It has taken a long, long time to get used to the animal that is New York City and its many qualities and quirks. I am sure I’ll never figure them all out, or understand the complete attraction people have to Times Square. That neon-electric area of town, perpetually on a junkie’s high.
I won’t be the first to admit it, but it is not my favorite part of NYC. My first time there years ago gave me that early impression. I’m not a fan of crushing crowds and in-your-face advertising. And after I spent a few months commuting to the St. James Theatre to bartend, I quickly began to dislike the area even more.
People kept asking me why I wasn’t in Times Square on New Year’s Eve last year. “You live there. You should experience it.” The reason? I have no desire to pee in a bag, I can’t stand the thought of being pushed by thousands of people to the various subway stops on the way home, and won’t stand in the freezing cold amidst the various aromas of the people you have to be be wedged next to (I’m not a scrooge, I swear!). Maybe this is still a hard concept to grasp, but if you live here for a few months, you would probably understand. You are always in the middle of a mass of people, and sometimes celebrating in another mind-numbing crowd just loses its appeal.
But if I ever want to go to Broadway, I go to Times Square. If people are visiting the city, more than likely they are going to want to visit it eventually. So here are just a few tips for meandering around that “fun” area.
Be smart. This is a crazy tourist area and most people know it. Many New Yorkers avoid it for that very reason. But other people who know it will exploit you for it. That is why you see so many beggars on the street. Don’t give them money, seriously. Many people are dressed in costumes, from Dora The Explorer to Woody from Toy Story. Don’t hug them. Don’t take their picture. Just don’t do it. They expect money from you and will be really upset when you try to get a freebie. Also, do you want to hug them, really? Have you seen how dirty their costumes are? These aren’t professional actors, people. Hustlers will try to get you to take their bus tour, go to their private dance club. If you want whatever they are serving, fine, but if not – let them know it. Ignore them completely or be a jerk and just say no. No need to let your Midwest niceness show through in these situations, seriously.
Be courteous. If you want to stop and take a picture, just make sure that you aren’t stopping in front of someone who is walking behind you. If you are lost and wanting to look at your phone or map, stop by a store wall. Don’t stand in the middle of the sidewalk as hundreds of people try to walk around you. If there is a long line at TKTS, don’t just complain and complain. Everyone else has to wait too. (FYI: Want cheaper Broadway or off-Broadway tickets? If you don’t mind not knowing exactly what play you are going to until a day ahead of time, go to the TKTS booth behind the bright red stairs in the middle of Times Square. You can get 50 percent off ticket prices. Pretty worth it.)
Be flexible. One place that is worth going in the Times Square area (or other places in NYC as it is a chain) is Shake Shack. Cheap shakes and concretes, hot dogs and burgers, just plain awesome. You want to hit that up instead of a McDonald’s for good grub. Unfortunately, there are very few spots to sit at. People will try to hoard seats, not share tables, but this is how it is in NYC. Many places are communal-style dining and people just eat where they can. So don’t get upset if you have to share a small table with a couple people you don’t know.
Be a tourist. Have a good time. Go to the NYC souvenir shops. They are awesome and super inexpensive. Tacky but fun. Do enjoy the weird sights of people hawking their various wares on the street. Eat a $2 hot dog or get some cheap Mediterranean food from a vendor. And do get those sweet cashews and almonds from those street corners. Totally worth it.
After being here for more than half a year now, I realize that I have some good advice for tourists (especially Midwesterners) in cities in general and NYC, but that’s another column for another day.