Don’t stay in NYC; it’s expensive, unnecessary. The suburbs are far better, connected via subways and trains. You need to make an early start, but it’s just once a day; we make every minute count, heading, shivering in the chill at dawn from Linden, to Penn St., New York. NYC can be really explored only on foot. If you’re in a cab, bus, any vehicle, you’re disconnected, don’t get the feel of the city.
You think you’re ready for it, having seen it in a hundred TV episodes and a thousand films, but trust me; nothing prepares you for that first step out of the subway’s humid, crowded cacophony into the vastness of the Greatest City On Earth, where buildings rear up ruler-straight, man-made cliffs, geometry on steroids.
A quick breakfast, a brisk ten-minute walk, and we’re at the Empire State Building, exactly in time to catch it opening to the public, but too early for the crowds. We spend almost an hour at there, watching the sunrise over the megapolis, hearing the rising humming, buzzing susurration of the city waking up 80 stories below.
By the time we’re down, it’s warm, sunny, and beautiful. We walk down to the Museum of Modern Art, another quintessentially NY event; it’s definitely a must-see, summing up all of NY’s modernity, avant-gardism, and also it’s quirkiness, the ability to make bare functionality into art.
Lunch, and we spend the afternoon in Central Park, strolling, watching people. Skaters in a open rink, dancing on wheels, whirling around in bizarre costumes; dancers, a family of singers under a bridge, filling the dim space with ethereally beautiful music; street musicians; live statues that suddenly, startlingly, come to life to acknowledge you with thanks if you drop a tip for them; a guy blowing giant soap bubbles, to the delight of an admiring crowd of kids on rollerblades; horse-drawn carriages, joggers, cops, picnickers… it’s an awesome experience, if you sit back, relax, and soak it in.
Tip: don’t try to visit everything, you’ll end up missing all of it. Get into a place, spend time, absorb it’s essence.
Over the next few days, we visit Ground Zero, the nadir of ‘disaster tourism’, which turned out to be a disappointment; just a giant hole in the ground, surrounded by security and scaffolding. We also did one of the must-do’s of a NY visit, the Statue of Liberty, but via the Staten Island Ferry going past it, saving half a day, instead of the tourist boats, and an evening in Times Square. They say that if you stand here long enough, eventually you will meet everyone in the world; looking at the size and diversity of the crowd there, you know this is true.
The golden Bull in the financial district was a conveyor belt of tourists posing and taking snaps; Chinatown was slightly shady, very interesting, and in character, world apart from the other streets we’d been on, with English taking a very poor second place to Chinese text on all the signs and shop boards, and where every face on the street, and every conversation overheard as we passed, was Asian; Little Italy, a little further northwards, was filled with interesting little boutiques and shops with fascinating window displays (I remember a twenty-foot high wall of beautifully polished sewing machines in one) with nice shopping, lots of small exotic dogs, and awesome bakeries, which are a must-try; Magnolia is one where the line stretches around the block and you have a good chance of finding yourself waiting in line next Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, who are huge fans of this place. During lunch, we saw Sex and the City’s Mr. Big on the sidewalk catch a cab – can’t get more classic NY than that!
The East Village is the counterculture hub, with goths, psychics, music and comic stores filled with fascinating memorabilia, roadside cafes and pubs in profusion – another new world to explore.
And, of course, no New York Experience will ever be complete without a taste of the famous subways; At least once, try to buy a ticket and find they appropriate train to get from one place to another. In Penn St. station, amongst the labyrinthine corridors, platforms, levels and sublevels, and searingly bright lights, the chatter and hum of millions of footsteps, public announcements, cellphones and conversations mixes with the deep subterranean rumble and clatter of the trains whooshing through the dark tunnels, and everything is a hurried, humid, deafening and blinding kaleidoscope of confusion until you finally step out into the crisp, chill air, glowing with the self-satisfaction that comes with having come that one step closer to becoming a native New Yorker.
If you have time, don’t forget to visit the Meatpacking District, Greenwich, the Upper East Side, and Soho; all familiar places from Hollywood and TV, not to be missed in real life either.
NYC is supposed to be fast and rude, but by America’s standards, not India’s; growing up in the midst of crowds and the constant fight for space and free time, we felt right at home. We saw it as it is – brisk, efficient, and so incredibly diverse, you could be lost here a lifetime and still never see it all.
Two very important pieces of advice for new visitors to New York, from a local – one, walk fast; two, take all the pictures you want, but don’t block people. These are two critical things tourists forget, becoming irritants to the city that has things to do, places to go, and all too little time. Besides, who wants to look like, as the locals say for the overawed tourists, that they stepped right off the boat?
Stroll around, wear walking shoes and carry an umbrella, use the subways, eat mustard-laden hot dogs at roadside food carts, talk to the people. And most of all, don’t be afraid, and explore. The city is a microcosm of Earth - everyone is here.
And there’s everything to discover.