New York [on the cheap] Manhattan: What are you looking at? Plenty. With a lot of hustle, a little dough and a sense of humor, the Big Apple can be seen and experienced on a budget.

November 22, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,Sun Staff

I swear I heard a shutter snap right in front of my face.

Like a lazy house cat in platforms, I had curled up on a bench in the sun in the World Trade Center plaza and fallen asleep with my backpack for a pillow.

If only the photographer had known why I was so tired.

I was conquering New York, which can be exhausting. But even more physically demanding, I was conquering New York on a budget, determined to do all your standard Big Apple activities at little apple prices. Sightseeing, culture, hotels, food ` the whole shebang for a limited buck.

It takes planning and, above all, endurance, which is why I am going to tell you all the other public places where I slept or merely "rested": Bryant Park in Midtown (a garden oasis before the neon hysteria of Times Square); Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village (would-be Bobby Fischers engage in heated chess tournaments and Chris Rock-esque street-comic-stuntmen perform); Tompkins Square Park in the East Village (if you're not put off by transients cleaning themselves in the drinking fountains).

OK, now that you know where you can doze sans dollars and chill for cheap, let's see the city.

We'll have to get around on the subway, to save money, of course. Granted, this makes it a little harder to see the city than jaunting about in a cab as rich people do. And you may be involuntarily treated to a busker's electronic keyboard rendition of "Strangers in the Night."

But as we explore the Big Apple on a budget, we won't let that spoil our fun.

New faux riche

You know you're worthless when the perfume lady doesn't spray you.

Everyone's entitled to a spray. Or so I thought.

I had chosen to browse among the moneyed masses of Fifth Avenue; past Bruno Magli, Ferragamo, Gucci and many more stratospherically expensive outlets.

My mission: Spend a few deliciously delusional hours among the glitziest shops on the planet, without spending any money.

The truth is, salespeople at high-end stores aren't mean to you. They just don't pay any attention to you.

Just try to provoke them. Nothing works.

Unless you're writing things down. This really miffs the stiffs at Versace.

Here I discovered a haughty couture world where $300,000 rings are encased in frosted glass, mannequin torsos are impaled on neon beams and the late designer's dresses are mounted on pedestals like diaphanous, sequin-splashed works of art.

The salespeople stand silently in the corners, arms crossed in front of them, like museum attendants.

In Saks, I flung my backpack on a chair and draped myself in a $3,000 Donna Karan coat. But the salesgirl didn't even look at me. I tried on a $4,000 gray Isaac Mizrahi suit and still no attention.

I walked out of the dressing room, and there was no one there but a stock-boy.

Foiled again.

If anyone's going to take me seriously, I'm going to have to buy something.

So I went to Tiffany's to do just that. My sister had recently gotten a small, exquisite necklace with a little silver bean on it. I figured anything my sister could afford, I was entitled to as well.

I waited at a counter for a saleswoman to help me. But the heavily made-up bottle blonde in question was busy chatting up a skinny, bejeweled woman in a lime-green T-shirt and black capris, who was deciding if she should buy a glimmering necklace worth multiple honeymoons in Europe.

I waited. I waited some more.

I'm not Audrey Hepburn. But I'm here, and I have 12 credit cards!

Where was the gracious salesman from "Breakfast at Tiffany's," who was kind enough to engrave a ring from a Cracker Jack box for a whimsical yet broke George Peppard?

Defeated, I strolled past the bathtub-sized vases of brilliant flowers, sparkling yellow-sapphire pineapple pins and suited security guards with earpieces and other Bond-esque accouterments and spotted the bean. Then I spotted the price tag: $600.

I stood openmouthed above it. Maybe the saleswoman was afraid I'd drool on the display, because she actually spoke to me.

"That's platinum," she said flatly. Then she pointed me to the lesser bean. The bean my sister had. The sterling bean.

The lesser bean counter was presided over by a short, arrogant-looking man. But as he was helping me, I realized he wasn't rude. He was just French.

He said the bean looked beautiful on me and was a good luck charm. A symbol of growth.

"Well, then maybe I'll be able to buy the platinum one soon."

"No. You should buy diamonds," he suggested with a smile.

TIPS:

A couple of eclectic and/or cheap shopping districts:

* Chelsea: Sixth and Seventh avenues below 23rd Street.

* East Village: St. Mark's Place - 24-hour, high-energy street market with everything from used CDs to retro jewelry. Just beware of the dirty alternateens lurking about.

* Sample sales: Upscale designers get a few extra bucks by selling samples designed for retailers. To get at these bargains, visit http://www.samplesales.com.

* Other discount sources:

"Sales and Bargains" in New York magazine

"Shoptalk" in Time Out New York

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