Things to Do in New York City
|Helena Fitzgerald||Aug 28, 2019|
Today is somehow the seventeenth anniversary of my moving (back) to New York (I was born here but we moved away when I was very young and I grew up elsewhere). Seventeen years is an absurd and embarrassing amount of time to have lived anywhere. It is also an amount of time that means people I know who come to visit the city ask me for recommendations and it also means I am uniquely ill-equipped to give them recommendations. But, to celebrate this anniversary, here's my updated list of Things To Do In New York City. I wrote a version of this last year (long-time subscribers will recognize pieces of it), and I've updated and added to it today. My idea is that I'll send an updated version of this list every year on this anniversary, for however long some version of this project is going on, but we’ll see what happens.
The Best Things To Do In New York City
Get really angry at the subway. End up somewhere you didn’t intend to go. Yell out loud in public in a subway station without realizing you did; discover that nobody cares. Get stuck on a train in between stations long enough that you start imagining riding out the apocalypse with only this group of people in this subway car: who would have survival skills, who would form alliances, who would eat each other.
On a day when you have little to do and too much to think about, ride the subway out to the end of a line, somewhere far from anywhere with which you’re familiar. Watch the tunnel walls ascend into sky, the rooftops shift and eddy and rearrange themselves, the apartments turn into houses, the streets stretch out into lawns and fall away, the buildings shrink down into the landscape. Think of how little you know from inside your own insular routines, how someone else's whole life takes place here and how unknowable that makes this place, this infinitely layered collection of lives on top of a disappearing map. Breathe gratefully into a washed-clean white sky above the train tracks, out where you can hear seagulls and smell the ocean. Ride the train back home. Find that this has solved none of your problems but it was nice, wasn't it.
Have an extraordinarily frustrating long day at school and work and on your way home fall asleep on the subway. Wake up just seconds before your stop and feel like this means you've done it, you're here, you're loved, you're invincible.
Go to Bemelmans in the late afternoon on a weekday and drink one martini very slowly. Do this with someone you are desperately trying and failing to impress; do this alone; do this with someone you’ve loved a long time. Each time the martini will be perfect, and will get you as drunk as six drinks. This should be the last or only thing you do that day. In some cases it probably won't be. Live with your choices.
Time travel to 2008, and go to a bar or a club or one of the myriad disco-basements on the Lower East Side that doesn’t quite know which of those it is. Dance awkwardly in a room full of other glittered-up nerds, and wait for something to happen, buoyed on the feeling that this is the big swollen heart of life, that this is New York like the movies. Afterwards, go to a diner all wearing glitter and eyelashes and underwear and order a lot of fries and talk about what’s wrong with your families and the famous people you know and what you’re going to do right that everybody else gets wrong. Keep waiting, still riding the edge of the sense that this is the hot loud room where life happens, and then in the sunrise eventually go home, alone, innocent and un-impacted, with nothing having happened that couldn’t have happened in high school in a suburb. Think about how New York is the long habit of waiting for something. It offers the sense of every moment being the moment before, just one step from the miracle, suspended about to plunge from quotidian into record. When you get older, tell these stories as though the something you waited for had actually happened and been happening at all times, as though the absent center had been some significance on which you could place your hands.
Have several crises, imaginary or real, about bed bugs. Fail to stop yourself from thinking about the utter lack of hygiene in this cesspool of a breathing, spitting, vomit-on-the-train city, a place where sometimes "The Knowledge" means you know which part of the West 4th Street subway station is most likely to have human feces in it at any given time. Have on occasion a moment of perfect clarity about how unconscionably filthy the whole place is; become horrifying aware of the sheer volume of garbage everywhere, the caked-on grime. Get very sick. Get the flu with the scary name that everyone is talking about. Run a fever so high you mostly don’t remember the three days when it happened. Think a lot about the history of epidemics in New York. Notice people sneezing and coughing and picking their noses on the subway and the occasional rust-colored stains on seats that everyone just ignores, how the things you love here are also the things that make it untenable and contagious, unprotected and unkind, eager to make everyone sick, to churn everyone into the grossness of their own bodies, to put us all up against the horror and basic uncleanliness of ourselves. Have an old friend who went to college here come to visit from out Midwest where she's a doctor, and laugh when she points at the shitty window-unit air-conditioners hanging out the back of the fanciest buildings in your neighborhood and says that that's the whole definition of New York, because she's right, at least for a little while longer still.
Go back in time to the early 2000s and do very little to prevent your very shitty ex-boyfriend from getting in a fight at Mars Bar when he comes to visit. Act like he came here to be a tourist, and this is the tourism we have to offer. Feel bad about it, but not really. Go to Veselka after.
Go to the office of a famous publication or business or some other cultural monolith you dreamed of working for when you were younger. Feel very important signing in at the building’s desk and then get out of the elevator and realize it’s just an office just like any office, with cubicles and bad lighting and windows and people who want to go home.
Develop over time a willingness to lay down your life for a particular bodega cat. Understand that this is a stupid and embarrassingly cliche, but if you really were averse at all to stupid and embarrassing cliche, you would have moved away by now. Walk home at night and check on Casper who sleeps on top of the high shelves and stretches like a Halloween cartoon and gets on the counter for pets while you're making purchases and Oscar the big orange bruiser with his little purple collar with a bell on it who jumps up to headbutt your hand before you even see him there and who stretches out majestic on the sidewalk in front of the fruit stand in the summer.
Do something that matters desperately to you for the last time without realizing it’s the last time.
Meet someone at a party and leave the party with them and go home with them and have the best sex you’ve had up until that point in your life and then never see them again. Spend ten years assuming you’ll eventually run into them someday. Run into all kinds of people, all the time, people you intended to avoid and people you never gave a second thought to and people you see all the time but have no reason to see in this particular place, at this particular moment. Make jokes each time about how the city is so small, such a tiny high school cafeteria. And it is, it is the smallest place in the world, yet sometimes the big marvel of it seems to be how completely you can lose things, how thoroughly you can wake up in the morning and walk away from a person, from a group, from a whole version of yourself, living forward, loving people fiercely for a few years and then living right here, in this same tiny place together, as though you had never known each other at all.
Go back in time to 2011 or so and go to Angel’s Share, a secret bar that wasn't really secret even then, because no bars have ever been secret, even in the late 2000s when it seemed that any bar had to call itself a speakeasy in order to get a liquor license at all. Angel's Share was (I suppose, bizarrely, it still is, I suppose you could actually go to Angel's Share in the year of our lord 2019, as much I refuse to really believe that) inside a restaurant, through a half-hidden door behind which it revealed deep-sunk booths along huge windows over the diagonal of the street between Third Avenue and 10th Street. Go to meet an old friend, and a friend from the internet you've never met before in person, on a night at the beginning of a new year, when everything feels wiped clean and sparkling. Dress insufficiently for the weather, in the hour before it's supposed to snow, the cold outside between the subway and the bar all cut-glass sharp edges. Sit in the window as it starts snowing and hours later go outside with two people who will be your closest friends for the next several years, happily drunk and not noticing the cold, falling sideways into rapidly accumulating snowdrifts.
In some ways any city is a series of inside jokes. Learn to make jokes about Cuomo and de Blasio and Robert Moses and Giuliani, about the trains and the weather and the scaffolding and the prices and the New York Times and New York media and local celebrities whom nobody actually cares about, the tourists and the school groups and the NYU students and the trust fund kids and the instagrammers and the bank branches in place of everything that used to be good and the whole idea that someone might think living here makes them special, or might think being here means anything at all.
Have the worst year of your life, and then have it again two years later, and then again immediately the year after that. Wake up early every morning and leave the house by six am for work, when the sun isn’t entirely up and the streets in Brooklyn are like when they drain a public pool to clean it and leave it that way for the winter. Feel as though grief is a kind of oxygen, expanding the empty early morning world.
Go on the Circle Line. Genuinely, the Circle Line is really great. Especially go on the Circle Line if you have lived here a while and have never done it.
Go to Sharlene’s. But go to Sharlene’s when you’ve already lived here for several years, or when your best friends live four doors down from Sharlene’s and in the afternoons you wait for them to get done with work and meet you there. Go to Sharlene’s alone when you’ve finished a big project on a weeknight and buy every Patsy Cline song on the jukebox and sit at the bar reading until inevitably someone you know walks in. Find a bar where, if you sit there long enough, inevitably someone you know will walk in. Sharlene’s, like, New York itself, is pointless if you’re just visiting, and offers little but the sense of “couldn’t I just do this better at home.”
The best pizza in New York: Go a New Year’s party at a friend’s house in a building their parents have owned since before you were born, suburban and leafy in a staid uptown neighborhood, full of art and cats and pianos, and stay until the house crowds with sweaty music school graduates all intent on celebrating something and the light turns orange and gluey and runs sideways down the walls, get fed up with conversations with people you don’t quite know, and slip out half an hour after midnight to do the only thing you’ve wanted to do all night, which is to buy two very fresh slices of pizza from the grimy, pungent pizza place around the corner and stand in the breathtaking cold in a cocktail dress getting grease all over your face, eating both in a rapid, gluttonous succession while no one looks at you.
Walk home from the subway on a cold night when you're very tired and imagine every apartment you pass with warm-looking windows is your new home. Imagine everyone else's life to be better than yours, easier and softer and more deserving and better lit. Watch the yellow lights come on in the skyline at dusk and imagine all these tiny lives here layered and collected together like a beehive, and imagine each of them is doing better than you are, building a life warmer, making a better home.
Sit on the edge of the fountain in Washington Square Park in the summer, when the tourists and the families and the musicians and the pot dealers all congregate in sprays of dirty water and fading sunlight and smoke and noise and feel like you’re a tiny figure in some huge, famous painting. Think about how small the island is and how history accumulates under your feet. Think of how this place was supposedly once a hanging field, and then during the cholera and spanish flu epidemics it became a makeshift burial ground, bodies piled under dirt. Think of how the park was remade and remade again, graveyard and archive and human landfill turned to a verdant private garden for the wealthy in the heavy brick row houses that still embrace its edge. Notice how the ground here rises upward from the sidewalk, like the meniscus of an expensive drink, because it’s been repaved so many times and had so much buried within it. Consider how the geography of this place means we are always living in our own memory, rewriting the same page again and again, so that everything that happens here is perpetually happening all at once, written over, unforgotten, folded into new nouns and verbs piling up in the same ground where the bodies always push up the surface, like zombies and like springtime, everything always ripe for another try, looking for another chance, a belief that we could once again become new.
Love someone you absolutely shouldn’t love. Keep loving them despite the warning signs, and despite offers of love from better, better-looking, more appropriate people. Follow them around the city like you’re dragging your heart on a string behind you, imbue places with meaning about them even though you’re perfectly aware that you’re in this to get broken, because a part of you thinks enough pain might smash through into some greater clarity, some better directed meaning.
The best bagel in New York: Be very hungover. Be so hungover that your heart feels like it is going to punch its way right out of your chest in protest. Be so hungover that getting up and going outside is an absolute triumph, the greatest and proudest thing you will ever accomplish. Buy a bagel -- let's be honest, buy two bagels, one of them probably the kind of weird thing you only order when absolutely murderously hungover and which you don't remember ordering by the time the bagel is in your hands -- take them home and sit on the couch and consume them in silent concentration as through the bagels are a life raft and everything that is not the bagel is an unfriendly ocean. Oh my god. Bagel. You should probably buy a Gatorade or something, too.
Go outside on the first day the warm weather comes back. To do this, you have to at least stay in the city through an entire and very bad winter or it won’t matter at all, so stay through a winter where you grow cranky and sedentary and inward, rushing through the damp caves of the subway into the bitter air and back home each day, too exhausted from the fact of the weather to do anything else, forgetting what your body looked like under four layers and a gigantic coat like a comforter with sleeves. To do this, now, you also have to travel back in time maybe five years if not more, to a time when seasons were still secure and recognizable, rather than a delusion we all agreed on so as not to have to face a far more frightening truth about not what is coming, but what is already here. On a day sometime in March or April several years ago, leave your building wearing a jacket over a tank top and halfway down your block take off the jacket because you realize you don’t need it and awkwardly ball it up under your arm. The air on this one day of the year feels like mercy, like a promise that nobody you love is ever going to die.
Love a bar for no good reason, because it happens to be in proximity to your friend’s apartment. Take everyone you date for five years to this bar, have every important conversation there. When friends have crises, hide in corners there trying to talk them through it, trying to find any useful words. Build a vocabulary of your whole familiar life into this place that doesn’t even make good drinks, but where you went because eventually the most important quality something can have is what has already happened there. Move away from the bar when you move in with your boyfriend and, when you hear the bar is closing, mean to go back one more time but never do.
Throw a party in a very small apartment and have way too many people come to it, until the whole ill-equipped place turns into a sauna. Throw a party on what turns out to be a reelingly sad and historically awful night, which you should have known if you’d allowed yourself to think through the truth of it. Invite everyone you know assuming no one will come, and then stand next to your front door while fifty people fill your five hundred square foot home yelling at the television screen. At two am when only a handful of you are left and everyone is drunk and crying and no one wants to go home and your boyfriend just keeps making mac and cheese in every available dish in the house and passing it around because what are you going to do, feel like everyone in that room is your family even though you’d only ever met some of them on the internet before that afternoon. Think of how getting past thirty in New York is deeply embarrassing, but these saturated, familial moments of too much body heat in too small spaces are what makes it ok, are what makes it possible to argue for this up-close sort of living.
Go and sit in the Temple of Dendur at the Met on a day when you’re very stressed and sad, or on a day when you’re happy, but at nighttime. Go to Visible Storage at the Met, which everybody knows about now and maybe always did before I did, but which makes it no less magical, one of the few things that really earns the word, no less the most satisfying kind of heavy-handed metaphor. Go find the one utterly out-of-place comfy couch in the Met, an old sunken-springed blue corduroy couch that resembles nothing so much as the couch in the English department at a small liberal arts college. The couch is all the way in the back on the first floor through Medieval Art, in the very back of the new section of the museum which is really not exactly new at all, behind the awkward light-flooded rotunda. Sit on the couch and have a private conversation while ignoring the art around you. Go to the Greek Art halls and joke about butts and dicks like everybody else in their nice clothes quietly joking about butts and dicks. Get lost upstairs in the rooms nobody goes to, get tired and go up on the roof in the summer and breathe in the green and the view. Go sit in front of the Pollocks and the Rothkos and think how unfortunate it is when obvious things are as good as obvious people say that they are. Get lost in the Impressionism rooms, think about how Cezanne is so much better than every other Impressionist painter that it's like some kind of joke but also have your own opinion, I'm not your mom. If you go to the Met with my mom, though, and she tells you that Cezanne is so much better than every other Impressionist painter that it's like a joke, you have to listen to her, because she's right.
Two days before Christmas, assemble a small group of people you love into a rented by the hour private karaoke room and all together howl the lyrics to Gold Dust Woman at the little neon screen where they’re printed until you feel like you pulled something out from the sickest place behind your ribs and left it on the floor. The best karaoke place in Manhattan is Gagopa, fyi. Don't go anywhere that isn't BYOB for karaoke.
Go to Central Park! This will take roughly seventeen years. Find a good spot to have a picnic, or just read a book on a picnic blanket. Try to have picnics and feel dissatisfied and conspicuous and embarrassed. Try to invite friends to the park; fail. Try to go to the park by yourself and read but feel muddy and gross and keep moving around and standing up again when you realize a half-naked couple is aggressively making out next to you, or a dog recently took a shit nearby. Finally go home sweaty and having read none of your book. Go to the park when it's too crowded, when it's too cold, when it turns out you just weren't in the mood for it, when it turns out most of the spots that look verdant from afar are mostly dirt and very little grass. Finally after almost seventeen years, get to the Great Lawn early one Sunday morning after weekend trains thwart your actual plans for the day, and lie down in the perfect spot, and stay there for three or fours hours, blissful, finally in the park like "going to the park" is supposed to mean. You will still have ants all over you.
Imagine moving somewhere else. Mark time by your vague plans to move away, decide where, make half or a third of a real plan. Watch friends you love very suddenly actually do it. Never actually follow through on those plans; envy your friends as much as you miss them. Find the part of the fantasy of moving away you enjoy most is the part where you miss New York. Imagine staying up too late to watch New York twitter complain about the city, and, while riding a better transit system, missing the metal-on-metal screech of the subway and the way the trains sing three notes as they pull into 72nd street on that horrifically thin stretch of platform, in the summer when the stations drip with everyone else’s sweat. Imagine how you would miss dispersing into streets and over to bars after work while everyone compares their horror stories for the day, everyone on the same leaking, sinking, smelly ship all together, going home over bridges trying to make beauty personal, trying to make the way the lights line up along the river into a sustainable comfort, into a thin belief that something here is on our side.
Go to Veselka. Go to Veselka, alone, when it's snowing, and order pierogis and borscht and stuffed cabbage and sit there warm and cradled in a room that is almost exactly the same since you first moved here, chrome-legged tables and mural walls and that color of green so exact you could believe you have never quite seen it anywhere else. Go to Veselka at 3am and at 2pm and at 9am, find out everyone else you know who lives here, no matter how otherwise utterly dissimilar their lives from yours, also loves Veselka, as though all sharing the world's most obvious secret.
Think about how compassion is a small, crowded room full of sweaty people yelling, that it’s not elegant and it smells bad and it isn’t something you’ll ever be able to explain to your family in a way that will make them proud of you. Think about how people mostly come here to be invisible and mostly succeed. Think of how the most likely outcome of moving here is to live for a bunch of years feeling very important and doing nothing at all. Think about the indirect ratio between feeling like you’re having a big life in the big city and actually achieving anything, think about momentum and inertia, about surfaces and depths, about billboards and substance. When you start actually accomplishing things, feel profoundly boring and worry that there’s no reason for you to be here anymore. Walk outside just after dark in summer when the air’s sloughed off the heat and gotten gentle and think how a place can and will change you simply through your prolonged staying, simply by means of the passage of time, without you doing anything at all.
Go to the Grand Central Oyster bar. No, really, actually do this one, if you have lived here for longer than I have or if you are visiting New York for the first time, genuinely: Go to the Grand Central Oyster Bar. The food there is not particularly fantastic, and the drinks are only a little better, and both are shockingly overpriced. But that's not the point; that isn't why you're there. One of the most common misconceptions about New York is that we have the best of everything here; this is baldly untrue. Most everything in New York, from the food to the bars to the parks to the concert halls to the subway to the people, can be found better, and for far less money, elsewhere. To appreciate New York you have to appreciate a very specific sort of joyful, self-important nostalgic mediocrity which is why I am telling you to go to the Grand Central Oyster Bar. It's stagey and it's inconvenient and it's run-down, it wants to be a glamorous mid-century fantasy but a friend of mine once called it "New York's dad's finished basement," and he was right and this is a descriptor that applies to almost everything that would call itself “mid-century.”
The Oyster Bar is not necessarily good, but it is perfect. Take the sloping route down the smooth red-brick walkway under the cathedral arches of Grand Central Station, the green, star-blemished ceiling peeking out around corners. Go with a big group of friends for a traditional-but-really-only-occasional celebration of one friend's birthday, the first person who ever told you about this place. Crowd around a table and order poorly and tell escalating jokes like dares and feel for a minute that despite the passage of time you are all together in a way you thought all of you might never find yourselves being together again. Go with a best friend you have only just met in person recently but with whom you are falling into a sudden and welcoming platonic love affair, order the oysters with the silliest names, and spend four hours finishing one drink while you tell each other your whole life stories, starting at the most confessional and working outward. Go on an early date with the person you will eventually marry years later, before he even lives here or is even considering living here, and feel like it is somehow very right that you are offering him this version of the city that is at once the most false and the most accurate. Go by yourself, when you happen to be in Midtown and have a few free hours in your day. Sit at a table and pretend to be a tourist, pretend to be an adulterous 1950s businessman in a hat waiting for a train to Connecticut, pretend to be a person who knows which oysters are good, pretend to be anything at all, down here in the basement, polished and invisible, where everyone else is pretending their unimportant fantasies of themselves as hard as they can.
The best coffee in New York: Just buy a really shitty cup of deli coffee and sit outside on the first day when you can smell fall in the air. I cannot stress enough that the coffee must be bad.
Realize that nothing about a city makes anyone special, and that cities are themselves not special either. Realize that “New York” is merely the name you have given to how you have lived your adult life, and that if you had lived somewhere else you would have given it the name of that city, and it would have been equally untrue, a story about yourself and not about a place. Realize that many of us need bigger things to which to root ourselves, to give our stories reasons and justification, to name habits and certainties and fears, to put category onto the things that continually occur, onto the desires and resignations by which we string together our lives. It’s hard to explain why anyone would choose to stay here outside of the common and obvious reasons - a good job, a large salary, a network to offer the first two things, or the opposite, the inertia of bad luck and poverty and loss. It’s difficult to write honestly about either leaving or staying in New York when one is privileged enough to have the choice between the two; most people stay here because they can’t afford to leave, which is the reason that most people stay anywhere at all. Think of how staying in one place means very little at all and yet somehow, accidentally, became the only thing you know how to do.
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