Pass It On: Erin Roach's VIP Day Out

By Dom Bewley

Back in sunny July, we decided to give one of you something amazing. Two day-long New York Passes, a VIP Tour of the Empire State Building, a $150 gift card to State Grill, the Empire State Building's beloved restaurant, and pedestal tickets to the Statue Of Liberty. All we asked for in return? A little story about your favorite hidden gem in New York, be it a street food cart that amazed you, a bookstore that inspired you or hairdresser who gave you the best bangs ever. And in August, we picked our winner. Erin Roach stole the show with her inspiring story about 'Westsider Rare and Used Books' on the Upper West Side. So we sent her two well-deserved passes with all the trimmings, with only two instructions to follow: have as much fun as you can, and let us know all about it.

This is Erin, and her mother's, tale.

Day One: The Journey Begins

On any normal day leaving the house at 6am would have seemed a form of punishment, but this was an exception. Operating solely on caffeine and adrenaline, we made our way to Manhattan via a somewhat out-of-the-way (but completely rewarding) layover in New Orleans, which we may or may not have booked entirely to get beignets. Lady Liberty greeted our LaGuardia-bound flight before we landed to sunny skies and unseasonably warm weather.

Our Super Shuttle driver provided us with an additional and somewhat unexpected tour of Harlem, which our fellow passengers did not appreciate. My mother and I, however, took in all the sights and sounds, as if we had never left the house our entire lives. We arrived at our hotel a little worse for wear but buzzing from all we’d already seen. Our room on the 23rd floor presented us with a glittering view of the city, which was just donning its evening attire of sparkling lights. Enchanting.

Grabbing an unneeded umbrella and a power charger, we made our way to the Rock Center Café in Rockefeller Center for a much-needed meal. The restaurant’s view of Prometheus is enough to delight, but being the dark-humored people that we are, we mostly enjoy seeing the rookie ice skaters fall down. I’m definitely not much of an athlete, but you also won’t find me pulling my way around the rink wall. Parents marionette their well-meaning but clumsy children onto the ice in droves. It’s hard to say who is less inclined to be there in the first place. It’s hilarious. It’s a must-see in my opinion.

Day Two: Renita, Jewel of the Empire State Building

After waking up in the city that doesn’t sleep, we made our way to 50th Street to meet up with our tour guide for the On Location Tours New York TV and Movie Sites Tour. I find that even if you’re not a movie fan, (which I happen to be) the bus tours offered in Manhattan are a wonderful way to see the city without walking your feet down to nubs. We toured 5th Avenue, Chelsea, SoHo, NoHo, Washington Square Park, Midtown and the Meatpacking District. Our tour guide Roseanne pointed out celebrity homes and shooting locations while providing related clips. As if that wasn’t enough, we were given a black and white cookie for our time. Nothing says New York like a black and white cookie.

After stopping for a brief lunch at the Seinfeld-fabled Soup Man (also seen on our tour) we made our way downtown to do a bit of thrift store shopping ala Carrie Bradshaw. We were even able to pop into the Starbucks Reserve Roastery without the golden ticket supposedly needed for admission. Willy Wonka himself would be hard-pressed - pun intended - to find a more exciting café. We decided it best to get our Hawaiian blends to go and made our way back to the hotel with just enough time to change before catching the train to our VIP Empire State Building tour. So many visitors seem apprehensive to use the subway to get around, but it can be an attraction in itself. In the few days, we were in the city, we passed gospel singers, violinists, orchestras and shamisen players. Also, we didn’t get caught in traffic once.

The doorman at the 34th Street entrance greeted us and ushered us indoors. We waited only a few moments before Renita, the world’s best tour guide, met us in the lobby. I had been to the Empire State Building once before, but this was my mother’s first time. I think it may have ruined all future trips for me. Renita was warm and knowledgeable. She led us past the lines and down a red carpet, ending at a private VIP lounge. Champagne was promptly uncorked and our tour began as we were comfortably seated in the plush green room. Surrounded by memorabilia of previous celebrity guests, we were provided with a private bathroom and makeup room, as well as a live stream camera to take photos for their website.

Did I mention champagne? There was also champagne. We felt very metropolitan.

Renita explained the history of the art, the architecture, the marble, the construction and the renovation. She seemed to be more of a fixture there than King Kong, who we also ran into along the way. We were escorted to the front of the line at each exhibit and photo op, as any proper VIP should. We rode an express elevator to the exclusive 102nd floor, which offered a floor to ceiling glass view of the city in all of its 360-degree splendor before descending to the 86th floor observatory to mingle with all the commoners who were not afforded our posh lifestyle. It’s nice to rub elbows with those less fortunate once in a while.

I had arranged for dinner at 8:30 after our tour, but misgauged a bit and arrived early. Renita proved invaluable yet again, speaking to the hostess on our behalf and moving the reservation up. I’m sure there are many great guides available on the VIP tour, but I truly can’t imagine having one as wonderful as she was. Renita was truly was the highlight of our day.

Dinner at the State Grill and Bar was a delight. After our reservation adjustment, we were promptly seated by the window in a warm candlelit booth. We feasted on cheese plates, honeycomb, olives, pumpkin salad and seafood before reaching the limit of digestive endurance over a piece of chocolate cake. Agonizingly full, and having adored every moment of our meal, we rolled home.

Day Three: Modern Art, and the Books that Brought Me Here

Don’t you just love New York in the fall? Makes me want to buy school supplies. I would send you a freshly sharpened bouquet of pencils if I knew your name and address.”

Nora Ephron understood New York better than anyone and her true love was the Upper West Side. The setting of such films as You’ve Got Mail and When Harry Met Sally, it offers an unparalleled charm. It’s also home to the New York Gem that afforded me this trip when I wrote about it as part of the Pass It On Giveaway: 'Westsider Rare and Used Books'. I was surprised to see they had taken on a new employee since my last visit, a furry black cat named Pig. He was extremely hospitable, although he didn’t provide many recommendations. I left with Steve Martin’s Pure Drivel and a signed copy of Tarzan on Broadway before heading across the street to soak up all the aromas of Zabars. Sadly, this was not a free sample day.

We begrudgingly departed the Upper West Side and made our way across Central Park in time for our lunch reservations at the Central Park Boathouse. If the lake views and fall foliage weren’t enough reason to visit, the pressed octopus and pretzel rolls should be. After lunch, we strolled beneath golden canopies of turning leaves and past musicians and street performers. A stranger asked if we would mind taking a picture of him standing naked in the Bethesda fountain. We declined. I love New York!

Uniqlo sponsors free admission night on Fridays at the MoMA, so we were thrilled to hear it had reopened after a lengthy renovation just in time for our visit. We spent the rest of the evening viewing the many works there before retiring to Junior’s for dinner. Their cheesecake is not to be missed. We were too full. We missed it. Next time.

Day Four: We Just 'Met', and a Walkabout

Saturday was the day we had chosen to use our New York Pass. It was also, unfortunately, the day the trip started to catch up with us, so we slept in a bit. We were able to function after a couple gallons of coffee and arrived just in time to meet our tour guide George in front of the world-renowned Plaza Hotel for our On Location Tours Central Park TV and Movie Sites Tour.

We were able to take in all the sites I had wanted to see on previous trips but had never taken the time to scout out. We visited the rink from Serendipity, the bridge from Home Alone 2 and The Mall from Kramer vs Kramer. Each site was more illuminated with the rapidly changing colors of the season, without all that pesky cold. Our guide was delightfully snarky and well-informed and kept the tour going at a good pace.

Our second tour of the day, When Harry Met Seinfeld, was canceled due to unforeseen and unexplained circumstances, so we used lunch as an excuse to return to the Upper West Side and grab a nova sandwich at Café Lalo (the café where Joe Fox meets Kathleen Kelly in You’ve Got Mail). Freshly fueled and lightly rested, we headed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to rack up another use of our New York Pass. We had planned to visit the Top of the Rock Observatory, but got distracted by something shiny and stayed until the Met had closed. After a brief hike and short train ride, we ended our day in the corner booth of Sardi’s.

Day Five: Storm Over the Statue

Sunday was, unfortunately, our last day. And the wettest. We had arranged for our Statue of Liberty pedestal tickets this day, much to our chagrin. After arriving at Ferry Street Station, we opted for a brief rest before continuing our swim through Battery Park. Walking against the wind with our pants legs soaked to the hip, we battled our way into the ticket pickup location, come hell or high water. We presented our soggy passes to the security officer, who directed us upstream past a forsaken umbrella case and a family of huddled trash bag wearers. Give us Liberty or give us death.

I’m sure some would have found this experience less than ideal, including the gentleman in front of us whose wife commented she was “sure having a blast”. But my mother and I are always up for an adventure. The sea was as angry as....well, that old man in front of us as we departed from the harbor. We managed to procure a seat before we began heaving towards Liberty Island. I wondered aloud if we should have stayed on deck? It was still monsooning, but what better place to get a picture? We made our way to the stern, colliding with other onlookers in a deluge of humanity. I snapped a quick picture of Lady Liberty while my mom snapped a picture of me wincing as the rain pummeled me into oblivion. Memories.

We departed the ferry and reassembled our battered umbrellas before trudging to the pedestal like Lewis and Clark. We were wet and broken, but our resolve was absolute. My umbrella caught the wind and whipped backwards while my mother wrapped her soggy trench coat over her purse. We were explorers. We ascended to the pedestal, and stepped onto the observation deck. I’m told you could see the city from there, but all I saw were my long tresses of hair reaching from the sides of my face to blind me. My umbrella screamed in agony as we reentered the structure.

“Wanna go again?” I asked.

“That’s ok” my mother replied. We returned back to the ferry.

“Did you still want to stop at Ellis Island?” I asked hesitantly.

“I mean, I’d still kinda like to see it” she replied, undaunted by the experience.

The clock was betraying me and I knew we didn’t have much time left on our whirlwind tour of NY, so we stopped at Ellis Island long enough to take in the 30-minute movie and peruse the gift shop before heading back to Lower Manhattan. Even with two broken umbrellas and soaked clothing, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. The battle we faced was nothing compared to that of those that originally traveled here to seek freedom and a new life.

As someone who has been to the city many times, I had never been to the Statue of Liberty before and I felt so glad to have an opportunity to see it. I’m not sure it would have had the same impact on a sunny day. So, even if the weather isn’t what you’d hoped for, you should still take the opportunity to visit. The lines were greatly reduced and the museum and exhibits are indoors. Just allow a change of clothes or dress like the Gordon’s fisherman.

We had just enough time to make a final pilgrimage to the Upper West Side one last time. Zabar’s greeted us with hot soup and an incredibly tardy sunny sky. We people watched from the bar seating before pillaging the connecting market and beginning our stroll back to the hotel.

Finale

There’s a reason so many songs have been written about New York. Where else can you see the things we were able to experience in just five days-time? So many people translate “If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere” to mean once you’ve been you can handle anything, but perhaps what they mean is you can literally make Manhattan be anywhere you want it to be. It can be China. It can be Italy. It can be an enchanted forest. It can be whatever you need it to be. If you’ve been to New York, I think you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t been, what are you waiting for?

“It’s up to you. New York, NY.”

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