I wanted to go to New York City ever since I became aware of what New York City was. Just a handful of weeks ago, my lifelong dream came true.
On New Year's Eve 2010, after toasting to the new year with good friends, I went to a local bar with my boyfriend. Like most New Year's Eves past, the night was nothing remarkable. There were no dramatic proclamations of love following a dramatic dash through the streets, a la "When Harry Met Sally" There were no lavish parties to attend. Instead, we watched incredulously as an incredibly drunk woman hit the floor like a tree falling down in the forest, with no attempt made to prevent the collapse. She was not young.
We looked at each other and agreed, "Let's do something different next year. Let's make it one to remember."
Top photo: The Brooklyn Bridge. Above: April at Battery Park, checking out the Statue of Liberty. Below: Old New York, in the vicinity of Stone Street.
What better place to be to start off 2012 than New York City? We began planning our trip in October. Our arrival was scheduled for 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 30. We would take the train, be there for the better part of a week and would be lucky enough to stay with his brother in Hell's Kitchen - and thank goodness, because it wouldn't have been possible to afford it otherwise.
For anyone who has wanted to see New York during the holidays, to ring in the new year in the Big Apple or is planning a first-time trip there (it's never too early to start planning!), let me share with you what I learned from my experience and the sights I saw that can only be found in New York City.
FORGET ABOUT TIMES SQUARE
Every New Yorker we spoke to about our plans for New Year's Eve gave us the same advice: "Don't go to Times Square."
At first, I was a little disappointed by the thought of not going to Times Square since it's supposed to be so magical in theory anyway but the more I learned, the better I felt about that choice. Tickets are required simply to be in Times Square on New Year's Eve, and they ain't cheap. Tickets for a Times Square "All-Access Pass" started at $250. Facilities, or the lack thereof, are also a major issue. All reports I have received from revelers in Times Square on New Year's Eves past tell me that adequate facilities are not provided and it is essentially a free-for-all. No, thank you.
My experience in Times Square on New Year's Eve afternoon made me so thankful that we heeded the words of wisdom bestowed upon us.
We wanted to go shopping and were given directions to SoHo. As we approached the subway entrance - which was near Times Square - it was, to our dismay, closed due to New Year's Eve. We decided to keep walking and ended up trapped in Times Square in a crowd the likes of which I have never seen. As we tried to turn around to go back to where we came from, it was impossible - the NYPD was closing down streets all around us. Tickets were required to continue past certain roadblocks. We were stuck. We tried to take a cab out of the mess, but gave up after sitting in traffic for 15 minutes without moving an inch. Finally, we got out and attempted once more to make our escape by foot.
About an hour passed before we were able to emerge from Times Square. We ended up wandering elsewhere - getting lost is half the fun - and finding random shops along the way.
We toasted to 2012 with friends and eccentric strangers at Mercury Bar, 659 Ninth Ave. It was a great time, and very much preferable to spending it being squashed by the masses while struggling to get a glimpse of Ryan Seacrest.
Could we small-towners hack it in New York City? Were we too soft? Would the city eat us alive?
This is something we debated throughout our trip. At the height of tourist season, we saw the city at its most frantic and crowded, and I wouldn't recommend it to the claustrophobic or faint of heart.
Like the other tourists swarming the city, I wanted to see the quintessential sites, New York's landmarks (we'll get to that later). However, I found that it was the little things, those one-of-a-kind occurrences and interactions that I could recall most vividly as we boarded the train and traveled home. Some of the most memorable moments I experienced in the city were definitely not anything one would find in a guide book. A few involved something New York is infamous for: its homeless folk.
On the afternoon of New Year's Eve, shortly after escaping Times Square, we were wandering through the city, exploring, getting a bit lost, on a sunny, 50-degree day. As we passed by a phone booth, out of the corner of my eye I noticed that a homeless man was in it, unconscious. He was standing up and slouched over, wearing sunglasses, with one hand swathed in plastic wrap and what appeared to be a club foot wrapped in duct tape. The best part: he had a cigar sticking out of his mouth, perpendicular to the ground.
As we continued to hurriedly walk down the street, we were incredulous, simply stunned by what we just witnessed. What choices had this man made that led him to this sorry state? Are we all just a few poor decisions away from ending up passed out in a phone booth at 3 p.m. on a sunny day in the city? Had he begun his New Year's Eve celebration a day early? Was this his regular routine?
Then, a disturbing thought occurred to me. Was he dead? If so, for how long? I supposed that with such a sizeable homeless population in such an expansive city, it would take the NYPD some time to identify and collect the deceased.
A real New Yorker probably wouldn't have even batted an eyelash at such a sight. We were, without question, much too soft. It was decided: we were like gummy bears - malleable, sweet and unsullied by the harsh realities of the city. The goal was to become the hardest candy we could come up with at the moment a Werther's Original by the conclusion of our trip. (Whether or not we succeeded is still up for debate).
Three hours later, after spending the afternoon pondering the man's fate, we got our answer. At 6:30 p.m., we passed the same booth containing the same gentleman. He was just waking up and lighting his cigar. Fresh as a daisy! (All right, not exactly fresh but alive).
With more than five hours until the ball dropped, there's no telling how this man's 2012 began.
SO MUCH TO SEE
I arrived in New York with a list of things to see and do, compiled from the suggestions of a friend who lived there for years and ideas I had gleaned from watching entirely too much television and far too many films set in New York City. I was barely able to get through a tenth of my list.
The city is so big, it's like the ever-expanding universe. Standing in the middle of it, it felt nearly impossible to truly wrap my mind around its scope. Before you go, keep in mind that it will be impossible to do and see everything on your list in a short period of time - that's what subsequent trips are for. Do as much as you can without burning yourself out two days into your trip. It's very easy to do.
After arriving at Penn Station and dropping off our bags in Hell's Kitchen, our first stop was Macy's in Herald Square. With 10 and a half levels, the store covers an entire city block. Macy's alone was enough to leave us gasping for breath.
Here's a handful of the things we did see with some helpful information we learned along the way:
We were advised to go ice skating at Bryant Park instead of Rockefeller Center, as it is less crowded and makes for better and longer skating. ("It used to be called 'Needle Park,'" a cabbie told us, explaining that vast improvements have been made in recent years. It's where Fashion Week has been held). The pond was open for skating this season Oct. 27, 2011 through Feb. 26, 2012. It was actually pretty affordable free admission and $14 for skate rental. At Rockefeller, there is an admission fee (which varies depending on the date and time you go, but for adults typically ranges from $10 to $16) plus a $9 skate rental fee. They also have a limit of 150 skaters on the ice at the same time. At Bryant Park, we arrived early in the morning, beat the crowds and skated for as long as we wished. It was a marvelous time.
The giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center is just as magical as you've imagined. (The tree was up through Jan. 7). That is not the only epic Christmas tree to be seen in New York, however. They are everywhere. From holiday lighting displays in store windows or splayed across buildings to throughout numerous parks across the city, another spectacular tree is just a hop, skip and a jump away.
It really helped us cover more ground with some much-needed guidance. Our esteemed tour guide and host, Mike Dolce, took us on a whirlwind tour of the city in one morning and afternoon. We saw the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from Battery Park, old New York (Stone Street and more), Washington Square Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, Union Square, Greenwich Village and so much more within a handful of hours.
While I'm on the subject of our hosts, to whom I am forever indebted, this is the most important, make-or-break element of a trip to the city: finding a place to stay. For a journalist in her 20s, a hotel would have completely depleted my funds, leaving nothing for the trip. If at all possible, stay with a friend or family member while you're there. Take the couch or floor, whatever is available. Apartments in the city are extremely small, so space is difficult to spare. Thank you, Mike and Christine - I will be forever grateful.
I wanted to go to a real New York City deli and as per my request, we were taken to Katz's Deli, located in the Lower East Side at 205 E. Houston St. Established in 1888, you may remember it from the scene "When Harry Met Sally..." wherein Sally really, really enjoys her sandwich (there is a sign hanging from the ceiling denoting exactly which table Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal dined at). The pastrami on rye is unbeatable and the place has that definitive, frenetic New York ambiance. One man's job is to simply direct traffic in and out of the deli.
Apparently, you're not supposed to cover the entire Museum of Natural History in one afternoon. We did, in the three layers of clothing we wore to go ice skating at Bryant Park, nearly collapsing from exhaustion and overheating. My feet have still not fully recovered.
In New York, everything you need is only a phone call away. Ordering in was the way we started almost every day, usually from Lenny's (a New York City-based chain). On New Year's Day, we had an exquisite breakfast feast at home from Galaxy Diner (665 Ninth Ave.).
We stumbled upon Sosa Borella, an Italian/Argentine restaurant located at 832 Eighth Ave., during our first night in the city and spent the rest of our trip trying to recapture that first sensational dinner. Have the rosemary lemon chicken with gorgonzola mashed potatoes.
If jazz is what you're after, I strongly recommend Birdland (315 W. 44th St.). Named for the legendary Charlie "Yardbird" Parker - the club's first headliner in December 1949 - the club, which has been reincarnated and relocated a few times, has featured performances by Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Lester Young, Dinah Washington and many more. It played host to legendary guests as well - Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner were regulars. We spent our last night in the city there listening to the Nicholas Payton Quartet.
NEVER THE SAME
We were walking through Washington Square Park just after our lunch at Katz's Deli. As we were soaking it all in and snapping photos, an extremely disheveled, wide-eyed man stumbled up to us.
He said prophetically, "Once you leave Manhattan, things will never be the same."
The man was right.
After you've spent the week enjoying endless options for late-night dinners and having heavenly hazelnut coffee and a bagel with "un poquito" cream cheese delivered to your doorstep, meandering through the city with the Empire State Building in the distance, lit up in red, purple and green, it's hard to return to real life.
As we got off the Thruway at Exit 59 around 2:30 a.m., only the lights of gas stations and a few fast food restaurants illuminated the empty streets. Not a living soul could be spotted in downtown Fredonia; the village was fast asleep.
"There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless," said Simone De Beauvoir.
Now, there was nothing to do but sleep. My dreams were of New York.
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