I’ve always wanted to go to New York. It’s basically America’s most famous city and the hub of civilization on the east coast, a place where culture is defined worldwide. Visiting has always felt like an inevitability for me, an obligation even. But for whatever reason by 2013 and the ripe old age of 27, I still hadn’t made it out there. Luckily two British senior citizens made me change my mind.
I’d seen this set of photos floating around the internet and like the rest of the world thought, “That’s so awesome, those guys are great.” But the bowler hats they’re wearing in all of them set off a tiny alarm in the back of my head. I thought, “Huh, that reminds me of Waiting for Godot. That would be so cool if those two did the play,” and went on my merry way. Until the day I die, I’ll never understand how it took me so long to make the connection that Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen had not only done the play before in England, but were doing it again in New York and would be finishing the run in March.
I had been saving to move to Los Angeles for close to two years by then and had an itch to do something semi-reckless with a portion of it. The play was the deal-breaker (or maybe deal-maker). After some deliberation of dates, I bought my ticket that night.
Somehow I didn’t get around to buying plane tickets until weeks later. I think part of me was hoping they would get cheaper but that was stupid. Another part of me thought there was no way this trip was actually going to happen. On the outside I might seem sunshine and optimism, but internally there’s a skeptic deconstructing my dreams bit by bit. I was sure I’d oversleep and never even make it to the airport. Then when I was on the plane I was positive there would be a mechanical issue and we wouldn’t leave the ground. And then during the layover in Boston I was certain something else would happen, maybe I’d lose my wallet or ticket and end up stuck there for a week.
Of course, none of those things happened. I made the flights, I didn’t lose anything, and late Monday afternoon, I touched down for the very first time…. in New Jersey.
Day One: Trial by Fire
I had made arrangements to spend the first two nights in an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and Newark International was significantly closer to that part of New York than JFK. I figured any time saved traveling was more time I could spend in the actual city, which turned out to be simultaneously true and false, but more on that later.
There is an incredibly convenient train that runs from Newark International to Penn Station I had scoped out beforehand online, so that’s where I headed. Waiting by the tracks with frigid wind whipping my face was a welcome respite from the stale, processed air on the plane. That was the moment I accepted that my plans had somehow managed to work out and this whole trip was actually happening. Felt good, man.
Of course, that was just the calm before the proverbial storm.
I’m not sure what I was expecting when I stepped off the train and into New York, but what I got was one of the main hubs of public transportation in one of the busiest cities in the world. In layman’s terms, it was a f*cking madhouse. There were more people packed into that place than I think I’d even seen in my entire life. Seeing pictures and watching it on tv doesn’t prepare you in the slightest when you’re thrown into the river of bodies rushing in every imaginable direction that is Penn Station. I tightened the strap of my bags, took a deep breath, and plunged in. That was my first mistake.
You see there’s this popular perception that New Yorkers are all rude as hell and don’t give a rat’s ass about you or the horse you rode in on, and that’s not entirely true. The truth is, they’re in a hurry to get somewhere and you — the wide-eyed wandering tourist trying to figure out which way is up — you’re in the way. Finding a quiet corner or a place to sit and get your bearings amidst the chaos is not an easy task. My host had told me to get to the Lower East Side, I would need to take the F train. It seemed simple enough. Problem being the F train doesn’t run from Penn Station to the LES and telling me which one I needed to get on was beyond her abilities. Luckily I had installed a NYC Subway app that gave me an exact route and which trains would take me to which connecting stations to get to where I needed to go. That should’ve made things simple. It didn’t.
As you can see in the picture above, subways can be a bit complicated. You end up on the wrong platform and the train is going to take you the wrong direction, and getting to the other platform isn’t as simple as action rolling across. If you’re lucky you can head back up the stairs and take a left or right to the other stairs that will take you down to the other side. Of course I didn’t know that at the time. The first train I got on was the right one, but it was headed the opposite direction. By the time I realized this mistake, I was several stops away from where I had thought to go, which meant a new route was now the fastest. No big deal, I thought, just go with the flow.
Helpful hint: when you’re getting on the subway and you’re not sure whether the name on the sign is the direction you want to go, just pretend they’re like you’re facing a regular street. The side you’re on is going to take you to the right, the opposite goes left. It took me at least three more trains to figure this out. Thankfully I’d picked up a tidbit to buy an weeklong unlimited rides pass so my many mistakes didn’t cost me money. Just my leg.
When I finally got off the F-ing train, my left knee was killing me. I’d worn comfortable shoes as recommended, but they weren’t enough when it came to the billions of subway stairs I had climbed. I’ve never torn an ACL or MCL or QCL before but I was pretty damn sure I had. Thankfully it was only another few blocks to the apartment I’d be staying in.
So here’s the story on that. Hotels in Manhattan are hella expensive as it is and around New Year’s Eve they’re even worse. Couple that with the fact that I wanted to avoid too many touristy conventions and get a more authentic experience and I wound up exploring other options. First is was CouchSurfing, which has a pretty good system lined up for cool people to let other cool people stay with them for free. I’d signed up for it years before but never ended up using it and this was the perfect opportunity. Problem being, everyone and their mother wants to be in New York for New Year’s. I probably tried contacting at least 30 different people about staying a day or two with no success. Some already had guests booked, some weren’t going to be in town, and some just didn’t respond at all. I suspect a handful were just lying and were prowling for foreign ladies to potentially hook up with, and to them I say, “Gross.” With that plan a bust, I turned to hostels which were — surprise! — also either booked or had jacked up prices for the holiday.
To my great relief, I stumbled across Airbnb and found a spot within my price range. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a lot like CouchSurfing only less personality-based and more money-oriented. It gave me a place to keep my stuff and a couch to sleep on, so it was good enough for me. When I arrived, my hostess was accompanied by a slightly shady-looking guy and a big ass dog. I might have considered running the hell away but by that time I was just happy to be able to sit down for once. In hindsight, those measures were completely reasonable on her part. It was also her first time hosting and for all she knew I was a serial killer who’d flown across the county to murder the hell out of her. The guy was cool enough anyway and the dog super-friendly so it all worked out. After I paid her, they disappeared into the other room and that was literally the last time I saw her. So hopefully her boy friend didn’t murder the hell out of her.
After giving my knee some much needed rest, I headed back out into the night. I went for a walk down to the river to stretch my leg and hopefully work out whatever kink had found its way into the joint. On the way I started to notice I was passing more and more housing projects with seedier and seedier folks out front. Ever so slightly I started worrying for my safety. By the time I reached the park on the edge of the river, I could practically feel the shiv in my back. And then the funniest thing happened. A police car came rolling up the street and for a moment I thought the odds of getting mugged had to be reduced at least 50%. The cop slowed down as it approached me. Then it almost came to a stop, barely coasting and keeping pace just behind me. I looked over my shoulder, wondering if I was about to get mugged after all. And then the car sped off. I was baffled. Then after giving it some thought realized I was wearing a puffy hooded coat, vintage-looking Nikes, and walking with a slight limp. I had just been profiled. I never worried again after that, fairly certain that if the police thought I looked like a threat, other people would probably leave me alone.
By the time I got back to the street where I was staying, I was hungry as balls. Most of the places I passed on the way there were closed with the sole exception of a little pizzeria on the corner a few blocks down. I headed over and found it empty except for the round vaguely ethnic guy behind the counter. I picked a slice the size of my face out of the cabinet and a cheap beer for good measure before making my way to a table by the window. A few trash bags were piled on the corner outside where a cadre of sizable rats were picking through the garbage. Any other place at any other time I probably would’ve been disgusted, but in that moment, I just enjoyed where I was. And that was how New York pizza ruined all other pizza for me.
Day Two: Trial by Ice
I awoke to find I could barely breathe. I’d fallen asleep with my head by the heater and at some point it decided to get really, really hot. Which was probably better than freezing to death in my sleep, but the dried out contacts in my eyeballs didn’t appreciate it at the time. It was early by my usual standards of existence but I hadn’t come all this way to lie on a couch in a dingy apartment so I made myself get up. It was New Year’s Eve dammit and I needed to make the final hours of the year count. My knee was feeling pretty stiff so I made a mental note to get a brace at the next available opportunity to limit the issue. Time would be a bit scarce today, though. The point of the day was to knock out a life goal by seeing the ball drop in Times Square. Yeah it’s the most touristy thing I could do and the opposite of the aforementioned blending in, but I felt almost obligated to do it. That in mind, I headed out to get some limited exploring done.
First on the agenda was locating the theaters where I would be seeing Waiting For Godot and Wicked. Did I mention I bought tickets for Wicked? Obligatory tourism. After the mess I’d made of using the subway the night before, I wanted to be positive I could make my way to those points without screwing up and missing them altogether. Maybe it was the daylight or maybe it was the trial and error of things, but I made my way over in a flash and gave myself a silent high five for not screwing it up. After that I headed over to Times Square to scope out the joint. It was significantly less busy than I expected it to be on a day like this, but then it was nine in the morning. NYPD was starting to set out barriers and such so I decided to keep moving and find breakfast. Somewhere in the vicinity of Radio City Music Hall, I spotted a fabled Tim Horton’s. If you’ve never heard of it before, that’s because you don’t listen to Retcast where Canadian host Brandon regularly sings its praises. You should remedy that. Anyway, I popped in and grabbed a breakfast sandwich and some coffee to get me going. I sat down at a table by the window…. actually no I didn’t. There was nowhere to sit in the place.
This is how I discovered that not only is it hard to find a place to stand and not be in the way, it’s also hard to find a place to sit. It was cold out but not unbearable so I headed out, thinking surely some restaurant would have somewhere for me to sit and enjoy my breakfast. I passed window after window to find the chairs all taken if there were chairs at all. After about 15 minutes of this and several spills of scalding coffee on my knuckle, I gave up and stopped at a planter to get some of the food I’d bought inside my body (it was great, by the way). When I turned around, I realized there was some kind of telecast going on inside the window next to me. Somehow I’d ended up outside the Fox News building and they were doing one of their morning programs. A man in a uniform was standing by the window, presumably to keep people like me from making obscene gestures at the hosts. He gave me a dirty look so I moved on in search of somewhere to sit.
I took a train up to Central Park, because surely there would be a good spot to sit up there. I ended up finding the Zoo where there was mercifully an entire line of benches out front. I’m a whore for zoos so I figured I would wait until they opened and pop inside, but as it got closer and closer to opening, more and more moms and their tiny kids lined up. The prospect of being that creepy guy alone at the zoo coupled with knowing zoos tend to suck when it’s too hot or cold lead me to move on. It worked out pretty well since I found the zoo’s indoor cafe where I could warm up and give my knee some much needed rest. It was starting to ache again, and my toes were getting the signature tingling that precedes a nasty blister. Fantastic.
I headed off to find a Walgreens, a CVS, anywhere that could stave off the looming injuries threatening to derail the rest of the week. I got a hit on one near Times Square so I hobbled off back in that direction. I kept an eye on my GPS as I closed in on the spot only to find it was nowhere to be found. I walked up and down the block a few times, hoping it was just a signal delay throwing off my position, to no avail. I was sure there must have been some mistake. A mom and pop grocery store closes down in Nowhere, Wyoming, I can believe that Google hasn’t caught up yet. But a giant Walgreens in the epicenter of American civilization? It had to be a mistake. Turns out it was. Mine, actually. There’s a chain of stores called “Duane Reade” I had noticed everywhere since I arrived but didn’t pay much attention to because why would I? Because that’s Walgreens. I guess they must have been the big name in drugstores in Manhattan when Walgreens rolled into town and decided instead of beating them they’d buy them. Only instead of adopting the Walgreens logo and color scheme, they got to keep their purple and white complexion and logo of a giant “DR” in a circle.
Relieved to have figured it out, I walked up to the door and pulled. A cop on the other side gave me a look like I had just insulted his mother. “It’s closed,” he said flatly, contrary to the current state of the door. You see since my earlier visit, a considerable amount of progress had been made in setting up barriers and such around Times Square and this Walgreens just happened to be right on the corner of their more recently closed block and he wasn’t about to let a scrub like me try and sneak through. He swung the door shut before I could protest, so once again I set off in search of another Walgreens. By this time my knee was starting to give me jolts of pain every other step. Walking multiple blocks was easier than the subway because going up and down stairs required me to bend my knee which was all but impossible without visibly wincing. When I finally reached the next closest store and stocked up on any and every possible remedy, I wasted no time putting on the brace right there in the front of the store. I was through playing the “find an acceptable place to sit” game. The brace made my limp ten times more pronounced, but at least I could use the subway again. I made my way back to the apartment, eager for a much needed nap and some respite for my knee.
I woke up around two in the afternoon feeling significantly better. My leg was stiff but I could actually bend it, which I took as a good sign. I put the brace back on anyway, this time under my pant leg, replaced the soles of my sneakers with Dr. Scholl’s, and covered both feet in moleskin and duct tape. I plucked my freshly-charged phone off the wall and set out for Times Square once more, ready to usher in 2014. Or so I thought.
Here’s the thing: I did a lot of research before I decided to undertake this adventure to keep from being completely lost or clueless, but while every guide out there will drop you a nice tidbit here or there, none of them are complete and some of them are completely wrong. One told me if I arrived around 4 p.m. I should have a decent view of the ball, so I aimed for 3. That was one of the completely wrong ones. By the time I arrived, they had blocked off even more space on the south side of 7th Avenue and weren’t letting anyone through, in spite of the street being empty as far as I could see. I don’t know if they intentionally don’t provide information for where the hell to go to get into Times Square, but it sure seemed like it. I walked over to 8th Avenue and headed north, hoping to find where they were letting people in with no luck. Every side street was barricaded with cops directing crowds every which way but in. As I continued north I started to feel sorry for the crowds walking south, knowing they weren’t going to find a way in, until it occurred to me they might be thinking the same about me, so I pressed on. Block after block after block I walked I walked, until finally I reached 57th Street and people were pouring in.
Penn Station? Child’s play compared to this. Sardines could invite their in-laws over and still have more room in their can. At first there was no elbow room, then drawing closer to the barricades where NYPD was searching bags and patting people down, things got tighter. I could see the moles on the neck of the guy in front of me. And then I could smell his deodorant. For every person headed through, two seemed to rush to take their place until no one could move. We were packed so tightly I didn’t need to stand because the crowd was holding me up. Every surge forward elicited groans from the pack but we were powerless to do anything about it. You couldn’t push back against the people behind you because there was nowhere to move your legs for leverage. A policewoman near the front with a megaphone shouted for us to move back because there was a kid being crushed, but we couldn’t budge. If there was ever any doubt in my mind that hordes of zombies are terrifying, that experience squashed it. Literally. When we finally made it through, people made mad dashes down the street as if that would help secure a better spot. I walked out of necessity, but it worked out just fine: the next barricade was at about 53rd Street and that’s where we would have to stop. The streets in front of us were full. So I settled in for the 8 hour wait until midnight.
The first two hours weren’t bad. I’d waited longer for midnight releases of movies and video games alike. Not being able to sit down sucked but standing was relatively low stress on my knee. Around 6 o’clock I realized I’d made a crucial mistake: I didn’t eat lunch. As smarter people around me started snacking, my stomach started growling. I shuffled to a different spot, away from them. The remaining six hours weren’t going to pass any faster if I was thinking about food. An hour later, New York began trolling us. The giant screen beneath the ball blocks away lit up with a countdown. The seconds ticked down to “3… 2… 1… 5 hours left!” Everyone laughed, not for the last time. As the sun began to sink, the wind picked up a bit and the cold set in right on the edge of freezing. This was the hour that separated the weak from the strong. I watched a mother and daughter who had pushed rudely past me earlier make their way back north, giving up on their quest. I listened to a couple beside me called it quits, witnessed a group of teens change their minds one by one, even saw a girl pushing her wheelchair-bound mother back up the sidewalk. I’d be lying if I said the thought didn’t cross my mind on several occasions. The thought of sitting down somewhere warm and digging into another pizza was tempting, but I hadn’t come all this way to fail. I steeled myself and dug in for the long haul. The screen lit up again with a countdown. “3… 2… 1… 4 hours left!” People laughed, quieter than before.
As I continued to stand there shifting weight back and forth to stay warm, there was a glimmer of hope. The thinning crowds made more room for us to move closer. Rather than recreate the same crushing bottleneck, they got smart and opened the barricades from the backside so we trickled out and down the sidewalk. I walked more briskly this time, simultaneously to get my circulation going and in hopes of getting a better spot. We moved up to 50th Street, still a ways from the ball on 46th but close enough to be able to make it out in the distance. It was a welcome reward for those of us who braved through the hour and we were able to give each other some breathing room as a result. Some even sat down on the ground. The relief was short-lived though. Somehow a group of stereotype Asian tourists turned up with bags and bags of takeout. They feasted while I stood wondering what the hell I was thinking. My stomach roiled, trying to digest the aromas. I felt delirious, as though my body was rejecting my consciousness to spare my brain the misery. It was the hungriest I think I’ve ever been and hopefully ever will be, and I wasn’t alone. As the digital clock once again counted down “3… 2… 1… 3 hours left!” there was no laughter.
The next hour crawled by. I can honestly say I have no idea how I made it through. Maybe it was not wanting to put the past hours’ suffering to waste. Maybe it was some hidden reserve of strength I’ve never tapped before. Or maybe I just couldn’t move. Whatever the case, minute after minute ticked by and there I stood, enduring the “festive” ordeal I’d brought upon myself. And then it happened. I spotted my guardian angel. He was dressed like a hobo and waddled like he had an incurable crotchular affliction, but in his hand was the red pizza bag. As he walked up the sidewalk escorted by a cop (probably for his own safety), I flagged him down and asked him how much. He held out seven fingers. I gave him ten. The little box he pulled out was barely bigger than my hand and the food inside was a pitiful slab of greasy dough with nothing but cold cheese on top, but I would’ve paid $20 for it. Even as I chewed it I knew how bad it was, a giant rip-off taking advantage of idiots like me, but still I ate. It was more than food, it was my key to making it down the home stretch. When the billboard informed us “2 hours left!” cheers went up, our enthusiasm reignited with the end in sight.
We were moved up another block in those final hours. The screen showed performers as they took the stage, and even though we could barely hear her, the unmistakable melody of ‘Wrecking Ball’ wafted up the street. Phones and cameras and phones and even more phones came out and snapped pictures as the moment of truth drew near. The final hour was counted down in 15 minute increments until the last minute of 2013 in America trickled away. I held my phone at my side, consciously wanting to watch the moment of truth with my own eyes as arms all around stretched their devices toward the sky. I looked around. A sea of phones, everyone looking at their own. What a shitshow.
And just like that, it was over. I tried hanging around in hopes of getting closer if only for a decent picture of the Times Square so idolized by film and photography but the police shut that down, directing us down the side streets and on our way. It was an anticlimactic end to a grueling day. Thankfully when I made my way back to the apartment, the pizzeria was still open. If nothing else, the night made those next two slices taste even better.