Travel Guide: How to Experience New York City as a First-Timer

Welcome to my 6-day journey in NYC.

One of the first times I went on the subway, I thought I was going to die.

No, it didn’t have anything to do with the rattly cars or the dark tunnels or my poor sense of direction. It was all because some lunatic got on the train.

“Alright, listen up everybody,” he bellowed, as the doors closed and any chance to escape vanished. “Because I’m only gonna say this once.”

My heart dropped. My eyes bulged. I clutched my purse. I looked around at the rest of the riders on the train, exchanging what I thought were matching looks of terror.

“Some of y’all know me. You know what I do,” he continued.

That’s kind of weird, I thought. If he regularly mugs people, how come he hasn’t been caught yet? I silently mourned the loss of my cellphone. And my license – I actually really liked the picture of me!

“I don’t ask for a lot. If you can spare a dollar, or five, or even just a few pennies. All of it helps feed the starving children.”

Ohhhh. Comprehension dawned. I shakily opened my purse and pulled out a dollar, being extra careful not to look at him as I handed him the money.

Clearly this was my first time in New York City.

And as much as I wanted to pretend I wasn’t a tourist, that I was actually one of the hip businesspeople walking around in slacks and a button-down in 100-degree weather, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t fooling anybody. It’s not that easy to pull off when you do things like get lost in Central Park, get panicky when someone suspicious gets on the subway, and loudly announce “Oh! We’re in Madison Square Park right now!”

Central Park

It didn’t help that my fear of the subway continued almost my entire trip. First of all, I didn’t know how to navigate the thing. The paper subway map was practically as long as my entire body, and using it made me feel like one of those college freshman who’d walk around campus holding a map looking pathetic.

Plus, what if I ended up on the wrong train and it took me to the Bronx and I could never find my way back to Manhattan? My fear of the subway was so bad the first few days that if I was by myself, I was willing to pay $20 or $30 to take a cab instead.

It wasn’t until I rode the subway with my friend Julia, who lives in Brooklyn and works in the Manhattan, that I overcame my fear. As we talked, a man ran up and down the car feverishly yelling about being a diabetic and needing money. Julia was telling me about her job, which I was very interested in, but I was distracted by Mr. Diabetic. “Are you listening to this?” I mouthed to her. I was in awe that she could just ignore such a scene and keep talking. “I’m used to it,” she shrugged. Then she looked out the window and said, “Why are we stopping here? We’re on the wrong train.” And casually, like it was no big deal, we hopped off the train and immediately got on another one. It only took us 15 minutes to correct our mistake and arrive at our destination. I was impressed, because Julia is from Delray and had only lived in New York for a year, but the subway was NBD to her.

After that, I decided I was going to conquer the subway. It reminded me of my junior year of high school, when my parents donated a 13-year-old stick-shift car to me and told me if I didn’t learn how to drive it I was out of luck. My resistance of that was much longer and involved a lot more tears. Until one day, something clicked in me and I realized the power I’d have over my own life if I just learned how to drive the stupid thing. And a week later, I was on the streets with the rest of the bad South Florida drivers. I actually got pretty good at driving stick, so let’s just not talk about the time I accidentally rolled backwards into a car on the street…

Anyway, the subway was much less difficult to figure out with the help of the giant map, and lots of nice randos on the street I’d ask for directions. In fact, the last few days in NYC, I kinda started to love it. Some of the dirtiest looking people would get in the cars and announce they were about to perform, and I couldn’t help it, I always expected them to be bad. But they never were. It was like watching “American Idol” auditions and expecting some awkward looking kid to sound like a chorus of frogs, then having him open his mouth to reveal a voice like Clay Aikan’s.

The last time I rode the subway, a man got on the train with a guitar and played an acoustic “Stand by Me.” Halfway through the song, he started singing Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” I was kinda down that day, mostly because I was on my way back to my hotel to take the shuttle to the airport, but I couldn’t help but smile as he sang, “Are we an item? Girl quit playing.” While I was really happy to see my car when I got back to South Florida, there’s a part of me that secretly can’t wait to get on a chaotic subway ride again.

Someone told me recently they don’t believe travel is actually travel unless you live like your destination’s residents do. So despite the fact that my itinerary was full of touristy things (I saw Journey perform at “The Today Show,” went to Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, Top of the Rock, Fifth Avenue, the Museum of Natural History, saw a Broadway show. You name it; if it was touristy, I probably did it), I was still determined to see how people in the city live.

We met up with my friend’s brother, and I got to see the old-fashioned Brooklyn apartment he lives in and the awesome Marvel studio in Manhattan he works in as an editor. Julie showed me how she never spends more than $3 a day on lunch, purchasing sandwiches and pastries from a delicious bakery in Chinatown. And I even dated a little, which I knew was going to be a disaster from the start but did anyway. I was right – it was a disaster in the end, and now I understand why it took 94 episodes and two full-length movies of “Sex and the City” for those chicks to figure out their love lives, and why Ted Mosby is having such a difficult time meeting his wife, besides the obvious reasons. Dating in the city is rough. Regardless, I’m still glad I did it, because I went on probably the best date I’ve been on. It’s hard to compete with walking through Central Park, kissing in the rain on the streets of Manhattan, dining at an upscale restaurant that apparently Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon frequent, befriending an old couple and having an in-depth conversation about Zach Braff, and then drunkenly wandering through Times Square and Rockefeller Center at night.

The view from Central Park

And though I struggled to adapt at first, I think I did get somewhat of an idea what it’s like to live in NYC.

First of all, New York City is HOT. Every time I went underground on the subway, I thought I was going to melt. I’m pretty sure if I actually lived there, I’d take about six showers a day. Water has never tasted so delicious. I also don’t understand how New Yorkers can drink alcohol in the summer. Even if I only had a two glasses of wine, I’d get so dehydrated that I’d need water constantly for the next 12 hours. Also, what is the point of ice cubes existing if they’re not bite-size and capable of being transformed into water in my mouth?

But really, I was just in awe of the city. It was so cool to see the skyline and then be in the middle of it, buried by buildings that tower so high above you you can barely see the sky. Thinking about how the city was such a catalyst, constantly starting trends that trickle down through the rest of the country, it was hard not to walk through SoHo or down Fifth Avenue and wonder about every store I saw, did that brand start here?

Even just dining, the creativity was on another level. One night, I ate at a trendy Italian restaurant where you go up to one of the chefs, tell him what you want and how exactly you want it made, and he cooks it right there in front of you, in a large stainless steel pan. In Chinatown, Julia showed me a frozen yogurt sort of place that was dedicated entirely to different flavors of rice pudding. I heard about mac-and-cheese restaurants with different flavors/toppings/pastas to choose from.

The last 20 minutes I was in the city before heading to the airport, I had a moment so beautiful it made my entire trip. A businessman rushed by me as I wandered up Third Avenue. He stopped me and asked, “Where’s the nearest subway station?” Think think think, I ordered myself, sure I wouldn’t know this one, but desperately wanting to give back to the community after all the random people I’d consulted for directions. “It’s Lexington and….?” he asked, waiting for me to finish his sentence.

Oh my god, I actually know this! I realized. “It’s 51st,” I replied, beaming. He thanked me and rushed off.

My hotel was on 51st, so it was like cheating because that was the main stop I used every day and really the only reason I knew the answer. But that didn’t change one very important fact.

He stopped me because I looked like I knew where I was going. He stopped me because I didn’t look like a tourist.

The end.

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