The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 12 Jul 2007

New York tourism
Anil Dash recently blogged about touristy stuff in New York that you should skip. I grew up in New York, so I know something about this.

Top of Anil's list: the Statue of Liberty. He advises taking the Staten Island Ferry instead. I couldn't agree more. The Statue is great, but it's just as great seen from a distance, and you get a superb view of it from the Ferry. The Ferry is cheap (Anil says it's free; it was fifty cents last time I took it) and the view of lower Manhattan is unbeatable.

Similarly, you should avoid the Circle Line, which is a boat trip all the way around Manhattan Island. That sounds good, but it takes all day and you spend a lot of it cruising the not-so-scenic Harlem River. The high point of the trip is the view of lower Manhattan and the harbor. You can get the best parts of the Circle Line trip by taking the Staten Island Ferry, which is much cheaper and omits the dull bits.

Ten years ago I would have said to skip the World Trade Center in favor of the Empire State Building. Well, so much for that suggestion.

Anil says to skip Katz's and the Carnegie Deli, that they're tourist traps. I've never been to Katz's. I would not have advised skipping the Carnegie. I have not been there since 1995, so my view may be out of date, and the place may have changed. But in 1995 I would have said that although it is indeed a tourist trap, the pastrami sandwich is superb nevertheless. At no time, however, would I have advised anyone to eat anything else from there. Get the sandwich and eat it in the comfort of your hotel room, perhaps. But quickly, before it gets cold.

Also in the "go there but only eat one thing" department is Junior's Restaurant, at (I think) Atlantic and De Kalb avenues in Brooklyn. Now here's the thing about Junior's: their cheesecake is justly famous. They guarantee it. It is not your usual guarantee. A typical guarantee would be that if you are not happy with the cheesecake, they will refund your money. That is not Junior's guarantee. No. Junior's guarantees your money back unless their cheesecake is the best you have ever eaten.

Lorrie and I once ordered a cheesecake from Junior's. They ship it overnight, packed in dry ice. Our order was delayed in transit; we called the next day to ask where it was. They apologized and immediately overnighted us a second cheesecake, free, with no further discussion. The next day the two cheesecakes arrived in the mail. Both of them were the best cheesecake I have ever eaten.

But I once went to have dinner at Junior's. This was a mistake. Their cheesecake is so stupendous, I thought, how could their other food possibly fail? As usual, the cheesecake was the best I have ever eaten. But dinner? Not so hot. Do go to Junior's. You don't even have to schlep out to Atlantic Avenue, since they have opened restaurants in Times Square and at Grand Central Station. Get the cheesecake. But eat dinner somewhere else.

Anil says not to eat in the goddamn Olive Garden, and of course he is right. What on earth is the point of going to New York, food capital of this half of the Earth, and eating in the goddamn Olive Garden? You could have done that in Dubuque or Tallahassee or whatever crappy Olive-Garden-loving burg you came from.

If you don't know where to eat in New York, here's my advice: Take the subway to 42nd street, get out, and walk to 9th Avenue. Choose a side of the street by coin flip. Walk north on 9th avenue. Make a note of every interesting-seeming restaurant you pass. After three blocks, you will have passed at least ten interesting-seeming restaurants. Walk back to the most interesting-seeming one and go in, or select one at random. I promise you will have a win, probably a big win. That stretch of 9th Avenue is a paradise of inexpensive but superb restaurants.

I have played the 9th Avenue game many times and it has never failed.

Speaking of "things to skip", I suggest skipping the giant Times Square New Year's Eve celebration, unless you are a pickpocket, in which case you should get there early. Instead, have dinner on 9th Avenue. As you pass each cross-street walking down 9th Avenue, you will be able to see the Times Square crowd two blocks east, and you can pause a moment to think how clever you are to not to be part of it; feeling smugly superior to the writhing mass of humanity is an authentically New York experience. Then have an awesome dinner on 9th Avenue, and take the subway home.

Anil's whole series is pretty good, and as a native New Yorker I found little to disagree with. But I think he may be a little misleading when he says "the natives are friendly and helpful." I would say not. Neither are they unfriendly or unhelpful. What they mostly are, in my experience, is brusque and in a hurry. They will not go out of their way to abuse, harass, or ridicule you; nor will they go out of their way to advise or assist you. The New Yorkers' outlook on the world is that they have important business to attend to, and so, presumably, do you, and everything will run smoothly as long as everyone just stays out of each others' way and attends to their own important business.

In Boston, people will take you personally. I was once thrown out of a liquor store in Boston for daring to ask for a bottle of rye in a manner that the proprietor found offensive. This would never happen in New York. New Yorkers don't have time to be offended by your stupid demands, and they will not throw you out, because they want your money, and if dealing with your stupid demands is what they have to do to get it, well, they will just deal with your stupid demands as quickly as possible. A New York liquor store owner is not in the business of getting offended, and he has more important things to do than to throw you out. He is in the business of taking your money, and if he throws you out, it is because you are getting in the way of his next customer and preventing him from taking his money. Most likely, if you ask for rye, the New York liquor store owner will take your money and give you the rye.

There is a story about Hitler and Goebbels having an argument, with Hitler arguing that the Jews were too inferior to pose any sort of threat, and Goebbels disputing with him, saying that Jews are devious and cunning. To prove his point, Goebbels takes Hitler to a Jewish-run hardware and sundries store and asks the proprietor for a left-handed teapot. The proprietor hesitates a moment, says "let me check in the back room," and returns carrying a teapot in his left hand. "Yes," he says, "I had just one left." As Goebbels and Hitler leave the shop with their left-handed teapot, Goebbels says "I told you the Jews were cunning." Hitler replies "What's so cunning about having one left?"

A Bostonian would have told those two assholes where they could stick their left-handed teapot. That Jew emigrated from Germany, and he did not go to Boston. He went to New York, as did his fifty devious cousins.

But I digress.

In some cities I have visited, there is no convention about which side of the subway stairs are for going up and which are for going down. People just go up whichever side they feel like. In New York, you always travel on the right-hand side of the stairs. Everyone does this, because everyone knows that if they don't they will just get in the way and hold everyone up, including themselves. They have no time for this disorganized nonsense in which people go up whatever side of the stairs suits them.

New Yorkers do not stop and stand in doorways. When New Yorkers need to open their umbrellas, they step aside, and do it out of the way.

New Yorkers are orderly queuers. Disorganized queuing just wastes everyone's time. You don't want to waste everyone's time, do you? So get in line and shut the hell up!

Here in Philadelphia, we waste a lot of time trying to flag down cabs that turn out to be full. New Yorkers would never tolerate such slack management. In New York, taxicabs have a lamp on top that is wired to the taximeter; it lights up when the taxi is empty. That is good business for drivers, for riders, for everyone. I like Philadelphia well enough to have lived here for seventeen years, but it's no New York, let me tell you.

Hong Kong, on the other hand, is a very satisfactory New York. A few years back I visited Hong Kong, food capital of the other half of the Earth, on business, and loved it there. Not least because of the food. The Cantonese are the best cooks in the world, cooks so gifted and brilliant that people all over the world line up on the weekends to eat Cantonese-style garbage, and then come back next weekend to eat it again, because Cantonese garbage, which they call dim sum, but if you think about it for a minute you will realize that dim sum is the week's leftovers, served up in a not-too-subtle disguise, dim sum is more delicious than other cuisines' delicacies. And Hong Kong has the best Cantonese food in the world.

People had warned me beforehand that the Hongkongians were known for being brusque and rude. And that is what I found. Several times in Hong Kong I called up someone or other to try to get something done, and the conversation went roughly like this: I would start my detailed explanation of what I wanted, and why, and the person on the other end of the phone would cut me off mid-sentence, saying something like "You need x; I do y. OK? OK! <click>" and that was the end of it.

As a New Yorker, I recognized immediately what was going on. Brusque, yes, but not rude. I knew that the person on the other end of the phone was thinking that their time was valuable, that I presumably considered my own time valuable, and that we would both be best served if each of us wasted as little of our valuable time as possible in idle chitchat. New Yorkers are just like that too. I gather some people are offended by this behavior, and want the person on the phone to be polite and friendly. I just want them to shut up and do the thing I want done, and in Hong Kong that is what I got.

So if you are a tourist in New York, please try to remember: New Yorkers may appear to be trying to get rid of you as quickly as they can, and if it seems that way, it is probably because they are trying to get rid of you as quickly as they can. But they are doing it because they are trying to help, because they have your best interests at heart. And also because they want to get rid of you as quickly as they can.

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