Always Look on the Bright Side
I have reached the nadir of parenting. Because of my influence, my nine-year-old son was punished at school. This was no sin of omission (forgetting to pack a lunch or not ensuring that homework was done). No… I committed the grievous sin of exposing my son to the bright lights and battered throngs of Broadway.
Last December, word reached our household in upstate New York that Eric Idle and friends were bringing an adaptation of Monty Python and the Holy Grail to Broadway. I gingerly approached my wife. “Perhaps our only child, light of our lives, is ready to have his world view altered forever? And maybe not in a good way? Besides, it would be a good excuse to visit New York City.” He had never been to that big city. Her memories of the film were not positive, so she hesitated to introduce our child to “Bring out your dead”, and “I fart in your general direction!” I countered that those particular lines bore a striking resemblance to his current vernacular. At this point I should declare that we are not the parents you meet at The Matrix with babes in arms. We are, however, the annoying couple whispering to their child during the Buster Keaton festival at the revival theater. As a friend of mine pointed out, “He is the only child I know who does a Charlie Chaplin impression.” I like to think that was meant to be complimentary.
After consultation, we admitted that neither of us remembered the original film well enough to judge appropriateness, so I raced to the library before good sense intervened and the next night we watched a ragged videotape – all three of us. The boy’s eyes widened at every scene change until I feared that his eyeballs might drop into his lap. He asked for more. I obliged with whatever television episodes were occasionally available. He began regaling friends’ fathers with the dead parrot sketch. To mixed results, he auditioned a few Pythonesque insults for his associates. The general level of discourse among his pals seemed to be rising at any rate.
Then the local brass quintet visited his school, performing a variety of tunes, including a Sousa march or two. The musicians toured the classrooms. Our son buttonholed the French horn player and pointed out that one of the marches was the theme song to the Monty Python show. The artist mentioned to his teacher that no nine-year-old had ever recognized the tune. The teacher was proud. The boy was proud. I was just relieved that the teacher was not calling child services, perhaps resulting in a truly frightening experience channeling Franz Kafka via John Cleese.
Thus, my wife and I introduced the idea of visiting New York City and seeing Spamalot on Broadway to much enthusiasm. My brother got wind of the idea and we agreed to merge vacations. We managed to get five seats together on the appropriate Tuesday evening in the upper balcony. Tuesday evening seemed wise since the show began an hour early and the distance from the stage seemed wise depending on the graphic nature of the Black Knight sequence (if you’ve seen the movie, then you can understand the thought processes; otherwise, let’s just say that I envisioned blood spurting into the fourth row—once again, let me reiterate that we, as parents, thought this through). The tickets soon arrived, including a brightly colored note reminding us that the show started at 7 p.m.
We made reservations at the Sheraton Suites on the Hudson, hoping to save some money by staying on the Jersey side and taking the ferry to public transportation. Arriving on Saturday evening, exhausted from the monumental tasks of trip preparation and long distance driving, we looked across the river and caught skyscrapers in our eyes. The setting sun reflected off their shining visages and we could not wait until Sunday to visit. Alas, the ferry, which departed from “steps outside the hotel’s door”, actually did not run on weekends. Surprise! Alackaday! The hotel grumpily ran a shuttle service to Port Imperial, a few minutes away by van. We settled on having dinner in the city where everyone ate late anyway.
Let’s Take Manhattan
The ferry fee (approximately $12 roundtrip per person) put a definite dent in the reasonableness of not driving into the city. A half hour later, we were deposited on 42nd Street by the ferry bus, which we would somehow catch at the end of the night for the return to the boat terminal. We wandered through the gathering masses queued for The Producers and Phantom of the Opera. We stopped and contemplated the Schubert Theatre with its promising Spamalot edifice. Emerging into Times Square, our son stopped in his tracks—this was the definition of the big city. His eyes said, “Everything happens here.” We paid homage to the four corners of the Square: Hershey’s, Toys R Us, the southern multi-story projection screens, and construction.
The crowd was massive and we moved across streets in waves. A friendly policeman stood beside his horse, trading quips with passersby. The boy greeted the horse, not the man. We aimed for the restaurant Mars 2112, an attempt at mixing dinner with entertainment, an attempt doomed to failure and recrimination. Apparently, Mars in the future features Southwestern cuisine matched with predictable shipping difficulties on the spice front. I spent the meal trying to decode the performance art that will be Martian newscasts in a century. Our son thought it was really cool, so we were liable to eat there again.
After dinner, we walked and walked back to the ferry terminal, expecting the magical mystery ferry bus to roll up and save our feet for the rest of our vacation. None of us whined, but we were notably silent after fifteen blocks. Back at Port Imperial in New Jersey, we followed the directions that had been given to us and phoned the hotel to request the shuttle retrieve us. Unfortunately, the number provided kicked into a frightening unanswered ringing. On the third attempt, some benevolent soul answered the telephone and we were eventually saved from the slowly dropping temperature.
Why has that turtle tackled the other one?
The next morning, we headed for Central Park via Port Imperial, tempting fate and annoying the shuttle driver. Our secondary goal was to master the subway system prior to my brother’s arrival. The ferry buses deposited us on 58th Street and we meandered to the Central Park Zoo. The weather was hot, it was Sunday, and the park was crowded. Even so, the zoo exceeded expectations. Spring was in the air and the turtles and the otters were mating.
No joy could compare to watching as parents approached the otter enclosure with children in tow. Mothers’ faces contorted as the lights of their lives loudly inquired with regard to the otters and their unusual noises. “They’re playing, precious dear.” “I’ve never heard an otter make that noise before!” Our son, wise beyond his years, tried to help: “They’re mating!” Precious children looked to their mommies quizzically. Those mothers of prevention looked at me as if I had single-handedly torn years of moral foundation out from beneath their parenting. I smiled and shrugged, having expected a little more sophistication in the big city. Those poor, bewildered offspring somehow kept their arms in their shoulder sockets as they were dragged away. I loved the zoo.
Discovering ourselves dehydrated and starving, we wandered up to Fifth Avenue and stumbled upon a parade of visiting police officers. We bought hot dogs and water and plopped down on a bench to watch. The spectacle was delightfully short, featuring roadblocks, bagpipes and countless blue shirts.
Was that our stop?
The time arrived to take the subway- our goal was ice cream at a place named Serendipity. We were hot and wanted to rest. We combined a lack of M.T.A. knowledge with a tiny map torn from the back of a guidebook. The express train which we boarded deposited us in Queens where we followed the pack onto another likely train, amazed that everyone else also had to make a u-turn in order to get to their destination. It was a Sunday. Maybe we were not the only tourists in New York City? We were however the only tourists on that train proceeding deeper into Queens. We spent an extra half hour on our ice cream quest, but finally emerged at the proper location. My wife stopped at the tollbooth on the way out of the subway station, “I don’t suppose you have a map of the system?”
“Not even a little map with the expresses on it or something?”
“There’s this,” says the operator, holding up a large map with all the lines marked in legible print and housing a schedule at the bottom.
“That looks great!”
“I don’t think you want it. It doesn’t have all the Olympic stuff marked on it. We’re going to be getting new ones.”
“No, really, that’ll be fine.”
“You should wait for the new one.”
“We need it now.”
“All right, but you’re going to want the new one.”
Suzanne pulled the map from the operator’s reluctant fingers.
We emerged into sunlight, bearing the map and a newfound love of daylight.
Naturally, everyone else in the city had decided to have ice cream, creating an hour and a half wait for a bowl of frozen manna. We turned tail and headed to Dylan’s Candy Bar, which we also planned to visit. And they had ice cream! And it was delicious! We bought candy. We were happy again.
Refreshed, we decided that we must master the subway system in one afternoon and headed for the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art in Soho. My companions eyed me suspiciously when I selected our train, but we arrived at the Broadway-Lafayette station without incident. Even so, I was dogged by “is this an express” questions for the rest of our visit.
MoCCA was one room sparsely decorated with comic strip art. I liked the stuff and they were showing a cool documentary about Winsor McKay. The two gentlemen there were nice, but I wanted something more like a museum than a clubhouse. It was clean and they had a bathroom. Scholastic, the publisher of every book that nine-year-olds read, operates an under-stocked bookstore nearby. We went and looked and departed. We successfully navigated the subway back to 42nd Street, where the NJ Transit buses never appeared and we made the end-of-day trek to the ferry amid some complaint.
A Good Rest
My brother and nephew met us at the Sheraton. Their dining room proved to serve nice meals overlooking landfill construction. Afterwards, we divvied up the two beds, sleeper sofa, and floor so that no one was comfortable, but everyone found some sleep. Then the telephone started ringing, as the front desk clerk believed we had engaged in surreptitious bathroom flooding. The people below us were drowning. I crawled over bodies in the dark and stepped into the bathroom, sliding across the floor. Water was pouring from the ceiling. I quietly expressed my own concerns to the woman on the telephone. She waited until we had all fallen back to sleep in order to call back and apologize for her earlier rudeness. Staring at the ceiling, I seriously considered a change of venue.
For Monday, we had all decided to visit the American Museum of Natural History. I attempted to show off my newfound mastery of the subway system and only sent us a few stops too far on an express. No one complained, but I felt their eyes on me as we passed the Museum stop for the first time.
The mineral collection was served with solemnity in dim light and church service whispers. The diamonds radiated and the uranium glowed. Various cultures were successfully displayed in manners that inspired shock and awe. Massive Olmec heads resided one story above an auditorium filled with huge totem poles. Walking into each animal room was a venture into a frozen zoo. Even so, AMNH was all about the dinosaurs. The main entrance defined the experience as an Allosaurus and a Barosaurus towered over visitors. Years ago, the film Jurassic Park drove all images of Gertie the friendly sauropod from my mind. In that wake, the massive diorama above me seemed more stark and volatile than my childhood visits had ever allowed dinosaurs to be.
Dinner was at the Jekyll and Hyde restaurant, four floors of animatronics, horrific actors, and exceptional décor, an experience unequaled in cheesiness or culinary mediocrity. The conceit of the place was of a horror club where you dine among the denizens. We ate on the second floor, the library. The walls were lined with book spines from old bestsellers, not the promised arcane works of lost masters. The floor show was vaguely entertaining. A sign near the exit listed the performers and thanked Actors’ Equity. In retrospect, that should have been a two way street. It was also conceivable that the cooks had stepped out and were performing on the stage that night because they certainly were not performing in the kitchen. My penchant for encouraging my son’s inclination for theme restaurants was sated. No more.
Not How to Do It
Tuesday was theoretically a day of rest until the show that night. We opted out of my brother’s forced march across the Brooklyn Bridge in order to keep our plans simple: lunch in Chinatown, side trip to Battery Park for a look at the Statue of Liberty, and then to 42nd Street for dinner. We wandered into Chinatown, only to be overwhelmed by restaurants, some deserted, some unappealing. Driven by hunger, my wife took to asking shopkeepers for recommendations. Finally, a grandmotherly type suggested the place around the corner. Xo looked small, but had expanded wherever possible on the inside. We ate in the former alley cum patio. The food was delicious and slightly exotic in an American way. We tried various pronunciations for the restaurant’s name, but ultimately the owner told us that it was simply “X-O”. I wish we had asked where the name originated.
Misreading the subway map took us on a circuitous route to Battery Park, including an odd transfer to Broadway-Lafayette Street station, which had apparently been moved since Sunday. Three women departing a hairstylists’ convention were the only other occupants of our final subway car. The conductor, in a burst of extroversion, sat with us and chatted about good tourists spots, which he had never visited. Battery Park was torn apart, but the construction workers were at rest. The Statue of Liberty shimmered in the afternoon haze.
We returned to Times Square early for dinner, selecting to shop indiscriminately. We stumbled upon Bryant Square and the New York Public Library. Aaron stood between the lions, lost in reverie. I photographed him surrounded by real New Yorkers, relaxing in their urbane je ne sais quoi.
On my brother’s recommendation, we dined at John’s Pizzeria across the street from the theater. The pizza was delicious. We were hot. There was beverage. We ordered dessert. We stumbled out into the empty street and pulled our show tickets from our pocket.
If you were at Spamalot that night, let me apologize to you. We were those people, the ones sprinting into the theater, up the stairs, up the stairs again, up more stairs, and then pausing to breathe at the highest point on Broadway. Cringing, we made our way carefully to our seats and collapsed. The show had just begun, but it took my wife and me a half hour to relax enough to enjoy it. Our son was enthralled from the moment his eyes focused on the stage.
Always Look on the Bright Side
This was the reason for our trip to New York City. We had been reading about the show for a month. Naturally, we had been talking Monty Python the whole time. We already were the sort of people who knew the Tim Curry oeuvre, the Hank Azaria voice-overs, and the David Hyde Pierce world of creations. If you’ve seen any Monty Python movies, then you know the sort of people that we are. You either love us or try not to look us in the eye when you pass by at the supermarket.
The show was funny, offensive, creative, and enjoyable…and it ended a little more than two hours later. The Grand-Guignol was not emulated. We bought attire and coconuts that we treasure. We took to saying, “Fetchez la vache!”
The next day, we headed to Metropolitan Museum of Art, which we wandered through randomly, pretending that we were at our leisure. We saw a small portion of the museum, but I discovered an odd penchant in myself for the humor of Max Ernst. Who’d’ve thought? He was the Terry Gilliam of his day. We ate at a wonderful seafood restaurant off Times Square called Blue Fin. If you go, leave the back way and you’ll find yourself submerged.
Still, Spamalot lingers for all of us. Coconuts pound rhythmically in my wake when I least expect them. A little rude French lingers in our vocabularies. And the boy, sitting quietly in class, not quite concentrating on his work, began laughing at memories of the show. According to the needs of the class, his laughter needed to stop. He spent the rest of the school day seated by himself, still entertained by Tim Curry et al, his internal life all the better for it.
Would I change the decision to see the show?
In retrospect, we should have stayed on the New Jersey PATH line and saved significant money on the ferry fees. When we return (and we will) we are far more likely to arrive at our destinations directly based on improved subway navigation, as long as we don’t leave another ten-year gap between visits. This was our first vacation without alternating rest days with active days. That was a mistake. We all loved Times Square and wandering around the city, which means that we should plan more localized rambles in individual neighborhoods while pausing at occasional oases. I would not exchange the continuing conversations and the shared experiences for all the Spam in Camelot.