I was standing on tiptoes, stretching over an extra-tall ticket counter to see my receipt printing at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, when a security guard sidled up next to me. I signed my receipt, lowered my heels and turned to smile at him.
"Oh - you were on tiptoe," he said. "I was about to remark on how tall you are, but you're actually short."
I'm 5 feet 8.
For my "daycation," I grabbed a friend and made for New York to see the museum's "Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns & Mermaids" exhibit. New York is full of pricier adventures, but the city can captivate when you're simply walking around, people-watching - and flirting with bored security guards.
As recent college graduates, Emma and I craved a fun diversion with a reasonable bottom line, and the idea of mermaids and sea monsters in a science museum piqued our interest. We drove to the New Haven train station, where Metro-North offers $14 rides off-peak to Grand Central.
We missed our train - we arrived early enough, but the station's parking lot was full. The auxiliary lot was a 10-minute walk away.
Arriving in New York later than planned, we were famished. At the Hummus Place (Amsterdam Avenue at 74th Street), we shared large bowls of hummus and salad and drank glasses of the best lemonade of your life, with mint leaves adrift among the ice cubes. Stuffed and collectively less than $20 poorer, we strolled toward the museum, gaping at the vast Upper West Side brownstones along the way.
The museum's suggested admission policy lists entry prices ($14 for adults), but pay a dime, and they'll still let you in, though with a scowl. Emma and I paid the suggested student rate, $10.50. Tickets in hand, we trooped up two flights of stairs, lined up for "Mythic Creatures" and learned it cost extra.
These $21 tickets, mandatory for entry, included the full suggested admission price. And they're time-stamped to admit people in waves every half-hour. The next few tours were sold out. Back to the lobby.
As we rejoined the line, the security guard asked why we were there again. We explained our failure to read the posted ticket prices. Next thing we knew, he pulled us aside and instructed a janitor sweeping the lobby to get us some tickets. Why, we asked the guard as we stood beside him, are you helping us like this?
"I hate to see people pay twice," he said. "And besides, I feel sorry for you because you're so short."
The janitor returned with two employee vouchers, which gave us free admission to four of the five special exhibitions. All-access adult passes cost $30.
After a detour to another exhibition about frogs (highlight: a touch-screen virtual frog dissection, with multiple steps, and background music), we finally entered "Mythic Creatures."
It was worth the hassle. The first thing you see is a crouching 17-foot-long green dragon model staring you straight in the eye. Its yellow-ish wings arch above, and I felt suddenly small and awed. I kept an eye on the dragon as I walked on, because I didn't quite trust it to stay in its place.
The exhibit is a fascinating combination of fancy and scholarship. Divided into land, sea and sky, each section features display cases devoted to various mythic creatures from all over the world, with panels that recount a version of each creature's legend. The tales are underscored with historical artifacts like sculptures, bones and 16th-century biology texts, all illustrating the persistence of the folkloric imagination throughout history and across continents.
There are detailed explanatory blurbs with dates and diagrams for adult visitors. For the crowd that discovered griffins and phoenixes reading "Harry Potter," there are things to touch, like a real narwhal tusk, sold in the Age of Exploration as unicorn horns.
More life-size incarnations of various creatures punctuate the exhibit. They merge the parts of "Mythic Creatures" aimed at different age groups, confirming children's suspicions as to what Kraken tentacles look like while stirring dormant adult memories. We never really stopped wanting to believe in dragons; we lost the luxury of time to imagine such possibilities.
The unicorn is especially breathtaking, looming on its pedestal. Sleek, white and noble, it's just as you always knew it would be.
After "Mythic Creatures," I made Emma pose, growling fiercely, next to a dinosaur skull. Then we left the museum, retracing our steps toward Amsterdam Avenue.
We stopped at Crumbs, a bakery where the decadent cupcakes instigate the same rapture of seeing life-size dragons - fantasies come true in a mini buttercream cupcake with chocolate icing. But from previous visits, I assure you the massive red velvet cupcake will change your life for the better.
Weary, happy and full of sugar, we strolled back toward Grand Central. Men in power suits rushed around us, sprung from a day at the office. I took another bite of cupcake.
The "Mythic Creatures" exhibit is on display through Jan. 8. The American Museum of Natural History is at Central Park West at 79th Street in New York. Information: 212-769-5100 or amnh.org.
Contact Kira Goldenberg at firstname.lastname@example.org.