August 16-20, 2021
By Larry Hodges
Monday (Day 1)
Here's how I spent Day 1 (Monday) of my 5-day tour of New York City. I arrived in the late afternoon via Amtrak to Penn Station. After checking into the inexpensive Pod 39 hotel, I walked over to Grand Central Terminal (half a mile from my hotel) so I'd be ready when I start using the subway.
Along the way I had one of the scariest moments imaginable. I was crossing a one-way street (two lanes) where cars were going to my left. Though the walk light was still red, several people began crossing. So I looked right and saw there were no cars coming, and then followed them. I was about two steps into the street when there was a sound to my left. I looked over, and there was a car coming IN THE WRONG DIRECTION, at way, Way, WAY over the speed limit! I jumped out of the way at the last second - it never swerved or slowed down. If I hadn't moved it would have hit me at around 60 mph. A bunch of people yelled at it, but as far as I know, nobody got the license plate. It sped off and made a quick right-hand turn at the next street.
Then I walked over to Times Square (about half a mile from my hotel and from Grand Central Station). I spent about three hours there, checking out lots of shops and attractions. There was an acrobatic show where I, along with four others, were dragged out of the crowd and asked to stand in a line. Then one of the acrobats, with a running start, jumped over us. I also visited the Bubba Gump restaurant, the fourth one in the US I've visited, all with table tennis as a theme (from the movie "Forrest Gump"). I also visited Hershey Chocolate World and bought a bag of Hershey Nuggets (dark chocolate with almonds).
Then I went over to Bryant Park, where they famously have two outside ping-pong tables. There were about 12 players there. It was already nighttime, so play was by lamplight. So it's dark, windy, and I'm in running shoes. The best players seemed about 1600-1800, but it's tough to really judge because playing in the dark with gusts of wind is rather different than normal table tennis. They were playing winner-stay-on, so I took on all challenges for about 90 minutes. They play single games to 21 (five serves each). Nobody got more than ten points against me, even though I never really felt comfortable in the wind. One time I served and the opponent pushed my topspin serve way off the table. I reached to catch it, and a gust of wind knocked it back on the table for a winner! But I adjusted as best I could. I may go back later in the week. (Do I sound conceited if I point out my surprise that nobody recognized me or asked who I was?)
Then I went to the Empire State Building. Yes, it's huge!!! It's 1250 feet tall, 1454 to the tip of the antenna on top. It was the tallest building in the world from 1931 to 1970. Its base is 424 by 187 feet. When you enter there's an exhibit hall first, showing its history, and then lots of pictures and videos shown of its use in movies and TV, from King Kong to Spider-man. Then we went up to the 86th floor, which is outdoors (with a cage-like framing so you can't jump out). Then you go to the 102nd floor, and it's a circular room, about 30 feet in diameter, with glass walls. The views are spectacular, especially at night! (They were open until midnight, and I got there around 10:30PM.) When you are on the 86th floor, and you can see all the city and the cars look like bugs way below, and the wind is blowing in your face, you almost want to yell out, "I'm king of the world!"
As always, I buy a souvenir magnet from each place I visit. So I got ones for Times Square, Bubba Gump, and the Empire State Building. I'll continue adding to my collection all week. Then they'll join the incredibly crowded collection on my refrigerator - the only room left is the last six inches from the ground.
Tomorrow morning (Tuesday) I start with the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum. Then I might do a cruise on the Hudson, then check out the chess playing at Washington Square Park. (I got semi-serous about chess for a short time in college, reached 1600 level, but haven't played a single game in about 40 years.) Then I'll explore Central Park and walk by the United Nations building (which is currently closed - do I get a magnet?). I may also visit the firehouse that was used in Ghostbusters. Tuesday isn't as busy as other days - I made the last-minute discover that most of the major museums are closed on Tuesday.
Wednesday morning I have a guided tour of the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Immigration Museum. Then I visit the 911 Memorial and Museum. Then I'll visit Castle Clinton National Monument, walk through the historic Wall Street District (including the Charging Bull Statue) and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. Thursday morning is the American Museum of Natural History; the afternoon is The Metropolitan Museum of Art. They both close by 5:30PM, so then I go to the Spyscape Museum, since it's open until 8PM. Friday is the Bronx Zoo. Then, on Saturday, I have a top-secret table tennis mission - which I'll blog about next Monday.
Tuesday (Day 2)
Here's how I spent Day 2 (Tuesday) of my 5-day tour of New York City. SPOILER - no near-death experiences today. I started the day with a taxi ride to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum - which is really the aircraft carrier Intrepid transformed into a museum on the Hudson River. It was active from 1943 to 1974, and saw lots of action in World War II and Vietnam. During World War II, it was hit by four separate Japanese Kamikazes, but survived each of them. I stood at the spot where the worst of them hit, where dozens died. There were lots of exhibits and short films, mostly in the Hangar Deck, where planes were stored back when the ship was in action. Then I went up on the Flight Deck, where planes took off, and where they had dozens of different planes and helicopters, pretty much all of the ones it carried. I also toured below decks, where the crew lived, and the bridge area, where the captain and crew run the ship.
I walked about for a time, just exploring the Hudson River area. Then I took the Circle Line 90-minute cruise around Manhattan. This included going right next to the Statue of Liberty, and all the main features of Manhattan, including One World Trade Center ("Freedom Tower," as the tour director called it). We passed by the spot where Sully landed his plane on the Hudson. We went under three bridges - the Brooklyn Bridge, the Manhattan Bridge, and the Williamsburg Bridge. The whole time the tour director gave non-stop talk about the places we passed. It was a very windy trip.
Then I took a taxi to Washington Square Park, famed for its chess players and hustlers. The taxi trip was, um, interesting. The driver, a redhead (like a stereotypical Irishman) chanted or sang what sounded like religious songs the whole way - I think in Arabic or Hebrew, but not sure. He also honked the horn every 30 seconds. At every light, even if there were five cars ahead of him, the very instant a light turned green he started honking (still singing). If a car ahead of him didn't go fast enough for him, he honked. Basically, anything that happened caused him to honk the horn.
Back in college - about 40 years ago - I got into chess for a few months and reached 1600 level. (That means pretty much the same thing in chess or table tennis.) But I haven't played a game since, not in four decades. So I decided to just watch for a time, from just outside the circle of about 20 tables. (Intellectual puzzles are addicting to me, and if I'd played, I likely would have been drawn in, and next thing you know I'd be studying chess fulltime. I dodged a bullet here.) Chess games were going on in about ten of them; about five others had chess players waiting for opponents/victims. One of them kept singing out, "Come play chess! Chess here! Let's play chess!" I also had a delicious Häagen-Dazs dark chocolate bar from one of the food stands.
I took a taxi back to my hotel (yes, the taxi bill is climbing) and rested for a couple hours. Then I met USATT Board Member and American Youth Table Tennis Association CEO Thomas Hu for dinner at Patsey's Pizzeria. By an amazing coincidence, it turns out he lives about half a mile from my hotel. After solving all of the problems of table tennis over pizza, we walked over to see the United Nations building. It's closed for a time, but we walked around it. I was able to see from a distance the Knotted Gun Statue, which has been featured in a couple of my science fiction stories.
Then it was back to my hotel, where I had a puzzle to solve. Tomorrow (Wednesday) I have a Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island/Immigration Museum tour. Immediately afterwards I was going to the 911 Memorial and Museum. But I discovered this afternoon that the museum is closed on Wednesdays! The complicating factor is that while New York City is known as the city that never sleeps, most of their museums and major attractions close at 5PM. It would be easier for Godzilla to fit through the eye of a needle than for me to fit the 911 Museum into my Thursday or Friday schedule. But then I had a brainstorm - I'm going to be coaching at the upcoming Westchester Teams tournament about 30 miles away, Sept. 4-6, Sat-Mon. But I'm off Monday (Labor Day) - and guess what I hope to do then, probably with other TT players?
Tomorrow I'm catching an early subway (Grand Central Terminal to Bowling Green), and then walk 0.2 miles to the Castle Clinton, which is open to the public at 7:45 AM.
At 9:15 AM I meet the tour guide just outside of Castle Clinton (how convenient), and then it's off to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Afterwards, I'll be exploring the Wall Street and the Wall Street Historic District (including the Charging Bull statue), walk across the Brooklyn Bridge (and perhaps explore Brooklyn for a bit before returning), and then a quick trip a mile north to the Hook & Ladder Company 8 Firehouse, made famous as the headquarters of the Ghostbusters! (It was also used in a famous episode of Seinfeld, where Kramer took over a firetruck.)
Wednesday (Day 3)
Today was Day 3 of my 5-day tour of New York City. I thought the hardest part about today was getting up early, but later I'd later run into far greater difficulties. I tend to stay up late and get up around 9AM. But in order to fulfill my schedule, I was out the door at 7:15AM with a new-found hatred of the music my phone's alarm clock plays. I walked the three long blocks to Grand Central Terminal and took the #5 train to Bowling Green.
The subway ride went smoothly and took me to about 300 yards of Castle Clinton. But something keeps going wrong with my GPS - it misled me over and over, and it took over half an hour to find it, arriving around 8:30AM. Only to discover that the Castle Clinton Museum was closed! It's not a large one, but it would have been nice to see. However, I still was able to walk around the castle and explore. (Since their gift shop was closed, I ordered a Castle Clinton magnet online tonight!)
At 9:15 AM, I met up with the guide (Nicola) and the other 21 people on the tour - which conveniently met on the steps of Castle Clinton. Here's a group picture - that's me in the middle with the blue shirt and black "Odyssey Writing Workshop" carry-bag. (Nicola took the picture and isn't in it.)
Nicola was interesting - he's from Florence, Italy, which I visited in the fall of 2019, back when few people had heard the scary word "Covid." He had been a criminal attorney there, but tired of it. So he emigrated to the US and studied to be an immigration tour guide - and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of everything involving the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and historic immigration. How long has he been leading this tour? He said this was his 946th time. He gave long lectures - he gave a pair of 45-minute lectures, on the histories of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. He also gave a number 5- to 10-minute lectures. This is great for history buffs like me and about half the tourists, but others were getting fidgety.
On the shuttle to the Statue of Liberty, I looked back and realized you couldn't see the top of the new World Trade Center - it was covered in clouds! Yeah, it's that tall. And then we set foot on Liberty Island to learn about and observe close-up Liberty Enlightening the World, which is the actual name of the Statue of Liberty. You do know it was originally copper brown, but turned green from the oxidation (rust) of its copper surface, right?
Next up was Ellis Island and the Immigration Museum. One interesting thing (especially for a movie buff like me) was Nicola's explanation of all the things that The Godfather Part 2 got wrong about Ellis Island and Immigration. For example, there's a scene where young Vito (the future Godfather/mafia leader) is asked his name. They end up getting it wrong. But in reality, this never would have happened as they would have had the manifesto from the boat and would simply have found his name on the list there. The Statue of Liberty at the time of the movie was still mostly brown - it's only since then that it has rusted green. The boat Vito is in is moving in the wrong direction - it's going out to sea! And the circled x they put on Vito to mark that he has smallpox actually signified mental illness - plus they give it to him before he's actually diagnosed. But it's still a great scene! (I was in the large immigration room that shows up in the video below at 50 seconds.)
Here are some of the "goofs" from the scene - do a search for "Ellis Island":
One really poignant part on the tour were two ancient columns, now protected by glass. They were covered with graffiti - cartoons, notes and signatures in various languages, and so on. I found two that were dated - 1900 and 1901. The 1901 had a note above it in Italian, which Nicola read - I think it said simply, "I was here," then his name and the date. There were what looked like children's cartoons, all from 120 or so years ago.
I then spent a couple hours in the Immigration Museum. This is where I had an emergency that could have ended my sightseeing trip for good. I was walking along, minding my own business, when suddenly I felt like a 200-pound anvil had slammed into my right foot, around the base of the two right-hand toes. Ow!!! Nothing had hit it, I must have landed on it wrong. I hobbled over to a bench. After resting it, I still couldn't really walk. It was around 1:30PM and I hadn't had lunch yet, so I hobbled over to their cafeteria - essentially walking on my right heel - and had lunch. Thirty minutes later I tested it and whatever it was had mostly gone away. Anyone have a clue what that was??? Anyway, I was able to explore the museum for another hour. Lots of pictures from long ago.
Afterwards I decided to visit the 911 Memorial, even though the museum was closed today. But along the way I stumbled across the National Museum of the American Indian - and so went inside for an hour. Much of it was American Indian art.
Then it was off to the 911 Memorial. Except - my GPS went crazy again and kept misleading me. By sheer chance, I stumbled upon another feature I planned to visit today, the Wall Street Bull:
As always, I bought a souvenir magnet (my collection is up to 11 for this trip now). But I was tired of getting misled by the GPS, so I asked a street vendor for directions to the 911 Memorial. As a thank you, I bought from him a $10 statue of the bull. (I'm toying with writing a horror story featuring that bull coming alive.)
Then it was off to the 911 Memorial with proper directions. (About this time I starting to realize just how exhausted I am - more on that below.) It's a huge square basin with continual waterfalls on all four sides. Surrounding it is a stone memorial with the names of all the victims. One of the features was that each day they put a white rose over the names of all those with birthdays that day - and there were a number of such roses.
I then walked over to the new World Trade Center, or rather, One World Trade Center, or rather the Freedom Tower. It's 104 floors and 1776 feet high - wonder where they got that number from?
At this point, I'm exhausted. I've been on my feet for three days and feel like I've run a marathon . . . twice. My foot was still bothering me. An elephant was tapdancing on my back. And yet, I still had to do the impossible and walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. It's half a mile away, so by the time I get there, I'm even more exhausted. I sat down for a few minutes, and then surged forward.
The Brooklyn Bridge is 6016 feet across, about 1.1 miles. But don't let that fool you. According to the Theory of Relativity, as you approach the speed of L (Light), distance contracts. But in Brooklyn, as you approach the speed of L (Larry), distance expands. And so by the time I was halfway across, I was somewhere in Brazil. (Yeah, I really did use Google maps to verify where the Brooklyn Bridge points to.) It took approximately 6016 years to get across, but that's in Larry time, of course - time went on as usual for the rest of you. But if I look a lot older now, well, now you know. (About 3/4 of the way, I got a phone call from my table tennis club, asking if I could help out with training some of our coaches in a camp in a few week. That was a welcome rest break.)
There are supposed to be taxis everywhere in New York City. Today I learned that's only true in Manhattan. I could not possibly walk back across the Brooklyn Bridge - I could barely stand. I was on a major intersection and spent 20 minutes trying to catch a taxi, but not one went by. (In Manhattan, it's about 6016 taxis per minute.) I considered Uber but saw the price to get back to Manhattan would be around $40, and it would probably more for a taxi. Then I had a brainstorm - and using GPS, found the nearest subway station, about a quarter mile away. It took another 6016 years to walk there, but then the subway took me back to Grand Central Terminal. Then I walked the three blocks back to my hotel (another 6016 years goes by) and collapsed into bed for 6016 seconds (that's an hour and 40 minutes).
Then I got up, made my museum reservations for tomorrow, and then wrote this. (I also had to do some table tennis stuff, working out the junior rankings for players from my club, MDTTC, now that the Ohio Open has been processed. We have some very good kids!) Tomorrow it's The Met, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Spyscape Museum. (The latter stays open until 8PM so it comes last.) I'm looking forward to it; my back, legs, and foot are not.
Thursday (Day 4)
Day 4 of my 5-day tour of New York City will go down in history as the day I proved conclusively at the Natural History Museum that mammals, including humans, have backbones. How did I do this? I think the sharp, agonizing pain from my back had something to do with it. (How did I fail to bring Ibuprofen?) Yeah, my back is killing me. Also, my legs are collaborating to assassinate me if I go through with my plan to visit the Bronx Zoo tomorrow.
The day started with subway trip from Grand Central Terminal to 86th Street Subway, and then a brisk walk over to The Metropolitan Museum. I came prepared - I had Googled it and found "15 Pieces You Have to See at The Met:
- "Washington Crossing the Delaware" (1851), by Emanuel Leutze
- "Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue" (1931), by Georgia O'Keeffe
- "Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat" (1887), by Vincent van Gogh
- "Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies" (1899) by Claude Monet
- "Madonna and Child" (1290-1300), by Duccio di Buoninsegna
- "The Dance Class" (1874) by Edgar Degas
- "Mobile" (1941) by Alexander Calder
- "Aristotle with a Bust of Homer" (1653), by Rembrandt van Rijn
- "Autumn Rhythm: Number 30" (1950), by Jackson Pollock
- "Ugolino and His Sons" (1865-67), by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux
- "Relief Panel" (883-859 BC)
- "The Attitudes of Animals in Motion" (1881), by Eadweard Muybridge
- "Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints (1504), by Raphael
- "Bullfight in a Divided Ring" (1814), by Francisco Goya
- "The Temple of Dendur" (10 BC)
I don't know how "normal" people do this, but I had a simple plan. Using the museum map and continuously asking directions from the museum staff (they have experts every 50 feet or so!!!), I found each of the above during my 3.5 hours stay, while browsing lots of other stuff along the way. Yep, I stood right in front of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" and van Gogh's "Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat"! But because I'm a history buff, my favorite item was #15 above, "The Temple of Dendur" from 10 BC.
Then it was off to the American Museum of Natural History, across Central Park. On the walk over I stopped and walked through Belvedere Castle:
I also saw "Cleopatra's Needle," an Egyptian obelisk from 1425 BC:
I also stopped by the Turtle Pond - and saw over 30 turtles in one small area, about half basking in the sun, the rest in the water. They ranged from fist-sized to six-fist sized. I think they were all painted turtles.
I also spent around 3.5 hours at AMNH. If I wrote about all that I saw, I'd be writing all night. Lots of fossils, dinosaurs, reptiles, mammals, amphibians, birds, and so on. (A bottle of water cost $4.36!) There were a number of mini-movies along the way - each narrated by Meryl Streep!!! I saw Lucy, the australopithhecine from 3.2 million years ago:
Perhaps my favorite part (along with the dinosaur fossils, of course) was the 25-minute "Worlds Beyond Earth" film in the Hayden Planetarium:
The huge blue whale was hilarious - why? Because, to symbolize that the museum was now a Covid vaccination site, they had put a huge band-aid at the base of one of its flippers!
The night finished with a visit to the Spyscape Museum, 1.3 miles away and open until 8:30PM. The taxi trip over was strange. I told the driver to take me to the Spyscape Museum - but he'd never heard of it, and said that he was new - in fact, he said, I was his first fair ever as a taxi driver! I gave him the address, and he had no idea where that was. I finally told him to just take me to the southwest corner of Central Park, which I knew was a few blocks away. So that's where he took me.
I was there for about 90 minutes. Lots of espionage stuff, though I'd seen nearly all of it before in at least two spy museums I've been to in the past. I did enjoy the room about the breaking of the German and Japanese codes - my grandfather was involved with breaking the Japanese codes!!! The highlight for me was an entire wing devoted to James Bond movies, including a ten-minute film clip. (Yes, I've seen every James Bond movie.)
And then I grabbed another taxi and hobbled my way back to my room . . . only to find about a dozen things I have to do, via email. (Actually, I'd been checking email with growing horror all day, knowing that I had a busy night coming up.) So I did what I always do when I have a lot of work to get done - I ran (okay, hobbled) across the street, bought a Dr Pepper, and went to work.
Did I mention my back is killing me, and my legs are literally threatening to kill me if I don't spend tomorrow in bed? (But my foot seems okay.) Off to the Bronx Zoo tomorrow - I'll be there when it opens at 10AM.
Friday (Day 5)
Today was the final day of my 5-day tour of New York City. It was a day that would have gone down in infamy if I hadn't FINALLY remembered to buy a bottle of Advil from the convenience store down the street.
I started the day's journey by taking the subway up into the Bronx to visit the Bronx Zoo and its 265 acres (the largest metropolitan zoon in the country), arriving a few minutes before it opened at 10AM. This might be a good time to point out that the NYC subway system map is really just wet, colored spaghetti, but nobody else has the guts to admit it.
Next up was lions and tigers and bears . . . and elephants and rhinos and giraffes and giant snakes and turtles and . . . you get the idea. I started with a 20-minute rail trip around the zoo, with a guide pointing out the various animals we passed, including elephants, tigers, and so on. Then I walked through pretty much the entire zoo over the next five hours. My favorite are the giraffes, but also elephants, rhinos, giant pythons and anacondas, and the various primates.
I took the subway back and collapsed into bed, fully expecting to be done with my travels for the day. I am now officially museumed, arted, and zooed out. But after a couple hours I decided I could venture out one more time - and so, Coney Island, here I came!!!
It was nearly a one-hour ride on the subway into Brooklyn but was worth it. I tried out the famous Nathan's hot dogs (they really are good - I had them with raw onions and catsup)…
…rode the Cyclone…
…and watch the fireworks they have every Friday night at 9:30 PM. I also ventured out on the beach and stood in the Atlantic Ocean waters. (Technically, it's the "Lower Bay," but look at a map - it's the Atlantic.)
I'd been in contact with a local player, Ariel Chen, who had urged me to try out Coney Island. (He lives nearby.) After the fireworks, he drove over and I signed his copy of my book, "Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers." Then he gave me a ride part of the way home, saving me a bunch of subway stops. (We discussed numerous table tennis topics, including the fallacious belief by some that pushing short at the world-class level is dead - just watch the final of men's singles at the recent Worlds and see how often both finalists push short.) The subway trip was still long and arduous, but I finally stumbled into my hotel room a little after 12:15 AM.
And I still had to do this writeup, pack, and prepare for the secret table tennis project for tomorrow. What is that project? Tomorrow morning Will Shortz (of New York Times puzzle fame and owner of the Westchester Table Tennis Club) and I are going over to visit USA Table Tennis Historian Tim Boggan. He's 90 and no longer active in table tennis - and has given us permission to explore his basement for items of historical interest. It used to be jammed, but sometime last year a lot of stuff was thrown out. We'll try to rescue the rest! (Eric Boggan will also be around.)
And so my five-day New York City Odyssey comes to an end - but now come the spoils of war - my NYC magnet collection! (Missing - Castle Clinton was out of souvenir magnets, so I ordered one online.)