It's the least wonderful time of the year.
To the native New Yorker, the holidays are a time of long lines, huge crowds, and general chaos. In the past, I've compared Halloween in New York to the zombie apocalypse, so I won't use that again. Still, while that one night of madness is insane, the holidays are a weeks-long period of all the worst things about New York coming together.
Drunk crowds, uncomfortable subways, self-important tourists, and flyer-distributors come out in force during the holidays, and it can drive a sensible New Yorker (like those exist) out of their wits. The rage becomes palpable at times, with natives screaming at tourists in the streets, visitors feeling like they can never get to the front of the line, and bars that seem choked with people eager to forget the rest of what they've had to go through.
Don't get me wrong, I think New York is a great place to live and a wonderful city to visit.
...I'll allow a moment to snicker...
But I think you can only unlock those things if you're prepared for the crap that "The City" throws at you during these peak times. That's as true for a native as it is for a transplant, and as important for the workaday residents as it is for the tourists with money to burn.
In the past, you had to earn the stripes to appreciate New York by long experience and hardship, but this is the Age of the Internet and instant gratification has beat the crap out of hard work and suffering. Right?
So I've decided to write a little guide to dealing with these trying times in NYC. The first is for tourists, and is found below. The second is for residents and comes out later this week.
Surviving Holiday NYC as a Tourist
New York City is one hell of a vacation playground, am I right?
No! I'm wrong! It's not a playground! It's a place where real people live, stressed people, who for the most part think it's great to have tourists here, but also have to get through their own lives and deal with lots of insane stuff going down around the clock. The fact that there are people out there who come here and treat it like a theme park is a constant source of annoyance for people who live here.
It's also annoying for the tourists who recognize this is a city and not Disneyland. There are a lot of people who come here with a real desire to appreciate our home for what it is, and those people are the kinds of tourists who give NYC a good name. I want more of them, and I hope to convert some of the themepark-goers to that perspective as well.
To do that, I want to give the good tourists a guide to getting through this city, so that they'll have a great time and come back, while the jackasses are left safely in... wherever it is they come from. Jersey?
The first thing that you have to realize is that people here are either interested in getting money from you, or in leaving you the hell alone and being left alone in return. Trying to engage random strangers in small talk is considered rude here. I know that maybe sounds harsh if you're from a place in the country where not everyone is always in everyone else's lap, but the fact is that in close quarters like this, people expect a little bit of mental personal space. New Yorkers in a crowd of strangers see themselves as alone, and your experience in NYC is going to be a lot better if you can accept our desire to be left alone together. Unless you really need a hand, or you're in a social setting like a bar or party, don't try to make an effort to strike up conversations. Some NYC residents will be a little creeped out by this, and the rest will just be taken by surprise and confused, and you'll think they're unfriendly when they're really just flabbergasted. So, unless you need someone to give you directions or tell you where to get a MetroCard, don't strike up random conversations with strangers on the street. People generally want to be left to their own devices.
Particularly if those devices are their headphones. Seriously, if you're on the subway and someone has their headphones in? Leave that person alone. Headphones are the NYC equivalent of a "do not disturb" sign.
Now, none of this applies if the person's job is to talk to tourists and make money off them. People like that can be a big help to you, if they're say, your hotel concierge, but not if they're some rando on the street who'd like to see some of your money in their pocket.
If you can afford to take a vacation here during the holidays, you've obviously either saved up a lot of cash, taken advantage of the exchange rate, won a contest, or you're rich. And we want you to come here, spend that money, and juice up the economy. That's great!
BUT I also don't want you to get taken for a sap. There's a lot of people who want to sell you things that you don't know you don't need and that probably won't make your experience in New York any better. The classic example are those dudes in Times Square who give you a flier for free admission to their comedy show. Trust me, that's not some special deal you're getting. Those guys are out there every day, and their comedy club is always "free." I'm not saying it won't be funny, but I can't guarantee it will be either, and no matter what happens, you're going to end up paying. That "free" comedy club has a drink minimum, and it's full of attractive staff who'll turn on the charm and get you to buy the most expensive things. By the end of the night, you've paid $30 for a "free" show, bad drinks, and maybe gotten a chance to laugh.
Same thing with people who promise you a fast track to the top of whatever building it is that you want to get to the top of. They will do everything to convince you that you can never get to the place you want to go without their help, but I'd never just give $40 to someone I just met only to find out that their "fast track" to the top of the Empire State Building is actually just a tour groups line that takes maybe a fraction less time... or that they were lying outright.
In both these situations, the key thing to avoid them is to plan in advance. I'm not a tour guide or a concierge, so I can't walk you through all the specific situations, but if you want to avoid getting scammed, plan ahead. The Internet and your hotel staff are going to be good ways to do this. A random guy on the street isn't worrying about you for return business, but reliable websites and hotel staff want you to have the best experience with their own business so that you'll tell your friends and maybe even come back yourself. Stick to the people you know have your best interests at heart, and you won't have to wonder if the guy on the street is offering you a good deal -- you'll already have the best one in your pocket.
Another serious money-loser for tourists is weird-but-kinda-neat street conveyances that seem to show up more and more as time goes on. The first ones were pedicabs -- sort of bicycle rickshaws -- and since then a few more have shown up. At some point there were these weird ones where everyone sat in a circle, but I think that fad may have passed. Pedicabs have been regulated by the city since they first appeared, for the crazy level of price gouging they engaged in, but that doesn't mean a new novelty conveyance won't show up to take your money. Your best bet for getting from place to place, if you don't want to go self-propelled, is always going to be subway, bus, or cab.
Also, here's another option that visitors should be aware of. This year marks the first holiday season that we've had the Citibike program, a "bike share" system that's pretty reasonably priced. On a daily, weekly, or even annual basis, visitors or residents can get a membership that entitles them to free short trips (30-45 minutes, depending on membership type) along with reasonably-priced extension fees. The Citibikes are meant to help people take short trips, either when they want to get somewhere that isn't served well by public transportation, or when they'd prefer self-powered means to get somewhere that they might have to take a cab to otherwise. It's not really for people who want to do a bike tour of NYC, for that you'll want to get an all-day or even multi-day rental service. Citibike is for getting between places.
Since this is the first major tourist season they've been available, though, I want to make sure visitors are aware: riding a bike in NYC isn't riding a bike in your home town. You're going to be expected to follow stricter rules of the road, even if you're biking with a family of three kids. That means NO sidewalks, NEVER go against the flow of traffic, and other important rules. Look them up and learn them if you intend to use Citibike -- or any other bike rental system. Also, for Citibike in particular, safety helmets are BYO... and highly recommended. I have one friend who's been hit twice while cycling around Brooklyn, and not by any fault of her own. Don't put your safety in the hands of potentially drunk holiday drivers.
That goes the same for getting around the city on foot. The number one way for NYC pedestrians to get struck by a car is when they go into an intersection where turning cars are coming from behind them. ALWAYS be aware of oncoming traffic, and don't always trust the crossing lights. The safest bet is to visually confirm that there aren't any cars about to hit you.
When using any of these public conveyances, you should think of etiquette right after you think about safety. There's a lot of stuff that you also need to keep in mind in order to be polite. For one thing, try to imagine that when you are moving around through the city during the day, everyone around you wants to get to where they are going as soon as possible. Try to avoid doing anything that will interfere with this. If you can manage it, I'd suggest trying to sleep in a bit past rush hour (7-10 a.m.) so you're not overwhelmed with the crowds. Maybe make dinner reservations for after 6:30 p.m. to avoid the evening rush. If you don't know how to use the buses, ask the driver so you don't hold up the people getting on. If your group hasn't all gotten through the turnstile when the subway you want comes, DON'T hold the door. Give up your seat, the cab that just stopped for you, or even your spot in the bus shelter to people who have been there longer than you or who look like they need it more than you do. If you need directions, ask someone or go off the sidewalk into a doorway or whatever to open your map, but don't just stop in the middle and block everyone's movement. Don't walk and text. Try to stay to the part of the sidewalk where people are going the same direction as you (usually to the right). Do the same on stairs. On escalators, stand to right and walk to left. Don't get chatty with coffee shop cashiers when there's a huge line behind you. If that's too much to remember, just go with this: don't be selfish, don't make yourself an obstacle, and don't delay other people. It's pretty simple, if you're self-aware.
Hopefully, if you take this to heart, you'll have a great time here. Like many other New Yorkers, I'm happy to offer up suggestions for things to do while you're here, particularly things that are off the beaten track, so go ahead and either tweet at me or visit www.johnskylar.com/ask if you're interested. If you follow this advice, and pay attention to the other great sources of information around the Internet, you should be able to have a great time here, free of scams, worry, transportation woes, and [a ridiculously high level] of people cursing at you in public.