I work in a barn. As in, I literally work in an office in the barn behind our house. Built before the Civil War, our barn has everything you might expect: giant white pine support timbers, hand-carved wooden pegs, an ancient apple cider press and a pig sty underneath. Oh, and bats, mice, raccoons, squirrels and the occasional skunk.
"Aren't you afraid, working out there by yourself?" my mom always asks.
Not nearly as afraid as I was the first time I had to travel to New York City. I'd heard the horror stories -- pickpockets, gang warfare, subway groping, crooked cabbies, you name it -- but, because I'm a freelance writer and novelist who writes for magazines and book publishers based in Manhattan, I decided I had to visit at least once.
That was 15 years ago. Since then, I have fallen in love with Manhattan. Here are some key survival tips to help you relax and enjoy New York, too:
Don't Be Afraid of the Natives
The first time I traveled to New York, I took my infant son with me and carried him in a backpack to meetings. As I was crossing a busy street, I felt an odd sensation behind me and spun around to make sure nobody was messing with my baby. Somebody was: a middle-aged woman in Manhattan business garb. "His hat fell off and I was afraid he'd be cold," she apologized. Another time, I was stranded with my suitcase at the base of a nonfunctional subway escalator when a guy hustling by grabbed the suitcase out of my hand and said, "C'Mon." He carried the bag up three flights of stairs, chatting the whole way. I've had people in Manhattan give me advice on restaurants, pull out their cell phones to help me find the nearest subway stop and offer me umbrellas. In a city this crowded, they've figured out how to get along, so ask for help if you need it.
Book a Neighborhood Hotel
Avoid Midtown hotels if you can and go for one of the smaller boutique hotels in the Upper West Side, Murray Hill, SoHo, or the Upper East Side. Don't worry about being away from Times Square. Manhattan is surprisingly small, so if you're seeing a play it's easy to zip in and out of Times Square, and you'll have more unique places to shop and eat in one of the neighborhoods. It'll be more peaceful, too.
Pack Plenty of Black
While certain parts of New York City, like the Village, are colorful and home to large student populations, pretty much all of New York dresses in black. If you're worried about fitting in, don't wear your red raincoat unless you pair it with black pants and black boots.
Carry Spare Shoes
No matter how you get around the city, you will be walking. Bring a shoulder bag big enough to carry your dress shoes and wear comfy sneakers or boots as you walk between meetings.
If You Need Something, It Will Appear
One thing New York City has in abundance is entrepreneurial street vendors. If it starts to rain and you forgot an umbrella, don't worry. There will be people selling them on every corner. The same goes for cold weather: Those same people will be out selling gloves for $3 and scarves for $5. There's no need to overpack for your trip.
Unwind in Green Spaces
It's easy to feel overwhelmed by the sheer density of buildings in Manhattan. At the very least, you develop lockjaw from trying not to walk around with your mouth open at the diverse sights and sounds. An important thing to do while you're there is find green space and enjoy it. Central Park is the most obvious place to get away from it all, especially if you follow the paths to places like the Shakespeare Garden, four acres of flowers and rustic wooden benches. Or try Bryant Park behind the New York City Library, which offers outdoor cafe tables, gardens and some of the best people watching.
Eat on the Cheap
Sure, you can go to Wolfgang Puck's restaurant or Gramercy Tavern and blow your entire budget on food, but eating in Manhattan can be surprisingly cheap. There are delis on every block, ethnic restaurants tucked into side streets, places to find pizza by the slice, and street vendors with unbeatable gyros. Or, if you want to go just one step up, try places like Grand Central Market; the Farmer's Market at Union Square; or Eataly, Mario Batali's delightfully varied Italian food court.
Clean Bathrooms Are Everywhere
Unlike many cities, Manhattan has clean bathrooms aplenty. Just walk into any Starbucks or restaurant. Nobody will pester you if you head straight for the rest room, and you don't even have to buy anything.
Go Native by Going Underground
The best way to travel around Manhattan is by subway. You can purchase your MetroCard in any subway station using cash, a credit card or a debit card. Each ride is $2.75 and you can go as far as you like on that. Buy a subway map at any of the newsstand kiosks on the street and carry it in your pocket. The buses use the same MetroCard and are obviously a better way to take in your surroundings, but they'll take twice as long to get you anywhere. Everyone should experience New York City cabbies, but it's costly to get around that way and definitely not faster.
I still love writing in my barn. But every time I visit New York, I bring a little bit of fresh energy back with me, and sometimes I even wear black in the country.