“Ok, I live in Harlem, “ said my friend Fanny over Facebook Messenger. (Her name is not actually Fanny, but I will forever remember her as the person that introduced me to “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”)
“Take the A Uptown from JFK to 168th,” she continued, “it’s eight blocks, so if you’ve got a lot of luggage, hail a cab."
I did not know what any of those words meant.
My first solo trips to New York City after college were a massive learning experience. I was a SoCal girl through and through, not accustomed to public transit, walking cultures, or weather. To save you from some of the painful and awkward mistakes I made, I’ve compiled a two-part ‘how to’ guide for LA actors navigating the Big Apple for the first time.
Your First Arrival: You have two options once your plane lands. If you’re brave, not too exhausted, and can easily navigate through a crowd with your luggage, take the airport tram to Jamaica Station, and then the A-train (Red Line) Uptown. That will get you away from the airport and towards most places you need to go. (For further instruction, see the info below on subway maps). If you’ve got a lot with you, take a yellow cab (more on that later) from JFK or LGA. NYC licensed taxi cabs will take you to Manhattan for a flat rate, plus tolls.
More about The Subway: The New York public transit system is a semi-efficient, noisy, overheated, fickle beast that you must learn to conquer if you want to have any hope of feeling comfortable in the City. Download a New York Metro map app before you arrive and familiarize yourself with it. My favorite is MapWay, which gives you a map to reference, and lets you plan subway routes based on the cross streets of your origin and destination. Note: you will lose service in most underground stations, so plan your route before you get to the subway platform! When boarding the train, be sure you're on the uptown or downtown side of the platform, depending on where you need to go. That's a mistake even locals make.
The doors are fast. You need to know the stop that comes before your stop, so that you can arrange yourself and move towards the door if necessary, especially if you have luggage. Don’t wait until your stop is called, then wriggle hopelessly with your two suitcases through a crowded subway car, only to watch the doors slam in your face.
The metro system has overhead signs to point you in the direction of your connecting train and even which street corner you want to emerge onto when you come up from underground. These signs are your best friends. Don’t be afraid to reference them often.
Also, don’t panic. If you end up in the wrong place and you’re running late, you can always hail a cab.
Cabs/Gypsy Cabs: Speaking of which, not all cabs are equal. Make sure you take a yellow or green cab licensed by the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission. “Gypsy," or unmarked, cabs may take you where you want to go, but you will have to negotiate a price, and will most likely get swindled. But in certain sections of New York (Inwood, Midwood, Jamaica), yellow cabs are scarce. Thankfully, these days Uber is also an option.
Walking: Walking is an art form in New York City. DO NOT meander or dawdle when walking on main thoroughfares. Think of every New York sidewalk like a busy street in Hollywood. Everyone has got somewhere to go, and if you need to stop to text or look up directions, you must first pull over.
Also, if you can help it, never walk through Times Square.
Crosswalks in New York City are a negotiation. I have learned that the safest approach to crossing the street is to follow a group of locals and walk when they do. DO NOT mindlessly step out into the street a couple of steps behind a local commuter. He has perfectly timed his pace, and you have not, and you will almost get hit by a taxi, which is not only terrifying, but also very embarrassing..
Shoes: Don’t you dare buy a new pair shoes for this trip. Your shoes need to be tried and true or painstakingly broken in. That pretty pair of ballet flats is not worth walking 40 blocks with blisters. Don’t do it.
Pit Stops: For the wandering first-time New Yorker, coffee shops will be your refuge. (Or bars, I guess, if you’re one of those people that can drink at any time of day. No judgment). I have sat in a Starbucks more than once with my roller suitcase, waiting to see if I had a callback and needed to either book a flight home or find a place to sleep that night, or waiting for a friend to get home and let me into her apartment. My other favorite spot is the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Walk in with purpose and pretend to be a guest. You can hang out on the Eighth Floor lounge for basically as long as you need to, and no one will bother you. I usually buy a tea or coffee so I don’t feel like a jerk, then charge my phone or do my makeup in the giant mirror in their guest bathroom.
Bring a Bag: In Los Angeles, I have been known to carry the entirety of my belongings in the space of my car. In NYC, you’ve often got to carry a day’s worth of stuff on your person. Bring a tote or backpack with comfortable straps and enough space for the stuff you’ll need. Test this out before you get to New York. I’ve been surprised how quickly my backpack fills up once I include sheet music, high heels, and some dance clothes. This is also a good place to mention bringing a reusable water bottle and a small, insulated lunch box with ice packs. I have saved so much money on New York trips by remembering to pack these two things... More money for theatre tickets! Which brings me to…
Broadway for Broke People: This is my favorite “insider tip” that anyone ever gave me about New York City. This website compiles all of the lottery, rush, and discount policies for each Broadway show, along with the opening and closing dates, so you can figure out your show plans from one easy spreadsheet!
One final tip. Bring an umbrella. Just do it. Even if you’re only flying in for 24 hours. Even if the forecast says it’s going to be clear and warm. Because, otherwise, you’ll put your hair into an elaborate Gibson girl updo and then get drenched when you get off at the wrong subway stop and have to trudge eight blocks in your suede audition pumps and little black dress, so your mascara runs down your face and your hair slumps to one side of your head. (Fun fact: I booked that job).
Benefit from the lessons of my spaz moments. Thank me later.