New York in February

 

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I don’t recommend going to New York in February. Unless you want to get insanely good deals on hotel rooms. And see pretty much anything on Broadway for half price.

A few weeks ago, knowing the weather could be really ugly and the whole trip might collapse, Dave and I bravely reserved a non-refundable flight and non-refundable hotel stay in New York for Feb. 6-10. Two weeks before we went, the city received a huge amount of snow that effectively shut the place down. But by our scheduled flight time, the forecast was reasonable: highs in the upper 30s and low 40s, with a slight chance of snow. Being hearty upper Midwesterners, we could certainly deal with that.

I have been to New York 20 times. I seriously do not recommend a trip in February for someone who has never been before, because there are just so many outdoor things you’ll want to do. Go in May! Go in October! These are wonderful months in New York. We just wanted to see as many Broadway shows as humanly possible in four days, and squeeze in a couple of museums. So we figured the cold really wouldn’t bother us. (And, again, our hotel room was SO CHEAP, we couldn’t resist.)

We arrived in the city on Saturday around noon after a weird flight from Washington, D.C. (our plane took off, then turned back around and landed again in D.C., but everything turned out OK). After a quick taxi ride into Manhattan, we checked into the Park Central hotel at Seventh Ave. between 55th and 56th Streets. We’ve stayed at this hotel many times. It’s a great location: near Central Park and just close enough to Times Square to make it easy to walk to and from shows but not be in the middle of that mess.

Our goal was to buy all our show tickets at the TKTS booth. We’d been stalking the TKTS website and app for weeks, so we had a pretty good idea what shows would be available and for what discount. Broadway tickets have become ridiculously expensive, so this is really the best way to get tickets, especially if you’re not set on seeing the hottest show in town and have time to stand in line.

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When we left the hotel, the TKTS line wasn’t open yet, so we trotted down to Bryant Park (42nd St. at Sixth Ave.) to watch the ice skaters (above). That took about 10 minutes, so we continued on to the main New York Public Library and then down to Grand Central Terminal (below), both of which have amazing architecture.

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By then the booth was open and the line was very long. We had a number of shows we wanted to see, and as we were standing in line we figured out our top choices and what days we’d go to see each one. Our choice for tonight: “Something Rotten!” at a cool 50% off.

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After buying tickets, we had time to have a drink, change our clothes, and eat dinner before the show. We had good seats but they weren’t together, so we sat with strangers and then got back together at intermission. We both loved this show. The premise is silly: It’s a send-up of both Shakespeare and Broadway musicals. But the original cast is still intact, and they’re wonderfully funny and talented and the show is clever and hilarious. Such a great choice!

Sunday morning, Dave went off to some National Park historic site that I didn’t care about (he’s still obsessed with visiting all 400-plus National Park sites before he dies). I preferred to sleep in and eat a leisurely breakfast. At 11 a.m. I went to Times Square to stand in the TKTS line for our matinee show. We had decided to see “Misery” with Laurie Metcalf (whom I love) and Bruce Willis (whom I really can’t stand). Dave and I are both big Stephen King fans, and although this probably wasn’t one of his best books, we thought it would be fun to see it on stage. I also love the idea of seeing a big star once in awhile, because, well, why not?

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Before the show started, we killed some time at Macy’s (34th St. between Sixth and Seventh Aves.). That store has undergone a huge renovation…I remember reading that it cost something like $400 million, but don’t quote me on that. Anyway, the frustrating thing about Macy’s big Herald Square flagship store is that it’s just too huge. But the fun thing is that it’s got everything from really high-end merchandise that’s fun to drool over but also stuff you can actually afford. I bought three blouses for less than $75 total, and one was an Ann Klein originally marked $100.

The line for “Misery” was ridiculously long, but we finally got to our seats (not bad for 40% off) and really enjoyed the show. I was a bit star-struck by seeing Laurie Metcalf live on stage. The play was true to the book and the 1990 film that starred Kathy Bates and James Caan. The plot in a nutshell: Famous artist crashes his car in a snowstorm and gets rescued by his biggest fan, who happens to be bat-crap crazy and imprisons him in her home. I loved the revolving set and Metcalf’s performance. Willis was smirking and wooden, as I expected. But when he walked out (with a cane) at the end, after his character was nearly demolished by his captor, everyone went crazy.

As soon as the show was over, we went right back to the TKTS line – because it’s Sunday and there are evening shows to see! The choices on Sunday night are generally not as large as most other nights, and there were even fewer options on this particular Sunday. This was a surprise and a disappointment. We guessed this was because it was Super Bowl Sunday, but we never really knew for sure. We were hoping to get tickets to see the new staging of “The Color Purple” with Jennifer Hudson, but it wasn’t showing. We ended up scoring half-price tickets to “Allegiance” – one of the shows we really wanted to see anyway.

Once we had tickets in hand, we went back to our hotel to drop off our Macy’s bag and then stopped and ate big slices of Ray’s Pizza for dinner. We still had time to kill after that, so we went into a sports bar on Seventh Ave. called Tonic. This is a bar that I’ve been in before, because it’s kind of an Iowa State fan gathering place when the Cyclones are playing in a bowl game or NCAA tournament or whatever. We were lucky to get a seat, what with the Super Bowl and all, and it was crazy loud but had a good selection of beers. We availed ourselves of a couple of them before heading to the show.

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“Allegiance” tells the story of a Japanese-American family and their friends during World War II when, after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, many Japanese Americans were sent to internment camps. This was a lovely musical starring Lea Salonga (one of my favorite Broadway performers, who starred in the original “Miss Saigon” cast) and George Takei, whose own childhood experience was the inspiration for the show.

This is a serious subject, and I love shows that tackle serious subjects. Two of my favorite shows are “Miss Saigon” and “Next to Normal” – both heartbreakingly tragic. “Allegiance” didn’t rise to the level of those two shows for me, but it was beautifully done and very moving.

So Sunday was a very satisfying, theatre-filled day.

Monday was a big walking day, and it was also the day it snowed. Undeterred, we bundled up and headed up Broadway to one of my favorite places in all the world: Zabar’s. If you’re unfamiliar with this place, it’s a grocery store that’s been in New York for like 80 years. And, really, “grocery store” doesn’t begin to describe the wonderfulness that is Zabar’s. The cheese cases are the best I’ve ever seen in this country. And there’s the bakery, with the best New York bagels and the best Jewish rye and about a gazillion other kinds of bread. It’s just glorious.

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There’s also a very small café where you can eat breakfast, and that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve actually been trying to eat really healthy lately, and bagels and cream cheese are technically not all that good for you. But I figured that if you walk 24 blocks in the snow you can eat whatever the hell you want. So I ordered a toasted sesame-seed bagel with cream cheese and a latte and it was the best, yummiest breakfast ever. I also bought a black and white cookie and a loaf of rye bread for later, and the whole experience made me very, very happy.

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From Zabar’s (Broadway at 80th on the Upper West Side) we walked through the snow to 96th Street and over to Central Park. By this time the snow was heavy and sticking to the grass. So the park was pretty (see the photo at top), but I was cold and wet. We walked to 103rd and Fifth Ave. to the City Museum of New York.

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I was really excited to have time to go to this museum because I hadn’t been there before. But I was disappointed. The best thing about it was a short multimedia presentation about how the city was built. But this is a city with such an amazing history and culture, and I didn’t think the museum captured that at all. Current displays feature the NYC Marathon, portraits of rich people from 1700-1860, the artwork of former graffiti artist Chris “Daze” Ellis, and Jacob Riis photos of poverty in the Lower East Side tenements at the turn of the last century (those are pretty cool). But I wanted more. I actually enjoyed the displays in the stairwells (below) as much as anything in the museum.

 

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By now the snow had stopped, and it was just cold. We meandered down Madison Ave., gazing into the windows of clothing shops I could not afford.

I think the cold made me hungry, because I was suddenly ready for more food. We stopped at E.A.T. deli and restaurant around the corner from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s pricey, but I like the food and love the atmosphere. I’ve eaten here a couple of times before. Today I ordered a bowl of overpriced Mediterranean vegetable soup and munched on slices of raisin bread that comes in an overflowing breadbasket. Afterward, we split a piece of New York-style cheesecake. Yum.

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At this point we were still around 80th St. and we had to get to 45th. It’s a long walk, but it went fast. We stopped at Rockefeller Center (above) to watch the ice skaters and jostle with the tourists a bit, and then we headed to the TKTS line to buy tickets to our Monday night show.

Monday night is the worst night to see a Broadway show, because this is the night that most theaters are “dark” (A.K.A. closed). I get this, because everyone needs a day off, but it doesn’t leave Broadway lovers much to choose from. We had decided in advance to get tickets to an off-Broadway show instead. These tend to run on Monday nights. I did some research and found “an exquisite gem of a musical” called “Daddy Long Legs.” We scored really reasonable half-price tickets and headed back to the hotel to warm up for a few hours.

Off-Broadway theaters are smaller than Broadway theaters, and often times they’re located in different parts of the city. Ours, the Davenport, was very near the theatre district between Eighth and Ninth Aves. But it had no fancy marquee, and it was so small I was nearly upon it before I saw it. Inside, the front of house was so small and dreary that I imagined a sad-faced photo of me there with the words “Desperate for Theatre” underneath. This place was awful. I had to take an elevator, which made scary noises, upstairs to the ladies room, which was about 130 degrees with poorly flushing toilets and sinks that produced no water. Ick! But once the house opened up and we went in, things improved. The set was like a big library of floor-to-ceiling books, and the tiny theater was very warm and cozy and intimate, with only about 100 seats.

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And the show! “Daddy Long Legs” is based on a 1911 novel by Jean Webster. Directed by John Caird, the original director of “Les Miserables,” the show features just two cast members: the orphan girl Jerusha and her secret philanthropist Jervis. The story unfolds mostly through a series of letters written by Jerusha as she enters college and a brand new, eye-opening world. It’s a coming-of-age story; it’s a love story; it’s charming and beautiful and sweet and sad and clever and absolutely delightful – I highly recommend it if you ever get a chance to see it. It was the unexpected highlight of our trip.

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So that was Monday. Tuesday morning we hopped a subway train downtown to the World Trade Center. I’d seen the outdoor 9-11 memorial (above) on a previous trip, but neither of us had been to the 9-11 Memorial Museum, so that was our goal for the morning. But first, we stopped at a quintessential New York counter-service deli for breakfast. It was SO New York, with lots of yelling of orders behind the counter, and close to 100 percent of the customers (besides us) were construction workers from the still-growing World Trade Center area. I ate another bagel, though it wasn’t nearly as good as Zabar’s.

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The 9-11 museum is pricey ($24 for adults) but so worth it. I remember a lot of controversy over the content of this museum, and took a very long time for it to open. But it’s a thorough telling of the events of Sept. 11, 2001 as well as what transpired before that day and since. It’s both heartbreaking and hopeful.

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From that museum in Lower Manhattan, we walked to a National Park historic site called the African Burial Ground National Monument. From the 1690s until 1794, both free and enslaved Africans were buried in a 6.6-acre burial ground that became lost to history due to development until it was rediscovered in 1991 during the construction of a federal office building. The museum (see two displays above) is well maintained, small, and very interesting. And Dave gets to check off another National Park site.

I’m not sure if I mentioned that Tuesday was very cold, but at least it was dry. After the museum, we walked quickly to Little Italy, where we found a warm, cozy restaurant in which to dine. Little Italy’s Mulberry Street is lined with restaurants on both sides, and during the warmer months, you can eat outside and it’s just delightful. In the winter, the outdoor atmosphere is quite different, but the food is no less terrific – and very affordable. I ordered cheese manicotti and a glass of red wine.

From Little Italy we followed the subway map to a station at Spring St. and Broadway that had a train that would take us directly to Times Square, where we stood in the TKTS line one last time. Our show of choice tonight: “Fun Home,” winner of the 2015 Tony Award for best musical.

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“Fun Home” is performed in the round at Circle in the Square theater. It tells the story of Alison Bechdel’s life growing up as an in-the-closet lesbian living in her father’s funeral home (which the kids refer to as the “fun home.”) It’s a funny but also a sad and tragic story that’s told in a very non-linear fashion, bouncing from Alison’s childhood to her college years to current day. Alison is portrayed by three separate actresses, at times together on the stage at the same time. (There’s even an Iowa connection.) I thought it was a wonderful story, and our seats were fantastic. Actually, I don’t think there is a bad seat in that theater.

Thus ended our five-shows-in-four-days New York extravaganza, with bonus visits to Zabar’s and the 9-11 Memorial Museum. My hunger for New York is satisfied, at least for a little while.

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