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Essay: Traveling With Child

Traveling With Child

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By Shelley Mann Hite

In retrospect, the itinerary for our New York City trip was too ambitious. It was my 8-year-old’s first trip to the city, and I’d spent months picking just the right places a young girl might love. First we’d put down her requests, which were just two: climb to the top of the Statue of Liberty and find Taylor Swift. 

There’s nothing I love more than spending a weekend getting lost in Manhattan, shopping, eating and exploring. I wanted to share some of my NYC infatuation with my daughter. So I added: taking the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, getting milkshakes at Shake Shack, seeing a Broadway show, checking out the three-story American Girl store, going to the Natural History Museum, exploring Central Park, experiencing Times Square, and eating a croissant for breakfast (she wanted to eat something fancy).

We had two and a half days. 

Itinerary: Fly into JFK, check into The Roosevelt Hotel, Shake Shack lunch, Kidding Around toy store, Empire State Building, Staten Island Ferry, American Girl store, Times Square at night

We emerge into the JFK terminal to fire alarms blaring. Nobody else seems the least bit phased, so I focus on getting my sensory processing disorder-afflicted kid to an exit as quickly as possible. In my haste to get us away from the screeching, I temporarily forget about S’s severe escalator phobia and step onto the down escalator, holding out my hand.

“Come on, hop on!”

She shakes her head, her eyes shining with pure terror. Within seconds I’m halfway down the escalator and my kid’s still standing at the top. I scramble back up, slamming against the herd of suitcase-wielding escalator riders.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a set of doors leading to blue skies and glorious silence. Outside, I can see we’re at the entrance gates, near passenger drop-off. A row of taxis line the curb, and I hail the first one that drives by. “Can you take us into Manhattan?”

He shakes his head. “Gotta go downstairs to be picked up. We’ve got rules.”

I plead, gesturing at my tear-stained tween. “Please, we can’t get down there. Can you please, just this once, take us from up here?” He shakes his head and drives off. We steel ourselves and head back in. In my panic, I had completely missed that there was a regular old staircase right between the up and down escalators.

We’re on the interminable cab ride from the airport to the hotel when S finally speaks up. “I just… I just thought we were going to have a fun start to the trip!”

This was supposed to have been a special, just-the-two-of-us experience, booked because she’s been having a rough time in the past year adjusting to life as a big sister. For weeks, I’d been annoying her by joking that when we walked through the airport, I’d sing, “Welcome to New York. It’s been waitin’ for you, welcome to New York, welcome to New York!”

All I can think to say now is, “I thought so too.”

After a quick catnap at the hotel, the first stop on our itinerary is Shake Shack, just a block and a half away at Grand Central Station. We set out walking. About halfway there, S asks if we can find a place to sit down. Her feet hurt. Somehow, even though I know she’s a kid who tires out much more quickly than your average child, I had not factored in the massive amount of walking I usually do in the city.

We find a bench, take a rest, and continue on to Grand Central Station. S is excited about Shake Shack, because she once saw a picture of Taylor Swift eating there. But a few steps into the massive, echoing train terminal, voices bouncing off the walls like tennis balls, I can see I’ve made another tactical error. She clamps her hands over her ears. “It’s too loud in here!”

I sweet-talk her into staying since we’d already walked all the way here. We finally get our food over an hour later, and she glares at me as she eats a few fries and sips on a chocolate shake and I scarf down my burger so we can leave as soon as possible. I don’t even suggest we try to find the Kidding Around toy store, located somewhere in this massive terminal, and we find an exit.

“All right, so what’s next?” I ask.

“Next? I was hoping we could go back to the hotel room and relax.”

“But, I mean, we still have so much stuff on our itinerary for today,” I remind her, pulling it out of my purse. “We could call a cab and take it to the Empire State Building and then take the elevator to the top!”

“I’d rather go back to the hotel.”

“What about the American Girl store?”

“OK. But can we take a taxi?”

For the first of what will be many times this trip, I resort to deep breathing as I struggle to reconcile my expectations and experiences traveling as an adult with the realities of traveling with a child. Especially my child.

We cab the few blocks to the American Girl store, where we explore all three floors, read several American Girl books, and take photos in the AG throne.

As we leave, I try one last time. “Should we head over to the Empire State Building?”

“Mom, no. Please, I just want to go back to the hotel.”

“What about dinner?”

“Can’t we just order room service?”

The Roosevelt does not, unfortunately, offer room service, but there does happen to be a pizza-by-the-slice place located on the ground level. We buy slices of pepperoni, take them upstairs and eat them in bed, watching Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network.

We snuggle under the crisp white sheets, eating our slightly cold slices, and I don’t even give a second thought to the crumbs we’re both dropping everywhere. We never eat in bed at home.

Itinerary: Fancy croissants breakfast, Museum of Natural History, Momofuku Milk Bar, Central Park, “School of Rock” on Broadway
Items left over from Day One itinerary: Kidding Around toy store, Empire State Building, Staten Island Ferry, Times Square at night

S had said she wanted to try some “fancy food” in New York, so I’d found a few breakfast options serving croissants and quiche. But by 10 a.m., she’s not budging from bed. She doesn’t want to go out to eat, she just wants her normal breakfast—Cheerios and fruit snacks.

I leave her in bed with strict instructions not to unlock the door under any circumstances and run down the block to a convenience store, where I purchase an $8 box of Cheerios and a 10-pack of fruit snacks.

By noon, she’s still looking pretty comfy under the covers. I pull our itinerary back out. She agrees to head out soon, under one condition.

“Can we start at the American Girl store?”

We hit all three floors of the American Girl store, again, read several American Girl books, again, and take even more photos in the AG throne.

Then it’s on to the rest of the itinerary. I’ve already mentally nixed the Empire State Building, plus Central Park—too much walking. Next up, the American Museum of Natural History. Our cab pulls up to the entrance, where a line spills out the doors onto the sidewalk. Inside, the line snakes through an endless amusement park-style turnstile. But I’m eager to mark something, anything, off the itinerary and S generally loves natural history museums so we forge ahead.

All the museum’s glass cases filled with dioramas look exactly like Holden Caulfield described them in The Catcher in the Rye and pretty much how they looked in that one scene where Sally skips school with Glen in Mad Men. So, fascinating for me. Stultifying, admittedly, for anyone who grew up on YouTube. We stay for less than an hour.

I convince her to ride the Staten Island Ferry next, promising views of the Statue of Liberty plus plenty of sitting. We take a sweaty cab ride to a sweaty ferry terminal, and then during the ferry ride she wants to sit on my lap, which she never wants to do anymore, and I enjoy every sticky, dripping minute. 

We still have a few hours left before “School of Rock” on Broadway, the one thing we absolutely can’t skip. That’s not nearly enough NYC-time to accommodate S’s idea of cabbing across town to our hotel, taking a nap, and cabbing back to Broadway. Instead, we head to Times Square to explore and grab a quick bite before the show.

Times Square on a Saturday is stupid crowded. The line for McDonald’s stretches halfway down the block. S spots a Hershey’s store and thinks chocolate sounds like a great before-Broadway treat. We wait in yet another line—a line to get into a candy store—and purchase a bag of mini Reese’s Cups.

S makes it through her first Broadway show like a champ, thanks to a steady stream of chocolate and a seat at the end of the aisle, allowing for frequent dance breaks when she can’t sit still in her seat. 

I’d dreamt of grabbing dinner with the singing waitresses at Ellen’s Stardust Diner after the show, but the kid has something else in mind. Pizza in bed. Again. 

Itinerary: Taylor Swift stalking

S: “Before we go find Taylor, can we start at the American Girl store again today?”

I grin. “How could we not?”

The idea for our final day in New York is to try to find Taylor Swift, my daughter’s No. 1 idol. I try to straddle the fine line of keeping expectations in check yet having some fun with it.

We cab over to Tribeca, where Taylor owns a penthouse apartment. I’d scoured the paparazzi sites for Swift sightings and chosen brunch spot, Sarabeth’s, she’d once been spotted dining at. We enjoy pancakes and scrambled eggs (no Taylor in sight), then sit on the stoop outside the building I believe to be her apartment building for about a half an hour, keeping our eyes peeled for freakishly tall blondes. No luck. I offer up a few more places the pop star has been known to frequent, but my kiddo has one last idea.

“Can we just go to Barnes & Noble and read until it’s time to go to the airport?”

What I think is, for fuck’s sake, we could’ve gone to the American Girl store and Barnes & Noble and eaten pizza in bed at home. What I say is, “Of course we can.”

Back home, when people ask about the trip, I grumble that we didn’t make it through any of our itinerary. This is technically inaccurate. We actually checked off seven items—two of them multiple times. And besides, later, when she and I reminisce on this trip, we’ll always talk about the one thing that wasn’t even on our itinerary: pizza in bed.