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The World's Toughest Trip? It's Trying to Go Home

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Now I know it's true. The toughest travel destination, by far, is the one you know way too well. I've walked into the original location of the former Barney's men's store in Manhattan on a spring afternoon. Since it's Saturday, the place is packed, and while I wait in line, I grab for a brochure. I need to know who has removed all the racks of blazers, the displays of ties.

This is New York's Chelsea, the area where I grew up, and I am home for the first time in years. I look around. Barney's, for most, meant European suits and stratospheric prices. But my Chelsea neighbors and I knew it when, back when the store was a chronically un-chic stop-off for back-to-school corduroys and jeans. Where is Barney's Boys' Town? Where are the manhole covers that used to decorate the walls?

This long-time neighborhood landmark is now "The Rubin." It is -- I can hardly believe this -- a museum of Himalayan art.

When it's my turn to cough up for a ticket, I see that Chelsea residents (from Zip Code 10011) get two bucks off the $7 admission fee. "This is Sixteenth Street," I say proudly. "I'm from right across the avenue. Just over there."

The beret-topped clerk looks me up and down and checks my (nowadays Rhode Island) I.D. Full fare. I sheepishly pay up and slink inside. In the lobby, near where sweaters used to be, there's a softly-lit spiral staircase and lots of relaxing wall colors like blue-gray and avocado green.

"Make Yourself Comfortable," urges a placard. I wish I could. I want to be at peace with the tapestries and Tibetan paintings on the second floor. According to its plaque, one of the works shows "a snake encircling a caravan of merchants." I can't see any snake or merchants, and to me, the whole thing seems suspiciously like an allegory for the death of Barney's.

Next time I come back here, I resolve, I will demand my discount.

People argue about Chelsea's boundaries, but most say this: Hudson River to Fifth Avenue, 34th Street down to 14th. I walk west, into the heart of my old neighborhood. Cross-streets near the Hudson used to be a kingdom of car washes and radio-crackling headquarters for New York's yellow cabs. But here, and over here, I find that these have changed into trendy showrooms of abstract sculpture, minimalist canvases, and crafts.

The Yossi Milo Gallery shares a graffiti-sprayed building with BJ Auto Master Radiator Repairs ("We Do Body Work on Your Front and Rear End"). Nearby, I pass the Anton Kern and Kim Foster galleries wedged in beside a string of loading bays, a Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Manhattan Collision Company garage. "Drivers Wanted," says a big sign. "All Shifts."

I end up at the Ricco/Maresca Gallery on 20th Street and have a look around. A painting by Laura Craig McNellis shows a view of several bowling pins out for a walk on a sunny day. In the background you can make out birds (or possibly fish) that happen to be flapping by. And then there's a drawing of Nat King Cole at the piano by Darren Murray. Next to Cole is his alter-ego. Or Cole's imploded double. It looks like Cole has melted due to a fire or explosion.

I leave scratching my head. Maybe it's the strain of all this edgy art, but my neighborhood is more stressful than I remember. Eugene's Dry Cleaners is gone. So is Hi and Mel's Luncheonette. My old apartment building, built by a great uncle's bankrupt family company, is getting a sandblast. It's being converted to condos and a Pottery Barn outlet is taking over the ground floor.

It is afternoon, I am in the heart of New York, and I'm on the verge of a tantrum. Or maybe, instead, a nap.

I walk a few streets to the Empire State Building which is right on Chelsea's edge at 34th and Fifth. I catch its Le Mans quick-lift, not to the top, but to the 22nd floor. "Looking for the Sleep Pods?" asks a guy who's mopping the floor. "Uh, yes," I say, "I guess so. The, er, MetroNaps salon?" He cocks a thumb and I am there.

The janitor is right: here's an entire room of space-age plastic Sleep Pods. The shiny backs of the Pods are futuristic white, which reminds me of the Milk Bar in the movie A Clockwork Orange. Twenty minutes of shut-eye will cost me fourteen bucks, and I can order a snack for delivery right after I sleep.

I find that my Sleep Pod is as comfy as a private rocket. The cozy bubble shape is like a cockpit, and I am Major Tom, the Chelsea astronaut about to launch. Am I ready for countdown? I am. T-minus 10, 9, 8...

I'm just beginning to doze when -- already? -- it is time for my Pod-alarm. A light comes up and then an insistent vibration. I stretch and decide I'm definitely calmer than when I walked in.

Is this a public company? MetroNaps could be huge. Wherever there is challenging art, avocado walls, Tibetan tapestries and berets. Wherever you run smack into change.

I think of buying stock. But this will be pricey. So I approach the desk instead. Is there a resident discount? A couple of bucks off for Zip Code 10011?

I used to live in the neighborhood, I say. Near Barney's. Right in Chelsea.

Not so very far from here.

Peter Mandel is a travel journalist and an author of books for kids including Planes at the Airport (Scholastic) and My Ocean Liner: Across the North Atlantic on the Great Ship Normandie (Stemmer House) which takes place, partly, in Chelsea.