Monday, October 1, 2012

The Stinky Pit of Liberty

My daughter had passed through second grade where the introduction to American History began.  The next year, as she was showing some interest in the topic in general and these locations specifically, we planned to take her to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island for her birthday.

The day coincided with a school holiday, allowing a mid-week trip to the islands lying just off of our state’s shore.

The nearby location suggested that we would have an easily accessible, fun and educational day journey.

And we certainly did…


Internet research suggested massive crowd levels, instructing visitors to be sure to book well in advance to have any access at all.  Arriving early was also a must due to security lines reported to last hours.

With maintenance scheduled to close the statue the next month, and very limited visitation allowances even when open, the first available time slot to climb the steps to the crown would have been shortly after Charlton Heston was scheduled to kneel in front of its buried remains and curse the human race.  Therefore we set our sights a little lower.

There were also no tickets available to visit the base unless we took the very last ferry of the day, which would not allow any time to visit Ellis Island.  We resigned ourselves to buying ferry tickets on-line for seeing the Ellis museum, and wandering around Liberty Island to view the Lady from below, while meta-planning to plan much further ahead next time we wanted to go.

My sister often visited the Liberty Science Center, and with agreeing directions both from her, and on-line, we piled into our car after birthday morning breakfast and began our journey.  Talky Tina, the GPS, was also plugged in as a backup, but we had to make a guess at the appropriate address, since the website suggested using what sounded much more like the location of a restaurant than a ferry dock.

We left (for once) with plenty of time to make our destination.  As we cruised down Route 287, whenever we hit a typical patch of New Jersey morning traffic (somewhere between “Continually” and “Every six feet”) my mantra, mostly under my breath,  would become:

“We’re screwed, we’re screwed, we’re screwed…” 

The conglomerations of cars had cancelled any possibility of us being “way early,” as we worked our way across the state.  However, there was still no danger of being tardy.  Both sets of directions indicated the need to get off at the exit right past the airport.  However, both of them also clearly neglected to mention the fact that the exit forks. 

Insulted at being snubbed, the GPS refused to provide help.  A panicked and rapid call to my sister was equally useless, and she was far too busy laughing at my wife and l, who she claimed sounded exactly like our parents when they got lost.  Having passed the New Jersey driver’s behind us limits of patience (0.026 seconds) I was forced to make a choice, figuring a quick u-turn would be in our future if it was the wrong selection.

This was the point where the GPS elected to take its brutal revenge.  Instead of pointing us toward the nearest U-turn once it was obvious I had chosen the wrong fork, it instead steered us into the loop that runs around Newark Airport.  To keep our hopes up, it constantly promised a hard left turn only fifty feet ahead, which would then vanish in an evil flash of recalculating.  I gave up, hurling several un-birthday like words at the small, vile screen, and pulled out of the loop at random hoping that would force a helpful and accurate recalculation. Now truly outraged, the rotten little guidance computer put us on the New Jersey Turnpike…HEADING IN THE WRONG DIRECTION.

Exits are very far apart on that section of the Turnpike, and we went ten miles through Jersey City before we could reverse course.  Not content with shooting us off in the wrong direction, it positioned our return not on the quickly moving freeway it had tricked us into entering, but on Martin Luther King Boulevard.  I don’t care what city you are driving in, Martin Luther King Boulevard is NEVER going to be a fast and free moving roadway.

Now clearly late, we slowly (the car) and loudly (me) worked our way back to the town we should have been in moments after choosing the correct fork off the exit after the airport.  Passing through a populated area, a postage stamp sized sign pointed in a different direction than the GPS was telling us to go. Still mid rant, I stated my exact opinion of the ability of the GPS and started following the signs…

Which of course stopped appearing a few short blocks later. 

Neither the GPS, nor my wife wished to speak to me at this point, yet somehow we managed to reopen communications and end up driving toward the proper street.  Following a couple of incorrect parking lots, we left the car near an antique locomotive and ventured into the Ferry Station - or whatever it’s called.

I planned to work our way through the expected massive crowds on the security line, and then beg and grovel to be able to buy a ticket for a later ferry.  My worst fears were confirmed when I saw the box office area was completely empty. To my mind, this indicated that all tickets were sold out for the rest of the day.

As is frequently the case, my mind was completely wrong. 

I handed the ticket booth guy our internet papers and explained the situation.  I did leave out the whole “our GPS hates me” angle.  He said, “No problem, take the next one.”

Then he gave back our passes with some other papers. Looking at them revealed they were tickets to enter the base of the statue.  I pointed out that we only ordered the island tickets and he explained that they were the same price and not to worry about it.

Apparently there are separate on-line, and direct sales ticket quotas. That would have been handy to know earlier.

In other “handy to know earlier” news, we got through security in a matter of minutes and boarded a half full ferry.

The on-line crowd warnings were either:

1) Speaking of times school is not in session.
2) Speaking of starting from Manhattan instead of New Jersey.
3) Speaking from the point of view of the insane and paranoid.

In a perfect example of how in synch we are with each other: my wife and I both realized that, though Ellis Island was the first stop, given the time of day and the weather forecast it would make more sense to stay on the ferry and experience the statue, then circle back to Ellis.  In an even more perfect example of how in synch we are with each other: we both forgot this idea when the boat stopped and got off at Ellis Island, only mentioning it to each other later when we were having lunch.

They had certainly fixed up the immigration museum since I went there in fifth grade. The main evidence of this being that the place didn’t look like it would collapse on my head if I breathed too hard. Each room was set up with displays detailing what went on in that section of the building.  For a minimal fee, guests could get headphones to listen to recorded information.  I would have gladly paid more than a minimal fee to get those over focused buffoons to pay attention to the fact that there were other people in the freakin’ room with them.

Interestingly, the item that made the biggest impact on my wife and daughter was the little hook thing used to look under people’s eyelids.  Both were grossed out for days.

In our explorations, we stumbled upon the "Bob Hope" library. I thought it was cool that they named it after one of our most famous immigrants who did so much for the troops. Apparently, not everyone felt that way (including the National Parks people) which may explain why we had to stumble upon it to know about it at all.

Lunch was tasty, and while poking around in the gift shop we saw a ferry pull in, causing us to dash out to catch it…and learn about those two sets of boat’s, one from Jersey and one from Manhattan

The ferry we ran for wasn’t going anywhere helpful, but it did allow us to experience the first poorly timed thunderstorm of the day.  We experienced it from under an awning that had gaps in its roof clearly designed by someone unclear on island wind patterns, New Yorker’s temperaments, or the purpose of awnings in general.

Eventually the sky cleared as we boarded the ferry that came to bring us to Liberty Island. Just like the first ride, we immediately climbed to the uncovered top to experience the trip, the views, and the cool windblown boatness feeling, unique to that form of travel.

In another area that has changed since my fifth grade visit, security was at frightening proportions.  ALL bags, backpacks, and possibly unruly children had to be left in lockers within the gigantic screening tent before the statue proper was approached. 
Also before beginning on our stair climbing based adventure, my daughter was handed a kid’s “Ranger Book” promising - if the questions were filled out correctly - she would receive a park ranger badge.  The answers to the questions could primarily be found in the relatively new, informative, and interestingly stocked historical museum that now resides in the base.

We now pause for an aside:

I absolutely HATE those kinds of questionnaires.  Some museums now supply them, but they are more often connected with class trips.  I am a huge fan of both human and natural history museums.  They are places of exploration, wonderment and discovery.  The variety of exhibits, especially in large museums (e.g. New York’s AMNH, Denver’s Science and Nature Museum, Several of D.C.s Smithsonian) will contain something that will capture the imagination of almost any child visiting when left to their own devices.  These exhibits will then be viewed at the pace the child is comfortable with, possibly leading to reading the attached information or even further research after the trip.  The questionnaires tend to be focused on minutia in the descriptions on the plaques.  Therefore what could be a discovery filled adventure that opens the doors to new areas of interest, becomes a frantic scavenger hunt where the descriptions are searched, but not read, while the exhibits themselves are ignored.  Therefore, I apologize to all teachers for ruining your plans, but when I see groups of kids looking down at all the plaques while ignoring things up to and including dinosaurs above them I will quickly and quietly provide the location or information of any answer I know to allow them to experience the place as it should be. Art Museums and Zoos are not safe from me displaying this behavior either, becuase all of these places are like second homes to me (Thanx, Mom and Dad!)

OK, it was more of a rant than an aside…back to the Statue.

We all skimmed through the book of questions ahead of time, to allow us to experience the museum properly. This way we could stop to fill-in answers when we recognized them, rather than hunt for them to the exclusion of all education and interest. (Sorry, am I ranting again?)

Once done with the exhibits, some more stairs brought us to the balcony around the top of the pedestal.  We took in the excellent and beautiful views of Manhattan and the surrounding areas. 

We also looked…well, basically up Lady Liberty’s skirt.  This viewing included a fabulous view of her underarm. The latter prompted my daughter to exclaim the title of this essay.

Before heading down, I tried to help my child finish the booklet.  My dislike of the system in general began to show, and we were both tired, causing frustration to rule our little corner of the balcony.  My wife had enough of my frustrations after the drive in, and climbed down the steps to the lower level on the way to the exit.  She did this for several reasons:

A)  Since she wanted to take pictures of us peeking over the balcony, she needed to get below us.

B)  Since she was not blinded by a hatred of museum questionnaires, she read the blurb on the inside cover stating that only a couple of pages had to be finished.  Some of those pages were things like, “What is your favorite part of the park?” and “What state are you visiting from?”  This meant we had long since passed the point of badgeness.

C)  Since she wasn’t busy focusing on answering unneeded questions, she noticed the large dark, hand of death shaped thunderclouds steaming our way over the New York skyline, and figured we should hurry down. 

Back on terra firma, we recovered our bags, asked where to get the badge and set about taking requisite pictures in front of the statue before the storm came all the way in.  Pausing only for me to chase frantically after my windblown cap, yielding gales of laughter from my family amid the gales of actual wind, we quickly but thoroughly explored the ground sights of Liberty Island.

An almost final dash got us into the gift shop before the rain started pummeling down.  Unfortunately, after a bit of shopping, we figured out that the ranger station with the badges did not directly connect to the building we were in.  Therefore a final and saturatingly wet dash was needed to procure the well-earned badge.

The rain continued as we waited for, and clambered upon the ferry home, prompting us to stay on the middle level, instead of on the uncovered top where we preferred to ride.  The rain stopped almost immediately as we set off, allowing us to wander to the exposed back section of the boat.  Our appearance came just as the ferry switched from backing out of the pier to full speed ahead.  This shift in motion drove the entire contents of the rain soaked upper deck down the stairs directly next to us in an enormous, gushing cascade.  Luckily, running through puddles roughly the size of Lake Ontario to reach the ranger station meant that our shoes couldn’t possibly get any wetter.

We stopped on the way back for our daughter’s birthday dinner and a candled dessert at her favorite place, The Blackthorn. After a bit more directional chaos as both I and the GPS were unsure where it lie on route 46 relative to Route 287. Finally it was time to head home to open presents, wring ourselves out and get some rest before returning to the normal levels of chaos and confusion in our lives- albeit with delightful and historically influenced piles of good memories, and some thoughts and plans for next year's adventure.

No comments: