Four years ago I reconnected with a family member that I had not seen since I was a kid. My dad's first cousin, "Aunt Gina," lives in the New York City area; her apartment in Jersey City is a twenty minute train ride from Manhattan. For the past three years, my daughter Elizabeth and I have stayed with my Aunt Gina for a week in the spring. I love to travel. The first year we visited, in 2014, Elizabeth was five years old. That first year was a litmus test, to see what Elizabeth would think of the bustle of big cities, the dankness of subways, and the enormity of skyscrapers. Well, lucky for me, she loved it all, and this past April was our third visit.
Statues and a Slide
One cool spring morning, we decided to explore Central Park. We hopped on the PATH Train in Jersey City at the Grove Street Station and got off at the 33rd Street Station in Manhattan. Then we got on the N/Q/R train to get to the east side of Central Park, and got off at 59th St. We had set out that morning with the goal of finding the Balto statue. We had read the story about Balto the dog saving a village from diphtheria in Alaska in 1925, and his statue in Central Park seemed as good a destination any to start the day's adventure.
After a quick snap at the Balto statue, Elizabeth and I ambled along to see what else we could find in Central Park. The weather was typical of early spring in New York--freezing cold one minute, blissfully warm the next. We walked just a few paces up the path and found a wooden gate. Through the gate, which was surrounded by trees, giving it a secret garden feeling, we found a long smooth slide built into the bedrock that is characteristic of Central Park. The stone slide is in the Billy Johnson Playground, which is set back from the main walkway. As Elizabeth ran enthusiastically towards the slide, I figured we would be there for a few minutes and then be on our way.
“Mom,” she said, after one hour on the slide.
“Yes?” I answered, somewhat distractedly.
“My bottom really really hurts,” she whimpered.
Trying not to giggle, I imagined a vintage cartoon character with a red throbbing bottom. I answered, “I’m so sorry sweetheart, I guess that is what happens when you go down a slide over and over again for an hour.”
She nodded sullenly in agreement.
After leaving the slide in the "secret garden", her mood showed no sign of lightening. I employed the distraction technique, pointing out the unique looking wooden structure on the top of the small bedrock hill we were standing at the bottom of.
“What do you think that is?” I asked her. She shrugged her shoulders half-heartedly, still feeling her sore bottom, I’m sure.
“I’ll race you there,” I exclaimed, attempting to bound up some steps built into the bedrock hill. Seconds later she was bounding past me and we were in “A Treehouse For Dreaming”, a picturesque wooden gazebo covered in vines. Set above the main walking path, it was a perfect spot for people watching on the path below. After a few minutes we decided to continue our trek onward to find The Alice in Wonderland Statue.
It didn’t take long to find found Alice, located at 75th St. on the east side of Central Park. Unlike the lonely Balto statue, Alice in Wonderland and her cast of characters was teeming with visitors, who were climbing, photographing, hugging, and just plain staring at the magnificent statues. I saw the story come to life in my daughter’s eyes, as she stood for a moment just taking it all in. It was like the characters jumped straight off the pages of Lewis Carroll's book and into Central Park. They were literally larger than life. Elizabeth was enamored with them all, commanding me to take pictures of her--sitting on Alice’s lap, under the giant mushroom, riding on the back on the Mad Hatter, and sitting on the Mad Hatter’s Hat.
All the climbing, photographing, and crowds of people had us hungry for lunch, so we walked on a few blocks east to 2nd Ave to find some pizza.
After a slice of New York style pizza for lunch, I decided we would walk south on 2nd Avenue. I love walking off a filling lunch, and Manhattan is filled with scenery to keep us occupied! As we walked we pretended to be New Yorkers by not waiting for a green light to cross the street. We talked about the differences we noticed between here and at home in California. We held hands and dodged street construction and crowds crossing the street towards us, including lots of people smoking, and dogs. At 59th Street we stumbled upon the Roosevelt Aerial Tramway. I was unaware of its existence or its route, and decided to give it a go to see where we ended up. After the swipe of our Metro Cards, we piled onto the tramway with schoolkids, commuters, and other tourists. Soon after embarking, the tramway operator announced over the speaker that the ride would be three minutes, and we were going to Roosevelt Island. "Wherever that is," I thought to myself. After three minutes of rapid fire picture snapping, while trying to ignore the sinking feeling I had in my stomach that reminded me I was scared of heights when experienced in a dangling box held up by a large cable, we descended into the tramway station on Roosevelt Island.
After disembarking the Tramway, we wandered around Roosevelt Island for a few minutes, then sat down on a bench directly under the Queensboro Bridge to regroup. While I was aware that there were some cool things to do on Roosevelt Island, I decided to save it for another day. A toy store near the West Village was on our list of things to do during this trip, so we decided to hop on the F Train, which would put us near the West Village, where I wanted to be for dinner.
Eating in the West Village
After the grueling process of Elizabeth deciding how to spend money from her piggy bank at the toy store (Lego set or Playmobil, always a tough choice), we were hungry again (all that walking!), and decided it was time for an early dinner. We walked in the direction of New York City’s first gastropub, The Spotted Pig. The restaurant had made it onto my list of places to eat, after I had been charmed by Chef April Bloomfield on the series Chef’s Table. My food-obsessed Aunt Gina and cousins (it runs in the family) had also wholeheartedly endorsed it, complete with menu recommendations. "Skip the burger", I was told of the popular menu item. Recommended instead was the Ricotta Gnudi with Sage and Brown Butter, as well as the Deviled Eggs. The Spotted PIg does not take reservations, so it turned out to be advantageous to need an early kid-friendly dinner time. We arrived at the restaurant a few minutes before dinner service started at 5:30 pm, and were easily able to secure a table. We started with drinks in the bar--me a gin and tonic, Elizabeth freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice. “This is delicious,” she declared. When our table was ready we were shown upstairs to a delightfully cozy table in a small room that contained six tables in all.
We read thru the menu together. The Devils on Horseback was a must-try, we decided, if only because of the name. These bacon-wrapped, tea soaked, pear-stuffed prunes were balanced bites of sweet, salty, and savory, perfect as an appetizer. I order oysters whenever I have the chance, so I ordered one dozen. Elizabeth bravely tried one, but declared to not like them. I don't blame her, they do have a strange texture. Every time I eat an oyster, the flavor transports me momentarily to my childhood, spending long summer days at the beach, inadvertently gulping the sea water while swimming and bobbing for hours in the waves. For me, every bite of a fresh oyster contains this nostalgic bliss of the beach on an endless summer day. I am pretty sure I close my eyes and sigh contentedly every time I eat one. The Ricotta Gnudi with Sage and Brown Butter, made with just a few simple ingredients of ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, and semolina flour, were soft pillow-like bites that melted in our mouths. The deviled eggs were perfectly executed and Elizabeth approved, the filling a blend of creamy and tangy, altogether delicious. I also ordered the shoestring potatoes, super thin french fries spiked with rosemary and lemon zest. With all the other food, we barely made a dent in that perfectly fried crispy pile. After a fulfilling dinner, which included a couple of glasses of wine for me, and terrifically attentive service, we took a short walk to the PATH station and found the train back to Jersey City. Exhausted by our adventures that day, and with full bellies, we happily fell into bed, but not before I promised Elizabeth we could play with her new Lego set in the morning.