The Real Reason I Went to New York

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school experience. For the next little while, I’ll be posting a purely self-indulgent* series of essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

On my way to Europe, I stopped in New York. And there was a reason for this. I had an important task to take care of, one that’s been nagging me for quite awhile.

Let’s Go Back to the Start
Back in 2003, I went to Connecticut to work at a trade show. The jump in/jump out point was JFK Airport in New York. The show wrapped up on a Saturday night, but my flight back to Canada didn’t leave until Sunday night. With a day to kill, I figured out how to get to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan and spent a glorious few hours roaming its beautiful rooms, joyfully basking in some of the world’s greatest art.

At the time, though, things were not so great in my life. There was man trouble, but worse, as a freelance graphic artist, I was perpetually, miserably broke. When I handed over my credit card to pay for a few small souvenirs, I held my breath because I wasn’t 100% sure it would go through.

The beautiful Temple of Dendur

The beautiful Temple of Dendur

Walk Like an Egyptian
Now, if you’ve ever been to the Museum, one of its great treasures is the Temple of Dendur. It’s an Ancient Egyptian temple, gifted to the U.S. government by the Egyptian government. It was dis-assembled, shipped to the U.S. (don’t ask me how) and then re-assembled in its very own room in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The minute you walk into that room, you feel an immediate sense of calm. Because it’s set off by itself, all of the ambient noise falls away and you find yourself in a peaceful, tranquil oasis.

Promises, Promises
There’s a pool surrounding the Temple, and people throw coins in it. Back in 2003, as I walked around shooting photos, it occurred to me that I should toss in some coins too. But I didn’t want to make a wish. Instead, I wanted to make a promise. I tossed a few pennies into the pool, and quietly said

“When I come back here, things will be better.”

A pool full of wishes -- and one promise

A pool full of wishes —
and one promise

Fast forward to 2014. I was now on my way to summer school in Europe, but I’d arranged my travels so that I could stop overnight in New York. I got up early, and got to the Museum just as it opened. I picked up a map, and made my way over to the wing where the Temple of Dendur is housed.

When I walked into the room, I took a deep breath — and immediately started to cry.

I had kept my promise. It had actually happened. Things had gotten better and I had finally come back – to the very same spot — to give thanks.

That morning, I’d tucked eleven pennies into one of my pockets – one for every year since 2003. When I was ready, I pulled them out and tossed them all in at once with a whispered “thank you”.

I thought it was a good idea to add a little extra oomph to my gratitude, so there was a dollar in quarters in my other pocket. Those went into the pool next.

Are You Kidding Me?
Now at this point, you’re probably thinking I’m crazy. Who goes all the way to New York to throw $1.11 in change into a museum display? I mean, seriously?

This is what it looks like when four quarters simultaneously hit the water

This is what it looks like when four quarters simultaneously hit the water

Apparently, I do.

And if you think I’m crazy, I’ll admit that there are instances where I might agree with you. But — for whatever reason — getting myself back to that room in the Museum became really important to me.

For many of us, keeping a promise to ourselves is so much harder than keeping one to someone else. Especially if the promise is a little wacky. Or expensive.

But I can’t tell you how satisfied it made me feel to realize that I had actually done something I said I was going to do — even though I’d made the promise at a time when I couldn’t imagine how or when I’d be able to deliver the goods.

That, my friends, is definitely worth $1.11.
Plus airfare and hotel.

Always Have A Plan B
And now, today’s travel hacking tips. In my last post, I was busy crowing about the cheap, fast and easy method of using public transit to get from La Guardia Airport to Manhattan.

However, when I tried making the return trip, I discovered that a power outage in Brooklyn had caused severe delays on the subway line I needed. Oops.

Luckily for me, a Plan B appeared to be close at hand with the NYC Airporter bus, which costs $13.00. However, I cannot really recommend this service. It’s advertised as running every half-hour, but I waited close to an hour for a bus that was supposed to arrive “in the next 20 minutes”. (Lying to customers seems to be an acceptable marketing strategy in New York.)

Once the bus arrived, it did get me to La Guardia in 45 minutes, but not before I’d made a panicky call to Air Canada, wondering how late I could check in and not miss my flight. (And because I don’t have US roaming on my phone, that toll-free call cost me an extra $14.87.) You’ll find terrible reviews for the NYC Airporter on Trip Advisor and I’m sorry to say that they’ve earned them.

Here are my tips:

  • Take public transit if you can, and save your money for something more interesting. (The Q70 bus from La Guardia is even equipped with luggage racks.)
  • Avoid the NYC Airporter unless you absolutely have to use it.
  • In both cases, leave yourself plenty of time for something to go wrong.

And always have a Plan B.

A Tiny Tribute To Two Very Big Hearts

This summer, I spent a month on the road in Europe, as part of a summer field school experience. For the next little while, I’ll be posting a purely self-indulgent* series of essays, inspired by the slice-of-life wisdom that only travel brings.

*You could say that I’m invoking the “it’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” rule. After all, it’s my blog and I’ll… etc. etc. Still, I hope these are at least a little entertaining.

Hello! Yes, it’s been a mighty long time since you heard my voice on this blog. But today, I’m back with a travel hacking tip and a tiny story.

Let’s Begin at the Beginning
We’ll start with the story. My educational path has been fairly checkered, but I did manage to finish a diploma in Fine Arts way back in 1984. I was a student at the Abbotsford campus of what is now the University of the Fraser Valley, under the tutelage of two amazing teachers: Janina and Mircho Jakobow. I don’t know a lot about their history. They were both very talented artists, classically trained, and they’d come to Canada from Romania.

Can’t Draw
I first met this dynamic duo in my portfolio interview, after I applied for entry into the design program at Fraser Valley. This was also my first encounter with Janina’s customary bluntness. “Well” she said, looking at my sketches. “I can see that you have some design talent, but your drawing is not so hot.” She was right, of course. I spent the next two years learning (among many other things) how to draw.

Looking back on it now, I wonder what it was that possessed them to try and build a fine arts program in what was – truthfully – a pretty backwater town in rural British Columbia. But they took on this task with a great deal of devotion and optimism. Day after day, they worked to expand our minds as well as train our hands.

Hitting the Road
One of their great mind expansion techniques was a semi-annual field trip to New York City. They would shuttle twenty-odd students across the continent from Vancouver, and pack in as much art, fashion and culture as we could handle in a week. I joined this trip in my first year of school, the spring of 1983.

Somehow, Janina and Mircho let me talk them into allowing my two best friends from Edmonton to come as well. We unpacked ourselves into a budget hotel in Times Square and had a week that we still talk about, some thirty years later. Museums! Broadway plays! Shopping! I remember flying home and wondering how I would ever again be satisfied with the cultural offerings of Canada.

One of the places Janina and Mircho insisted we visit was Pearl Paint, on Canal Street at the edge of Manhattan. It was a mecca for art students looking for cheap materials. Of course I went, and bought everything I would need for the rest of my time in college. And then some. And then some more. It was like visiting Aladdin’s Cave of Art Supplies, and I left no pencil or paint tube behind.

Hitting the Road Again
Several years later, well after I’d graduated, I got word that both Mircho and Janina had both passed away. Mircho had suffered a sudden heart attack. He and Janina were very deeply bonded, so it was terribly sad but not surprising to hear that she followed him soon after.

Thirty-one years have gone by since that trip to New York. I’m still in a creative profession, although I don’t draw as much as I’d like. And I’m headed out on another field trip experience, this time for four weeks, in Austria and Italy.

But my first stop on this odyssey is New York. It seemed only fitting that I should plan a trip to Pearl Paint, still in the same location. I thought I could make it a tiny personal tribute to Janina and Mircho, who — bless them — had taken a yappy, temperamental 20-year-old named Sally and done their patient best to turn her into a designer.

And Now, a Detour for Some Travel Hacking
Way back at the beginning of this post, I promised you a travel hacking tip. Here it is. If you’re flying into La Guardia Airport in New York, skip the various shuttle services (which tend to get tied up in traffic) and hop onto the Q70 bus at Terminal B. It’ll take you to two subway hubs where you can catch a train to pretty much anywhere. I was able to get from La Guardia Airport to Times Square in an hour, for the princely sum of $2.50.

In a big city, this is a good way to experience life at street level. And you’ll find this kind of transportation solution in many of the big cities in the United States, as well as those of Europe. Besides New York, I’ve taken the MAX train to Portland’s airport, an MTS bus to San Diego’s airport, and the Tube from Heathrow to downtown London. None of these cost more than $10, and got me to my destination quickly and efficiently.

A New York icon since 1933

A New York icon since 1933

Returning to Our Story…
After I booked tickets and hotels, I printed subway schedules and maps from Google, and figured out how to make my tiny tribute work.

And then … Pearl Paint closed.

Without warning, at the end of April. Apparently not even the employees knew it was coming. A New York icon since 1933, it was shuttered almost overnight. I decided to go anyways. I bought a pair of china markers before I left Edmonton, and guessed that I’d be able to find a place to leave a little bit of heartfelt graffiti.

Getting to Pearl Paint was easy, but the store looked sad, permanently locked up behind big steel gates. I located a spot to leave my mark, on the ancient ironwork steps leading into the store, where my feet had last touched down in March of 1983.

I pulled out my china markers and looked around, a little apprehensive. I mean, what happens when a random person starts drawing on the steps of an abandoned store in a working-class New York neighbourhood? I didn’t know.

As it turns out, nothing happens. People went about their business and ignored me. Still, I worked quickly and as soon as I finished, stood up to admire my handiwork. Then I kissed my fingertips and quietly said “thanks, guys.”

Thanks indeed. For so much more than you probably ever realized.