My first trip to New York City began with a warning. “Don’t look up all the time,” I was told. “You’ll look like a tourist.” That was in 1969. There have been many more trips to the great city, and guess what? Never have I stopped looking up. New York is the one city where I will always want to be a tourist. There is just so much to see in that great city.
Looking down has always been fun too. From the top of the Empire State Building or the Top of Rock, Laura and I never tire of seeing the skyline spread out before us. We went to the Top of the Rock for the first time when we traveled recently to the city with the KU track and field team. Just blocks away from our hotel, Rockefeller Center and its buildings stand steeped in city and personal history. To get there, we walked past Radio City Music Hall. My fascination with New York City dates back to that one building.
My father served as an associate pastor at a Lutheran church on Long Island in 1947 and part of 1948. He traveled often into the city. He loved the fun of getting a sandwich and a hard-boiled egg out of one of the vendo-mat machines along with a cup of coffee before going to Radio City Music Hall. There he would watch the famed Rockettes perform their precision dance routines with their high kicks and watch a movie before taking the train back to Long Island.
My first trip to the big city came in 1970 as an 18-year-old. After UCLA defeated Jacksonville State to win the national basketball title at the Final Four in Maryland’s Cole Fieldhouse, the film shot by famed Sports Illustrated photographers Rich Clarkson, Neil Leifer and a complete unknown in me had to be rushed to New York. Clarkson and I made the short hop with the precious cargo in hand.
Those film trips were rare and only used for tight deadlines from the biggest sports events. I made two of those trips alone in my teens. To me, it seemed I was carrying the Crown Jewels. The red envelope never left my hands. Sleeping on the plane, the package rested on my chest with my arms wrapped around it.
After delivering the package to the Time-Life building, the time to explore was mine until a Sunday flight home. The only problem was that being alone in New York City was so intimidating to a big city neophyte from Kansas. Then I thought about Radio City Music Hall. Suddenly my father was with me. Off I went, and I have never stopped exploring the city since.
My next great journey to the city came in 1976. This was the headiest time of my life. Here I was sitting on a bus with the Kansas City Royals driving from the airport to downtown Manhattan, and eventually to the Bronx, for games three through five of the American League Championship Series with the New York Yankees. After two games in Kansas City, the Series stood tied, but the Royals handily won game two. Spirits were high.
Boisterous noise and ultimate confidence filled the bus until turning onto Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. Never to be forgotten was the hush that swept through the bus for the trip through Harlem. The black players quietly stared out the windows fully aware that if not for the grace of God, their lives could have been far different from that of a major league baseball player. Other players immediately picked up on this realization and sat quietly.
For three years, I made the same trip for the playoff series against the Yankees. Every year, the hush was a stunning reminder of the fragile realities of life. Fortunately, as the bus headed south along the beautiful Central Park, the mood brightened again to full bloom by the time we pulled up in front of the team hotel.
Often during those playoff games, I rode to Yankee Stadium on the subway with Kansas City Star photographer and friend, George Olson. The trains packed with Yankees fans alleviated any fears about our gear being stolen with one exception. That first year, somehow, a brand new Nikkor 400mm f3.5 lens was mine to use thanks to Sports Illustrated. There were only two in the United States at the time. Their staff photographers had their own time-tested gear, and had passed on the opportunity.
Picking the lens up at the Time-Life Building, the lens was so new and untested it only came in a simple soft bag. Warned not to let the lens out of my site, I hauled it everywhere for the next three games. That five-game series is most remembered for the three-run home run hit by George Brett in the 8th inning to tie the fifth game, only to have the Yankees’ Chris Chamblis hit a solo home run in the bottom of the 9th. Mayhem ensued. In the sling bag over my shoulder the 400mm lens was with me as I shot fans demolishing the field in celebration of the long-awaited return to World Series.
Part of any trip to New York must include a cab ride. I always expect the driver to turn back to me and say, “Welcome to my world. The world of Red Bull.” Of course that would require the driver to speak English. Every taxi ride is a true adrenal rush. None more than a ride fellow photographer Earl Richardson and I took in 1986.
We flew into New Jersey to cover the Kansas City Chiefs playoff game against the New York Jets on December 28. The day before, we jumped into a cab to spend the day in New York. Sitting on his beaded seat with his radio wailing middle eastern music, the driver roared right into an intersection with serious consequences. Our driver hit a pedestrian.
Even from the back seat, the sight of the woman rolling up onto the hood of the car and into the window before rolling off the car was staggering. Even more bewildering was that the driver never stopped. He was now doing the wailing and babbling away in his native tongue, but he kept racing along. Meanwhile, we could only sit in the back seat sure that the police would track the cab down at some point. We should have known better. We reached our destination and piled out as fast as we could. No need for a big tip for that trip.
There were other less exciting trips to New York between that cab ride and 2002 that were fun but not notable. Many things changed in our world and in my life during those years, but none more significant than Laura entering my life. She is a loving traveling companion that is both willing and capable of relishing all our journeys together. So it was that on Thanksgiving evening of 2002, after having spent the day taking in the Macy’s Day Parade and standing in silence staring at the hole where once the Twin Towers stood, we settled into our seats on Broadway for a performance of Movin’ Out.
The Twyla Tharp production traced the lives of a group of Vietnam War era youth through the songs of Billy Joel. We relished every moment of the show and the romantic setting. The evening’s performance ended with Michael Cavanaugh playing the piano alone while singing Joel’s New York State of Mind. Tears flowed as we hugged each other tightly. Never can I remember feeling so thankful for my life as an American.
We took Kelly and Julie to New York with us in 2005. As much as they loved the trip, they never have fully forgiven us for the massive amounts of walking forced upon them. They saw everything from The Brooklyn Bridge to Times Square to The Statue of Liberty and much more. We rode bikes through Central Park and were part of the outside audience for the Today Show early one morning.
Our trip to the Today show was Laura’s and my second visit. The great James Taylor played a live concert on our second visit in the Plaza area before walking through the crowd signing autographs. Approaching me, I only stuck out my hand to shake his hand and said, “Thank you for the decades of fabulous music that meant so much to our generation.” Taylor moved down the line signing additional autographs without a word, but then stopped. To our amazement, Taylor walked back to me and now stuck his hand out saying, “Thank you very much.” A handshake never to forget.
We also took the girls to Harlem, or to be fair, I took the girls to Harlem. Revitalized from the difficult times I saw in the 70’s, it remained for four white Midwesterners a shocking but fascinating walk. I wanted to see the famed Apollo Theater, the famous music hall where so many performers of my youth found their voice. Unfortunately, a major renovation that began that year prevented us from seeing much. Fortunately, the Apollo Theater will now be there for a visit on anther trip.
Helping some KU athletes discover the joys of the city was our joy on our latest trip with the track and field team. We planned the trip to add an extra day after KU left. On our free Sunday, we ate brunch at Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill. The food was as good as we expected from our favorite chef. We shopped at many of our favorite stores and strolled hand in hand uptown along 5th Avenue. No trip is complete unless I see the stunning Flatiron Building and the gorgeous Chrysler Building, two of the great architectural wonders of my world.
In Grand Central Station, the lobby of the great train hub amazed us as usual. An Apple Store spread throughout some of the upper concourses. This was their most unusual store in the Mac dominant world because it did not look like an Apple Store at all. Tables hosted all the Mac products, and Apple staffers were everywhere. Yet, the classic old look of Grand Central Station was not disturbed.
That made our look inside the windows of the Sex Museum even funnier. In 2005, the 5th Ave. store front was a sheltered, gray-front building that screamed “peep show.” Now, it had become a clone of the usual Apple Stores in cities everywhere, all bright and white with sex toys sitting on tables where iPads would usually be displayed.
Thank goodness we cleared our minds of that sight with a stop at the Yankees Store to bring us back to reality and the realization of our blessed lives in a wonderful city honored in the old musical On the Town with the original lyrics, “New York, New York, a helluva town.”