Archives For New York

World Trade Center tower in New York

I think the WTC tower is uninspired — a lost opportunity.

 

On our second day in New York, we drove from our hotel to Hoboken, where I parked for the day in a garage for $12. I was in shock, given that Boston parking is about 12 bucks a minute. I could live in my car there!

We walked to the PATH station, first taking some photos of the skyline. You can’t go wrong with that view from Jersey!

New York skyline Hudson Yards

Mtuseni loved the Hudson Yards complex. He says it looks like Tony Stark (aka Ironman) lives there. 

 

wtc train

Not much opportunity for Mtuseni to take trains back home. The last time was taking Gautrain to the airport with me in Joburg in 2012!

 

Got off at World Trade Center stop, in the belly of the Oculus, where we grabbed breakfast and got lost. (Second time!) We weren’t really lost, we just couldn’t find what we wanted. The maps don’t help when walking inside an austere, multi-level fish skeleton where every surface is white. Still, it is impressive. 

 

Interior of Oculus, New York

“Where the hell is Pret a Manger?”

 

I’d seen the outdoor 9/11 Memorial before — and Mtuseni and I had spent a little time there the previous day — but I hadn’t been to the museum. It’s hard to put into words. It’s really well-done in terms of capturing both the physical and emotional scale of that day. From the moment you descend the escalator among massive pieces of debris, you’re in the surreal experience of 9/11. It’s heavy and sad. And it brings everything back, all that has faded away with time. 

I was surprised how little Mtuseni knew about 9/11. Then again he wasn’t even nine years old when it happened, in a house with no TV or electricity. I’m often surprised how little he knows about past events in America, which we all presume is the eternal center of global attention. Then again, aside from Nelson Mandela and apartheid, I knew little about South Africa until I met Mtuseni.

I tried to explain it all to him… How life here has never been the same since. What a beautiful morning it was in the Northeast. How a good friend — gone now — who worked in the towers likely survived only because he went to vote that morning. The numbness and shock and sadness. It didn’t really sink in for him, even as my voice trembled and cracked telling it.

 

blue sky

Anyone who was in the Northeast that day will remember how stunningly bright and crisp and blue the sky was on that perfect September morning.

 

Virgil quote inside 9/11 memorial says: No day shall erase you from the memory of time.

These 2,983 watercolors are artists’ impressions of how the sky looked in New York that morning. And the quote… sigh.

 

Mtuseni was fascinated by the large artifacts. The lobby staircase that survivors ran down. The crushed fire truck. The twisted trident beams. The power of these is inescapable.

 

New Work World Trade Center tower trident girders

The iconic trident girders that defined the lower level of the twin towers.

 

graffiti girder and slurry

 

fire truck

 

graffiti girder solo

 

But it was a volunteer, a woman from Queens with a heavy New Yawk accent, who got to him. We were looking at another twisted beam, and I was ready to move on to the detailed timeline exhibits.

She came over and explained the energy necessary to contort that steel, where it was in the building and what happened when the plane hit. She went on to describe the day, where she was, what it was like to be in New York. Mtuseni was mesmerized, asking all sorts of questions. He’s usually pretty silent in museums, and most other places. She talked for almost half an hour, until another couple came up and we peeled away.

As we walked deeper into the museum, Mtuseni said he was impressed by the woman’s commitment and openness. And how brave she is to tell her story to people every day. And he said all he’d known about 9/11 was that buildings fell down — but now he gets it. 

 

docent girder

Mtuseni had to have a photo of the beam after the volunteer’s story. The impact of it all seems to show in his face. 

 

New York World Trade Center Ground Zero worker quote says: We came in as individuals. And we'll walk out together.

    A good quote for our lives today, in all circumstances.

 

liberty close

A year ago today was Labor Day, and our first real adventure day on the Long-Distance Dad road trip. 

At the hotel in Jersey, we waited a half hour for a lost Uber driver who clearly never heard of deodorant. While it was hot that day (actually, it was brutal the whole month!) it was only 9:00 a.m. I would have appreciated wearing a mask in that tiny Honda Civic!  

After the most zig-zagging, convoluted drive ever, we finally arrived at Liberty Park to catch the ferry. Was fascinated by an abandoned railway station there, with an ornate wrought iron roof, and the old track signs. Mtuseni wasn’t that impressed.

liberty park stn both

Still trying to erase the stink of the Uber driver from our senses.

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train station roof

I can picture this station once bustling with travelers on their own journeys to near and far. 

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liberty ghost tracks

Paths to nowhere now… but once to many somewheres.

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antique railroad destination track sign

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Discovered the new Empty Sky 9/11 Memorial at Liberty Park, which points to where the Twin Towers had stood. Mtuseni knew surprisingly little of that event. A New Jersey reporter interviewed me about that day and my personal connection to it. Tough memories; simple but powerful memorial.

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empty sky 9-11 memorial in new jersey

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Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty were new sights for both of us. Ellis Island is so impressive. I got emotional thinking of my grandparents arriving from Eastern Europe. Such courage — they were only teeneagers! I want to return and dig into the archives, find their records.  

Check out our Instagram greeting from Ellis Island!

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ellis sign mtu

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ellis island outside

What immigrants must have thought — and felt — as they approached this grand building!

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ellis sign

Crowds… I miss them now. 

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great hall crowd

The Great Hall where my grandparents were processed. Just… wow.

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great hall michael

Maybe before I die I’ll figure out selfies and selfie sticks. (Actually, I really don’t care.)

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There is a room with walls covered in citizen documents. Just randomly scanning them, this one caught my eye. The woman lived in my hometown way back when — and I had just ridden my bike past her address days earlier. Crazy!

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citizen doc

Butters Row was the road to my kindergarten. It still has a one-lane wooden bridge!

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Mtuseni has wanted to see Miss Liberty since his first US visit seven years ago. He was so excited. It is a beacon of America, still — and forever, let’s hope. Exciting for me too as I had a small replica of it on my desk as a kid.

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liberty boat

Crowds on a boat — the good old days.

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liberty sky

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mtu liberty front

Probably never imagined being here growing up in a shack in South Africa.

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statue of liberty

Goober alert. (But hey, why not?)

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liberty shop girls

My funny gift shop pals. I tried to be Mtuseni’s wing man on the trip; he wasn’t buying it. American girls intimidate him, I think. 

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Took the ferry to Manhattan and walked to the World Trade Center and 9/11 Memorial. Ogled at the Oculus. (And got lost in it — the first of several times. Cool architecture, dumb layout.) 

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outside wing of oculus in manhattan

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oculus inside

Damn, I look exhausted. And it’s only the first full day! 

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Took the subway to the Port Authority Bus Terminal … from the sublime Oculus to the armpit of the universe… and a quick shuttle bus back to the hotel. A great day… with so many ahead of us!

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skyline from liberty both

I so wish we were there now. And that Mtuseni wasn’t 8,000 miles away.   

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Back to Manhattan tomorrow!

I’m coming to grips with the sad reality that summer is over — and my early September melancholy will soon give way to reveling in the Norman Rockwell autumns we have in New England. It was a good summer, punctuated of course by Mtuseni’s visit, something we had been working to make happen for three years.

Although the extent of his culture shock and reactions to it — and the twists and turns of teenage moods — caught me off guard, it was amazing to have Mtuseni here. The speed bumps we encountered only provided more insights that will help me guide him through new experiences and challenges as he transitions into the post-school real world. As a friend told me, courtesy of John Steinbeck, “What good is warmth without cold to give it sweetness?”

Indeed it was a very sweet trip. So herewith a random sampling of moments and memories of Mtuseni’s visit that make me smile:

New York+Times Square

Watching Mtuseni’s post-15-hour flight jet lag begin to lift as we walked into Times Square and he began to realize, “I’m in New York!” The first of many times I heard, “Take my picture!”

Dinner at an outdoor cafe after our first day in Boston -- where he had to buy a "B" cap so he could fit in. A Facebook post where he gloated to friends back in the SA winter about eating outdoors on a summer evening.

Dinner at an outdoor cafe after our first day in Boston — where he had to buy a “B” cap so he could fit in. A Facebook post gloating to friends enduring the SA winter.

Boston+ Charles River

Biking along the Charles River — watching him speed off and do tricks to “impress” me (and being thankful that I forced him to wear a helmet when he pushed the limits a few times).

Boston+Public Garden+fountain

Sitting with my radio student at the Public Garden fountain where my professor held our radio class on a warm September afternoon — shortly after Marconi invented the technology. A circle I had wanted to complete for some time once I knew Mtuseni would study media in college like I had.

Watching Mtuseni become an excited kid at the aquarium, just like when we were in Cape Town. He loves penguins (and sharks). In another life maybe should have been a marine biologist, though we need to get him over his fear of the sea.

Watching Mtuseni become an excited kid at the aquarium, just like when we were in Cape Town. He loves penguins (and sharks). In another life maybe he should have been a marine biologist, though we need to get him over his fear of the sea.

Boston+Public Garden

Having Mtuseni meet and connect with good friends — who were excited to meet him and who know his story and have celebrated with and supported me through the ups and downs of my four years with him.

Taking him to the top of the Pru and pointing out all the places we had been to. You forget how amazing it is to be in a skyscraper for the first time.

Taking him to the top of the Pru and pointing out all the places we had been to. You forget how amazing it is to be in a skyscraper for the first time.

Watching the Fourth of July fireworks along the Esplanade on a perfect summer night, tinged with an atmosphere of healing and strength and pride as the first large event following the marathon bombings.

Watching the Fourth of July fireworks along the Esplanade on a perfect summer night, tinged with an atmosphere of healing and strength and pride as the first large event following the marathon bombings.

Taking Mtuseni to the gym and watching him try to bulk up his skinny self in two weeks -- followed by his ongoing quest to try every crazy energy drink flavor not sold in South Africa.

Taking Mtuseni to the gym and watching him try to bulk up his skinny self in two weeks — followed by his ongoing quest to try every crazy energy drink flavor not sold in South Africa.

Bowing to his obsession and taking him to a huge classic car show -- and seeing the '75 Camaro that was the joy of my early 20s and the '66 Impala that took our family to the beach.

Bowing to his obsession and taking him to a huge classic car show — and pointing out the ’75 Camaro that was the joy of my early 20s and the ’66 Impala that took our family to the beach…

Bugatti

…and his crazy thrill at seeing a Bugatti parked outside the Mandarin Oriental hotel. This one went on his Facebook immediately (where he claimed the car was his!)

Fenway Park+Boston

Taking a Fenway Park tour and watching the obsessed Kaizer Chiefs soccer fan listen intently to the guide’s stories of “the Curse” and other Red Sox lore…

Fenway Park

…and seeing this hopeful radio announcer and budding journalist experience sitting in the press box high above home plate.

Hampton Beach

As when we were in Cape Town, watching Mtuseni’s love-hate game with the ocean. Some day I’ll get him fully in. If not for cell phones in our pockets, I would have thrown him in — it was 98 degrees!

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Aside from these “events” — some of my favorite times during Mtuseni’s visit were just simple things. Indeed, when I asked him a couple weeks ago what he missed about being in the US, one thing he said was “having breakfast with you.”

The things that resonated for me are taking him clothes shopping to create the new “grown up” look he wants. His daily ironing (because at home the iron is a plain metal one that heats up on the stove). Hearing his laugh and squeaky “excited” voice over Sheldon’s antics on The Big Bang Theory (“That guy is crazy, man!”) Seeing how much a guy his age can eat (and knowing that anytime access to food doesn’t happen at home). Untangling the mess that he made of his laptop and lecturing him about it (and him actually listening!). And watching him sleep in the morning — marveling that this kid from Africa who I encountered online by chance through a nonprofit is in my house…and at the center of my heart and mind at all times. Crazy how the world works sometimes.

So yes, in the final analysis Mtuseni’s visit was amazing — a blend of fun and frustration, laughter and anger, closeness and conflict that is a microcosm of real-life parenthood. And yes, with his visitor visa in place for the next ten years, I’m already figuring out how to get him here next year.

Chillaxing on a boat in Newburyport Harbor.

Chillaxing on a boat in Newburyport Harbor.


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Shock and Awe

August 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

Times+Square+New York

Mtuseni’s been home from his US trip for over a month now, and I’m still trying to put the pieces together. It’s a little bit like the aftermath of a tornado — not only from the nonstop energy of activities during his visit, but also the mental chaos it caused. The kid I saw here was in some ways the inquisitive, funny, sweet young man I know from years of long-form texting. Yet I was also surprised and a bit dismayed to see a moody, sour, sullen, insolent teenager — an alien being I’ve never experienced in four years of digital and phone communication. To say it caught me off guard is an understatement.

Part of Mtuseni’s darker persona is a product of an emotional immaturity: developmentally on many levels he is more like a 15-year-old than someone turning 21 next month. I was not prepared to handle the psychological roulette wheel of an adolescent boy. Props (and sympathy) to any parents who deal with that stuff on a daily basis.

But I discovered in a long talk with Mtuseni towards the mid-point of the visit — after things had come to a head and my capacity for patience was exhausted — that part of his mood and ‘tude were the by-product of profound culture shock.

Before Mtuseni arrived, friends noted that visiting the US from a poor South African settlement would be a culture shock to him. And I completely agreed. Yet what does that mean? What is culture? How do people living in a particular culture understand it — or do they even recognize it? For residents of a culture, it’s just life; you’re not aware of it as being a distinct through-line of daily experience. When I think of “American culture” today, it’s a mix of consumerism and marketing and obesity and violent movies and mindless reality TV. The higher values and principles of previous generations have been drowned out by crassness and banality — the Kardashian circus being the tipping point.

I don’t think that description fits all of America, but if someone asked me today to describe our culture in a nutshell that’s what I’d say, because the momentum seems to be heading in that direction. And given that Mtuseni experiences the eye-popping wealth and consumerism of Sandton at school every day (which shocked me on my trip to SA), and because he’s a student and consumer of mass media and marketing, I thought that any culture shock from visiting America would be limited.

Boy was I wrong.

When I finally sat Mtuseni down and asked him why he was being such a dick, his response was a profound eye opener for me. He said that, from the moment he stepped off the plane, everything seemed like a dream. Like he was here, but not here. Like he was watching himself in a movie, and thinking “This is my life? Am I really here in this place?” Everyone has had a similar out-of-body experience at some time. I remember feeling that in Venice — but having traveled before, it was wondrous and pleasant. For Mtuseni, that surreal feeling overwhelmed him — and he threw up defensive walls that at times made him miserable to be around.

But it wasn’t so much the cacophony of Times Square or the Boston subways or having electricity and a fully stocked kitchen that overwhelmed him. It was our American culture — experiences of life here that are so ingrained that I don’t even notice them. And having finally broken through his walls, they all came tumbling out of him in a list that stunned me. For example…

  • It felt “scary” to be hanging out with “older white people” here who treated him like a regular person and wanted to hear what he had to say. In South Africa, he says that whites look down on and talk down to blacks. There is mutual distrust, and he said that “apartheid will never be over in South Africa.” (My heart broke when he said that.)
  • People here are “very color blind,” with all types of diverse people all hanging out and comfortable together. (By contrast, seeing an episode of Family Feud at the gym — which happened to have a black family and a white family as contestants — Mtuseni said to me “Oh, so this show is black versus white?” That’s not the perception of a color-blind filter at work.)
  • Black teenagers here seem much more “confident” and comfortable and better dressed than his black peers in SA. (The realities of his deep poverty and limited farm-school education must have become more apparent to him here.)
  • It was “shocking” that Americans are so “open” and “talk about anything” and express opinions on everything. South Africans are much more cautious and oblique in their conversations. (I’d always heard that Americans are more forthright and direct than most cultures, but didn’t fully grasp it until hearing the perspective of an outsider like Mtuseni.)

Newbury+Street+cafe+Boston+TapeoBecause I live inside the American culture, these perceptions that Mtuseni shared were completely under my radar. Two “older” white folks and a college kid discussing a variety of topics at a Newbury Street cafe just seemed normal for me, but was on some level mind-blowing for him.

I now have a better understanding of “culture” and how it can affect someone who lives in a distinctly different one. I only wish I had somehow been more attuned to it with Mtuseni, and had checked in earlier with him. For after we spent over two hours talking about this stuff, he lost that sense of “being in a dream” and was more present here, more comfortable, more integrated into the experience. Don’t get me wrong, he still had his moments of sour faces and stony silence. But that wasn’t culture shock; it was merely a kid who has one foot in adulthood and one foot in ninth grade. And that’s going to take longer to resolve.

 


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