10 NY Minutes

ebWhiteNYquoteI was little when I first landed in NY, a pre-kindergartner dressed in a yellow pique dress hardly suited for November winds. My aunt greeted me with saltine crackers and a cozy jacket from the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store; it had a furry collar, sleeves that covered my hands, and was way too big. My family, newly-arrived Cuban immigrants, left JFK for my aunt‘s home in Astoria, Queens, where we would live for several months until we got settled. New York was bleak and gray, not to mention freezing, but my first moments there were welcoming and nurturing.
It all came back to me when I stopped fighting the urge to do a very New Yorker kind of thing: write a listicle. Ten things I learned on my NYC summer vacation (dedicated to Mrs. Corby, my fourth grade teacher, who told us about hers, then wanted the whole scoop on ours):

1. Falafels, Kosher hot dogs, Popsicles, lamb curry over rice, tacos, donuts–you can get all of these from the same street vendor! Don’t try them all at once, of course—but if you do, no worries. There’s help available at a Duane Reade drugstore, and chances are that no matter where you are, there’s one ten yards away. At latest count, there are 257 DRs in Manhattan (to put this in perspective, there are 83 McDonald’s and 171 Subway restaurants)—so pass the Pepto Bismol. (Need a restroom?  See #2.)
2. McDonald’s, Subway, Starbucks–are all annoyingly ubiquitous and side by side with exotic fare from Peru, India, or Greece. There are 172 Starbucks in Manhattan, and there are intersections with one on each corner. Starbucks is overpriced and overrated. I hate Starbucks.
But NY has a way of altering your perceptions. It also has a way of concealing all public restrooms. Which is why I love Starbucks.
3. Keep walking. NYC is great for strolling and exploring on foot. Most of the city is on a grid, making it difficult to lose your way, unless you go off the grid on some great walks through the Village and Soho.
Or keep pedaling.  Hop on a Citi Bike for a fun ride or quick errand. Find a station–there are hundreds operated by NYC Bike Share–unlock a bike, ride for forty-five minutes, and return the bike to any station. What a great idea! Reasonable, too, at $9.95 for a 24-hour pass for tourists; bikes are available 24/7, 365 days a year. Grab your map, scan your card, and let the adventure begin.
4. Ride the train. Subway stations are dingy, dark places with scurrying rats where you can enjoy great jazz musicians and brass sculptures. Subways are generally efficient and reliable transportation–Mondays through Fridays, that is. Weekends are for repairs, and therefore detours, so that F train that you were counting on stopping at 2nd Avenue–well, you are effed and it just isn’t. Pay attention–conductors announce changes to help you along, only sometimes conductors have thick foreign accents that leave passengers bewildered.  Check online for changes before embarking on your Saturday adventure, and keep #3 in mind.  Otherwise you may end up in New Jersey when all you wanted was to visit the Guggenheim, which by the way, closes on Thursdays.
5. Although Macy’s is huge (9 floors and at least 2 city blocks), NYC hotel rooms are significantly smaller than a single cosmetic counter. Enter single file; walk two steps to the bed. A couple of steps to the left of the bed is a closet with plenty of room to hang your pair of jeans and two shirts. Another couple of feet ahead of the closet is the bathroom–recalling the airplane wc might brighten your mood. Water pressure? If you have hot water, who cares, right? When sitting on the edge of the bed, watch out for the dresser (my knee is still bruised). That’s a NY hotel room.
The laundry order form in the closet says $4.50 for a pair of socks, and $17.00 for a jogging suit. That, too, is a NY hotel. The good news is you’re having way too much fun in the city to spend much time in your Expedia-special hotel room.
6. Not surprisingly for a city so densely populated, NYC is dirty. Filthy, really. There is a lingering aroma, a stench, wafting through all of existence. Walk by a trash can, and it is overflowing. Alas, there are no alleys, so trash bags pile up on some sidewalks, awaiting removal. The city never sleeps, but the sanitation department apparently does nap.
Then there are the trash cans that read, “for litter only.” I found this befuddling, and began to ask myself whether my empty fro-yo cup was indeed litter. I needed the assistance of a kind native New Yorker for this one. (The reminder is for those who live above the fro-yo place, so that residents don’t put out their week’s trash in the litter-only bins.)
7. NY offers irresistible paradoxes.  E. B. White wrote brilliantly in his famous essay, “Here is New York”:  “No air moves in and out of the room, yet I am curiously affected by emanations from the immediate surroundings.” Alone in a stifling hotel room, he is in the midst of historic events and people such as Rudolph Valentino, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, and Willa Cather. White refers to it as “both the connection and the separation that New York provides for its inhabitants.”
This holds true for big names, but also for everyday people like you and me. Consider the experience of eating at a great little find (thanks Yelp!), the Peruvian restaurant Pio Pio Riko. In appearance, it is like any other city restaurant:  just one of several shops on the block, long and narrow with tables extending to the back along brick walls. As you sip your chicha morada (beverage made from purple corn and spices) and enjoy the best rotisserie chicken ever with a side of yuquita frita (fried cassava), you are aware of the vibrations from below—the subway.  As you relish your culinary experience, commuters are traveling down under, and if only for a moment, you may be at the same longitude and latitude coordinates—though strangers you will remain. Tomorrow roles will reverse as you travel subterraneously to Museum Row, fantasizing about life above,the cronuts at Dominique Ansel’s or eggs benedict at the Stage Door deli.

We are connected and separated, and NY reminds us of this at every turn.
8. Enjoy life in a sitcom. One afternoon a craving for soup and great Yelp reviews drew me to The Soup Spot. I almost passed it but for the line out the door, as it is quite literally a spot. The guy offers dozens of soups–jambalaya, pasta fagioli, Caribbean style jerk chicken, loaded potato, Santa Fe tortilla, autumn pumpkin, to name a few—though only 18 are available on any given day.
Reminiscent of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, this grump likes his structure, so don’t ask questions and keep the line moving. As Kramer says, “he happens to be a little eccentric.”  The natives standing in line are your best source of info when you really want to know if you will survive Mohegan Soup Hunter stew (surely you want to know what’s in it:  chicken and pork, barbecue and Worcestershire sauces,  tomatoes, creole seasoning, garlic, tabasco sauce, roasted corn, carrots, red peppers, pearl onions and lima beans—see #1). Savor your soup, roll, and fruit on the steps by Madison Square Garden with great jazz coming from the corner. Yes, soup for you!

9.  Look both ways, as everyone obeys traffic rules.  Except if the light is about to change, and you have five seconds to dash across the street. And except if you’re one of those food-delivery guys on a bike–c’mon, cut them some slack. Or if you’re a cabbie, in which case the law entitles you to create your own lanes.  Or if you’re a tour bus, in which case you’re just like a cab, only bigger.   And unless it’s a one-way street anyway, and no one is coming. And don’t get offended if someone in the crowd holds your hand, mistaking you for their loved one. (Haven’t you ever done this?)
Expect the best from people, but be assertive. New Yorkers are generous and helpful, but their favorite line is “Get out of my way!” I had a woman cut in line because her “friends” in front of me were saving her place, but the truth is I let her; the next time that happened, I laughed and reminded the person we were in NY, and the fun part was the support I got from everyone else patiently waiting.  At an improv theater with a packed house and open seating, a guy was saving a row of six seats–not a seat for his girlfriend, but a row of seats still empty three minutes before show time! I learned from that one, too.  At the next show just as we were sitting, a young woman ever so gently pushed me aside with, “We need three seats.” I ever so gently sat right down, cheerfully explaining we four were sitting there and wished her luck. Get out of my way!
       Whether crossing or waiting to cross, pay attention to the interesting characters around you:   spinning dancers who perfect their art as they cross; the six-foot-five guy with dreadlocks who’s being pulled along by a spotted dachshund on a hot pink sparkly leash; professional men and women dressed to the nines in fancy suits and comfy Nikes, their Jansports secured on their backs. You may not pass their way again.
10.  Carpe diem and prioritize. NYC offers so much, you probably won’t hit every restaurant, museum, store, show, concert, historic site, or architectural wonder on your wish list. But you probably will get to riveting exhibits, favorite dishes, phenomenal performances, and memorable experiences with unexpected surprises along the way. You can certainly spend a lot, but you can also do a lot for very little.  I stood in line for a Broadway show matinee–the hot show–and got an awesome seat (center mezzanine) for a bargain price. Check out professional street performers, off and off off Broadway, and comedy clubs.  We went to several improv shows for as little as $5 per person; my favorite exhibit was the New York City Public Library’s “The ABC of It–Why Children’s Books Matter”–and it was free.
I was a vacationing adult when I last visited NY.  With my jacket tied around my waist, water bottle and trail mix in my backpack, I explored a city, “Manhattan . . . The greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.”

And in that city, I found an embrace both welcoming and nurturing.

 

Works Cited

MooWooCartoons.  “Seinfeld SOUP NAZI best bits.” Online video clip.  YouTube. YouTube, 27 Mar. 2011, Web. 9 Aug. 2014.

White, E. B. Here is New York.  New York:  The Little Bookroom, 1976.

 

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