Photo by Matt Gross

I paid to nap at New York’s nap cafe

Matt Gross
April 02, 2018

It was 1:42 p.m., and my heart was pounding. I’d just rush several blocks through the hell of lower midtown Manhattan, and now I was on the verge of sweating, standing at a counter in a storefront that was simultaneously filled with sunlight and painted deep, deep black. Two young women in equally black robes faced me from the other side of the counter.

“Hello,” I said. “I’m late for my nap.”

Welcome to Nap York, a new cafe devoted to wellness—teas and juices, meditation and yoga, avocado and silence—and, in particular, as the name would suggest, napping. Need an afternoon recharge? Socked by jet lag? Desperate for a pre-clubbing snooze? Walk in or book ahead and you can rest up, for a reasonable $10 per 30 minutes, in one of the six pods on the dimly lighted second floor.

Photo by Matt Gross

It was here I was guided by one of the employees, who explained the pod’s features in a whisper worthy of a million-subscriber ASMR YouTube channel. You stow your shoes and bags in a compartment at the foot of the pod, climb into a tube where everything but the pillow is black, pull closed the sound-dampening curtain, and lie down on the mattress. There’s a soft blanket on a shelf, noise-canceling headphones on a hook, and a wall with climate controls and a button that controls the oscillating star-pattern lights blinking and glittering on the ceiling. It all reminded me of a Japanese capsule hotel, minus the opportunity for public bathing.

Then you go to sleep.

But you’ve probably got questions! First, there’s no nookie—only one person per pod. (“Any violators of this rule will be confronted by security and banned from the premises,” says the FAQs.) There’s a guard and a dozen cameras, so theft shouldn’t be an issue. The mattresses are Airweave, wrapped in bedbug-proof protectors, and cleaned between each use. The pods are safe and wholesome, just as naps should be, right?

Oh god, I don’t know. Maybe you’re thinking the idea of a nap cafe is brilliant. Maybe you think it’s utterly stupid. Honestly, it’s probably both. At least, that’s what I think. And I should know—I came up with the concept.

Photo by Matt Gross

It was 2003, I’m going to say, and I was working in midtown Manhattan. One day, I decided the city needed a nap store—a place where anyone could walk in, climb into a pod, and sack out for a while. It was necessary: People get tired, whether they’re tourists wandering the city or New Yorkers craving a break from the grind. And it was doable, too—you just needed to engineer the pods correctly, change the sheets, make people feel safe and clean. Maybe I told my co-workers about the idea, maybe my wife, but whoever I mentioned it to back then told me it was a dumb idea. I was hurt—naps matter!—but not that hurt. And besides, as a journalist I was never going to open a nap cafe anyway.

What’s tragic here is not that the Matt Gross Nap Cafe never came to fruition but that we had to wait nearly 15 years for anyone to get into this business. (Yelospa, also in New York, offers nap services—at three times Nap York’s prices.) After all, napping is one of the greatest things you can do for yourself. Most Americans don’t get enough sleep overnight, and napping—particularly at work—is a smart way to combat that. Naps, according to this roundup of studies from the American Psychological Association, improve our “reaction time, logical reasoning and symbol recognition,” they make us “less impulsive” and give us “greater tolerance for frustration than people who watched an hour-long nature documentary instead of sleeping,” and they work about as well as caffeine in improving “perceptual learning” and memory. Although it turns out the best thing to do is drink a cup of coffee and then take a 20-minute nap.

Naps also tend to help you feel better and more awake if you’re tired. This is according to my own studies over the past few decades, when I’ve napped anywhere and everywhere. A lot of that has, naturally, been at home, often with my kids when they were very young: There’s nothing better than lying down on a soft couch in a patch of afternoon sunlight with a zonked-out toddler for a blanket.

Photo by Matt Gross

I’ve also napped in my office, in desk chairs and on a cheap pullout couch. When I lived in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I would nap after lunch, when the daytime heat made anything but immobility pure torture; sometimes, my co-workers and I would line up wooden chairs, cover them with newspaper, and use that as a bed. And I’ve napped plenty in public—on grassy stretches of parkland, on benches, in airports, and once, memorably, on the shady steps of a church on the Maltese island of Gozo.

It’s these public naps that are the most comforting. To sleep in public is to let down your defenses, to make yourself as vulnerable as an infant. Yes, bad things could happen to you, from robbery to the awful shit that men do to women, napping or not, all the damn time. But it’s also an act of trust, a contract signed with Zs, between an individual and society: We all need a rest from time to time—please allow me to have mine.

When this system works it’s wonderful, and it harks back to our earliest origins. One of the reasons we sleep as we do—for many hours at a time, and with both sides of our brain, unlike birds, dolphins, and whales, which rest hemispheres independently—is because humans as a group look out for one another. If danger threatens a sleeper, the community is there to protect them. Now that’s a culture I want to live in, one where napping is common, casual, and undisturbed.

Photo by Matt Gross

Which is why I have some fundamental problems with Nap York. Yes, it’s a lovely, clean, and affordable place to take a rest. But it’s also an attempt to capitalize on a tragic hole in our culture. Sure, this is New York, where sleeping in public is a sign of either homelessness or psychosis or both. And true, being in a rush has long been the proud mark of a true New Yorker. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We have public spaces, parks, benches, and occasionally pleasant weather. Why can’t taking advantage of them—a conscious retreat into unconsciousness—be seen as yet another way to stake out our mastery of this harsh city, our individuality among the 8 million? Dormio ergo sum!

Instead, Nap York and its ilk want to turn napping into another transaction, priced and metered and, if you’re using one of those apps, evaluated and leaderboarded. Which is fine, but it’s not what a great nap is all about. And I did have a great nap at Nap York. I climbed into my pod, adjusted the sparkling stars from an intense white to a gentler red, and lay there for a few moments, wondering whether I could really fall asleep.

And then—I was out. The hour zipped by, dreamless as far as I could tell, until the flashing alarm I’d been given went off at precisely 2:45 p.m. I emerged from slumber like a free-diver shooting back to the surface, gasping for cool air, invigorated, refreshed, alive. I put my shoes, coat, and backpack on, returned the alarm device to the counter, and walked out into the cold light of midtown, delightfully unsure of what I was supposed to do next.

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