A cheapskate takes on pricey New York

The assignment: Go to the Big Apple for a weekend. The catch: Spend as little money as possible

At about $75 a pop, the opera tickets weren't what you'd call a bargain. But after all, it was the Metropolitan Opera, I thought, and it was performing both Mozart's "Cosí Fan Tutte" and Rossini's "An Italian in Algiers" in one day.

Besides, I don't make it down to the Big Apple from Beantown all that often.

Anyway, I thought that by squeezing a buck here and there, I could indulge myself a bit and still justify such cultural extravagance.

First I had to get there. Airfare was out of the question. Although the bus is cheaper, the train is quick, smooth, and more leisurely. Plus, it's a bit easier to tap out a story on a laptop on a train than to be lurched around as if on some carnival ride, in a bus.

"Are you a member of AAA?" the Amtrak ticket seller asked as I purchased my ticket a few days before my trip. "If you have your AAA card with you, you get a 10 percent discount."

Well, that was an easy $10 back in my wallet, I thought.

Then came the hard part: getting a hotel room for a Saturday night.

After casting around, the cheapest room I could come up with hovered around $140.

Computer to the rescue! Maybe there was something to those campy Priceline.com TV ads with William Shatner. Surely if Captain Kirk could maneuver the Starship Enterprise around the galaxy all those years safely, he could beam me down to New York.

Worth a shot. After calling up the website, I typed in my suggested price for a room in a two-star hotel: $50.

Ha! I could almost hear my computer laugh out loud. No chance, came its reply.

OK, $75, I countered.

Bingo! One night at the Empire Hotel for $75 (plus tax and a modest handling fee.) And an added bonus: You can almost see the tonsils when the fat lady sings from the Empire Hotel – it's that close to the Met.

The 4-1/2-hour train trip – beginning at 6:35 Saturday morning – had endless stops in every backwater, but got me there with a few hours to spare.

"Your room is ready, Mr. Young, but there's a $2 'acceptance fee,' " said the woman at the reception desk.

Fine. I was too tired to even ask what that meant. "What do these rooms usually go for?" I inquired.

"Well, depending on the day, from $199 to $260. I staggered up to my modest but more-than-adequate room with a smile on my face.

After crashing for a couple of hours, I was awakened by the sound of my stomach rubbing against my backbone. Hunger.

No time for a meal, I ferreted out the nearest snack machine and fed it a buck for a 1-1/4-ounce pack of Time Out Party Mix.

First three ingredients; corn, vegetable oil, salt. Yum, salt, my favorite food group. You know it's gotta be good. I slipped in another buck. Why not splurge? This is New York.

Matinee curtain time was in 20 minutes, and I was just a two-minute walk from the Met's glass doors.

Mozart was well served by a splendid production and especially fine ensemble work. I floated out of the theater, but those two packs of party mix had worn off somewhere in the middle of the second act.

Where to eat? I remembered this cheap sushi joint on Broadway, just a block and a half away. Dan's Tempura.

Dan's was overflowing. Folks were lined up to get in. But in 10 minutes I had a table and placed my order for sushi deluxe. Twelve pieces of sushi, including ikura (salmon roe), my total favorite. I'd save that for dessert. Two Perriers at $2.75 each helped wash it down.

Still 20 minutes to curtain. Maybe I'd have a real dessert. Ice Cream Tempura – vanilla or red bean – sounded intriguing.

"What's red bean ice cream taste like?" I asked my waiter.

"Like red bean," he informed me.

"Vanilla will be fine."

Cost: $20 and change. No, it wasn't Le Cirque, but it filled me up without emptying my wallet.

Ten minutes to curtain. Gotta fly.

Performance was spectacular.

Time to hit the sack. Who cares that there's no chocolate on the pillow, or that the bed wasn't turned down?

A friend had suggested a Harlem gospel tour to fill up Sunday morning. What could be better, Metropolitan Opera one day, Harlem gospel the next?

I decided to walk to 690 Eighth Avenue despite the cold drizzle. Of course I walked in the wrong direction for about three blocks despite the doorman's explicit instructions. There's something about the logic of New York City streets that escapes me. I'm used to Boston, where cows planned the city streets.

Anyway, after wearing out my shoes, I meet my friend and we hopped on the bus for our tour.

Our guide, George Lee Miles, was raised in Harlem. He has one of those deep, sweet voices that sound as though he were weaned on Godiva chocolates.

We drove through Harlem for more than an hour as Mr. Miles told us about its history. Finally, we arrived at the Greater Central Baptist Church, on the corner of West 132nd Street and Fifth Avenue.

"We'll wait here a while. Church usually starts late," said Mr. Miles. "We'll sit in the balcony. Now, remember no pictures, no leaning over the balcony. Be respectful."

We climbed the worn wooden stairs and took our seats in the plush-red pews as the organ wailed and a piano rocked out gospel songs.

Shortly, the choir (actually there were three choirs) swayed down the aisle to the refrain of "I was blessed with a faith unto thee."

Soon, the Rev. Anthony J. Chisolm's spirited preaching and prayer had the congregation on its feet, shouting approval. This was very much an audience-participation service.

Time for more from the choir. "Sometimes a song does more for us than words," said Mr. Chisolm, introducing the choir again.

"Jesus is a rock in a weary land, a shelter in a time of a storm," they sang, some banging tambourines against their thighs, others shaking maracas.

After the soloist rocked the congregation with "Turn it over to Jesus," our guide motioned us that it was time to leave.

"Rev. Chisolm is a Pentecostal minister preaching in a Baptist church. That's why [the services] go on so long. You never know when they're going to end."

I think we all would have rather stayed until the end.

"How many churches can you choose from for these tours?" I asked Miles.

"About 75," he said.

And why did he pick this one?

"My mother's a member," he said with a broad grin.

After the tour I hoofed it to Penn Station. (Another $1.50 saved by not taking the subway.)

At the station I wolfed down a tuna sandwich on rye. "You want tomato on that?" asked the guy behind the counter.

"How much more?"

"Fifty cents."

"Sure," I responded. After all, this is New York.

Back on the train, I started tapping out my story – but not before adding up my expenses. Total bill (not counting the opera splurge): $276.29.

But now I'm thinking that if I had kept it to only two packs of snack mix, and didn't go hog-wild with that tomato on my tuna sandwich, I could have done it for $274.79.

I'll know better next time.

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