Defining New York City

As Ashlanders, we live in a tourist town. We know what tourists look like, clutching maps and playbills in their hands, with cameras dangling from their necks. Although we celebrate the tourists (and the money they pump into our economy), when we travel, we strive not to be like them. Instead, we aim to blend in like locals, seeking the particular destination's defining experience.

On this trek, inexpensive airfare prompted me to haul my husband and our three young children to New York City. After months of reading, planning, and pre-purchasing tickets to must-see attractions, we flew Jet Blue from San Francisco. Slinging backpacks over our shoulders and lugging Pullmans behind us, we set out in search of the archetypical New York adventure.

The taciturn cabbie who squished us into his sedan and charged the standard $45-plus toll gave us our first impression of the city. Upon re-evaluating his route into Midtown, he threw the gearshift into reverse and backed our taxi out of the traffic-choked middle of a Lexington Avenue intersection. That was an event!

The unsought excitement provoked us to try the subway. Native-packed trains rumbled over foraging rats and crumpled MetroCards. Graciously, the driver often stuck out his head, pointing us in the right direction. Locals were also accommodating, directing us through SoHo and the Financial District. Only once did we get lost; we thought we were headed to the Lower East Side and ended up across the river in Brooklyn. But wherever we went, there was always a lot to see. In all, the $2 fare was a bargain for transportation and entertainment!

Mostly, though, like typical Manhattanites, we walked. And walked. And walked. But after miles and miles, we still felt like tourists.

And all that walking made us hungry. So we ate. We ate the cultural staples: bagels, pizza, and of course, sandwiches from Carnegie Deli, where our clueless gaping at the bowl of pickles on our table gave us away as visitors. We noshed hot dogs in Central Park, as locals pushed their babes on swings. And still we stood out.

Determined, we sought culture, taking in multiple museums: Jacob Lawrence paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; bones, bones, and bones at the American Museum of Natural History; a recreated 1917 apartment at the Tenement Museum; and the emotive tribute to 9-11's fallen firefighters in the NYC Fire Museum. But although we gained an understanding of New York's past, we were still strangers.

Running short on time and ideas, and wondering whether a last ditch attempt at sightseeing might help us define the city, we took in its sweeping views atop the Empire State Building. We marveled at the recovery of Ground Zero and trudged through Times Square. A much more safety-conscious cabbie shuttled us through post-Renaissance Harlem.

While Ellis Island was impressive, the inefficient, overpriced ferry was disappointing. Lady Liberty attempted to make up for it as the most-photographed image with each of the kids' disposable cameras. But as much as she claims to represent all of America, we sensed her favoritism for New Yorkers. So even she couldn't fill our void.

Horns blared and babies cried below our open windows as I lay in bed the last night of our venture. I counted the blessings of our trip: our safety, the sites we saw, the stories we heard, the memories we made. But I couldn't help feeling that although we had striven to capture the spirit of the island, we just hadn't. Transportation, food, and sites did not embody the nature of New York. What had we missed? Surely, the neighborhoods we'd overlooked, the shopping we'd skipped, and the Broadway plays that seemed too spendy and long for three youngsters weren't the city's vitality. So what was? Where was the chutzpah? Its absence was as palpable as the lack of gas stations, car dealerships, and air conditioning in our hotel.

And then, as our daughter's skinny elbow poked me under the sheet, it hit me: the quintessential New York experience had found us! Suffering in the sweltering heat of a cramped room on the twelfth floor, we were exhausted, broke, hungry and filthy. It was perfect!

In a miniscule but very real way, our family shared the true heart of New York: its immigrants &

people somewhat like ourselves, on long journeys from other worlds with few belongings and pockets of hope. People who had come, who are coming now, who have yet to arrive. And Manhattan is waiting for them all, her arms open wide. She had embraced even us &

mere Ashlanders. After only four days, we grew to love her. And I'm certain we'll love her for always.

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