20 lessons New Yorkers learn

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you visited or lived in New York City?


It’s a great place, but — oy!

The city resembles a small child, at best bursting with charm, all winning smiles and irresistible, 24/7 energy. At worst? Projectile vomit, much throwing of small, sharp objects and/or prolonged shrieking at high volume.

You never know which city you’ll get.

After 25+ years of living and working around New York City, here’s a random list of 20 things I’ve learned:

— After an exhausting day at a conference or trade show at the Javits Center, a hulking structure on the western edge of town, your poor feet are raw, since there’s almost nowhere there to sit down. Food is crazy expensive and not very good. When it’s time to go home, you head for the taxi rank, naively expecting, (hello, it’s a taxi rank), to find…you know, taxis! Lined up, lots of them, eager for business. Wrong! You will give up and trek long blocks in the pouring rain in search of one, praying you don’t miss your flight home.

— If you actually need a NYC taxi between 4 and 5:00 pm. — also known in most cities as rush hour — fuhgeddaboudit. There are 20 percent fewer cabs on the street then, as that’s the drivers’ shift change. But, if you beg, really nicely, sometimes a driver will in fact take you. Will you get a safe and experienced taxi driver? I once got into a cab, barked “Laguardia” and got a quizzical glance. (It’s one of NYC’s two major airports.) I directed him to the right tollbooth where the collector said “Take the BQE”, (Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a major artery). That didn’t register either.

— NYC — huh? — has shockingly lousy radio. We have WNYC, and the fab Brian Lehrer, (talk, call-in, 10-12 each weekday morning),  and Leonard Lopate, (talk, culture, noon to 2pm, weekdays), and Jonathan Schwartz (American songbook, Saturdays and Sundays.). We have WFUV and WKCR, Columbia University’s station,  (love their eclectic schedule — from troubadours to 60s reggae and ska),  and WQXR. Then…WBGO, a jazz station from Newark, NJ.

— Be very, very careful if you choose to cycle or even cross the street here; a shocking number of people, including children, are killed here every year by careless drivers. Don’t be stupid and focus on your device while trying to navigate the crosswalk, if there even is a crosswalk — that text you’re reading or sending could well be your last.

Here’s a heartbreaking story about a family whose 12-year-old son died this wayAnd a bicycle deliveryman. Four people were recently killed by vehicles in just one weekend.

— Getting a traffic or parking ticket of any kind in New York City is really expensive; I recently got my first-ever ticket, for going through a stop sign — $138. (If I’d run a red light in Manhattan, it would have been $270.)

— But the cop who slapped me with my $138 fine also confided, since it was my first offense, how to get out of paying it. (I paid anyway.)

— If you see a taut line of fishing wire atop lamp posts along certain streets, an eruv, it was placed there, at a cost of $100,000 by several Jewish congregations, for religious reasons.

— To enjoy the terrific skating rink erected for a few winter months in Bryant Park without being knocked down by people who can’t skate, get there as soon as it opens for the day. It has great music and an easy-to-reach midtown location. It’s also gorgeous at dusk as the city lights up all around it. I like it much better than the costly, tiny rink at Rockefeller Center or crowded Wollman Rink in Central Park.

— Tourists. Gah! We hate freaking tourists, especially when they walk three or four abreast, slowly, entirely blocking the sidewalk for the rest of us. It’s totally awesome you have all bloody day to stroll, chat and stare. We don’t. Speedupalready!

— Yes, we can tell just by looking that you’re tourists. It’s not just your maps and foreign-language guidebooks. It’s your hair color/cut, choice of pastel clothing and/or white sneakers and/or lots of purple and pink and/or the volume of your conversations. Also, that glazed look.

— Please, do not whine about what things cost here. Yes, the prices are insane — $50 to park for four hours in a garage or $20 for a midtown cocktail, $8 to cross the George Washington Bridge, $10 for dessert or $15 for an appetizer. We know how expensive it is. We also pay a shitload of taxes to a state and city government forever sending its elected officials to court or prison for fraud, sexual harassment or corruption. I once simply drove my mother to the airport — $13 for tolls and 20 minutes parking. Puhleeze.

— The suggested donation at the Metropolitan Museum really is only a suggestion, no matter how intimidating its full fare of $25. If you can muster the chutzpah, offer 25 cents or a dollar.

— Even the most mundane blocks offer fascinating bits of history. This midtown firehouse, on its upper stories, has deeply incised salamanders — which have a deep and historic link to fire. Isn’t it glorious?


— The city has a few early cemeteries where you’d least expect to find them, like these three ancient Jewish graveyards, all within walking distance of downtown shops, homes and modern day offices. Bronx students recently found a possible slave burial ground.

— Two places you can always find a bit of peace? The many pocket parks and plazas dotting the city and the pews of any church.

— You’ll see an entirely new city with each season, and softer or sharper, less or more angled sunlight it brings. I was walking south on Park Avenue the other day — at 2:30 on a sunny January afternoon — and passed a 1960s building I’ve seen hundreds of times. But I saw it wholly anew, as the light’s angle created pockets of shadow clearly intended by the architect, in metal indentations below each window. It was lovely.

Do you know about Manhattanhenge? Very cool!

— Museums charge a fortune, like $14 or $18 admission, but they all have a night of free admission.

— Here’s a terrific daily update of free/cheap/fun stuff to do in the city, The Skint, created by my friend Elizabeth who, natch, is also the lead singer in this amazing band playing 1920s tunes, The Hot Sardines, who often play at the Standard Hotel and Joe’s Pub.

You can even, for a week in late January every year, watch world-class champions playing squash in a glass-walled court inside Grand Central Station. Crazy!


— There  is beauty in almost every single block, if you look carefully. It might be a hanging lamp, a brass marker inlaid in the concrete, a gargoyle, a church spire, leaded windows, exquisite ironwork, a tiny snowman with pretzel hair. Despite its insane rushrushrush, New York City is actually a place that rewards a slower pace, (off the busiest streets!)


— New Yorkers may look mean, tough, unfriendly. We’re really not. We are usually in a hurry, (knowing the taxi, if we can even find one, will take forever to get there or the subway will break down). We’re probably rushing somewhere to get more something: money, opportunities, friends, whatever. But so many of us have come here from somewhere else that we get what it feels like to be scared, overwhelmed, lonely — and thrilled to finally master this place, even for a while.

Or…am I completely meshugannah?

Feel free to argue loudly. Hey, it’s what we do!





36 thoughts on “20 lessons New Yorkers learn

  1. Oh do not get me started on NYC. One time my gf and I are waiting for a bus at the Port Authority. This was like watching musical homeless with NY’s finest orchestrating the movements in three party harmony. They would move a few feet down the line and put their cardboard boxes down while 80 year old women going up and down the walkway, all night long. Most people just seemed to think it was another day in Gotham City. Even Batman doesn’t return those calls.

    And just when you didn’t think it could get anymore bizarre you are wrong. One old homeless lady in her 60s was staggering around shouting at people, She knocked off one Spanish-speaking guy in his twenties off a bench where he was trying to sleep. Then she continued to drop F Bombs like the Allies in Dresden. But like Hitler she had her ace in the hole, so to speak, as she busted her whiskey bottle on a rusty old 55 gallon drum. She waved her newly found weapon at the nervous man as she continued her carpet bombing campaign and her lengthy vocabulary.

    Finally she must have went into heat as she jacked her skirt and flashed the young man with her junk. Some old black guy told her to put her nasty junk. Never a dull moment in the Land of Oz and abandoned old caws. (cars)

    The same was true of Manhattan. While visiting my brother at the Naval Shipyards it looked like the Homeboy Shopping Club with burnt out cars. And this was around Thirty or so years from President Obama’s ‘Cash for Clunkers’.

  2. Interesting! I’m from Texas and have really only seen upstate New York while visiting family. They keep promising to take me to the city one of these days, haha. This makes me both curious and intimidated.

      1. That’s a very long answer! Dozens and dozens…

        Some are really obvious: Grand Central Terminal, Chrysler Building, West Village, Gramercy Park, Trinity Wall Street Church. Lots of great guidebooks.

  3. I had to laugh at your comment about recognizing tourists for their pastel clothing, etc. I live in Hawai’i and we can pick a tourist from a mile away, too. How they’re dressed, how they let themselves get burnt like a lobster (we don’t do that), their haircuts and how they hold themselves. Once I was on Maui and went to an evening performance of this fancy Hawaiian music performance. The line to get in was long, and filled with local people in their colorful aloha wear (loose and comfy and full of island prints) — and also a young couple (30s?) from New York. They were slim and stylish and very New York-looking, both of them dressed completely in black. We don’t even dress like that to go to a funeral. They really stood out and they knew it and looked very uncomfortable. I symphathized (in my head) because it’s hard to go to a new place and find you don’t fit in! It’s happened to all of us!

  4. Never been to New York City… even though everyone said, when I was in DC “just go for a couple of days”.

    I can’t image visiting such a place for a couple of days though – I’d get nothing at all out of it. It sounds like a place one needs a good few weeks to just get a feel of. I reckon I could be happy spending an entire month just walking around everywhere, shooting, and do nothing else.

    One day. It’ll happen one day. Street shooter’s mecca, is NYC.

    1. Actually, you should have done it! NYC is so densely packed and so easy to get around, you can do more in three days than in some sprawling megalopolis where you need to drive or waste hours on public transit. (I love London but it takes FOREVER to get around, vs. Paris.) I once toured a Japanese visitor with an ex-beau and we went 13-hr days for 3 days. He saw a lot! 🙂

      In three days: 1) west and east village; 2) midtown (briefly), Central Park, the Met/MOMA and/or Guggenheim — then Staten Island ferry at sunset then drinks/dinner in Brooklyn 3) slow strolls through a few neighborhoods…maybe the Hungarian pastry shop and a visit to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine at 110th street — then a brief pilgrimage to the statue of Pulitzer (for journos!) on the nearby Columbia U campus…

      Hmmm, I see a new career for myself! 🙂

      1. There’s definitely a sideline you should look into!

        I could never visit a place in that breakneck style though. I’m a slow journeyer. Trying to force that much in, in that amount of time, would drive me batty in 10 minutes flat. I spent 2 months in Mexico City alone, and probably visited less of the must-sees than most people who visit for a week.

        What I most enjoy when I visit cities, is spending weeks just walking around, absorbing the vibe and rhythm of a place, observing how they change. Street photography is what I do, and that is something that requires (for me anyway) large amounts of time watching and waiting.

      2. NYC, hell yeah, the only people who could afford to lounge around for that long probably make more in a day than I do in a year, hehehe. Still, one day, might manage to make it work. I managed to stay in Copenhagen for 2 months and spend under USD$3,000, so who knows!

  5. You are not lying about the danger of crossing the street in NYC. I was in Manhattan for a couple of days last year and I decided to burn one of my mornings walking around checking things out (because I am a total country mouse) and even though I was totally alert and on top of my game and not looking at devices, I was nearly hit twice in crosswalks.

    Also, every New Yorker I met during those couple of days was very friendly. I’m one of those Midwestern types who likes to talk to strangers and smile at random people, and I was delighted to see that it was reciprocated. (This was NOT my experience when I lived in Boston. Those were a rough couple of years.)

    1. Ouch! So sorry to hear that — but thank you for confirming this firsthand. I can’t count the number of times (out here in the burbs, in our small town) I have almost been hit by ^%$!@)__Ss driving through the crosswalk WHEN I AM IN IT. Illegal. They could not care less.

      It’s true. I think NYers are often much friendlier than people imagine or expect; so many of us have come from somewhere else and even we get lost if we go to a new nabe for the day.

      Poor you….New England. Do not get me started! I survived (and use that word very deliberately) 18 months of small town NH life and it almost killed me and my career. I can make friends with rocks, in French. Not there! Have never ever felt so lonely and disliked. Jesus. Brrrrrr. We had a friend up for dinner this weekend who (!) knows Hanover, NH and environs v v well. He agreed.

      1. I lived in Massachusetts for three years and made zero friends. I was in my early 20s so I was still impressionable enough to think that it was a reflection on me as a person, but now I’ve learned that, nope, it wasn’t me! New Englanders are just that way!

        I still think it’s quite beautiful up there and I look forward to visiting again but I’ll never, ever live there again.

      2. Hell, yes. I was then 30, and had lived in Montreal where I made really close friends within months of arriving there…After 18 months of entertaining others, fruitlessly, in NH, I just gave up and told my then partner (now ex husband) I had to GET OUT NOW. Literally for my mental health.

        I have been back to visit as it is very lovely, true. But omg. So sorry you faced this, but it comforts me to hear another went through that shit as well.

        Maybe it’s also being (?) a feisty feminist. 🙂

    1. Fun to visit. Very tough to make good living here unless you make $$$$$$$$$$. Many middle class people are struggling or fleeing. And “middle class” here can be $100k a year. Yes, really.

      1. thesignalboxdiaries

        Has always been a working visit (have been an exhibitor at the Javits a couple of times) and spent many a happy hour in the Garment District selling! A few years since my last trip so things may well have changed but hopefully not the humor and spirit of the place.

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  7. There is some seriously sound advice in this post. I hate getting pushy with people at the museum over the suggested donations but I visit enough and have paid full price more than once so I should just be willing to suck my teeth and throw a handful of change at them, right?

    Also tell Elizabeth thank you for The Skint. That has been a big part of my life over the last couple of years.

    1. Thanks for making time to stop by, read and comment! And congrats on being Freshly Pressed…

      Elizabeth is such a star. She rocks! Have you seen her perform yet? You must!

      How lovely to know that one’s ideas make a difference to others, esp. in our city that make it look as though only the wealthy and powerful have much effect on anything.

      1. I have not. I didn’t even know she did anything on the stage, but I will definitely investigate.

        People can always make a difference to other people. The wealthy do seem to have a stranglehold on everything else though. At least until the poor people revolt and start cutting heads off. I would say we’re six years away from that.

      2. Her band is so much fun — they are now consistently selling out Joe’s Pub.

        I doubt it’ll take six years if things don’t change SOON. Did you notice the recent fatal carjacking of the $80k Range Rover from a NJ mall parking lot? I suspect we may see more of this. People are so fed up.

  8. We spent five fantastic days in NYC in October before taking a cruise up the east coast and up into Canada, and we loved it. The favorite parts of our seventeen day vacation was the five days at the beginning in New York and the two days at the end in Quebec City. The middle days of the cruise were fun, but we especially enjoyed the beginning and the end. We certainly don’t wear pastel, but I know we stood out like the typical tourists with our cameras slung around our necks and our faces constantly looking up at the skyline as we waited in line for our next hop on hop off bus. We rented a lovely two bedroom condo with our friends I and traveling companions right across the street from the New York Fashion Institute of Technology on W 27th St, and it was like an oasis in the middle of the city. We walked everywhere, and packed as much as possible into the five days. As soon as Brenda can travel again, we will be back for sure, we absolutely loved it! I only wish that your post had been before we had our trip, so many fantastic recommendations from you to see and do and we were so close to The Standard Hotel as well. Thanks for giving us something to look forward to for our next visit …

    1. NYC will always have more to see and do, that’s for sure.

      My friend Elizabeth and her band often play the Boom Boom Room at the top of the Standard. I’m not that fond of the Meatpacking District for shopping, (got ripped off twice there by retailers) but there are some fun restaurants. I really like Spice Market and Fig & Olive.

      The cruise you took is one we’ve also wanted to try. It sounds lovely.

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