times-square

I’ve been on the subject of NYC landmarks lately, so let’s talk about Times Square.

It sucks. That’s right, I said it. Times Square sucks. Now, some of you may want to defend Times Square as a can’t-miss-it tourist destination, the Crossroads of the World, etc. To you I say: WRONG!

The place is overcrowded, overpriced, and overhyped. It’s overrun with tourists who believed whatever guidebook told them they’re getting the real New York experience, but any real New Yorker knows to avoid the place whenever possible.

Yes, Times Square has big–enormous–billboards and TV screens and stock tickers and news tickers, and yes, even the police station has neon lights. But all that gaudy, phony commotion just makes it Las Vegas East. I mean, the biggest billboards there are for stores and banks whose nearest outlets are miles away. Miles.

Also, no matter how small the buildings and billboards are in your hometown, what self-respecting human being takes a vacation to look at advertisements? I’ll save you a bundle by letting you stay home and watch some click-through ads online. They even blink, just like many of the ads in Times Square. You may not be aware, but there’s a lot of other stuff to do in this city.

Yes, Times Square has big–enormous–stores and restaurants. And there’s not a single one you’d even think of walking into in your hometown (and they’re ALL in your hometown, BTW). I mean, Bubba Gump Shrimp? Because nothing says New York like a pseudocreole chain restaurant inspired by a fictional New Orelans-based fishing company in a fictional movie and created not really to feed people but to sell them some logoed T-shirts and shot glasses. It’s so ridiculous that it makes the Billabong store (as in surfing gear and surfer fashion–not exactly the heart and soul of Manhattan) look like a venerable NYC institution.

Real New Yorkers don’t eat at Bubba Gump because they know a great little shrimp place. Real New Yorkers go to sample sales, not to Billabong. And real New Yorkers know that New Year’s Eve is better spent indoors, where you can drink legally and avoid frostbite.


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Even if you’re not a baseball fan, bear with me on this for a minute.

The triple is widely considered the most exciting play in baseball. Why? Well, a home run is exciting, but it involves, at most, three players: the pitcher, the batter, and the helpless outfielder. It excites only the fans of the batter’s team, and the outcome is known within a split second of the batter’s swing. It’s an exciting split second, but it’s no triple.

A triple is exciting for everyone. Fans of the batter’s team are watching to see if he can really get all the way around to third base. Fans of the defensive team are hoping they can get him out, turning a big hit into an out. And everybody on the field is moving: the runner is churning at top speed; the outfielders are chasing the ball; one infielder covers second base in case the runner stops there (or turns back); one runs out toward the outfield to take the cut-off throw; the third baseman gets ready for the throw and tag; the pitcher runs to back up third, and the catcher gets ready just in case a wild throw allows the runner to try for home. Even the umpires all have to hustle into position, ready for any of several possible outcomes. The stakes are high, and everyone on the field knows that if they do their job perfectly, they just might be able to make things come out in their favor (and, simultaneously, that even if they do their job perfectly, it still may not be enough).

New York City is the geosociological version of a triple. I don’t just mean that it’s the most exciting city in America, though you’ll have a hard time convincing me it’s not. I mean that everyone’s in motion, the stakes are high, and the outcome is unknown. Everybody’s got a job to do, everybody’s got a place to be, and there’s no time to lose. Some of those jobs complement each other (the guy wheeling stacked trays of fresh-baked bread from his delivery truck across the street is throwing the ball to the cut-off man who runs the 24-hour deli on the corner), some of them compete (crowds trying to get on and off the subway at the same time). And everybody knows that their actions may tip things in their favor, or may go for naught. Just like the movement of fielders, runners and umpires, it looks like chaos to the casual fan (i.e., tourist), but in actuality everyone’s got a specific purpose, a specific destination, a specific task–everyone’s part of the play.

Some days, you hustle and you manage to slide in safely. Some days you take your eye off the ball for just a split second and you get burned. Some days no matter how hard you play and how well you execute, things just don’t go your way. But the best days … the best days are when you somehow manage to stop paying attention to whether you (or the runner) are safe or out and, instead, just enjoy watching the play unfold in front of you and appreciate the poetry of it all: the music of the honking car horns and the vocals of the guy handing out AM New York outside the subway station; the dance of the dude from Guy & Gallard pushing a cart full of muffins and fruit platters to the breakfast meeting that placed the order; the bright colors of the fruit guy; the thunder of the pedestrians rushing to work or home; the smell of the coffee carts in the morning and the halal carts in the afternoon. Some days you just look around, soak it all in, and think to yourself, “New York is a triple.”

Today was not that day. Today I got thrown out at third. @#$%^&!


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34th-street

I LOVE figuring out new little lifehacks like that to make my commute/day/life that tiny bit better. In fact, it’s fair to say that lifehacks are something of a hobby of mine. I don’t mean Lifehacker as in the tech-oriented Web site, I mean real life’s little shortcuts, tricks and tips—cheat codes—that make everyday life a little easier, cheaper, better.

Every New Yorker, whether they realize it or not, knows plenty of lifehacks specifically applicable to the City—how to get a cab faster, how to find sample sales, where the best/cheapest coffee cart is, etc. I’ll be sharing some of mine here from time to time, including this one (my newest):

I recently made a small change to my commute that’s made a big difference to my peace of mind: instead of walking east from Penn Station via 32nd Street every morning, I now take 34th Street. It’s a completely counterintuitive route to my office, because it’s less direct than 32nd and it’s extremely crowded and it’s Tourist Boulevard, which means that it’s not merely crowded but crowded with people handing out useless things like free crappy newspapers and flyers for interchangeable tuna avocado wrap–heavy lunch places, and crowded with small groups of people who are all together and thus moving very slowly and impossible to get around and who suddenly stop short to stare at a store or take a free crappy newspaper and then make a sharp right turn and, just as you’re finally getting around them, one of them sticks out an arm in full wingspan mode to make the universal “I think it’s this way” gesture of mildly disoriented sightseers.

[Deep breath.]

But it’s still better than taking 32nd Street, because:

1) it’s cleaner;

2) it’s prettier;

3) it’s got wider sidewalks which, despite being filled with more people, are actually less full;

4) the traffic lights are timed better for my natural walking speed (on 32nd, I have to jog the last 10 yards of every avenue to make the lights).

That said, on the way back to Penn every evening I still take dirty, ugly, crowded ole’ 32nd Street, because, like I mentioned, it’s more direct, and the foot traffic on 34th is much slower at night thanks to a higher percentage of tourists. Scenery be damned, I ain’t missing my train home.


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