Coast to Coast USA with Kids
Subject: Mission improbable
Place: West Coast to East Coast USA
Your mission, should you choose to accept it..
The boys sat happily devouring their fish and chips, tomato sauce smeared around their faces like bloodied warriors. Kirstie looked up from behind her newspaper, glanced around to check we were alone, then leant across the table.
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it,” she said in a lowered voice, “is to get these two mucky toddlers and this eight month pregnant woman from Seattle to New York. You must take these train tickets, this credit card, that large rucksack, those two small backpacks of toys and this laptop computer.”
I looked at my team of co-conspirators and wondered if we were up to the job; we were certainly experienced travellers but this was a different kind of job, fending for ourselves in urbanity.
Five cities, fourteen days, two toddlers
Kirstie pushed the train tickets and credit card across the table. “You have just fourteen days to complete this mission, travelling only by public transport. On the way you’ll need to meet contacts in Chicago, Washington, Boston and New York.” She paused. “Do you think you can handle it?”
It sounded like a bit of a nightmare but it was too late to change the plan; we had to get to New York to catch our flight home, train reservations had been made and friends were expecting us.
“I think we’ll be fine.” I said, trying to be positive. Kirstie looked pregnant and unconvinced. The kids were just wild with excitement.
Are cities for kids?
Lots of people had warned us off taking toddlers to cities. “Cities are no place for children,” they’d said.
Part of me agreed, after all it was one of the reasons we moved out of London when Matthew was born. But there was no way Kirstie and I were going to pass up the chance to see a few iconic American cities while in the States. Kirstie had spent years trying to persuade me to take her to New York before children and I’d run out of excuses. I figured it must be possible to do something interesting with kids in the urban jungle; we just had to figure out what and how. So we wiped ketchup off cheeky faces, loaded packs onto backs and headed for the station on our improbable mission; a coast to coast railroad tour of the States taking in five big cities. We hoped it would ease us back into the madness of normal life after so much time in National Parks and wilderness.
A touch of the blues in Chicago
First stop Chicago and it wasn’t long before we got a touch of the blues. We were downtown outside a family friendly blues club but it wasn’t the music that got to me but the never ending stream of questions that the city sights prompted from the boys.
“Why does it take so long to cross the road here?” asked Matthew as we tried to head back to our hotel.
“Well, there’s lots of traffic and we’ve got to wait for the little man to light up before it’s safe to cross.” I replied.
“Why is it a silver man here and not a green man?”
“You know I don’t know Matt.”
“Well why does it take so long to turn silver?”
“Because there’s a lot of traffic and it’s very busy.”
“Why are cities so busy?”
“Because lots of people live in them.”
“Why do lots of people live in them?”
“That’s a very good question.” And one I avoided answering as the little silver man lit up and I hauled the boys across the road and back to bed.
Stimulated by the city scene
Matthew and Cameron seemed to find the city landscape, life and people just as stimulating and entertaining as any expensive tourist attraction. We found no shortage of new and interesting things to look at and talk about while wandering through historic streets, looking at unusual buildings, splashing in public fountains, picnicking in parks, or people watching over coffee and ice creams.
Having fun for free
These free attractions also suited our end of trip financial predicament better than forking out to ride to the top of a skyscraper, tour the harbour on a boat, ride around on an open deck bus or combine the last two on one of the amphibious ‘ducks’ hustling for business on almost every corner.
A touch of the West Wing
The boys loved the city subways, metros, buses, trolleys, trams and taxis; the red line, blue line, ABC line; buying tickets, carnets and travelcards; showing them, swiping them, punching them; clambering under stiles and over gates; journeying underground, overground and along the ground. Once we sussed the transit systems using them to get around was a lot of fun, but arrivals days were always a real stress test.
Follow the leader
No amount of advance studying of maps, fare guides or journey planners reduced the confusion, bewilderment and mild panic we experienced each time we tried to get from the station to whatever cheap hotel we’d booked online a few days earlier.
“OK boys follow me”
“Where are we going Dad?”
“To our hotel Matthew. Come on keep up.”
“How do you know the way?”
“I don’t, your mum does.”
“Have you been to Washington before mum?”
“Then how do you know the way?”
“I don’t Matt but look there’s a ticket machine over there.”
“OK so where are we going?”
“Dad says we’re going to our hotel.”
“No I mean which station?”
“We’re at the station Mum.”
“No what Mum needs to know is which station the hotel is near. I’ll go look at the map. Matthew you stay here with mum. And you Cameron.”
“Cameron, stay here with me and pick up your backpack before someone trips over it.”
“Because it’s rush hour and it’s very busy.”
“Why is it busy Mummy?”
“Because it’s a city. Matthew will explain.”
“OK Kirstie, the hotel’s a few blocks from McPherson Square on Orange.”
“It doesn’t matter, it’s all zone fares. I’ve just got to figure out if kids need tickets.”
“Look they can crawl under the gate. Just get two adults.”
“OK two adults. That’s two dollars seventy. Have you got change?”
“No only $20 bills.”
“Damn, this machine only takes coins. We’ll have to go queue at the office.”
“Or shall we just go and get a cab?”
The magic of museums
Enjoying cities didn’t always cost a lot. Once we’d had enough of wandering around, hopping on and off buses and supping coffee in Starbucks, there were plenty of other free attractions to keep us entertained.
“Hey boys how do you fancy The Smithsonian National Museum of American History, The National Air and Space Museum, The Museum of American Financial History, The NYPD Police Museum.”
“Yesssssss. Museums. Let’s go.”
I don’t know if it’s normal for toddlers, but our two just loved running around these enormous spaces, looking, listening, pointing, poking, talking and fighting about all manner of exhibits. Our visits were subject to only two conditions; one, that Matthew always pushed the buttons first, and two, that we didn’t stay in one section for more than a few minutes.
Cities are extraordinary places, chaotic multi dimensional jumbles of citizens and concrete, dense tangles of collectively woven social and physical, visible and invisible webs. You don’t need to travel to see the world, for cities like New York are worlds in miniature. If you want you can see a little bit of China, Korea, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Italy, Greece, Poland and Ireland in a day; you can see evidence of man’s abilities to create, organise, worship, love, hate, win, lose and destroy in an afternoon.
Stimulus and over stimulus
The barrage of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures is stimulating and sapping, exciting and overwhelming. Places like these have as much capacity to shock, depress, delight and inspire as anything else we saw on our journey around the globe. There is no shortage of things to do, the bigger problem is one of too much choice.
“Well, we could go to Wall Street, Ellis Island, Central Park, Greenwich Village, Broadway, Empire State, Madame Tussauds, United Nations, Police Museum, Jewish Museum , Little Italy or Rockefeller, to name a few. What do you think? We need to make a decision.”
“How about a coffee or ice cream?”
“Much better idea.”
Busy doing nothing
And it often was better to do nothing, to decide not to decide anything, and instead enjoy the buzz around us. So we tapped along to the impro jazz of a Chicago busker making music from garbage cans. We had a long lazy lunchtime in Washington, sampling foods from around the world in a cheap and cheerful deli-café. We hung out at Boston Harbour shooting plastic cups skywards on a playful fountain. We chilled in Times Square watching Buzz and Woody doing circuits of the Toys R Us ferris wheel. And in all the hustle and bustle, doing less was a lot more fun.
So, what did you think kids?
“So what did you think of all those cities then?” I asked the boys as we sat in a dingy hotel room in New York City waiting for Kirstie to return from the doctors with her ‘fit to fly’ certificate.
“Good,” said Matthew giving me a big thumbs up. “Except Seattle, it really stinked of coffee and that place that stank of fish.”
“Liked them,” said Cameron sticking one finger up, his personal sign of approval. “Liked Clifford, JJ and Scooby, that white house and the movie with those funny glasses that made things come out at you.”
As usual I had little idea what they were talking about but was glad they liked it.