New York State of Mine: How to Avoid “Home for the Holidays” Syndrome in Hotels
Slow-roasted chicken. Taking a shower with your father shooting questions at you through the bathroom door. Twin trundle beds, on wheels, on a waxed wooden floor, for you and your wife to push (and try to keep) together during a hot night in your childhood bedroom.
There are myriad attractive reasons to choose to stay in your parents’ home when you’re visiting for the holidays–that is, if you have parents, and if they have a home. But if you do, and if you hail from New York, and if you come from a close-knit family, and if you are me (and many others at the tail end of Generation X, who now live elsewhere), your lodging reservations are almost etched in stone–unless you stay with your in-laws and feel guilty you’re not staying with your parents, or unless you stay with your parents and feel guilty about not staying with your brother, et cetera.
Most people from New York, this author included, have never stayed in a New York hotel. It’s not just a variation on: “I grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and never got to the Empire State Building.” New York hotels were not just considered extraordinarily expensive in our world. They were considered wasteful and off-limits–for tourists and outsiders–as well as grossly inauthentic. How could you visit your “home” if you choose not to stay there? Isn’t going home–as if anyone can anymore–supposed to feel comfortable? Add to these sentiments two important reasons to seek out a Manhattan hotel for a couple of days–one, a legitimate work requirement; another, that New York hunger to know how the other half (in this case, Manhattan hotel guests) live. Such are the reasons behind my decision last December to stay in two hotels when I had four family residences in the New York area from which to choose, where I could have slept–and argued, and worried, and overeaten reduced calorie snacks–for free.
I’ll admit: The idea appealed to me from the moment I booked my plane. Sandwiched between a horrible six-hour Jet Blue flight without a functional TV and having to go “home” to the scene of my childhood night terrors, I could use a mini-detox on the ground to mentally prepare for a family visit — the hope being that I’d come off as just a little bit less of the stunned ‘tween I usually appear to be when I meet my parents after a number of months away. I could avoid the instant regression and enjoy an immediate chance to be with my NYC peers and feel like an adult. Then, when I did approach my family, I might not act–and/or be treated–like a child again.
The plan: Land in JFK. Commit a serious crime, choosing not to be thrown into a Nissan backseat for an emotionally jarring 53-minute drive east. Then stay somewhere required for my professional assignment, near others I work with and would have to meet, for a few days–before heading out, on my terms, to the Long Island structure in which I was raised. Employing this strategy, I could avoid, if not simply delay, “Home for the Holidays” syndrome–and maintain some hand in the Home Visit Power Balance that eventually sways in the direction of the Hosts within two hours of adult children landing on weathered emotional tarmacs.
So, I tried it: After landing in New York, sweaty with creaky joints, I emerged from JFK for the first time and found a spot in the epic Cab Line. It was blissful, jockeying for space with the other very giving visitors, especially the conversational ponytailed man with the 90210-fan carryon who had felt that our in-flight legroom was “communal footsie space.” Spiritually nourishing is the only way to explain how it felt to then see the NYC skyline from the comfort of LIE traffic while listening to a taxi driver who actually spoke English whine on the phone about his prostate. Next, however, I received a true gift, as the cabbie explained, with bulletproof rhetoric, that it would be more environmentally friendly to choose not to drive up to the door of my hotel. Yes, he would save gas, time, and the planet if I could walk the extra four blocks, with three bags, so he “also” wouldn’t have to turn in a direction he didn’t want to drive. I appreciated the socially responsible approach, but, selfish yuppie scum that I am, kindly asked if he wouldn’t mind completing the trip for which he was going to receive a flat fee and generous tip. Note: Situations like these are great fun when your cabbie speaks English well.
Things improved significantly upon my arrival at the Andaz Fifth Avenue, however. Standing on the street, cars blazing past me, bags at my feet, I felt almost like Arnold Drummond at the introduction to Diff’rent Strokes. Wealthy urbanites zipped to and fro, perhaps to expensive restaurants where they would likely check their iPhones for an hour in front of someone drinking overpriced wine. Across the street from me was the majestic staircase and lion-roaring façade of the New York Public Library; at least this trip would make me feel as good about my writing career as family members who expect detailed assessments of my monthly magazine invoices. And there was literally a Nip in the air. A flying wrapper from one of those scrumptious chocolate-parfait candies (or do you call one of these “a Nips?”) wafted right past my nose, reminding me of New York’s incorrigible whimsy. How I longed to return from Los Angeles to a homeland that didn’t take itself too seriously.
The Andaz, however, wasn’t the Plaza (note, a good thing). I like a hotel in New York with something of a hidden door, like the tall slab right off 5th and 41st that leads you into the Andaz. Also, I didn’t feel outclassed by ridiculously dressed bell-people, gilded mirrors, and crazy old furniture, as I often did visiting friends in the lobbies of more so-called regal establishments. The Andaz is stylish but not in an aggressively hipster way; it’s adult and assured, if more pricey than the Holiday Inn. The employees who welcomed me were actually nice, even witty, and as I checked-in via iPad at the sleek white bar in the chic high-ceilinged lobby, gulping free water in a flask-like bottle, I decompressed, which is more than I can say for how I feel at many of the front desks in Palm Springs’s hyper-relaxed! spa resorts.
But the hotel didn’t feel like a real NYC home; it felt like something better: the pied-a-terre I’d want if I could afford one. Outside the elevator on my level I found a wall with a handwritten quote from Gustav Mahler (my personal godfather of whimsy) explaining a concept that, as a musician, I try to explain to people all the time. “If a composer could say what he had to say in words he would not bother trying to say it in music.” Pretentious? I don’t think so. The maxim could have just as easily been written by Bob Dylan, or Cee-Lo Green, save for the addition of one or two more “contemporary” words.
Staying in my minimalist loft-room, with a design-y desk next to a tall window looking out on the NYCPL, I started to ooze into my writing work. I wasn’t physically in the library, surrounded by books, feeling the history of literature and the ghosts from that 90’s Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit, engulf me. I was in a spare, zen-like retreat that looked down on the place quite literally, putting that important and imposing structure in its rightful place. Hell, I could walk right in there now, borrow a book and never return it. I would rest easy this evening, but not before indulging in the footbath I found in the giant shower. (Note: I don’t know another New York hotel that offers a bowl in which to cool your dogs, nor have I ever tried one, but after a day of standing around in Red Wing boots, trying to pretend to New Yorkers that I don’t spend most of my LA life slumming it in cushy New Balance sneakers, it was relief of the highest order.)
I was worried about dinner-time, though. Usually, in New York, the first night brings me some gastritis-soothing, mom-roasted fowl. This night, however, I would meet my brother and his fiancé, not in their apartment, but in the hotel’s dark and speakeasy-ish basement bar, treating the young lovers to a nice array of very stiff cocktails, red wine, and tapas, where, among other tasty bites, we’d excitedly devour the exact opposite of a Jewish roast chicken: Spanish-spiced pork shoulder. It felt wrong and right at once, which these days, without sounding like an ad for a stupid new Vegas hotel, actually seems to feel more right than anything. Of course I chased it with chorizo and slept guilt-free.
The next day, leaving the Andaz for work–I’ll take that free boutique lip-balm, thank you very much, cool chick in the lobby–I won a new assignment that I had been hoping for. The question: Did hotel-living make it happen? Give me the confidence I needed to be my best? I couldn’t be sure, but just in case, I swiftly repaired to the next NYC antithesis of my childhood home: The James Hotel, in Soho, roughly positioned where 6th Avenue meets Canal, in a sort of Nexus of the West Lower Manhattan Universe, above the entrance to the Holland Tunnel, and in front of a lot of open space, thanks to more than a few blocks of low buildings. All of which I relished from a sleek high-floor room with glass corners. Which is, if you were wondering, how to do downtown.
If the Andaz is modern midtown comfort through accessible style, the James is on par with a somewhat different mojo, centered also on style but on design that feels more Tribeca-inspired. The James is a smaller, even more hidden spot, but this view was Wall Street 2 (if you were the film’s handsomely paid creative producer, as opposed to its bad actors), the room more about looking out in every direction than tucking in with one master view.
Both NYC-viewing styles have their merits, of course, and I appreciated the free pastries and high-end joe available in the eclectic public space off the hotel’s check-in desk as much as I appreciated the Sony iPhone charger next to my firm platform bed. It was also novel to be within walking distance of Balthazar for the first time in my life. Now that the famed brasserie has escaped Sex and the City site-placement, we can finally return to loving it, genuinely, and eating superior french fries that do not appear to exist in a family home where everything is sautéed, if it is fried at all, in heart-healthy omega-3s. Why not indulge, especially when the hotel’s SUV will escort you, DeNiro-like, to the train station for free?
You have to learn something in every essay, even a casual one for an online publication (take notes, micro-blog students), and what I learned from these lodging experiences was that by choosing specific, new boutique hotels that break the standard NYC mold, I could actually break through that Inauthenticity Forcefield that renders Manhattan hotel guests outsiders. At least that’s how it worked for me, armed with just a little insider knowledge and a personal history of the city. I’m not going to argue that I completely avoided “Home for the Holidays” friction: it set in about three days into arriving at my family’s place. But hell, it took three whole days, and I avoided the anticipatory anxiety, which is sometimes the worst part. Moreover, those first 72 hours with the parents were far more comfortable and pleasant, the way they should be.
Do I suffer from delusions of grandeur? Sadly, I always have, outside of short travel essays, too. But now, in my fantastic head, at least for one work-related trip that I happened to tack onto the beginning of a family visit, I had two pied-a-terres in Manhattan. When I return next time and cannot revisit them (because, who will want me to anonymously review them twice?), I will simply employ pharmaceuticals to help me forget what it was like to live in New York, albeit for a couple of days, like a New Yorker again, and I’ll just take to my trundle bed with a plate of roast chicken and gnaw away the night, rolling across the floor of my childhood bedroom, believing that when I finally grow up in my head, it will all be better.
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