Good Morning, New York
By A.D. Freudenheim

29 June 2003

I woke up at 5am today, Sunday. I managed to roll over and go back to sleep until 8ish, but at 8:30, after a half-hour lying in bed trying – unsuccessfully – to clear my mind, I gave in and got up. Maybe it was jet lag; having spent the last week in Paris, perhaps my mind was firmly lodged in the midday, even as much of New York slept in. But I do not think that was the problem.

Paris was terrific, the way Paris should be; good weather, great art, even better food, and some shopping made for a wonderful vacation. Walking around, though, it would have been difficult not to be amazed by the sheer volume of cafés and restaurants, a number that far, far outstrips the available eating options here in New York – even as Paris is smaller in terms of overall population. Parisian café culture is hardly new (nor am I the first person to write about it, that’s for sure), but it did make me wonder once again why New York – so big, so wealthy, so diverse – is unable to sustain a similarly robust café life.

Part of the answer surely lies in the old public spaces versus private spaces perspective. Property is expensive to own and maintain, and there is not a lot of it available in Europe; as a result, public spaces became important elements of the culture, since people needed room to live outside the walls of their own homes. By contrast, there was nothing but space here in the New World – seemingly endless space, really – so public gathering places probably seemed less important to a population that always felt it had room at home. That should not have been as true in New York though, where immigrants flooded in, filling up the available housing and often living in quarters no less cramped than the ones they had left behind. To the extent, then, that there is any place in America with a good café culture it certainly is New York, where there are many restaurants covering every conceivable cuisine – and no doubt this is very much because New Yorkers are more likely to need places to gather outside our constricted homes.

That explanation only addresses part of the issue, however, because cafés are not just public spaces, they are also places to relax – something New Yorkers are not very good at. New Yorkers obsess about the things they have to do; they run from meeting to meeting or job to job, and whether they are employed or not, most people seem somehow slightly stressed about managing life here. Relax? Even the (presumably unemployed) guys of varying ages hanging around with 40 ounce bottles of beer in front of the bodega around the corner from my apartment – even they don’t seem relaxed!

Yes, sure, there are any number of amusements and distractions here (as elsewhere), from movies and theatrical productions to bars and restaurants. But the per-minute transaction costs for any of these things are extremely high – and ultimately, this is how we New Yorkers pay for things, by the minute. Think about it: most restaurants in New York won’t seat “incomplete” parties, so if four people go to dinner, three will have to stand and wait until the fourth arrives, lest the restaurant lose serving time at a full table. Once you do sit down, few places give you a truly leisurely meal unless you pay heavily for the price. If the average dinner (with drinks) for two in New York costs $25 per person, and most seatings are no more than 90 minutes, each person is paying about 27 cents per minute. A cheap ($50) ticket to a Broadway show is also about 27 cents for a 2.5 hour production (and for the intermission, when you’re not watching the performance, you are expected to spend money on refreshments). In fact, movies are just about the cheapest thing going in New York, since two hours in a movie theater on a $10 ticket will cost you only 8 cents per minute.

There are very few places in New York where you can sit and have just a cup of coffee or a beer or some other drink or even food, and not be bothered to order more with regularity – in other words, where you can relax. Even fewer places where you can do this outside when the weather is nice. Starbucks? Come on. Sure, it’ll cost you about 5.5 cents per minute to sit for an hour with one $3.25 coffee drink – but you’re limited to non-alcoholic beverages and a small selection of food, and if you throw in a second cup, your costs start skyrocketing. Never mind that, as ubiquitous as Starbucks (and their ilk) may seem, they are not nearly as present in the City as cafés are in Paris, and few of them have outdoor seating.

By contrast, I estimate that on this trip, without particularly skimping on our activities, my wife and I sat at cafés for an average cost of 4 cents per minute. Likewise with dinner: a meal at a restaurant in Paris comparable to one we might visit in New York ... ran the same $25 per person, but since no meal was shorter than 2 hours, we paid 21 cents per minute, and probably less. More importantly, whether we were drinking coffee or something alcoholic, eating or not, we were never pushed to order more than we wanted, never hurried out of our seats, never given any indication that what we were doing was anything other than what someone might reasonably be expected to do on any given day. Odd that it in a land where private property is so much more scare, some public activities should be cheaper, but there you have it. America is a pay-as-you go country, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with that ... it does make almost every action into a transaction. Which is why relaxation is something to which most Americans aspire, but less often achieved; we’re too busy looking to see what we can get out of each transaction.

So, why did I wake up at 5am, and again at 8? I do not think it was the jet lag. I think it was that, after more than a week away, a week spent thinking only about the things I wanted to think about – a week spent relaxing, in other words – I had come back to New York, and New York had come back to me. In my head this Sunday were all the things I needed to do, returned (unbidden) from their Parisian hiding places to the City That Does Not Sleep. Don’t get me wrong, I love living in New York. I just also enjoy getting away for a while, too.

Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
This page is part of: The Truth As I See It.