Last night, I traipsed around Greenwich Village in the faux-dark that is Manhattan after sunset, something I used to do exactly 20 years ago when I lived on Bleecker Street and thought I was interesting because I listened to John Coltrane. It was technically evening, but lights were on everywhere and people were out in this light, like some Arctic white night block party. Many things have changed around the Village, and, thankfully, some things have not. It’s still a tart-mouthed, whimsical, oddly-shaped neighborhood with sidewalks suddenly twisting and ending like they do in European cities. No matter how many Chipotles, Staples, and Starbucks move in—and they keep coming because they’re the only ones who can now afford the real estate—the Village will always be Manhattan’s punk sibling who kept a nose piercing past middle-age.
Lamp post banners promoted the upcoming Village Halloween parade, a Mardi Gras-like event where men in drag rule the street. I went in 1995 and loved it. I was happy to learn the parade is sponsored, among others, by the Village Voice, Brooklyn Brewery, and a company that makes cannabis energy drinks (which seems like a paradox, but hey, whatever), and not the companies you find in a suburban mall, the ones with all the money dominating the view at Union Square. The artistry and puppetry of the Village Halloween parade is worth the cold and crowds, and if we didn’t have the tradition of hosting a suburban backyard bash after the kids were done trick-or-treating, I’d nudge the family into the car for the schlep into town.
I was back in the Village to listen to my friend Robin give a reading from her new collection of short stories “Reptile House” at Cornelia Street Cafe, another Village institution. We met last year at a writers’ retreat in the Berkshires and it’s good to wave the pom-poms for one another. I joined fans and readers downstairs. We huddled in a narrow basement beneath the restaurant while Robin and Jim Story stood on a very small stage in front of a velvety red curtain and read from their books. Tabletop candles glowed, and for $8, we got to try the house wine, which was included with admission. It was such a beatnik, underground poetry kind of evening I seriously thought we would start snapping our fingers. But no one snapped and no one smoked. This is 21st century New York, which means you can’t smoke anywhere anymore, no matter how good your poetry may be. Instead, I saw people eat green salads.
Afterwards, I wandered. There are cities I’ve always liked more than New York. London is a longtime favorite. Seattle is prettier than most cities deserve to be. San Francisco will always feel like the home I should have had. Washington, D.C., has that commanding, manicured, white-marbled exterior that I always loved seeing from a plane window. The New York skyline is fierce, a warning as to what really roils below, at street level. It’s a city addicted to competition, and this plays out in neighborhoods. Prada and Dean & DeLuca have taken over some prime street corners, but there were still insanely small bistros with kitchens the size of broom closets, tattoo parlors, specialty shops of every interest, someone selling goat milk soft-serve, puppies ricocheting off a window at some fancy schmancy pet store, someone selling vintage cookbooks, two very good violinists rocking their portion of the sidewalk, another reading happening at McNally & Jackson, and a cupcake shop with swings for seats. The cupcakes grabbed my eye so I walked in and asked the girl behind the counter (who wore a nose ring and was probably a diapered tyke when I lived in the neighborhood) if she had gluten-free cupcakes. She seemed excited I asked and explained the different flavors. I was pulling out some cash when someone asked nose-ring girl how to unlock the bathroom door. “Just twist and believe in yourself,” she said from behind the counter, and her tone suggested sincerity.
I smiled. New York City wears people down. It’s an exhausting, crowded, expensive place full of cranky folks who all dress like they are heading to funerals, not cubicles, and who all talk too loudly into their smartphones. But for a moment, I sat on a fake swing eating a purple cupcake and forgot all about that.