It’s Fall in New York City, and while the heat is still hanging around the humidity has officially left the building, making way for the best season to be in the Big Apple.
It’s also the busiest. Holidays are over and students are everywhere, staking out coffee shops, parks, and dive bars in rowdy packs, seemingly unaware that a small yet essential part of college is occasionally attending a class or two.
There’s a dozen or so students currently hanging out in my favorite coffee shop/writing sanctuary in the Village, a gaggle of smartphone addicted NYU kids putting rounds of $5 pour-overs and lattes on dad’s battle-weary credit card.
Now, I’ve always felt here are few things in life more unsettling than being forced to listen to a pack of 20-somethings have a conversation.
They’re loud, obnoxious, and say “like” a lot, however, on this afternoon they’re not discussing clothes or nail polish – they’re talking about what they love about New York City.
Naturally they gush about the shopping, the energy, and the fact there are celebrities, like, everywhere. Yet some are surprisingly more insightful, so much so that it has me thinking of my own love affair with NYC.
1. The City
Many cities have impressive skylines (Chicago), others have a more historical charm (Paris), but you will not find another city as stacked to the nines with camera-loving sights as NYC.
If your goal was to design a city for the soul purpose of blowing someone’s head off and leave them shell shocked from too much cool shit to see and do, you might as well just copy NYC.
2. The Neighborhoods
New York (at least Manhattan) is surprisingly small. You can bike from the concrete jungle of lower Manhattan to the historic brownstones of Harlem in half an hour (maybe more if you blow a tire).
Cramped into this surprisingly confined space are dozens of neighborhoods – the East Village, Chelsea, Gramercy, the LES, Murray Hill, Greenwich Village, Turtle Bay, Hell’s Kitchen, Morningside Heights, etc. – each with a decidedly different flavor.
I’m not suggesting it’s the only city with neighborhoods, however, it’s the easy accessibility between them that makes NYC so diverse yet homogenous, and so special.
3. The Food
I’m a boring person. I lift weights, take martial arts, write, and peddle around town on a beat up bike. I plan my week around what’s on TV and where I want to drink coffee. Wanna hang out sometime?
But what I do like to do, and do well, is eat. And there is no better place in the world for food than NYC.
When I moved here I had no idea what Peruvian food was. Actually, I had no idea where Peru was. (I had it confused with Nepal, which naturally made me think of The Golden Child with Eddie Murphy.) Now I scour the city for the newest place to get my ceviche on.
I hadn’t had a donut in 10 years. Then I moved here and somehow found myself (drunk) and in line at Doughnut Plant on 23rd street. My wife got me a peanut butter and banana cream donut and my life changed.
I don’t know if it fit my macros but I sure enjoyed it.
You know that celebrity chef on Food Network? I don’t care which; he or she has a restaurant here. And as awesome as it is, it’s not half as good as the joints real New Yorkers go to.
4. Barber Shops
I used to take my hair seriously. I had it cut and colored in a fancy place back home filled with attractive women and bad house music.
As I got older, I started to give less and less of a shit, eventually just visiting a $10 chop shop for a biweekly buzz cut from a guy who also sold pizza by the slice out of an old laundromat.
Since moving here, however, I discovered the joys of a real old school barbershop. It’s like the perfect marriage of a coffee shop, sports bar, and hair salon (okay, maybe that’s a ménage-a-trois).
I get an expert haircut from a skilled barber (not a “stylist”) who gets that men can be masculine yet still treat themselves to the good things in life.
And when I can afford the time, I get the hot shave with my fade, usually with a complimentary old-fashioned or Manhattan, all the while discussing the woeful Giants and the soaring Jets.
If you don’t feel awesome after such an experience that I humbly suggest getting your testosterone levels checked.
5. Coffee Shops
I spend too much money on coffee but I can justify it:
A) I love coffee. Others crave wine or beer or cigarettes; my daily coffee is like Omar’s pack of Newports.
B) I typically work in coffee shops, which makes it a justifiable and essential business expense.
C) I like it, all right?
Coffee culture certainly didn’t originate in NYC, but like many other things was brought here by outsiders who came to The City to do what they love for the biggest stage in the world.
Right now I’m sitting in Portland’s own Stumptown Coffee in Greenwich Village. They infuse their signature cold brew with liquid nitrogen so it pours like a Guinness – it’s the perfect mid-afternoon pick-me-up on a summer or fall afternoon.
You can dress like a schlub and get along just fine in NYC. You will still get served and the restaurants will happily take your credit card.
Sure, you won’t get into that club in the Meatpacking District but you can still hang around out front, and if you wear a Nikon around your neck can even pretend you’re a paparazzi waiting for the next inevitable Chris Brown or Kanye West meltdown.
However, spend enough time here and you’ll find yourself dressing better. It’s because fashion is everywhere.
All around you, people have put effort into what they put on their back every morning and it permeates your subconscious, to the point you catch yourself matching your sleeveless training shirts with your sneakers.
When I first visited NYC years ago, I was struck by a palpable feeling of people just being who they want to be. I posit it’s because, whatever you’re into, there’s probably someone else of a similar demographic who shares your passion.
So you’re a white, 45 year-old banker dad who loves hip-hop and Adidas kicks? Dude, there’s thousands of others like you — rock your shelltoes on the train. No one cares.
Similarly, while I can’t speak for my gay homies, I can’t think of an easier city to be gay in. It’s not because of Broadway or the size of gay pride or that there are rainbow flags everywhere; it’s that no one here cares who you eat breakfast with. You’re just a New Yorker.
I have friends who’d say this should be number 1, 2, and 3. The music scene in NYC is something that really must be experienced. From hip-hop to jazz to house to Broadway to gospel, it is anywhere and everywhere, 24 hours a day.
I like to hear Little Louie Vega spin deep house on Wednesday nights at Cielo. It’s free before 11 and there’s even free (shitty) vodka. Tonight I’m going to hear live jazz — and I have to choose which venue to go to.
Last week I caught free jazz at the Charlie Parker jazz festival in Tompkins Square and apparently Prince just did a three-hour unannounced concert at a bar in TriBeCa. Dude just showed up and played til 5 am because A) he’s Prince, and he can do that shit, and B) it’s New York, and you’re supposed to that shit.
I’m not much of a drinker — and in a town where $15 drinks are the norm, that’s a good thing — but I have a soft spot for NYC’s mixology scene.
My friend and fellow Canadian, Dr. Bryan Chung, introduced me to a litany of secret drinking holes cleverly hidden in the back rooms of barber shops and delis, away from the prying eyes of tourists and pretentious douchebags, places where your drink order is something like “cold…tart…medicinal…vodka”
My favorite is the Mulberry Project in Little Italy. I have others too, but if I told you then it wouldn’t be a secret, right?
10. New Yorkers
There are good people everywhere, just as there are butt-chafing assholes and drooling morons. But for whatever reason, New Yorkers are often labeled as “rude” and “pushy” by the rest of the world. Yet my experience has typically been anything but.
Here’s a newsflash: New Yorkers are a family. They look out for one another, such as during Hurricane Sandy, when businesses like Pushcart Coffee opened their doors to neighbourhood residents for free hot coffee and cell phone charging.
As such, they also don’t take too kindly to foreigners messing up their system.
So if it’s 5 pm, and while ordinary New Yorkers rush to Grand Central to catch the train you and your crew decide to walk arm-in-arm down 42nd street and stop every 10 feet to grab yet another pic of the Chrysler building, expect some “feedback.”
There’s a place for you to stand around and take pictures where no one will bother you. It’s called Times Square. Not surprisingly, most New Yorkers avoid it like Fenway Park.
Hang out, see the sights, and eat the pizza, but for God sake stay the hell out of the way.
After the conversation around me wound down I watched these kids pack up their laptops and head back to NYU. They looked like classic college kids, each seemingly cut from the same safe, generic cloth we all wrap ourselves in during high school.
But I knew that in 3 or 4 years none of them would be the same. Some would change majors while others would drop out entirely, perhaps becoming entrepreneurs or struggling artists or musicians.
Cause that’s what New York does. You arrive not really knowing who you are, or afraid to accept it, and the city opens its arms and offers you all these bizarre and wonderful things to explore.
What you don’t realize, at least not at the time, is that what’s really being offered is freedom — freedom to explore every crowded, narrow street and trash-covered alleyway of your complicated soul; freedom to discover who you are, and who you really want to be.
That way, when you leave, you can be you, the real you — the New York you — wherever you may be.