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Dwanollah Endorses... Things to do (and NOT do) in New York City
July 2005


O Nancy My Nancy had a special request. She and That Semi-Cute Guy She Married were off to New York State for a family reunion, and would be stopping off for a bit in NYC. What should they do…?

This isn’t a question to put to me and The Husband-Type Man lightly. Both as residents and visitors, we’ve thrown ourselves headlong into New York City life, and have decided opinions on what and what not to spend time – and money, because everything in New York is fucking EXPENSIVE, so suck it up and be ready for it – on. There are some gaps in our advice, of course; neither of us is much into bars and partying, so if you want a happenin’ place to get good and shit-faced, I can’t help you. Neither of us followed the trendy, “in” things to do, either, so if you want to know how to get into Butter, find an Olsen Twin to ask.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a whole hell of a lot of fun every time we’re there!

New York is one place where you DON’T want to look or act like a tourist. The first time I took Mommy there to visit, with Cousin GJ (who is an LA cop, and should KNOW better!), they acted like giddy school kids, treating the subway like it was a ride at Disneyland, whooping and hollering “We’re on vacation! We’ll never see these people again! Quit being so bossy!” every time I’d caution them to PLEASE keep it down, PLEASE don’t draw attention to yourself, PLEASE don’t paw through your cute lil’ backpack purse on the streetcorner. They didn’t believe I was serious. I counted five different pickpockets trailing them on one afternoon, and it wasn’t until GJ had to forcibly remove some pre-teen thief’s hand from her purse that they realized yes, maybe I wasn’t just being bossy but actually had some reasonable suggestions for not getting your ass kicked.

You need to be reasonably street-savvy in NYC, and I don’t mean you should run around going “Yo! New York Fuckin’ City! How YOU doin’?” But New York isn’t your usual suburban neighborhood, and if you act like it is, then not only are you going to be trailed by the aforementioned pickpockets, you also will be glommed onto by every street person trying to sell you something, won’t get decent tables/service at restaurants or stores, and any New Yorker you encounter, annoy, and/or piss off will be more than happy to take you down a peg or two. Even I, who am fairly mild-mannered, quickly developed a don’t-fuck-with-me walk, and, on my daily subway commutes, could often be heard snarling at the clutch of fat Midwesterners who’d stopped in the middle of the pavement to gabble over a map, completely unaware that people were trying to get past them, “It’s a side WALK, not a side STAND! Move!”

So dress like a New Yorker, not a tourist: i.e. not a slob. Leave off the ratty jeans, yoga pants, big white sneakers, logo t-shirts, baseball caps, and, dear God, fanny-packs. I don’t care if it’s not as comfortable… you can get normal non-sneaker shoes that are just as good for walking, carry a small purse, and wear something other than a Disneyland souvenir sweatshirt! Opt for nice, basic, well-cut and stylish clothes… and yes, black is still a safe bet in NYC much of the time. (Don’t lug a shitload of cameras and equipment, either! It’s cumbersome at best, and a thief-magnet at worst.) You can also carry around one of the New Yorker staples: a small-size shopping bag. You’ll see most residents with ‘em; it’s perfect for bringing your lunch to work, carrying a paperback book and subway map, stashing a light scarf or knit hat for chilly mornings and evenings, or bringing a bottle of water with you.

Don’t bumble like a tourist, either. If you want to stop and look at something or take a picture or study a map, step to one or the other extreme side of the street, please, because pedestrian traffic is swift and heavy, and when I had fifteen minutes to run and grab some lunch, I didn’t want to stand around waiting for the clutch of dumb tourists to take pictures of everyone in front of Radio City Music Hall, blocking the entire sidewalk in the process. So MOVE! Don’t bitch loudly that everything is expensive, or that the streets and subways are crowded, or that none of the cab drivers speak English. These are facts in New York, and will only make you look moronic if you complain or comment on it. Don’t sing “ New York, New York,” don’t ask where Central Perk is, don’t talk like Italian mobsters, don’t chortle about takin’ a bite outa the Big Apple. Guh. Don’t talk loudly on the subways; the rest of us aren’t interested in hearing about what you want to do this afternoon. Don’t freak out over panhandlers; I know it sounds callous, but the best thing for all involved is to ignore them. This can be hard when it’s the guy on the early-morning subway squawking out the same rendition of “Over the Rainbow” on his saxophone or the cute lil’ kids break-dancing, but you need to remember that these people aren’t altruistically here for entertaining you… they want your money, and some actually have perfected ways of distracting dumb tourists so an accomplice can pick your pocket. Ditto the people handing out fliers and business cards and stuff. Don’t stop to talk to anyone or listen to a sales pitch. Better safe than sorry. Generally speaking, don’t go to places that cater to tourists… namely, theme restaurants. They’re stupid and lame and bad and totally overpriced and a complete rip-off. Especially, please remember that New York is not an amusement park; it’s a functioning city where millions of people live and work. If you can’t handle that, pack your dumb self off to the stupid Vegas hotel instead.

Or rather, just tackle some of the following!

THINGS TO DO IN NEW YORK

  • Grammercy Tavern. Oh yes! My favorite restaurant! Order the cheese plate. Tell the server to bring you five or six whatevers (including a good, stinky blue), and wine to go with. You won’t be sorry. If you can splurge, order a meal. Ask for recommendations. Eat whatever they put in front of you, no matter what. You won’t be sorry about that, either.
  • The Met. Visit Gertrude Stein for me. See the Bonnards and Matisses, and, especially if you’ve never see one of his canvases in person, the Van Goghs. Go to the Temple. Go up to the roof. But don’t try to stay all day and/or see everything, or else you will have one hell of a Great Art Hangover. Although I suppose there are worse things than that….
  • MOMA. Now that it’s remodeled, of course. I haven’t been back since they reopened, but I used to walk up here after work and spend an hour or two with some of the canvases that inspired my favorite writers. The building, already magnificent, is supposed to be even better now.
  • The Strand. There are several locations, with miles and miles of books. You can, as we often have, get lost in here for hours. Hit this place instead of the usual Barnes & Noble stores.
  • Macy’s. Yes, it’s touristy as fuck, but it also has a great selection of lots of different things… specifically, I’ve yet to find a better selection of designer plus-size clothes anywhere else. Just don't dilly-dally around on the first floor with the other tourists!
  • The American Girls Doll Store. It’s such a kick to see all the groovy stuff they have… especially the doll hair salon!
  • Pearl River Mart. Even though I preferred their old location, up a ramshackle, nearly-hidden staircase on Canal St. and crammed with all sorts of clutter, I still adore this place. The new store is much more high-end looking and shopper-friendly; there isn’t the same kind of crowded shelves, but there is still all sorts of kick-ass stuff. Take your time. And after you’re done, walk over to…
  • The Excellent Dumpling House. No surprise, the dumplings here are excellent. The rest of the food is good, too. I used to stop here for dinner on my way home from work, and order an extra round of dumplings to take back with me.
  • The Secret Garden. Go into Central Park by way of the Vanderbilt Gate, in itself a kick-ass place, and wander around vaguely south-ish until you see it. This part of the park is usually quieter anyway, but if you go early in the morning, it’s especially beautiful. The statue of Mary and Dickon was commissioned not too long after Burnett’s death, and was controversial because The Secret Garden was her “new” book, and most people in charge of a Burnett Memorial wanted something of Little Lord Fauntleroy instead, which was assumed to be her greatest literary legacy. But time proved that wrong, and I’d also like to point out that it’s Mary and DICKON, not Mary and COLIN, so ha!
  • Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It’s been a work in progress for decades, and who knows if or when it’ll ever get done. I really love the zodiac statue out in front.
  • ABC Home. No typical furnishing stuff. This is a great place to browse around (although it does get crowded on weekends), both for the insane collection of antiques and ethnic home furnishings (all insanely expensive) and for the bones of the building itself, an old one in Union Square with beautiful details inside, if you look carefully. Take the staircase up or down a floor to see.
  • Grand Central Terminal. One of the most magnificent interior spaces in the city. Go even if it’s just to marvel at the tens of billions of millions of people who have crossed through here in the last century. Be sure to look up at the constellations on the ceiling. There are also some great specialty shops here, and an excellent food market.
  • Empire State Building. Again, yeah, I know it’s touristy, but it’s an iconographic view, and I always preferred it to the World Trade Center myself; the WTC felt too disconnected from the city, sort of like what Fitzgerald wrote about the Empire State Building (which is one of the most amazing pieces of prose I’ve ever read, incidentally):

In the dark autumn of two years later we saw New York again. We passed through curiously polite customs agents, and then with bowed head and hat in hand I walked reverently through the echoing tomb. Among the ruins a few childish wraiths still played to keep up the pretense that they were alive, betraying by their feverish voices and hectic cheeks the thinness of the masquerade. Cocktail parties, a last hollow survival from the days of carnival, echoed to the plaint, of the wounded: "Shoot me, for the love of God, someone shoot me!", and the groans and wails of the dying: "Did you see that United States Steel is down three more points?" My barber was back at work in his shop; again the head waiters bowed people to their tables, if there were people to be bowed. From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then understood-everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora's box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground. That was the rash gift of Alfred E. Smith to the citizens of New York.

But I love the view from Empire State; it feels like such an intrinsic part of New York now. Plus the art deco-ness of the lobby is kick ass. (Skip the hokey tours and flight simulators, though.) For added ambiance, go at sunset… more crowded, but worth it at least once.

  • Serendipity. Don’t go on a Saturday at lunchtime. Just don’t. Get there earlier or during late/off hours on a random weekday, but still expect a wait. It’s okay…while you’re waiting, wander up to Dylan’s Candy Bar. And when you finally get seated…? Look at all the kick-ass décor, order a burger with caviar, and for the love of all that’s sacred, SAVE ROOM FOR DESSERT!
  • Gray’s Papaya. Yup, we’ve determined, after copious sampling, that these’re the best NYC hot dogs. Cheap, too. Hit the one by Columbus Circle, and you can wander up to the Dakota and Strawberry Fields after.
  • Stuff in Brooklyn: Take the 2 or 3 to Clark St., or the MR to Court St. Walk down Montague Street, and stop in at Montague St. Bagels for the bestest bagels EVER; we still occasionally get some shipped to us from this place (we used to live across the street). Or pop into Lassen & Hennings for sammiches, and take your nosh down to the Promenade, and enjoy the view while you eat. If you feel like spending more time in Brooklyn, head over to Atlantic Avenue for some kick-ass antiquing. And after that, hop a cab to Grimaldi’s for pizza.
  • First. One of our favorite neighborhood places for dinner, with unusual menu items, good martinis, and excellent service. I crave their fish. Mmmm! Actually, we’ve never had a bad meal here. Check and see if they still serve s’mores for dessert!
  • Museum of Sex. A newer place, but great good fun!
  • Evolution. THTM’s favorite store. On Greene St. (I think) in SoHo; they sell fossils, bones, rocks, and other oddities.
  • Aphrodisia. My favorite place for essential oils. On Bleeker St. Say hi to Miss Pepper and give her a scritch under the chin for me!
  • It’s a Mod World, Love Saves the Day, and Howdy Do. Kick-ass Stuff Stores, near First. Me and THTM often go on insane Christmas Stocking Present orgies here.
  • Circle Line Bus Tours. No, really. Not terrible, and a good way to see a very big and crowded metropolis. Start early in the morning, and watch the city come alive.
  • Tenement Museum. Actually a really interesting tour and experience. The tour we took The Kidlet on was set up as if you were going to speak to a current resident about renting a room, and she tells you all about her and her family and you ask questions about what’s included and how people live and all that.
  • Katz’s Deli. Usually less crowded than Carnegie’s (although that’s worth it for the cheesecake), with the bestest pastrami on rye.

THINGS NOT TO DO IN NEW YORK!

  • Hang out in Times Square, particularly on a Friday or Saturday night. If you desperately want to see Times Square, go early in the morning Of course, I’m jaded because I used to work a block away from Times Square, over on 6 th, and between the crowds when I was trying to get to the subway home and the din whenever *NSync or Britney or J.Lo showed up at MTV that we could nevertheless hear a block away and 25 floors up… guh. (Note: THTM and I disagree about Times Square… he thinks it’s worth checking out at least once to see everything all lit up, and yeah, I agree that Virgin Megastore and Broadway Music – which has the BEST karaoke and show-tunes collections – and Toys R Us are fun… but if you decide to do it, well, don't say I didn't warn you!)
  • Go to Tiffany’s. Unless, like, you are SUCH an Audrey Hepburn fan that this has been YOUR LIFELONG DREAM, Tiffany’s is overrated, and packed-to-the-gills with every other stupid tourist in town. Ditto Saks. Skip ‘em both and go to Bergdorf Goodman instead, which has better stuff and is in a MUCH more beautiful building!
  • Take the boat to the Statue of Liberty. Again, unless this is some great dream of yours, skip this overpriced and overrated tourist trap, and just hop the free ferry back-and-forth to Staten Island for some spectacular city views. Or, if you want a tour of something, go to Ellis Island.
  • Dean & Deluca. Yes, I know Felicity worked at one. And yes, I know it’s got some awesome stuff at the SoHo one, from the produce to the insane dessert confections. But, alas, especially at the SoHo location, it’s always completely overrun with tourists, so unless you go there during odd hours, skip D&D and go to Zabar’s instead.
  • Dinner in Little Italy. Especially if there’s a guy standing outside the restaurant extolling you to come in. That’s a sure sign the place sucks. For great Italian food, go instead to Carmine’s, which’ll have a huge wait, but is worth it, especially if you have a big group of people, or Il Mulino in the Villiage, which is some of the bestest fucking food in the wholewideworld! Although, if you reeeeally want to eat on Mulberry St., I would make a slight exception for Le Mele. The food isn’t very good, but oh, the atmosphere…. Just ask the owner about Che Bella Salami… and it ain’t food!
  • Ice skating in Rockerfeller Center. It’s overpriced, crowded, and in the end after a huge-ass wait, you get, like, fifteen minutes to wobble around the rink. Pop into the French Bookstore in the main drag there (where I got my 27 Rue de Fleurus sign!), admire the flowers, take a few pictures of the flags and the ice skaters, and then spend your quality time elsewhere.
  • Shopping. At least in the typical sense. Don’t just stroll up Fifth Avenue and shop at all the Nike Superstores and Gaps and Restoration Hardware stores that you can go to in any stupid-ass mall, or the overpriced tourist shops catering to the ten million retarded tourists. Sure, walk up Fifth Avenue, imagine what it might have been like a hundred years ago, admire the Scribners & Sons building, and dance outside the fountain in front of the Plaza in honor of Scott and Zelda, but if you want to shop, go someplace different and quirky, like Chinatown or Bleeker Street, where the same touristy crap is a little less overpriced, and there’s lots of unique shops to poke around.
  • Horse-drawn carriage through Central Park. Too touristy, and, with the traffic, usually not romantic in the least. Spend that money on something else… although not on…
  • Hot pretzels and hot dogs from street vendors. Surprisingly, they taste like… crummy, stale old hot pretzels and bad, boring hot dogs. If you want authentic street food, visit New York during one of the festivals or hit the weekly street fairs in the summer.
  • Go to “Ground Zero.” Unless you genuinely want to pay respects, please don’t treat this site like just another tourist attraction. Don’t go take pictures. Don’t pose in front of the fences. Don’t buy those fucking disgusting, in-poor-taste t-shirts and hats that say “The Day Lady Liberty Cried” or “Never Forget”; this doesn’t make you patriotic and loving, it makes you gross and tactless. Really. Can you imagine wearing a fucking Dachau souvenir t-shirt?!

Finally, if you want to tackle something big, either before or after your trip, both THTM and I cannot recommend the Ric Burns New York documentary series highly enough. The last volume feels too rushed and tacked-on, but most of it is astonishing and surprising and evocative, and will make you understand the city in two dozen different ways.

 

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