If I Can Make It There…Who Am I Kidding? (New York City, 2012)

We get to the city late Thursday afternoon, emerging from that tunnel into bright sunshine and car horns. It’s bumper-to-bumper all the way up 9th Avenue, but Manfrengensen’s handling it like a cab driver, darting in and out, pushing down on the brake as people or vehicles edge into our path, almost as if he’s driving with both feet. I look at the people passing by, tourists looking up at the tall buildings, checking out designer knock-offs laid out on overcrowded tables, getting caught up in the hot steams that blow from under the sidewalk. We pass taxis and newsstands, drugstores, galleries, shops of all kinds, scaffolding and posters plastered on raw wooden walls. We’re moving; we’re moving, and then we’re not, some bozo’s double parked in the area just before the valet parking for our hotel. Manfrengensen is full of metropolitan road rage by now, providing color commentary to the bozo’s movements or lack thereof, and the strategies needed to remove the obstacle in our way.

Our room is ready when we check in, so we go up, get settled and unpacked because I hate to live out of a suitcase, even for just a few days. We put our electronics into the room safe, and head out, down the elevator, through the lobby and out into the sunshine.

The city’s busy, doing its usual Thursday afternoon business. Trucks are unloading, people are cycling, walking past; I hear languages of six different nations. We’re hungry because it’s well past our usual suburban lunchtime. We duck into a little cafe; the pastries look nice, and we order two of the lentil soups they’ve got simmering. Manfrengensen likes his. Mine’s too salty, but I am enjoying this tiny bottle of Coke as I drink it through a straw.

We decide to try to find the cool  little store where I bought my business card case the previous Spring, though I can’t remember its name, and begin circling the area where we remember it standing…to no avail. Manfrengensen’s got a new iPhone, so he’s talking to SIRI, and she’s giving us directions here and there. It’s not that hot, but it’s hot enough to make me remember that I always forget to bring extra clothes to the city. Just walking around makes me feel stinky. I can’t wait to get back to the room and shower. I wonder how people live here day-to-day. Sure, it’s exciting, but do they feel the city on their clothing like I do, clinging to their garments like cigarette smoke? We finally give up the search for that store and go home to get ready for dinner and the play.

We’re walking up 8th Avenue at a clip; we pass a guy whose talking to some other guy, and I know him. Where do I know him from? I think. I rack my brain for half a block until I remember: It’s Dave, the student teacher from my year as an instructor at my alma mater. He had the desk next to mine in the clown car of that English office, and I remember him being a lot of laughs. The kids called him Mr. First-Syllable-of-His-Four-Syllable-Last-Name, which was endearing. He wound up getting a job at the school the following year, though not the one left open by my leaving, and I have heard through mutual friends that he has since joined the Peace Corps and is planning to leave for Cambodia later this summer. It’s totally crazy because, though we are friends on the Facebook, I haven’t seen the guy in the two years since anywhere on the streets of our hometown, which is hundreds of miles from here. Crazy. I look back to him, but the light has changed; he’s crossing the street, and I’ve missed the chance to say hello. Later, I will Facebook him a message to confirm that it was, in fact, Dave.

We get back to the room, and I get my shower and change for the show. We have dinner at our usual Italian Steakhouse that’s right near the hotel. I have the spinach lasagna, which is excellent; Manfrengensen has the monkfish. It’s divine.

We head over to the theater, and immediately I am surprised by how small it is. Manfrengensen goes to find our seats while I go across and down to the ladies room. Everyone is smiling and excited. Coming back to our seats, I see Morgan Spurlock talking to some people. He’s tall and he’s wearing a black vest. When I sit, I point him out to Manfrengensen, who again compliments my talent for spotting actors and personalities whom most people wouldn’t know from Coolio.

The lights go down and the stage lights up; the songs are catchy and the play is hilarious. We laugh our heads off. When it’s over, Manfrengensen declares The Book of Mormon his favorite Broadway production ever. We should bring Edison to see it. But what about the language? I ask. The F word? The C-word? True…maybe in a year or two. It will probably take that long to get three tickets together on a weekend anyway.

We walk back to the hotel, dissecting the play, talking about our favorite parts, holding hands. My shoulder brushes against my husband’s arm. We laugh, looking for good dessert. We finally decide to head for the Brooklyn Diner on 57th Street, where we settle into a corner booth, which, if the little brass plaques around the window ledge are to be believed, has also been occupied at various points in time by Gwenyth Paltrow, Kate Hudson, and a certain former Secretary-General of the UN.  Manfrengensen has the cheesecake, and I have a slice of apple pie the size of the Flatiron Building. This life is enchanted, I tell him.

I wake up late on Friday morning, while Manfrengensen is on his run in Central Park. I putz around the room, get ready for the day and lock everything back up in the safe. He comes back, gets showered, and I realize that I have left his Kindle out of the safe, but when I punch in our little code, it gives me an error message and won’t open. Manfrengensen is sure that I have punched in the wrong code, and he could be right, given my previous evidence  of  mathematical dyslexia, but I am sure that I saw the correct numbers there earlier. He says we’ll deal with it later, and we go down for breakfast.

As we approach the lobby area of the hotel, I notice this unbelievably tall, gray-haired man standing near the center table. Two little girls are in orbit around him, perhaps  his daughters. He turns his face our way, and we know him: it’s David Gregory, host of NBC’s Meet The Press. Man, he’s tall.

We turn into the restaurant for a table, and when the hostess asks me our room number, I start, “Two…?” even though there isn’t a two in our room number, and we are, in fact, staying on the ninth floor. Manfrengensen uses this as further evidence that I have botched the safe code. “Ah-HAH!” he taunts.

We are seated and order breakfast, swapping sections of the Times as we wait. Manfrengensen teases me for ordering the orange juice because it is outrageously priced, this is a trait he’s inherited from his father, who would never order fresh-squeezed orange juice at a fancy hotel out of economic principle, even though he loves fresh-squeezed orange juice. The juice comes to the table, and it is delicious. I offer him a taste, but  he’s not even going to taste it, so I drink it all. Best orange juice of my life, I tell him, and he jokes that “It better be.”

The food comes and it’s great. We eat our matching eggs and toast, talking about the previous night, laughing a lot. At time I try to catch snippets of conversation from the large party next to us because at one point I overheard something about a marketing campaign in my home state. The leader of the group, apparently, is on the phone, and the others are just waiting for him to pick up wherever he was with them before it rang.

When we finish, we sit for a bit, drinking our coffee and finishing the paper, occasionally looking up to say something to the other. Manfrengensen reminds me of some funny part of the play the night before, and I agree and then say that I loved the part where Elder Cunningham does the Matrix move during “Man Up”, but Manfrengensen kind of cocks his head like he doesn’t remember, so I imitate Elder Cunningham (imitating Keanu Reeves) sitting there in my posh leather dining chair, but as I fling my arm back, I smack the porcelain pot of hot water than an unsuspecting (and thankfully quick-reflexed) waiter is carrying as he passes behind me. Naturally, the waiter is startled beyond measure, because, after all, who expects a restaurant patron to swing her arm back like an Olympic swimmer going for gold in the back stroke? Near-disaster, surely, and I apologize profusely.

After breakfast, we go back to the room to gather up for the day. I try the safe again, but nothing doing. Manfrengensen thinks we are going to have to call security, but I don’t want to do that. I’ve already been enough of an idiot today, and it’s not even 10:30. We leave it, and head up to Broadway, where everyone is brushing elbows.

We take the subway downtown to the Village, and on the subway there’s a black lady in her mid-fifties reading Fifty Shades of Grey, and I wonder what that’s like, to read such explicitness while surrounded by other people.

We get off the subway near Washington Square Park, and by then, we both really have to pee. We find a public restroom, and it is bar-none the second-dirtiest restroom I have ever seen (the first being at the first available gas station on the 4-hr-ride-with-no-other-available-stops between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and which wins by a slight margin only  because of  the variety of insects). I tip-toe in and out, and we bathe ourselves to the arms afterwards with hand sanitizer like medics scrubbing up for battlefield surgery.

We wander around the Village looking for a store called The Little Lebowski, on Thompson Street. I love the Dude, and the movie is one of my favorites, so I have been wanting to go there for a while. The store is really small, selling mostly T-shirts, and it is cute, but we don’t end up buying anything.

When it’s time for lunch, Manfrengensen asks SIRI for a burger recommendation, and she gives us Bareburger, which is only a few blocks away. We are seated quickly at an outside table and enjoy some of the tastiest burgers (mine: beef, his:veggie) we have ever experienced, which is saying something.

After that, we wander around, pausing in front of Peanut Butter and Company on Sullivan Street. While we are standing there, a guy walks into the shop, comes back out, and I think I know him. Turns out he’s an actor who was in Dazed and Confused, Twister, and Rent, Anthony Rapp. Manfrengensen again compliments my esoteric knowledge.

We wander into a few galleries, and in one we enjoy the work of Pierre Marie Brisson, and one of the dealers there spends a bit of time there trying to sell us as if we actually have 10 grand to spend on a painting. We humor her, and when we leave we come up with numbers we would be willing to spend on art (significantly less than what that painting cost) and my number is double Manfrengensen’s number, which makes him laugh.

When we get back to the room to change for dinner and the show we are seeing that night, Clybourne Park, it’s time to face the music about the safe. I ask Manfrengensen to call, but he refuses, telling me that I don’t have to admit to anything to the front desk, I just need to tell them that we are having trouble with the safe. So I call, and I try to say that we are having some trouble with our safe, but I don’t know, maybe it was the soft tone of the woman’s voice on the other end of the phone, but I cracked. I can’t lie. I just said, “Okay, I did it! I punched in the wrong numbers, and we can’t get it open.” More laughter from Manfrengensen.

The security guy comes up, and he’s very nice. He says I didn’t put the code in wrong, that I just didn’t close the door all the way, and that caused the error code. After he leaves, Manfrengensen says he thinks the guy was just being nice, that in light of all other evidence…

Clybourne Park turns out to be wonderful. Funny in spots, but also very moving. I wasn’t sobbing during the play, but my cheeks are wet as we exit the theatre. We head away from Broadway, stopping to pick up some cake at Magnolia Bakery near Rockefeller Center, but when we eat it in our room later, it’s disappointing. Manfrengensen says that the cakes I make him at home have ruined all others for him.

In the morning, we have breakfast downstairs again, and this time I order the buffet so that I can have all the orange juice I want. Afterward, we get the car, which takes forever because of some miscommunication with the valet. Time’s a wasting because the kids are at the beach with my parents, and we want to get down there to  relieve them (even though they claim there’s no rush and everybody’s having a good time) but first we have to stop at the American Girl store to get a T-shirt for The Princess, because we had gotten shirts for the boys at the Nintendo store. The traffic, though, is beastly. Nothing at all is moving up Fifth Avenue. After about twenty minutes, Manfrengensen tells me to get out of the car and run up the four blocks to the store, where he will meet me.

I jump out, and the cars then move, and he gets a block ahead of me before I realise that I have left my phone on the center console in the car. So now, we are separated in New York City, with no means of communication. More fodder for the teasing, if and when we see each other again. Plus, I’m even more worried now, because I am stuck on a street corner, where a movie crew is directing people to stay put because Ben Stiller’s filming on the street, and they are trying to get the shot.

Finally, I think, screw Ben Stiller, I’ve got to get out of town, so I cross the other way, over Fifth, and then keep walking to American Girl. Inside the store, I’m really turned off. First of all, okay, I admit I have a thing about dolls. One time before we were married, I spent the night in my future sister-in-law’s room, where there was a whole wall filled with her doll collection. I had a hard time sleeping, visions of one of them coming to life and killing me dancing in my dreams all night. In short, dolls like that give me the creeps.

But even more than that is the wanton capitalism that surrounds the whole American Girl culture. I don’t mean to seem the wet blanket, but I’m standing in the store rubbing elbows with the 1%, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but there is an excitement there that I just couldn’t share. Excitement over all these things, and we’re all there to get more things, all these expensive little pieces of what turns out to mean nothing in the end. I don’t  know, I guess I was just a little overwhelmed to be surrounded by the dolls and the lights and the plastic air. And the whole time I’m in line with my T-shirt, every customer is being asked to give an address, phone number and email address because “it makes it easier to return things” the sales associate says, but that’s just crap. They want to lasso all of us for marketing purposes.

Don’t get me wrong, one American Girl doll is a great thing for a privileged child to own. Maybe a few of the accessories. Multiple dolls, and chairs for those dolls, and bikes for those dolls and pets for those dolls, dresses, shoes, makeovers, beds, salon chairs and stations, baby grand pianos, etc. for the dolls…It makes me dizzy. In line I keep thinking, I’m in a hurry, I’m not giving my address, but then when I check out, I’m too exhausted to argue with the saleslady. Whatever. They already know where I live. We get the catalogs every season.

I emerge from the store, thankful for the real air of the city, though a bit panicked about where I might again meet up with Manfrengensen. As I head back up to Fifth, I see him walking toward me. He’s parked the car so that we can have lunch before leaving town. Thank God at least one of us can keep his wits about. He takes my hand and we turn up the street.

We walk down to Ninth Avenue for lunch on SIRI’s recommendation, and then go get the car. We sit in one more traffic jam, which causes us to advance four blocks an hour toward the tunnel. And when we come out on the other side, we head down the freeway and back to our family.

A Weekend at the Empire Hotel

Manfrengensen and I just returned from a weekend in New York, which was nice for the most part. We had a great time walking the streets, despite the rain, had a few good meals, and saw God of Carnage, which was a lot of fun.

We stayed at the uber-swanky Empire Hotel, which was the kind of place that looks good, but is ultimately impractical, and even a little stupid. The best thing about the place is the location, right near Columbus Circle, around the corner from the Time Warner Building. The doormen are friendly and busy out front, dressed in cool grey mechanics’ jackets rather than the usual monkey suits. The lobby of the hotel is pretty, its center feature a slick-looking European-style bar. The furniture is all deco with rich earth tones and animal prints. People were clustered in conversations around the room.

We got in a little before check-in and were pleased that they had a room ready for us. They asked if we needed Wi-Fi (we didn’t) and told us that if we neededView of Lincoln Center from 11th Floor Room computer access it was available in the business center on the far side of the lobby. As she said this she pointed to a set of brown doors. On the surface, our room was great, on the eleventh floor overlooking Lincoln Center. The fixtures are sleek and neat, all with that same art deco feel. But it was one of those places where, the closer we looked, the less impressed we were.


The bathroom was tiny. Let me stress this again — tiny. No room at all to place one’s toiletries. The white porcelain sink looked nice, all square with its mod one handle fixture, but it was only about an inch and a half deep, so that every time we turned on the water above a trickle we found ourselves with a lapful of it. The shower was nice, and yet not. Again very modern with a teak floor and rain shower head. No tub in which to soak, though. Also, there was only a half wall of glass in the shower with no shower door, so that every time we showered, despite our best efforts, water got all over the floor.

empire hotel roomThey had some of the strangest things for sale in little containers in the room. I guess because they had no gift or sundry shop downstairs. They had opera glasses, some other small items and a “pleasure kit” with lubricants and a vibrator. Really? Who doesn’t pack that who needs it? Maybe I haven’t traveled enough, but I’d never seen that before. I don’t mean to be a prude, but I’m just saying: you sell that but not an extra toothbrush or razor?

The air conditioning system was the worst I have ever seen in a modern hotel. The best way to describe it would be antiquated. If you have allergies, or like to sleep in a room that’s a little on the cool side, this is definitely not the hotel for you. The controls for the unit, which was installed in the wall of the room, were hard to figure out, to say the least. The unit was so old that some of the knobs were broken, and the directions were completely worn away so that we couldn’t tell if we were turning to hot or cold, high or low. And the unit itself offered no clues that we were on the right track.

The worst part was that eleventh floor room. When we came back from dinner, I noticed a line outside the lobby waiting behind a velvet rope to be admitted to the elevators that led to the nighclub on the roof. Little did I realize that our room was right under that club. And the music was so loud that our bed was pulsating. I called the front desk a little before midnight to find out if we could move. It would be a pain in the neck certainly, we were in our jammies and all unpacked, but certainly worth a better night’s sleep. The man at the desk told me no other rooms were available. Around 12:30, the music got louder. Now it was Manfrengensen’s turn to call downstairs. He got results. The woman at the desk said that there were no other deluxe rooms available, to which Manfrengensen replied, “Well I can tell you — there’s nothing deluxe about this room.” I don’t know if I didn’t get the reply we were looking for because I am a woman, but by 1 a.m. we were moving. 

I felt sorry for the Hassids on the eleventh floor. There was a room full of them, and they were all hanging out their door looking for help. They couldn’t use the phone or the elevator to get any, poor bastards. Why they didn’t point this out to whomever gave them the room in the first place I don’t know. But as they tried to get the attention of the bellman who was moving us, the elevator doors closed quickly in their faces. Poor guys. Really, I hope they got some help, because that eleventh floor was the eighth circle of hell.

Manfrengensen thinks the Empire should try to place only the people who are planning to go to the nightclub in the eleventh floor rooms. It was so loud that I can’t believe the eleventh floor was the only one affected.

So we got moved to an interior room on the first floor. Much better. No view, but no noise either, not even from the street. But the other things were still a factor. And some of those other things included: There was no closet, just an armoire for hanging clothes. The armoire had a shelf in it, and no full length hanging area, so that my dress had to hang with a bend in it. Also, for a “modern” hotel, the walls lacked enough outlets. There wasn’t a single one that wasn’t being used by hotel items. In other words, no extra places to charge the phones or plug in the laptop. The lighting was dim, and as Manfrengensen and I are big readers, that was kind of a drag. In addition, the tables on the side of the bed were too narrow to accommodate the alarm clock (which had difficult controls; I could figure out neither how to correct the time, which was twenty minutes slow, nor set the alarm) so the clock was across the room from the bed. In the “deluxe” room, it was around the corner because the room was “L” shaped, so we couldn’t even see the clock from the bed.

Empire Hotel LobbyAnd that “business center”? It was a double-wide closet with a desk and two computers that charged 25 cents per minute of use.

The Center Cut Steakhouse on the mezzanine level was nice. The prices are kind of high, but we ordered the prix fixe menu, which offers soup, salad, a main course and a side dish for $39. The service was good, and overall it was an enjoyable meal.

In the end, we got no restitution for the change of rooms. This was partially our fault. We were happy with the second room, so we didn’t go down to complain on Saturday, and we didn’t want to move again. Sunday morning, he went to the front desk to settle up on the bill. (And that’s another thing — modern hotel with no checkout from the room? Are you kidding me?)  I waited for him in the lobby, sitting in one of those swanky deco chairs, but when I leaned back, it gave like the chair was going to fall apart beneath me. It turned out that we still had to pay for the deluxe because we had paid through Expedia. The clerk pointed out that she could have done something for us, if we’d charged anything to the room, but we hadn’t. She then offered to give us a discount on our next stay, but as Manfrengensen pointed out to her, we won’t be staying at the Empire again.

Hotel Empire