The Empathic Traveler
Note: To keep the good places from becoming inundated even more rapidly than they are, the writer has determined to omit the names of New York restaurants, theaters, etc. Although he realizes these omissions may prompt the accusation that he is giving the lie to his own title, he begs to differ, for an inundated place is of no use to anyone. But not to be ungenerous, in the spirit of play, and because keeping secrets these days is at best a desperate business, he will provide hints that may give a clever reader who either has some knowledge of the city or is an adept Googler a fighting chance to fill in the blanks.
Walking uptown on Sixth Avenue, I see a middle-aged couple seated at an outdoor café with cups of coffee and a map. They look like sensible people, wearing sensible faces and sensible clothing (including sensible shoes) for this humid spring day. Since they are right across the avenue from a mid-priced chain hotel, which in New York means about $289 per night (plus a welter of small surprises when the bill is rendered), perhaps they are trying to save small money by avoiding the hotel coffee shop. In Rome or Madrid, it is easy to find inexpensive stand-up espresso bars with delicious rolls or pastries, but this is New York, where, globalization notwithstanding, there are no such places.
Nor are there other viable options, at least for these people. If you want something good in New York, you either pay for it or possess knowledge unavailable even to the best-informed, computer-literate tourist. If, for instance, people from out of town are eating breakfast at ---------‘s, that excellent hole in the wall deep in the East Village, you can assume that they have a friend or relative in the city who gave them the tip or that they were lucky enough to stumble on the place and smart enough to go in. On the other hand, if they are eating at ----------, the fine old sandwich shop in the Flatiron district, which also serves excellent breakfasts, they may have read about it in a guidebook and may even think they are being clever, but they are paying moderate-dollar ($7-10 each, plus tax and tip).
My NY street sense tells me the coffee shop the sensible couple have chosen is not a good choice. No, unfortunately it looks like a down-at-the-heels tourist trap, a place that serves stale mildewy bagels with plastic cream cheese and weak coffee at two dollars a cup, no free refills. How do I know this? There are subtle hints. Although it is nine-thirty a.m. on a Thursday, the sidewalk eating area is almost empty. In itself, this is unsurprising, for in this neighborhood why would a good coffee shop even have a sidewalk eating area? What sensible tourists would voluntarily commit themselves to scrambled eggs with a side of bus, truck, and taxi fumes, and construction-site views, not to mention the attendant cacophony? No, the tourist trap hopes the unwary will think “sidewalk café,
un soupcon de Paris.” Why, then, are these sensible-looking tourists sitting there, also looking miserable? Perhaps, emerging from their hotel after a night of $49-dollars’ worth of so-so sleep, desperate for caffeine, they spotted the place, crossed the avenue, plopped down, and were about to realize their mistake when the canny waitperson hustled over with the water and the big menus. Maybe (s)he even told them his/her name, and they were just too polite to bail out. They look like nice people.
Of course, I could be all wrong about this coffee shop: why couldn’t it be good? Because, again, it isn’t crowded, and because the couple don’t look happy. If I had made it a point, say, of leaving my hotel to cross the street just to get a decent, reasonable cup of coffee nearby so I could go back up and use the bathroom afterwards, and if it turned out to be a good place—decent coffee, actual cream cheese—I would look happy.
But all that speculation may be nothing more than massive projection. A different scenario: the generally sensible couple had overdone it the day before, walked miles and miles up and down the spine of Manhattan, then had a long wait for a table at a good restaurant that was listed in too many guidebooks. They should have made a reservation, but their guidebook (2006) said “not necessary,” and they didn’t realize how quickly information becomes out-dated. After the dinner—excellent food, yes, but rushed and expensive (guidebook $$ also out-dated), they had hurried on foot to an off-Broadway show, arriving just in time. Billed as a revival of an early 20th-century masterpiece, the long soporific play proved to be justly neglected. They did not succumb to the napping impulse, which would have been rude to the actors. And then, just when they finally made it back to the oasis of their hotel, alas, they woke up completely, so they wound up reading long into the night. Unfortunately, one of the hotel’s few actually useful amenities were the excellent reading lamps, one on each side of the bed, just bright enough, aimed properly, and mounted on separate swivels in case one person wanted to sleep while the other read –which, in this case, was not the case.
In the revised version, it is now morning. They are tired. They have coffee across the street. They still look tired. Not even free breakfast at the Plaza (if it still serves breakfast) could have brightened their unhappy faces.
I leave the Sensibles to their fate and coffee. Too bad, but what can I do? Only what I have already done: warned off unwary Sensibles of the future.
The Shared Table
Eating is, of course, the #1 activity, the preoccupation even, of most tourists.
Access to restrooms may be (excuse me) #2, although admitting this would be, for most people, as embarrassing as it should have been for me when I told a fanatical bird watcher at our fabulous B & B in Tucson, Arizona, that we planned to spend the morning playing tennis at the inexpensive world-class hard courts in one of the parks.
“We always bring our racquets,” I brazened it out, “just in case.” You need the courage of your convictions when you’re on the road.
Two tourist couples wind up sharing one of the big round tables in the middle of the room at _____ ____ ____ ____, that wonderful, unprepossessing, lunchroom-like restaurant on a main north-south street in Chinatown. (This gem is only now finding its way into the hipper guidebooks.) After the “where you froms?” have been taken care of, and the food ordered (each couple admiring the other’s choices), they are sipping tea and playing with their chopsticks, the two women and one of the men trying to think of something else to say.
At this juncture, the second man (my kindred tourist, my alter-ego) decides to curtail the conversation because, for two couples thrown together by chance in a crowded restaurant, a little embarrassment now is better than spoiling the whole meal by committing themselves to energetic small-talk which will become more and more difficult to curtail as it creates its own momentum.
My alter-ego comes up with a sure-fire conversation killer: “Well,” he/I say(s), “you’ll never guess what I found today: the perfect restroom!” A polite “Oh?” or “You don’t say,” with one or two inappropriate follow-up details and an admonitory spousal scowl, and everyone can eat in peace.
Speaking of which (restrooms ... )
A Few Random Facts and Tips
A. Reliable restrooms, all available to non-customers, can be found in Manhattan at most branches of McDonalds, Starbucks, and Barnes & Noble, and at Bed, Bath & Beyond, 6th Avenue between 18th and 19th streets.
In addition, there are the libraries, notably:
1. The Mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library, 40th Street and 5th Avenue. Suggestion: use the one on the 5th floor, not the 2nd, 3rd, or even the 4th.
2. The main library, actual name: “Humanities and Social Sciences Library,” 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. The Men’s is on the third floor on the same side as the elevators; the Women’s, somewhere (excuse me) on the ground floor.
3. Science, Industry, and Business Library, 34th Street and 5th Avenue, downstairs (both).
A note on cleanliness: These library facilities rank in inverse order, probably because the budget of #3 has the highest percentage of private money and because #1, the Mid-Manhattan, is notably tolerant of the homeless. Like restaurants and so many other things in New York, however, quality is an open secret –that is, there are no secrets- so by the time you need one of these facilities, it may have deteriorated. If you would like to gauge your social conscience, try using a stall after a homeless person has spent some quality time (for him or, I assume, her) in it.
B. Hills. Have you ever visited “Murray Hill,” possibly for the Indian shops and restaurants, the latter mainly so-so, except for ______ _____, which is outstanding? (Perhaps a decade ago, the proliferation of these establishments led some wag to dub the neighborhood “Curry Hill.”) If you have, in fact, ventured this way, and if you think that the (real) name is a misnomer, given that the eponymous area (which is actually only one section of the neighborhood, roughly 33rd to 38th Streets from 3rd to Madison Avenues), is really less a hill than a slope, about equal in declivity to the more accurately named “Park Slope” in Brooklyn, then try scaling Lexington Avenue from 102nd to 103rd Street. (And try reading the previous sentence in one breath.) For a few moments, you may think you are in San Francisco (although, of course, if you would rather be in San Francisco, why not just go there?) And any reader who really wants to know who the “Murray” is, can google him/it for him/herself. My guess is, some minor, long-forgotten politician.
If you must come to New York, caveat emptor –even of the caviar. Be aware that you are making a mistake, and be ready to suck it (not the caviar) up.