An existential quandary
Let's say you got laid off (my condolences). Your boss decided that you didn't meet his exacting requirements for shutting up and getting his espresso, and now that you're unemployed, you can't manage to get your novel, poems, play, treatise, or whatever published. Or let's say your rent went up by 15% and your super still won't fix that leak, which has created a pool of stagnant water on your floor, where gnats are giving birth to more gnats. Or let's say your soulmate left you for that person you agreed to have a threesome with last month. Or let's say you just had a bad commute: you woke up early for once, but the trains were delayed (and packed with assholes) and it was pouring rain, so you ended up walking through a waterfall of putrid street runoff before arriving late to work.
This wouldn't be happening in another city, right? Life would be a cinch in some simpler town in Middle America. But you don't live there; you live in New York, where life is 10 times as intense and demanding. So let's own our feelings and blow off some steam while we wait for New York to be 10 times as rewarding.
Russian & Turkish Baths
One of the most literal ways to blow off steam is a trip to the Russian & Turkish Baths. It's not the cheapest thing in the world these days, admission has gone up to $35, but it's a New York institution (founded in 1892) and damn if those saunas don't melt the stress away. There are single-sex and co-ed days depending on your comfort level, i.e. comfort with the opposite sex (for which shorts are required) and comfort with strangers of your own sex (birthday suits abound). The saunas, steam rooms, and massages should keep you busy for a while, there's a cheap café upstairs, and admission is good for an entire day.
I still maintain that New York is a fantastic walking city, and long walks really do burn off stress and help you disconnect. One of my favorite walks goes about 3.5 miles from Downtown Brooklyn up to East Williamsburg, largely via eastbound Myrtle Avenue and northbound Marcy Avenue, which takes around 90 minutes depending on your pace. Civic buildings and courthouses turn into residential streets as you skirt the top of Fort Greene Park and the Pratt Institute. After this, it will become a bit dilapidated and then rather abruptly turn into a Hasidic neighborhood, or I should say the Hasidic neighborhood. Full disclosure for anyone who doesn't know, this is one of the city's most insular communities and feels more or less like walking through Krakow 100 years ago. If that doesn't take your mind off things, I don't know what will. If you don't like feeling outnumbered, either don't do this walk or break into a dead run at Marcy Avenue and you'll be blowing off steam twice as fast.
Kayaking on the Hudson River
For something more physical than a walk, the west side of Manhattan has all kinds of options. Free kayaking on the Hudson River is one of my favorites, particularly because it's friendly to any budget, there are several locations to do it (at W. Houston, W. 56th, and W. 72nd), and it gets you out onto the water, and how often do you go to either river, honestly? There is ostensibly a 20-minute limit, to keep the line moving, but no one is timing you with a stopwatch and you can just get right back in line to do it again. You can also find tennis courts, batting cages, and more up and down the Hudson.
View from the Top of the Empire State Building
This may not appeal to everyone, but there's something about the top of the Empire State Building
(or the Top of the Rock
) that releases my New York demons. Perhaps it's the act of going 102 floors up into the sky and looking down over the entire grid like you've conquered it all. Whatever it is, being up there is like having all the weight lifted from your shoulders. The cost of admission ($22–25) and the hassle of getting up there with all the tourists is a bummer, but that view does the trick every time. You could additionally set your demons free by yelling some obscenities from the observation deck -- this might be frowned upon, but it won't make you look any crazier than the out-of-towners.
When you're done with all this, you can continue de-stressing by getting a drink at B61 and playing some pool (before or after grabbing a bite at Alma upstairs). This bar sits nearly on the water between Carroll Gardens and Red Hook, so it's not really on the way to anything, but it's a homey, unpretentious place to settle in and play a few games of 9-ball. For anyone who doesn't play pool because they don't know how, please just give it a try -- it's a great way to relieve tension and exercise your competitive muscles while also using your brain (I don't really use my brain when I'm running or kayaking, not sure if that's wise).
I'm told that a rousing night of karaoke at Winnie's in Chinatown is perfect for blowing off steam, but personally I wouldn't know -- karaoke is among my top panic-ridden, anxiety-inducing fears. People with crippling stage fright won't perform to relax, but I'm a big fan of supporting others who can grab that mic and belt it out.
New York will always be that place that dances on your last nerve and pushes you to the limits of civility, but at the end of the day I'd say it's worth it. We live in one of the best cities in the world and the things that stress us out are also what make New York so extraordinary: the high concentration of ambitious people, the surge of creativity, the clash of different cultures. So next time you see someone having a tearful breakdown in your local bodega, or loudly dumping someone on a street corner, or standing in everyone's way while they read the subway service changes, just remember that in New York, we all have our moments.