Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Cheapness Studies Guide to Tribeca

Of all the posh Manhattan neighborhoods, Tribeca has a way of out-poshing them all. Sure, the Upper East Side has its socialites, but it also has recent college grads living far from the subway, its fallen-aristocrat types in inherited apartments, etc., etc. The Upper West Side? Wealthy people schlepping around so many plastic bags you'd never guess their apartments were worth that. East Village? Pricey but filthy. West Village? Magnolia-seeking tourists and adolescent fans of Christopher Street make the intimidating townhouse-owners (intimidating-townhouse owners?) seem few and far between. SoHo? No doubt it costs a ton to live there, but most of us are too busy using it as a mall to consider that it's also residential.

But Tribeca is for the rich. It holds no attraction for tourists, and its shops are more amenities for the super-wealthy than places the peons can go for new jeans and tees. The women have that casual-yet-polished, gym-honed look one expects to see in L.A., not New York, but with a stylish edge that comes from being one unpleasant trip across Canal away from SoHo.

The Tribeca I remember from high school was wealthy, sure, but it was more just these few loft-lined blocks and Nobu, Chanterelle, who knows. Now it seems to cover a much larger area, and the trust-fund-artists-who-try-to-look-poor seem to have been replaced by perhaps similarly artistic types who nevertheless don't have that concern. There were once many high-school-student-budget-friendly establishments (Taylors, Downtown Delicious), but these seem to have disappeared. So after moving to a neighborhood next to Tribeca, one whose main drag is, I suppose, Tribeca, I was relieved to learn that other options remain or have arrived in recent years.

So fear not, frugal visitors and (should they exist) Tribecans. The guide is below. Note that it is mostly about food establishments. If I bought things other than food on a regular basis, I wouldn't be able to afford the places I recommend here. I hope this will be just the first in a series of Cheapness Neighborhood Guides, for NY and beyond. We shall see.

Try these:

Bouley Bakery: On the one hand, hmm. On the other, the pain au chocolat... and canelles... And coffee there is what, $1.35? So it's not the best coffee in the city. They might very well have the best croissants in the city, at least since Payard closed, and if you can ignore the flakes of croissant caked onto the velvet banquettes and simply appreciate the charming atmosphere and, well, velvet banquettes, why not?

Takahachi: Fresh, amazing Japanese food under $50 for two, with drinks (and by "drinks" I of course mean one hot sake), assuming you're not someone who needs to leave a sushi place feeling stuffed. More specifically, the $3 vegetable rolls and $1-for-two vegetable tempura make the place the ultimate bargain for those who didn't want fish in the first place. Remarkable considering the neighborhood and the cuisine, but still a stretch for the frugal grad student. On the other hand, it's enough to make six nights a week of pasta worth it after all.

Whole Foods: Yes, Whole Foods. It's not technically in Tribeca, but it calls itself the Tribeca Whole Foods. Not only is this, relatively speaking, the 'cheap' supermarket (a depressing process of elimination, I realize - have I mentioned my feelings regarding Gristedes?), but the cafe upstairs has affogatto, i.e. a large serving of the ice cream flavor of your choice plus two shots of espresso, for either $4 or $4.50. Consider one can easily pay this for two shots of espresso that don't come poured over ice cream, not a bad deal whatsoever. And remember that any supermarket with a bulk section has that in its favor.

Housing Works: The Chambers Street branch is where I got a pair of $5 A.P.C. jeans that would probably close comfortably if it weren't for the above-mentioned entries. Basically, though, it's the best thrift shop around. Tribecan cast-offs are the greatest.

...and not these:

Kaffe 16somethingorother across from the Whole Foods: Curious if you can spend $3.50-ish on a cup of regular coffee? You can, there, last I checked. It is seriously a coffee place without an inexpensive option. The unexciting-looking baked goods hover at the same ridiculous price point. Yes, it's good to know that the beans were shade-grown by someone who makes more than my stipend, but the same is promised from places that mark up their coffee by far more reasonable amounts.

Every single restaurant on Greenwich: Jo and I took a walk down that street, looking for a place to get dinner, and while it's indeed lined with restaurants, they're all those giant loft-like spaces with elaborate bars and model-banker couples, or just people so head-to-toe expensively attended to that even before glancing at the menu to see that appetizers began at $12, we sort of realized this wasn't for us.

Century 21: OK, not in Tribeca, but closer to it than my apartment is, and also on that walk to campus. After comparing the selection and prices on various undergarments there and at the pricey-seeming Calvin Klein underwear boutique in SoHo, I realized that I'd pretty much been suffering needlessly in a mob of overexcited tourists - and at a store where you can't even try on the bras - for all these years. Maybe they have bargains somewhere in that store, but it turns out the stuff I'd been getting 'for less' all these years is, alas, cheap to begin with.

Furniture stores, art galleries, furniture stores that look like art galleries, Issey Miyake, realtors: Need I explain?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Gratuitous upgrades

As I've held forth about since forever on this blog, I don't much believe in 'quality' when it comes to everyday clothes. They pretty much last till they don't, with many factors (stains, trends, weight fluctuations) affecting clothes' longevity far more than the hand-stitching or lack thereof. I own two pairs of jeans, each of which cost precisely $29.50 (do Uniqlo and Levi's have some kind of arrangement? I kid...), and honestly cannot see how any aspect of my life, including the all-important happiness-with-jeans aspect, would improve had I gone with a $150 alternative.

But! I do, unfortunately, believe that there are other arenas where quality is perceptible. Shoes are an ambiguous case - pay a bit more for certain types, and comfort improves, immediate deterioration becomes less likely; pay a ton, and there's a good chance you're hobbling around in heel-less eight-inch platforms. Food, cosmetics (except for nail polish, which need never exceed $8), shampoo, conditioner... These are tough. The trick is basically not to know that better is out there, because once you do, getting the cheap version will feel like a sacrifice.

Two examples, both of which are goopy and ridiculous:

$30 Japanese conditioner.

$2.60 Icelandic (but, oddly enough, locally produced - way to market to everyone!) vanilla yogurt cups.

I ought to have tried neither. Alas, too late. Both are so definitively superior to their reasonably-priced equivalents that it's impossible to claim no difference exist. The only answer - and perhaps the best cheapness advice I'm capable of providing, period - is that if a more expensive version exists of something you buy regularly, accept that it might be better, much better, but don't buy it in the first place.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How not to be cheap

Do not pick the day of a 6-mile run as the one to try that Japanese restaurant in Tribeca you've been so curious about. Even if said restaurant is shockingly affordable by Japanese food and Tribeca standards. In fact, going near any meal that is not a huge plate of pasta prepared in one's own kitchen is, on such a day, a cheapness disaster.

However! $1 for two decent-sized pieces of vegetable tempura! (Of which I had... more than two.) A Cheapness Studies Guide to New York's Priciest Neighborhood may be coming soon.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Counting pennies

The iced coffee I like best near campus, or anywhere for that matter, used to cost $2.25. Then it went up to $2.26, which was a convenient way to get rid of pennies, or an annoying way to acquire pennies, depending. (The place accepts credit cards even for tiny amounts, which indeed presents a way out of the dilemma I'm about to describe.) Then, all of a sudden, perhaps having noticed that their iced coffee was kind of a bargain compared to everything else they sell, up it leaped to $2.49.

This, I immediately decided, was not a fluke derived from the price-plus-tax, but rather a calculated attempt by the establishment in question to collect mini-tips from customers who otherwise wouldn't tip, or (as is my case) only tip at to-go establishments when ordering something more complicated than coffee poured into a cup. Who would be so crass - or put so little value on their time - as to wait for that penny? Unlike $2.99, $2.49 means you've probably already put in the time to find 50 cents in change, at which point you've already been holding up the line, wasting your time and that of the cashier, for ages.

My time might be 'worth' more than that of the average humanities grad student, thanks to NYU's new funding arrangements, but it's still not worth a whole heck of a lot, so my usual method is to pay with two dollar bills and two quarters, receive the penny, and dream of the day when I'll have accumulated four pennies in time to pay with two bills, a quarter, two dimes, and... you see where I'm going with this. So it was oh just a little bit awkward when, recently, the woman ringing me up asked, "Do you want your penny?" Because, um, I did want my penny, because pennies are currency, not everywhere takes credit cards, and some items do not cost something that's a multiple of 5. And because when I tip (again, fancy-espresso-drinks, along with, obvs, restaurants and bars), I tip more than a penny. So I said yes, that I did want the penny, in a polite yet confident tone. Nevertheless, I may never be able to show my face in that coffee shop again.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Cheapness done wrong UPDATED

OMG girls, what we should totally do is channel our obsession with eating nothing whatsoever and then feeling all bad about it when we slip up and down a cheesecake into one great big no-shopping "diet." Wouldn't it be awesome if we could apply that purity impulse that once drove mankind towards religion and sexual restraint (or at least guilt) but makes us think just one chocolate truffle will make us obese to another clich├ęd women's pleasure: buying new clothes? Like, we can declare a teensy purchase at J.Crew "sinful," then collectively pat ourselves on the back for going a whole five minutes without buying anything other than accessories. We can merge the language of paraphrased-Christianity and fad-diets and create something uniquely painful to read, it will be super!

So I guess it's clear where I stand on "The Great American Apparel Diet." (Unfortunate name, but at least it's not The Great Forever 21 Diet.) But the whole thing's not totally off-base. If you're buying clothes about which you're not 100% enthusiastic, in designer-denim-induced-debt, buy less. And when possible, avoid purchases that already have it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time written all over them. Much as I have a momentary desire for these, it's unclear what buying them would accomplish, other than help the Japanese economy, and ultimately, post-second-round-as-thrift, add to the trendy-purchase landfill.

But does the whole thing need to be dressed up as cutesy 'diet'? (It's effectively the reverse of the Worst Advice Ever.) Despite occasional nods to wholesome alternatives to browsing H&M, the goal here seems not to be to abandon shopping for something more productive, but rather to give it up so as to blog self-righteously about how one was able to Resist the siren call of the H&M downstairs.

Still, as pleasures go, if you're not spending beyond your means, where exactly is the harm in buying some clothes, sometimes? Is keeping store employees employed not enough to cancel out the environmental and child-labor disaster that is, in 9 out of 10 circumstances, your new tank top? If your concerns are purely ecological, couldn't you just go used-only and shop away? But yes, given that people do not tend to shop exclusively in thrift stores except out of need or hipsterdom (or Finnishness - the Finns love their used clothes, apparently), there is an impact on the planet to take into account. But this is true of nearly all human experience. Should we all get standard-issue potato sacks and abandon Consumerism along with personal style? Has taking an all-or-nothing stance benefited Americans as food-dieters, and if not, why (other than the obvs - to sell books) embrace it for shopping 'dieters' as well?

UPDATE

See also Jezebel on this.