I’ve booked another trip to New York–brace yourselves for an all new parade of selfies! (Here you can find previous accounts of NYC trips.) Planning whole new places to visit next month in continuing research for my novel. Oh, so excited! Plus, it recently occurred to me that maybe some of the things I’ve learned throughout my many visits could serve others who are less frequent visitors to the City. Somehow I’d generally assumed that everyone I know knows loads about the Big Apple, typically more than me, and I’m the only one excited to learn more and talk about it. Because I sometimes love it when I’m wrong, I hereby humbly present my bits of NYC wisdom on what to expect, what to do, and what not to do.
While in New York City, I highly advise against trying to enter the subway with rolling luggage of any kind or size. Oh man. Can you say stuck
? I’ve tried putting the luggage in front of me, pulling it behind me, and Googling the words “NYC Subway turnstile with luggage” in anticipation of a trip. Something else I’ve tried is passing the luggage over the top of the turnstile ahead of me, placing it on the ground on the other side, then I go through the turnstile.
|(Photo from Subwaynut.com)
But even then I risk holding up the never-ending stream of hordes waiting behind me to get through, and then I’ve worried that in the time it takes me to get through, someone on the other side will run off with my luggage. Strange fear? Maybe. The only thing that works when entering the subway this way is avoiding the turnstile altogether and using the gates. Sometimes this means the emergency exit gate. The worst thing that can happen then is sometimes you set off an alarm. Sure, I’ve worried that this will get me arrested, but so far it hasn’t, and I always have a story ready for the cops about how I have a Metro Card that I swiped, I’m just trying to get my luggage through. And in the spirit of pay-it-forward, any time I am using one of those gates to exit the subway and see folks struggling with their luggage on the other side, oh yeah, I routinely, happily, hold the gate open for them.
|Don’t worry, the subway is nothing to be afraid of!
On the subject of what not to do in the Big Apple, here’s another doozy. Picture it. Barrio Chino–Mexican restaurant in the Lower East Side (LES). Memorial Day Weekend 2013. I never (or very rarely) travel by myself, and I wasn’t driving, so I decide, what the heck, I will treat myself to a margarita with lunch. First, I couldn’t finish the margarita; motherhood has rendered me a lightweight. Second, I should have known better. My plan for after lunch was to walk to the Washington Square area. It isn’t extremely long, just over a mile.
|I took the route along Bowery.
And I wanted the full experience of turn-of-the-20th-century LES immigrants walking up to their jobs at the Triangle Company
off Washington Square Park. Well, I got a full experience alright. It was the first day that temperatures in the City were upwards of 80 degrees. I have an extreme sensitivity to heat and sun–as in, I faint. (A tradition going all the way back to waiting in line on a sidewalk in Puerto Rico circa 1980 for the movie Empire Strikes Back: Before I knew it I was coming to, on my back, and I was being fanned with a piece of cardboard that my poor freaked out father had scored from worried onlookers.)Also? Tequila is very dehydrating. By the time I made it to the corner of Greene Street and Washington Place, in addition to the emotions of thinking about the Triangle fire tragedy, I was queasy, and very
shaky on my legs. I knew the odds were pretty good that I was going to lose consciousness and/or get sick. Miraculously, neither happened. I wobbled all the way to the park, and collapsed on a bench, with my head between my legs. A nice gentleman sitting nearby engaged me in conversation. From his concern for me, which was appreciated, he moved on to sharing a few personal details about his life that I really could have done without. Not sure which part of nearly passing out due to excess heat and low alcohol tolerance, combined with the tears, conveyed, “I am dying to know your life story.” But he meant well enough, and he pointed me in the direction of the nearest place where I could re-hydrate and recover a little.
|The guilty drink. It was tasty enough, though, more so than the fish tacos. This was the sort of place that was more cool vibe than solid good food.
My husband David was not amused, after I finally felt well enough to text him, when he learned that I came thisclose to being sprawled unconscious, alone, on a New York City sidewalk, while he and our son were in DC, completely powerless to help. In truth, it was scary. No more half margaritas at lunch for Mama right before an NYC summer hike.
Here are some criteria I use in selecting a restaurant, out of–seemingly–countless options in the City. I don’t want an obvious tourist trap, if at all possible. Realistically, many places will have tourists and lots of them, but I try to stay away from the ones that scream magnet for out-of-towners. That rules out about 95% of Times Square and the Theater District, and that’s okay. Proximity (walking distance) to hotel is ideal; a bit of a loose concept with me because I’m usually willing to walk a fair amount. On the other hand, I’ve also made a few exceptions, particularly being happy to ride the subway for mofongo.
|Mofongo with shrimp at Puerto Rican restaurant Sazón in Tribeca. Nowhere near places where I typically stay, but worth the subway ride!
I also want to be able to make a dinner reservation online ahead of time. And if they are too exclusive to allow reservations 1) online, 2) for only one person, or 3) well in advance at the time when I’m looking (I’ve only ever encountered these restrictions in New York), I typically conclude that I’m probably not sophisticated enough for them, and move on. Lunch is more flexible, though I still often map out a few options in advance. I get that this sounds way rigid, it probably is. But my typical trips involve no more than 48 hours in the City. There are many things I want to get done. By dinnertime, I am really tired and hungry. When you factor in getting lost and near drunken fainting, among other things, that leaves very little time to spontaneously find a conveniently located hole-in-the-wall restaurant with decent local reviews and plenty of pescetarian food options, that isn’t wildly expensive, crap, or just plain scary. Trust me, that’s when you realize the options are actually far from endless. I’m flexible, but having a safety net for a decent dinner allows me to relax and focus on the day’s activities.
|Katz’s Deli, on East Houston, is an institution. It is packed no matter what time of day, most of the folks there are likely tourists, and the food offerings aren’t great for non-eaters of red meat. Still it’s worth a visit, if nothing else, to see where the famous “faking it” scene in When Harry Met Sally was filmed, and to enjoy the odd juxtaposition of a historic NYC Jewish deli where 9 out of 10 members of the wait staff are Dominican.
|Affordable places where the food is delicious, clockwise from the top left: 1) Tuna melt with outstanding tater tots at Big Daddy’s Diner near Madison Square Park. 2) Inspired grilled shrimp pita and tzatziki at Souvlaki, in the LES. 3) Fish taco and potato flautas at the place to eat Mexican in the LES, Taquería Lower East Side. Taquería is my favorite of these three, although Souvlaki is a close second.
|Pricier, snootier places that were nevertheless worth it: 1) One of the best pizzas I’ve ever had, at Pizzarte, near Carnegie Hall. 2) Endive and beet salad with cheeses and fries at Artisanal Fromagerie and Bistro, in the Murray Hill area.
Hotels? Simple. I’ve enrolled in a hotel points/rewards program. Whichever one of their Manhattan properties is cheapest at the time of my search, that’s where I stay. And I know exactly what to expect. Breakfast will be included, it will not be high end, and I will have my own bathroom–no, a private bathroom is not guaranteed to folks visiting the Big Apple on a budget. Being near a subway station isn’t too hard to achieve, but it isn’t guaranteed either, and it’s absolutely imperative.
|Clockwise from top left: 1) The smallest room I’ve had to date, but it was clean, perfectly located, and quiet! 2) The view from one of the windows. 3) The nicest room I’ve had, it was also the farthest from the subway; I won’t be returning to this one. 4) Yes, sometimes I add a little extra to hotel room safety by putting something in front of the door.
I know so many people who have lived in New York City, I forget that I also know many others who know very little about it. And there are also the ones who find the City to be a bit much. I get that. The driving is crazy and aggressive (fasten your seatbelt when riding a taxi!), the subway smells like urine, and there are horns honking and sirens blaring at all hours of the day and night. This is also the only city where, at the end of a day, I have dirt underneath my fingernails even though I’ve done zero work with my hands. Someone near you shouts motherf**ker? You just witnessed an arrest? Sounds about right. These are just some of the things one can expect. Obviously this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. This City is impatient, unforgiving, in its unvarnished aliveness, and that can be overwhelming. But if you swim in its energy rather than resist it, it makes you part of it and injects you with its vibrancy. I love it truly, and true love lasts forever!
|Some favorites: 1) The Flatiron Building. 2) Old tenement buildings in the LES. 3) A view of historic Cooper Union from one of my favorite intersections, Bowery and East 4th Street. 4) Washington Square Park.
One more thing. If you are going through Penn Station, which I affectionately refer to as one of the top ten hellholes to see before you die, I’ve got two words for you: Don Pepi. It is the best, consistently good deli there, with fast, friendly service. I always get a bagel and lox from them, even if there isn’t a mealtime in sight when I’m waiting for my train. It’s that good.