Free Hugs

Friday, July 4th, 2008 I spent in New York City with Harlan and Nathaniel. We arrived in early afternoon and checked into the Morningside Hotel, which happens to be in Morningside at 107th and Broadway. I raced the other two guys down to South Street Seaport on my rollerblades, and did the nine miles about twenty minutes faster than they and the subway. Since we had a great seat during lunch at the Seaport next to the water, we decided to hold down the dock until fireworks time. Harlan went over to Strand Bookstore and got us all books to read; Les Misérables, The Hobbit, and Night. River 2 River did a mini-concert around the corner on the boardwalk. Soon all available seats were taken. A few rain sprinkles went through, but nothing that drenched us. We read books and watched boats cruise up and down the East River. We could see the four Fallsfrom our viewpoint. At 9:26 the fireworks show began. They had a pretty good show with some shapes and other things. There were a lot of shells going off at the same time, and the noise booming back and forth between Brooklyn and Manhattan was quite impressive. I heard rumors that it was New York’s biggest show ever. The show lasted half an hour and then we cleared out. The surrounding streets were filled with people, mostly headed into town and to the closest subway station. We chose to walk uptown a few blocks to see the Municipal Building at night. From there we got on the A train to Port Authority, where we ate a night lunch at Chevy’s.

Times Square had lots of people as usual. We got back to the hotel around 1am. Our room had two beds, a bathroom, and air conditioning; all for only $90. It was newly remodeled, and really quite a good value. We tried to get the room for our second night, but it was already sold. They had another room with a shared bath for $80, so we booked that one for Saturday night.

Saturday we slept in a little and then walked up Broadway to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 110th Street. This is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, according to a brochure I picked up inside the front door. It suffered a fire in 2000?, so the main sanctuary was partly closed due to ongoing construction work. The next stop was the informal Graffiti Hall of Fame on 106th Street. This too, was undergoing construction, so we couldn’t view all of it. Then we took a taxi to Grand Central, and from there we walked to Times Square. I put on my rollerblades and we split ways. I rollerbladed down Broadway to Union Square to Whole Foods Market for lunch.

I’m not sure how to describe WFM: it’s a large supermarket type split between 3 floors. WFM specializes in organic, fresh, healthy foods. They are very ‘green-oriented’. Some examples of this show in the recycled wood benches in the ‘Picnic Area’ upstairs, the ‘no plastic’ policy for shopping bags and prepared foods containers, and trash cans labeled ‘Landfill’. The ‘Picnic Area’ upstairs had several rows of long, narrow tables filled with people eating their organic foods elbow-to-elbow. I walked the floor a couple of times before I found a space to squeeze in among a foreign family and some other ‘Union Square Uniques’ at a long table. The family on my left spoke no English, and the others around me spoke nothing, so I ate in silence and contemplation with Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables’. The guy on my right got up, and a woman squeezed in quickly, filling the only vacancy on the floor. I’ll definitely be back here for lunch again. For people who are unfamiliar with sharing tables with strangers, this might not be the best choice. The buying experience involves waiting in a color-coded area for one available register in a pack of 35 cashiers. Next available numbers of checkout counters are called out on the PA system. There is often a large queue, but the wait is very short. You will be expected to pay promptly and move on out of the way.

After lunch, I went to the Barnes & Noble bookstore, which is –for those to whom such things are important- the flagship Barnes & Noble store; it’s four floors of books with a reading area on the top floor where authors come to do book readings. I like to swing through the reading room often in hopes of catching somebody interesting. Next I went over to Paragon Sporting Goods on 18th and Broadway. Paragon is the store by which all other sporting goods stores measure themselves. Paragon not only has something of everything; they are experts in every field –from skateboarding to biking, from rock climbing to scuba, from tennis to deep-sea fishing, from backpacking to golf, from skiing to bowling, from lacrosse to surfing, from ping-pong to swimming, and –you get the idea. This is a huge store, sprawling over four-plus levels with nearly a block of storefront. And everything has good prices, too.

Back in Union Square there was a small group of people giving free hugs to passersby. They were all holding papers with ‘Free Hugs‘ written on them. I chose a person with a lip ring and green earbuds. It was a good hug -nothing more, and nothing less. I discovered that a hug doesn’t really change me much. I found joy in watching them perform on other people. Their chanted slogan was, “Guaranteed to make your day, or your money back!”

After Union Square, I put on my rollerblades again and went downtown a little further and circled Ground Zero, down to Battery Park, and up to Washington Square Park –the fountain of which is still blockaded off behind construction barriers, effectively eliminating all local performing talent that is so often camped out there- via Mulberry St. of Little Italy, Mott St. of Chinatown, and Greene St. of SOHO. I went to the Eastern Mountain Sports store on Broadway below Houston St., after which I slipped into Miro for an espresso and pecan tart. Then I cruised back up to Union Square and watched the evening become active. Harlan and Nathanial met me for dinner at Chat ‘n’ Chew on 16th Street. After dinner, we hung out in Union Square for a few more hours before heading back to Morningside at 1am.

Sunday we slept in as long as we could. I checked out the service schedule for the Brooklyn Tabernacle and we decided to try for the 12 noon service. I wanted to hear their famous 300 person choir sing. We got pastries and coffee from the Silver Moon Bakery at 106th Street. Silver Moon is worth a trip from anywhere in town for their large selection of extraordinarily fresh baked goods. Highly recommend. We took the 2 train to Borough Hall in Brooklyn and walked over to 17 Smith Street. The Brooklyn Tabernacle has an unassuming exterior; indeed I have walked past it many times never really knowing what was behind its doors. I walked through the doors and we found seats fairly close to the front of the auditorium. I admit I was prepared for an entertaining experience, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that this was church. The deacons came down all the rows of thousands of people and shook everybody’s hand. This was kind of a cool beginning to the service. The songleader got up and ‘merged’ the congregation and the choir into song. There was a half an hour of congregational singing (not for weak ear drums) after which we were all to shake hands with our by-sitters. Then Pastor Cymbala had a few words and the choir did some singing, led by the Pastor’s wife, Carol. Pastor Cymbala had a few more thoughts, the offering was lifted, and they passed out communion plates to all who wanted to take communion. It was a very inspiring service, even more so if you know the history of Cymbala and the Brooklyn Tabernacle.

Jim Cymbala became pastor of a church with about a dozen members, in 1972. The church bank account was at $5. Now they have a church that seats thousands, but the personal touch of Cymbala is still much the same. In some ways Jim is a David Wilkerson contemporary; he held Nicky Cruz crusades in his early days; coincidentally Cymbala’s church was a building where Nicky had knifed people in his previous life. Jim’s still there every Sunday and at the weekly prayer meetings every Tuesday. Prayer is at the core of this church. If there is a need, Jim and the congregation are praying for it. The choir consists of converted drug addicts and other people from the gutters of city life. There is no sheet music in the choir because nobody knows how to read music; they learn by rote, and the spontaneity and harmony is phenomenal.

After the church service, we walked down to 5th Ave. in Brooklyn and ate brunch at a sidewalk café. We checked out a nearby R&A Cycles before getting back on the 2 train to Times Square, where we crossed into the 1 local to 59th. We checked out the Shops at Columbus Circle, including the Samsung store and picked up some coffee at Dean & Deluca. We left the city around 6pm. I had a great weekend without being rushed at all. Someday I want to check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters, and Grant’s Tomb. We didn’t do much; but then, the important thing in NYC is not doing, but being.