United States

Doing New York on a Budget

“I’ll meet you at Grand Central Station,” he said.

I’d tried twice before to go to New York. The first time was almost thirty years ago, shortly after I’d graduated from art school—the obligatory pilgrimage. I canceled the trip due to a pending divorce. The second aborted attempt also had something to do with a man.

No longer a practicing artist, the city wasn’t a priority on my list of places to visit. I got my fill of New York virtually: movies, television show, and books were often set in the core of the Big Apple. It was hard to ignore; I almost felt like I’d already been there. Plus, it was expensive. But, with a really good deal on airfare, and a free place to stay, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see my friend again.

“Don’t buy any passes or coupons or anything like that, I’ll show you how to do most things cheaply.”

I liked that.

New York seemed like a scary place to visit on my own. I’d been made to believe that New Yorkers thought their city was the center of the universe, that they were arrogant, pushy and unfriendly; I’d been made to believe that the streets were rife with crime. My perception had been developed over many years by the necessary elements for news and good drama. After all, there is no story without tension and conflict, murder, and mayhem.

“Don’t worry,” he added, “it’s really not as bad here as the media makes it out to be.

Easy for him to be nonchalant, he’d grown up there. I’d been coddled by the Canadian prairies.

I took a deep breath …

“I’ll take the Airporter shuttle from JFK ($19) and be there about six o’clock,” I confirmed.  “I’ll be wearing a red leather jacket.”


I was pleasantly surprised and pleased to change my perception of New York and New Yorkers based on first-hand experience. People in New York are like anywhere else—the ones I encountered were really nice. I felt safe and respected wherever I went.

The evening I arrived, my friend took me on a walking tour of lower Manhattan—the financial district and government buildings, up to the Brooklyn Bridge (which we crossed another day). Many of the buildings were covered in scaffolding but I could still appreciate the old architecture—with its juxtaposition to the new. In the distance, I saw the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building lit up.

The next day, I paid $25 to get into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although I initially balked at the price (add 33%), I realized it was a 3-day pass and good also for the Met Cloisters & the Met Bruer. I found value in it by making the Met and Cloisters the focus of two days and could have easily spent a third day exploring the rest of the Met (that I’d missed the first time) and Met Bruer if I’d had time. The current exhibition of Heavenly Bodies was well worth the price. It’s based on Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. Several simple white mannequins, their empty eyes cast downward in reverence or upward in prayer, were clothed in an enormous array of artistic interpretations by notable designers. Stunning!

The subway system covers Manhatten and is pretty convenient to use—operating at all hours. The platforms seemed smaller in real life, but, most of the stations were built in the early part of the last century. The trains were packed on the weekends but the weekdays were just fine. One ride is $2.75, no matter the distance. Charge up your Metro card—there’s a discount for multiple trips.

The Staten Island Ferry is free. It takes you past the Statue of Liberty. Unless you live or work on the island, there’s no real reason to leave the terminal once you land. Just walk over to another slip and board for the return ride to Manhattan.

From there we walked to the 9/11 Memorial site. They’ve done a superb job of depicting and beautifying the abyss created by the destruction of the Twin Towers. I skipped the Museum, not wanting to dwell in that energy, and we headed to the underbelly where there were a new shopping mall and subway station.

I took the A-train to the Met Cloisters. What a treat to walk through the natural park area by the Hudson to the old medieval museum and enjoy its architecture and central courtyard. Again, the Heavenly Bodies exhibition added exponentially to my enjoyment.

One day I walked more than 50 blocks north to and through Times Square (I could hardly wait to get out of there) and on to the Museum of Modern Art. I was happy to spend less than two hours at MOMA after that, arriving halfway into the free Friday evening, skipping the queue, I still had to deal with the crowds inside. If you want to contemplate the magnificent artwork or spend time reading the descriptions or sketch, you should bite the bullet and pay the full price of $25 and go another time. If you don’t mind waiting your turn to squeeze to the front of the crowd staring at Van Gogh’s Starry Night for a quick photo, go Friday night.

Yup, saw Starry Night … and many other original paintings I had only previously seen in books while in Art School. It’s true, they really do exist and they look exactly the same—only bigger—with equally impressive frames. Jackson Pollack’s paintings actually do have A LOT of texture. There’s something about seeing TOO MUCH art at once. You kind of go into overload and become apathetic. I remember feeling that way about churches when I did a bus tour through Europe. Best to spread these wonders of the world out over several days, savoring each morsel as they deserve. But, who’s got time for that?

I spent a lot of time at the Whole Foods Market (recently acquired by Amazon) where I was able to pick up my fruit and usual brown-rice-and kale-salad-type meals to compensate for my sketchy New York eating habits. But I wouldn’t have traded in my pastrami-on-rye experience at Katz’s Deli for any amount of tofu—it was melt-in-your-mouth delicious! My friend’s “go to” diner, B & H, was a block away and as narrow as a bowling alley. The theme was complex: Polish/Ukrainian/Spanish/Jewish & vegetarian but the food was simple and substantial, and the staff was like family. We had Indian food one night at a small place filled with strings of colored lights falling down from the ceiling, flags of the world and banners for any occasion you might be celebrating. And, on a late night, after a milonga, we stopped by the pizza place to get a 99-cent slice.

I had no interest in seeing a show – on Broadway or off. I’m able to see quality entertainment in Calgary for far less money. I was satisfied with dancing Argentine Tango in several of the City’s venues—inside and outside. That was my cultural treat. Just walking down the streets was a cultural treat.

I didn’t take a taxi once. I had my first Uber experience (shared) to La Guardia for my return flight. It was about the same price as taking the subway to GCT and catching the airporter bus—but with door-to-door personal service.

Now, I’m hooked. New York was everything I loved about Buenos Aires: complex, gritty, multi-cultural in every aspect, progressive, and fascinating in so many ways. I’m looking forward to going back.


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