Fenced in for hours to see Francis

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Pope Francis's busy day in the Big Apple
01:16 - Source: CNN
New York CNN  — 

If you put end-to-end the barriers the NYPD is using to protect Pope Francis during his nearly 40 hours in the city, they would stretch 37 miles.

Thomas Leigh was among the lucky ones inside a black mesh security fence put up about a block and half from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan.

Dressed in black and holding a wooden rosary in his beefy hands, Leigh, 54, looked more like a priest hearing an inmate’s confession than the president of a waterproofing and restoration company.

A legion of papal ticket-holders have been demonstrating the patience of Job, standing in queues for hours and hours to clear searches and metal detectors for a glimpse of the Pope.

Leigh’s wait time: Two hours. And that was just to see the papal motorcade make its way to the cathedral Thursday evening.

“It was very friendly and orderly,” he said of the wait. “It was a pleasant experience. “

It didn’t look very pleasant.

On 52nd Street near Fifth Avenue, the lines started to form more than two hours before Francis’ flight left the nation’s capital for New York. His prayer service at St. Patrick’s wouldn’t begin until almost 7 p.m.

That’s the way it’s been since the Pope arrived in Washington from Cuba. But not all ticket-holders have had Job’s patience.

On Wednesday, lines snaked around parts of the Catholic University of America in Washington, where 25,000 people had tickets for the canonization ceremony of the pioneering and controversial priest Junipero Serra.

As a press contingent that had just arrived by bus was being screened, one woman shouted at a uniformed officer: “Why the hell are they going through security before people who have been waiting in the sun for hours?”

“Because they need to get the Pope’s message out to the unfortunate people who didn’t get tickets,” the officer told her.

In New York the next day, Leigh said he was pleasantly surprised that none of the people waiting in line with him were complaining.

“I’m a New Yorker, I didn’t expect that,” he said. “The demeanor of the people was extraordinary. Some were saying the Rosary. The kids were fine. There was no food, no drinks, but there was no whining or complaining.”

Hours before the Pope’s plane touched down in New York, the gridlocked streets of Midtown Manhattan were a sign of what’s to come when Francis says Mass in Madison Square Garden during Friday evening rush hour. Penn Station is next door, and many people plan to work from home until Francis leaves town.

From the West Side to the East Side, Manhattan’s intersections were choked with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Some normally bustling streets were eerily silent except for screaming ambulances trying to reach emergencies.

At the intersection of Sixth Avenue and West 50th Street, in front of Radio City Music Hall’s famous marquee, a hulking and rusting sanitation truck loaded with sand blocked traffic.

The NYPD is using more than 40 sand trucks and another 20 barrier trucks to block key intersections during the Pope’s stay. In addition, some 800 tons of concrete blocks will be used to cut off access to the total 54 miles Francis will traverse in his short stay.

The cost to the city during Pope Benedict XVI’s three-day visit in 2008 was $6.5 million. When Pope John Paul II came for five days in 1995, the cost was $4.4 million. The cost for Francis’ trip is still a question mark.

Gerd Johannesen, 91, pushed her walker up to a barrier guarded by a couple of baby-faced police officers. The Manhattan resident, accompanied by her daughter, Maria, was trying to get to Lexington Avenue to visit a friend.

The cops told Johannesen she needed to walk three blocks south and then another three east to reach Lexington. Johannesen rapidly turned around and steadily weaved the walker around the after-work crowds rushing to the subway.

“This Pope would be sad to know that everyday people can’t go about their daily lives because of him,” said Maria Johannesen, who struggled to catch up to her mother. “But we are both very happy to know that he has come to bless our city.”

Along West 50th, on the way to St. Patrick’s, shops such as Erwin Pearl and Galerie Saint Gil were empty.

“Everybody’s focusing on the Pope,” said Erwin Pearl’s manager, Edward Flagg, adding that the shop was closing at 5 p.m. “We totally understand that.”

Before the Pope arrived at the cathedral, a stranger walked up to the tall black fence on 50th and asked Leigh whether he had an extra ticket to see the Pope. He did.

The stranger walked back to Sixth Avenue with his ticket and crossed to the other side of the fence. He cleared the security checkpoint and walked back to Leigh to say thank you.

“God bless you,” Leigh said. “Give me hug.”