Thursday, March 30, 2017

NYC Part VI - Brooklyn Sunday Morning

Our NYC adventure continues with our Sunday morning trip to Brooklyn.

We assembled in the hotel lobby at 6:45 a.m. on Sunday morning where we finally met our “family” group. As others counted noses and determined everyone was present and accounted for, they headed out. Kim’s group left well ahead of us. Ours was one of the last to leave.

Fortunately, a fellow in our group regularly travels to Manhattan for business. He realized the subway schedule was different for Sundays and holidays. We followed him like ducklings, afraid to make a wrong turn.

We observed another group disappear down some steps into the subway. If I’d been on my own, I probably would have followed them, but our fearless leader looked at his map and determined the entrance we wanted was in the next block, even though we couldn’t see it from where we stood. Sure enough, as we passed the buildings, a large opening at street level revealed the correct portal.

We have used subways in Japan, Paris, and Washington, D.C. All have been clean, bright, and user-friendly. In most cases, the stations themselves featured large diagrams of the subway lines and the stations. In Japan, above the doors on each train we could count on a diagram of the route with all the stops identified. As we approached each, the name was announced. So, even as gaijin or foreigners, we were prepared to disembark.

The New York subways appeared to be well-worn, dark, and a bit shabby. The station yielded no clues as to where to go. (Fortunately, we were each issued a subway map in case we got lost. However, I’d have been hard-pressed to find my way back alone.)

Our fearless leader got us to the right track and onto the right train. By the second stop, all of us found seats. We had a chance to get to know a few of the people in the group during the ride—lovely folks all.

When we reached Brooklyn, a cold mist had begun. I had taken a small umbrella with me for the trip. However, it remained on the nightstand in the hotel. Fortunately, our Universal all-weather jackets were waterproof and provided adequate protection, I wasn’t particularly concerned about keeping my hair dry as the light mist didn’t do much damage.
A walk of about three blocks led us to the Brooklyn Tabernacle where we were to share Sunday morning worship. This wonderful church is large enough to hold their congregation as well as 270 additional souls. We were excited to be there as this Grammy-winning choir had previously sung backup for Michael W. Smith.

We were ushered to the balcony where half had been set aside for our group. We were warmly welcomed and took our seats. We noticed about half our people were missing—including Kim’s group. All had left ahead of us.

Everyone finally arrived in time for the 9:00 a.m. service. Larry asked Kim what happened. She rolled her eyes. “Six trains…” We didn’t get the full story until later. It seems their group—among others—used the daily schedule. When the train didn’t come after half an hour, they switched to a different one. Then, they went from train to train until they finally located the correct one.

The Tabernacle choir sings in gospel style—full volume with lots of energy. (The Prestonwood choir tends to do the same.) The service began with an hour of music, interspersed occasionally with scripture and prayer. We’d been told to leave no later than 10:30 even if the service wasn’t finished. After the offertory—with more music—the pastor began his sermon. Just before 10:30, our group began donning their outerwear. Fortunately, the service ended right on time. When we got outside, the cold mist had turned to sleet. Our Universal jackets have built-in hoods, so I raised mine.

We walked about four blocks to Hill Country Barbeque restaurant. This one was also two stories. For our group, they served a buffet breakfast with lines both upstairs and down instead of barbeque. We found seats downstairs and got into the line. Kim, Maribeth, and some of our “family” group made their way upstairs.
The food was served in square cardboard containers: small sweet rolls, oatmeal, scrambled eggs, bacon, and French toast. We had juice and coffee to drink. Feeding such a huge crowd in a short period of time seemed like a logistic nightmare, yet the planners pulled it off.
After breakfast, we retraced our steps back to the subway. This time, we got off at the stop closest to Carnegie Hall. The choir was directed one way, and we non-singers were asked to wait in a large room. When everyone had arrived, we were invited to enter the auditorium and take seats for the rehearsal until time for our backstage tour.

The orchestra rehearsed for a half hour before the choir arrived. The first number they played was Michael’s Glory Overture. I had no idea he wrote instrumental music. I whispered to Larry, “Hints of John Williams.” Some of the themes reminded me of his music, especially his score for Home Alone. During the concert, Michael told the audience he had been profoundly influenced by John Williams.

I am always deeply moved by beautiful music, and this brought me to tears. The next song, “Heroes,” moved me even more. I warned Larry and the young lady next to me that I would probably embarrass them during the concert.

After the orchestra rehearsal, the choir arrived. Fitting 230 people behind a full orchestra was no small feat! We later learned some of them decided to share music because they were so close, their folders didn’t fit. 
As they began to rehearse, our Carnegie guide arrived to take us on the backstage tour. He shared the history of the hall and showed us everything from the top tier to the ground floor and museum. All the walls in the auditorium curve slightly inward so the sound is focused on the audience. The balconies have no walls to break up the sound. Light comes from wall-mounted sconces rather than chandeliers. This venue was obviously designed for maximum enjoyment of the music.
After our tour, we went back into the hall to enjoy the last of the rehearsal before we returned to the hotel for a rest before the concert. Fortunately, the hotel was only a couple of blocks away—a terrific location.

Next week: the concert. (Spoiler alert: This was the best concert I have ever attended.)

Thursday, March 16, 2017

NYC Part V - On Broadway

Our New York weekend adventure continued on Saturday night with our attendance at a Broadway show.

How do you feed a group of 270 people at one time in New York City? The planners of this trip faced this challenge, and they met it well. Since the group was from Plano, TX (a suburb of Dallas) the organizers chose the Dallas BBQ, of course. The restaurant was in Times Square, and since many of us had tickets for a show, the location was perfect.
We took over the entire second floor, packed into long tables. When we sat down, pitchers of water, lemonade, iced tea, and soda as well as bowls of coleslaw were already in place. When most of us were seated, service began. We each received a large plate with a rack of ribs, quarter chicken, French fries and cornbread—far too much for one person to finish. We passed the plates down the table, like a family meal.
We sat with Kim and Maribeth, but we also had the chance to meet a few of the other choir members. When one of the gals discovered we were authors, we enjoyed a long conversation about writing. She said she wanted to read some of our books, so we were pleased.

During the meal, we heard a commotion behind us, and turned to see Michael W. Smith. He had stopped by to welcome the group to NYC. He seemed like to be as nice a guy as we had expected. We were all pleased to see him.

For dessert, ice cream sandwiches were passed down the table. Larry ended up with two since Kim didn’t eat hers.

Prior to the trip, we were given the opportunity to purchase tickets to a Broadway play. We selected Aladdin. We prepaid for the tickets, and Kim picked them up before she left Texas. We had a little time before the show, so we walked down a block, then crossed the street where we could get a good look at the marquee.
The temperature was still just above freezing, so we waited in the entrance until we could take our seats. A stand with a lamp had been set up, so of course, we had to pose while rubbing it.
We had a long wait, but the doors finally opened, and we found our seats.
We had expected this show to be an expansion of the play we had seen several times at Disney’s California Adventure, but it was somewhat different. We were especially fortunate because we saw the original Genie, James Monroe Iglehart, in one of his last performances before he left the show. We enjoyed it very much, and now we can say we’ve seen a real Broadway show!

Next week: Worship at the Brooklyn Tabernacle on Sunday morning.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

NYC Part IV - Holy Ground

Last week, I described our bus tour of the city. This week, our visit to the 9-11 memorial.

The Big Bus stopped about three blocks from the 9-11 memorial. Everyone disembarked with us, and we made our way through the ice and slush and wind toward One World Trade Center in the distance. Because of our tight schedule, we had no time to go up in the tower, nor did we have time to visit the museum. They’re on the list for our next tip.
We heard the sound of water before we reached the plaza. We approached the pools and were moved by the many names engraved deeply into the granite. Here and there, a flower had been placed into the deep groove of a letter—a reminder of the families and friends of those who were lost and who continue to miss them. The footprints of the original towers struck me as enormous. The sound of water cancels out the sounds of the city as it falls from the outer rim to pound onto a second level. Then it flows into a small, square pool, where it finally drops into an abyss at the bottom and disappears from sight. Just as the towers fell and disappeared. Holy ground.

Larry circled the pools while I remembered the events of the day as if it had been the day before. We woke early and turned on the TV as usual to see the weather and traffic reports. Suddenly, the local feed shifted to the national news. Behind the reporters, smoke billowed from one of the towers. They announced a small plane had crashed into it. The incident was believed to be an accident—until another plane hit the second tower. I turned to Larry. “We’re at war.”

I watched as first responders rushed to the scene, and then as the towers crumbled. I remember the ‘ghosts’ who ran from the disaster covered in ash. Specific images of people remain vivid in my memory. I kept waiting for an announcement about a movie being filmed, hoping against hope this was a joke. It wasn’t.

As I stood next to a pool reading the names, it began to rain. Larry said it was just the spray from the falling water, but I was sure God’s tears blended with my own. Sacred space.
We headed back toward the bus stop. As we turned, I spotted an enormous structure next to the museum. From the end, it looked like a giant dove, whose wings consisted of thin concrete ribs. We were freezing and decided to step inside to warm up. The interior resembled a giant cathedral. Between the ribs, large glass panels revealed the surrounding buildings. We have been to the Crystal Cathedral in southern California several times. This space reminded me of the church. The sides of the interior met in a tall pointed arch.
As we looked down, we noticed a stage. We found it easy to imagine a concert in the space. The lower floor was lined with shops and stores. Two more levels rose along the sides. We found our way to the next floor down and followed it around to the exit closest to our next stop. We discovered this building, known as the Oculus, is actually the transportation center for the memorial site. Although no trains were running, this soon will be visitors’ introduction to the memorial. Beautiful, functional art.

Before we left, I wanted to visit St. Paul’s Chapel, George Washington’s church. I had read about this special location. It survived several major catastrophes untouched to become a source of comfort for survivors and first responders. For weeks following September eleventh, those working on the site were fed here. They slept in the sanctuary and found comfort from the congregation and clergy.
On our way, we passed the graveyard. The fence surrounding it was used for memorials in the days following the collapse of the towers. I looked to the right and spotted one of the old headstones in three pieces. I immediately remembered my great-grandmother’s headstone in the old cemetery in Spring City, Utah. We stopped there while on our road trip in 2012. I was moved just by seeing the names of those people from whom I descend. I have inquired a couple of times about having the headstone repaired, but the person who used to do the work is no longer available. Because this is a private cemetery, I assured those I spoke with that we would be happy to pay for the restoration. When I mentioned it to my cousins, they also said they would contribute. The last I heard, it is still in pieces, just like the one at St. Paul’s.

Larry took photos of the old gravestones while I entered the chapel. A preschool class colored on the floor in the center of the sanctuary. I smiled when I realized this was the perfect image for this special place. It isn’t a dead museum. It is a living place where the congregation continues to worship and serve. Testament to faith.

We re-boarded our bus, deeply moved by our short visit. By the second stop, everyone else had left. Once again, we claimed the very front seats on the second level. Our guide turned off the microphone and moved to the seat behind us.

He shared his story of that infamous day in 2001. He lives in Brooklyn. At the time, he was attending Columbia University, just a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center. The school announced an accident in one of the towers. Unlike management in the towers themselves, those in charge told the students to evacuate the school immediately.

As he left, he saw a huge cloud of smoke and ash rise above the city streets. He headed toward the bridge and passed “ghosts” covered with ash. Since no transportation was available, he began to cross the bridge, along with many others. He said he developed a new respect for the bridge. Today he never crosses it without remembering his escape from the city. He said he loves sharing his love of the city and his experiences with visitors. I wish we had asked his name—another friendly and memorable person we met in New York.

Sacred space. Holy ground. Divine locations. We are still processing their emotional impacts.

Next week: Our night on Broadway.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

NYC Part III - Bus Tour

Last week, I continued the story of our NYC adventure. This week, I share our few hours of free time in the city.

We woke early in hopes of seeing Kim before she and her group left for the day. Their choir group (over 230 members) was divided into “family groups”’ of about twelve. For some reason, we were assigned to a different group than Kim. (At the time, it felt like a mistake, but subsequent events proved we were exactly where we belonged. Why am I still surprised when these things happen?)

When I texted Kim, we found she and her friend, Maribeth, were at a nearby restaurant eating breakfast. We decided to get oatmeal at the Starbucks in the hotel lobby so we wouldn’t miss her when she returned.

On her way in, she picked up our envelopes with all our credentials and tickets for the following two days. (Since we missed the meet-and-greet the previous evening, we hadn’t received ours.) Thank goodness, she knew who had them, so we were finally “official.”

Each family group was assigned a mission project before they left Texas. When we signed up, we decided to pass up this opportunity in order to do a few hours of sightseeing. (To be honest, the nature of the projects wasn’t described, and I was afraid of straining my bad knee if too much walking was required.)

After we bid farewell to Kim and the others, we went to the concierge desk to inquire about a bus tour of the city. With limited time, this seemed the best option.

When we got there, another group was busy with their plans, so we had to wait. Within a couple of minutes, we were joined by another guest. I nearly always talk to people when standing in line (to Larry’s eternal embarrassment). So, I struck up a conversation. This fellow bore a striking resemblance to one of our colleagues from Universal Studios, now sadly passed away.

I don’t remember exactly how the conversation drifted to Japan—possibly because of the USJ logo on the back of our jackets. It turned out this man had spent his earliest years in Takarazuka where we lived while in Japan. His family had moved to Chiba where one of our Japanese students lived. He worked for a steel company and now lived in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Our time in line passed quickly thanks to Nose (pronounced “no-say”). We always enjoy talking about our time as expats, and he was most interested.

When the concierge was finally available, we booked tickets on the hop-on-hop-off Big Bus tour of the city.
Most people aren’t aware of what an architecture junkie I am. Had I not been an English major, I might have studied the subject in college. Manhattan has one of the most amazing arrays of styles anywhere on the planet. And I was in heaven.
As we reached the stop, a new bus arrived. We were able to get the very front seats on the upper deck. All glass in front of us afforded an unobstructed view of the city. Even though the day was a bit overcast, we still had a great view.

I nearly had to pinch myself as we drove the streets and passed famous landmarks. A couple of blocks from the bus stop, I looked down to see the marquee of the Knickerbocker Hotel. I’d read stories of this place, and now we were there.
I have always loved deco style, and directly ahead of the bus, stood the Chrysler Building, every bit as beautiful as its photos.
I recognized landmarks, like the Empire State Building and the Flatiron Building, long before our tour guide identified them. He gave us a wonderful overview of the city and its history. For a couple of history buffs, his enthusiasm and knowledge were most welcome.

We traveled through Chinatown, the neighborhood of iron buildings with their ornate railings (reminiscent of those we had seen in New Orleans and Melbourne, Australia), Times Square, Wall Street, and all the other famous areas of the city. I was actually there, after all the years of wanting to visit! And we had met more friendly, smart, and welcoming New Yorkers.

Next week: standing on Holy Ground.