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Roses in December

I always like to keep a pencil and paper handy wherever I go, because it seems that nearly every experience in life is open to analysis and reflection, both of which are best accomplished by keeping a personal journal. Therefore, during my family's vacation to the East Coast in the summer of 1999, I faithfully jotted down the details of each stop that we made, along with some personal observations of my own. I am particularly glad now that I did so, for those journal entries allow me to relive some of the most memorable and meaningful experiences of our two-week trip.

Like almost every other vacation that we've taken as a family, this was a road trip. We all feel that the extra time invested in driving is repaid in full by the beautiful scenery that we see and the real "flavor" of each town that we experience as we drive cross-country. I believe that an integral part of traveling is lost by flying across a dozen states without seeing anything but the clouds outside a plane's tiny windows. The numerous stops required by car travel have allowed us to experience the diversity and special charm of this vast land--enjoying lunch at a small "mom-and-pop" restaurant where the waitress treated us as family, or chatting about the "local color" with a state ranger at a rest stop along the highway. Having driven through all but two of the states during our family vacations, I feel that I have gained truly meaningful and accurate impressions of the varied lifestyles throughout the country.

After starting out on a Sunday morning from our home in Illinois, we arrived on Tuesday in New York City and spent the remainder of that day wandering around Manhattan. I had only been in the Big Apple once before, when we had spent one afternoon touring the city atop a double-decker bus. Even then, I had been overwhelmed by the titanic scale of the city and the colorful array of humanity represented there. This time, however, as we walked the streets and saw firsthand the details of life in New York, I began to feel as if I had entered another world, or at least another country. In fact, the city seemed to constitute a small-scale country in and of itself, made up of many unique ethnic communities and various "districts"--the garment district, the theater district, the financial district...and it all literally seemed to go on forever! Pacing the sidewalks and gazing up at the towering "mountains" of Manhattan, I felt peculiarly small and insignificant. Here, amidst nonstop activity, millions of people lived and worked in unbelievably close proximity.

However, as impressive and exhilarating as this environment might have been, I would never trade it for the peaceful beauty and serene tranquility of a country setting. Nor do I prefer the beauty of the New York skyline, blazing with twinkling lights that reflect in the sparkling waters of the Atlantic, to the overwhelming grandeur of a natural landscape. This is because the former is the artificial product of the combined work of many men, while the latter is the creation of an all-powerful God who had but to speak, and the work was complete and perfect. Certainly the bustle and "electricity" of a working city is exhilarating, but how can this feeling compare with the serene, spiritual reverence inspired by the glory of creation?

Therefore, throughout our tour of New York, I kept my awe and fascination in check by reminding myself that everything I was seeing was artificial and constructed. Nevertheless, I found plenty to enjoy and appreciate. During our first day in the city, we visited many of the usual tourist attractions. At the Empire State Building, from a bird's eye view on the open-air observation deck, I confirmed my previous opinion that the city went on forever. At Macy's, I expected to see a replica of the luxurious New York department stores pictured in old 1940's films and was disappointed by its relatively small size and the somewhat delapidated state of the building itself. (Such is life--another Hollywood glorification of humdrum existence!)

For dinner that night, we wanted to experience a real "New York deli" and ended up at the Broadway Deli, just a block or two away from the Ed Sullivan Theater, where the Late Show with David Letterman is now filmed. The deli featured a serve-yourself spread of food ranging from shrimp stir-fry to good old macaroni and cheese. Like most of the other shops and restaurants in New York, the deli left its door open to the steamy, somewhat polluted air, even with the uncovered food spread out on the buffet. In general, it seemed that New York's small businesses, crammed into tiny spaces quite inadequate for their bulging stock, did not mind carrying their products or services out onto the streets. However, after hearing rumors about the filthiness of New York, I was pleasantly surprised by the relative cleanliness of the city's streets and sidewalks. Although they were not planted with blooming flowers and trees, as in Chicago, and the air was certainly polluted by the thousands of taxis and buses crowding the streets, I did not see any more litter or filth than in other large American cities; nor did I catch a glimpse of the infamous New York rats the size of underfed dogs! According to several New Yorkers whom I met, Mayor Giuliani's "cleaning up" of the city had been largely effective in making New York a more pleasant and healthy place in which to live and work. I hope that the city can maintain its new, positive image after the mayor leaves office.

At 11:30 that night, as we emerged from a Broadway theater, I was amazed to find that throngs of people still filled the streets. If anything, Manhattan was even more crowded at midnight than it had been during the afternoon. Even the construction crews were still working, with bright spotlights shining down on them from overhead cranes! For the first time, I understood the meaning of the phrase "the city that never sleeps." With heavy eyes and aching feet, I felt weary of the nonstop commotion in the streets and strangely removed from the crowds as we made our way back to the bus that would take us to our hotel in New Jersey. It was as if I had stepped outside the world as we know it and into a strange, exotic place whose inhabitants partied twenty-four hours a day, never stopping for rest or nourishment. Safely back in the silence and darkness of our hotel room, I fell asleep almost before my head touched the pillow.

After a full night's rest, we were ready in the morning for another taste of the big city and headed back to Manhattan. After purchasing tickets for a matinee showing of "The Phantom of the Opera," my sister and I decided that we wanted to see Central Park and the Dakota apartments, where John Lennon had lived and where he was murdered in 1980. We were pretty sure that the apartments were around 74th street and decided to save ourselves a walk by taking our first ride on the subway. Having purchased our tokens and boarded a train, we were congratulating ourselves for having tackled the formidable subway system with such ease when we realized that our train wasn't stopping at any of the stops. We saw our intended destination at 74th Street go by, and on we zoomed--92nd, 97th...still we hadn't stopped! By this time, all of us were beginning to panic, ignorant of what train we had boarded or where it was taking us. I thought we were going to the Bronx, and my mom was convinced that we were heading for New Jersey, when, finally, we stopped at 102nd Street--28 blocks up from our original destination! We got out--glad that we were still in the same state!--and discerned from some signs that we had taken an express. Fortunately, we were able to find a real train (i.e. one that stopped) and get back to 74th Street. Our first subway experience was certainly an educational one, and it makes for a good laugh in retrospect--at least, none of us will again become cocky about our big-city aptitude!

After snapping some photographs of the Dakota apartments, we took a short walk through Central Park, stopping first at a section called Strawberry Fields--an area dedicated to John Lennon's memory by his widow, Yoko Ono. Continuing our walk back toward Manhattan, we passed by the posh, outdoor restaurant Tavern on the Green, which had the most charming and elegant outdoor eating facility that I had ever seen. The dining courtyard, situated in a quiet nook of Central Park, was decorated with Chinese lanterns and hanging ivy, and in the center was an all-glass structure resembling a greenhouse, in which guests could dine "outdoors" without the inconvenience of wind and insects. However, it was not the restaurant's elegance and beauty that left the most lingering impression on me, but what I saw only a few feet away--a street person wandering about the surrounding area, peeking into garbage cans and lugging a heavy bundle that was strapped to his back. Within only a few feet of the tinkling of crystal and the fizzle of champagne stood one of the saddest and most pitiable creatures that I had ever seen. The juxtaposition of these two scenes in just a small section of Central Park was sobering and seemed to represent the broad range of humanity found in this huge metropolis.

After seeing an unforgettable and stirringly beautiful performance of "The Phantom of the Opera," we walked over to Lindy's for an after-theater snack of their famous cheesecake. The walls of the restaurant--which was uncomfortably small, like every other place in New York--were hung with photos of their most famous clientele, including Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra. Although we had come to expect unusually high prices in the city, these were outrageous--$2.95 for a cup of coffee! However, the cheesecake was delicious, and the "tourist-y" experience seemed to be a fitting conclusion to our two days in New York City.

We headed off to Connecticut that evening along the beautifully scenic Merritt Parkway and spent the night in New Haven, in a hotel overlooking the ocean. There, I received my first full view of the Atlantic. To be honest, I was slightly disappointed, although I'm not sure exactly what I had expected. After living all of my life near one of the largest of the Great Lakes, I must have had some vision of the Atlantic as a terrifying expanse of crashing waves dotted with ancient sailing vessels resembling the Santa Maria! In reality, the ocean looked like a slightly choppier version of Lake Michigan, and I was forced to give up another false illusion.

The next morning, we left New Haven for Newport, Rhode Island, to see the famous "summer cottages"--more accurately, the splendid mansions on the shore built at the turn of the century by some of New York's elite. The first one that we toured was Rosecliff, the home of the Hermann Oelrichs and the filming location of the movie "The Great Gatsby," with Robert Redford. Although both the grounds and the house were stunning (especially the ballroom, the largest in Newport), the house still seemed comfortable and "livable"--not as much like a palace as some of the mansions we later toured. I admired the tastefulness and elegance with which the house was decorated, rather than sheer lavishness merely for the sake of being ostentatious.

The next mansion on our tour was Marble House, home of the William K. Vanderbilts. Although the exterior, with four imposing columns, was more showy than it was beautiful, the interior was certainly the most sumptuous and lavish of the houses we saw. The Gold Room--completely lined with gold leaf and featuring elaborately carved walls and ceiling--was a particularly impressive example of the opulence with which the whole house was decorated. It seemed to me that every room could just as easily have been in Louis XIV's Palace at Versailles. (In fact, the mansion's architect, Richard Morris Hunt, had modeled the house after the Petit Trianon at Versailles.) In the backyard, overlooking the ocean, was a quaint pagoda-like Chinese Teahouse, where I could almost imagine Mrs. Vanderbilt having tea with her elegant guests and enjoying the fresh sea breeze and the soft lull of the rolling waves.

The last stop on our "mansion tour" was the Breakers, the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II and reportedly the most opulent of the Newport mansions. The breathtaking fašade reminded me of an old English estate--specifically, the mental picture that I have of Pemberley, Mr. Darcy's estate in Jane Austen's novel Pride and Prejudice. Perhaps for this reason, the Breakers was my favorite of the houses we toured. The Great Hall, which rises 45 feet and is dominated by a stunning staircase laid with velvet carpet, provided an appropriate entrance to the gorgeous mansion. However, the most charming area in the house was the open-air loggia, a design of the Italian Renaissance, which offered a beautiful view of the ocean. The ceiling was a mosaic of delicate artwork, and the area was filled with palms and wicker furniture. Near the mansion was a "playhouse" for the Vanderbilt children; however, it was nearly the size of many full-scale houses and was furnished almost as lavishly as the mansion itself.

Although I enjoyed the architectural beauty of the mansions and the loveliness of their grounds, I could not help regretting that such vast amounts of money had been invested in these palatial creations--especially since they had been built during a time when the majority of Americans could barely feed and clothe themselves and their families. Equally disturbing was the fact that the industrial tycoons who had lined their ballrooms with 24-karat gold had made their millions through the work of mistreated and underpaid laborers. Nonetheless, since that period of history is a closed chapter, I appreciate the work of historical associations in restoring these old homes and converting them into museums that all Americans can now enjoy.

By the time we had been through all three of the houses, we were famished and asked our tour guide at the Breakers for a restaurant recommendation. Glad to oblige, he suggested Flo's Clam Shack (also in Newport), where we tasted the first of the many clam dinners that we would eat over the next several days. Although I don't care for seafood in general, I have had a weakness for fried clams since I was six years old, when I would order a platter of them from the adult menu at Howard Johnson's and polish off the whole plate. At Flo's Clam Shack, the clams were sweeter and more tender than any I had ever tasted before, perhaps owing as much to the atmosphere of the restaurant as to the freshness of the New England clams themselves. We sat at a booth by an open window and ate on a table laid with a red-and-white checked tablecloth. Our table had a clear view of the ocean, and we could hear the seagulls crying and the waves lapping against the shore, while the cool evening breeze drifted in through the open windows of the small restaurant. Even though we must have had at least six more clam dinners before our trip was over, my memories of our meal at Flo's will always be the sweetest to me.

After taking a step back in time as we toured Old Sturbridge Village, Boston, and Concord, Massachusetts, we headed to Cape Cod for the last two days of our trip. Unlike many overrated tourist attractions, the Cape definitely lived up to its reputation. I often found myself comparing it to my favorite fall getaway, Door County in upper Wisconsin; both are filled with quaint little shops, charming restaurants, and beautiful natural scenery. However, the Cape has one advantage over Door County, and that is the ocean, which I was able to fully appreciate after spending nearly a whole day on the beach. One of my fondest memories of our vacation is walking out on a sand bar with my sister, with our "clam-diggers" rolled up above our knees and the ground-up seashells chaffing our bare feet. On and on we waded through the sparkling blue ripples, wondering why the water still hadn't risen above our knees. We were probably at least fifty yards out from the shore before we decided to turn back and hunt for more seashells. Ten minutes later, the tide had come back in, and our little wading pool had become an ocean once again.

The next day, as we drove through the verdant, rolling hills of Connecticut, heading back to the flat Midwestern plains of Illinois, I experienced the usual "post-vacation blues," thinking about the exciting past two weeks and the fact that they were over forever. Then I pulled out the journal that had hardly left my side during the entire trip and comforted myself by reading my own account of those pleasant experiences. In poring over the hastily written paragraphs, I relived my memories of the past two weeks, and since then, I have made many similar trips down "memory lane" and along the East Coast. Someone once said that God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December. Indeed, the bloom of those two beautiful weeks in July will never fade as long as I retain the treasured memories carefully stored up in my tattered journal.

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