When I was a toddler, my mother took me to mommy-child aquatics at a YMCA in Niles, IL. Although I did not learn to swim in those early years, my experience at the Y formed a lifelong impression on me. In front of the standard community facility, a half-size replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa stood tall, angled, and proud. For years, I believed that this was the Leaning Tower.
When I discovered that it is one of many buildings in America that are constructed in homage of a world famous structure elsewhere in the world, I developed a fascination with strange tourist attractions. I needed to see more.
My interest in replica buildings, edifices that claim to be the World’s Tallest or Smallest whatever it is, and other roadside attractions inspired road trip plans, which came to a sudden halt when I moved to New York City in 1994. Not only did I not have a car, but my palms sweat just thinking about driving in the dense, erratic traffic of the metropolitan environment. I abandoned my dream to explore all that was weird in the surrounding area.
One day, while drooling over a road trip website, it occurred to me that New York City has the greatest subway and bus system in the country, if not the world. In a city with the most densely populated blocks in the nation, a single subway ride from Times Square will leave a traveler utterly alone, surrounded by (mostly) silent nature in the woods of Inwood Park. There are skyscrapers galore in Manhattan, but the subway and bus can bring the overwhelmed to a working farm in Queens. A person can join the hordes for a tour at the Metropolitan Opera House, or take the train out to Brooklyn to listen to turn of the century recordings of opera legend Enrico Caruso played on vintage phonographs in a museum on the second floor of a two-family home. The body of a venerated saint, shrines that heal the ailing, and religious relics are located not far from enormous balls of hair coughed up by cows. New York City may not have a replica of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, but why does it need one when we have the World’s Tallest Doric Column?
New York City is loaded with enough offbeat attractions to keep a curiosity seeker busy for quite some time, no car required. There are so many great places to visit that I wrote a book, Off the Beaten (Subway) Track: New York City’s Best Unusual Attractions to document my experiences at them and encourage others to explore. So when my mom (and dad, grandmother, sister, and brother-in-law) came to visit me from my hometown outside of Chicago this summer for my book party, we set out to see a few of the places in the book as well as the typical sites.
The family began the trip with lunch at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop (174 Fifth Avenue). I thought that my they would like this throwback lunchcounter from 1929. Thanks to recent renovations, we were able to sit at a table in the back instead of in a straight line along the counter in the narrow front of the restaurant. My mom ordered a chocolate phosphate, which can be hard to find these days, and I had a lime rickey. We bantered with the crabby waiter over the difference between Jews in New York and those in Chicago while my sister sucked down an egg cream. My brother-in-law enjoyed his hot tongue sandwich, although the rest of us stuck to chicken or tuna salad. When the bill came, we fought over who would pick up the reasonable tab.
The next day, we hit the New York City Fire Museum (278 Spring Street), where I held my book party. The assortment of antique firetrucks, particularly the horse-drawn ones decked out with special decorations for ceremonial parades, impressed my mother. My favorite display in the museum is Chief, a stray dog who became the mascot of Brooklyn’s Engine Company 203. My mom and I read that Chief bravely rescued hundreds of people alongside firefighters in the 1930s until he was hit by a car and killed. He is stuffed and mounted in a glass enclosed nook of the museum. My mom wrinkled her nose as she leaned in for a closer look. “Gross,” she declared. I disagreed. Taxidermy makes every museum that much more interesting.
Another afternoon, we hit Chelsea Market (75 Ninth Avenue) for snacks. My mom, sister, and I shared a lavender milkshake with homemade ice cream and a strawberry blended milk and yogurt cocktail from the Ronnybrook Milk Bar. Mom and I would have preferred the Chocolate Orange Peel, but my sister was not keen on a shake made with orange soda (or “pop,” as they say in Chicago). There was no room in our stomachs after all that, but I could not let them leave without brownies from the Fat Witch bakery. We arrived after 5 pm, and the unwrapped brownies we bought to take home were half price.
Sadly, it was time for my family to return to the Midwest before we could explore more places. When my mom called to let me know their flight arrived safely, she told me that she already made a list of places she wanted to see on her next visit to New York. First on the list is the Louis Armstrong House and Museum (34-56 107th Street, Corona) in Queens. “It’s the only home of a jazz musician that is open to the public,” she reminded me. After that, we’ll put New York City into perspective with the Panorama of the City of New York at the Queens Museum of Art (New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park). She’s already planned what she’ll eat at Leo’s Latticini (46-02 104th Street, Corona; aka Mama’s). I can’t wait, and I owe it all to her and our swim lessons at the Leaning Tower Y.