By William J. Furney
The experience of New York as a loud, brash and bellicose place begins soon after landing, and it’s infectious. You can expect the unexpected, for people to do whatever they like, however unusual, just because they happen to feel like it. And no one cares, or even bats an eyelid, because, well, it’s New York.
Welcome to the craziest, zaniest, most outrageous city on the planet.
Ahead of us in the small queue at JFK Airport, a young woman suddenly sat on the floor, in front of a border control desk; when it was her turn, she rose, walked to the officer and flopped down again. A man rushed forward from behind us, to aid the woman. “She’s dehydrated,” he said in a booming voice seconds later and to no one in particular. And then she was gone.
Once we — I was with my adult daughter and son, having arrived from London, England, in the early evening of a blue-sky September Saturday — were through, we were confronted with transport thugs lying in wait in the arrivals halls who demanded we use their services and followed us, menacingly, around the crowded concourse.
We managed to prise ourselves free of one such demanding creature, but the surprising part is you might be better off travelling with the touting hoodlums. Because Yellow Cabs, cloaked under a veil of officialdom, could be even worse.
“Ignore offers of transportation from solicitors in the terminal. Soliciting of ground transportation is illegal and many illegal solicitors are unlicensed and uninsured,” says JFK Airport on its website. So why doesn’t it do something about this scourge, and protect the travelling public from the transportation onslaught in the security camera-packed terminals? I asked the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which manages JFK, but didn’t get a response.
What should have been a relatively short ride in a Yellow Cab to our apartment in Brooklyn, of under half an hour, was almost double that; what should have been a maximum fare of around $60 ended up over $83. That’s after the elderly immigrant driver, who talked nonstop about his life during the trip, announced that he would cancel his flat fare of $70 to Manhattan because “we weren’t going that far”.
In a moment of New York madness that overcame me after I paid and stood on the sidewalk, and that allows you to vent at will and natives will think you’re local, I roared at the driver for ripping us off and declared to anyone passing by who may have been interested that “I can’t stand being ripped off!”
That was the first of several impromptu, public and Schitt’s Creek-like outbursts during our weeklong trip that I felt the city conveyed a licence on me to enact. If you can’t speak your mind in New York City, where can you?
Virgin Atlantic from London to New York: Winging It
Rapidly evaporating was the Premium experience on Virgin Atlantic that we had enjoyed from London Heathrow, although there had been issues in the sky too. My son’s screen didn’t work, and a mostly indifferent female crew member suggested we move to the empty row in front. But a screen there had tape over it, because it was broken.
I explained to the care-less stewardess that I had paid almost £200 for our original seating in Premium, which is equivalent to business class, because they were the only three that were available when I was booking seats — due to Virgin introducing a fee for the first few rows in that section late last year because most people “prefer” to sit there. Hence the new product called “Preferred Premium”.
I would have preferred to leave it behind.
The big seat fee was on top of a hefty upgrade to Premium that I had paid. But the female cabin crew member was not at all interested, and I gave up, much to my embarrassed kids’ delight.
When I saw mould on strawberries I’d been served, I wasn’t so much annoyed but disappointed, all over again. This was in no way “premium” travel. We should have stuck to economy, where our expectations would have been far lower, and perhaps we would have been not only surprised but also delighted.
One of the toilets was out of use, with a sign on it saying “I’m broken”, which seemed to sum up the entire experience.
A seemingly kindly man called Otis (a Londoner who later served us with gusto at the bar and said his favourite destination was Cuba) came to my seat and asked with apparent concern about the issue with the screens. By this time we had moved back several rows, to the “free” seats in the Premium cabin, where all three screens were working, and he knelt and said he was the cabin manager. I told him about the mouldy fruit. He apologised, tapped, tapped on a tablet and said he would give us £60 worth of duty free items as compensation. I said I wasn’t interested in compensation, that I just wanted to alert him to the issues, especially regarding the food and the associated health risks. He then offered to give me 8,000 points — frequent flyer miles — and I accepted. He tapped on his tablet again, and left.
At the time of writing, more than a week later, those points have not materialised. But the next day, Virgin gave me 10,000 points and refunded the Premium seat fee, after I emailed their main contact centre and told them what had happened. And I got an apology.
The main thing, naturally, is that we got to New York with barely a blip, but the Virgin Atlantic experience was hands-down shabby, and they’d better look out because a slew of low-cost transatlantic carriers is about to take off. They include Global Airlines with double-decker A380s; it wants to return the “age of golden travel” to the skies and is due to begin operations next spring, flying from London to New York and Los Angeles — if it can get an operating licence.
Founder and CEO James Asquith, the man behind travel platform Holiday Swap, is “constantly bewildered and disappointed by the poor experiences he has encountered aboard hundreds of commercial flights whilst on his many adventures”, the company says on its website, as the reason why Asquith felt compelled to start his own, potentially better airline.
Norway’s Norse Atlantic is already doing it, and on the cheap, with flights to New York and around the United States, while newcomer Fly Atlantic hopes to launch transatlantic flights in mid-2025, via its hub in Belfast. They’re sure to give Virgin, and British Airways, a run for their money on the highly lucrative flights across the Pond.
NYC’s ‘Ban’ on Airbnbs
Almost as soon as we arrived at our three-bedroom Airbnb apartment in Brooklyn — the high price of which included a scandalous almost $300 booking fee — came news that the mayor’s office had passed a law effectively banning the accommodation platform, along with others, like Vrbo, which is owned by travel group Expedia.
The new rules are intended, says the administration of New York Mayor Eric Adams, to prevent residential buildings from effectively becoming hotels where people stay for as little as one night or, like us, a week in the city. Officials blame Airbnb for helping to drive up already soaring rents in the city while also depriving New Yorkers of property amid a shortage of housing.
Now, owners with listings on such platforms — 39,000 in New York, says Airbnb — must register with the mayor’s office if they’re renting for under 30 days and they must also be present in the building when their guests are staying, as in sharing the property with them. Fines range from $1,500 to $5,000, for repeat offenders.
In further bad news for people keen on Airbnb for their Big Apple trips, and hoping to save on costly hotels, bookings in the city are now limited to two people, so families can forget about it. (Although our Airbnb was pricey, at just under $2,000 for seven nights, it was less than half what hotels in Brooklyn and Manhattan were charging — and for someone like me, who likes to cook vegan food, having a great kitchen with a big stove was a big bonus.)
“The city is sending a clear message to millions of potential visitors who will now have fewer accommodation options when they visit New York City: ‘You are not welcome,’” Airbnb’s global policy director, Theo Yedinsky, said.
My Airbnb host told me that he and a friend created “a network of Airbnb rentals and properties that he and I own outright. These are small three-, four, five-unit apartment buildings over which we have total control and which we manage according to our own high standards.” Now, with the new city regulations, they’re planning to stop short-term rentals and only accept bookings for more than 30 days.
“The mayor and the other city council members who fought to kill Airbnb typically have no personal idea what it means to earn a living from operating in an actual marketplace,” he said. “Instead, they just legislate to earn their income. My own feeling is that when you elect people like this you get bad policy because they basically don’t understand how the world works.”
Due to the new rules, people might reconsider trips to New York and instead go to places where they wouldn’t have to stay at hotels, my host predicted.
He said “the great majority of Airbnb guests in a city like New York are working class people from abroad: plumbers from Ireland, teachers from rural France, small business owners from Spain. These are people who spend five nights on a family dream vacation to New York City; that simply cannot, and will not, happen if they’re forced into a hotel suite with their three children.
“These people will not buy restaurant meals or Broadway tickets in the future. Again, I suspect exactly nobody is calculating the economic damage here.”
A Nine-Hour Walkathon, and Dinner with Dean
Handily, a Subway station was right beside our apartment, on the Q Line, and we took it on our second day in New York to lower Manhattan. If you’ve never “ridden” the New York Subway, as New Yorkers say, don’t expect the relatively smooth ride of the London Tube. Instead, buckle up, if you can, for the sheer shock of bangs, wallops and grinding metal as the carriages — “cars” — round a screeching bend. It’s a real boneshaker and not for the faint of heart.
Many people, on the streets and using public transport, were wearing facemasks, due to a warning over new covid variants and a rise in cases.
In the packed financial district — where people queued to fondle the Charging Bull’s balls, for monetary and other luck — we met Dean, a friend of my ex-wife whom she met while they were working in South Korea several decades ago. Over the years, he had met her family, in England, including our children, and had become a friend of her family. Dean was born in Queens and has lived for the last several decades in an apartment in Manhattan.
We were fortunate to have met him and that he had offered to take us on a walking tour of the city, because from the outset, he was akin to a professional tour guide, with all the intimate knowledge and details of buildings, people and history that you’d expect from a seasoned escort. At one point an Irishwoman, evidently thinking he was the real deal, came up to Dean to ask about something of interest.
A suffocating heatwave had descended on New York and it was as hot as hell, with high humidity that sapped your energy (below-ground Subway platforms were like a sauna), and we were grateful to stop for lunch and at what’s said to be the oldest pub and restaurant in the city — Fraunces Tavern in Pearl Street in the Battery district, where what is now New York began its embryonic life.
Over burgers and beers in a darkened dining area imbued with a deserving olde-world charm that harkens back to the establishment’s 1762 origin — my university-student son, 20, having a Coke and observing: “I can buy a gun in America but not a beer” — we drank in the centuries of history at a location where many of the country’s Founding Fathers quenched their thirst. It was here that George Washington, in December 1783, gave a thank you speech to his soldiers after the last of the occupying British troops left America, a month earlier. A real and revolutionary reason for a celebration toast.
And then it was on to Wall Street and its famous stock exchange, which, like many such storied and legendary buildings, looked surprisingly small, steaming vent-towers sticking up from the ground giving the place an otherworldly, ethereal air. Perhaps it was fitting, given many people’s investments that have gone up in smoke.
It’s surprising, and slightly surreal, to see a church in the midst of all the Downtown Manhattan chaos: Trinity, belonging to the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and 177 years old this year. Spread out and around what was once the tallest building in the city — with its 281-foot-high steeple and before all those overpowering skyscrapers came along — and bordering the throngs of tourists and businesspeople is what you might call a serene graveyard dotted with crumbling and moss-covered headstones. We went in and had a few moments of quiet calm amid the praying faithful, and I lit a candle in memory of my parents.
The following day would be the 22nd anniversary of the September 11 attacks on New York’s twin towers using passenger planes, airbourne terrorism that shook the United States to its core and whose effects rippled around the world for decades. Here, now, we witnessed white roses left on the names of victims etched into the bronze borders of the two reflecting pools honouring and commemorating the 2,753 lives lost, including 343 firefighters and paramedics, 23 police officers and 37 Port Authority officers.
It was a place of solemn contemplation boxed in by shimmering skyscrapers where people worked while outside, visitors like me tried to imagine the visceral horror that took place that catastrophic and seminal day, when one of the worst terrorist attacks in human history occurred, including a strike on the Pentagon and the downing of an aircraft in Pennsylvania that may have been headed for the US Capitol in Washington or the White House.
For others, the mesmerising memorial in New York, with its cascading curtains of water disappearing into an abyss meant to symbolise loss, was just another opportunity for selfies and smiling group photos — a macabre attraction for those with little respect for what had occurred just over two decades earlier.
Shimmering One World Trade Centre has risen, along with other new buildings, like a phoenix, from the destruction and dominates the Manhattan skyline. At 1,776 feet and comprising 104 floors, it’s the tallest building in the United States and has an observation deck at the top (tickets around $50, depending on when you book, online). Off to one side of the complex is a vacant plot with hoarding advertising another new tower in the works.
We continued on, in what would become a nine-hour tour, to the hip Tribeca area, where Dean pointed out celebrity pads such as swish apartments owned by Beyoncé and Robert de Niro; artistic SoHo; boho Greenwich Village; and the Flatiron district, whose eponymous clothes iron-like building was among the first of New York’s skyscrapers, having been completed in 1902.
We ascended 20 floors in a packed lift to the rooftop bar and dining area of the 230 Fifth building, on Fifth Avenue, which was heaving with people drinking in the stunning night-time skyline dominated by the Empire State Building, decked out in American light colours as it was Labor Day weekend. There was no better way to cap this day-long feast for the senses than an exquisite dinner made by Dean, along with succulent Californian wines (Napa and Sonoma Valleys), at his apartment in the upscale Gramercy neighbourhood.
On other days, when we were by ourselves, we went thrifting, at the many used-clothing stores in various parts of Brooklyn — and nabbed some great finds at crazy (good this time) prices — visited the National Museum of the American Indian and wandered around Broadway and then Central Park.
before dining at a disappointing Olive Garden in neon-lined Times Square where the waiter plonked down a big bowl of salad shortly after we sat at our table.
We dipped into the Plaza Hotel, to have a nosy around the lobby of the famed establishment beside Central Park, our shorts and t-shirts making us stand out like an achingly sore thumb among women in elegant evening gowns and men in tuxedos, until a concierge called out to us, “You seem lost”, and we swiftly departed.
A walk along the mile-long Brooklyn Bridge was a highlight, with its expansive and arresting views of Lower Manhattan and out to the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island. Although I couldn’t help wondering what the air quality was like, given that we were walking on top of six lanes of bumper-to-bumper traffic.
The Big Apple’s Tipping (and Salary) Scandal
In the UK, around Europe and elsewhere, including Asia, I tip if I’m happy with the service, whether it’s in a restaurant, bar or taxi, or if it’s someone bringing my bags to my hotel room. It’s a sign of appreciation and it’s not a big deal — nor a lot of money, as I usually leave a couple of pounds or euros. You won’t get away with that in New York, where tipping may be optional but if you decline, or don’t leave enough, you risk the wrath of servers who might chase you down the street in fury.
It’s causing consternation not only among visitors to the country but also Americans themselves.
We dined out in restaurants, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, for lunch and dinner, and we had drinks at bars in both boroughs. I paid with card and after the payment went through, sometimes a second screen popped up asking if I wanted to leave an 18%, 20% or 22% tip. Other times, when I had again paid by card, the wait staff presented a printed receipt and a pen, giving me an opportunity to choose those tip amounts. (Which raises the question: as I’ve already used my card to pay, how are you going to use it again, to charge any tip?) Mostly I tipped 22%, which added around $20 to our bill (or “check”, as I learned to say).
Customers are irked with New York tipping because they feel not only have the expected gratuities become far too large — “tipflation”; it used to be around 10%, locals told me — but that they are effectively supplementing staffs’ famously low salaries.
So why not raise prices by a few dollars, lower the tip-suggestion amounts and everyone’s happy? Only at one place we dined at for lunch, a tasty Mexican in Brooklyn, were the tip suggestions more reasonable: 3% ($1.83), 5% ($3.05) and 7% ($4.27).
Wait staff are so desperate for tips because, it turns out, there is something in America called a “tipped employee”, which essentially means employers can get away with paying their workers hardly anything at all.
“An employer of a tipped employee is only required to pay $2.13 per hour in direct wages if that amount combined with the tips received at least equals the federal minimum wage,” says the US Department of Labor. “If the employee’s tips combined with the employer’s direct wages of at least $2.13 per hour do not equal the federal minimum hourly wage, the employer must make up the difference.”
The federal minimum rate is a paltry $7.25 an hour, and New York is one of the most expensive places I have been to (I realised what “sticker shock” meant when I saw a small packet of frozen peas for $10). It’s nearly half what the hourly minimum wage is in the UK, at the equivalent of $12.91.
Michał Kierul, CEO of technological transformation company INTechHouse, was recently in New York and told me he was “more shocked than enlightened” regarding tipping in the city and the low tipped employee wage.
“This raises an ethical concern: businesses seem to be shifting the onus of paying a fair wage from themselves to the customers. The modus operandi appears to be that establishments can offer laughably low salaries with the expectation that customer tips will bridge the wage gap,” he said.
“Imagine buying an item with a price tag, only to be told at checkout you should contribute towards the store’s rent. The principle remains the same. Companies ought to take responsibility for offering their employees a reasonable wage rather than banking on the unpredictability and largesse of tips.”
As if all that wasn’t enough to contend with while out and trying to enjoy yourself in New York, items subject to sales tax (8.875%) do not include the charge in their display prices, only at point of sale. So it’s definitely a case of shoppers and diners beware.
A Multimillion-Dollar War on Rats
Not since I lived in Jakarta have I seen such a plague of rats in a city. In New York they were everywhere — on sidewalks, in parks and scuttling around the rails of Subway stations, looking for morsels dropped by passengers. A new tourism phenomenon centred around the long-tailed creatures that famously spread disease and were partly responsible for the Great Plague of London that claimed 75,000 lives from 1665 to 1666 has sprung up: rat tours, providing an “authentic” New York experience.
Mayor Adams is not shy about pointing out his dislike of the vermin, which are estimated to be in the 3 million region across New York. Earlier this year he appointed the city’s first “rat czar”, Kathleen Corradi, someone who fit his requirements to be “bloodthirsty”, have a “killer instinct” and could carry out a “wholesale slaughter” of the rodents.
“New Yorkers may not know this about me but I hate rats,” the mayor said in a statement in July, when his administration reported initial progress in its $3.5 million war against the exploding rat population.
“It’s still early, but these numbers show what we’re doing is working and that we are moving in the right direction. Every food scrap that we keep out of the trash and every black bag that we keep off the street is a meal that we’re taking out of a hungry rodent’s stomach. It takes all of us to win the war on rats, so I encourage New Yorkers to keep composting, keep putting your trash in containers, and I hope to see you out there at one of our ‘Anti-Rat Community Days of Action.’”
Broadway actress and New York resident Viveca Chow has experienced the terror of rats in her apartment, from many floors up her building, but has more or less learned to live with them, recognising that they’re part of city life.
“I used to live on a block where there was a terrible rat infestation. I lived on the ninth floor in an elevator building and it got up to my apartment,” she told me. “When you live in New York, rats just kind of become a norm,” she said, adding that she wasn’t especially troubled by them “as long as they don’t touch me — [but] unfortunately they have skedaddled across my feet while I was walking”.
Animal rights group PETA, speaking to the Daily Mail, has blasted the authorities’ rat extermination drive, saying the problem is caused by “disgusting human behaviour”.
“As long as humans are littering and leaving garbage, rats will be there,” campaigner Ashley Byrne said. “You can hire whoever — rats will come and go as they please as long as the streets stay filthy,” she said, describing the rodents as “sensitive and intelligent creatures”.
A Coney Island Surprise
We checked out of our Airbnb at 11am, when the cleaning woman, a cheery young Mexican, arrived, and left our luggage there to collect in the afternoon. Our flight back to London was not until 7pm, so we took the Subway to Coney Island, for a look around the famous New York beach and its 2.7-mile-long, 100-year-old boardwalk.
Coney Island gets its name not from the ubiquitous ice cream cones but from the arriving Dutch in 1624 — it was full of konijn, or rabbits. Back then it was an island but a creek that cut it off was filled in in the last 1920s. Coney Island shares the same boardwalk as more sedate and nearby Brighton Beach, which we passed on the Subway but did not visit.
The kaleidoscopic spectacle of a ferris wheel and other amusements along a big, roasting beach provided immediate relief from the intensity of the concrete jungle that is Manhattan. My son made a beeline for what is arguably Coney Island’s signature product: the humble hot dog.
A total of $5 later, he was tucking into the condiment-laden frankfurter and declared it the best he’d ever had. It seemed we had embarked on a culinary journey — although, sadly, there were no vegan hot dogs — because, after a quick meander down the beach and a touch of the Atlantic Ocean, which was warm, we were queuing up for ice cream. Lots of people were already supping big beers at a bar beside the ice cream shop, and I wandered over and asked for what everyone else was having. “That will be $14,” the barwoman said, plonking my towering brew down. I told her I wouldn’t be leaving a tip.
We sat at umbrella-shaded chairs in front of the bar, my kids with their fast-melting ice creams and me with my frothy beer, and took in the vista. Our indulgent reverie was short-lived, however — disturbed by a dishevelled, slurring man seeking cash. When he didn’t get any, he became physically threatening, an act that prompted two nearby officers to come over and deal with him.
With the marauding menace out of the way, and arguing with the cops, another took his place and asked if I would give him the rest of my beer.
The children rode the 150-feet-tall Wonder Wheel — an official New York Landmark and $20 for two rotations, with a choice of stationary or stomach-churning swinging gondolas — “nervous but great views”, they said.
The leisure area may get a boost, if not an outright transformation, if a $3 billion casino planned by a consortium including Native American tribe Chickasaw Nation gets approval. Called The Coney, the gambling establishment would, says the group, turn Coney Island from a seasonal destination to a year-round attraction. But in a public consultation period, locals voiced concerns about an increase in problems related to alcohol, drugs and crime, as well as a possible rise in rents.
“We’re bringing a rich entertainment experience and a deep commitment to community to the shores of Coney Island in Brooklyn,” the casino company says on its website. “It will be a new kind of casino and entertainment district: one to be New York’s new beacon of economic opportunity.”
A Sinking Feeling
A thunder-and-lightning storm erupted over New York on our final afternoon, which we again spent thrifting in Brooklyn — score: me, two items; kids, nothing — and, peering out at the dank, drizzly sky from a store, I wondered how it would be to live here during inhospitable weather, of which New York gets its fair share, including cataclysmic snow storms in the winter.
We went for happy hour drinks at a nearby, trendy bar and resto, which turned out less than convivial given the small servings and big bill (including 22% tip) and then went across the street to a pizzeria where I had earlier suggested my son get a slice. I waited outside, in the rain, while they queued up inside, and when they came out, I declared — in a frazzled New York State of Mind — that I didn’t feel like walking around the city for much longer and getting soaked, or for them to get wetter either.
My forceful delivery, coupled with an additional commentary about not being entirely happy about clothes shopping two afternoons in a row during a highly pricey trip to NYC, did not go down at all well. But we recovered and went out to dinner at a Spanish restaurant in Brooklyn (almost $200, including 22% tip) and took the train into Manhattan for a final look around and to buy I 🖤 New York t-shirts.
So what is the allure of New York? There are only so many, and frankly bland, big buildings to gawp at, and while they may be engineering marvels, I’d rather gaze at spectacular nature and its much more incredible designs. After all, what’s so special about office space?
There’s so much squeezed into the place — over 1 million buildings in five boroughs collectively weighing 1.68 trillion pounds — along with its almost 8.5 million people, that it’s sinking under its massive weight, at a rate of up to 2 mm per year. If they add any more, will it just one day implode into the Atlantic Ocean?
“As long as the terms ‘neurotic,’ or ‘high strung,’ or ‘nervous breakdown’ have been around, they have been inextricably linked with this city,” wrote journalist Paula Froelich, in an Observer piece titled The Neuroses of New York that references a Cambridge University study revealing New Yorkers as “the most neurotic and unfriendly people” in the US. Space, or the lack of it, in a building-dense environment is offered as one of the reasons for residents’ apparent nuttiness.
I’d add the high cost of living, including all that insane tipping, that turns life in the Big Apple into the ultimate rat race as people struggle to keep their heads above water and pay the rent. Give me chill Los Angeles any day.
Our drive back to JFK was long and clogged with slow-moving traffic, causing us to miss our “appointment” with border control so we could avoid the lines. But no one checked that we had been screened, and we breezed through the fast lane. We went to a heaving Spanish bar and I ended up paying over $60 for two small glasses of house wine.
I was glad to escape the insanity.
- Title image, of Brooklyn Bridge, by William J. Furney.