Tuesday, July 28, 2009

New York Hospitality

My kid brother, an MBA who is deeply into social media, told me I better update this blog or scrap it. In the spirit of trying to expand my comfort zone with new technology, I'm giving it another shot.

I went to New York City for the first time in my life a few weeks ago. A writers' conference called ThrillerFest was being held in Midtown Manhattan at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. My publisher, Variance Publishing, picked up the tab for registering me at the conference and for two nights at the Hyatt. I used frequent flyer miles to cover my transportation and I got a good deal for two more nights at the Omni Berkshire Place Hotel on a discount travel site; I wanted to attend an event at the conference that wasn't directly connected with my publisher's interests. So I picked up the tab for the lodging those two nights.

As the date for ThrillerFest approached, I began to think of what it would be like to visit New York City for the first time. We've all seen TV shows and movies set there, but film by its nature, and its editing, exaggerates things for both good and ill. What was it going to be like to see the real city?

I wasn't exactly overawed by the prospect. I'd been born and raised in Chicago. I lived in Los Angeles for ten years. I've visited London and Paris. I know big cities and I like them. Other than a winter trip to a white sand beach with clear tropical waters, a big city is my preferred travel destination. But this was New York, a place whose self-regard is as high as its skyline. Was I going to get along with the natives? People known for being in too much of a hurry to bother about manners.

Maybe I was really lucky, but in my four days in Manhattan I found New Yorkers to be sweethearts. Starting out at LaGuardia Airport, looking for the shuttle bus that would take me into town, people couldn't have been more helpful, airport employees and fellow travelers both. The people working at the Omni and the Hyatt were great. Even the weather, which had been rainy for forty days and forty nights before my visit, was wonderful. Sunny, low seventies, with a pleasant breeze.

If you're from a small town or even a mid-sized city, you'll probably find the traffic, both vehicular and pedestrian, to be a bit much. But if you've spent time driving anywhere in L.A. or walking in downtown Chicago, you'll feel right at home. If anything, I thought New Yorkers set a somewhat more leisurely pace afoot than Chicagoans.

The thing that set the place apart for me was its sheer density. Every building adjoins its neighbor with no intervening open space, not even an alley, and the default size of those buildings is the high-rise. After a while, all those hard surfaces looming over you and all that concrete under foot give you a real hunger to see some grass, flowers, and trees.

So I got up early one morning, before the rush hour was in full swing, and did a six-mile walk up to and into Central Park, walking as far north as 76th Street. Central Park is a wonderful place, and I know I only scratched the surface of what it has to offer. The topography rises and dips, there are huge rock formations scattered about, people are relaxed enough and their dogs well-mannered enough that the pooches are allowed to run free. But it's the contrast to the city outside the park that's so intense it almost makes you feel giddy. Like you're a kid again on your way to play a pickup game of baseball without a care in the world.

About the only cliché I found to be right on the mark regarding New York is that the city is stunningly expensive. It's not as pricey as Paris, where I visited last year and also found the locals to be charming, but NYC seems to be trying its best to catch up. Unless someone else is picking up your food tab on a visit to Manhattan, plan to bring plenty of money for even simple fare such as a hamburger. P.J. Clarke's makes a tasty burger and presents it on a plate only slightly bigger than the bun. Price: $8.95. If you'd like a small Coke and fries to go with that, you'll be out another $7.50. At the Stage Deli, you pay for a turkey sandwich on an a la carte basis: turkey, $14.95; roll, .50; lettuce and tomato, $1.00. On the other hand, at the California Pizza Kitchen at 404 Park Avenue South, the tomato and basil spaghettini, with bread included, and a refillable soft drink, is only $13.78.

As for the two hotels I visited, I preferred the Omni. It's old but quite nice, built on a pleasantly human scale. When I asked for a room on a lower floor, I got room 308. When I made the same request at the Hyatt, the best they could do was the seventeenth floor. Still, the Hyatt was convenient to the shuttle stop for the bus going to Newark's airport, my point of departure. I was surprised, though, that I couldn't get a late edition of the New York Times at the Hyatt. It doesn't come out until 9:00 a.m., and I was across the river and into New Jersey by then.

Had to make due with a Chicago Tribune when I landed at O'Hare.