Barry Divola accepts the challenge to do New York on $50 a day...
When my editor calls to say I’m off to New York, I start to envisage the luxury that will entail. After all, this is Qantas, surely no expense will be spared, right?
Not so fast, Sunshine.
“We want you to spend an entire day in Manhattan spending no more than 50 American dollars,” he says. “That includes everything – food, drinks, sightseeing, entertainment and experiences.”
He then issues a set of guidelines:
- Be inventive and find ways to experience all the city has to offer.
- Accommodation for the night is covered.
- So is train travel, but keep that to two or three trips.
- You have to tip for almost everything in New York but this won’t come out of the US$50 (about $70).
A month later I touch down at JFK with a greenback bearing a picture of Ulysses S. Grant, the 18th US president, burning a hole in my pocket. Here’s how the day goes...
As I’m staying in DUMBO, on the Brooklyn side of the East River, I decide to get up at dawn to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and enter Manhattan a conquering hero, spending nothing while getting the most amazing view of what is, in my opinion, the best city on earth.
On weekends, more than 30,000 people a day cross the overpass on foot or bicycle along an elevated timber walkway. But it’s not crowded this early in the morning as I watch the sun climb through the bridge’s steel cables. I emerge on the other side at City Hall Park and jump on the subway to take the 6 train uptown.
Every quest needs a Yoda. A kind of guide if you will, someone offering our hero advice and pushing him towards adventure. And my Yoda is Seth Kugel, who wrote The Frugal Traveler column in The New York Times from 2010 to 2016. Kugel’s job was to stretch his travel dollar as far as it could go.
We meet at Eisenberg’s Sandwich Shop, an old-school eatery in the Flatiron District that bears the slogan “Raising New York’s cholesterol since 1929”. While we pick at our delicious breakfast sandwiches, I pick Kugel’s brain. What did writing the column for six years teach him? “It forced me to have a better time,” he says. “Spending a lot of money when you travel often isolates you.”
He offers these tips:
- “The best piece of advice I ever got about New York is, ‘Don’t forget to look up.’ There are so many amazing buildings. Take the time to really notice them.”
- “There is a misconception New Yorkers are rude. People are generally chatty when you talk to them, especially in parks and public places. And parks have musicians and performers all the time.”
- “You won’t be going to the ballet with $50 but a lot of great things in New York don’t cost anything.”
- “Don’t nickel-and-dime things that only cost a few dollars. And don’t buy $1 pizza slices. They use the cheapest ingredients and the cheapest labour and it’s just the wrong way to do things in New York.”
Breakfast sandwich $6.00
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After traversing West 23rd Street and passing the infamous Chelsea Hotel, where the likes of Arthur Miller, Leonard Cohen and Sid Vicious have lived, I arrive at my next destination – 2.3 kilometres of disused elevated railway track.
Okay, that doesn’t sound promising but the High Line is a great example of: a) New York transforming something old and obsolete into an attraction; and b) New York offering something for free.
Developed over three stages and four years, between 2009 and 2014, this urban park and walkway stretches more than 20 blocks. It’s an excellent way to wander the West Side of Manhattan, while enjoying great views, with plenty of timber benches, grassy areas, lookouts and ice-cream and coffee carts dotting its length.
Time for lunch at Chelsea Market, a bustling centre that takes up a whole city block and is crammed with food outlets, along with a bookstore and an upscale flea market.
I pick and choose my way around, stopping wherever my stomach takes me. Consequently, I spend a bit more than planned. I have a Japanese-inspired taco at Takumi Taco and then succumb to half-a-dozen mini doughnuts at Doughnuttery and a coffee at Ninth Street Espresso. I find a seat and watch the passing parade of hungry marketeers as I chow down.
I jump on a 1 train and get off at Columbus Circle. Then I stroll around Central Park listening to Whoopi Goldberg telling me she learnt to ice-skate on Wollman Rink, Julia Louis-Dreyfus making jokes about Beau Bridges as I stand on Bow Bridge and Yoko Ono explaining the history of Strawberry Fields, the mosaic and garden created in memory of her late husband.
Alright, they’re not actually here in the flesh. But thanks to the Celebrity Audio Guide I have all these famous people and quite a few others whispering sweet somethings straight from my phone.
I walk out of the park and head south to The Museum of Modern Art. Admission is $25 but on Fridays from 4pm entry is free. It gets crowded but MoMA is always packed so after waiting in line I race to the fifth floor as soon as I’m inside. Walls full of artistic riches await – Matisse, Monet, Picasso, Pollock among them.
Later I head to the relative peace and quiet of the museum’s Sculpture Garden to sit down and do a bit of sketching myself. With so many people in repose, drinking coffee, chatting or scrolling through their phones, I have my own collection of still-life models right in front of me.
SEE ALSO: Check out our reviews of two of Brooklyn’s best hotels – The Hoxton and 1 Hotel Brooklyn Bridge.
“You need to find a rooftop bar to have a drink,” my editor had also stipulated.
Was he kidding? Doesn’t he know that drinking alcohol on top of a building in Manhattan immediately doubles the price?
But after doing some research I discover that the 230 Fifth Rooftop Bar, close to Madison Square Park, has a happy hour from 2pm to 7pm on weekdays.
The place is buzzing at 6pm. It’s the United Nations of rooftop bars; I meet a Spanish couple on their first trip to the city, a Korean family who ask me to take a photo of them with the Empire State Building looming in the background and a bachelorette party from New Jersey on the first stop of what will be a long and messy night for the entourage.
The best bit? My beer costs only $6. Not cheap at ground level but a steal up here on the 20th floor.
Cost (beer) $6.00
A brisk 10-minute walk downtown and I arrive at the multi-level Barnes & Noble bookstore on Union Square just in time to see comic-book artist Alex Ross and legendary designer Chip Kidd take the stage to discuss their new book, Marvelocity: The Marvel Comics Art of Alex Ross.
There are free author talks every week all across the city. Over the years I’ve seen many of my favourite writers – including Joan Didion, Nick Hornby and Gay Talese – speak about and read from their work.
I feel like dumplings. There are a bunch of great places around the nearby East Village so I head that way and find Mimi Cheng’s Dumplings, a cheap and cheerful joint on Second Avenue.
I order The 50/50: three of their signature chicken and zucchini and three “reinvented classics”, packed with pork, baby bok choy and cabbage.
Cost (dumplings) $10.25
I zigzag west to Washington Square Park. At night it looks like it’s out of a picture book – tree-lined paths, old-style lampposts and that classic view uptown through the square’s iconic stone arch.
The place is hopping. A jazz trio plays the loveliest version of Summertime. A young magician has kids giggling as he makes small foam balls appear behind their ears. A very tall guy delivering rhymes into his microphone stands next to a sign that reads, “Six-foot-seven-inch Jew will freestyle rap for you.”
And there’s a handful of 20-somethings carrying Free Hugs signs. I’ll take anything for free today, which is how I end up in the arms of a dreadlocked dude named Josh.
I tell him about my $50 challenge and he suggests I go dumpster diving. I tell him I’m not going quite that far.
“I live out in Brownsville [Brooklyn], which used to be the murder capital of New York,” he says. “It’s better now but my rent is $900 a month and that’s sharing with three other people. Hugs are free in New York but rent isn’t.”
I arrive at The Lantern Comedy Club in Bleecker Street with a ticket in my hand. My free ticket, that is. Search online (good sites include timeout.com or thrillist.com) and you can find any number of gratis events across the city, all for the taking if you can RSVP in time. I descend into a small back room to watch six very funny comedians dissect love and life in New York. As in many places where the entertainment is free, there’s a one-drink minimum.
Cost (beer) $7.00
Is it possible that my stomach’s rumbling again? It is. I hear the voice of Seth Kugel in my ear warning me off the $1 pizza slice but I remember he did recommend Rosario’s Pizza (173 Orchard Street; +1 212 777 9813) on the Lower East Side. Their cheese slices are more than a dollar – they’re $2. And I can report that they hit the spot.
Cost (pizza slice) $2.00
My last stop is for music. Rockwood Music Hall has three performance spaces and the smallest is a free-admission bar with different acts playing a set every hour throughout the night. I shoehorn my way in and get talking to a bearded guy in a Western shirt. He tells me his friends are playing in the next band, What Would Tilda Swinton Do. With a name like that, I simply have to stay.
The guy asks me what I’m doing in New York and I tell him. Then he asks why I’m not drinking. I explain that I’ve spent my $50. Well, I have $1.84 left but that’s not going to get me anything.
“But it’s after midnight, man!” he says. “Your day’s over! It’s tomorrow!”
He’s right – I’m off the clock. I buy us both beers. What Would Tilda Swinton Do come on stage and we raise our glasses to a new day, one where I can spend more than $50.
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