How do you describe New York City? What makes it the unique city that it is? It’s more than a big city with a pointy skyline, and it has to be more than its skyscrapers, its razzle-dazzle Broadway shows, and its fancy flagship stores.
Calling the Big Apple home for almost a year, I got to see the real New York City as an entire way of life. Stick with me as I attempt to describe the secret ingredients of the city that never sleeps.
[NOTE: Contains nuts, and long confusing paragraphs mixed with cooking metaphors.]
Let me begin by saying that the people of New York seem to be different to all the other Americans I’ve experienced in the past. When thinking of New Yorkers as a category of people, they are somewhat unfriendly, very busy, and always in a rush. They don’t have time to chat, or to tell you what the time is, and they typically get their meals to go. However, once you get a New Yorker out of work hours, then you’ll notice they’re just as friendly as the rest of them. A New Yorker on leisure time is very different to one on business time.
Another big part of New York is hinted at by the nickname ‘Jew York’, which points out the large number of Jews in the city. Being from New Zealand, I hadn’t really seen that many Jews, but while living here, especially in a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, I’ve seen tons of Jews – from the ones with the little caps (excuse my ignorance) to the ones with the big hats, dangly curled sideburns, beards, and black and white robes. In fact, as I type this, I see a Rabbi-type guy walking past with a big white beard, and he even has his big top hat in a special hard case! In my experience, having so many Jews in the city means that you get a lot of public holidays spread throughout the year that you don’t understand, and you should learn a bit about kosher food if going to a Jewish birthday party.
The other New Yorkers that I’ll point out are the ones that really live and breathe New York – those being the homeless. These people come in all shapes and sizes, and are sometimes difficult to distinguish from normal residents. For instance, I had many times when a neatly dressed person walking towards me seemed to be having a very serious and heated conversation with someone via Bluetooth headset, but as they got closer, I saw there was no headset, and I noticed that they weren’t really speaking any intelligible language at all. And they smelled like cheese, sweat and cardboard.
Another time, I found a guy going to sleep in a bicycle lane in Manhattan, helped him off the road and spent about two hours listening to his story. He had always had bad luck with jobs because his mother never let him learn how to use a computer, and now he had passed his late-thirties with no applicable job skills. Therefore, he went and legally changed his name to Lost Cause. He said it was a shame that there were no jobs for knowing song lyrics by heart, because he was really good at that. When my cell phone rang, he got really excited and said he knew that song but had forgotten the name of it. It was just a standard Samsung tune, but I didn’t burst his bubble. He had just come out of a mental hospital a few weeks before, now there was no room in the local overnight shelter and he hadn’t slept in three days – he just wanted a place to sleep where it was dark and nobody would bother him. After he told me that he hated being in the mental hospital because they didn’t allow him to drink soda (his most loved thing in the world), I apologised and told him the location of a nearby city park where he might be able to get some undisturbed sleep. By this point, an old lady had called the police, despite the fact that he had spent two hours explaining how police put him in mental hospitals, which don’t help him because all he wants is some skills. When the cops came, they came in a pair, with a pair of medics. While one cop paced around smoking, the other told Lost Cause that he had to go to hospital, the easy way or the hard way, and that was that. My new friend Lost Cause was lead into an ambulance and taken away.
Despite New York’s homeless population, and contrary to popular belief, the crime rate in the city has been dropping for a while. I was not murdered in New York City. I wasn’t even shot, stabbed, or mugged. There are definitely neighbourhoods that you wouldn’t want to wander alone at night, but these are pretty obvious, and there are definitely a lot more dangerous cities in the United States. In fact, New York is now considered one of the safest American cities, which I can believe, as they seem to almost have one police officer for every five citizens.
The transport system in New York is also a central part of life in the city. With so many people living in such densely populated quarters, most people rely on walking, catching a taxi, or using the Subway. Catching a classic yellow NYC cab is an experience in itself, so be prepared to hold onto the hand-straps available above the doors as your vehicle zooms in and out of traffic with narrow-misses and excess speed. The fares aren’t actually that bad, but don’t expect your driver to take the most logical route to your destination.
Catching the subway is another easy way to get around the city, with free transfers and all for $2.25 (USD) on a reloadable Metro Card. If you can ignore the giant rats scrambling about the tracks, and the YouTube videos of homeless Subway passengers licking the soles of their shoes, then these trains are actually a great way to move about the city. After walking down the stairs and into one of the Subway stations that look like tiled bathrooms from the 1940s, you’ll find that the trains are actually quite reliable and easy to navigate, but be warned that you might be have to share very personal space with a stranger if it’s busy.
Walking around the city is a nice way to get around too, and having so many one-way streets makes it easier to cross roads without a little green man symbol telling you to do so. The one thing you have to watch out for, though, is that turning cars get a green light to cross your path at the same time you get that little green man, so keep an eye out for renegade drivers who aren’t paying attention to pedestrians, and if all else fails, conjure up your best New York accent and shout “Hey, I’m walkin’ ‘ere!”
If you absolutely must drive in the city, then be prepared to pay a lot for parking, and pay close attention to signs stating the road rules. Short term parking is paid by a bunch of quarters into a ‘pawkin’ meter’, and overnight parking can be around $35 (USD) minimum. If you need a few hours of guaranteed parking, go to bestparking.com and print a coupon. The other option is to drive around for a frustrating amount of time until you can across a street-cleaner parking spot. These very rare spots are good for a few days parking until a street-sweeping truck has to come along (usually twice a week). A sign nearby will point out the one and a half hour slot when you are not allowed to park there, but there is a sneaky way to get around this, which is common knowledge to New Yorkers. If people want to keep these parking spots longer, as soon as their ‘no parking’ time slot comes along, they return to their cars and sit there. When the street-sweeping truck arrives, you just drive away from the curb at an angle, let the truck go past on the inside, then reverse back into your spot and wait out the rest of the hour and a half. Seeing an entire street of cars pull out from the curb diagonally like a strange synchronised dance is a regular occurrence around the city, and it may seem silly to sit in a car for so long just for a parking spot, but it just goes to show how valuable parking spaces are, or how annoying it is to own a car in New York City.
Another reason not to drive in the city is the traffic. Despite its alternating one-way streets and grid layout, driving in the city can be a nightmare because of the sheer number of vehicles on the roads, and the kamikaze taxi cabs. Taxi drivers in Manhattan will veer into any space they can spot, and if their car can’t fit, they will expect you to move for them – they blindly change lanes and hope for the best. Also, other drivers on the road are typically busy people in a hurry, so impatience is common and people swearing out their windows is even more common. Expect a lot of honking horns, and people ignoring the many signs that state: “DON’T HONK – $350 PENALTY”
So it would seem that walking about the city is your best bet, but there are some problems with this that people might not usually think about. Firstly, people may think of New York in winter as being a snowy white wonderland, and they wouldn’t be wrong. When we first arrived in February, the city had just been hit by a record-breaking blizzard. What people might not know is that it gets extremely hot and humid in summer, to the point where most locals will try to leave the city for the season to holiday elsewhere, like the Hamptons. We experienced two heat waves in our time in New York, and one time when we returned from our first Yankees baseball game, it was 99 degrees Fahrenheit at midnight. When it’s this hot with such a high humidity, you don’t want to be walking around outside, so it’s best just to stick to air-conditioned areas.
The other major warning for exploring New York City on foot is the lack of public restrooms. If you find a restroom in this city, it’s best just to force yourself to go because it could be a while until you get another chance. Even if you have to purchase something small, a chain store like McDonalds or Starbucks can seem like an oasis. The tourist areas are usually fine, because you can find one of these stores on almost every other corner, but once you trail away from the most common tourist hotspots, you’ll find that if you want a restroom, you might need to go into a very expensive restaurant and buy a meal when all you wanted was a toilet.
The food of New York stands alone in its own class of American cuisine. Firstly, the city is home to some of the best restaurants in the world, so if you wish to sell some of your body organs, you can try some very fancy dining, and may even get a celebrity sighting, but if you are after something a little simpler, there’s the world famous street food. As New Yorkers are so often in a rush, you’ll find street vendors all over the city, selling things like hotdogs, icecreams, big soft pretzels, and little bags of amazing hot nuts to quell an appetite on the go. For the best hotdogs, however, I recommend a visit to the original Gray’s Papaya hotdog and juice restaurant for award-winning high quality dogs.
After you’ve tried a selection of food cooked in little carts on the streets, you can move your way up to pizza. As you may already know, New York pizza is a style of pizza which consists of a thin floppy base which is usually around 18 inches in diameter (called a ‘pie’) and is cut into giant triangular slices that are sometimes too large to fit on a dinner plate. Ranging in flavours such as buffalo chicken, beef and onion, chicken and broccoli and boring vegetarian flavours, due to the competition, sometimes you can grab a slice for less than a dollar. When eating, make sure you fold it and make a joke about Joey saying how to eat pizza in that episode of Friends.
Another staple New York food is the bagel – so much more than a bread roll with a hole in it. For whatever reason (something to do with the water source?), bagels are best in New York, and you can find them in most places that sell food in the city. The most common types are plain, sesame, or everything, which is obviously a mix of all of the above, plus sometimes garlic, onion, salt, and quite often too many poppy seeds. The standard filling for a bagel is cream cheese, but this can also come in various flavours like sundried tomato, scallions, or salmon. However, I warn you that you’ll probably want to ask for light cream cheese, otherwise you’re likely to get more cream cheese than bagel. If you really want to make your bagel special, I suggest going for chicken salad (more of a chicken, celery and mayonnaise mush than a salad), lettuce, tomato, and crispy bacon, and then prepare to have your mind blown.
In addition to this American food, you also have the immigrant cuisines. You can find amazing Italian pastas and desserts in Little Italy, experience all-too-authentic Chinese of Chinatown with its skewered and shrivelled dead animals in windows with smells to match, and you can buy Mexican food from a truck that looks as though they just drove it up from Mexico and kept the taco meat in an icebox. It’s all part of the experience… but actually, I didn’t try the Mexican.
THE NEW YORK METHOD
The recipe of New York City is so much more complicated than just a few tall buildings, a giant statue, and a generous dash of taxi cabs. The ingredients that really give the Big Apple its unique flavour are the things you don’t notice in the finished product. Along with all the obvious bits and pieces, you need the water from the hotdog steamers, and the cream cheese that you scraped off because they gave you too much. Next, you need the essence of the steam that rises up from the manholes and the track pants of the homeless, and considering it’s known as the city that never sleeps, maybe throw in some amphetamines. Drop in some footage of the 9-11 attacks too, because those will always be a part of New York life now. Throw it all together, but don’t forget to make sure it’s all prepared in a ritually clean, kosher environment.
Get all the ingredients, and then get a celebrity chef to cook it all up for you in some hip downtown restaurant, and you’re probably still going to mess it up. Whatever it is that makes New York New York is something intangible and practically indescribable – it’s all of the history of the city and everything happening right now. This city is just like a living, breathing thing, making it more of a way of life than a place on a map, and also a very tricky thing to write a blog post about.
Jessie and I lived in Riverdale in the Bronx from the first of February until August 22, 2011. After that, we moved into an apartment in the Peter Cooper Village in the Lower East Side of Manhattan until we left the United States on December 15th, 2011.