By Pete Catapano, Sheila Feeney, Rebecca Harshbarger and Ivan Perreria
Streets around Madison Square Garden were abuzz with anticipation Friday as police set up barricades and patroled the sidewalks hours before the pope’s arrival for his historic evening mass inside the arena.
Rivers of people flowed in cross currents. Some came from Penn Station to make their way north to Central Park for the 5 p.m. motorocade. Others came to MSG hoping to snag a prime spot behind the Seventh Ave. barricades to get a glimpse of the Holy Father in his now famous Fiat. Bomb-sniffing German shepherds tugged cops down the street along the edges of the crowd when mammoth buses full of people weren’t lurching southward. One guy walked through the crowd on the north side of MSG caroling “Two dollar rosaries here, guys! Getcher rosaries! Two dollars!”
“Disgusting,” muttered one woman, apparently appalled by the pope-centric vendors.
One woman had an improvised stand where she was selling plastic pope bracelets, earrings and magnets.
“I gotta get those!” shrieked one woman about the drop earrings, each of which dangled an image of the pontiff’s face.
Felix Cuevas, 48, who was born in Brooklyn and now lives in North Bergen, works as a photographer but also sells souvenirs at major events. He was enjoying this one for many reasons.
“The cops aren’t bothering anybody,” and not enforcing the peddling statutes, he said. “They’re more worried about crowd control,” and security, allowing him to sell his “Ka-Bobs” – hand fans with life-sized photos of the pope’s face – unharassed, he said.
Cuevas bought a thousand pope head Ka-Bobs, sold 500 to one customer and and was selling the faces to folks in the crowd for $6 a piece and two for $10. “I’m down to my last 100: I’ve sold 400 over the course of this week.”
The money he was making wasn’t as important as the message Pope Francis brought to NYC, though, said Cuevas, who is not Catholic. “I’m a Christian, but I love his message: That’s the main thing,” he said. Cuevas, who has family in the Dominican Republic, especially appreciated the Pope’s statements about the need to stop climate change and improve the lot of immigrants.
Since Thursday afternoon when the Pope Francis landed at Kennedy Airport, crowds prefacing the pontiff’s arrival have become the norm. Thursday night thousands lined Fifth Avenue as His Holiness waved to the crowd from inside the PopeMobile prior to the evening prayer service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. By Friday afternoon, the Pope had already spoken at the United Nations and held an interfaith service at the Sept. 11th Memorial and Museum.
Father Roy Tvrdik, 58, from Shrine of Our Lady of the Island in Manorville, Long Island, had a ticket to the MSG mass and had come to town with parishioners heading to the Central Park procession.
He said the pope’s popularity was resulting in an uptick of reengagement with the church.
“I’ve seen some people, I wouldn’t say tons,” return to mass. “People who aren’t connected are talking about coming back. This year of mercy that’s coming will be an opportunity for people to come through the door.” and “find meaning in life. A lot of people are despairing. Without God, without faith, how do you find meaning in life?”
Inside Madison Square Garden on Friday afternoon, security reached an unprecedented level as people filed in for the 3 p.m. concert — featuring Gloria Estefan and Jennifer Hudson — preceding the mass.
Attendees waited in airport-style TSA lines, and all their bags were checked out separately by bomb-sniffing dogs.
Among the security detail are TSA officers, NYPD cops and K-9s.
In the arena is a giant screen that says “Francis, Our Pope: A Journey of Faith Through the Heart of New York 2015.”
Wanda Julien,45, an adjunct professor at CUNY, who lives in Rockland County, attended with her daughter, Naomi, 10,
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. His actions, his humility — watching him get out of a Fiat, he’s not materialistic. He went to the homeless people. He’s for the people. His actions speak louder than words. People are identifying with him — Catholic or not Catholic.”
His 10-year-old daughter Naomi, meanwhile, was having the time of her life.
“This is going to be the best time ever,” Naomi said. “I’m pretty lucky to be here. I’m the only one in my class to go, I go to Catholic school. [The pope]He’s very humble and nice and kind.”
Marian Persico, 61, a lawer from the Upper East Side, lawyer, attended with her cousin Donna who got tickets through a colleague at the Jesuit School where she teaches.
“I am so excited to be here,” Persico said. Just the pope himself is so open and exciting with new ideas. His background is the perfect place for someone to grow into this role — he ministered to poor and working class people.”
Yuna McGeough, a city worker from Manhattan, went to Madison Square Garden with friends.”
“it’s amazing to be here,” McGeough said. “It’s a once in a lifetime experience with this phenomenal pope we have. He’s just amazing.”