A former Chicagoan and current Londoner’s thoughts on New York City

15 May

Over three weeks ago I found myself on a prop plane from Philadelphia to Newark. I generally don’t have a fear of flying, but I do not like looking out the window and seeing this:

prop plane united

It was incredibly loud and vibrated the whole 32-minute flight, but we arrived on time and suddenly it hit me that I had really done it — I had bought a ticket just days before, got on a plane, and now I was a short train ride away from Manhattan where I was going to surprise Stephen who was having a work conference there. He was happy I came, even though he was busy with work most of the time. It gave me time to play tourist. The last time I was in New York was six years ago, so it was high time “the city” and I caught up.

-My first thought upon ascending the escalator at Penn Station: Wow, this city is crowded and dirty. I’ve heard that locals hate when tourists immediately write off the entire city as dirty and crowded when they never go outside a one-mile radius of Times Square, which I can understand — I’ve still never been to the other boroughs, but I couldn’t get over how crowded Midtown Manhattan was. Almost every street felt like walking down London’s Oxford Street and required full concentration not to bump into anyone. This was especially difficult when pulling a suitcase, because when I arrived at Penn Station I got the bright idea to walk a mile to the hotel on 42nd Street, thinking I could take in the sights while also avoiding the cost of a taxi and the hassle of the subway. For the record, walking a mile is a lot easier than dragging luggage a mile, and I do not recommend hauling a suitcase through Times Square. By the time I arrived at the hotel I had calluses on my hand from pulling.

times square suitcase

Hey look another idiot with a suitcase!

-This may be my biggest bit of advice for NYC as well as London (and I almost don’t want to give away my secret!) — Half price ticket booths are a rip off! The queues are always ridiculous and the tickets are not cheap. If it’s simply cheap Broadway (or West End) tickets you’re after, go to the theatre’s box office. If you go early you can get same-day rush tickets (NYC) or day seats (London), or even just a cheap balcony or restricted view seat. The half price ticket booths will sell you a good seat, but it won’t be cheap — If the seat originally cost $200, you’ll still end up paying over $100. While Stephen was in meetings on Wednesday I had my heart set on seeing a Broadway matinee. I planned to go to the Kinky Boots ticket lottery, but really wanted to see James Franco, Chris O’Dowd and Leighton Meester in Of Mice and Men. Kinky Boots will come to London eventually, but I’ll never have a chance to see all those A-listers in a show again. So I walked up to the box office three hours before the show, expecting it to be sold out, but was pleasantly surprised that they had a restricted view balcony seat available for $37 — my kind of price. I was smack-dab in the midst of an “OMG turn your phone on, I wanna text you!” group of high schoolers whom I had to resist smacking for 10 minutes before the show, but once it began my view wasn’t bad and the show was enjoyable. And afterwards I got to see James Franco sign Playbills for people who didn’t go the bathroom right after the show and end up across the street instead of outside the stage door:

james franco of mice and men

-No sales tax on clothing is the greatest thing. I think my wallet was thankful my luggage was carry-on-only, because I could have done so much more damage at the New York & Company flagship store.

-Where do people who live in Manhattan buy groceries? Do they all use delivery services? All I wanted was yogurt and bananas for breakfast but could not find a supermarket. I ended up at Whole Foods, with — by the likes of the queues — all of Midtown and the Upper East Side. If I ever moved to NYC this would be a big problem for me. (Not the outrageous cost of everything or the crime rate, the lack of grocery stores would be the deterring factor in my move to the Big Apple.)

-I’ve lived in London and Chicago — two cities well-connected by public transport, and I pride myself in my ability to easily get around. But New York City’s subway disgusts and confuses me. I had extra time the morning before my flight and wanted to head downtown to see the 9/11 Memorial and ride the Staten Island Ferry. My entire trip so far I had gotten around on foot — walking upwards of 6 miles every day, according to my FitBit, but downtown is too far from Midtown so I had to take the subway. Google maps on my phone told me I had to take the 4 or 5 train and get off at Wall Street. Seemed easy. So I went down into the grungy station and waited for whatever train arrived first. A 5 train came, but it said “express.” A little part of me panicked — did I want express? There were no signs or maps (as far as I could tell) in the station, so I let the train go by. Another one soon arrived and I realized all the trains were running express, so I got on. The map inside the train car was for the wrong line, rendering it utterly useless. I had no idea how many more stops there were until Wall Street or whether the express train even stopped there. Then I heard the announcement “Next stop, Brooklyn Bridge.” I panicked again — I don’t want to go to Brooklyn! So I got off at Union Square and waited for the 4 train, thinking maybe it wouldn’t be running express. Of course it was. I got on anyway, and heard “Next stop, Brooklyn Bridge” again. Instead of panicking once more, this train at least had a map and I saw that the Wall Street stop was in fact after Brooklyn Bridge. I eventually was able to get off at Wall Street and walk to the 9/11 Memorial, but I was mad at myself for letting the NYC subway get the best of me. I should have been more prepared and gotten a map on my phone. At least I never went full tourist and asked for directions. (Although I was stopped on the street and asked for directions, which is the highest honor a tourist can receive. Of course the bubble burst when I had to tell her I wasn’t local.) In short, I will never again take London’s Tube for granted. It’s so clean and easy to navigate. (And you can giggle at “This train terminates at Cockfosters.”)

-The last time I was in NYC was in 2006, almost exactly five years after 9/11. Ground Zero was still relatively a mess. I saw the 9/11 Memorial dedication on TV in 2011, but I wanted to see the memorial in person. I knew it was outside so I thought I could just walk up to it — nope. You need a ticket, preferably booked ahead of time. Luckily Thursday morning is not a peak time, so I was able to join the queue and only wait 10 minutes. We snaked through rails like we were waiting for a roller coaster, then went through airport-style security with X-ray machines and metal detectors. Three different employees checked my free ticket before I was finally released into the memorial area. I wandered slowly through the grounds, trying to get myself into the proper mindset. The memorial is very well done and looked like it did on TV, but being there didn’t feel at all the same. Watching people kiss or place a flower on their loved ones’ names during the dedication ceremony was heartbreaking, but there was none of that when I was there. There were just tourists upon tourists taking photos of themselves posing in front of the fountains — smiling — like it was any other NYC must-see sight. I have no personal connection to the Sept. 11 attacks, but their behavior still made me sick. And then I realized the teenagers goofing around were either too young to remember Sept. 11, 2001 or weren’t alive. No history book or Youtube video can instill that collective fear we felt as a nation on that day, even from as far away as Cincinnati. I left in a hurry so I could catch the Staten Island ferry, and was a little upset at myself for spending my whole time at the memorial judging my fellow tourists instead of reflecting or memorializing.

9 11 memorial

One World Trade Center from the memorial

One World Trade Center from the memorial

-My final thought/piece of NYC tourism advice: Take the Staten Island ferry. You get a great view of the Manhattan skyline and Statue of Liberty, and it’s free! And you don’t even have to stay in Staten Island — once docked, you can get off and immediately board the next ferry to Manhattan, as about 90% of my fellow passengers (and I) did. Just know that if you stay outside for the best views, it is insanely windy — so windy I didn’t take many photos because I was afraid my phone would blow out of my hand.

manhattan staten island ferry

statue of liberty staten island ferry

And now the photos that wouldn’t fit into the narrative.

This minion's expression embodies my feelings on Times Square

This minion’s expression embodies my feelings on Times Square

Easter eggs at Rockefeller Plaza:

30 rock

rockefeller eggs

I think the Today Show was wrapping up by the time I arrived.

today show audience

I wandered into the free exhibit at the New York Public Library, “The ABC of It: Why Children’s Books Matter,” and it was amazing. Best use of killing time while waiting for housekeeping to make up my hotel room. Baby Renee loved “The Poky Little Puppy.”

poky puppy museum

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