Central Park

I Have Gone Insane: Brutal First Impressions

Me next to my sign in Central Park.

Me next to my sign in Central Park.

On the subway ride to Central Park, I clutched my sign and bit my lip. “I can’t believe I’m really doing this,” I said to my husband. My heartbeat was pounding in my ears.

I made my way through Central Park, searching for the perfect spot: one with lots of foot traffic but still quiet, and I set up my sign and hat. I took a deep breath and prayed that no one would beat me up. Immediately people stopped and stared. Then the cameras came out. I started panicking that I would soon be ridiculed on the internet like the typewriting hipster.

A few months ago, I had the idea of starting a business called Brutal First Impressions. Most of us surround ourselves with people who wouldn’t want to hurt our feelings. While this can be good for our egos, it can also hinder our growth, and we can become comfortable with habits that might be off-putting for others. I figured that for a small price, I could be the one to tell it like it is: put on some deodorant, that shirt is terrible, you talk too much when you’re nervous…that kind of thing. But first I wanted to gain some experience. Why not try it out in Central Park!

The first guys to try it out.

The first guys to try it out.

I set the price at $5. At first, the people walking by would take pictures and laugh, saying, “that’s the best idea ever!” but they weren’t paying me for it. As soon as I lowered it to $1, people started lining up.

I asked each participant for their name, a handshake and a smile. Then I would ask them to take a few steps back and walk towards me, and then turn around slowly. At that point I would critique everything that I saw.

Here is some general advice I had to give almost everyone:

  • Make eye contact when you shake hands
  • Show your teeth when you smile
  • Keep your chin up when you walk

I couldn’t believe how many people needed that advice, and as soon as I said it and they tried it out, they seemed like new people.

2012-10-31 22.28.02It wasn’t easy being mean. A crowd would typically form around whomever I was critiquing and I could tell that they wanted to see tears. At one point I told a guy he had dandruff, and his friends practically cheered. I told another guy that he needed to pluck his uni-brow. When the crowd ohhed and ahhed at this, I asked to see a show of hands for who thought he should pluck his eyebrows. Almost everyone raised their hands. When I wasn’t mean, people would start heckling me saying, “Come on, this is supposed to be brutal.”

2012-10-31 22.23.04The whole time I was doing this I kept expecting someone to ask me my qualifications. I had my response all figured out: I’m classically trained in art and literature so I have a discerning eye and a critical mind. I learned how to evaluate presentation styles from my years as a teacher and teacher trainer. But the only person who asked for my qualifications immediately answered for me: “You’re a woman. Women know how to criticize.”

I was surprised that people were really interested in my story. At one point I had four guys sitting on the bench next to me asking my life story (ladies, this is a great way to pick up men if you’re interested). Everyone wanted to know how I got the idea and how much money I was making. So here’s the grand total…for 3 hours of sitting in the park, meeting interesting people, I made $43. I definitely want to try this again. I think I could make a lot more if I get better at working the crowd.

Originally, I wanted to do this because I thought it could help people present themselves better. At the end of the day I realized that I helped in a different way. I got people to laugh and not take themselves so seriously. I got people taking pictures and saying “only in New York.” I figured someone’s going to go back home and talk about the crazy lady they saw in Central Park. As an aspiring writer, I feel great that I gave someone a good story.

Where the Sidewalk Ends (Part 1)

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bright eyed and bushy tailed at the beginning.

I’ve always wanted to walk the length of Manhattan and watch how the neighborhoods change from block to block. Two weeks ago, Mike and I grabbed our water bottles, donned our sneakers and headed  up to the northern tip of Manhattan.

We rode the A train till the last stop in Manhattan, Inwood 207th St. The subway ride was pretty typical: From 42nd St. to Columbus Circle, there were the usual hoards of tourists, pouring over their subway maps, scratching their heads in confusion. When the A train raced past the next few stations (because it is express), a group of Italian tourists jumped up demanding to know why the train wasn’t stopping. This happens every time. We explained that the next stop was in Harlem and they could turn around there. Upon mention of Harlem, they gave us a look that said, “Please don’t mug us.” The next twenty minutes of the ride was silent – the car filled with depressed looking people who just wanted to get home. We got off at the last station, eager to see Manhattan by foot.

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The entrance of Fort Tryon Park

We were immediately taken aback by the beauty of Ft. Tyron Park. It’s easy to forget that Manhattan was once a wooded, swamp land. This park is a great reminder of what Manhattan might have looked like hundreds of years ago.

A stranger asked if we wanted our picture taken (something I always offer to tourists to prove that New Yorkers are not as mean/rude as the stereotypes suggest). It was fun feeling like a tourist in a city I practically grew up in. Everyone knows to go to Central Park when they visit the city, but I’d highly recommend this park. It has a wide open courtyard (with clean bathrooms), rocky hills to explore, and stunning vistas of the Hudson river.

 

If you’re planning a trip to the city, I would recommend a visit to the Cloisters, a medieval castle in Manhattan, and then a picnic in Ft. Tryon. The fall is really the best time to visit because the colors of trees are stunning.

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I’ve never seen this view of the George Washington bridge.

The next twenty blocks were uneventful, but we did eat some pretty amazing empenadas. It’s pretty remarkable how quiet some parts of Manhattan are – I’m so used to the constant noise of midtown. Just as we were getting used to the peace and quiet, we started to notice a lot more honking and traffic; a sure sign of the George Washington Bridge. We tried to take more pictures of the bridge, but there were too many aggressive bikers in their neon spandex, yelling at us to get out of their way – they were in a rush to enjoy the day.

So far that covers the first 2 miles of our journey. Stay tuned for the next 11 miles!

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Shakespeare in my heart

Whenever I think I’m done with this hectic, smelly city something happens to renew my love for NYC. Yesterday I waited on line (yes, New Yorkers say on line, not in line) for free tickets to Into The Woods. For the past 50 years, Shakespeare in the Park presents free plays and musicals in Central Park.  They are able to attract amazing talent such as Meryl Streep, Robert De Niro, Kevin Kline, James Earl Jones, Bernadette Peters and Ann Hathaway to name a few. Last night, 3 times Oscar nominated actress Amy Adams was playing the part of the Baker’s wife and the incomparable Donna Murphy was playing the Witch.

This line usually extends for a mile!

The lines for Shakespeare in the Park are insane. People wait overnight in Central Park and they bring sleeping bags,  blow up mattresses, I-pads, and all the books they ever wanted to read. It’s quite a scene to see every socio-economic class represented; stockbrokers sitting next to homeless men, retired old socialites next to high-school drama kids. It’s the great leveler!

Since I didn’t have time (or the will) to sleep over in the park, it took me three attempts to get tickets. The second time I went they ran out of tickets two people ahead of me! Tickets are handed out at 1pm and I got there at 9am yesterday. I was the 361st person. The wait is one of the best parts of the experience. People get so bored they let down their guards and get really talkative and goofy. The guy ahead of me was with his kids and he was a musician who helped write songs with Susan Vega in the 80s. When it came up that I was engaged he gave me tons of unsolicited tips on raising kids in the city. The woman behind me was a toy developer! They guy next to her was an actor and it was his fourth time waiting for the show. Everyone was so friendly, and when someone ordered food from a nearby deli, he got coffee for everyone on our section of the line.

The performance is in the outdoor Delacorte theater, with the backdrop of central park’s lush trees and a beautiful full moon. If you don’t know this about me, I’m a huge fan of musicals, an even bigger fan of Sondheim, and Into the Woods happens to be my favorite of his musicals, so I was pretty darn happy.

Into the Woods is a quirky, dark musical about a baker and his wife who are cursed by the witch who lives next door. They must go into the woods and collect 4 things to undo the spell that’s keeping them from having a baby. On their journey they run into characters from Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, and Rapunzel. Instead of being a usual fairy tale where are the characters are truly good or truly evil, and all the ends get neatly tied, these complex characters have to deal with the consequences of their actions. The emotions are raw, the jokes are witty, and the songs are catchy. One of my favorites songs is Agony, when the two Prince Charmings, who are chasing Rapunzel and Cinderella, are competing over whose agony is more painful. One the great lines: “You know nothing of madness ’till you’re climbing her hair.”

After the show, Mike and I strolled through Central Park. It was nearly empty and it felt like it was reserved just for us. The lights from the buildings twinkled above us, and the crickets chirped. I guess NYC isn’t as hectic and smelly as I thought.