For Kirk’s dad’s 60th birthday, Kirk’s mom organized a surprise trip to New York City. Kevin knew he was going on a trip, but he didn’t know where, and didn’t know his kids and their significant others would be there to meet him. At La Guardia, as Kevin and Val descended the escalator to baggage claim, Kirk, me, Maureen and her boyfriend, Will, yelled “Happy Birthday!”

It was my first time to NYC. Since its identity is so built up in movies, magazines, books, photos and news, I was looking forward to getting to see it for myself.

Roosevelt Island Tram
The tram spans the East River and connects the Upper East Side of Manhattan to Roosevelt Island. It’s a short 3-minute ride, just over 3000 feet from one end to the other. We started off our first sightseeing day with city views from a hundred feet above ground.

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Battery Park City
From the southwest end of Manhattan, we caught the closest view of the Statue of Liberty we could get.

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9/11 Memorial
Peering into the giant fountains, the feeling of tremendous loss was unmistakable. I was sitting in chemistry class my sophomore year of high school when the planes hit. Can’t imagine, in the slightest, what it would’ve been like actually being in Manhattan.

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Brooklyn Bridge
Photo-op of the Brooklyn Bridge. The Manhattan Bridge is just behind it.

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South Street Seaport
On our way back to the subway, we stumbled upon South Street Seaport, a designated historic area with some of the oldest architecture in Manhattan. Turned out to be one of my favorite spots.

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Financial District
Also an old part of Manhattan, streets in the Financial District are narrow, and instead of the typical grid pattern, run in all different directions.

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The Subway
By this point, we had rode the subway everywhere and thought we had it figured out. Turns out we’d misunderstood how tickets transferred, and so attempted to get clarification from a MTA employee. After a half minute of escalating discussion, she looked me and the rest of our group over.

“You’re not from here, are you,” she declared gruffly.

“Well, obviously not,” I retorted. Or else we wouldn’t be asking you for help. This was only our second day in NYC, and already my Midwestern congeniality was tiring of the brusque New Yorker temperament.

Kirk and Val jumped in, smoothing things over. The employee opened the gates to let us all through, sans tickets.

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Times Square
We stopped for about 10 minutes in Time Square. No matter it was noon and the sun was at its zenith, the screens seemed to overpower the sky.

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Grand Central Station
Only two things made up my NYC-must-see list: B&H Photo and Grand Central Station. Nearing the entrance, I felt like a kid about step onto Platform Nine and Three-Quarters. I’m a sucker for trains, stations, platforms, travel, movement, always coming, always going…

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Empire State Building
It was raining and visibility was reported as poor when we planned to go to the top of the Empire State Building. In a now-or-never situation, we bought tickets and rode the elevator up, hoping for the best. We got lucky: The lights of the city managed to shine through the low clouds.

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My sister lived in New York City while attending grad school from mid-2010 to early 2012. Her plan was to complete her doctorate there; but, after a year and a half and a change of heart, she decided to take a break from school and move back to Wisconsin. Thinking she’d be there 5-6 years, I hadn’t yet visited her; I’d lost my chance.

My favorite way to see a new place is with a local. Preconceived notions are easily shattered when you get to see through an insider’s perspective. And NYC? It’s a tough nut to crack. After years of learning about New York City through secondhand sources, I knew it would take a good amount of firsthand experience to develop my own opinion. After this 4-day trip, I saw a lot, checked off many tourist attractions, ate lots of good food and had a lovely time — but still I don’t feel I know the city at all. If I had regrets, not visiting Kelly in NYC would be one. “We’ll take a trip there, you and me,” she says. I’m holding her to it. ☼