The Winter Tale of New York City

While prepping for an upcoming LCSC session, my Windows 11 desktop reminded me that six years ago, my wife and I were enjoying a frigid whirlwind tour of New York City.

A flood of memories returned to me, including a pristine February winter that stretched from the Big Apple to the nation’s capitol, as well as from Maryland to Philadelphia and Virginia. But first, let me describe my incredible voyage to the concrete jungle where dreams are made: New York City.

It was a moment of adventure and chilling thrill that only the Big Apple can offer. It was also a reality check for how New York City is portrayed in film and media compared to what I saw personally.

This vacation was not planned well in advance; the culprit, or the genie in the bottle, depending on your mood, is Cathay Pacific’s fanfare, which frequently reminds a hesitant traveler to prepare luggage, visas, and hotel accommodations if the traveler is lucky enough to snap up a pair of the heavily discounted airfares on offer.

A travel milestone

The New York/JFK to Hong Kong flight CX845 follows the polar route through Canada, near the North Pole, Russia, Mongolia, and China, saving approximately 2,000 kilometers or more than 2 hours over the typical flight path through the continental United States, Alaska, Siberia, and Japan.At the time, CX845 was the world’s 11th longest nonstop flight, lasting 16 hours.

The Polar Route between Hong Kong and New York.

Even before stepping off John F. Kennedy, the bleary-eyed traveling couple encountered a few problems. Another passenger on our aircraft who had the same bag model and color picked up Babes’ luggage at the conveyor belt. After finding out about the mishap, the two relieved travelers breathed a sigh of relief and parted ways shortly thereafter, confident that no surprises awaited them once they opened their luggage—if they ever could.

JFK thrives on greeting weary tourists. While the bustling energy may appear strong, remember that New York never sleeps, and your NYC experience awaits. The airport is alive with an electric hum, from distinctive yellow taxis to fellow long-haul travelers asking for instructions in many languages.

Life imitates art

Another blessing was getting to know the de Leon twins, Nikki and Mike, who a CFC friend in the Philippines introduced to us. They were kind enough to pick us up at the airport and go on a quick drive around Manhattan before making the pit stop at Tom’s Cafe.

Breakfast at Tom’s Restaurant at 2880 Broadway provides the traditional diner experience. Nestled in the center of Manhattan, its historic décor exudes charm, with snug booths and a lively environment. It is popular with both locals and tourists, having been immortalized in the television series Seinfeld as Monk’s Cafe. The menu features conventional American fare like fluffy pancakes, crispy bacon, and hot mugs of coffee.

With Nikki and Mike de Leon at Tom’s Restaurant in Manhattan.

Sitting at the table where Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer once met, I couldn’t help but smile as I sipped my coffee, almost expecting one of them to walk through the door at any moment.

Even though it was our first time meeting, Nikki and Mike were very approachable. Their family migrated to the United States while they were young kids. By the time we met, they were already active members of the community. After our breakfast, we explored what Times Square had to offer.

New York state of mind

Flurry dances around skyscrapers, creating a neon blizzard in Times Square. As a thousand advertisements shout in the cold, I blink, blinded. Steam roadside puffs greet cold fingertips, and hot dog carts beckon with delectable warmth relief. We moved past towering structures reminiscent of Hong Kong’s CBD, with indistinct faces rushing past, their frantic symphony drowned out by honking taxis and loud music. In my mind, the last song syndrome was definitely Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’s “Empire State of Mind.”

Time Square flurry: with Babes, Nikki and Mike.

During rush hour in New York City, the streets are alive with activity as people flood out of train stations and onto crowded sidewalks. The air is filled with the sound of honking cars and sporadic street conversations.

Commuters move quickly past one another, managing the sea of humanity with uniform cadence. Taxis compete for space with buses and bicycles, as we find ourselves unable to walk in the general direction of office goers and locals out and about.

I often hear that New Yorkers are getting a bad rap for their brusque behavior; it’s meant for efficiency rather than a tasteless, rude attitude. I seldom had interactions with locals except for the One Dollar Zone attendants, hotel concierges, and pizza food truck sellers, whose approach to visitors may be a slight alteration of the typical New Yorker vibe.

Overall, although I see that New Yorkers exude a distinct blend of toughness, tenacity, and kindness that embodies the essence of their great city.

A winter morning chaos at a random Manhattan street.
A winter morning chaos at a random Manhattan street.

After checking in at Element New York Times Square, we bid Nikki and Mike goodbye with profound gratitude.

The New York subway experience

Our first taste of the New York subway was filled with surprise and astonishment. After a short walk, we board the train at Penn Station. Plunging into the NYC subway is a sensory overload. On a rush hour like ours, crowds rush like a human wave, making that Kramer struggle to get into the train look realistic.

Turnstiles clank and groan, reluctantly accepting your fare as you enter the gate. A wave of heat rushes over you, dense with the aroma of roasted nuts, stale sweat, and disinfection. You get my drift. Graffiti bursts color across dirty walls, vying with flickering pizza and lawyer ads promising to help a motor accident victim.

Chambers Street Station New York subway station Eastward direction and serving A, C, 2 adn 3 trains.

After a few moments, the train shrieks in, the doors hiss open, and the crowd dives, cramming people into the already overcrowded carriage. Steel creaks under the weight, brakes shriek, and the air thickens with dust motes swirling in the low light. It’s a sensory overload, a grimy underside of the city brimming with raw energy that is both exciting and disgusting. You clutch your belongings closer, grab the closest handrail for safety, and brace yourself for the jolt as the train departs, one rumbling station at a time.

After passing through Chelsea and Greenwich Village, we arrived at WTC Cortlandt station 15 minutes later.

9/11 Memorial & Museum

A short distance from the subway is the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. Babes marvelled at how the structure was built as we observed a moment of silence while reading the names of victims inscribed on bronze panels lining the twin memorial pools located above the museum.

The museum’s 9/11 exhibits, which include artifacts, images, and individual tales, take visitors on a profound and emotional journey. It is a place of remembrance, reflection, and resilience, honoring those who have died and ensuring that their legacy continues on.

9/11 Memorial and Museum

A lot has changed since 9/11.

Witnessing the 9/11 memorial amidst world changes post-attacks evokes a mix of sorrow, resilience, and unity. It symbolizes the profound impact of tragedy on global consciousness, fostering a collective determination to overcome adversity and uphold shared values of freedom, solidarity, and remembrance in an ever-changing world. When the news of the assaults broke, I was with Onin and Leo during our first year in Hong Kong, unable to comprehend the significance and scale of this historic event, as well as how the world has altered since.

The attacks resulted in significant improvements to airport security and border control, including the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and the enactment of the USA PATRIOT Act.

Furthermore, the US initiated military operations in Afghanistan to depose the Taliban administration, which had housed Al-Qaeda, and later in Iraq under the guise of battling terrorism.

The attacks also had a significant impact on the worldwide economy, with stock markets dropping and businesses struggling in the aftermath. It prompted dread and anxiety, resulting in greater surveillance, prejudice against Muslims and Arabs, and a shift in public opinion on security, immigration, and civil liberties.

After visiting the memorial, we went further south to explore Wall Street, the New York Stock Exchange, and a few shopping destinations in the Financial District before heading back to Midtown Manhattan.

The Park in the Sky

Right where we began our journey earlier in the day, we meandered along the elevated oasis of the High Line, a unique urban park created on a historic elevated railway line. It stretches over 1.5 miles on Manhattan’s West Side, providing a peaceful respite from the city’s hectic streets.

A city view from the High Line.

Its picturesque walkways feature lush flora, art installations, and magnificent city views. The High Line is a beloved icon of urban rebirth, combining nature, architecture, and community in a vibrant public place. I wish cities would adopt the same approach and not use a lack of space or complicated urban planning as an excuse to establish a similar oasis like the High Line.

Ash Wednesday

The following day happened to be Ash Wednesday, and we found ourselves immersed in the solemn beauty of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The hushed tones of prayer echoed through the cavernous space as worshippers bowed their heads in reverence.

We had our foreheads marked with a cross. It marks the beginning of Lent, a time of meditation, repentance, and preparation for Easter. The ashes used in this ritual are often generated by burning palm branches that were blessed on Palm Sunday the year before.

Ash Wednesday cross on our foreheads at St Patrick's Cathedral
Ash Wednesday crosses on our foreheads at St Patrick’s Cathedra
  • Mortality and repentance: The minister or priest applies the ashes while saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” or “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”
  • Penitence and humility: It encourages people to think about their sins, express regret, and seek forgiveness.
  • Identification with Christ’s suffering: The cross-shaped mark on the forehead is a visible symbol of one’s dedication to following Jesus Christ, particularly on his journey to the crucifixion and resurrection.

Walking from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Rockefeller Plaza in February provides a classic New York City experience. The bustling streets are alive with energy, despite the cold winter weather. Passers-by cross slippery sidewalks while dressed in coats and scarves. Snow-dusted trees flank the route, framing famous sights. Approaching Rockefeller Square, the location of a tall Christmas tree during the Christmas season, covered with lights, emanates seasonal beauty and casts a lovely glow over the bustling square.

This time the ice rink, currently devoid of skaters, reminds me of movies like Serendipity and Elf. Despite the grey skies, the mood was festive as Valentine’s Day was fast approaching, as evidenced by its commercial promotions.

Grand Central Station

Stepping into Grand Central Station is like entering a sparkling portal to a past era. Sunlight shines through massive windows, and a heavenly canvas decorated with constellations glittering against azure hues.

We were seeing our old friend Susan, who used to live in Hong Kong but has since moved to New York, to reminisce about the good old days and see how our pals in Hong Kong were doing.

As we waited for her, the indoor air vibrated with the incessant buzz of hurrying commuters, their footfall echoing over the polished granite floor. The classic four-faced clock, a symbol of timekeeping, presides over the bustling concourse, its large Roman numerals adding to the station’s majestic atmosphere.

Grand Central station interiors.

A symphony of bustle plays out all around you. Elegant shops entice with glittering displays, and the aroma of freshly baked bread wafts from the Grand Central Market, enticing visitors both tired and bored waiting for their train. The grandiose chandeliers provide a pleasant glow over the landscape, establishing a nostalgic charm that transcends modern life.

However, Grand Central is more than just a transportation hub; it is also a living history museum. Whispers of Vanderbilt’s ambition reverberate throughout the huge halls, while creative flourishes such as the Oyster Bar’s elaborate mosaics and the starry dome provide a vivid picture of bygone days.

Whether you’re boarding a train or just looking for a peek at New York’s grandeur, Grand Central provides an experience unlike any other. It’s a location where time appears to slow down, where the past and present coexist together, and where every corner whispers a narrative just waiting to be uncovered.

Thankfully, our wait was over as Susan arrived, and we took a few photos before heading outdoors.

The World’s Most Famous Arena

Such bragging claims may raise a few eyebrows, but New York’s Madison Square Garden is a force to be reckoned with, pulsating with energy.

Towering above Manhattan, its circular form, covered in red brick and accented by vivid signage, reveals its iconic status. You can come across vendors selling hot dogs and trinkets, adding to the pre-show excitement.

There, Babes posed for a few photos with the iconic Michael Jordan handprint.

The closest link so far with His Airness.
The closest link so far with His Airness.

When we look back on our stay in New York, we can’t help but notice the common observations of its citizens. As we hauled our bags to the Megabus bus terminal, passing through the High Line, I wondered how many people’s dreams had come true in the dazzling lights of New York City and how many had battled to reach them. However, in order for these dreams to come true, you must first be there.

We’ll be back later for our return flight to Hong Kong.

Next stop: Washington, DC.

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