If you’ve never been to New York, you probably think “Times Square! Empire State Building! Statue of Liberty!”
Or, possibly, my favorite retail landmarks, Barney’s and Saks, where the 1 percent decide whether or not to drop $12,000 on a handbag. (Yes, that was one price I saw at Barney’s.)
What I enjoy most about Manhattan is how much pleasure, on a good day, you can derive from a mere few blocks. Here’s a terrific daily list — and it’s a long one — of all the free stuff you can do here. It’s run by my super-talented friend Elizabeth who, naturellement, also sings in a band called The Hot Sardines, who often play at the Standard Hotel.
Here’s how I spent my Wednesday this week, a blessed respite from my glued-to-the-computer-alone-in-the-boring-suburbs daily routine:
11:00 a.m. I arrive at Grand Central Station (which you must visit because it’s so gorgeous since the renovation finished in 1998. It also has great shops, with everything from shoes to books to olive oil to cupcakes and Junior’s legendary cheesecake.) My train pulls in on the lower level. I settle in at the little cafe beside the clock for a small panini and a cappuccino.
11:30 a.m. I find out why my cellphone isn’t handling email at the Verizon store at 44th and Madison. (Remember that address if you need phone help.)
11:40 Check out H & M, a blur of $12 polyester. I snag a way sexy red stretch dress and pray, if I stop eating for a week and wear a lot of Spanx, it will look good. I pick up two patent leather bags for $8 each, for my trip to the Decatur Literary Festival next week. I’m speaking at 2:30 Sept. 2. Come visit!
noon Check out Zara. Their accessories are always interesting; I buy a lovely cream wool scarf/shawl with pale gray paisley print.
(Note: I’ve only covered two blocks of midtown, from 44th and Madison to 42d and Madison. Manhattan’s density can save you a lot of time.)
1:00 Arrive at the New York Times building at 8th and 41st. It’s a local landmark, designed by Renzo Piano, covered in glossy white metal bars. I love walking into the lobby beneath the huge metal Gothic letters that mimic the paper’s name. The old Times’ building, 229 West 43d., was old-school, with a tiny lobby in dark granite. The new one is enormous, airy, bright, with a central atrium filled with trees and grass. The guard calls Jose, my husband who works in the business section, and I get my day pass.
Tip: There are two restaurants in the building, on the main floor, in an area not known for good food. Try Schnippers’ for mac and cheese, burgers and fries.
1:20 We eat lunch in the 14th floor cafeteria, with its tomato red carpet, large round tables, Eames chairs and a balcony with benches where you can sneak a snooze. I see, as I always do there, several editors and writers I know, one just arrived from London. Even though I’m “only” freelance, it’s nice to be welcomed and know so many people.
2:30 I head to the business section and have a chat with several female friends who work at the paper. Another editor’s wife, a friend, happens to be visiting as well. Gabfest!
2:45 I pitch another idea to my editor there and he wants it. Score!
3:15 I visit Muji with K, my friend who used to live in Tokyo. She admires their tatami mats and I buy a gray cotton dress, perfect for fall with my new gray and white scarf. If you don’t know this Japanese retailer, check it out for everything from colored pencils to cushion covers to stockings.
4:00 With watermelon coolers in hand, we settle into one of the hundreds of dark green tables in Bryant Park. The park, once closed for many years, has become the most wonderful urban oasis. There’s a carousel ($2), great food, a reading room (!) lending books and magazines, chess players, fountains and many happy people enjoying it all.
6:00 I have two hours to kill before I meet Jose back at Grand Central to take our train home. I walk to the southern edge of the park, deciding whether or not to ride the carousel, when I see three tables covered with…board games. And two people playing a fast and ferocious game of Bananagrams, which I’ve never seen or played. “Can I join you?” I ask. The game is a blast, a faster-moving version of Scrabble. My two partners are quick and literate so we’re racing the clock to yell “Bananas!” to signal that we’ve won. Turns out that Sarah, wearing a Bryant Park polo shirt, is paid to play games all day with whoever shows up. She’ll be there until September 30. I’m so psyched to go back!
Tip: The hardest challenge for everyone in Manhattan is finding a clean, safe, attractive — free — place to pee. Bryant Park has one of the city’s nicest toilets, in the northeast corner, with marble counters and fresh flowers. Grand Central Station, at 42d and Park (two blocks further east), has three restrooms, two women-only, two on the lower floor.
6:55 Crossing Fifth Avenue, I see a steady stream of gleaming black Escalades, ferrying the wealthy Wall Street crowd north to their homes on the Upper East Side. While the rest of us hoof, subway, bus or cab it, this daily migration is a reminder of how economically divided the city really is.
Tip: The only reason we really, really, really hate tourists? They stand still in the middle of the sidewalk, stopping in front of the rest of us who are always in a big hurry. Or they walk really slowly, sometimes three or four abreast, blocking our way. Once you exit a building, pretend the sidewalk is moving and will, like the ones in airports, will throw you off if you don’t pay attention. Pay attention!
7:00 A quick tour of Sephora, seeking a birthday present for a younger friend, I buy a bar of Fresh Hesperides soap, which smells divine and will last for a month.
7:50 Walk past Posman Books, one of my favorite indie bookstores, which — to my deeply grateful astonishment — is displaying my book in the window. I’m thrilled, as some of the country’s top book, magazine and publishing editors and agents shop there. Chat briefly with an elegant older woman shopper who lives in Zurich, buying Aristophanes.
7:57 Buy popcorn and chocolate milk for dinner to eat on the train. Jose finds me at the platform and we head north.