Late January is probably not the best time to visit New York City.
Granted, I assume the few days I was there were more hospitable than otherwise: The temperature ranged from mid 30’s to low 40’s, and it only properly snowed on my last day. Nonetheless, I had not dressed for the occasion. After a week of monitoring the weather forecast, and from a desire to not bring a winter coat with me for just that weekend (I did not think I would need one in Spain), I decided to take a risk and pack only my blazer and a sweater.
It almost worked. My first day was warm enough for me to feel justified in my decision, particularly after briskly walking up and down a few Manhattan avenues. By by my second day, I quickly found myself ducking inside for coffee, just to try to warm up a bit, or else grabbing an Uber ride rather than walk a half mile to the nearest underground station. I mean to explore more of the city than I did, but in the end I really only saw Manhattan. My apologies to the rest of the boroughs: I’ll be back to explore you all later.
In the end, my trip to NYC presented a number of highs and lows, which I will present to you here, in no particular order.
1. The distance between one street and the next is not equal to that between one avenue and the next.
The grid is real, and a bit helpful, and a bit boring. Streets run the width of Manhattan, with the lower numbers being further south than the higher numbers. This means it’s really easy to figure out whether you’re trying to go uptown or downtown, simply based on the street number. Avenues run the length of the island, with the numbers running east to west. (Basically, this is all the same as our highway system.) However, the grid is not evenly spaced: it’s about four street blocks to equal the distance between one avenue and the next. It’s basically nothing to walk from 42nd Street to 47th. It’s a hell of a lot more to walk from 5th Avenue to 9th.
2. Google Maps delivers excellent restaurant recommendations.
I came to rely on Google Maps more than I’d ever done before to guide me toward good places to eat. It almost never did me wrong. Top of my list are Penelope’s, where I got a fabulous breakfast my first morning in the City, Cafe D’Alcase, where I went for Sunday morning brunch (and brunch cocktails), and Black Iron Burger, where I got both the best and most affordable lunch of my stay. I also appreciated Kashkaval Garden for serving great wine and tapas and being chill about me sitting at their bar and reading a book for a couple hours.
3. The Upper East Side is over-priced for what it delivers.
Cafe D’Alcase excluded (because I loved them), I found most of the Upper East Side to be subpar. Maybe the presence of the museums and its more residential character mean it doesn’t have to compete as much as the rest of the city, because people haven’t come to the area for food? Or maybe this is a totally wrong conclusion that I have drawn from an admittedly limited experience. Nonetheless, I found it harder to find a place I really enjoyed in that part of town compared to other parts of town that had more of a restaurant scene. But again: I could very well just not know what I’m talking about.
4. Death & Co. is the greatest, and I would have gone there every night if I could.
I am a huge fan of The Last Word back in Ann Arbor, so all the people I know who are in the know when it comes to cocktails told me I needed to visit Death & Co. while I was in New York. So obviously I went my first night, straight from Broadway. I arrived (about 11:30) at exactly the same time as a party of six, who asked for seats and told it would be about a two-hour wait. As they left, debating what to do next, I stepped up and asked if there was seating for 1. The bouncer peaked inside, asked if I would be OK at the bar, and seated my right away. The couple after me were also told it would be at least a two-hour wait. The lesson? I’m not sure if they take reservations, but if you want to get it and you’re a party of more than one, you will want to plan ahead.
As for the cocktails themselves, Death & Co. literally wrote the book on contemporary craft cocktails, so they were as mind-blowing as you’d expect. I seriously could not stop grinning when the bartender set my first one in front of me. Beyond how fabulous the drinks are, I was also impressed by the staff. Being on my own, I decided to try writing a bit in my journal as I enjoyed my drink. In a busy place with high demand, I usually feel conscientious about doing this, and try to make sure I’m ordering enough to justify my presence at the bar. The staff were actually super respectful of this, and the one time the bar tender asked me if I wanted another drink, he not only seemed to time the question at exactly the moment when I wanted another drink, but he also apologized for disturbing me, which made me feel like I could have gone on writing as long as I liked, as far as he was concerned, he was just trying to make sure I was properly served.
All that said, about the time of my second drink an Irish fellow by the name of Al took the stool next to me, and struck up a conversation that lasted a good hour and a half, at least. I felt glad of the time I had to write, but equally glad to have a nice chat with another human being after a long day. By the time I left (about 2AM), I decided it was too cold and too late to walk the half mile back to my flat, and called an Uber instead. The bouncer at the door noticed I was cold and told me to wait inside till my car arrived. Again: I kind of love the staff.
Where they expensive? Oh hell yeah. Was it worth it? Absolutely.
5. Ubers everywhere.
Everyone Ubers. I suspect because it’s not too expensive (usually) per trip, and often more convenient than the subway. Honestly, I was not impressed by the subway. Possibly the cold made me resent walking more than otherwise, but it seemed like the stops were farther apart than I’m used to, it was far dirtier than other metros I’ve taken, and harder to navigate. That said, I felt obligated after buying a metro card to try to use it as much as I could—and I did use up my card before I left. But at almost every turn, the option of using Uber (which came up every time I looked for directions in Google Maps, along with the time it would take compared to other methods of transport) was hard to resist. Harder still with the option of UberPool, which lets you share your ride with others going the same way and can lower the cost of a trip substantially (down, in some cases, to a mere $4–6).
In the future, if I were in the city during warmer weather, I think I’d rather balance out the cost of using the subway by walking as much as I could, and using Uber for the rest.
6. Mood Fabrics.
OK, so I sew a lot. Not as much as I used to, but a fair amount. A few years ago, I grew tired of the low-quality fabric selection at my local Jo-Ann’s, and took to Google to see if I could find a better alternative.
Thus, I became possibly the only person in America to discover Mood Fabrics independently from Project Runway. I’ve been ordering fabric from them online ever since, but I knew they would be one of my primary destinations once I hit the Big City. I had a moment of panic my first day when I reached the street address and found only their selection of home fabrics shop, which faces the street and takes up a shop front. I’m not sure why it doesn’t connect to the fashion fabrics branch of their store, or why they don’t have more obvious signage, but in order to find what I had come for I had to go into an arcade area and take the elevator to the 3rd floor.
Mood’s fashion fabrics section takes up three whole floors, and is so extensive as to be overwhelming. I left my fist day wondering if I could make up my mind enough to buy anything, because with that much selection, how do you even choose. But I took some time to think it over, and came back two days later on a mission: I wanted to try sewing with leather for the first time, I’d found a cute cotton print which I thought would make a nice dress or loose shirt, and I wanted to explore their brocades for material to sew a fancy jacket. I made some choices which I’m really excited about, and Mood was even able to ship them home for me so that I wouldn’t have to do so myself (or take them with me all the way to Europe). Safe to say they exceeded all expectations, and I’m very much looking forward to some exciting projects once I go home. And in the future, I may just plan out an entire year’s worth of sewing and make an annual pilgrimage to buy my fabric in person at the store.
So I saw Phantom of the Opera on Broadway. My only previous experience with Broadway shows were Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat, which I saw in Detroit as a child and barely remember, and Wicked, which my brother and sister-in-law took me to see in Toledo and which totally blew me away. I expected to really enjoy Phantom, and I did. But the elaborate set design surprised me more than anything. Perhaps I should have remembered this from Wicked, but I think my jaw dropped when the chandelier began to rise in the opening scene, and I probably jumped once or twice when some of the pyrotechnics went off. Also, props to the Phantom for singing that one number while suspended in midair from a detachable part of the stage edifice. This is not a thing I would ever want to do.
Also neat was that at the end of the show, the actor who played the Phantom came out on stage to deliver a little speech, in which he talked about how the whole cast and crew are family, and that he wanted to say goodbye to a couple folk who were leaving, one of whom would be coming back after a few weeks, and other who had been part of the original crew. Since Phantom is the longest-running show on Broadway, that’s a pretty impressive feat. It seemed to me that some of the people in the audience had come specifically to cheer for these two people, and that made the whole show feel more cozy and homey. I can’t wait to come back for more.
8. The Opera.
I went to see Rigoletto my last night at the Metropolitan Opera, which was a whole lot grander than Broadway, but also a lot cheaper. As before, I found myself super impressed by the set design, which in this instance was made to look like Las Vegas in 1960. I think it has something to do with watching so many movies: I somehow expect certain things need studios and special effects to make them work. But when you see a performance live, and you witness everything they’re able to do with on a physical stage, it adds a whole new level of awe to the experience. It made me feel like a child to watch it all unfold.
Being honest, I’m not sure I like opera much. I keep trying, and I will probably continue to try, but it’s often a struggle for me to stay focused. However, this performance was in another league. I’ve heard people sing opera and thought they had nice voices and did a good job, but it was nothing like the control and the emotion I saw here. It took my breath away.
That said, the story of Rigoletto raised some eyebrows for me. Like, if you want a morality tale about the dangers of sheltering your children from the world so that they aren’t able to make well informed decisions about the characters of the people around them, this one’s for you. Other themes include: men raping (?) women and then singing about how fickle they are, and also blaming a curse for what is, in fact, the consequence of your own lust for revenge. Don’t get me wrong: the opera does not condone anyone’s actions, meaning you can watch this and come away feeling like it accurately portrayed a lot of very poor and twisted decision making. I understand it is based on a play by Victor Hugo, which portrayed Francis I of France as an “immoral and cynical womanizer.” So… I guess that explains some things.
I also had the good luck to sit next to some Russians visiting from Chicago, who are apparently huge fans of the Opera, and often watch Met performances on television. I enjoyed chatting with them a little in Russian, and they were kind enough to share their binoculars with me. At the end they commented that one of the singers was nice, but obviously not some other famous opera singer whom they’d obviously seen perform before. I felt slightly in awe to be in the presence of such connoisseurs.
All the museums.
I wish I’d had more time in almost every museum I visited. I saw the Guggenheim (which had some of my favorite painters: Kandinsky and Gaugin), although they were installing a new exhibit in the spiral part so I couldn’t explore that area. The Natural History Museum was excellent, but I thing I accidentally walked through half the exhibits in the wrong order. On the one hand: I like getting lost in museums. But when they displays are meant to have a certain structure, which can also be nice, I prefer to follow the path the curators intended. Not sure if I fudged this all on my own, or if they simply failed to provide adequate signage.
Finally, the Metropolitan Museum. I didn’t have nearly enough time. I think I might need to go to New York sometime for a few months, just to feel like I can truly appreciate everything there. Of everything I saw, I most enjoyed the full rooms they had on display, most especially the Frank Lloyd Wright room. Not gonna lie: it was empty, so I sang a few bars of Simon and Garfunkel under my breath while admiring the display. I also loved the Tiffany glass on display.
Also of note: the giant wing dedicated to an Egyptian temple. At first I thought they’d built a scale model, but turns out it was the real deal: Egypt was building a damn on the Nile, and realized they would be flooding a number of ancient artifacts in the process. Since the Egyptian government couldn’t save them on their own, they put out a call for aid to the rest of the world. The United States gave a huge donation, and the Egyptian government sent an entire temple in return.
Oh, and another part of the Egyptian display I thought was fabulous: I wandered into this room full of these little models of Egyptian life. Again, I first thought they were reconstructions built by the museum to show off what different kinds of Egyptian boats looked like or something. Nope. Turns out they were actual 4000-year-old models discovered almost entirely intact in an alcove of someone’s tomb. Seriously, my favorite part of Egyptian displays is how mind-bogglingly old everything is, and yet how artistically detailed. I think there’s a part of me that just assumes that more ancient worlds weren’t as detailed or skilled as modern ones, and every time I see these things the arrogance of that attitude is thrown on its head.
High points included breakfast at Penelopes, brunch at Cafe D’Alcase, Mood Fabrics, the Metropolitan Museum, Broadway, and Death & Co. Can’t wait to come back for more.