Where to talk to interesting strangers in New York

This month marks the release of Ayun Halliday‘s Zinester’s Guide to NYC, a travelers’ guidebook to the quirkier corners of New York City. As I note in my back-cover blurb of the book, it’s the travel equivalent of an old-school mix-tape — useful and full of surprises for vagabonders. The book also boasts blurbs from New York Times writer Matt Gross, Real Housewife of New Jersey Alex McCord, and Comedy Central personality Stephen Colbert, who notes: “If I could still walk the streets of New York among my People, I would use this truly funny and truly affordable guide book. It kicks ass.”

Ayun, who I interviewed years ago when she was promoting her travel book No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late, is currently in the middle of an online book tour promoting her new guidebook, and today she’s dropping in to share her NYC secrets with Vagablogging readers. Specifically, she’s going to offer her advice on where bashful vagabonders can talk to interesting strangers and meet people in New York.

In her own words, here are Ayun’s tips:

I assume that even shy people crave a little community after long months of solo travel. In my experience, New Yorkers are a pretty chatty bunch, striking up conversations on the subway and in the ladies room lines at intermission. I love the places and events listed below for wholeheartedly welcoming strangers into the mix.


Etsy Labs
55 Washington St, Suite 512
(btwn Water and Front St, DUMBO, Bklyn) 718-855-7955
(DUMBO: A/C to High St-Brooklyn Bridge)
Monday, 5pm – 8pm

On Monday evenings, Etsy welcomes ordinary citizens into its inner sanctum. Everything’s free…supplies, tools, the expertise of the visiting instructor. ZG2NYC contributor Esther Smith led one Monday night workshop where folks learned how to make rolling ball books and ornaments. Felting, t-shirt surgery, homemade plushies, and pincushions…some of this stuff I sort of know how to do, but this is an opportunity to learn from the masters!


Punk Rope
14th Street Y
344 E. 14th St (btwn 1st & 2nd Ave) 212-780-0800
(East Village: L to 1st Ave)
Mondays 7pm, $12

Long Island City Y
32-23 Queens Blvd (btwn 33rd St & 32nd Pl, LIC, Queens)
(LIC: 7 to 33rd St-Rawson St)
Tuesday 7:30pm, Friday 5:30 Free trial class! Then $15

Greenpoint Y
99 Meserole (btwn Manhattan Ave and Lorimer, Greenpoint
Bklyn) 718-389-3700
(Greenpoint: G to Nassau Ave)
Wednesday, 7:30pm, $15

Punk rope is a serious workout—wear your most supportive footgear (and bra, if applicable). I particularly like how the instructors take the themes in dead earnest, with bits of costume and thoughtfully constructed playlists. I have fond memories of the Oktoberfest when instructor Shana (aka Pippi) had us clasp our ropes behind our backs, bend at the waist, and lead with our noses, like boars searching for truffles in the Black Forest. A couple of times a month, punk ropers replenish their lost calories with après-class drink specials in sympathetic Greenpoint and East Village bars.


The Village Chess Shop
230 Thompson St (btwn 3rd St & Bleecker)
(Greenwich Village: A/B/C/D/E/F/M to W 4th St)

Want to immerse yourself in a small slice of Greenwich Village past? Go to the Village Chess Shop. It’s been here since 1972 and it still doesn’t have air-conditioning. You can buy chess sets here, yes, but the primary objective is not to sell you some novelty board with pieces painted like American Idol contestants or world leaders. Come here with time to kill. You can play pick-up for $2 an hour or just hang around watching the ones in progress. (No cussing—they’ll fine you nearly twice the hourly rate!) They don’t spurn beginners—chess has honed their patience. Many of the regulars have been coming for decades.


The Brooklyn Chili Takedown
Multiple times throughout the year, various locations — see website for details.

Tell your stomach to watch the fuck out, because once a year is not enough and the competitors are unfettered by any official rules save a mandate to bring enough to feed the crowd! Who knows what they’ll put in that pot in their pursuit of chili excellence! For about 10 bucks, you can sample 20 or so. Get in “free” by registering to compete—though be forewarned, it’ll cost you a lot of beef, beans, stress, and heartache. Wisely, this mother of all hipster cook-offs is always scheduled at a venue where alcohol is sold, a practice that extends to its many spawn, including, but not limited to, tofu, cookie, fondue and bacon takedowns.


Church of the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen
296 9th Ave (@ W 27th St) 212-924-0167
(Chelsea: C/E to 23rd St)

I usually feel comfier sticking with the secular, but there’s a lot to love about a church whose rector refused to cave to a request to shut down their long-running, 5-days-a-week soup kitchen operation “for security reasons” when the 2004 Republican National Convention was convening a few blocks away. There’s no proselytizing of any kind, just a hell of a lot of casserole. Whether you’re scooping mashed potatoes, busing tables, or refilling sugar shakers, a morning’s shift will put you in contact with hundreds of hungry New Yorkers. I’m comfortable with any God Bless Yous that get bandied around. Your paper hat is yours to keep, though you can take it off for the hot staff meal everyone shares once the last guests have cleared out. Email Clyde, the guy who keeps this mighty craft on course, with the date or range of dates you’re available. Give him a few days to get back to you with whether or not there’s room for you on the schedule.

Ayun Hallday’s Zinester’s Guide to NYC is available online and in select bookstores as of this month. For more information on the book, including links to other online and real-world book-tour stops, visit Ayun’s website.

Posted by | Comments Off on Where to talk to interesting strangers in New York  | December 6, 2010
Category: Travel Guidebooks, Vagabonding Advice

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