20 lessons New Yorkers learn

By Caitlin Kelly

Have you visited or lived in New York City?

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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?

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— 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!

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— 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!)

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— 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!

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