The first day of our New York City tour, I am on the top deck of a bus driving down Fifth Avenue past the Flatiron building when I remember there is a Kate Spade store coming up on the left. I pause for a moment to stare down from my high perch. Its founder has just died by her own hand two days before and it is still raw in our national psyche.
I turn to Mirna, my tour companion for two days, and nod toward the store, taking a deep breath. Moments before we had been sitting at a traffic light, moving easily to Alicia Keys and Jay Z and their catchy ode to New York. It’s part of the soundtrack pumping into our ears.
The next day our bus is crawling through Times Square at dusk. With so much stimulation in every direction at this iconic place, my eyes look right and fix on the marquis at the Hard Rock Café – “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Anthony Bourdain. Our thoughts are with his family and friends. We will forever miss his love for great food and travel.”
Yes, that very morning he had been found after taking his own life. I first heard it on the radio. Just hours later I was on a bus riding past CNN and thinking about all the sorrow contained in that building at that moment.
A bit of backstory is in order.
About eight years ago I approached the director of the Hoboken Homeless Shelter and asked her to refer me a pro bono client who would appreciate and benefit from life coaching. This is how I came to meet Mirna, a working professional who had become homeless when her mental illness overwhelmed her. We met weekly for years and then recently switched to having our sessions every other week. She now lives on her own in Bayonne and she takes mass transit to Hoboken for our meetings.
This is my volunteerism. I have been asked on occasion why I am still coaching Mirna and each time I have the same answer: “Because she is benefitting from the connection and so am I.” Regular appointments are a good thing for Mirna, I have learned. She likes having things on her calendar to look forward to. For those who know the depths of depression well, this can be not just life enhancing but life saving.
So this is not just any travel companion, but one who understands the demons of Spade and Bourdain and the countless others who wonder if they can handle another day on the planet. We talk about it once or twice as the bus ambles along, but mostly we do what we are there to do – have fun and explore.
And this brings me to why two New Jersey residents who live just across the Hudson River are playing tourist in New York to begin with. A perfect storm, so to speak. On Facebook I see an offer for a pair of complimentary two-day passes for Top View NYC’s hop on/hop off buses. Mirna has expressed interest in this particular venture a few times, so I write and ask if the passes are still available. They are; they’re ours. We just have to pick our dates.
We choose June 7 and 8 and then painstakingly go through our options on the Top View website. Our decision is simple – Day 1 would be a Downtown tour and a cruise to the Statue of Liberty and Day 2 would be an Uptown tour and then a night time one. We decided to be somewhat spontaneous about where we’d hop on and off.
Because I live a mere 10 minutes by subway from Manhattan, I can often be found at the latest art exhibit at any one of the world-renowned art museums there. However, since moving to Hoboken nearly 20 years ago, I am embarrassed to say I had never actually taken a cruise to see the Statue of Liberty up close. As our boat made the approach and I saw her lines and her stance and allowed myself to be with her presence, I felt the tears come. She is so, so grand.
Lady Liberty was the highlight of a packed day that also included the High Line and Chelsea Market, which I had visited many times but Mirna wanted to see. The following day, so much seemed to be tugging at my emotions. The relaxed vibe of Strawberry Fields and a tinge of sadness that the message of Imagine is still so powerful. Will enough people ever get it? I bought a magnet as reminder: You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
We got back on the bus after a quick stop at a favorite of mine, Gray’s Papaya, for hotdogs (I later learned Bourdain was a fan) and then hopped off at St. John the Divine. I had been to this beautiful cathedral for two book signings about five years ago, but hadn’t been back since and I was hankering for a fix.
One can’t help but feel dwarfed at St. John the Divine, not just because of the high ceilings but because the center has no pews. It is vast space, calling one to wander and be with the atmosphere. Suddenly I hear Mirna say, “The Ave Maria” and then I hear it coming from the rafters. Then it’s Somewhere Over the Rainbow and I crack, prompting Mirna to ask, “Nancy, are you crying?”
Yes, I have a church thing (and a big statue thing, apparently). Your life coach likes to feel.
We stopped at the Central Park Zoo at Mirna’s request and we got a kick out of the sea lions doing tricks during their feeding. On the night tour, we went over the Manhattan Bridge as the sun was setting and the explosion of colors behind the Freedom Tower and other downtown skyscrapers was sublime. Another highlight.
On the subway ride back to Jersey, Mirna and I talked about what we’d seen and how bone tired we were from touring our backyard.
It was a two-day staycation filled with sights and moments and, yes, reveling in being alive.