Manhattan Made

Why Kids Need a Week in New York City

Start spreading the news. I’m leaving today. I want to be a part of it …

I grew up in a big city with billboards and litter and bellowing horns. We lived in a concrete jungle with beggars and highways and smog — and we vacationed, naturally, in charming, palm tree–punctuated beach towns.

Now I live in this charming, palm tree–punctuated beach town. It’s lovely — a safe, peaceful, pretty place to raise kids. And yet a part of my urban-bred brain wonders if there’s something missing from the soul of children who don’t know how to hop a subway turnstile or sleep through the blare of constant, distant sirens. Are they too content? Too … untested?

Starshine Roshell

So when the tourists began pouring into Santa Barbara for spring break, I dragged my family to Manhattan for a lesson in culture, congestion, and crabby cabbies. We needed grit, I felt. Too much sustained simplicity makes ya soft in the head.

But could two laid-back pups from paradise really glean value from a week in a city that never sleeps? Could my dyed-in-the-wool country mice ever truly appreciate the bracing bedlam of Gotham?

Most of what the boys knew about New York came from Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind”: “Yeah, I’m up at Brooklyn, now I’m down in TriBeCa, right next to De Niro, but I’ll be ’hood forever. I’m the new Sinatra, and since I made it here, I can make it anywhere …”

So I played them Ol’ Blue Eyes’ “New York, New York,” bought them actual coats (“No, a cotton hoodie is not a coat, stop asking me that”), and booked four tickets to JFK.

My little-town blues are melting away …

We rented a fourth-floor walkup apartment in a brownstone on the Lower East Side. Whole place was the size of our living room back home. You had to move the sofa (and I use the term loosely) to get your luggage through the front door—which had several merciful deadbolts. I heard my kids say “this is sketchy” 13 times before we went to bed the first night.

The morning shed light on the city’s swarms of denizens, untold brusque masses crowding the sidewalks and subways and Shake Shacks. “There are so many humans,” said my stunned 14-year-old, “that you can’t ever again feel like you’re important at all. You’re just … another one.”

But the kids soon adapted to the breathless pace and breathtaking possibilities of a messy metropolis. It started with an egg cream — and worked its way through knish, cannoli, and something called a “sane-gwich,” which turned out to be a sandwich only infinitely more delicious. (Say it. It even sounds yummier.)

These vagabond shoes are longing to stray right through the very heart of it …

We walked miles and spanned lifestyles, from Park Avenue to the Tenement Museum, from Broadway to the Bowery. We ate street-cart gyros on the steps of the Met while watching five phenomenal old guys sing a cappella doo-wop, and ducked out of the rain on Fifth Avenue to buy a paper cone of exorbitantly expensive chocolate-dipped strawberries at Godiva. By week’s end, the kids had hailed cabs, haggled with surly street vendors, played chess in the park with a weird stranger, and learned to use guts and good sense (rather than a crosswalk signal) to decide when it’s safe to cross a street. You can’t learn that stuff on a beach.

Our last hour in the city, we walked past a man who was vomiting quite unapologetically on the sidewalk. “I want to be a part of it,” our oldest crooned Sinatra-style as we all continued walking, unfazed. “New York, New York …”

Starshine Roshell is the author of Wife on the Edge.

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