Going Off the Rails on a Crazy Train
It was Friday afternoon and we were headed south on I-95. Once we got to exit 3 we’d take route 138 east to the Kingston train station. I got my phone synced up to the Bluetooth in the truck and blasted Crazy Train. Then Todd searched on his phone and came up with Casey Jones, and on it went… rock songs with trains in them. We were gearing up for an awesome adventure. Friday night we'd take the train to New York City, then Saturday night we'd take a train to Philly, then Sunday night we'd take the train home. The objective was to do as many cool things as we possibly could with the day we had in New York and the next day in Philadelphia.
We boarded the train to New York City and watched the sun set as we rode along the picturesque Connecticut coastline.
This was the start of our Ride the Rails weekend that Todd had arranged for my birthday. It would be a whirlwind day in NYC and then the next day in Philadelphia before we got home on Sunday night. The thing that surprised me was how much our trip caught on among our facebook friends. We took pictures along the way and saved them to an album called Ride the Rails weekend. We had so many of our friends following along, which made the trip even more fun. When we arrived in New York on Friday night, we walked from Penn Station to Times Square holding hands and taking in the tall buildings, the noises, the promise of fun and adventure. We would stay at the W in Times Square.
On Saturday we planned to do New York. We booked in for a tour and for a Broadway show.
On our way to the hotel we saw a dance troupe doing something on the sidewalk near the middle of Times Square. They were yelling, doing insanely complicated looking flips that made them look like their bodies were actually made of elastic. One of them pulled me out of the crowd and had me line up with a bunch of men they’d also pulled out of the crowd. I think they were trying to get us to believe that one of them would jump over all of us in one go. But they joked around, did their handsprings and gravity defying flips. Eventually half of us were released back into the audience and they jumped over 6 of the men, all bent over at the waist. We all laughed at their jokes, ooohed at the insane flips and gasped at jumping over 6 men at once.
After we checked into the hotel we wandered over to Juniors for a late dinner and a bite of cheesecake. On the way we were accosted on every corner for a discount to this attraction or that show.
“Hey, when we leave the restaurant, let’s just go to the first thing that someone gives us a flyer for, no matter what it is, let’s just go.” And that’s how we ended up at the LOL comedy club. There were about a half dozen comedians that night and a 2 drink minimum. The comedians were OK, nothing that had me rolling on the floor laughing, but still the margeritas were good and we got in some hearty laughs.
Saturday morning we took a taxi to lower Manhattan. I had booked us in to a catacomb tour under the Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral. We sat in a room waiting for the tour to start and we watched photos looping on a TV screen in front of us. I read the facts about the cathedral, the building we were in (which used to be a school where Martin Scorcese went to school, apparently) and then I saw it.
I went to high school with a boy named Jared Lamenzo. He was a year behind me, and we were in jazz band together. He was a prodigy on the piano, and all around whiz kid. Straight As all the way, but he also had this dry humor and modesty about him that at the time I admired—and I still do. He and I are friends on Facebook, and he once posted a picture of him playing an antique pipe organ. I knew he was involved with the music program at a church in NYC. But I didn’t put 2 and 2 together until I saw him in this picture looping on the TV in front of me. I leapt out of my chair “I know that guy, we went to high school together!” And everyone else kinda looked at me like I was crazy. But that’s OK. Turns out Jared is the Music Director at this cathedral. That time he posted the picture of himself playing the organ he was talking about how it would take $2 million to restore the original Erban organ.
The tour guide took us to the basement of the old cathedral. There were 3 connected hallways, and electric candles were lit along them. We were told about the historical figures of the day who were entombed in this hallway behind hermetically sealed concrete.
Then we went upstairs to see the main part of the cathedral, which has stood the test of time. The front of it had burned down and was rebuilt. Then the tour guide talked about Jared and how he approved of tours going upstairs to see the old organ. This was the most interesting part of the tour for me, getting to see the old organ and getting to see behind the old organ—the pipes, the stops, etc.
We got a chance to talk to a few members of the church administration. They showed us a movie trailer that Martin Scorsese had produced, and Jared is going to be in the movie as well. My favorite thing about his tour was not necessarily the history. It made my heart happy to see someone I once knew doing good and doing well.
We hopped in a cab and headed back to Times Square. Getting to see a Broadway show is always a major highlight whenever I am in New York. This time we opted to see Come From Away. The first book I ever read this year was “The Day The World Came to Town.” The story of this book stuck with me, it was both heart breaking and heart restoring. It’s the true story of the day of the September 11th attack when the US had to close airspace while there were still international planes bound for the US. The planes were all diverted to Gander Newfoundland, and this book, and the play, are based upon the week that the townspeople in Gander took in 7,000 stranded passengers for an entire week. The play of course was gorgeous. I admit I cried a few times at the raw emotion of the story. The play featured the different passengers and their stories. There were 2 people who met in Gander and fell in love. There was a woman whose son, a firefighter, who was last seen heading into the towers never to be heard from again. The passengers were frozen in place while the world at home fell apart and there was nothing they could do about it. A very beautiful book and play, highly recommend. I posted about it in my Standout Reads for January too.
We found ourselves in a Mexican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen getting margaritas and we were talking about the play we’d just seen. It was at this point that Todd whipped out his phone and booked us on a flight to Gander sometime in July so we could see for ourselves where this incredible story took place. We ate an incredible dinner at an Asian fusion restaurant, and wandered Times Square a bit more before we had to catch a cab to Penn Station, on to the next leg of the adventure.
At around 11 PM we wandered out of the train station in Philadelphia.
Exhausted we just wanted our hotel, we couldn’t wait to wake up and explore Philadelphia.
We headed to the Reading Terminal Market for breakfast, where Todd had a cheesesteak for breakfast. The Reading market is massive, imagine aisles of food court with butchers, farmers market, bakers, fish mongers, household items mixed in. The last time we were there we discovered the joy of the Amish donuts, which unfortunately weren’t available on Sundays as they are super religious.
We didn’t have a plan for Philadelphia, like we did for New York. I did google things to do in Philly, but I’d found mostly things to stop and see, and not necessarily have to book in advance. In the hotel in the morning Todd had found about a half dozen things for us to see. He plotted them in pins on a google map. After breakfast we looked at the map and tried to figure out if we could walk there or take a cab. Cabbing it would get to be pricey and walking it would take up time and we probably wouldn’t get to see all of them. Then we saw the Indiego bike kiosk.
“I’m not so sure about riding a bike without a helmet in a city,” I hemmed and hawed. We started walking, and then he said, “But wouldn’t it be awesome to ride bikes all through Philadelphia? When would we get to do that again?”
And that’s the sentence that is always the clincher for me. When would we get to do this again? There are Indiego bike kiosks all over the city. We found the next nearest one. The way it works is you can pay by the ride, for a half our of use, then return the bike at a kiosk near your destination. Or you could get a day pass for $12 per person. The rides are still a half hour, but you have unlimited rentals all day long for that $12.
We hopped on our bikes and headed for our first destination, the Magic Garden. OK, this place is a must see. It’s an empty city lot that an artist built walls and levels inside, and he covered every single surface with a mosaic of found objects: tiles, mirrors, plates, bottles, objects, bicycle wheels. It took him 35 years to construct this garden, and there is something powerful about standing in the middle of someone’s life’s work. This garden was his singular focus for that time. He tiled messages into the walls, he tiled the names of other artists who inspired him, he tiled the events in his life. The exterior walls of the buildings on either side were also tiled all the way to the roof, some three stories on each side. The Magic Garden is the combination of amazing and what in the hell is happening here. It’s an homage to never giving up.
We hopped on the bikes and headed to the Italian market next. This is an open air market, both sides of the street have awnings that extend over the sidewalks where vendors sell their fruits, vegetables, foods, and it extends for several city blocks. We rode on the sidewalk down the length of it, then headed to Independence Hall.
We both have seen the Liberty Bell on school field trips, so we didn’t bother to do that. We rode through the parks near by, and google took us on an unexpected tour of a few of the neighborhoods near to Independence Hall, until we found ourselves back on track and headed back to City Hall. We rode into the courtyard where we encountered a few street musicians and a street magician. We watched, we listened, we stared up at the majestic architecture of City Hall, until we checked our watches. We only had a few hours left.
We returned the bikes and walked back to the hotel where we retrieved our backpacks. We caught a cab to the art museum. The steps of the art museum are very famous, and made so my Sylvester Stallone and his first movie Rocky. As he was training for the big fight he ran up all the stairs and at the top triumphantly thrust his fists into the sky. There were so many families doing that on Sunday afternoon. There is a statue of Rocky just to the right of the stairs. We walked the stairs, paid the admission fee. But the first thing we wanted to do was behind the art museum.
Behind the art museum is a panoramic view of the Schuykill River. Beneath us was a restaurant that was the former site of a steam powered pump house which pumped water from the river to supply the city with water.
We had only an hour left before we had to get back to the train station. We headed back into the museum and checked out the Different Futures exhibit before we had to head out. We hailed a cab and wandered into the station and into the Bridgewater Pub for dinner.
“Oh my God,” Todd gestured to the TV when we sat down at our table. It was tuned to CNN, and the headline read that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash that day. We watched the TV on mute until our food arrived. At that point I looked up at the TV again and learned that his daughter was also on board the helicopter. Gasps let out across the bar when other diners learned the news.
Eventually our train boarded, and we rode the 5 hours back to Kingston, exhausted and happy.
Thanks Todd for an awesome adventure.
BJ Knapp is the author of Beside the Music, available for purchase here. Please sign up for the Backstage with BJ Knapp mailing list to get updates on events, signings, dog pictures and so much more.
added on 02.03.20