to connect with any of them on this trip so I was glad when it worked out to be possible after all.
It’s rather odd to meet someone face to face after having gotten to know them a bit online. All of the sudden there’s a person there instead of just words on a screen. But good food and good conversation make for good times in any medium, even reality. Now there’s only a dozen or so more UCFers to meet!
After some grocery runs to stock up for the New Year’s Eve festivities, we headed off toward Lincoln Center to meet up with Ellen and Rob and their boys. We found a restaurant that would seat us (no small feat even at 3pm on New Year’s Eve) and spent the next few hours annoying the waitress with incessant demands for more food while we chatted and caught up.
After enough of that we decided that motion would be a good idea, so we took a walk around Lincoln Center, pausing now and then to hiss at the Koch Brothers Building but otherwise in high spirits.
Eventually they went back home and we returned to Keith and Lori’s for our Rockin’ New Year’s Eve festival, which essentially boiled down to setting out far more snacks than we could possibly consume and hanging out. We watched the festivities on Times Square and tried to recognize any of the celebrities they’d roped into performing (“Who’s that?” “It says his name is Bullfrog.” “Never heard of him. And get off my lawn.”) The kids went to bed, except for Tabitha, whose birthday it was and therefore we let her stay up and see how little she’s been missing all these years by going to bed early. We pried the younger kids up just before midnight to watch the ball drop down in Times Square and be glad that we were not standing in that crowd. And then we went to bed too.
It was a fine New Year’s Eve.
Bright and early on New Year’s Day – with all of New York either hung over or dead – we had no trouble getting on our way. Traffic was light. The bridges were clear. We zipped across northern New Jersey – which is actually very pretty country once you get out of the I-95 corridor – and cruised into Pennsylvania, where we found the politest road sign in America. “Heavy traffic at Exit 299,” it said. “Consider Exit 298.”
When the snow got too blinding to drive through comfortably we stopped at the same Ohio Days Inn where the girls and I had stayed in August. It hadn't changed.
The next day we slogged our way through several hundred miles of lake effect snow until we finally found our way to Our Little Town.
It’s good to travel. It’s good to be home.