NEW YORK — I am not a morning person. It's rare that anyone in Slate's New York office sees my sullen face before 10:30 a.m. I require three cups of coffee, sipped slowly over the course of an hour or two, before I feel capable of even sending an email to or making small talk with another human being. I never, ever leave my apartment before the crack of 9, except on the rare, traumatizing occasion that I have an early flight to catch out of JFK.
According to Cameron Gidari, I'm approaching life in New York all wrong. In his new ebook, Manhattan Before8, Gidari - who has also written a West-Coast guide for masochists called Seattle Before8 - argues that the Big Apple is more charming between sunrise and 8 a.m. than at any other time of day or night. In eight chapters with titles like "My Favorite Photography Spot," "My Favorite City Walk," and "My Favorite Serendipity" (that last is about "hidden treasure" at the flea market), Gidari describes his experiences hitting the town early in the morning with a roster of professional tour guides, journalists, entrepreneurs and other longtime New Yorkers. He also makes a hard sell for getting up early: "Before 8 AM, a city of 1.6 million people crammed onto a thirty-four-square-mile island suddenly becomes your private sanctuary, open to explore and enjoy before it is descended upon by the masses," he writes. "The feeling is positively freeing."
Like most morning people, Gidari immediately earned my skepticism. The breathless enthusiasm with which he describes single-digit morning hours didn't help, nor did his apparent disdain for the space bar. But reading his guidebook, I began to wonder whether I might discover a similar joie de vivre if I made an effort to start my days earlier. Then I read a line in "Manhattan Before8" that piqued my interest even more: "My morning philosophies center around a common theme: crowd avoidance." I'd always thought my distaste for getting up early was correlated with my misanthropic tendencies - but was it possible I could avoid people more effectively if I awoke before dawn? I had to find out.
And that's how it happened that last Friday night, I set two alarms for 4 a.m. and prepared for an early-morning adventure cycling through Manhattan. (Granted, the sun wouldn't rise till 6., but I wasn't about to bike 3 miles to Manhattan without having coffee first.) My plan was to investigate four of Gidari's recommendations - watching the sun rise from the Brooklyn Bridge, drinking coffee at Ninth Street Espresso in Alphabet City, strolling the length of the High Line, and eating breakfast at a health restaurant called Hu Kitchen near Union Square - and to find out what solitary morning pleasures I'd been missing out on in seven years of living in New York.
I discovered that not only are there fewer New Yorkers out and about early in the morning, but in many cases they are also nicer New Yorkers. The occasional people I encountered fell into roughly six categories:
Police officers. The hours before and shortly after dawn are prime time for cops loitering on the street, shooting the breeze with one another, and directing traffic - and they are distinctly friendlier than their 9-to-5 colleagues. As I was waiting at a red light to enter the Brooklyn Bridge bike and pedestrian path, the officer who was manning the intersection smiled at me and waved me through. The last time I'd run a red light in front of a police officer, I'd received a sarcastic dressing down and a $190 traffic ticket; this early-morning cop seemed to belong to a Bizarro World NYPD.
Joggers. "Morning runners in New York City have an unrivaled intimacy with the place they call home," writes Gidari, and it's an intimacy they don't like to have interrupted by strangers. One of the first people I saw on the Brooklyn Bridge was a cute jogger making his way toward Manhattan. I took off my helmet, smoothed my hair, and put the helmet in the basket on the handlebars of my bike. My bike promptly fell over. As I scrambled to pick it up again, the jogger continued on his way without even looking at me. The joggers I saw later on the High Line maintained a similar willful ignorance of everyone around them. Unlike police officers, joggers seem just the same early in the morning as they are every other time of day.
Teen-agers. As I was watching the sunrise from the Brooklyn Bridge a group of six or seven fresh-faced young things approached me and asked me to take their picture. They told me they'd stayed up all night and looked at me funny when I told them I'd woken up for the express purpose of watching the sun rise. Closer to the Manhattan side of the bridge, a separate group of coltish teens lay on the planks of the bridge, giggling and making fun of passers-by. (Gidari had a similar experience; he reports passing "a group of teen-agers . . . laughing and chasing each other around" on the Brooklyn Bridge.) If you want to feel very, very old, the Brooklyn Bridge at dawn on a Saturday is the place to be.
Garbage collectors. The streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan were delightfully empty before 8 a.m., except for the occasional garbage truck. I believe I passed four or five garbage trucks on my way from my apartment in Brooklyn to Ninth Street Espresso. From the High Line, Gidari surmises that "few places in the city smell this good," and this is almost certainly true, because the High Line, being a former elevated rail, is one of the few places in the city garbage trucks cannot go. Though the trucks' ubiquity was offensive olfactorily, it was quite pleasant socially: On my way up Allen Street, a man driving a garbage truck interrupted the song he was singing to say good morning to me, marking the first time I've ever witnessed a motorist say something nice to a cyclist in New York City.
Babies. Ninth Street Espresso officially opens at 7, but there were already a couple of patrons inside when I arrived at 6:43. A man holding a towheaded baby in a striped blue onesie walked in and placed an order shortly after I sat down with my coffee. (Gidari says that Ninth Street Espresso's coffee "is the best coffee I've ever had. No hyperbole or exaggeration here. The. Very. Best." I'm not a terribly discerning coffee drinker, but the coffee I drank there was definitely the best coffee I'd had that morning.) When I arrived at the High Line 45 minutes later, I immediately crossed paths with another man holding a onesie-clad baby against his chest, and I soon passed a woman supervising a trio of achingly adorable tots. Gidari did not warn me that Manhattan Before8 was for Manhattanites Before8Months, but I wasn't displeased with the discovery: The preverbal set was well-behaved and sparsely distributed enough that I could have made an easy escape if one of them had begun wailing.
Dogs. By the time I departed the High Line, I was about ready to begin wailing. The sun hurt my eyes. It was getting hot and sticky. I felt tired, lightheaded and slightly nauseated. When I arrived at Hu Kitchen, I discovered it wouldn't open for another 15 minutes, so I slumped on the steps of a nearby New School building and cradled my head in my hands. I tapped some notes from the morning into my iPhone; they quickly took a turn for the melodramatic. ("The magic is broken. I want to go home. I wonder why I'm doing this - any of this.") The only bright spot was a very cute, chubby, elderly German shepherd lazing on the sidewalk nearby as his owner carried on a conversation. I looked up and saw many other dogs, large and small, trotting up and down Fifth Avenue on leashes.
In Manhattan Before8, Gidari mentions canine companions only in passing, but it's in a section of the book that I found apt. "Early-morning Manhattan belongs solely to the joggers, the dog walkers, and the people looking for a little peace and quiet in a city of perpetual noise," he writes. On my early-morning adventure, I found more peace and quiet than I've ever witnessed before on the streets of New York. But it didn't come close to the peace and quiet I know I'll always be able to find in my bed.