I remember the first day that I arrived in New York City. I was in my early twenties, hailing from Midwest U.S.A and armed with nothing more than the grandest of dreams and the highest of hopes. I strolled—no, strutted—down the avenues of Manhattan feeling as though Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” was practically emanating from within me; in the midst of my reverie it began to rain and like an orchestrated dance where I had failed to learn the steps, every black clad New Yorker whipped out an umbrella and swung it open without missing a beat.
I had been walking too slow (Strike one), did not have an umbrella (Strike two) and paused in in the middle of the sidewalk (Strike three) when the rush of umbrella toting New Yorkers engulfed me and eventually pushed me out into the street and rain. It was a brief moment but one made that made that realize perhaps it takes more than a smile and goodwill to make it in the Empire State.
Flash forward four years and I am now a part of that enviable dance that is New York. I know the unsaid rules of the subway system, have become quite the speed walker, have mastered the art of multi-tasking and can side step the classic tourist faux pas so many visitors tend to fall victim to. It took four years and some hard learned lessons (such as riding the dreaded “empty” subway car) to learn the ropes of the Big Apple and while the city is ever changing, the following list will help you navigate the concrete jungle without looking like a tourist.
1. The Subway Know the unspoken rules
The automated voice tells you to “step back from the yellow line,” the police officers watch pedestrians like hawks and your guide of New York sits in your hands like a hand scribbled treasure map—the MTA subway system can be overwhelming, confusing and downright shocking. While basic rules–like don’t ride between the subway cars, lean on the doors or go on the tracks — are obvious to any visitor, it is the unsaid subway etiquette that will show the difference between a wide-eyed tourist and a hardened native.
Subway Rule #1: If a crowded train pulls up and the siren call of the one empty car calls to you–don’t listen! Many have learned this lesson the hard way (myself included) that if one car is suspiciously empty on an otherwise packed train, it likely has some nefarious secret–be it no AC on an 80 degree summer day, be it an unfortunate homeless person who has turned the car into their personal bathroom (yes, this happens) or be it some other fowl stench that has people like sardines in a can in every other car but that one.
Subway Rule #2: The subway system is an underworld to NYC, serving as a home to the weary, homeless, unstable and downtrodden. Despite its efficient layout and easy commutes it is unique to see business men in thousand dollar suits stand should to shoulder with hipsters with purple hair, who stand alongside moms with smiling babies, who are looking curiously at homeless men sprawled out across the seats. The subway is a mirror of New York and the many people that call this city home. That said, commutes (even morning ones) will sometimes bring you face-to-face with people of questionable sanity who may preach, monologue, yell or instigate conflict. Unsaid rule #2? Simply avoid eye contact and follow suit with other New Yorkers who look down and away.
Subway rule #3: If you move fast in subway stations, making sure not to disturb the beehive of New York’s underbelly, then you’re on your way to side stepping the scarlet letter of T for tourist. While keeping pace is an indication of your residency status, knowing how to swipe your Metro card and swiftly move through the turnstiles is just as important. God forbid, you swipe your card one, two, three times during morning rush hour!
Subway rule #4: The train arrives and you’re on the platform practically eye to eye with the crowd of people in the train eager to get off. The doors open and you notice the locals step aside to let the passengers off–do the same! Perhaps one of the larger pet peeves of New Yorkers are when people push to get on the train at the same time as people are rushing off.
2. Pedestrian perils Move along, nothing to see here.
While working professionals push past in the classic New York ‘huff,’ you’re strolling through Times Square like you’re moseying down the white sand beaches of Aruba. If all New Yorkers have one complaint about tourists it is the slow and languid way in which they abruptly stop on sidewalks or stroll by taking in the skyscrapers and sights of ‘the concrete jungle.’
Be it downtown, Grand Central or the subway stations—if you walk slow, you will inevitably hear the inaudible grumbles and pointed sighs of stressed out New Yorkers lamenting the loss of the .5 seconds your pause has cost them. Although the childhood tale of the turtle and the hare will tell you that slow and steady serves you well, when visiting New York throw that lesson out the window.
3. Eating out Hard Rock Cafe? Seriously?
It’s said that New York has over 4,200 restaurants with Manhattan holding the bulk of the culinary scene and serving as home to over 3,500 eateries. We love food! We talk about it, blog about it, Instagram it, recommend it and always are armed with at least 3-5 recommendations on ‘in-the-know’ local spots around the city. When we spot tourists in line for Applebee’s or Hard Rock Café in Times Square, we cringe; deciding to eat a national chain in NYC is like opting for McDonalds when visiting Italy—you’re instantly branded as a tourist.
Keep your Cool when Spotting a Celebrity
I was new to NYC when I had my first celebrity sighting; Stanley Tucci was at a media party I was attending and I thought I was having nothing short of a panic attack. I had literally just watched The Devil Wears Prada during one of my take-out, couch-fest sessions and couldn’t believe Mr. Tucci himself was standing feet away from me. The next time I spotted a major celebrity, I was shopping for wine on the Upper East Side and barely noticed as Emma Watson, Hermione Granger in the flesh, was perusing for wine bottles right next to me. No panic attack, no sweat-inducing excitement…I had been down this road before.
Our city is home to many celebrities and stars and after some time our daily lives become so saturated with movie sets and celeb spotting that running into ‘what’s his face’ from ‘what’s that show’ starts to lose its luster. New Yorkers can spot tourists by the sheer giddiness of spotting a celebrity we saw just last week at Starbucks.
4. Nightlife Note to self: Avoid the Meatpacking District
Chances are you’ve fallen in love with New York City before you’ve even stepped off the plane. A combination of Sex & the City re-runs, NYC-based movies and Instagram snapshots have you seeing the Big Apple in shades of pink before you’ve even left the airport. New York has that certain je nais sais quoi, where every brick of the city seems to be a touchstone for dreamers. Thanks to shows like Gossip Girl, the Meatpacking District is one of those neighborhoods in New York where movies and television have visitors imagining a night spent in stilettos, while stumbling home with a half empty bottle of champagne and glitter in their hair. Most visitors will flock to the Meatpacking District for that “classic New York night” only to realize that everyone there is in fact a tourist and that $20 cocktails won’t leave you twirling your way home as you imagined. Instead, head just about anywhere else (this, New Yorker loves the West Village, East Village and Lower East Side) to find great nightlife that won’t leave you hitchhiking your way back home.
Lastly: Get that Times Square photo and get out
Here’s something that will surprise most visitors to our fair city—we hate Times Square. At one point Times Square might have been inspirational with all its bright lights, big city gravitas but in time all locals realize that this epicenter of Manhattan is seedy, commercial, touristic and tacky (case in point, they are opening a Senor Frogs in Times Square). Yes, everyone needs that iconic Times Square photo the way everyone will pose with a llama at Machu Picchu, but once you’ve gotten the photo, head just about anywhere else! Walk the Highline on the West Side for a great stroll along the Hudson, roam the charming streets of the West Village, pose in front of the arch at Washington Square Park, bike around Central Park–New York is a beautiful city but Times Square and its t-shirt vendors and swelling crowds of Forever21 shoppers are hardly a representation of NYC.
Some days the subway commute, slushy streets and pouring rain will create a perfect storm of annoyance and hatred towards New York City, while other days the magnolias blossoming over Central Park and sun cascading down the skyscrapers will fill New Yorkers with love. New Yorkers all have a love-hate relationship with NYC. For tourists, they will always see New York in shades of pink, letting the glitter this city can toss settle wonderfully over their eyes. To be a tourist in New York means never to lose that awe-inspiring image of a city where dreams are said to come true. So, let the New Yorkers brush by in a hurry, never looking up from their iPhones, so long as you’re a tourist in New York City, it will feel like the world is yours