“There it is! New York City,” Zach announced as our plane emerged from a cloud. Manhattan sparkled like a jewell in the shimmering setting of New York harbor. Sophie and Julia leaned forward, straining their seat belts, to get a glimpse of the island bristling with skyscrapers.
It was Grandkids Week. New York was the destination for the 2013 annual event for our three older grandkids: Sophie, 13, Julia, 11, sisters who live in Northern Virginia, and Zach, 8, our oldest grandson from Minneapolis. At Disney World the year before, the kids got along well and we, grandparents known to them as Mimi and Grandad, relished the time with these most amazing children.
The kids took in the panorama of Manhattan from our taxi as we crossed high bridges over the East River onto the FDR Highway, headed south along the East River, bucked crosstown traffic on Central Park South, and arrived at our apartment for a week in Midtown.
After lunch from a food truck, we walked past the colorful flags and art deco towers at Rockefeller Center, elegant show windows on Fifth Avenue, the Gothic steeples of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and the glamour of the Plaza Hotel. Dinner was at Dylan’s Candy Bar, a three-story emporium of sweets where rooms were the colors of sherbert and door moldings were extruded cake decorations.
While Mimi went to the counter for burgers, fries and sandwiches, I told the kids, “I came to New York when I was younger than you, Sophie, and a little older than you, Julia. And I didn’t come with my family or relatives.”
“I thought you were a poor kid, Grandad. You’ve told us stories about eating beans, delivering newspapers, and working all those jobs,” said Sophie.
“Yeah, Grandad, and don’t tell us you came to this big city alone. We know better than that,” added Julia. I had occasionally tested their gullibility with tall tales about my childhood.
“I didn’t come alone. I was with 25 other boys and three young men.”
“Were you on a school field trip?” asked Zach.
“No, you’ll never guess. I was one of 25 newspaper delivery boys who won a contest. The top prize was a three-day trip to New York,” I said. I had their full attention although candy beckoned after they ate a reasonable amount of their dinner..
“What kind of contest, Grandad?” asked Julia.
“To win, we had to sign up 35 new customers to pay to have the paper tossed on their porch every day. Every Saturday for two months, I knocked on the doors of people who were not already customers on my paper route, and asked them to subscribe.”
“How old were you?” asked Sophie.
“Twelve. In the eighth grade. When the door opened, I started talking, told them I was trying to win a trip to New York City, and they could make it possible for me to see Grand Central Station and the Statue of Liberty by letting me deliver the newspaper to them. Then it was only forty-two cents per week.”
“Your parents were OK with you going to New York?” said Zach.
“Yeah, I don’t know why, but my Dad thought it was a great idea and Mom went along with him,” I replied. “I was surprised.” I pondered what in the world my parents were thinking. I couldn’t explain it.
Mimi broke the silence, “Tell them about the trip.”
“We took the train from Union Station in Columbus at 6 o’clock at night. Dad, Mom, Kathy, and Grandmother came to see me off. After putting Mom’s brown, plaid suitcase on the rack, I sat by the window and waved. The conductor said ‘All aboard’ just like in the movies.”
“Did you know the other boys?” asked Julia.
“Nope, and I didn’t know the men in charge. They were both named Jim, one much taller than the other; we called them Big Jim and Little Jim. They worked for the newspaper at the buildings where delivery boys picked up their bundle of papers, rolled them so they could be thrown, stuffed them in canvas shoulder bags, and tossed them on porches.”
“So you had some adult supervision. I knew it,” asserted Julia.
My roommate, Bobby Keaton, and I sat together on the train. He was two years older and lived in the Bottoms on the west side of Columbus near the river. Before we got very far from Columbus, Bobby stood, ‘I need a smoke. I’m going to find the god damned smoking car.’ I tried to not look surprised and nodded.”
“Did you have a bed on the train?” asked Sophie.
“No, just our seats, but it’s easy to sleep on trains. They rock gently, and the sound of the wheels is like a lullaby. It’s hard not to fall asleep on a train. When we stopped at Pittsburg, I woke up and saw people right outside the window on the brightly lit platform. I pulled the shade down and went back to sleep until the sun rose somewhere in New Jersey.”
Zach interrupted my reverie. “Can we get candy, now?” Dollar limits were set and the kids picked up candy bars and bags of sweets and returned them when other goodies caught their eye. Mimi set a time limit. Back at the apartment, Julia asked if the Empire State Building had been built when I first came to New York.
“Yes, I think it opened in the 1930s. We went to the observation deck at the top. I remember the bars and screens to prevent throwing anything. I was into balsa wood gliders then and wondered how far one might fly from the tallest building in the world. We’re going tomorrow. The elevators are fast. You have to swallow to keep your ears from popping.”
“Yikes!” Julia made a face and held her ears.
“You’ll be OK. You can see the Hudson and East Rivers, New Jersey and Long Island. Be sure to take your camera.”
“The newspaper put us in the Roosevelt Hotel. It was already old in the 1950s. It impressed us youngsters from the Midwest with a uniformed doorman and bellhops like we’d seen in movies, lots of dark wood, burgundy carpets, gold draperies, and very high ceilings in the lobby. Bobby and I found our room that had twin beds and two wingback chairs and a view of a brick wall about ten feet away.”
“What sights did you see besides the Empire State Building,” asked Sophie.
“The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall. Do you know about them?”
Sophie looked at me blankly, but Julia said, “It’s a chorus line. High kickers, like this,” as she demonstrated with her leg extended higher than her head. “Weren’t you a little young for that?” she asked with raised eyebrows.
“Maybe, but it was fun. The real excitement started later that evening at the hotel. Bobby, who was down the hall with other newspaper boys, stuck his head in our room and said, ‘Hey! Follow me,’ and disappeared. I ran to catch him as he turned a corner and saw several guys in the hall with water balloons laughing uproariously. They stepped into a room with the windows raised, identified targets on the sidewalk, and dropped their water bombs on pedestrians five blocks below. More balloons were filled and launched. No direct hits, but several were close.”
“Did you throw any, Grandad,” asked Zach.
No, but I watched people almost get hit until someone yelled, ‘Run! The cops are coming.’ We all scurried to our rooms. In a few minutes, Big Jim banged on everyone’s door and yelled “Everyone at the elevator. Now!‘ He threatened that we would all go home on the next train if anything else happened. When he got on the elevator and the doors closed, someone snickered, someone else chuckled, and soon everyone was laughing, but no more water balloons were dropped.”
“You guys were terrible!” said Sophie in a schoolmarm’s voice. “Tell us what other trouble you got into, Grandad.”
“Bobby and I had were hungry. The doorman told us to go to a deli where we could get a coney, rueben or pastrami for a few dollars. We didn’t know he was talking about. Fortunately the deli had pictures behind the counter, and I was comfortable with a Coney Island hot dog and Bobby opted for a roast beef on rye.”
“Going to a deli was not exciting, Grandad,” said Julia. “Was that it for the night?”
“We decided to walk a while. The lights of the city were bright and the sidewalks were full of interesting people. Before long we were in Greenwich Village and then Chinatown. I bought some souvenirs, fans for Mom and Kathy, a Yankee’s cap for Dad, and a statuette of the Empire State Building for myself. By then it was midnight and we had a long walk home.”
“Pick up the pace, Grandad. These kids aren’t going to stay up after midnight. It’s almost bedtime,” said Mimi.
“OK, on the next day, we walked as a group to Green Line pier on the Hudson River. After an ocean liner was nudged up the river by several tug boats, our tour boat churned to the middle of the river. The profile of the Midtown skyline was punctuated by the Empire State Building. The day before we had looked at boats on the Hudson from there; now tourists were looking at us.”
“Zach, put these pajamas on while Grandad goes on and on. We’ll be in trouble if your Mama finds out you were up past your bedtime,” said Mimi.
“Anyway, the boat took us to Ellis Island. We took the elevator to the head of the Statue of Liberty and walked up the arm on steps into the crown. It was windy and a little scary. We could still see the Empire State Building.” Mimi was frowning at me, so I hurried on. “We rode the subway to Central Park, visited the zoo, and walked through the park and back to the Roosevelt Hotel. The train left early in the morning so everyone had to be in the lobby by 8 pm and stay in the hotel. No long walks that night.”
“Neat story, Grandad,” said Zach. Sophie and Julia agreed.
“I can’t believe your parents let you go to New York City when you were only 12,” added Julia shaking her head.
After we returned home from the trip, I pulled down the dusty shoebox where I keep old souvenirs from the top shelf of the closet where it had been for years. I planned to show them to the grandkids on their next visit. Stubs from my Pennsylvania Railroad train ticket, a brochure from the Green Line, subway tokens, an ashtray from the Roosevelt Hotel, and my Empire State Building statuette were all there.
I also found a New York postcard showing the Empire State Building. The handwriting was not mine, but very familiar. It was addressed to “Mom, Ed, and Billy” and signed “Bob.” I realized these were from my Dad to his mom and brothers. The one cent stamp was postmarked April 3, 1933. Dad would have been 12 years old. The last sentence said, “PS. Mom, thanks for encouraging me to sign up enough customers so I could come to New York with other paperboys. I’ve had a fun time.”
Good, old Dad. He wanted me to have a fun time in New York City, too.