Monday, January 6, 2014

A Tale of Two (Bipolar) Cities Part 5

Well, it was a new year and we were still alive. That was good news.

We visited a cleaned up Times Square for some pictures, walked around Broadway, and did a bit more shopping now that we had figured Macys out. We had a delicious sushi dinner and started to feel relaxed now as we wandered the city. The highlight of the trip for me came when we settled into a lounge bar that featured live jazz and sat down for a real New Year's toast with two tall flutes of prosecco. That's when I felt at ease and happy about the new year. I sank into a chair and we talked about the year ahead, the things we wanted, the things we hoped for, the plans that we would make. And those plans included: another trip to New York City.

Try as I might, I can't hate New York City. I feel, in a lot of ways, that I got kicked around and had some rotten luck; that I wasted a lot of time and acted like a small town simpleton and got treated as such. I still feel like a poor, dowdy, not cool enough loser, but I'm a loveable loser and I can't hate an icon. I feel like we got our butts kicked, but maybe that's the way it had to be. Maybe you really have to take the bitter with the sweet, the bad with the good. And maybe you need to know better next time.

So here are my tips for travelling to New York City:

1- Plan. New York City will overwhelm you with choices, so make a plan, reserve things in advance, and only plan one thing a day if possible. It takes time to get places, there are lines, there are crowds, and cabs don't appear as if by magic, even though there are a lot of them. Don't be overly ambitious; traffic and congestion is a way of life and things can get shut down quickly due to weather or threats.

2- Cross streets. Bring addresses with you that have cross streets. It's a big city with long streets and cabbies won't necessarily know.

3- Don't give up. If and when crap happens, or you get in a bad situation somewhere, don't give up and sit in your hotel room. Dust off, laugh about it and keep going. There are always more options and it's a 24 hour place, so it's never too late to salvage some part of your day.

4- Go with someone you love. I could not have endured the rough moments or imagined loving the best moments of this trip without my best friend at my side. So choose your travel companion wisely.

My final day was spent trapped in Laguardia airport, waiting to see if the winter storm would knock out my flight home. Thankfully, it did not. The airport has a purely functional 90s look to it and is not a great place to be trapped. There weren't a lot of diversions around, although it did have a burger bar that we were grateful for. There are few things in life that can't be fixed by a good burger and beer. The New Yorker Hotel did give us a final one finger salute as we left the city, advising us to take a $100 cab ride to the airport when there was a $13 shuttle a block away. Thankfully, we found the shuttle and missed at least one opportunity to get robbed before leaving the city. It's a small victory, but like I said, I'm a small person and I'll take it.

Will I be back? Likely, yes. Will I do a lot of things differently when I do? HELL YEAH. Do I regret this expensive, rocky, chaotic, up and down trip? Hell no. Because when people ask me what I did for New Years, I'm finally going to have a story to tell.

Or two.

A Tale of Two (Bipolar) Cities part 4

New Year's Eve in New York City. This is what we came for.

We had a plan well in advance for the big night: a dinner reservation at BLT steak and tickets for Webster Hall. As an avid fan of Hell's Kitchen and chef Gordon Ramsay, I could not wait to try BLT Steak where one of the winners was head chef. With such vocal standards, I knew that chef Ramsay's protege would not disappoint.

The food was divine. We had tuna tartare, filet mignon and asparagus on the side. All of it was perfection. The extras on the night included a wonderful pate with crackers and some thick, fluffy popovers with gruyere cheese. Being in NYC, I had to have the quintessential Cosmo pre-dinner drink and had a lovely red with my steak. Dessert was a scoop of banana ice cream and one-bite brownies dusted with powdered sugar and we both began to feel that same lovely glow that comes after a heavenly meal when we climbed into the cab to get to the club.

The night started out well. The DJ was good, people were dancing everywhere, and it was a good time. There were also a lot of men in the club and for the first time, I literally had to shoo them away with both hands. I got more male attention in one night than I did in all of 2013, so I can't say that was bad. The good news is that they were gentlemen about it- nobody got attitude about a refusal or asked me what my problem was, so people were cool. I didn't feel harassed and I was free to shake it up on the floor.

I'd heard a lot about Webster Hall and it was a pretty cool club. Multiple floors, DJs, good atmosphere. Among the highlights of the night: the midnight balloon drop, the fire breathers on stage who showed up in red lingerie and the girl on the floor dressed in bra, panties, hose, heels and a 2014 party tiara. She was saying that 'she couldn't decide'; by which, I think, she was referring to her dress choice of the night.

Then, the scary moment.

Midnight brought a huge crowd of revellers up to the floor, which was already well past capacity. The ensuing crowd got thick with people who were trying to shove their way inside. I was clinging on to my friend's hand, trying not to lose her, when the crowd crushed me in and literally moved me forward. I couldn't move at all in the hot mess of people and all sorts of scary thoughts entered my mind; I was going to get crushed; I was going to fall and get trampled; I was going to pass out from not being able to breathe. Pure panic set in and it was palpable. There were screams, it was dark and the crowd was packed so tight that I started to have trouble breathing myself.

Then, the weird moment.

While I was being crushed halfway to death, with my mental faculties shut down and re-focused entirely on the task of living through this ordeal, a guy just wrapped his arm around me, kissed me on the cheek, and wished me happy new year. He said something about how beautiful I was, something I barely registered, what with me being so concerned about living and all, and in the back of my mind, I couldn't help but be utterly shocked by this casual near-death encounter.

The whole ordeal probably lasted minutes, but when the crowd finally broke, it was around the stairwell, where security guards bellowed into loudspeakers for people to make their way down the stairs. I dashed down the stairs while the girl in front of me told me she lost her sister. I felt bad for her, but we had to keep moving, so we made our way to the ground floor and waited.

It was an agonizing wait. I could not imagine what I would do if I lost my best friend or if she had somehow gotten injured upstairs. I waited and waited, mentally willing her to come down the stairs and find me. Thankfully, she did, but after the initial relief of seeing each other in one piece, she told me that one piece really was missing: her purse. So we waited some more and she was anxious. Many purses and clutches had been lost in the crush, so a veritable boutique was piling up at the lost and found desk. Hers did show up, a little lighter for the cash that was inside. But it was there.

It might be superstition, but I really feel that if you cheat death once in the night, best not to tempt it again, so we left. Safe and whole, we soaked our feet in the bathtub at the hotel and talked about our experiences. Our night consisted of a great meal, some dancing, some male attention, a near death experience, petty theft and all in all, a pretty memorable New Year's Eve.

A Tale of Two (Bipolar) Cities part 3

Needless to say, I did not wake up the following morning, singing Sinatra.

I woke up resolved to lay down a complaint with the New Yorker Hotel and get some form of recompense for my failed night out. I showered, put on my bitch face and armed with righteous rage, made my way down to the lobby and demanded to speak to a manager.

The guest services manager was a nice enough man, who seemed genuinely perplexed by my story. He explained to me that the concierge was outsourced, and not an employee of the hotel, and that the service currently used was not going to be renewed. Basically, we had the misfortune of catching a bitter erstwhile employee on their last day of work, who decided to go out in style by offering us bad advice. I had already made up my mind that I wanted to be compensated for a night at the hotel for my lost time, but it turns out, that was going to be overly complicated. Since I had booked with an online service provider, the hotel could not directly compensate me without approval of a director one level up.

That director refused. When I confronted this director face to face to ask for an explanation, he gave me the kind of tired eyes that you would use if you spotted gum at the bottom of your shoe. He proceeded to give me a brief administrative lesson about space leasing and liability that ended in the not-my-problem category and I walked away with nothing after losing a morning to fighting with a hotel who couldn't care less if I was hit by a cab on my way out. There was some nonsense about filing a report and how the hotel could not be held accountable for anything the concierge did, no more than they could be blamed if you got food poisening at the hotel diner, since that person is not a hotel employee and I was left to seethe in the fresh New York City air, breathing dragon fire and cursing.

Trying to salvage what was left of the day after this wasn't exactly easy. I felt beaten up by New York City at this point and didn't want to do much more than get as far away from the hotel as possible. Not only did I feel like a nobody, I felt like a stupid nobody; a fool who got taken in and robbed blind. I felt like Homer Simpson vs New York City. I'm not sure what crab juice tastes like, but this definitely left a pretty bad taste in my mouth.

We spent the rest of the day walking around, found Rockefeller Place and a store clerk who didn't hate us directed us to the Waldorf-Astoria, where we were amazed by its beauty and not for the last time, cursed the concierge and the hotel 'services' outloud.

It was New Year's Eve and we didn't have time to stay mad or sulk at home. It was time to dust ourselves off, put on dresses, heels and our game faces, and go out for the biggest night of the year and finally say goodbye to a challenging 2013- in style.

A Tale of Two (Bipolar) Cities Part 2

I can only describe day 2 in New York City as a Key and Peele skit.

Have you seen the comedy duo of Key and Peele? Have you seen the skit where they dress up as high-pitched, flighty girls in wigs and heels and walk around saying things like 'uh-uh' with a fling of their heads? I can only describe us as those girls on that fateful, disastrous day.

Waking up in starry-eyed surprise at the fact that we were in NEW YORK CITAY! made us both giddy and excited. So when we left the hotel, we were resolved not to waste a single moment and began talking about all the things that we could do. But the problem with that, in a city that size, is that we could have spent the day talking about it until we were blue in the face and still miss things on the list. So we settled for the girliest thing we could do: we went shopping.

Well, we tried. The constant stop and go of the day was dictated by the overwhelming amount of choice and crowds everywhere. We failed to understand that Macys has two sets of buildings that cross over, and depending on which entrance you come in, different things will be on different floors. Bebe was lined up for days for change rooms and tiny girls waited an hour to try on less than a yard of fabric. Victoria Secret was so large and full that I could no longer see products and huge high def TVs were playing the VS fashion show and their famous multi million dollar bra with crystals. As if I didn't feel inadequate enough with images of glamazons strutting around in inescapably larger than life resolution. I walked away dazed, with no purchase, wanting ice cream.

We spent the day exhausting ourselves running to and from shops and waiting in lines for service. Finally, we decided to dress up for our big night out. We planned to make our way to Rockefeller so that we could see the tree and the skating rink, find the Michael Kors flagship store, head to the Waldorf-Astoria for a drink in their lounge bar and then find a sushi restaurant for dinner. More and more plans were added, as we talked about bars and lounges and other after after places we could go- the way we figured it, the city didn't sleep, why should we?

Then the comedy of critical errors began.

We began by confirming our plans with the hotel concierge at the New Yorker Hotel. The lady at the desk airily informed us that the only hotel bar that was worthwhile was the Oak Room in the Plaza, where 'everyone' went. Of course, I've heard of the Plaza, who hasn't, and with that information in our minds, we changed gears. We promptly got caught in traffic, dropped off way before our stop, got lost, got cold dressed in heels and short dresses like Key and Peele's flighty girls, and got picked up by an unscrupulous, fast-talking rickshaw who proceeded to take us for a ride- a very expensive, pointless ride. Because as it turns out, the Oak Room has been closed for 3 years and the Plaza, due to security concerns, only allows hotel guests with a room key to drink in their bar. All things that would have been helpful to know, like the fact that the rickshaw we took was a crook.

In retrospect, of course, it's easy to say that we should have known better or that we should have verified the information ahead of time or never taken a rickshaw. But we did what a lot of people do in situations like this: we trusted the wrong people. I've gotten advice before from hotel concierges; in fact, I've received excellent service from them in the past in various Fairmont hotels I've stayed at over the years. Why not trust the concierge in New York City? My best friend had previously taken a rickshaw in the past in New York City- how were we to know that this one was crooked? And sure, we could have made a scene or tried to flag down a cop or report the crook- but how could we know that they would take our side or even assist us? Let the buyer beware, after all.

With heavy hearts and significantly lighter pocketbooks, we cabbed back to the hotel, got dressed up like normal people and went to the Irish Pub around the corner for some pints and food. It was a night of excitement and hope that ended in the most banal matter possible and very far from the glitzy image in our minds of our night on the town. It felt like being punched in the gut on the happiest day. I suppose the positive of this is that I learned some very important lessons about the big bad city and the whole thing about trust.

I got a big bite of the Big Apple that night- but the part I got was bruised.

A Tale of Two (Bipolar) Cities part 1

When my best friend asked me to go to New York City for New Year's Eve, it was mid-December and I was staring at the prospect of a quiet night at home alone. So naturally, I said yes and thought to myself, what could be cooler than spending New Years in the world's best city on the biggest night of the year?

What indeed.

I honestly don't know what to respond when people ask me about my trip. The default word is crazy. New York City is a lot of things and describing my experience is hard to sum up in just one word, so the default has been: crazy.

It was also fun, hectic, frustrating, overwhelming, posh, too posh, amazing, scary, indifferent, difficult, excessive, polite, rude, gorgeous, iconic, crowded, quirky, flamboyant and bitchy.


It was 2 very long travel days, 1 disaster of a day, New Year's Eve, and 1 sane day that was relaxed and cool- just the way that I had hoped my entire trip would be.

This is the main problem with New York City; it's a movie reel to me. All that I know about it is pretty much derived from film strips and montages. New York City is full of iconic sites featured in plenty of films, but it's such a big part of that world that the city itself is an icon. It has gorgeous architecture and old school Americana that can't be replicated anywhere else, a slice of decadence and new world promise. It's the big bad city, the American dream, the unique, the original. But because it's a movie to me, it all looks so simple and seamless. And it's not.

Making sense of the Manhattan layout is nowhere near as simple as its land mass suggests; it looks manageable enough on a map, but the map doesn't include crowds, shops or moving vehicles, all of which are very present in reality. While I diligently took note of addresses, I didn't realize the importance of cross streets. A cab driver helpfully reminded me of that fact on night one.

Getting into the city itself is its own little trip. I flew into Newark and took the shuttle into town, the one that leaves every 15 minutes, a generous estimate at best. But it was peak season and the way in was pretty cheap at $16 US a person. Despite all the things that I heard about New Jersey, the Newark airport was fairly large and modern-Laguardia, on the other hand, was small and drab by comparison. More on that later.

We began our New York adventure getting lost in the rain on the way to the hotel. Getting lost was completely my fault, as I should have verified the directions beforehand, but at the very least, the pouring rain encouraged me to find my way faster. We passed the dazzling lights of Broadway, inviting us to frolicking musicals and an angry shouting match between a hot dog vendor and some errant customers. Talk about the whole New York experience right there.

But night one was entirely redeemed by Uncle Jack's Steakhouse in Midtown where we had dinner. I had seen the restaurant's owner featured on the Food Network's Restaurant Stakeout, a guilty pleasure show that I cannot resist, which is entirely focused on customer service in the restaurant industry. Customer is King is written above the bar of this classic steakhouse where the waiters wear vests, coats and white gloves. The atmosphere is not pretentious in the least and we were seated next to some casual looking diners. The service was well-intentioned, but slightly confused, as three separate people took our water order. Once the water arrived, service was definitely smoother.

Catching up on the news with my best friend whom I hadn't seen in months over a bottle of Amarone, a shared lobster avocado salad and a porterhouse steak for two, definitely counts as one of the magic moments of my trip. The lobster avocado salad alone made the trip worthwhile and I have put this dish on my list of things that I must taste again before I depart planet earth. The porterhouse is one of those things that I'm ashamed to admit that I've only ever heard about in movies and was the first one that I've ever tasted in my life. With no room at all for dessert, I opted for coffee and sat, blissfully full. I was sincerely happy to have made it to this city of my dreams and very optimistic about the rest of my trip. I had every good reason to feel that way; especially since I didn't know what was coming next.