As an American the 4th of July holds a special place in my heart every year. And as one who served our country for many years as a devoted member of the Federal civilian workforce this year was no exception.
What was exceptional about this year’s celebration of our country’s Independence was that I was fortunate to spend it with family that I hadn’t seen in a very long time. This year’s festivities were spent amongst my New York roots. And meeting so many new friends that I can associate a name and a voice I could barely keep everyone straight in my mind. But spending time with some folks at a lake in the Berkshire Mountains for a change of pace was definitely a treat. My wife’s guide dog was certainly the center of attention and both of them loved every minute of it.
After we arrived, and successfully escaped LaGuardia Airport, (I’ll share some thoughts about those experiences in an upcoming blog post), my wife and I did some touristy things in the Big Apple. Like visiting three of the city’s five boroughs in one day. With the help of some MTA web sites and the expertise of my nephew’s subway savvy we were able to plan a whole day exploring in Queens, Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Our original intent was to visit the Statue of Liberty but I learned a few things about this popular tourist venue that made me alter my plans. I was hoping to actually see inside of the monument and traverse to the top. For a visually impaired person to do this proves to be somewhat challenging. The reason it is slightly difficult is not because of all the stairs one has to climb but instead the rather claustrophobic spacing and head bonking support structures on the statue’s interior. Also, after checking out some videos of people who have gone up inside the statue it was clear that visiting the monument from the outside is a much more exciting experience than doing so from within. Especially on a hot and humid summer day. In short, lots of steel, stairs and steam for not so good of a view out the tiny windows in the statue’s crown.
Now you know I’ve always got to have a Plan B so we opted to see not only the Statue of Liberty but a lot of other excellent things as well. Starting out in Queens we walked a half mile to the metro rail station where we used our paratransit cards from home to allow us to buy round trip reduced fare tickets good for the entire day. I knew we could get those deals because I had checked into it before we left home. The station attendant was very friendly and helpful as we confirmed our directions to get to 42nd street in Manhattan. Since we were at the end of the line it was very easy to find our train and boarded just before it departed. It took us about 30 minutes to make it to where we had to change trains. As I always do when in a new place I waited for the train to leave the station before getting my bearings. In this case we had to go up one level and take another short subway ride to reach our Midtown destination. It was surprisingly easy. And after confirming with one of the locals who was intrigued by my wife’s guide dog we boarded our next train. Five minutes later we began searching for the exit up to street level for the next leg of our journey.
Let’s take a moment to talk about our experience navigating the New York City subway system. As is the case with most transit systems signs can be your friends. They tell you which track is for which train and help you figure out which directions to travel. However, sometimes, as is the case in MTA’s system, many of the signs provide somewhat misleading directions. That’s why we got on trains headed in the wrong direction twice. We were lucky that in each case we were able to easily correct our travels. One thing that helped a lot was that as soon as we jumped on one train the audible announcement alerted us of our oops and we were able to quickly jump back off again. I’m sure my wife’s guide dog was wondering what her silly humans were doing.
Our adventure in Manhattan was a series of U turns but we didn’t really mind too much as we got to see more of the city that way. One of our turn around points actually wound up being at Times Square.
We walked from the 42nd Street subway station west along 42nd Street until we reached the end. That was about 5 blocks or so. The thing about NYC that I noticed is that us folks who can’t see so well must, to some extent, have to trust that the crowd of people is crossing streets safely and at the right times. That’s because at most intersections there is not a straight path to the other side because of all the motor vehicles. If we were to wait for a clear path we’d never make it to the other side of the street. So I exercised both following people and tracking the cycle of traffic lights. By taking those steps we were able to successfully navigate a huge 8 lane street near our destination at the 79th Street Pier.
Since we opted not to visit the Statue of Liberty up close we did the next best thing and took one of the narrated ferry tours that went past it. I am a big fan of narrated tours. You get to learn about a place’s history and highlights from the locals. And being visually impaired by taking narrated tours I get to enjoy things as much as everyone else.
When we made it to the place to buy our tickets we inquired as to whether they had any discounts. It never hurts to ask. It’s kind of that be careful what you wish for cause you just might get it mentality. Also, I’m a firm believer that if there’s a discount that you qualify for why not take it. As it turned out the Sightseeing Ferry company did not offer a discount for disabled folks like us but they did come up with some kind of discount and we saved $18 on our tickets. Not only that but they allowed us to wait in the VIP boarding area so we could safely board the boat first. That was nice cause we got the pick of the seats when we got on board.
On this day not only did we want to get some great views of the Statue of Liberty but we also wanted to visit a waterfront carousel in an area of Brooklyn called DUMBO. I found out about it while researching for the day trip and as soon as I mentioned it to my lovely bride she informed me that we simply had to go ride it. Fortunately for us the ferry stopped at the Brooklyn pier very near the carousel that was located under the Brooklyn Bridge. Really some great views from this stop.
The first order of business while in Brooklyn was lunch. Lured by the aroma of French fries, we opted to eat burgers, fries and shakes just a block from the Brooklyn Bridge. Even though the line to get in was out the door and down the block the cool thing was that there was a hostess outside who was able to provide us with a menu and even helped us make our choices. The venue was extremely crowded and noisy so it was difficult to sort through the sensory overload once we got inside but, again, following the crowd got us right to the counter to submit our order. The helper behind the counter asked if we needed assistance to our seats and since it was so chaotic we took her up on the offer. That was great because unlike most patrons we did not have to go get our food when it was done because she brought it to us. Since the place was so busy I’m sure the folks at the table next to us were wondering how we rated the special treatment. I’ll take perks where ever I can get them.
After a great lunch our next stop was the carousel. It was about a block and a half from where we ate. I knew the general direction so off we went. This carousel was like others in that you could hear the calliope music well before you got there. Since the carousel is nestled between the waterfront of the East River and some restored warehouse buildings we used the music as our beacon. It worked perfectly and we were able to get our tickets with no problem. This was our first time taking a guide dog on a carousel and initially we wondered not if we could do it but how. After looking at the carousel we decided right away that there would be no problem because the horses are actually attached to the floor so both the horses and floor move together as one. That meant that my wife’s guide dog could simply lay on the floor by the horse my wife was riding.
The carousel ride was fun! And we were pleased to see that we were not the only adult kids on the ride. And my wife’s guide dog enjoyed the ride as well.
On our sightseeing boat adventure around Manhattan the boat actually stopped in four locations. Although we didn’t stop this time, in the future I would like to also visit the site of the World Trade Center to pay my respects. As we sailed around the island we talked with some of the crew. They all were very friendly and helpful. Not at all like a stereotypical New Yorker might seem to many. And as is usually the case my wife’s guide dog was a conversation starter. We always want to get the best sensory experience whenever we travel or take tours so we asked them where the best place on the boat was to hear the narration as well as experience the local sounds and sights. To our delight they escorted us up to the front of the boat where I could take in some incredible views and feel the wind in my face. As a result you may notice some bad hair pictures.
After the carousel ride we decided that it was time to return to the pier so we could embark on the next leg of our exploration of the waters surrounding Manhattan. Here’s something interesting to note, almost all of the ferries look the same. And that is especially true if you don’t have the best vision in the world. The other part of that equation is that although they look the same they are not all run by the same company. So the trick is to get on the right one. Unlike some of my fully sighted peers, after I try to do things on my own, if I can’t get the results I expect, then I don’t have a problem asking questions or for directions. A lifesaving, stress reducing technique I mastered long ago.
As we waited for our ferry in the area near where we thought we should it was clear that I’d have to determine which boat was the right one. I approached one of the red shirted people who manned the pier and showed her our tickets. She advised me of the time and place to wait and promised to “watch out” for us. To put it succinctly, she didn’t. Our boat came and went and we missed it. That meant we had another hour to kill. Not ones to just stand around we decided to explore the neighborhood and waterfront a bit. After walking a few blocks we discovered…nothing. So not wanting to get too far away from the pier we did one of those U turn thingies and headed back. Since we were hot we found some water and some shade and waited while enjoying the sounds of the waterfront and the views of the city across the river. Sometimes even Plan B’s don’t work out so one must always keep a positive attitude and make the best of things.
The good news is that we were able to make it on to the next ferry. I was glad for that as the next leg of our journey around Manhattan was traveling past the Statue of Liberty. On the way, as before, we enjoyed up front and narrated views of NYC’s waterways. As we cruised past Ellis Island we learned about its critical role for countless immigrants over the years. Approaching Lady Liberty was a very emotional moment for me. Being visually impaired meant that I could never serve our country in a military sense. But, in a civilian sense I was able to do so for many years. And getting so close to this iconic landmark of our nation’s pride and freedoms really made me feel fortunate to have been able to contribute to the goals and values of our country.
Cruising past the Statue of Liberty was the last main event on our travels around New York City’s harbor. As we disembarked we made a pit stop in preparation for the subway ride back to Queens. As we walked back to the subway station we had to do one of those turn arounds because we missed the entrance into the underground. No big deal though because that gave us another chance to check out one of the many street vendors along the way.
As we retraced our route from earlier in the day we discovered that not all signs that say Queens actually mean Queens. At least not to the destination we had in mind. The great thing is that one of the locals was able to point us in the direction of the correct platform. Once there we waited for the correct train and off we went. Once on the train there was no getting lost this time as our stop was the last one on that line. And from there just a short walk back to my brother’s house.
As it turned out when we arrived the whole family was home and it being a warm and summery evening everyone was in the mood for something cold and sweet. So off we went to one of my favorite cold confections places, Ralph’s Italian Ice. The great thing in this case is they’re just down the block and around the corner. Pistachio was my pick. What a tasty and delicious way to top off our Manhattan Adventure day.