Dear readers – assuming I still have readers, I’ve really fallen off the wagon. But, I have a GREAT excuse. Are you ready? I quit my day-job and started my own business. The work is plentiful, but the pay is much, much less…..sounds attractive, right? I work for myself! All in all, it takes more of my time, but it’s SO much more rewarding. You’ll just have to trust me on this.
Nevertheless, I HAVE been traveling. Albeit, it’s much more domestic than my travel was previously and one of the first places I want to cover is my dear old friend, New York City. I visited Manhattan immediately prior to lock-down and now 3 or 4 times since. I’ve noticed a few things.
As you know from reading prior posts, NYC has always been a favorite of mine and I’ve always considered myself a bit of an aficionado where the big apple is concerned. Bearing in mind that I’m speaking as a tourist, I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned following the last 2 years:
Don’t believe the hype – New York City is not unsafe for travelers
Be sure to check hours of operation and even menus before you head out
Don’t take the city for granted – it’s vulnerable just like everyone else
Listen to your gut and you’ll find NYC perfectly fine for tourism
People keep saying that the city is WAY more dangerous post-COVID. So often I hear: I wouldn’t do that today……. Or, “Don’t go there alone anymore.” Of course, it gives me pause when I hear locals say it, so there must be SOMETHING to it. My impression? It’s just less crowded today than it used to be.
The old adage about safety in numbers was to our advantage in the city prior to COVID. Anywhere you turned, there were hundreds (thousands?) of people around you – nowadays, you might turn down a city block and find it surprisingly desolate. ESPECIALLY at night. So, eyes-up guys, stay alert! As I’ve said before, every place isn’t Disneyland (…..thank God, but also….now I’m thinking about Disneyland…..) Be aware of your surroundings. Know where you’re going.
And, for goodness sake, realize that it’s not always worth ‘muscling through’. I have to remind myself sometimes that diverting my planned course is best. Ducking into a store to get your bearings, check your directions or to let someone following too closely pass by is just a smart approach. Call a Lyft or Uber instead of saving the $10 that would’ve led you down an empty street or through a bad neighborhood on foot. Make good choices – you won’t be sorry.
Manage expectations: Google is your friend
Lots of places took advantage of the downtime and remodeled or even re-branded, so their offerings have changed dramatically. Some are still struggling with getting enough help, so hours are reduced.
One of the best surprises I’ve gotten recently was the new lobby and bar at the Algonquin Hotel. I found it comfortable and reliable before – but, it’s a must-see today! Drop in after a show to grab a cocktail and dessert. You’re welcome.
However, due to the staffing shortage, some places don’t have the late hours they used to. If you’re counting on an after-show snack, call ahead and be sure you have options. A little planning will make the difference between ending the night on a high note, or eating mini-bar peanuts for dinner. I know they don’t really have mini-bar peanuts anywhere anymore….it’s a joke….you got where I was going with it though, right? Geez.
The times, they are a’changin
If you have “that place we always go”, and most of us do, I’m very sorry to tell you – it might not be there anymore. More than 1,000 restaurants have closed since March 2020. It’s shocking to me to see the number of closed retail and restaurant spots as I walk down the streets. That said, I found new places that I can learn to love very much. Carnegie Diner & Cafe, for example, was a delightful breakfast spot. Had one of my old favorites been around, I would’ve passed it right on by.
It’s a little bitter-sweet, but, keep an open mind. The good offerings are still out there and there are MULTITUDES of the old staples out there waiting for your patronage. What’re you waiting for??
“London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.”
– Dorothy Parker, writer and founding member of the Algonquin Round Table
New York was hard-hit and so were other major cities. They’re struggling to make a come-back. I’ve been to NYC at least 3 times since the pandemic first started. I’ve been to Chicago at least twice and LA 2 or 3 times. It just takes a little more upfront planning now. And, I don’t begin to suggest I know what it’s like to live and work in the city under the new conditions, so forgive me if I’ve struck a chord for anyone. My aim was to write a love song that promotes what we love about the city(ies) and maybe motivate ONE traveler to say, “Yeah – I’m booking!”
If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it
The longer you wait, the more likely a further prolonged dip in business might whittle away at those beloved places that are still hanging on. We have time and science on our side now and I think we can move around comfortably and relatively safely – don’t let the pandemic put the “Out of Business” sign on your own personal travel itineraries – get out and see the world. It’s been waiting for you to return.
Speaking of which, I’m returning to New York in a few weeks to take in the holiday decorations – I never thought I’d go 1 year without basking in the glow of Rockefeller Plaza all decked out in its holiday finest, but now I’ve gone 3 (THREE!!). Maybe I should titrate first……I’ll look at 10 twinkle lights a day at first, then 20…..
As long as there’s a buck to be made, Hollywood will look to capitalize – and, let’s face it: Thanksgiving is a great day for it. You socialize with friends and family over an elaborate bounty and some fine wine. After which, all you have energy to do is waddle down to the local cineplex for a film. Does your family measure up to Hollywood’s ideal? Does the family on the screen make yours look GOOD by comparison? Or, do you just want to escape? I’ll almost always end up at the theater after Thanksgiving dinner (ok, fine – most dinners regardless of date). Yet, in the days leading UP to Thanksgiving, I get into the spirit with a curated list of pics that put me in the mood. I’ll post a sample of the list at the end, but right now I’m going to stick with the theme of last week’s post and look to the home of Thanksgiving: New York City.
“Home of”? Yep, they established the parade, or at least they perfected it, so it’s theirs. Most of you will watch at least a snippet of the parade Thursday morning, so we’ll start there. “Everyone felt the magic on the set and we all knew we were creating something special”, wrote Maureen O’Hara in her autobiography with respect to her experience making the 1947 classic “Miracle on 34th Street“. Think Christian Bale cornered the market on gaining/losing weight to win an Oscar? Edmund Gwenn did it first, winning for his turn as Santa, which he also performed with aplomb in the actual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – not as a campy Hollywood version, but in full capacity just as Macy’s would expect of any Santa, who anchors their parade to usher in the Christmas season. Just like “It’s a Wonderful Life”, (which we’ll talk about later in the season) it was released at a much warmer time of year, but its magic is in how it warms our hearts….year, after year, after year.
I recently commented that this film is full of partisan politics, commercialism, and questionable, or at least controversial, application of the law. These aren’t concepts that are new to our current world. If becoming a devotée of classic film has taught me anything, it’s that we haven’t invented much sociologically that our ancestors weren’t already very well aware of. In fact, during the Great Depression, the world saw that women were running families while earning a living while trying to nurse their husbands’ battered egos and that ushered in the screwball comedies that gave rise to female actors being the star, the box office draw, and running roughshod over their love-struck male leads. Y’know – escapism. WWII changed all of that – women, being lured back into their homes and out of theaters by fancy kitchen automation, were re-placed into much more what we think of now as “traditional” roles. Maureen O’Hara here is a bit of a bridge in that respect. She’s working and mothering, but she’s not wifing – as noted early on by Natalie Wood‘s character who says her parents divorced early. (Don’t be shocked – watch some movies prior to 1934 and you’ll see that America was getting divorced then, too….) Speaking of bridges, Maureen’s Doris Walker is trying to raise a little intellectual who also wants to be a kid, and who doesn’t this time of year? I asked my son if he felt betrayed because we encouraged him to believe in Santa Claus. He replied with a cry/laugh emoji – I rest my case.
For approximately 1 and 1/2 hours, go back to a time when magic was possible. Having blind-faith in something doesn’t have to make you naive – it might just make you hopeful. And, that’s not a bad thing. This picture will give you some insight into New Yorkers in their many facets: the hardened, the skeptical and the caring. Give it a watch while you’re stuffing your turkey or making your pies. I think you’ll be very glad you did and you, too, might not have realized that it’s far more than a sentimental, sanitized-for-family-viewing feature.
For a piece you might’ve missed, I recommend “Pieces of April“. Katie Holmes was, at one time, a promising actress and this is an amazingly talented cast (Patricia Clarkson‘s only Oscar nominated role). It’s very low-budget ($100k). To me, that element supports the film’s premise. Remember the first time you hosted? If yours took a village, this one takes an entire apartment building in Manhattan.
Have some men in your bunch who won’t settle down to a movie about tradition and family (in the traditional sense)? Try “Tower Heist“. There’s no sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner and no wishing the family had been closer, but ‘now I realize what I was missing’…….yadda, yadda, yadda. If your bunch is more in-tune with Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy and Ferraris, this is your film. Maybe it’s a gateway into: Not all Thanksgiving movies are sappy. Because watching Matthew Broderick dangle suspended high above the Thanksgiving Day parade isn’t that.
I’ve read the Zabar’s scene in 1998’s “You’ve Got Mail” described as the MOST New York scene ever. I don’t disagree with that. Just know what you’re doing – that’s all they ask. And, this pic takes place almost entirely in the upper-west side of the city where that might be even more true than anywhere else. It’s a lovely part of town and one where, as long as you’re not looking at price tags, you can see yourself settling in and really living. Just don’t ask yourself how an independent bookseller (inherited or otherwise) is able to pay the rent on her space and that amazing apartment.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that this film is an homage to, if not a remake of, “Shop Around the Corner” from 1940 starring Jimmy Stewart and his real-life best friend’s (Henry Fonda) ex-wife, Margaret Sullivan, and set in Budapest where everyone speaks perfect English with very strong American accents. In the Nora Ephron version, the best-friend and confidant is played by Dave Chappelle and the would-be-star-crossed lovers are Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, so what’s not to love? It is Hanksgiving all month long after all. If you cannot bring yourself to watch holiday-themed pictures, this isn’t one. So, let me entice you to check it out just to see another side of New York during crisp autumn days and as they move through the holidays. And, they do have the lovely aforementioned Zabar‘s scene at Thanksgiving. So, it COUNTS as a Thanksgiving movie. In doing so, you’ll find that strolling through this neighborhood is as essential to experiencing the city as any other. Here’s an insider tip – the H&H Bagels in the movie is not the same H&H Bagel that you’ll find there today. The original closed in 2012, so see – you have no time to lose. Things are changing all the time.
Seize the moment – tap into these offerings and then get out and see the world. I love how movies and real-life can intertwine. To me, indulging that experience makes everything richer. Thanksgiving, if you space it out and partake in the build up by watching while you cook can take days. And, that takes a bit of the edge off of inhaling in 30min what took you 6-8hours to prepare. This has all only been a build up to the climax of dinner – there will be another. Just look for the sequel next year.
Here’s my list of Thanksgiving movie recommendations:
“You’ll lose him – you’ll lose him for sure”, is what everyone said when we announced plans to take our 6-year-old, ‘spirited’ child to Times Square for New Year’s Eve. Guess what – we didn’t lose him. In fact, he actually turned 21 today, so I guess I’m not that bad a parent after all….I mean, he’s not HERE, but I know where he is. For the last 13 years, my office has been in New Jersey while I work from Texas. And, before that, I spent treasured times in the city with close cousins – we commuted, by train, ALONE, from Long Island, ….when we were children. Can you imagine? Times were different (we tell ourselves). Nonetheless, New York City has always had a special place in my heart and if pressed, I honestly could not tell you how many times I’ve been there. Whether it was for a luxe vacation, a budget vacation, just a dinner, summer or fall, I’ve seen it all there. But, I can confirm for you that there’s no city I’ve seen that compares to NYC during the holidays.
Take the picture of Radio City above. If you were standing in this spot right now, you could literally pivot around and see Rockefeller Center with its skating rink serving as the most luxurious and well-tread tree skirt any Christmas Tree ever had. Pivot again and spy Saks Fifth Avenue’s windows and light show. If you picture in your mind’s eye the scrolling electric beacons that dress Times Square and the Theatre District, that’s just a sampling of what you’ll see at Christmastime across entire swaths of the city. And, it’s sincerely holiday cheer – ok, fine – the commercial side is probably manufactured to some degree. But, you certainly get the impression the city revels in it, too. It’s not just for show – the city, its inhabitants and its tourists, find a way to get along and actually, dare I say, share some good will. Even if it’s only for a moment. There are lots of cities where you can go outside and just walk. But, few cities where you can bundle up and walk among the tourist traps and the honking horns of midtown, into the pristine rolling hills of Central Park, and then on to shopping that rivals Rue de Faubourg of Paris in a single stroll. It’s a long stroll. Work with me on this.
Think ahead (as always) on what you’ll want to do while you’re there. Is it all casual? Or, will you also need to fit in some dress clothes for The Rainbow Room or Lincoln Center? You can always adapt your activities around what you’ve brought, or buy more (my preference), but you will want to look smart and be comfortable regardless.
How does a Texan dress for snow?
Dressing for your walking trip through NYC is directly proportional to your level of enjoyment. There’s an art to this:
Dress in layers – this isn’t just something to say – it’s a fact
I recommend silk underwear – it breathes in a way cotton doesn’t. And, if you’re new to the northeast at winter, you don’t yet know that they like their interiors to be a balmy 92F at all times. Layers.
Casual top of any variety – I like flowy, my men wear T-shirts
Scarf (or, 2 – they’re $5 each on the sidewalk)
Coat – I had a nearly frozen southerner in NYC once tell me “You know how they say leather coats are the warmest in the world?” No, no one has ever said that who experienced actual cold. Get wool, get quilting, get down….get smart.
A hat – Texans don’t understand the hat part, but it’s key. I have a HUGE head and a ton of hair. So, I’m usually comfortable with ear muffs, but cover your EARS
Cute shoes? – leave them at home. You need at least 2 pair of durable boots and comfortable socks. I really can’t overstate how much you’ll be walking. Just assume you’ll never get a cab – then if you do, you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
If it’s going to be REALLY cold, grab some foot warmers. I discovered them last year in Montreal – Heaven in a self-activating pouch
If you DO have to bring fancy shoes for an event, note that New Yorkers commute around in sensible footwear – you’ll carry your nice shoes in a bag that gets coat-checked, after you swap-out, with your outer coat when you arrive. They think of everything.
Packing mix and match pieces that all coordinate has never been so vital – you might find yourself wanting to wear everything at once someday – and, if they all match, you’re in business.
Bring cash – most places will encourage/require you to check your outerwear – you’ll want to tip at least a little
I recommend a plastic bag you can stick your gloves and hat into that they can sling over the hanger of your coat. Otherwise, shove those pieces into the coat pockets and slide one end of the scarf down the arm of your coat – less likely to fall off and get lost that way.
I’ve chosen to pop over to the city from New Jersey for dinner on more than one occasion – it’s always worth it. But, this is especially true November – December. Maybe you’re bridge-and-tunneling it, so you’ll likely stay close to train stations. There’s the Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station (with Holiday markets popping up left and right). Then, you make your way back down toward the PATH and find yourself near Bryant Park, with alas, more Holiday shops. Sip, stroll, repeat.
Say you have just enough time for dinner, but you gravitate near the Park. Plan ahead and make reservations at Tavern on the Green. Yes, it’s back and better than ever – but, don’t forget your reservations. And, if you’ve never done it before, I recommend a carriage ride through Central Park. It’s in fact controversial these days – are the horses well cared for? There are 2 sides to that story, so I won’t direct you either way – do your own google-search and decide. I will say that doing it once is enough for me – I’m not going to use it as a standard mode of transportation. But, as a slice of Americana – I just couldn’t say no.
“Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.”
Asian Proverb (I can’t confirm it’s referring to New York, but I think it is)
Not a shopping fan? How about pop-up ice skating – right in the middle of things. Bryant Park, Central Park, again – Rockefeller Center beneath Prometheus? That’s all pretty Christmas-y. The latter costs the most and has the longest lines. Among the 3, if this is your cup of tea, I’d aim for Bryant Park.
Museums? Um, they’ve got your museums. Here are just a FEW of my favorite NYC art museums:
Metropolitan Museum of Art (ok, fine – yeah, duh….but, even if you’ve been a million times. Go see the Angel tree at Christmas) BTW – if the lines are insane, and they will be, as you face the museum, you’ll see a small entrance down below and to the left….it’s for groups. I play dumb and use this entrance; I haven’t been turned away yet. Good luck.
Natural History Museum – I’ve grown weary of the crowds at this museum, but if we’re talking Christmas, their Origami tree is really worth the hassle. OK fine. There. I admitted it….I’m looking at my origami souvenir ornament right now.
Museum of Modern Art (and, an amazing hamburger just nearby @ The Burger Joint in the Parker Meridien Hotel….let your nose guide you….bring cash)
And, don’t miss the museum’s LARGE gift shop across the street from the museum itself.
The Guggenheim – Frank Lloyd Wright – if all you do is stare at the building, it’s worth the trip. But, while on the upper east side – stop by a cozy wine bar. Rest your feet. You earned it.
The Morgan Library and Museum – Not far from the New York Public Library and what a pleasant little surprise. For decades, I didn’t even realize it was there just waiting for me to discover it.
Cooper-Hewitt – a hands-on Design museum. I wasn’t initially enamored, but it sucks you in, where you stay for hours. And, their gift shop has some of the best and most unique shopping in town.
Neue Galerie – New to me (I’m not trying to be funny….I’ve really just discovered this gem). Klimt. Enjoy.
I don’t need to tell you there’s nightlife in Manhattan, right? You’ve heard the song: it doesn’t sleep. Well, that’s not exactly been my experience. But, I will tell you that if you’re looking for dessert or a cocktail at midnight, you’ll have no trouble. So, break out of your routine and live like a New Yorker – sleep a little later, eat a little later, be a grown up a little later and squeeze in a show in between. New Yorkers also see shows. And, whether you’re interested in a top-billed ticket like “Hamilton”, or what’s now a tried and true staple like “Wicked”, they’ve got you covered. If it’s “Hamilton” you want, you might want to call your American Express Platinum Concierge (still….in 2019…but, it’s Christmas). Go checkout your options. My advice is to buy at least 1 set of tickets on-line to your dream show right now – before you leave. And,then while you’re there, see what you can pick up on the fly. There’s always TKTS and there are box offices at every venue. You’ll have options. I’ve even picked up tickets outside of a theatre from groups who pre-purchased a block of tickets and a few guests couldn’t make it. Someone always has to cancel during cold and flu season. For face-value, that’s reasonable and fair – I didn’t get taken. But, use your judgment. And, if you’re not down for a live show, check out the numerous cinemas around town. I really like the IFC in Greenwich Village. In addition to first-run films, they’ve got a curated collection of off-beat Noir-ish Christmas offerings. And, in a city of X-million people – there will be a theater showing “It’s a Wonderful Life”, I have no doubt.
If you’re there for Christmas, you’re probably already thinking of visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral. I guess it’s my upbringing, but celebrating the season in church just brings it home to me – dogma aside. It’s the spirit of togetherness, celebration, and new hope. Even if you’re only there to take in the structure, the art, or the music – it’s always an experience that reminds me for at least a short time each year, that we can be collectively reverent whether it’s for spiritual or just nostalgic reasons, it’s still there inside us.
Where to stay is a question of no small concern – NYC is one of your pricier destinations and you’re going at one of its busiest times of year. You see where I’m going with this – if you didn’t book early, you’re going to be staying out or paying $$$. Still, I’d encourage you to think long and hard about where to stay if you’re looking to economize and consult someone who knows the city. To someone who says, ‘I don’t mind staying out a bit’, I’d say: Trains are a great option in NYC – download the CityMapper app and hope for the best. But, trains breakdown, they get delayed, they’re crowded, they have maintenance at the MOST inopportune times (read: just when you’ve planned your curtain time down to the minute). Cabs can get expensive, but they’re usually abundant….except during shift-change, which is right before your dinner reservations. And, pray that it doesn’t rain – you’ll never get a cab in the rain. Theoretically, someone does, but I don’t know who. And, Uber/Lyft are a great option now, but be aware of “peak time”, which seems to be my waking hours. Point is – you’ll want SOME things to be within walking distance. Don’t plan the whole of your 3-4 night vacation to be very far from where you want to do your sightseeing. There are a TON of New York City hotels – you can find one within your price range-ish. And, be wary of those bearing only a few stars. I’m an intrepid traveler and I’ve had to pack-up and leave a few times when the 3 stars I was “OK” with were discovered to be either ill gotten or just far too generous. You have your health and safety to think of; I’m not just referring to the absence of a Nespresso machine. If you’re staying near Times Square for New Years Eve, or the days leading up to NYE, give consideration to the crowds. We were once greeted at a 5-star hotel with a disclaimer that said the elevators might be quite delayed due to the volume of guests – I kid you not….30min to get an elevator at times. By contrast, I offer the Michelangelo Hotel. I’ve stayed here a few times for NYE and was surprisingly insulated from the crowds and chaos. When I’ve been before, I was always able to walk the sidewalks of Times Square on the big night without being corralled into the barricades you see on TV. I called this year to ask whether brandishing their room key would give me the same advantage – they said it’s dependent on NYPD who will decide day-of. That’s a bit of a gamble at their prices, but it’s an option. A comfy one that allows you to watch the lights and crowds from your window, follow the ball drop on your TV, and pop a bottle of fine champagne in bed. There are worse things.
I’ll follow-up with a post profiling some classic Holiday films set in New York City. I’m not letting this one go – there’s no place like Manhattan at Christmas. You have to see it to believe it. The vibrant spirit, the crispness on your face, maybe some snowflakes in the air, and familiar tunes played by sidewalk buskers. For goodness sake – carts hawking CHESTNUTS on 5th avenue.
I’m not naive – I know there’s a bit of a racket looking to cash in on some of the sights and sounds I’m encouraging you to take in. (I’m picturing Charlie Brown admonishing me for over-commercializing Christmas – thunk-thunk on the metal tree). And, while I’m a bit of an off-beat, boutique shopper, myself, and while I abhor crowds, there is still something magical about just standing still in the Macy’s on 34th Street and knowing that Santa Clause once worked there.