Sunday, January 30, 2011

the big apple is a friendly place

I'm trying to tell the story of our trip, bit by bit, while the memories are still fresh. My mom told me yesterday that when you travel, your memories do stay with you, and you have the benefit of remembering and re-living the experience long after it happens. I will always remember our day with Al Riggi.

Al Riggi is a volunteer for the Big Apple Greeters organization in New York City. He is one of 300 volunteers who show people around their city. We found out about Big Apple Greeters on Trip Advisor in an article on inexpensive things to do in New York. While we were not allowed to pay Al, we made a contribution to the Big Apple Greeter organization. Our experience was priceless.

When we arrived at our hotel, there was a fax for us, confirming the arrangements for our visit, and requesting that we phone Al to confirm. I called him right away, and he was happy to hear from us. He asked us if we were okay to walk, and told us he'd meet us Thursday, in our hotel lobby, at 10am. About 9am Thursday, Al called to say the trains from Queens (where he lives) to Manhattan weren't running. We ate breakfast and went out on an errand, keeping in touch by cell phone. Al took some buses instead, and met up with us in Times Square at 10:30. It was a chilly bright day.

Al took us through the streets and buildings of mid-town Manhattan. We saw the the Roxy Theatre, the Empire State building, the Chrysler building, Macy's, Bryant Park, the New York City Library, The Pan Am Building, Grand Central Station, St. Patrick's Cathedral, St. Thomas's Church, Trump Tower, a bunch of amazing stores around 5th Avenue, Bloomingdales and Central Park. He would have liked to have taken us out on the subway and the Brooklyn Bridge, but we had to cut our visit short after 3 1/2 hours, because we had an appointment in the afternoon. Al told us he often takes visitors walking for 6 hours!

Along the way, Al showed us treats and treasures that we would never have encountered, had we simply walked around with a guidebook in hand. He told us the history of many of the buildings, like how the New York City Library stands on the site of the old city reservoir that took several years to demolish before the library was built. He told us how the library works too, with 6 sub-ground levels of stacks in which 30 staff run around, fetching books requested up in the reading rooms. The books are sent up to the correct location by a conveyer/elevator system built when the libary was, about 100 years ago.

Al showed us wonderful Bryant Park, which I will describe in a separate post. Suffice for now to say it has the world's finest public outdoor restroom. He took us into Trump Tower and the churches, where visitors are welcome, but we wouldn't have known that. He introduced us to the amazing underground Apple Store, which is open 24 hours a day, and teeming with people buying the latest computers or just checking their email. He found us free chocolate and introduced us to his granddaughter who works at FAO Schwartz toy store. At FAO Schwartz, Fiona played the giant jump-on piano. We went to Tiffany's Jeweler, where Al introduced me to a salesman who invited me to try on a beautiful sapphire and diamond bracelet, featured in the movie Breakfast at Tiffany's. The bracelet cost $85 THOUSAND, so I did not buy it.

Central Park is a beautiful place, and was filled with people, even on a weekday afternoon in the middle of winter. Al showed us the zoo, where he visited as a boy to see lions and giraffes. The zoo has fewer animals now but is still a treasure for families. He told us about how the park was designed and built, and how every one of the 30-some bridges has a unique design. We had time only for the northernmost tip of the park, but he showed us the roof line of the Dakota Hotel, over the trees, so named because when it was built, it was "out in the country" as far away to some as Dakota.

As we walked, Al told us about his life. He was born in Manhattan, and played stickball on the streets as a boy. As a teenager, he got a job at Bloomingdales. He was drafted to the army on the same day that America signed the armistice agreement, and served two years in the States as an air force photographer. After serving, he returned to New York. His old boss at Bloomingdales offered him a job in the electronics department, where he stayed for the rest of his working days. Al told us about some of the famous people who visited his department. He once sold 3 small electronic keyboards to the Queen of Spain for her children. He played 2 demo songs for her, and she played a song for him. Al worked part time as a professional photographer. That's how he met his wife. A buddy was sick, and asked Al to fill in for him, photographing a wedding. He was invited to stay and eat, and he met the love of his life at his table. Al told me several times how he has led a life of great good fortune. Now widowed and long retired from working, he volunteers as a Big Apple Greeter and as an ESL teacher, and he delights in his family. We are truly fortunate to have met him.

As our visit wound up, Al took us to the subway station and showed us how to purchase a metro card and use it to get past the turnstile. He showed us how to find the right train to get to our destination in downtown Manhattan, and wished us well. We left Al grateful for a warm, wonderful and friendly visit to a beautiful city, knowing we had surely met our first friend in New York.

question: did you ever spend time with a generous stranger who became a friend?

mompoet - blessed


Lynn Valley Girl said...

What a wonderful enriching trip you had to New York. I would have enjoyed trying on the fancy braclet and learning about the library.

Alisha Miranda said...

thanks for posting this I'm so glad families get to enjoy the city with Big Apple Greeter!

if you feel so inclined to show your support, I'd love for you to share a testimonial on our Facebook page


DianeSS said...

Thanks for sharing that information and your experience. What a wonderful way to explore the Big Apple!