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Monday, May 6, 2013

Big Apple Bytes: Advice for NYC

  'Empire State of Mind'- Jay Z and Alicia Keys (2009)

                                              'Welcome to the Jungle'- Guns n' Roses (1987)

It's the city that everyone has seen in movies and television shows.  New York City has both a mythical and a realistic persona.  Of course, what people see of New York in every movie and TV show is not exactly the New York that I know and love.  That fictional New York is romantic and sexy.  It is a place where the idea of 'New Jack City' permeates every street and subway car.  Graffiti riddled and trash ridden, filled with crack and cocaine.  Junkies and hookers on corners selling their wares and gangs running rampant.  Well, that NYC is long gone.  The NYC of 'The Warriors' and 'Coming to America' is non-existent.

What you have now is still gritty but a more polished, colorful version.  There are lots of eccentric and crazy folks running around.  Sure, there is still crime and random acts of violence.  There are gangs and graffiti, but this is a NYC where one can where a wedding ring or jewelry without worrying that it will be ripped off.  Many previously, 'unsafe' and 'undesirable' neighborhoods are now getting gentrified (ex. Bushwick, Flatbush, Harlem, Bedstuy, Crown Heights, Jackson Heights, Morningside Heights, Red Hook, Ditmas Park, Sunset Park..the list goes on).  Of course, gentrification is, in some ways inevitable.  And I will throw out something that my wife has said, that if you cannot take care of your own neighborhood and new 'tennants' come in who clean it up then you have no one to blame but yourself.  I agree. 

Today, NYC is a place where families can walk around Times Square without seeing prostitutes and XXX peep shows and adults only theaters.  Believe me, I remember something of the old Times Square.  Before former NYC Mayor Guiliani cleaned it up, Times Square and many other areas were a mess.  The first memory I have of NYC, is of walking through Midtown with my family and seeing a homeless woman going to the bathroom in the middle of the street.  She just hiked up her skirts and cackled at us staring straight at us the whole time.  That's the old NY.

Part of it, however, is just natural change and the ebb and flow of different socio-economic groups moving in and out.  I'm not saying, of course, that certain groups of people are synonymous with bad or good neighborhoods, of course not.  It is a lot more complex, having to do with the ratio of residential to commercial and to what kinds of commerce come into each neighborhood.  Also weighted in are the property taxes and rents of any given street.  And it is even more complex than that.  What was once affordable and dirt cheap is now only accessible to the creme de la creme of NYC.

I did not grow up in NYC, so I haven't seen all of the changes first hand.  I, however, have recently had people tell me that they're surprised I'm from the Midwest.  People think I'm making it up, as they thought I grew up here and am a 'New Yorker'.  Hey, I consider it a compliment!  It means I've successfully made the reboot.  And, I'm nearing my three year anniversary of being a NYer so I'm pretty much official.

What makes me love this city is that I find it interesting to delve into the city's history and track which neighborhoods used to be posh (or not) and how they have become better (or not).  SoHo used to be grungy and decrepit and now it's fashionable and chic.   Bushwick in Brooklyn used to be a no-man's land but now it's a trendy artsy hipster retreat.  Things change, especially in NYC.  A store or restaurant can be there one day and be gone the very next.  Things happen quickly here. 

Take my neighborhood, for instance.  About thirty years ago, it was the Jewish 'hood.  Many people who go to my synagogue in Midwood grew up in my neighborhood.  The Seventh Day Adventist Church down the street used to be a synagogue, as there is a plaque on the side demarcating this.  There are also many churches that still have stained glass windows showing Stars of David.  Then, as the Jews all moved into Midwood and that became the new Jewish 'hood, a strong West Indian population moved in.  My wife, being from Trinidad, grew up in this neighborhood where you can experience life, getting a taste of the islands.  You can get: roti, Sorrel, doubles, macaroni pie, salt fish and bake, Escovitch fish, jerk chicken, meat patties.  I wouldn't trade this for anything.  However, now hipsters and yuppies are moving in, and have been steadily for the past 3-5 years.  I remember a time when I was the only white person walking around.  Now, however, you see tofu, craft beers, and organic cleaning supplies in the super markets and corner bodegas.  I'm fine with the change, just as long as my neighborhood retains its original character and flavor. 

My point?  Change is inevitable in many ways.  People move into a neighborhood and then move out if they feel they can 'move up' or if the neighborhood starts changing in ways seen as uncomfortable or threatening (which can easily mean too many hipsters).  I want to, however, offer some advice for those brave souls thinking they can live and survive in this: nitty gritty city; it used to be shitty but now it's oh so pretty!  Not everyone can live in a place like New York but I will give you some pointers.

1: Always have one eye straight ahead of you and the other looking either right or left.  There is ALWAYS something happening in NYC.  It could be a western style shootout or it could be a 5K furry race.  When I say anything, I mean anything.  You always have to be on the lookout and you cannot get distracted by shiny, glittery things.

2. Carry the following: Purell, a plastic silverware set, Kleenex, water, and a book. Most of these are obvious.  A book  (which includes fiction, non-fiction, or a crossword puzzle) are for those times you're stuck in a stalled subway car waiting for a train to pass or a sick passenger to get taken care of.  The others are necessity out of never knowing where you'll find a bathroom to wash your hands or blow your nose.  You also can't depend on every eat-in-carry-out restaurant to have (clean) silverware).

3. Always charge your electronics before leaving the house.  Your Ipod, Ipad, Iphone, e-reader, laptop and other electronics are a necessity but make sure you charge them overnight or at least give enough time for a half charge before leaving the house.  If you are apt to forget, then make sure to get a portable charger.  In NYC, you will need to send e-mails away from home, often on your way to/from work (even on days off).

4. Always carry at least $20 in cash.  These days, especially with apps that charge your account, less people carry cash.  However, in NYC there are still many places (not just corner bodegas) that do not accept anything other than cash.  And, many places make a minimum that makes it hard to reach if all you want is a Snapple and some gum. 

5. DO NOT depend on the MTA.  As Ana Matronic says, "MTA stands for mother fuckers touching my ass."  It's true!  The fares are always going up and the services getting taken away.  There are inevitably always service changes and track work.  The more discreet and unannounced, the better.  You can check the MTA website and download apps for your phone (the MTA has apps of its own) but they won't help.   You'll be stranded without a train in sight so prepare for the unexpected when it comes to public transportation.

6. You will ALWAYS be late or early but NEVER on time.  I was pleasantly surprised upon moving here that the majority of the time, if you are late, just call ahead to let your party know and it will work out.  I've been late to work, to doctor's appointments, and usually as long as I let someone know, there is an understanding that it's not my fault.  I don't get in trouble or have to reschedule an appointment for another day.  I just call and say 'Hey I'm running late.  Yea, these damn trains!  What can you do, huh?!' and then laugh about it.

7. Dress like you are meeting the most important VIP you can think of.  NYC has a fashion sense.  It is eclectic and it doesn't matter what you wear as long as you own it.  And if you do dress to impress, have the attitude like you just don't give two shits.  'Oh, this, it's just something I threw on in the dark.  I didn't even have a mirror.'  You can wear a neon green tutu and ten inch pink glitter platform boots and no one would care.  You do, however, want to dress like you might meet someone important.  You never know who you'll run into on the streets, in the subway.  It could be your boss, it could be the Mayor, or it could be Donald Trump.  Well, who gives a trump about him, but you get my drift!  I've often squinted my eyes at someone, thinking 'that person looks soo familiar'.  Well, I'm probably staring down a famous musician or actor without knowing it.  You just never know here in NYC!

8. If you think you're the best, smartest, most talented ______, think again!   NYC has many of  the nation's top private schools and universities.  People are cut-throat to get their toddler into the top preschools.  Yes, even four year olds have resumes in NYC!  There is always going to be someone smarter, better looking, and more talented than you.  Oh, wait, you had lead roles in all your school plays and triple majored in college?  Who cares?!  Someone else has four majors along with two masters and a PhD; that person also got into a Broadway play at the first try.  Yes, someone will be better than you at anything you list.  It doesn't matter how good you think you are, there is someone better.

9. Ignore and pretend you don't know rule #8.  No matter what field you're going into, you must know that you are the best.  You have to sell yourself to any potential employer, no matter the field.  Yes, this is true anywhere.  However, in NYC, the competition is fierce and the pool is just as talented (if not more) than you.  So you always have to walk around thinking you've got something special.  You are the guy/gal for the job/part/chance.  No one but you is willing to do what it takes.  You are perfect for whatever it is you're gunning for so sell it.  Be a salesman for yourself.  You are your biggest cheerleader.  Realize that, yes, there are very smart and talented people vying for what you want, but you are going to get it because only you make sense in said role.  No one else will do/offer what you can.  So believe in yourself and don't be afraid to try, fail, and then try again.

10.  Breathe in through your mouth.  When in the subway or in an elevator (especially in the subway) do not breathe in through your nose.  I don't think I breathe in through my nose except for when I'm at home.  And even then sometimes the foul feces-like cooking odors from my neighbors seep in, and I'm still breathing in through my nose.  You will experience some of the worst smells on earth in NYC.  Smells that mix: wet farts, candy, feet, body odor, rotting animals, burning hair/plastic, methane, sulfur, horse shit, and Lysol.  All of those things rolled into one.  Yes, that bad!

BONUS. FREE!  FREE!  FREE!  My motto is, if it's free it's for me.  If you gotta pay, stay away.  NY has a lot of great freebies.  Check out Time Out NY or NY Magazine for some hints at what you can do for little to no cash.  In the spring/summertime, there are tons of street fairs that are always free (if you don't buy food or schlock).   You can get discount tickets to plays if you look in the right places.  Stay away from gimmicks and seemingly 'too good to be true' deals.  If you want a salon haircut without paying the salon price, be a hair model.  Eat at a street cart or food truck instead of a fancy schmancy restaurant.  Although now, food trucks are so trendy that I'm sure some of them get pretty pricey.  Whether you're a tourist or a resident, there are ways to live here on a budget.  Believe me, I know. 

So that's my advice for how to live and survive in NYC.  I hope it has been useful.  Whether you're visiting for a couple of days or if you're staying for a week or two, please be careful but also realize that the world is at your fingertips.  Some of the things I LOVE about living here is the meld and mix of languages and cultures, religions and ethnicities.  People come here from every corner of the world.  You can go down one street and feel like you're in India, then go down another feeling like you're in Jamaica.  It is an amazing place. And, if you visit as a tourist, DO NOT buy a stupid I heart NY shirt.  That is so cliche.  I actually want to get a t-shirt that says 'Go love your own fucking city'.  Also, don't just go explore the 'tourist spots'.  Yes, go see the Statue of Liberty and go up to the Empire State Building.  But also go out to Queens, the Bronx and Brooklyn.  Explore the nooks and crannies of the city.  NYC has the most amazing thrive and hum of city life anywhere.  There is always something happening.  It is truly the city that doesn't sleep.  So, sleep when you get home.  When you're here, just pull an all-nighter, drink some Red Bull and call it a day!

Proud to be a NYer,