Understanding the “Bridge and Tunnel” Crowd, and Why There Aren’t Any Good Clubs or Lounges in the Suburbs

When I resigned myself to a life in the suburbs, one of my goals was to try to find nightlife opportunities that would give me some semblance of the experiences I used to get in the city.  Now, let me be clear that I was not a big nightlife guy in the first place.  In my 20s, my usual nightlife routine was a night playing pool at the lost and lamented Amsterdam Billiards or getting a beer in a neighborhood bar.  Part of that was that I was, as they say, “living in the 80s and making in the 30s”, so I didn’t quite have the bankroll to hit a club. It’s a lot more fun to go clubbing if you are (a) a rich guy, or (b) a hot girl.  I was neither of those things.

Even as I got older, though, and could afford the club scene, it was really only something I did once in a while.  Maybe if I’d been single, or liked dance music music, or liked standing, or liked tinnitis, or couldn’t do the math on the cost of buying a bottle of Grey Goose for $350, I would have been a bigger fan.  But it just wasn’t my thing.  Maybe once in a while we’d get together with a group, get a table at a club, and put a big hole in our credit cards to enjoy a night out, but it really had to be a special occasion.

Otherwise, as I got older, my main nightlife routine would be hitting a “lounge,” which is really a euphemism for “a bar that has the drink prices of clubs because it has couches.”  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to appreciate having couches in bars.  The world needs more couches.  And I guess I like lounges because they aren’t as loud, so you can have a conversation.  The world needs more conversation, too.  You can’t really talk in a club, which is actually generally a good thing because most of the people in the clubs don’t have much of anything to say beyond “hey, nice shoes.”

So when I say that I was hoping to find nightlife opportunities in the suburbs, I’m really talking about those kinds of lounges — places with couches, where you can have a conversation, maybe with a bartender who makes interesting drinks that involve something called “muddling.”  Drinks that involve “muddling” are always much more expense than the non-muddling variety, but they sort of justify the fact that you went out at all — if you’re going to just mix vodka and soda, you can do that at home.  You need a fancy bartender in some couchy lounge to make you something with 15 muddled ingredients.

Here’s the thing — they don’t exist in the suburbs.  They. Don’t. Exist.  There are no lounges.  In fact, there are no clubs, nowhere that you can, if you wanted that experience, go to dance and listen to music and become insensate from the ringing in your ears.  What you have in the suburbs is simple: bars.  Just bars. No couches. No muddled drinks. No dancing.

It’s actually a lot worse than I thought. I figured that with all the people who get exiled from the city to the suburbs every year, some entrepreneurial type would realize that there’s a market for an “urban-style” lounge or club that would appeal to people who don’t want to just sit in a bar and, moreover, don’t want to have to schlep to the city to go out.

But I was wrong, and here’s why.  People who live in the suburbs who want to get an urban nightlife experience go to the city.  Whether they are 25 year olds who want to dance and listen to music without words, or 35 year olds who want to go to drink complicated drinks and sit on couches, they all have something in common — they want to do it IN the city. That’s the whole point.  They want to escape the suburbs for a night and feed on the urban energy and excitement.

Hence — the “bridge and tunnel” crowd that everyone in the city complains about when they go to clubs and lounge.  Oh, boy, there’s nothing worse for the reputation of a club/lounge than to get tagged as a “B&T” place, because then no one who actually lives in the city wants to go.  So the urbanites stop coming, and eventually the B&T people realize that they’re schlepping 45 minutes and paying $50 for parking to hang out with people from their neighborhod, so they stop coming. And then the place shuts down, while the B&T people start chasing wherever the urbanites went to.  It’s a vicious circle.

And that’s the point.  The people in the suburbs don’t really care about the music, or the muddled drinks, or the couches — what they want is the feeling of being a part of the urban excitement for a night.  If someone actually opened a hipster club/lounge/whatever in the suburbs, it would be the absolute worst.  By definition, EVERYONE in the place would part of the B&T crowd, except that they wouldn’t actually have to cross a bridge or burrow through a tunnel to get there.  Even worse, the people most likely to end up filling the place would be the very B&T people who aren’t even urbanized enough to want that hit off the urban pipe.  They’d be like the junior varsity to the B&T crowd, people who don’t even care about getting that authentic vibe.  In other words, that suburban hipster lounge would be like the worst place on earth for an urban exile.

That’s why those places don’t exist.  And that’s why my nightlife over the past three years has narrowed down to the occasional trip into the city, or game night at the condo.  In other words, despite any ambitions I might have had to maintain any kind of urban cred, I’m a typical suburbanite.


The Return from Exile in Reverse: Re-Creating the Suburban Experience in New York City

Jesse McKinley had a great piece in the New York Times last week about trying to recreate a stereotypical suburban experience within Manhattan. A native suburban, his theory was that the city is slowly becoming “suburbanized“:

 The ’burbs seem to be everywhere, from miniature golf in the Village to batting cages on the Upper West Side. There’s table tennis off Park Avenue South, an Applebee’s in Harlem and highway-style hotels like the Comfort Inn on the Lower East Side. Multiplexes are more common than art houses, and don’t even try to avoid trivia nights. If not for all the big buildings and honking, you could easily mistake Manhattan for Mahwah on some nights.

McKinley thinks that this might be the result of changing demographics, with people from the suburbs moving into the city and providing a target market for their “cultural traditions.”  Sort of like the way that an influx of ethnic immigrants create the need for more Pakistani restaurants, but far less spicy.  I would also add that, to the extent that his thesis is accurate — and I’m not quite convinced that a couple of bars offering ping-pong is a sign of the suburbanizing apocalypse — it might be that more couples deciding to stay in the city after they have kids might create a greater need for more “family-oriented” activities.

Anyway, as part of testing his theory, McKinley wrote a funny travelogue of a weekend he spent sampling these suburban diversions throughout the city:

  • A trip to the Manhattan Mall, which he found disappointing insofar as the “mall” doesn’t have a food court. No food court!  What kind of mall is that?
  • Trivia Night at a bar on the upper west side, which is I guess representative of the average suburban night out.
  • Two nights at a cheap chain hotel.
  • Dinner at Chevys, a classic suburban chain.
  • Mini-Golf at some place down in the Village.
  • Brunch at Applebees, the great “neighborhood grill,” if you live in the worst neighborhood in the world.
  • An Imax movie.
  • A few swings at the batting cages.

Now, as much as I liked this piece, as a self-appointed champion of the suburbs, I’m a wee bit nettled by the reductionist approach to suburban living.  We will not be MOCKED!!!  Or, rather, we can mock ourselves, in the way that only, say, Italian people can properly make Italian jokes.  But it hurts to see someone practically put on “blackface” like this.  Seriously, Applebees?  Ouch!

More to the point, I’ve lived in the suburbs for almost three years now, and I don’t do most of the stuff that McKinley put in his piece.  I get the mall, and the batting cages, and I guess I can understand the trips to stereotypically suburban restaurant chains.  But why stay at an Econo Lodge? Suburbanites don’t stay in cheap hotels — we live in cheap houses!  And what about miniature golf?  I haven’t even seen a miniature golf course here in the Hudson Valley area in years — they were all closed down and turned into McMansion developments.  The only place you get mini-golf is down at the shore.  It’s really more of a vacation activity.

So I don’t know if he quite captured the true modern suburban experience. If you really want that experience, and I don’t know why you would, here’s what I’d add to the agenda:

First, you can’t rent some small little hotel room at the Econo Lodge; rather, you should get some cheap suite hotel, because you need a kitchen that you can cook in.  Here in the suburbs, we don’t go out every night to fancy places like Chevy’s and Applebees — we cook.  So pick up some groceries, cook up a meal, and eat it in front of the TV like the rest of us suburbanites.

Second, when you’re done eating, skip the miniature golf and the batting cages, and get in touch with your true suburban self:

  • Take a trip to Costco, because nothing says suburbs like picking up 400 rolls of toilet paper.
  • Rent a lawnmower and start mowing a section of Central Park.  You’ll probably end up in jail, but you can’t spend a suburban weekend without cutting some grass.
  • Buy a car seat, and try to install it in a cab. That’ll take up a good half a day. The cabbie will be thrilled!
  • Clog up a toilet, and fix it yourself.

Buying stuff, cooking a meal, mowing the lawn — now, THAT would be a suburban weekend.

Return from Exile: Santa’s Five Rules for Enjoying Santacon

About five years ago, we were on the C train coming back from getting dim sum with some friends who were visiting from out of town.  We were toward the front of the train, and as we approached the 81st street stop we could hear some wierd chanting coming from the cars behind us.  It sounded like “Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh”, and it was getting louder as the train started to slow.  When we got off at the stop, and climbed the stairs up to the corner by 81st and Central Park, we realized what it was — a horde of people dressed in santa suits all chanting “HO HO HO”, who were now flooding off the train in droves.

It was frightening, if hilarious.  Hundreds of people in santa suits, all in red, with one small group of “reindeer” holding up signs indicating that they were protesting working conditions at the North Pole.  They just kept pouring out of the subway exits, hundreds of them, a sea of red, chanting “Ho Ho Ho” and herding toward the park.

I asked one of the Santas what was going on, and he explained that it was “Santacon,” a yearly “convention” of Santas that takes place in cities across the world, sort of a combination of flash mob and pub crawl that is scheduled each year by self-appointed (dis-)organizers who have created informational websites where you find out the where and when, download the dirty Santacon carol-book, and even now sign up for Twitter feeds so you can join the herd as Santa gets “on the move” from place to place in the city.

After seeing it that day. I was hooked.  I’ve been at every Santacon since.  If you’re going to do it, though, you need to follow the rules:

1.  You ARE Santa

The most important thing to remember about Santacon is that it’s your chance to BE Santa.  We’re all Santa.  So you have to stop talking in the first person, as in “I am hungry.”  Rather, it’s “Santa is hungry.”  “Santa is thirsty.”  When you greet people at Santacon, you don’t say, “hi,” you say “Hi Santa,” and they say “Hi Santa” back.  It’s glorious.

2. Wear a Suit
Most women don’t wear classic Santa outfits, God Bless their beautiful hearts, but get creative with some outfit from Ricky’s or something else that puts a feminine spin on the Santa theme.  But if you’re a guy, put on a suit.  No hanging out with the group in your jeans and t-shirt, with some lame-ass Santa hat on.  You’re not too cool to be Santa. This is like a black tie affair at which you’re going to look like a dumbass rube if you’re not in costume.
3.  Layer Up
 The worst thing about Santa suits is that they’re usually made of paper-thin material that doesn’t exactly provide warmth on a cold December day.   The nice thing about most Santa suits is that they’re big and baggy, so you can put clothes on underneath them.  Do that.  Nothing worse than a frostbitten Santa. And if you’re a woman putting on some sort of sexy costume, wear it OVER tights or something, not just because of the cold but because you’re going to be hanging out with a lot of increasingly drunken and occasional lecherous Santas.
4.  Have Fun, But Not Too Much Fun
Take a huge group of people, add alcohol, and you’re likely to end up with at least a few people getting arrested or breaking things.  Don’t do that. While it’s hilarious to see a Santa carted off in handcuffs, think of the children…
5.  Stay with the Herd
A few years ago, we were at Santacon down in Tompkins Park and ran into Ted, a friend who happened to live in the area.  He didn’t know it was going on, so he wasn’t dressed, but he enjoyed the vibe so much he hung out with us for the rest of the long night while we traveled from place to place as part of the herd.  All night, he complained about feeling out of place, as the only one in the group who didn’t have a suit on.  Late in the night, though, the Santa herd moved on, and we just stayed at a bar we liked on the LES.  After about midnight, he looked around, turned to me and said, “Santa, the worm has turned.”  Sadly, at that point, I was the only Santa in the place, and looked like a complete jackass.  Never leave the herd.
See you, Santa!

Return from Exile: Take Me Out to the Ballgame!

One of the things I miss most about living in Manhattan was the ability to take a subway train to watch a baseball game.  As I’ve noted before, I’m one of those horrible heretical fans who roots for all the New York teams, so I used to love hopping the trains to go to either Shea or Yankee Stadium.  Going to Yankee games was always better, of course, not just because the team was better but also because Shea was a dump and the 7 train is a horrible, horrible train that seems to stop at every stupid street corner in Queens.  Seriously, can’t people from Queens walk a few blocks?

As much as I love football, there’s no question that it’s more fun to go to a baseball game.  Watching football live is a great experience, but baseball live is better for a bunch of reasons.

  • If you’re a football fan like me, the idea of watching only one game at a time is ridiculous.  You only get one day of games a week (other than Monday night football), so you have to maximize your football intake in that narrow window that you get.  So pretty much every Sunday, I used to hit the Gin Mill on the upper west side to eat the best and probably least healthy chicken fingers in the world and watch every game at once.  I do the same thing now, just at a bar in Nyack with much less tasty chicken fingers.  But watching just one game at a time is torture.  You don’t have that problem with baseball, since there are baseball games pretty much every day of the week and you don’t feel like you’re missing something if you’re actually at a game.
  • Watching football live makes you much more aware of all the artificial stoppages of play.  Moreover, you have to watch the halftime show instead of getting highlights, which is more torture.  In baseball, the play stoppages are more natural: at the end of innings, pitching changes.  Baseball is a terribly slow game, but at least you don’t get all these times where everyone just stands around waiting for the commercials to end.
  • Football is played at a bad time of the year in every kind of weather, usually very, very bad weather.  And because the tickets are so expensive, you end up going even when it’s raining and snowing and so cold that your testes freeze up (if you have testes, otherwise I guess some other plumbing freezes up).  But baseball?  Beautiful spring and summer weather, and if it rains they don’t play.  And if they play through the rain but you don’t want to sit there, you just don’t go and you eat what is likely a much less expensive ticket.

So going to baseball games is just the best. And being able to spontaneously decide to go to a game because you could hop a subway and be there in 45 easy minutes was one of the great things about living in Manhattan.

That’s one of the real pitfalls of living in the suburbs — the fact that you have to plan ahead, that you have to drive, that you have to park, and that you can’t drink because you have to drive home.  Just the worst.  No more spontaneity.  No more making fun of people sitting in traffic jams as you head to the subway, because you’re now one of those people.

With that in mind, I made my first trip into the city for a game this past week, trekking out to the new Yankee Stadium.  I only made one game to the new stadium last year, and only one trip to Citifield, what with the move and all, so I was looking forward to it.  And, of course, because I was so completely terrified of the traffic problems, I left like hours before I needed to.  The game was at 7:30, so I left at like 5PM, figuring that I wouldn’t get parked until 6:30 or so.  But of course for whatever reason there was no traffic, and no parking problems, and I end up in my seat at like 5:45, which is a ridiculously early time to arrive for a baseball game.  There were like kids running around on the field.

It did give me time, though, to check out the new stadium.  It’s actually pretty interesting how the Yankees and Mets took such different tacks in designing their new stadium.  The Yankees basically rebuilt Yankee Stadium as an exact replica of the old stadium, not just in the dimensions and the cosmetic touches but with everything. Yes, there are more luxury boxes and restaurants and food and stuff, and it’s a lot nicer walking around the concourse that is open to the sky rather than under a forbidding concrete roof, but it’s pretty much the same feel as the old stadium.  Nicer, but the same.

Citifield, though, is a complete departure from Shea, which makes sense insofar as Shea was a craphole.  While the Yankees had a stadium that was filled with all this great history and grandeur, the Mets had one of those awful all-purpose parks that was not so great for baseball.  But that freed them up to do a lot of cool stuff, and design Citifield along the lines of all those brand new baseball-only parks that have been the rage since Camden Yards opened about 20 years ago.  The end result is that Citifield is a MUCH better place to watch a game, which I know is heresy to Yankee fans but is simply the truth.  The team stinks, of course, which is more than a little important, but the ballfield is really nice.

That said, now that I’m driving to all the games and having to park, we’ll see how I like it when I have to stow my car over by the old World Fair grounds or under the Van Wyck.  At least I don’t have to make 45 separate stops on the stupid 7 train anymore, though.

Return from Exile: Methdadone Weekend Review

So we move out of the city on Tuesday, take Wednesday off, and then we’re back on Thursday staying at the Soho Grand for my wife’s birthday weekend.

And it was interesting.  We got a room in a completely different section of the city, down  at the bottom of Soho near canal.  It was a great opportunity to see the city from a different perspective. I forgot how much I like Soho, where I haven’t really spent time in the past few years.  It’s a very “Manhattanish” neighborhood, if that makes any sense. (And I got to check out the new High Line Park in Chelsea on the far west side, yet another way Manhattan is taunting me as I move away.)

Sadly, you can take the couple of the Upper West Side, but you can’t take the Upper West Side out of the couple.  Between a doctor’s appointment, an event at the Met, her birthday dinner, some lingering work appointments, and a party at the rooftop of the Empire Hotel, we made no fewer than six cab rides from Soho to the west side above 42d street.  I’ve spent years and years in cabs going from my uncool uptown neighborhood to downtown parties and events, so I finally become a downtown person (for a weekend) and end up spending the whole weekend handing cabbies twenties and getting back change.  I want to thank my friend Mike for waiting 15 years to throw a party on the UWS, waiting it out until the first weekend I no longer lived there.

The weekend does show the way for a recovering Manhattanite to come to a soft landing. This was a splash out weekend, for her birthday, but it is entirely possible to find a reasonably (for Manhattan) priced room, cobble together a series of things to events (hopefully that don’t require cross-island cab rides) , and have a Manhattan weekend now and then to recharge those batteries. I think the problem a lot of Manhattan exiles have is that they promise they’ll come back to the city, but let themselves sink into a suburban stupor of easy evenings at the local restaurant and an early movie rather than a 45 minute trip over a bridge and to a $60 parking garage.  I know that’s what we went through in our trial exile in 2005 when we were doing renovations, so I hope that we keep this commitment to come into the city regularly to keep that part of ourselves connected.

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Return from Exile: The Methadone Weekend

It’s my wife’s birthday this Sunday. For the past 7 or 8 years, it happened that her birthday always happened during an annual business trip set up by my company’s former franchisor. It’s a great business trip, usually in an interesting location (last year was Oahu). But the trip almost always coincided with her birthday, making it impossible for her to celebrate with her friends. And as much as she liked spending her birthday with, say, a real estate broker from Omaha, it wasn’t the same.

So this year, it’s my former franchisor, no trip for me. So a perfect year for us to celebrate her birthday in Manhattan, with a chance to see her friends and enjoy the big city. Except that our buyer needed to get in this week, we had to be out of the apartment. No big city.

So we’re back, baby! Just got a room in the Soho Grand for the weekend, going to see a show, have some dinner, maybe get out and about. Get a chance to see what it’s like to visit NYC on a trip from the suburbs.

It’s our “Methadone Weekend,” a chance to ease the withdrawal symptoms, maybe get a chance for a soft landing.

As a visitor to NYC, I’m looking forward to:

  • Staring up at the tall buildings.
  • Walking around with a giant map.
  • Wandering into traffic.
  • Buying a big camera with a strap that goes around my neck.
  • Getting a t-shirt in Times Square that says “New York” with a clever comment.
  • Buying a “rolex”
  • Wearing shorts with sneakers.

Do they still sell fanny-packs?

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Return from Exile: Another day, another screening

Manhattan is taunting me. I’ve lived here for 17 years, never went to a movie premiere screening. Then last week, I get to go see Grey Gardens premiere at the Zigfield. And then yesterday I got to go see a very funny comedy at the the Tribeca Film Festival called Timer. The reason? Another college friend in show business, this time my friend Christopher Wood acting in a quick role (there are no “small” roles…) at the beginning. His role was much too small for his talent, but it was still fun to see him on the big screen.

It was bad enough when Shake Shack opened on the Upper West side, right around the same day I put my apartment on the market. And then Time Warner added a ton more high definition stations to my cable lineup. But now Manhattan is just beating on me, sending me interesting things to do, the kind of things I never do, as sort of a “you’ll never have it this good” hate-screw to me.

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Return from Exile: A night at the movies

Right when I decide to move from the city to the suburbs, I have the kind of night that you can only have in a city — attending the premiere of the new HBO movie “Grey Gardens.” The premiere was at the Ziegfeld Theater in midtown, which is really one of my favorite movie theaters in the world.  Just a great old theater. I know it doesn’t have the stadium seating and I’m sure techie types will tell me you get a better picture and sound in your living room, but I really like it.

I should be clear that I don’t go to a lot of premieres.  This one was, now that I think about it, my first.  And the only reason I was at that one was that the director of the movie, Mike Sucsy, is a college friend, and he was kind enough to invite me and my wife.  The movie is absolutely terrific, particularly the performance by Drew Berrymore as Little Edie.  For those people who are fans of the documentary, the movie kind of fills in some of the gaps, explaining how Little Edie got pulled into the vortex of her mother’s, ummm, idiosyncracies.  And it was fun to be at the premiere, seeing the red carpet and the whole thing.  And free popcorn.

(The movie premieres on HBO on Saturday night, 8PM, April 18.)

Going to the Ziegfeld reminded me of some of my favorite New York City movie moments, to wit:

  • Going to see Independence Day on the weekend it opened in the middle of July 1996, only getting in to the midnight showing, getting drunk first, and later spilling out of the theater into the summer heat with a bunch of fired up humans hooting and hollering (spoiler alert: the humans win).  Come on, say it with me: “Today, we celebrate our Independence Day!”
  • Waiting on line at the Ziegfeld for opening weekend of Apollo 13, twisting all the way around 54th and 55th street, totally chaotic, getting to our seats half an hour after the movie was supposed to start because of the disorganization of the staff, and then finally the movie is supposed to start and they start with commercials (back when commercials at movies were still new), and people start booing and throwing things.  Ugly.
  • Numerous times when I have had altercations with people who annoyed me in a theater. I’m not a good row-mate, apparently.