Two weeks in New York City – it sounds like a dream come true. And that’s pretty much what it was; we loved our time there. Great food, great friends, great neighborhoods, great parks, great weather (some of the time), and, as befits Manhattan, great Perfect Manhattans.
All of which is a good thing, as we’re pretty serious now about buying a place there later in the year. We’re pretty much booked solid until early September – 10 or 11 weeks in Africa and then six weeks in Europe – but after that it feels increasingly likely that we will go back to New York and start looking seriously for a place to buy.
First we had to get to New York from Boston, so naturally we bought tickets on Acela, the “high-speed” train up the northeast corridor. There was part of the trip that impressed me: the train left exactly on time and was pretty comfortable. I had been expecting the worst, so that was a good sign. The crazy thing about it, though, is that while the train is capable of going up to maybe 180 miles per hour, it only hits that speed briefly. And as you start to get near New York it just crawls, for something like an hour or so. This is the best we can do in the U.S. for high-speed rail and in that sense it’s pathetic.
These two-plus months we’ve spent in the States have made it clear to both of us that we’re ready to be closer to family and friends and ready to slow down the travel. We’ve both noticed over the last year or so that some of the magic has gone out of traveling; that we’re just not as excited about the next new adventure, that we’re more likely to be lazy in a new place than to go out and explore. And if you’re going to have a home in the U.S., wouldn’t it just have to be in Manhattan? After you’ve seen the world, anywhere else just feels a bit boring.
Thus we spent a big chunk of our two weeks working with a real estate agent to figure out what we like, what we need, what we can afford, and – crucially – what neighborhood or neighborhoods we want to live in. Going into this exercise I had assumed that we were wide open in terms of location, anything from Tribeca or even Battery Park in the south to the Upper West Side or Upper East Side in the North. After doing some serious explorations we came to realize that Tribeca is just too far south and the Upper East & West Sides, even Midtown, are just too far north. Now we’re much more focused on Soho, Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and the Flatiron district. Downtown, but not way downtown. That’s important to figure out.
I should note that working with a real estate agent in New York is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. First of all, your tour is a walking tour. None of this driving around from property to property; the agent identifies eight or nine properties in one area and you hoof from one to the next. Given New York traffic, of course, that makes perfect sense; there’s no way you could reasonably drive around and it would be utterly impossible to park if you did. And on top of that, the agents know everything about the neighborhood, the history, the building, and even some of the other owners. Our agent was recommended by a friend in Miami Beach who is also a real estate agent and, it turns out, Mara knows pretty much everything you could ever know about real estate in these neighborhoods. We would mention some property that we’d seen online and she would immediately explain why that one wouldn’t work for us. And now that she’s got us figured out she will spend her summer finding our dream home while we’re traipsing around Africa and Europe. Not a bad deal!
Besides house hunting, it goes without saying that there’s a lot to do in New York. First of all we walked. And walked and walked and walked. And walked. My Apple Watch tracks steps you take and translates that into distance; over the 14 days we were there I walked just over 170 miles, so well over 12 miles a day. Much of the purpose for that walking was to figure out the city, where the neighborhoods and “feel” of the city change, and all that. But then there was also long walks along the Hudson River parkway, walks up into and through Central Parks, walks to dinner, walks over both the Williamsburg and Brooklyn bridges. So yeah, walking and walking and walking.
Then there’s the whole business of finding the right hotel. Mark does a lot of research on this stuff and given the insane prices of New York hotels we chose the Algonquin, a classic old Manhattan landmark up near the theater district that was less crazy expensive than others. There were only a few problems with it. The location was wrong for us, as we increasingly realized we didn’t want to be that far north. On top of that the hotel was pretty run down, very much tattered around the edges. The windows in our room were simply the dirtiest windows I’ve ever seen in my life. One of the two elevators was shut down for repairs the entire time we were there, meaning that everyone – staff included – was limited to a single elevator; waiting times were sometimes significant. And that was before Mark got up early on our fourth morning to go down for coffee and discovered that the remaining elevator was out of order, too. So there we are on the 12th floor – the top floor – with no working elevator whatsoever.
Actually, it was a blessing; there was no way the hotel management could deny our request to cancel the remainder of our reservation and move to a new hotel. This time we moved way downtown to Public, a new and very buzzy hotel developed by Ian Schrager in the Lower East Side, right near Soho. Much nicer but not really worth the money we were paying and this time too far south. In this case we only reserved four nights and then decided to move up to the W Hotel at Union Square, and that turned out to be perfect. Nice hotel and great location; I really loved being right next to Union Square, so it was just what we needed. And as a bonus on our last day there, just before heading to the airport to catch our flight to Africa, there was a big union rally at Union Square. And as we walked past it I looked up and realized that just then the speaker was no less than Gov. Cuomo. I’m not his biggest fan but I kind of worshipped his father, so it was still pretty cool.
And there are shows to go to. On our first night in the city we had dinner with our old graduate school classmate Ajay and his family. Ajay is a native New Yorker and knows pretty much everything that’s going on; he suggested we go to Kinky Boots, the 2013 Tony Award winner for Best Musical. But, he noted, we had to go soon because after a couple years the lead, Wayne Brady, was ending his run. We got tickets for two nights later and there we were in the front row for his very last performance. It was a great performance and you could easily see why it would win a Tony. A week later, this time at the suggestion of Mary Beth, we got tickets to The Play that Goes Wrong. This was a crazy slapstick comedy that normally wouldn’t be the right cup of tea for either of us but it was genuinely a riot. As Mark put it, the sillier it got the funnier it was. After those two experiences our thought was that once we move here (if we move here…) we’re going to see a lot of plays.
And on top of all that lots and lots of friends. Dinner parties out in New Rochelle with our friends Mary Beth and Sven, with whom we’ve spent time in Italy. Lunch and dinner and walks with Ajay and Ann and little Lucia. Dinner in Brooklyn with Monica and Esha, two former VAN staffers both of whom now work for a nonprofit that was holding an all-staff meeting there. Another dinner in Brooklyn with an old friend from my tax policy days. After dinner drinks with our friend Dan, also in town for work. Dinner and drinks with Les, an old friend of Mark’s from college. Even a quick photo op with a friend/former staffer who I just ran into in Central Park, the first time in five-plus years on the road when we’ve just run into someone unexpectedly. When we first started talking about getting a permanent home again I suggested that we move to someplace where we have family or friends: DC, Boston, Minnesota, Michigan. Maybe even San Francisco. Mark explained that if we have a place in New York people would come to us and this two-week social whirlwind suggests maybe he’s right.
Two strange observations about New York City. First, while it’s known as “the city that doesn’t sleep,” we were more likely to think of it as the city that doesn’t get up. For most of our stay breakfast wasn’t included with our room so we’d go out hunting for breakfast. Not crazy early but like 8:00 AM or a little later. We’d seen one restaurant at night that advertised breakfast so we went there only to discover they don’t open until 9:00. For breakfast! Another restaurant was supposed to open at 8:00 but when we got there at 8:05 they explained they wouldn’t open for another 15 minutes “or so.” Crazy.
And then there’s this thing where at least some of the hotels seem to be making their lobbies into hangout lounges for college-age kids and their laptops. We saw it first at the Ace Hotel where we had lunch; the lobby was just packed with kids, coffee, and laptops. Later, when we checked into Public for four nights the lobby was again a lively, buzzing place. I can’t believe that many 20-somethings were shelling out that kind of money for a hotel. But I suppose from the hotel’s perspective if you take what is usually a big empty space and fill it with life – and sell some coffee on the side – that’s not a bad thing.
So now we’re done with the States for a few months at least. First Africa, then Europe. I think it will feel good to go somewhere exotic again. And if Africa isn’t exotic, nothing is.