unique new york

by blair

New York City is not like any other place on Earth. Everybody knows this. What everybody doesn’t know, or at least what didn’t know when I came here the first time to live, are the exact things that make it so different. You can, of course, learn this stuff just by coming here, living for a while, and just figuring it out (I guess that’s something it’s got in common with every city or place ever). But maybe it’s nice to have these things pointed out to you first.

This is not a travel guide or an essay where I lord my urban, dyed-in-the-black-wool-turtleneck savvy over anyone. These are the things that freaked me out, that took me a while, that made no sense, that betray me as the emigrée and hopeless insophisticate that I am. So let’s go!

  • Uptown/downtown. It’s what it sounds like. Don’t go, say, or ask for directions north or south. That’s not a thing here.
  • Corollary: streets go up- and downtown, avenues go laterally.  I got this backwards, and I am dumb. Just goes to show you. Blocks between avenues are super long and blocks between streets whip by. If you desperately need to navigate, put away your iPhone. I swear you can puzzle this one out. Just remember the sun rises in the east and sets in the west (but I’ll give you a break for GPS if it’s cloudy).
  • If you swipe into a subway station and you stumble to the turnstile without actually going through properly, you can’t just swipe in again unless you have an unlimited-trip card. At least I’m pretty sure. So get it right the first time.
  • “Well drinks”: Maybe this is a term elsewhere? But I never had seen it prior to coming here. Anywho, this means drinks mixed from the bottles from the well underneath the bar, i.e., the cheap stuff. But that is why they cost less. Bonus: they invite all kinds of “might as well/all’s well that ends well” type plays on words that are really only funny after you’ve had a few.
  • On line, not in it. The cashier does not mean that you are connected to the internet, but that you are queueing up. I don’t know. It’s just what people say.
  • Bodega. It’s a corner store. Like a dépanneur? And most of them have not just coffee and cigarettes but also Amy’s burritos and Greek yogurt (but at a steep, steep markup. Naïve, drunk, and hungry: ye be warned)
  • Food carts. The halal ones, I’m told, are pretty good, and cheap for how much food they give you. The coffee and bagel ones have terrible coffee and bagels that are just untoasted, bloated bread enveloping a too-small, unspread square of cream cheese product. Go to a bodega or deli lunch place instead (lots of them have scallion cream cheese, even!) The smoothie ones are probably okay, though.
  • The line at the Union Square Trader Joe’s actually moves fairly quickly considering how many people are in it. And if you just get on line right when you get there, you can pretty much do your shopping without losing your place as it winds around the store.
  • There is a Farmers’ Market near your home or place of business. I practically can guarantee it. Here’s a map. Saturday at Union Square you can get a giant cheddar-scallion scone and a drinkable strawberry yogurt for like four bucks and it is way better than brunch out. Also, buy some goddamned peaches while they’re in season.
  • Brunch. Fucking everywhere has brunch, and they will totally charge you twelve bucks for eggs and toast, which, ew. If you must, at least find a place that has a prix fixe deal with drinks included.
  • Brooklyn. Do not assume, as I did, that if you and someone else both live in Brooklyn that you will be neighbors or easily visitable by subway. Bushwick is not that close to Boerum Hill which is not that close to Crown Heights. It is a geographically large place and you will probably end up going back to Manhattan to transfer lines to get anywhere, so you might as well meet your friends in the East Village and get brunch there (though, see above).
  • You don’t get cell service on the subway. This might be the most “um, doy,” item on this list, but I didn’t know. And I still see people trying to send text messages while whipping from Canal St. to Delancey/Essex! And, also, on that note:
  • Delancey St. and Essex St. are the same subway stop. Again, I don’t know, it just is that way.
  • Times Square really does suck. Really, it does. Don’t go even for the experience. Have you ever gotten punched in the face while watching TRL on a big-screen TV inside a garbage dump? Congrats, you’re experienced.
  • A lot of people will come onto your subway car and ask you for money. Creative variants I have witnessed included a guy with a duffel bag full of free snacks, a singing group who started their act by feigning a request for the time and correcting the tourist who proffered his wrist watch by harmonizing “it’s doo wop time!“, a blind kid in a Sixers jersey with a rippling, pink scar up his arm and a guide dog, a bunch of kids, including one who must have been only seven or eight, doing elaborate backflips and hip-hop moves on a moving A express train, and your garden-variety winos, hobos, and Vietnam vets. Toss them change if they entertain you or move you to do so; it’s good for humanity.
  • Restaurant grades are bullshit. The things you can get away with and still get an ‘A’ are, to my mind, horrifying. But you probably won’t die from eating anywhere.
  • Do not ever pay full price for a hairstylist or yoga class. These things are on Groupon and Livingsocial (or just offering regular ol’ discounts) more often than anything else. You can get such stupidly low discounts on them that more than $4/class or $25 for a shampoo and trim is highway robbery.
  • Get a library card if you can. Because otherwise you will fall prey to the siren song of used bookstores and drain away your savings account three, four, six, and two-for-ten dollars at a time.
  • Despairing. You might. I did. I do. The city is huge and scary; it smells bad and is not always safe. But it’s incredible, too. It’s the only place where you can get the best of anything or the worst of anything twenty-four hours a day. So breathe. You’ll get through it, one shitty cup of bodega coffee and well drink at a time, and you might love it, too.

Bonus addendum: The Skint and r/nyc are good places to find cheap, free, cool, or all of the above type things to do. I have gone to many an outdoor movie and gotten free Colbert Report tix from total strangers just by cruising the internets. You don’t ever have to be without plans! That said, it’s okay to be bored here, too. We all need breaks.