My wife and I recently celebrated our fifth wedding anniversary by being locked in a room with strangers and working for an hour to escape. The ‘Escape the Room’ and other similar franchises are popular but we had never done one. A holiday gift from a relative gave us the chance to try it.
We went not knowing what to expect, though we had heard good things. For the time slots that worked for us and had openings, we chose the “home” theme. “Office” had been our other choice but I spend most of my weekdays trying to escape an office, so for weekend activities that was a no-go.
We arrived a few minutes early as instructed in the Flatiron district on a Saturday night. The Escape the Room – Midtown is a few doors down from New York’s 40/40 Club, which is famous for being owned by Jay-Z. Beyond that club I don’t think that area is a particularly popular party and nightlife area at the moment, at least judging by how quiet things seemed. The streets were still. Then again, the night was relatively young at that point.
We took an elevator to the eighth floor of a nondescript building and found ourselves in the small waiting area of Escape the Room NYC, where our four teammates, consisting of two younger couples, were already waiting. A receptionist welcomed us and said our host would soon be with it.
Our host for the evening was Junior, a vibrant presence dressed head to toe in pink and wearing a large afro. Junior led us to our room and gave us some basic rules and pointers. “You will never need to break anything or punch through a wall or ceiling. You won’t have to exert any more effort than a five-year-old would.” Junior said we would receive clues through a screen that would also show our time. We had one hour to escape the room.
With that information, the six of us were locked in the room. This isn’t a tortuous process—there’s an escape button if you have to go to the bathroom or want a break—but the six of us wanted to dedicate our efforts to learning to escape. Basically the room is full of clues that will eventually give you a key to turn and escape the room.
The room was a sparely-furnished office with a non-working fireplace, a few dressers, a bookshelf and desk. Several of the dressers had combination locks on certain drawers and in those drawers are more clues. Other clues such as notes written in book margins or numbers written on walls or on a piece of paper in a typewriter will get us combinations to other locks and more clues will lead to more clues.
There were some high points in the evening as the six of us found some clues and cracked some nice codes. We managed to open a door, only to find another room that we had to escape. I had heard that some people got out of these rooms in nine minutes or 20 minutes. One coworker had told me she hadn’t been able to escape her room.
And that’s what happened to us. We were on the right track and came very close to escaping the room. Junior was feeding us more and more clues as time ran out, but in the end time counted down and we had spent an hour in the room with no heroic escape to show for it.
Junior came to retrieve us and was an incredibly gracious host, nothing that we did very well and that we worked together marvelously and made great progress. “I’ve seen couples break up. I’ve seen children get shoved around…” The room we were meant to escape had a 20% success rate, which is low. Most participants required many more clues from their hosts.
Junior led us back to the waiting area for a group photo, offering us some signs and props for the occasion. My wife and I held a sign that said “#fail” and some of our team members wore some deerstalker hats (the kind of hat Sherlock Holmes is known to wear). We posed for our photo, thanked Junior, and took the elevator back down to the street. My wife and I bid farewell to our teammates, walked through Madison Square Park, and got on the subway for the ride home.
While we failed to escape the room, it’s a worthy New York adventure we’d do again.
The Flatiron district is an interesting place to work. It has a much more mixed milieu than working in midtown or the financial district. Most of the people you see on the street are not office workers involved in the capital markets. While there are financial people from Credit Suisse and the other firms that inhabit the old Metropolitan Life Tower Building, you also have college students from Baruch College, shady characters from the St. Francis Residence on 24th Street, hopeful comedians in the evening performing at the People’s Improv Theater, and a host of well-off residents who live in the area. You’ll find rock starts getting ready to play at the Gramercy Theatre. One evening my coworkers and I were at Black Barn on 26th Street across the street from Madison Square Park when we saw Hilary Clinton come and go with her Secret Service escort (her daughter Chelsea Clinton lives in the building above, as does Jennifer Lopez, a waitress told us).
I try to make it a point to go for a short walk at lunch time, going to Madison Square Park. There is always an unusual art project in the park, and when the weather is nice there are musicians there. There’s a jazz trio that often busks there and I once saw a visiting Algerian theater group Istijmam that was singing in front of the statue of Admiral Farragut.
One day this past week there were few visitors in the park on account of the cold. That didn’t stop people from lining up at the original Shake Shack to pay for the honor of eating over-hyped food outside in the bad weather.
I exited the park on the Southwest by the statue of Roscoe Conkling and headed East on 23rd to get lunch and head back to the office.
On the corner of 23rd Street and Park Avenue was a person in a giant costume, yellow with a big happy face head. The giant happy face was waving and giving the thumbs up to passersby. At first I thought this was one of the costumed people from Times Square that take photos with tourists for tips and have become increasingly aggressive and competitive. Did this person decide to branch out from Times Square? The Flatiron district is not as tourist-heavy as Times Square but may be touristy enough to support one person in a costume? I didn’t see anyone taking a photo with the big happy face, which seemed exceedingly jovial despite not having any commerce.
I thought perhaps this was a promotion for something. A few months ago a parade of Yeti made its way down the sidewalks of 23rd Street to promote a television show about looking for the elusive creature. But I saw no sign that indicated what this might be for and no overt promotion was evident.
As I walked by, I noticed a few young men positioned discreetly near the smiley face watching people pass by. Each held a small stack of business cards in their hands.
I stopped by one of the men and asked if he was with the happy face and if he knew what it was for.
“Yes, we’re here promoting this service,” he said, discreetly handing me one of his business cards. The sleek black card had a smiley face on one side. On the other side was a phone number for a marijuana delivery service “For Major Connoisseurs & Enthusiasts” that is available “For Residents In Manhattan And Select Brooklyn Locations.” “Listen to greeting for instructions.”
I’m not a fan of marijuana. The last thing I need is to be paranoid and compelled to eat more. But I think it should be 100% legal in all states in America and it’s a national shame that anyone is in jail for simply possessing or selling it.
The happy face gave me a thumbs up. Part of me is glad that this was not some group of religious zealots or other do-gooders trying to make everyone happy for the sake of it, and I am happy that industrious New Yorkers are flouting an unfair law and making a profit on it. I wish this business success and thank them for bringing some additional happiness to our corner of the Flatiron district.