When we were living on the East Coast, we rarely ventured to NYC for a number of reasons. It was not too far by car, but the traffic, tolls, almost certain lack of parking and general expense scared me away from wanting to drive there. In college, we'd taken the Chinatown bus from Philly a number of times, packed in like sardines for $20 round trip. We'd gone to see tapings of tv shows like The Colbert Report (a couple of times) and Last Call With Carson Daly (Modest Mouse was the musical guest). One time, Simon, my mom, my sisters and I went on a bus trip with a group, and spent the day walking around more or less aimlessly, checking out the view from the Empire State Building.
These trips were fun, but since they were based around one or two events, we often found ourselves unsure of what to do next. One time, we ate at a TGI Friday's; another, at a touristy English pub near Times Square. Once, as we waited for Colbert, we got some terrible food from a corner store since it was close and we had no idea what else was nearby. Everything was expensive, and the subway was intimidating, so we would walk dozens of blocks instead of figuring out how to use it properly.
Moving to LA and having to find our way around a new city reminded me how much I love planning. I have always been a planner at heart, making lists with little checkboxes and drawing up calendars. But now, with the internet pulling all of the information about a place into my living room and Google maps showing me subway routes, the planning is far more practical and useful than it's ever been.
I've always loved musicals, and over time, I have even gotten Simon to appreciate a few of them. Over the summer of 2014, I had heard that Neil Patrick Harris was performing the lead role in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a musical-turned-movie-turned-Broadway show. I had seen the movie a bunch of times as a teenager, and though I found it strange, I really loved the music and was interested in seeing the stage version. LA has a lot of great art, theater included, but nothing even remotely close to the theater scene in NY.
With that show on my mind, and our desire to see UCB's NY locations, I had a vague notion of visiting NY sometime in the near future. But when they announced Michael C. Hall would be taking over the role of Hedwig, I decided to start seeing if a trip during his run was feasible.
I searched for flights all through September and October, and $550 per person was the absolute best price I was able to find for flights to PHL/JFK/EWR, even though in 2013 we'd been able to find LAX-PHL flights roundtrip for $440 per person. So I finally settled on that price, thinking that we'd get a rental car when we left NYC and return it on our way back to JFK for another $400 or so. We'd have a car for the whole week we were home. But our trip to Texas in November made us realize that the $400 I'd been quoted was just a base price for the car rental, since we were picking up and dropping off at two different places, and that they would tack on mileage as well. Spending over $500 (plus tolls and gas) on a car rental seemed ludicrous, but the non-refundable airfare to JFK had already been bought.
So we decided to take a train from New York's Penn Station to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station to come home and vice versa to get back to the airport, and just borrow cars as needed while we were in the Reading area. The train was a fraction of the cost of the car rental, about $80 per person roundtrip, and since we would be spending most of the time with our families, we didn't see the need to have a vehicle at our disposal 24/7. Unfortunately, the website for the train is woefully inadequate for the traveler who is not already familiar with exactly where Amtrak stops. So we were unaware that we actually could have taken the train past Philadelphia, even closer to Reading, to a more convenient stop for our families to pick us up and drop us off. Now we know.
The Trip Itself
On December 19th, we drove to the airport and parked in Lot C for our 7:30am flight. We have a garage at our apartment, where we stashed the Toyota, but we had no place to put the Mazda without it accruing a ticket while we were away for 12 days. We had four bags, for reasons that would take too long to explain here, plus our personal items, so we had a lot of juggling to do. We caught a shuttle from the parking lot to the airport, breezed through security, grabbed breakfast, and waited on our flight.
The flight was smooth and uneventful. We usually fly the very no-frills US Airways, so having a seatback TV was an amusing distraction. Once we arrived at JFK, we carefully collected our bags and made our way to the Airtrain.
The Airtrain is a $5 flat fee train that takes you from JFK to connect with the NYC subway & LIRR, both of which you can take into Manhattan. For the Airtrain only, you pay after you ride, which is a bit confusing. But there was a helpful employee at the end of the line who helped us pay for the train & buy the correct fare into the city in the same transaction - it was between $15-$20 a person altogether. Since we were staying just a few blocks away from Penn Station, we took the 20 minute LIRR directly there. The subway would have gotten us there for less money, but the ride would have taken 3x as long, so we opted for the easier route. I am a fairly experienced traveler, but the signage for the LIRR trains was not great, and we had to ask for help finding our train. I will probably need guidance the next time we go, too.
Once we arrived at Penn Station, we had no trouble walking to our hotel, located on 28th Street between 6th and 7th, and getting checked in.
The room was tiny, but suited the needs of our three-day weekend perfectly.
We hadn't booked anything for Friday night, because you can never be sure that a winter flight to the East Coast is going to end up landing in a timely fashion. But once we were checked in and relaxing at the hotel, we checked out the UCB schedule and bought tickets for the 9:30pm show, The Stepfathers. We got there by 8:30pm, and we were first in line for the show.
We have been eager to check out UCB Chelsea for some time. This is not the original location of the theater, but it is the oldest existing UCB, and many of the best NY teams and improvisers have come up through this theater. The theater itself has a lot of differences from UCB Franklin. Here, they actually scan the barcodes on the tickets for entry, which made entry a lengthier process. The theater has at least fifty more seats than Franklin, though many have limited views because of the building's support beams scattered throughout the audience area. Most importantly, they serve beer. Though Franklin has an under-the-table BYOB policy that Simon utilizes routinely, it was refreshing to be able to legally buy cold $4 Yuenglings in-house.
Simon got us both beers, and we watched several hilarious improvisors do long-form for about an hour, with a five minute break at the halfway point. Another difference between the NY and LA UCB theaters is that the NY theaters prohibit photography, so you won't see any pictures from the show. I don't really understand the policy, since the LA theater and performers embrace show photos, but I will respect it anyway.
While we were relaxing at the hotel before dinner, I had been texting my sisters about being on the East Coast & in NYC. Amanda suggested that we check out a midnight show at the other UCB theater in NY, UCB East, since a couple of her friends & acquaintances from college were involved. Since Simon and I were still on West Coast time, and wanted to see a show at UCB East anyway, this worked into our plans nicely. After The Stepfathers, we took the subway from Chelsea to the East Village, and walked toward the theater. As we walked, Simon suggested getting a beer to kill some of our wait for the midnight show, and I agreed that this was an excellent plan.
We ducked into one of the first places that we saw, called Fool's Gold, and it turned out to be a great choice for us. They had a plethora of beers on tap, and though they were considerably more pricey than the Yuenglings had been at UCB, we each found something we liked. We would have stayed for more than one beer, but since we had plans, it was one and done. We'd definitely return next time we are in the city, though.
We walked a few blocks farther to UCB East. This location was a former one-room movie theater than they converted into a comedy theater. It actually one-ups all of the other UCB locations in that it has a separate (but adjacent) bar where you can just hang out and drink cheap beer.
We were a few minutes early, and it wasn't crowded, so we each got a beer and waited for the doors to open.
The show we were there to see was called Everyone's Favorite Game Show, a show that has two special guests and one audience member compete against one another by answering questions and completing challenges. The guests that evening were Michael Maronna and Danny Tamberelli, stars of the 90's era Nickelodeon show The Adventures of Pete & Pete, and the randomly chosen audience member was another ginger who fit right in with the two of them. Between questions and challenges, members of the team that hosts the show do comedic bits and skits that help move the game along. Though it was unlike any other show we've seen at UCB, it was very funny, and I'd see it again if I had the chance.
After the show, we walked back to the subway and headed back to the hotel. We got back close to 2am, and fell asleep on the very comfortable hotel beds in a matter of moments.
The combination of traveling, switching coasts and staying up late meant that we slept in pretty late on Saturday. Since we had tickets for a matinee of Cabaret that afternoon, we decided to get a late breakfast and go straight to the theater.
One of the things I was most excited for on this trip to the city was the bagels, since it is impossible to find good bagels in LA. So our first breakfast stop of the trip was at Brooklyn Bagels, a well-known and very popular bagel place a few blocks away from our hotel. We waited in line for twenty minutes to place our order, a few more minutes to pay, and then had to stalk people who were leaving to get a table, but we finally sat down to eat our bacon, egg and cheese bagels, and they were delicious.
Afterward, we took the subway uptown toward the once-infamous Studio 54, the theater where they were staging Roundabout Theater's revival of Cabaret.
I didn't know much about the musical other than the general setting and a few songs from it, and Simon went in completely blind. But I picked this particular show for a few reasons: it had been really well-reviewed, it starred Alan Cumming and Emma Stone (both actors that I already like), and we were able to score discounted tickets through Roundabout's under-35 program. If you donate $75 to the theater, you can buy up to two $25 tickets for each show they put on for a year. So assuming we do not go to any other Roundabout shows this year, our tickets were $63 for seats that usually go for $100+. Not too bad! And I do hope to go to more Roundabout shows this year.
At intermission, we were permitted to take photos of the theater and stage, so I did.
We had front row tickets in the mezzanine, at the very farthest end of the row. The downstairs portion of the theater was arranged like a club, with groups of four chairs surrounding small drink tables. Upstairs was a fairly standard balcony arrangement, though the first few rows of the mezzanine had tiny drink tables between the seats. There were waiters walking around taking drink orders, and we caved and ended up with a couple of Cabaret labeled tumblers.
The show was beautifully staged, and we enjoyed it on the whole. Emma Stone was a fine Sally Bowles, and Alan Cumming was a fantastic Emcee, though my favorite role belonged to Linda Emond as Fraulein Schneider. The ensemble did a nice job of conveying a sense of hope and optimism in the face of 1930's Germany. The story itself is not my favorite, perhaps due to its depressing nature, but I am glad that we went to see it.
(obviously not my picture)
Since the show was a matinee, we were out on the street around 4:30pm. Our walk back toward the subway took us past The Late Show's marquee, and I figured that I'd better snap a picture since it will look a lot different later this year.
We took the subway back to the hotel to rest and freshen up, then headed back out to get dinner and drinks. Pizza was our next objective, and though there are a million places to get pizza in NYC, we tried a place I had seen someone on my Instagram feed eat at earlier that day, Prince St. Pizza in Nolita. Even writing about it is making me hungry. Simon did not love the ordering protocol, since you had to tell your order to two different people, but he admitted the pizza was damn good.
After our pizza, we walked around the neighborhood and tried out a couple different bars. First up was Top Hops Beer Shop, a bar/takeout beer spot. We each had a beer there, but Simon wasn't loving the beer selection, so we walked a few blocks away to One Mile House, where we each had another beer. After we finished our drinks, we left the bar and found a subway. We were headed to meet up with some people at a karaoke bar in Brooklyn to celebrate our friend Derek's 30th birthday.
Getting from Manhattan to Brooklyn was fast and straightforward. I don't remember a great deal from our evening other than meeting a bunch of friendly people, having a few drinks, and singing some karaoke. I know that we both had a fun night, and it was wonderful seeing Derek, who we hadn't seen in quite some time. We stumbled back to the hotel around 2am, and for the hundredth time this trip, I was grateful for NYC's incredible public transit system.
Once again, we slept in, but we both awoke feeling (surprisingly) fantastic. We headed for our second bagel breakfast in two days at Ess-a-Bagel. This was the one place we went on this trip that was not easily accessible by subway, so we made the twenty-five minute trek across the width of the island on foot. On the way, we saw this guy:
Finally, we made it to our humble destination.
It was absolutely packed inside the shop, but we were sitting and eating our bagels within twenty minutes. Once again, we had a theater matinee to go to, so we decided to take a train about ten blocks away up toward the Times Square area.
I don't really care for Times Square. It's overly crowded even when nothing is going on, and surrounded by touristy stuff and chain restaurants. But the subway dropped us off a few blocks south of Times Square, so we had to walk through it to get to our destination, the Belasco Theater. We popped into H&M to kill some time, and showed up at the theater around 2pm to pick up our tickets for Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Unfortunately, the seating area was not open yet, and the ticket clerk suggested we go get coffee and come back. We tried to track down a coffee place, and ended up at Rockefeller Plaza instead.
By the time we realized the coffee spot we were searching for was nowhere to be found, it was time to head back to the theater. We took our (not remotely discounted) left orchestra seats for the show, and sat there for the next 90 minutes while Michael C. Hall and Lena Hall (no relation) took us through Hedwig's life story.
(also not my picture)
Simon didn't love the show, but I thought it was fantastic. Michael C. Hall was incredible as Hedwig - I would absolutely love to see him on stage again. Simon thought he was good as well, but didn't like the non-traditional structure of the musical itself. It's a concert put on by Hedwig for the audience, with vignettes linking together songs rather than regular scenes. It's not for everyone.
Afterward, we attempted to take the subway to UCB Chelsea, but ended up walking back to the hotel first, as there was a subway service interruption on the line that we needed. We freshened up, then walked several blocks to The Meatball Shop in Chelsea for a quick dinner. After we ate, we walked the block or so to UCB Chelsea and got in the long, cold line for the 7:30pm ASSSSCAT. There was still an hour until the show and the line was already enormous, but as we would discover once they let in for our show, the huge line was for the free show at 9:30pm.
We were some of the first people into the 7:30pm show, and grabbed a pair of front row seats. Again, Simon utilized the in-room bar for a couple of Yuenglings, a luxury and beer we do not have access to in LA. We didn't know the monologist, a writer whose name I now forget, but he mentioned during his monologues that the monologist for the later show was Sarah Koenig of Serial fame. The whole audience groaned, and I think he immediately regretted telling us we missed out. But despite our less-famous monologist, it was a great show, and one of the improvisors we know from LA was a cast member that night. It's a small world, especially in improv.
After the show, we stopped by a bar near our hotel for one last drink. Pioneers Bar was fairly empty, which made sense for a chilly Sunday night, but you could tell it was a place that would be hopping on a regular weeknight. We had a couple of beers and talked over the trip.
Some conclusions we came to? New York City is awesome. We love living in Los Angeles and don't see ourselves leaving the sunshine and warmth anytime soon, but we are both eager to visit NYC again whenever possible. The hotel we chose was in a great location. We loved that we could walk to many things right from the hotel, and that we could get on a subway that ran all day and all night and would take us basically anywhere else we wanted to go. We loved seeing the NYC UCBs (even though our Franklin is clearly superior) and checking out theater on the East Coast. We loved being able to walk around and stumble upon bars, instead of seeking them out specifically and having to make arrangements to get there and back. We had a fabulous time.
After a couple of rounds, we returned to the hotel and got some sleep.
We finally used our "free breakfast" passes at the hotel for an extremely mediocre meal, showered and packed our things, and headed for Penn Station.
It was fairly crowded, but we easily found our train to Philly and enjoyed the short ride. Before we knew it, we were meeting up with Simon's parents in Penn Station to start our Christmas trip home.
The Trip Back
As I mentioned before, I bought the plane tickets before we changed our transport options, so we were scheduled to leave from JFK around 8pm on Monday. December 29th. Simon's parents drove us to 30th Street Station in Philly, and then we had to take the train from Philly back to Penn Station. We stored our bags with the valet at the station while we got some dinner at the District Tap House. Finally, we had to do the reverse of our trip into the city - take the LIRR train to the Airtrain to JFK. We bought the right LIRR tickets, but initially got on the (unmarked) express train by accident, which would have skipped our stop. Thankfully, a kind woman sitting behind us saw our tickets and told us what train we needed to be on. I could have kissed her, since I was already stressed out about the journey back to an unfamiliar airport.
We found the right train, and made it back to JFK in a timely fashion. Security lines were atrocious, but we managed to make it through to our gate with a half-hour or so to spare until boarding. The flight itself was super long, and we didn't get to LAX until almost midnight. After we collected our bags and got the shuttle back to the car, we discovered that we had a dead car battery. We didn't end up getting home until about 3am LA time.
Despite the less-than-ideal ending to our trip, I can certainly see us doing something like this again. Simon's lack of vacation time is the main hinderance to most of our travel ambitions, and using a week at Christmas as we usually do leaves him with just a week for the entire rest of the year. For the past couple of years, traveling home to visit family and having family visit us has been using up the remaining week of his vacation time, so building trips into our existing travel/work plans (like with this trip & our upcoming England trip) or doing long weekends is really the only way we can have a vacation right now. I'm sure this will change soon, but until it does, I see several three to four day getaways in our future.
Thanks for reading, I know it was a lot. As I typed, I realized that I didn't have a ton of pictures - I think it's because I was wearing gloves for the whole trip. Hope you are staying warm - it's hard to imagine the East Coast blanketed in slow when it's 70 degrees out here. See you soon!