My young-adult son, Jeff, and I don't always see eye to eye. I give him good advice; he says I am meddling. I plan; he wings it. Our mother-son dynamic can be rocky at times. Imagine that.
When my husband dropped out of a November trip to New York City because of a bad back, Jeff surprised me by agreeing to go.
First thought: "Great, a chance to bond!"
Second: "Is this a good idea?"
I flashed back to trips with him as a sullen teenager and his dislike of museums and restaurants. Could we get along? Could we manage to compromise?
The first test was the easiest: We agreed to travel on a budget, not simple in expensive Manhattan.
Research paid off, and I found a great deal at Pod 51, a hip hotel in Midtown East, but we had to use a shared bath down the hall, and our room had bunk beds. A last-minute find at the newly and nicely renovated Milford NYC Hotel (since renamed Row NYC) one block from Times Square saved the day.
We found common ground on the first day: "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart." A free taping, and all we had to do was freeze waiting in line for tickets, then come back to line up again to get in (free entertainment can be hard work). It was worth the trouble: Stewart was hilarious, as was his guest, Bill Cosby.
Afterward, we headed to Flaming Saddles, a western-themed gay bar in Hell's Kitchen, for happy hour. A John Wayne movie played in the background, and bartenders danced on the bar.
One good free taping deserves another. The next day, Jeff got last-minute reservations for "The Colbert Report." It tapes in the evening, so we had time to go to highly touted Zabar's on the Upper West Side for lunch.
It was not what I expected: Jeff enjoyed his Reuben and knish, and my chicken soup was good, but every bite came with a side of elbow at the jam-packed community-style table in the market's tiny cafe.
Jeff wanted to explore Central Park. It was cold, and a museum or shopping sounded better, but in the spirit of compromise, I followed his lead. It's a huge park; we got so lost trying to find the Alice in Wonderland sculpture that we might as well have fallen down the rabbit hole.
Just before dusk, we found what I really wanted to see: Strawberry Fields and the Dakota (where John Lennon was shot). With little time left before "Colbert," we raced into a mall for an overpriced hot chocolate (budget trip, we split it).
Stephen Colbert is nothing like his egotistical TV persona: He was earnest while answering pre-show questions. Asked why he went into show business, he replied, "I don't know how to do anything else." Colbert's interview with his guest, musical artist M.I.A., was purposely awkward; her performance was electrifying.
The next day was a mix of hotel drama and serendipity. Serendipity first: During a morning walk, a young woman asked if we wanted to see "Late Show With David Letterman."
A quick conference ensued. Me: "There's too many other things to do." Jeff: "It's hard to get 'Letterman' tickets, and these just fell in our lap." Guess who gave in?
That afternoon, we were coached in the art of the belly laugh and told to roar at everything Dave said. Jonah Hill and Chiwetel Ejiofor were the guests, and it was fun.
The hotel drama ended the fun. To take in more of the city, and because the Milford rates went up dramatically on our fourth day, I booked us into the Hampton Inn Manhattan-Seaport. It was not quite as advertised.
The area, in Lower Manhattan, was still recovering from Superstorm Sandy and had a rough vibe. The hotel was next to Brooklyn Bridge traffic and — a bonus — our room had a broken door lock, overlooked a construction site and smelled like urine.
When I started freaking, Jeff got us out of our room reservation, whipped out his smartphone and found us a deal at … the Milford Hotel. My hero! We beat it back uptown for a late-night dinner of cheeseburgers and strong Manhattans at 5 Napkin Burger.
We had lunch at Katz's Delicatessen on the Lower East Side the next day: pastrami, corned beef and knishes. It was crowded, so we shared a table with two policemen. Jeff asked what the "I'll have what she's having" sign (from "When Harry Met Sally") meant.
I whispered for him to either look it up on his phone or I'd tell him after the cops left — awkward.
The "promise" part of this new concept of compromise was taking hold: Jeff cheerfully agreed to go shopping with me. It was slim pickings on the side streets near Katz's, so we went to Canal Street in Chinatown.
We passed a young guy whispering, "Rolexes, designer handbags." Much to my dismay, Jeff followed him into an alley and started bargaining for a fake Rolex watch for himself and a poorly made Louis Vuitton knockoff for his girlfriend while I gritted my teeth and paced. I finally was able to talk him out of the purchase. Sometimes nagging pays off!
The day ended on a much more serious note, with a trip to the 9/11 Memorial to pay our respects to the fallen. This was Jeff's idea (my son is full of surprises).
Our last day was a whirlwind, starting with a pepperoni pie at John's Pizzeria. After lunch, we skated around Rockefeller Center.
Well, not literally but it was fun to watch the ice skaters and window shop. Later, I caught up with Jeff at the Nintendo store, where he was happily reliving his childhood. It's set up like a museum for gamers, with displays about the history of Nintendo, including his first beloved Game Boy system and the irrepressible Pokemon.
He could have stayed there all night but didn't squawk when I pulled him to the half-price ticket booth in Times Square, where we scored great seats for "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark." It was the perfect choice, equal parts circus and rock 'n' roll; the aerial stunts, we agreed, were worth the price of admission.
Notice that? We agreed. And we both agreed that this trip turned out pretty well — and that we had more in common than we thought.
And when I joked about the two of us going to Europe, he replied, "Sure, let's do it."