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New York on $10 a Day

How one woman lived on next to nothing for a week, and rediscovered the city in the process.

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The author at the end of the week; opposite, her souvenirs from a week of frugal spending.   

Instead of making a resolution this New Year’s Eve, I pledged to live one: For a week, I would attempt to survive, even thrive, on $10 a day. I’ve always tried to turn frugality into something hedonistic, glorifying the garret life, the strawberry-incense-and-absinthe existence. It’s a lovely ideal, but I wondered if I could really live well on a tiny budget. I decided to find out, and in the process, see what kind of New York I’d discover. I entered 2006 with the qualms and joy of stepping across fresh snow. This is what I learned.

Walking Renews the City. Cabs were out of my budget; even subways had to be carefully considered. I walked miles most days, which anchored me to neighborhoods one by one and so to the city at large. This is when you see rock-and-roll flyers in windows, or smell heavenly food from a tiny Ethiopian café you’ve never noticed. Walking through Central Park was like a balm, the darkness a dense, inky green and soft with the voices of families.

But Cab Rides Are Essential. It’s always darkest right before the dawn, especially on a Tuesday in the streets of New York City. I walked home at 4 a.m. one night, heels bleeding, past shady lurkers and befuddled, dangerous fights. I decided then that transportation is sometimes a nonnegotiable luxury.

The Open-Bar Circuit Is There to Be Milked. At Double Happiness, pretty kids were ten deep for free Bacardi Razz. The rum ran out just as I made it to the front lines, but I couldn’t be angry—one has to arrive early for free liquor. If you go to open bars, be ready to drink raisin schnapps or Dentyne martinis, since the events are often marketing tools. In fact, publicists post them in the Community Group and Event Services categories on Craigslist.

Be Open Yourself. I busted out of my drinks-and-dinner rut for smart comedians at Mo Pitkins, and saw grinding, goofy hip-hop karaoke at Rothko. At the Dorkbot lecture in Soho, a composer made a spectral composition of Billboard hits, and an artist wove Tibetan prayer flags from audiocassette tape; IQ points floated through the room like pheromones. At the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, Polish artist Biala’s paintings looked like letters from beautiful places. I snuck into the American Museum of Natural History, gazed at licorice-red crocoite from Tasmania and sugary Rhodesian topaz, and felt 11 again. Find no-cash fun at nyc.freecityevents.com.

It’s Easy to Eat Cheap, and Filling. I had a hot, tangy meal for two at New Wonton Garden in Chinatown for $9. Homemade meatballs for $8 at Pizza Bar in the meatpacking district. Thirty-cent bananas from delis saved me every day. You can find meals for $10 and under using the “Inexpensive” search filter on nymag.com’s Restaurant section.

But You Have to Indulge Yourself. Think Jack Kerouac wasting his only dime on a banana split at a diner. It’s good for the soul. I gladly spent half a day’s allowance on a diaphanous, buttery croissant at Bouley Bakery. Another night, I blew the whole stipend on a pack of smokes. Everything tastes better when it’s precious. Doggie Bags Are Decadent. Never leave scraps behind. One morning I had a cold spaghetti breakfast, and it was dissolute like ballroom dancing in bare feet.

The Library Is Happening. I went to the Donnell Library for a screening of the 1953 Japanese film Gate of Hell. The movie—with its horses, brocade robes, and medieval houses—was luminous and haunted. My friends range from 33 all the way to about 34. When the lights came up after the movie, I was the only non-white-haired person in the room. Changing my financial habits changed my daily life; I interacted with New York in a more significant way. Nypl.org lists free library events around the city.

So Are Mosques, Churches, and Temples. I hesitated on the steps of St. Bartholomew’s, feeling like a grifter in God’s house. Only two other people were at Evening Prayer, and we read from the Book of Common Prayer. My politics don’t mesh with organized religion, but the rustle of garments and pages, the fragrance of pine garlands, and the act of reading with two strangers centered me, against all odds.

Craigslist Is Unreliable. I invited the world to treat me to lunch and posted my picture in the Strictly Platonic section. My first e-mail was, naturally, “U like anal?” I waited for the one witty, well-mannered responder at Once Upon a Tart on Sullivan Street, mouth watering over lemon tarts and powdered madeleines, until it slowly dawned that he wasn’t coming.

Freebies Are Everywhere. In Sephora, I smeared periwinkle shadow onto my eyelids and spritzed my wrists with 24 Faubourg. I ate ginger-cookie bits at Dean & DeLuca. A friend hooked me up with an Equinox pass; gym passes can be found at Gymsearch.net and eBay.


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