New York, unplugged. Four days, one megalopolis and no smartphone to guide you. Jennie Noonan goes offline with her tech-dependent teen and finds connection IRL.
The cab driver glances at me in his rear-view mirror. “Do you want Times Square in Brooklyn or Times Square on Long Island?” he asks.
“Nice try,” I counter, after a beat of confusion.
He winks and breaks into a throaty chuckle. He’s teasing, of course, but not so long ago he might have got me. It’s been 25 years since my last visit to New York City and back then, travelling with my parents who were born and raised on Staten Island, the trip was an exercise in nostalgia. We visited their friends and hit up old haunts; sightseeing was for tourists. I followed along without absorbing any sense of the city.
Now, with my own teenager in tow, I’m keen to marry insider intel with a first-timer’s sense of adventure. The plan? We’re going old-school, ditching technology – no smartphones, no social media, no Google Maps, no Yelp, no Siri, just one disposable camera. We’ll rely on recommendations from locals and our wits. We’ll live in the moment and connect with the community by sidestepping over-hyped hotspots and Instagram photo-ops. No apps, just paper maps. “I know the city,” my 16-year-old reassures me in the cab from the airport. “It’s in every Spider-Man video game.”
Within minutes of our evening arrival in the foyer of the boutique Wall Street Hotel, I tell the two friendly gentlemen who welcome us about our planned offline adventure. “I love it,” says the desk clerk. “Seeing everyone glued to their phones on the subway makes me want to unplug from everything and move to Maine. Or at least pull out a book.” I mention that we also hope to eat as much New York pizza as possible. “I gotch you,” says the doorman. “Joe’s [Pizza] in Greenwich Village. I don’t know if they sprinkle it with something illegal or what, but I can’t get enough.”
We brave the subway for the first time the following day and head for Times Square. I’m floored by how much my kid takes the lead, securing us MetroCards from the machine and identifying the line we need with unearned confidence. Fifteen minutes and six stops later we’re ducking and weaving past several Spider-Men, a Cookie Monster and other street artists, hoping to snare last-minute tickets for a Broadway show at the Theatre Development Fund’s TKTS Booth. We join the queue under the ruby-red steps, eagerly accepting flyers from spruikers and, unable to distract ourselves with a phone, get chatting to a woman in line.
She’s lived in New York her whole life and in our 15 minutes together, I learn she has two daughters (one completed a semester of college in Sydney) and a golden retriever and used to work in the sales department of a TV network. I fill her in on our low-tech mission. “Oh, gawd, that’s wonderful. The only way to see New York,” she gushes. “Whenever I read guides online about what to do here, they’re filled with nonsense.” She lives near Central Park and insists I grab a pen to write down walking directions and her must-see highlights.
By the time we reach the ticket window, I tell the attendant we’re tossing up between Beetlejuice and Little Shop of Horrors. “You vaccinated?” he barks. I nod and he hands me two tickets. “Little Shop. Tonight. Front-row centre.”
In the hours before we’re seated arm’s length from a giant Audrey II puppet at the Westside Theatre, we try to interpret my scrawled directions to Central Park. We end up a few blocks off course but chance by Cassiano’s Pizza to try our first slices of the trip. “Oh, no!” is my kid’s first response. “How am I supposed to go back to eating regular pizza after this?”
We spend about 40 minutes people-watching and wandering from map to map around the park until exhaustion drives us to hail a pedicab rickshaw. The driver blares Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind from a hanging speaker as he pedals us around. It’s the kind of New York moment you could never orchestrate and it thrills me that we’re both undistracted by our devices. “Now this really feels like we’re in a movie,” concludes my travel buddy.
Wary of getting lost again, we take a taxi back to Times Square and grab another slice from Famous Original Ray’s Pizza. “Unbelievable,” the kid mumbles, “but I don’t think we can top the last one.” Then it’s the same subway line back to our oasis on Wall Street to freshen up before our night out. I can see Brooklyn across the East River from our suite so when we break out a map at our table in the hotel’s elegant French brasserie, La Marchande, we hatch a plan (between bites of Ōra king salmon and Carolina shrimp with smoky cocktail sauce) to hit up the Brooklyn Museum the next day.
Jet lag wakes us early, still humming Suddenly Seymour from the knock-out show. We catch the subway again, this time to the handily named Eastern Parkway-Brooklyn Museum stop. While my tech-free anxiety stems from a terrible sense of direction, my teenager seems most twitchy when passing the time in quiet moments, hands darting for an invisible phone like a phantom limb. I’m nervous that we haven’t booked ahead online and when we arrive just as the doors open I’m thrilled to score two of the limited same-day tickets. We take our time exploring five floors of eclectic exhibits ranging from ancient Egyptian artefacts to contemporary paintings and sculptures. Ordinarily I’d be third-wheeling around the museum while my teen chats with friends on social media or Googles to learn more about what we’re seeing. “It’s kind of relaxing to wander and just wonder,” they note, reading my mind.
Back in Manhattan by mid-afternoon, we take turns stopping every couple of blocks to ask for directions to Rockefeller Plaza. We know it when we see it from TV shows and movies and stroll through the line to buy tickets for Top of the Rock, three levels of indoor and outdoor observation decks 70 floors up. “Is it always this empty or did we just get lucky?” I ask our guide as we step into the elevator. “Oh, it’s never like this. You nailed it,” he answers. “You never know your luck in the big city.”
SEE ALSO: 26 New Ways to Experience New York
Foiled by QR codes that offer sightseeing insights, I sidle up to a security guard who happily points out the Chrysler Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square and the Statue of Liberty, far off in the distance. “If you want to see her up close,” she says, “ride the Staten Island Ferry.” On the way back to our digs, we get properly lost for the first time, darting and doubling back between hellishly hot subway terminals. When we finally make it downtown, we race to the Whitehall Terminal to snag a standing-room spot on the packed commuter ferry, cruising past Lady Liberty on the last ride before sunset.
Over breakfast at the hotel, our waiter recommends we check out the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) but first we focus on more pressing pursuits: the doorman-recommended Joe’s Pizza. We’re early and kill time waiting for the ovens to fire up by gawking at the celebrity photos on the wall – Leonardo DiCaprio, Bradley Cooper, Bill Murray, Anne Hathaway. Taking our piping-hot slices to go, we sit on a bench in nearby Washington Square Park and are entertained by a shirtless jazz quartet clashing with a man busking on a grand piano.
MoMA offers more mind-expanding stimulation. On the second floor of The David Geffen Wing is an exhibition called Search Engines, a collection of artworks responding to the way technology shapes our reality. “The ability to search for anything instantly has profoundly changed the way in which we navigate the world and share information,” I read on a plaque on the wall.
On our last morning in the city, we walk to the World Trade Center Memorial. I find the name of my dad’s second cousin inscribed in a bronze panel around one of the two enormous reflecting pools where the Twin Towers once stood. He was working at Cantor Fitzgerald in the North Tower when the planes hit. I only met him once when I was about 10 but I have a vivid image of him on the dance floor at a wedding reception at the Waldorf Astoria. Most of my memories from that 1988 trip are hazy – the famous toy store FAO Schwarz, the stiff, purple taffeta dress I wore to the ceremony at St. Patrick’s Cathedral – but I recall feeling frightened when my father gripped my hand and warned me to “not make eye contact” with anyone as we barrelled along the crowded sidewalk. Statistically and anecdotally, the city has become a safer and friendlier place since then and it dawns on me that I’ve spent the past few days encouraging my kid to talk to strangers.
Checking out of the hotel, I tell the doorman how much we loved Joe’s Pizza. “I told you. But you also need to try John’s Pizzeria on Bleecker Street. You have to buy a whole pie but it’s worth it,” he says. “Next time,” I say – and mean it.