NYC from A to Z (or, small bites from the Big Apple)
This post has been over a month in the making. On December 26, 2022, I visited New York City with the wife and family, after which point I got this idea for a blog entry. While I had been to “The City” many times, it had amazingly been 10 years since my last proper visit!
Rather than my usual style, I decided to take some quick bites of the Big Apple with an ABC format to mix things up. It's an eclectic mix of activities I've done in the city, philosophical musings, and a few oddball items in between. Enjoy!
A: April 2003
April 2023 will mark two decades since my first NYC visit. The original one was a doozy - a day trip from New Hampshire. Yes, you read that right. 5+ hours each way on a bus that departed Saint Anselm College at 5:30am and returned around midnight. However, my day was longer still, as I started and ended it in Laconia, a further 40+ miles north! Roughly 50% of my 23-hour day was made up of just getting there and back. Why on earth would I do such a thing?!
Well, because I had never been before and how could I pass up the opportunity? 2002-03 was a relatively 'meh' time of my life, my middle years at college during which time I was seeking direction and companionship. I would end up meeting Alyse a year later, who lived - ironically - a 45-minute express train ride from Manhattan. But I didn't know that yet, so wanted to visit the Big Apple for the first time at age 20.
What did I do with my ~10 hours on the ground? Well, since the trip was sponsored by the school, we went into both the Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), and Museum of Modern Art, which was in a temporary Queens location at the time. The only other thing I remember from that whirlwind day was ascending to the apex of the Empire State Building (still haven't been back since). The entire day was overwhelming in the best possible way. To someone who grew up in a city of 15,000 people, it was simply sensational, and kicked off many visits in the decade to follow.
When New York City is mentioned, I'm guessing 99% of people first think of Manhattan. There are four other boroughs, though, each of which has a population greater than that of New Hampshire! I've technically been to each, but just barely. Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and The Bronx of course. Most people who have but a few days rarely leave Manhattan, but each borough is a sightseeing powerhouse in its own right.
C: Central Park
One could write pages and pages on this beloved green space at the very heart of Manhattan, probably one of the most famous urban parks in the world. It provides a stark contrast to the legions of skyscrapers that stop at its doorstep faster than an animal rights activist when a squirrel crosses the road. Approximately 3,754 movies (my best guess) have filmed scenes here, and crisscrossing its semi-peaceful paths is indeed a perfect respite from the chaos of the surrounding streets.
It goes without saying that this city is undoubtedly one of the most diverse in the world. Over 600 languages are spoken among the city's 8+ million population. If you want a cool map diversion, you can check them out here: https://languagemap.nyc/Info/About
E: Ellis Island
I was able to visit this fascinating island in 2010 and would highly recommend it to anyone. For many Americans, there's an excellent chance your immigrant ancestors came through this port, 100+ years ago. Oddly enough, it was determined in the last quarter century that most of this iconic island - now home to fascinating exhibits - is actually in New Jersey. Who knew?
F: Flatiron Building
This architectural gem almost makes one feel as if he's stepped back into a black-and-white reality, finely-dressed ladies and gentlemen crossing the street amongst puffing Model Ts and whippersnappers doing what they did before smartphones. What's that activity called again? Oh yeah, playing outdoors. Used to be the bees' knees.
G: Grand Central
NYC’s transportation nerve center, this is my usual arrival point. In my excitement to get out from underground and explore, I’ve seldom investigated the gritty, teeming gem that is indeed both central and grand. Transportation buffs and people watchers will be on cloud nine – just don’t stop and enjoy it for too long, lest you inexorably mark yourself as a tourist.
H: Hudson River
The well-boated, seldom-bloated waterway contributed considerably to New York’s ability to develop how it did. Take a waterborne tour, admire it from shore, think of the explorers who came before. You might even be a bridge fan and wax poetic on the rusty colossus of the GW, probably the most stressful bridge I’ve ever had the dubious pleasure of traversing.
There is undoubtedly a strange dynamic that occurs to a first-time (or even a second- or third-time) NYC visitor. You know you're in a place of worldwide significance, and it feels momentous to be among all the famous sites. At the same time, however, a few minutes surrounded by throngs of human ants jostling down a crowded sidewalk bursts your personal triumph balloon really quickly. Now you're just one of the faceless masses, as anonymous as any humble human. Marge Simpson perhaps summed it up best as she excitedly peered out the bus window upon her first arrival: "Wow! I feel like such a nobody!"
J: Jersey, New
Yo! I thought this post was about NYC proper? Well guess what, my friends – some of the best views of Manhattan come from this much-maligned little brother state to the west.
K: Kevin James
Love him or hate him (what, there are people who hate him?), this somewhat rotund comedic royal is one of my favorites. I’ve actually seen him perform twice, in New Hampshire and Worcester, MA, but his schtick has a lot to do with being a New Yorker and the infinite observations living here has produced.
L: Lady Liberty
Ah, yes. The most famous landmark in a city bursting with them. Alyse and I visited Liberty Island on our first city trip together (which also happened to be our first weekend together!) waaay back in May 2004. Given the proximity to 9/11, we weren’t able to ascend to the lady’s crown or torch but being that close to a monument of global renown was awe-inspiring in its own right.
One could spend a lifetime and not explore all the magnificent museums this city has to offer. As with everything else here, you simply run out of superlatives to describe the culture overflowing from quiet exhibit halls, from the Met to the Guggenheim to the Whitney. And that’s just art. There’s a museum for all stripes here, and few things better for an introvert than soaking in silent masterpieces as a respite from the mean streets.
New York is a city of neighborhoods - over 250 according to the first result on the Google search I did about 30 seconds ago. There are over 50 in Manhattan alone, some of which are so chic that merely name-dropping them may someday be accompanied by a surcharge. SoHo, Greenwich Village, Tribeca. Anything with "Heights" attached to it sounds vaguely tony, doesn't it? Just as with anything in life, the more we zoom in, the more layers and textures reveal themselves.
O: Overload, Sensory
If I may wax philosophical for a moment, I cannot express enough how overwhelming a place NYC is for someone who grew up in Laconia, New Hampshire. It’s sensory overload in the best and the worst of ways, especially for an overthinker like myself. I sometimes find myself mentally selecting someone out of a crowd and imagining her backstory. Multiply that by tens of thousands, and you can start to see what I’m getting at!
The sights, smells, sounds, scenery – not to mention the scramble of human sidewalk swarms – is almost too much to handle. But at the same time it introduces a small-town boy into a totally different way of life. Millions of ways, actually. Would I ever live here myself? I can’t say that I would. (Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t afford it anyway). But visiting is an enthralling experience from head to toe. Every. Single. Time. I never regret the time I spend in this astoundingly diverse place of infinite human experience.
To go from philosophy to a twisted length of salted dough. The pretzels here are really, really good. That is all.
OK, full disclosure. Most of what I know about Queens I learned from Kevin James. I have actually been, but for very specific reasons (MoMA in its temporary location, and a Mets game in 2011). Not only is this the largest NYC borough by area, its population of 2.4 million would classify it as the fourth largest city in the United States if it struck off on its own!
R: Rangers Hockey
I was fortunate enough to attend 5 Rangers hockey games from 2009-12 in the iconic Madison Square Garden. I still consider myself a fan of the team, though my fanship is far more passive than it used to be (Fanship? Pretty sure that’s not a word).
S: Staten Island Ferry
One of NYC’s best bargains, this free ferry ride allows one sensational views and world-class people watching to boot. Alyse and I took the ferry in May 2012, as construction on the Freedom Tower was partway complete.
T: Times Square
A place that New Yorkers avoid like the bubonic, it’s nonetheless something to see at least once. It’s actually quite a weird vibe when you’re there. Crowds for the sake of crowds, enamored by the fact that you’re somewhere famous, but not really sure why. If it weren’t for Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, perhaps this would be just another place for throngs to pass through without lingering.
U: United Nations
Alyse and I toured the UN complex back in 2005. I remember it being fascinating, but quite honestly don’t remember too much else. Now that Julia’s getting older, a return trip is most certainly in the cards.
More than anywhere else (with Chicago coming in a reasonably close second), one is struck by the fact that in NYC, you’re an inhabitant of a vertical world. Forests of skyscrapers dwarf every human being who’s walked the streets in the last century. As a fan of architecture and skylines myself, my excitement at all the glass and concrete is tempered by the fact that you’re not supposed to look up at any time – that’s what tourists do. Imagine how unthinkably absurd the converse of this would be if it held true that you’re not supposed to look at mountains when in the Rockies, or the ocean when in Hawaii?
When you visit NYC, your feet will always get a workout. 90% of my visits occurred before I had a Fitbit, but my goodness I can imagine 20,000-30,000 steps wouldn’t be out of the question after a full day of touring.
OK, bear with me on this one, I know it’s a stretch. An exchange can be as simple as a 30-second transaction, or it can be a life-altering sharing of ideas, culture, humanity. In New York there’s plenty of both. In fact, almost certainly more than anywhere else in the US.
Or, how about the cultural exchange when a teenager from Azerbaijan watches Friends or Seinfeld (I know, I’m dating myself) and gets a glimpse into American culture for the first time?* The influence of this global juggernaut cannot be underestimated.
*This is a tangent, but in my opinion someone would be thoroughly and comprehensively mistaken if they see life in NYC as any way symbolic of American life. The lifestyles lived here are unlike any I’ve seen anywhere, which should be seen as a badge of uniqueness rather than something to symbolize that “that’s how Americans live”. Just a thought…
Y: Yankee Stadium
Sadly I was never able to attend a game in the “old” Yankee Stadium, but I have been to the new one, in 2010. In addition to the excitement of attending a game, I was able to see legendary closer Mariano Rivera trot in from the outfield to Metallica's Enter Sandman, which roused not only thunderous applause, but also goosebumps at seeing a legend in action. Needless to say he closed out the game for one of his 652 career saves.
Visiting the Bronx Zoo is always a treat, especially as it compares favorably to the Cincinnati Zoo, my “home” zoo growing up. Going for the winter lights festival in November 2021 was a wonderful experience, with internally lit, life-sized animals complementing the already impressive light displays.
Is there another visit on tap in 2023, you might ask? The answer is a resounding yes. When it comes to travel and discovering new places, Always Be Curious, I say.