It occurs to me, as I watch Matt grab two of our sons by the lapels and pin them against the wall of One World Trade Center, that maybe the boys are still too young for New York.
We had come to the same realization two years earlier, when we brought them to cheer on their Aunt Katelyn in the New York City Marathon, only to spend most of the race wrestling with two strollers on the stairs of various subway stations. That evening, as friends we hadn’t seen in ages downed pints of beer at the bar while we crawled under tables trying to stop a toddler from eating a cigar, we realized we had flown too close to the sun.
This time we think we have it figured out. We will keep the itinerary loose and line up babysitters. The boys are older, slightly more manageable, and legitimately excited about the trip. This will be their first time on an airplane, to top it all off, thanks to their aunt.
I get the first sign that things would not be going as smoothly as I hoped at the security checkpoint inside the airport, where our kids shrug off their backpacks, their coats and all of the instructions we have given them. It is a masterful coup, wrapped up in some real Last King of Scotland-level swagger. Matt and I can only stand there in line for the full-body scanner, shoeless and dumbfounded, as the boys throw each other into a stack of gray plastic bins, distracting TSA officers and causing who-knows-how-many bombs and vibrators to pass undetected in people’s luggage.
As quickly as we can, we scramble back into our shoes, grab the boys and drag them to the gate. We blow past Cheeburger Cheeburger, fleet-footed with fury, and somehow make it to our seats and into the air, our children gleefully yelling about the plane crashing to the delight of everyone on board.
Five Delta brand cookies later we are in New York. On the drive from LaGuardia to Greenpoint, Katelyn points out the Manhattan skyline to the kids but it is the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant that really knocks their socks off. They are so beguiled by this fortress of scatology that the big announcement we will be going ice skating at Rockefeller Center after lunch falls a little flat.
Truth be told, I am not feeling too jazzed about this outing, either. The first time ice skating is suggested, my Spidey sense starts tingling. And when it is decided that we are going to Rockefeller Center, my Miser’s anus clenches up like a fist. But what is a trip to New York without throwing caution and a mortgage payment to the wind? So we make our way to Midtown and somehow end up in the VIP section of the rink where two supermodel hostesses shake us down for our reservation.
“We don’t have one. Can we make one here?” Matt asks.
“Sure, that will be $800,000,” the models reply. We ask to be directed to where the poorer rich people skate, and find ourselves in a crowded locker room where we are given skates and charged $150 for 20 minutes.
I am hoping there will be walkers for kids like you find on lesser rinks, but it turns out the Rockefeller scene is supes profesh. As skaters soar above our heads in double axles, we shuffle along, each adult bent over at a 90-degree angle to hold up a child whose feet can find no purchase. Our whole vibe makes the Scarecrow dance scene from “Wizard of Oz” look like Evgeni Plushenko’s 2006 Olympic performance. After 15 minutes my back is seizing and my ankles feel like they are going to shatter. I push Bran towards the wall and leave him clinging there as I take a spin. As I round the opposite end of the rink I can see a concierge attempting to peel Bran’s crumpled form off the ice, so I do what any good parent would do and hide in a throng of teenagers as I pass by. Soon after, the bell rings and we are all chased off the rink by a Zamboni.
After swinging by the Lego store we decide to take the boys to Serendipity 3 for frozen hot chocolate. You know, just pop in without a reservation, like a bunch of Oprahs. At some point on this ill-fated journey it begins to rain, and the boys can no longer keep up. As I carry Finn down 5th Avenue, icy blasts of wind whipping us in the face, I glance up and into the golden interior of an H&M. A woman browsing a rack of chunky sweaters makes eye contact with me–taking in my windblown hair and wet clothes, the unhappy boy on my hip with the runny nose–and gives me a look that very clearly says, “Your life is a fart.”
She isn’t wrong. We spend the next hour being turned away from hot chocolate establishments throughout Midtown before tucking our tails between our frozen legs and heading back to Brooklyn.
OK, so Day 1 isn’t the raging success we had hoped for, but we still have time to redeem ourselves. Day 2 will be different. For one, we are going to explore the lower half of the island, starting with a trip to Battery Park to take a look at the Statue of Liberty. That morning, we climb aboard a water taxi in Greenpoint and head down the East River. It is cold but glorious. Sunlight dances on the water and trains rattle overhead as the boat cruises beneath the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. At South Street Seaport we jump off and start walking towards Battery Park, weaving past the food carts selling hot nuts and souvenir kiosks packed with t-shirts and foam crowns, past the Staten Island Ferry Terminal and the shrine of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton on State Street.
There is something about this part of the city that does a number on me. It’s the traces of New Amsterdam and the British colonies and the Continental Army and all that history jammed into a little wedge of land. It’s the massive skyscrapers crowding the sky overhead that make you feel like you’re being nudged off the tip of the island. It’s the shadow of 9-11 everywhere you turn, and Lady Liberty standing out there in the bay, guarding her children like a Sphinx. It’s all that transportation and commerce, heaving human masses in every direction. It’s the churning, anthracite mouth of the Hudson and the seagulls that are louder than traffic and the reminder that despite all the steel and glass rising up around you, nature is still here, wild and undaunted.
All of this is to say that whenever I’m in the Battery Park area, my synapses start snapping and my heart starts thumping and I feel a little afraid and a little euphoric (and also a little like I’m about to see one of the cast members of “Mob Wives.”) So when Katelyn suggests we take a ride on the Seaglass Carousel there in the park, I am primed for a religious experience. We climb into pink and yellow fish, glowing softly like phosphorescence, and begin to circle as the conductor pipes in “Sun King” by the Beatles.
“Everybody’s laughing,” John Lennon’s dreamy, disembodied voice fills the air. “Everybody’s happy.”
My serotonin receptors light up like the Empire State Building. I am being gently rocked in a nautical womb at the edge of the world, cradled in the key of C, glowing like a moon jelly. It is almost as blissful as the day I ate mushrooms and walked around town wearing Ambervision glasses with my best friend, Mary, in college. Almost, but not quite.
After exiting the carousel, my sea buzz is so strong that I am impervious to the poor behavior of our kids. Their bullshit bounces off my aura and hits Matt right in the solar plexus. By the time we get to One World Trade Center, he is at his breaking point, which results in him pressing all three boys into the side of the building and threatening their lives.
Trying to discipline your children while on vacation is pointless. It’s impossible to carry out any kind of unpleasant consequence when the entire day is designed around delighting their odious little hearts. This is why the fire and fury of Fulton Street is immediately followed by the purchase of tickets to One World Observatory, and our tantruming sons are whisked up 100 stories to “See Forever!” I am no good at heights, so I spend most of this experience pressed against the exit with my eyes open only a millimeter, but even this is enough to take in the fact that all three kids are rolling around on the ground in the center of the room, oblivious to the 360-views. I try to entice them to the window by telling them they can see the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant, but they are too busy kicking each other in the face.
Even though the boys are clearly letting us know they need a nap, Matt and I really want to go to Blind Tiger, a pub in the West Village, that we used to frequent back in the day. We wager that if we bring cupcakes with us, we can buy the adults enough time to slam down a pint and indulge our nostalgia.
It is but a fool’s folly. The bar is packed so the kids have to sit in the fireplace with their cupcakes. But the real bummer is that the couple sitting next to us are new parents, out on a date for the first time since the birth of their twins, and have to suffer through the antics of our exhausted, sugar-crusted trio.
“The first couple months are hard but it gets better!” I chirp at them cheerfully. Right on cue, Finn smears a glob of frosting and chimney ash into Jem’s hair, causing him to scream. The couple nods silently as I excuse myself to stop Bran from wandering out of the bar with a group of random guys. When I get back, Finn’s fist is jammed into my beer and the man and woman have subtly pivoted away from us. I do the thing I do when my kids misbehave in public and pretend to be super amused by it all. “Oh Finn,” I laugh gaily. “You rascal!” I remove his hand and take a big gulp of beer, turning towards Matt. His eyes meet mine.
“Our life is a fart” they say.
* * * * * * * * *
Have you enjoyed this litany of complaints? Would you like to hear more about everything that went wrong on our trip? I suppose I could tell you what it’s like to take a child into an outdoor public restroom in the middle of New York City to poop, but instead let me leave you with the last moment of our day together.
The scene is Bar Bolinas in Clinton Hill, 5 p.m. We’ve gathered here with a bunch of friends to kick off a surprise party for Katelyn, who will soon be moving to San Francisco. The boys are joining us for dinner, and afterwards we’ll drop them off with the sitter. The room is candlelit, the wine is flowing. Our sons, the same sooty monsters who terrorized Lower Manhattan, are sharing a kale salad and working on a puzzle together. None of their hands are in our drinks. None of them are under a table eating a cigar. No one is angry.
We sip our wine in the golden light, catch up with long-lost pals and celebrate Katelyn–who has just completed a different kind of marathon. The stress in my shoulders is loosening, my serotonin receptors are flickering. The kids are cracking up at something our friend Tom just said to them. This is the same neighborhood that Matt and I used to live in, pre-kids. Our old apartment is only a few blocks away. I think of how free and unfettered we were back then, how we had the entire city at our fingertips, and how relatively little we actually did. No ice skating, no carousels, no rainbow bagels. No trips to the top of the world.
Kids drag you down, but they also push you forward. They pull you low so they can slingshot you higher. They make your blood boil like hot chocolate, and your heart beat like Battery Park. They force you to see the beauty of the world through sewer-colored glasses, calm your soul with kale and absolve your sins with their sticky hands.
They make your life a fart. And what a fart it is.