We recently flew from San Francisco to New York City for the weekend, almost spontaneously, as it turned out. We hadn't planned on going to New York's Big Apple, but we were nonetheless forced into needlessly traversing the width of the entire United States, hoisted by our own selfish selflessness.
You don't need a very good reason to visit New York City, and we didn't have one.
A coworker in San Francisco tricked us into going to what he called, “a society event” in his place (as he had other plans). We soon found ourselves at a silent auction to raise money for the less fortunate, which, by the looks of the crowd, was us.
Regardless, my wife and I got into the spirit of giving after only a few glasses of champagnes and cocktails. My wife put bids down on a number of donated items, like 49ers tickets, expensive bottles of wine, vacation getaways, and the like. Surely, we thought, we should win at least one of our auctions.
We then learned how silent auctions work, the hard way.
Five minutes later, we panicked at the thought of winning all of our auctions, and ran screaming back to cross our name off most of them. In the end, we won only one: discounts at NYC hotels and restaurants so expensive that we could afford to visit for a full three days.
My fifth trip to New York City felt like my first.
This wasn't my first trip to New York City, but it was the first time without using a local friend as a guide, so it felt more like the first time. We had to figure out how to get around on the subway without being stabbed, and find things on our own, being only able to speak English. Finding places was easy thanks to the city's logical, grid layout—streets go East/West, and avenues go North/South—unless you're a local cabbie.
Not surprisingly, in a city 200+ years old, there were bound to be some aberrations, and there were. The Wall Street financial district, in particular, was a train-yard wreck of confusing intersections. You almost get the feeling the area was designed to reflect the spirit of the market itself: panic, chaos, poor planning, and corruption.
Fortunately for us, we didn't get lost much as we could always use skyscrapers as landmarks, and because we were walking. Trying to get your driver's license in NYC should be considered proof of insanity, and they should take your driver's license away before you hurt someone with it.
Not that driving in NYC is that much more manic than any other major metropolis. It would just be such a pain in the ass that it simply wouldn't be worth it. You can't park anywhere in the city unless you arrived some time before it was built.
New York City is skyscraper central.
No other city I've been to has more skyscrapers than the Big Apple. Everything from Deco to “Damn, is that a gargoyle?” Chicago has a number of attractive, period looking buildings, sure. But then you're in, well, Chicago. No, NYC is the real thing. Real buildings built during the eras they were living in.
The Chrysler building is phenomenally impressive to experience. Visible from almost everywhere in Manhattan, the Deco masterpiece veritably shouted, “Hey, we used to make cool cars…once.”
We hoofed it up to 34th Street to view Gotham from the top of the stately Empire State Building, but were rebuffed for arriving too late. According to the metal plaque bolted to its stone entrance, the building closed at Midnight, but the doorman stopped letting people up at 11:15pm.
Now, to my mind, that means the building closes at 11:15pm, not Midnight. For anyone interested in visiting this tourist attraction, the time you stop letting people in is the pertinent planning information, one would think. I tried to explain this point to the doorman who listened patiently and nodded while the police showed up, beat, and dragged us away.
NYC hotels are expensive and not at all worth it.
We regained consciousness some time later to find ourselves in a tiny, dark, confined space with no amenities or windows. In other words, our hotel room. To put a fine point on it, the room was small. And this was one we could not have afforded without discounts.
But “value” isn't a word you can apply within the economics lesson on supply-and-demand that is Manhattan. So many people want to stay there that jacking their prices into the stratosphere doesn't reduce their bookings one bit. Frankly, you could build a honeycomb hotel out of beeswax and never have to put up a “Vacancy” sign.
The reason the hotel industry in NYC can get away with renting out shoebox-sized rooms infested with rats and not feel shame is because tourists don't come there to sleep. People come there to experience Manhattan. And, in that tradition, we spent most of our days and evenings standing upright, and our nights passed out.
We walk around Greenwich Village on foot.
Almost immediately upon arriving, we did a walking tour of Greenwich Village. We saw the statue of the guy who wrote Don Quixote. And the Washington Square area. Then we went to SoHo (South Houston), Broadway, and Bleeker Street. Had John's Pizza, where Jack Black eats.
Went to Café Noir for tuna tartare and beer. We stopped into the trendy SoHo Grand (where I once got to stay on a TV shoot), NYU, saw New York City's narrowest house, the Gay District, West Broadway/Prince and, of course, the personally significant, Crosby Street.
We hung out in Grand Central Station and went to Time Square. We even went to Ground Zero, the site of the 9/11 tragedy, to see if we could figure out why Building 7 came down even though it was nowhere near the impact site. Hmmm.
Sadly, the NYC Subway musician pool has taken a dive. When I was last in the City, the subway's were full of talented musicians getting pushed and spat on while trying to play over the high-pitched shriek of the arriving trains.
Yet, while we were there, we only saw and heard one guy gasping out a mournful rendition of “Danny Boy” on his portable respirator.
We spent another day wandering TriBeCa (Triangle Below Canal Street), and the SoHo (South of Houston Street) districts. Hidden just East of 6th, Sullivan Street was a particularly charming and French-looking road leading up to NYU (New York University).
We also went to Battery Park to stand in line, apparently. After an hour on line, we found ourselves packed onto a ferry headed over to Ellis Island as well the Statue of Liberty.
New York City has cleaned up its act a lot in recent years.
NYC has changed a lot since I visited it as a kid. When I went there the first time, I heard gunfire and saw cops chasing a guy through Times Square—this was pre-Giuliani, mind you. There was also a multiple-death shooting on the Long Island express. And the streets were filthier than Bob Guccione's darkest fantasies.
Today, the place is safe and clean, and the people, kind and helpful. Certainly, I don't want to give Rudy “9/11” Giuliani any more credit than he deserves, but I do have to admit that NYC did seem transformed over the years he was mayor.
This latest trip, however, gave me the feeling that all the poor and middle-class people had been voted off the island like an episode of financial “Survivor.”
So while Manhattan is a lot cleaner and safer than it was, it's a helluva lot pricier, too.
New York City is expensive and almost worth it.
In the same way you don't come to New York City to relax, you don't come here for the value, either. We definitely made the most of our time and money. We did a lot of stuff while we were there and left before anyone robbed us. Well, at gunpoint, anyway…