As a New Yorker abroad, I am frequently reminded that New York has a reputation for being tough on tourists. But a little New York inside knowledge goes a long way to easing your way through the city’s mean streets, both literal and metaphorical. If you also want to swan around New York like a local, read on!
Our Streets Are Our Highways
Most of 8.5 million inhabitants of New York and the millions commuting in take trains, then walk the rest of the way. They move fast because they’ve got places to be, and the sidewalks are crowded because there’s not enough sidewalk for everyone who needs it. Not for the workers, much less for the vacationers. Think of foot traffic in New York like car traffic everywhere else. You wouldn’t stop suddenly or veer around in your lane or change directions without looking while driving. Don’t do it walking around New York and you won’t get cursed out or covered in hot coffee. Probably.
Check Out the Sights Out of Traffic
For a city with a reputation for grittiness, New York sure has a lot of amazing sights. Feel free to check them out, but don’t do it in traffic. I mean seriously. The best place to look is from the far side of the sidewalk across the street. If you can’t cross the street, stand on the curb, out of the way of the aforementioned pedestrians and out of the way of the cars and bikes that speed through the streets.
Green Lanes Are Bike Lanes
New Yorkers are just as culpable as tourists on this one, but it’s still an important safety tip. Some of the bike lanes run adjacent to the curb, some run next to traffic, some are alongside walking paths, but all of them are stupid places to stand. A bike may move slower than a car, but commuters can still go up to 20 mph (32 km/h), with bike messengers going even faster. Treat the bike lane like a car lane: don’t walk in it and look both ways before stepping into it.
When you walk down the street or ride a train, you’ll notice people’s eyes slide right off you. It may feel rude, but it’s actually how New Yorkers act polite. On any given day, there are more than 30 million people in the city, many of them squeezed into Manhattan’s 36 square miles (59 km2). More than 27,000 people walk on just two blocks of Fifth Avenue during an average weekday morning, for example. We avoid eye contact to give each other some measure of ‘public privacy’. It’s also a good way to identify the crazies, as they’re the only one besides tourists who are looking other pedestrians or passengers in the eye.
No Time for Small Talk
A polite cashier or attendant will ring you up with no attempt at small talk. In addition to offering the ‘public privacy’ described in the previous paragraph, a New Yorker going about their normal lives will interact with hundreds of people in a single day. It’s a courtesy to the customer not to force an interaction and a kindness to the cashier, whose daily interactions could number well into the thousands. I’m a people-person who’s been described as ‘bubbly’ and I lasted one day in retail. Smile, say please and thank you, but don’t make them chitchat about the weather.
Bartenders and Waitstaff
The good news: bartenders and waitstaff will be really friendly to you. The bad news: they depend on your tips for their income. It’s not that they don’t actually like you, it’s just that rent needs to get paid. Servers in a US restaurant are paid almost nothing and count on tips. It’s unfair and a lot of people don’t like it, but it’s what you’re agreeing to by ordering. What does that mean? At a restaurant, you should tip at least 20% of the bill. At a bar, you should leave $2 per drink on the bar at the start of the evening, although after a couple rounds you can probably go down to $1 per drink. You can be friendly with your server or bartender, but know that they’re not hitting on you. Every server has a book’s worth of stories about handsy customers that didn’t tip. Don’t add a chapter!
Times Square has changed its look, but it’s still home to hustlers and thieves. Currently, the popular grift is to dress up as a superhero or cartoon character and offer to take a picture with tourists. After the picture is taken, they will demand $20 with the threat of violence. Some even follow people who refuse to pay! Worse, there have been reports of costumed characters partnering with a pickpocket who steals the recently returned wallet as the character says goodbye. Even if you can’t stay away from Times Square, steer clear of the characters.