Tag Archives: Greenwich Village

20 Years Later

On Sunday, I sat on a plane that flew from Los Angeles to Newark. Flying always shocks me. It’s the take off, really. No matter how many times I do it, I still sit there, strapped down, picturing the pilot moving the throttle. Nose up, wheels up, wings up, and suddenly we’re at some unnatural angle going some unnatural speed at some unnatural height, and every time I think “What a feat of engineering and physics!” I become jealous of those tuned out on whatever device they’re allowed to have on or whatever movie they’re trying to download or whatever book they’re reading. The plane levels off, and about 45 minutes to an hour in, I’m able to relax—sort of—and crack open a book, though I’ve learned that reading while doped up on Klonopin means not remembering what you read once you’re off the plane. If it’s a smooth ride, I relish the view from 36,000 feet.

I had to make this flight (I have walked away from the gate before) because on Monday, I was scheduled to participate in a reading at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village—West Village, to be precise. I had attended a reading at this venue last year. It’s a wonderfully classic Beatnik kind of space, a basement below a restaurant that is narrow and dark with a small stage draped by a red velvet curtain and doused with bad lighting. If the cafe allowed smoking down there, none of us would have been able to breathe, for there are no windows.

The participants were from the inaugural Cuba Writers Program; I was one of six readers. I read a piece that was recently published in Catapult about a waiter I met in Havana. His name is Alexander, and he got me cornflakes when I was feeling sick. We need more Alexanders in the world.

This was my first public reading. I was told I did an “excellent” job, and even came across as funny and engaging. People I didn’t know came up to compliment me. On stage, I could sense the audience was enjoying the piece, so I started to relax into my own words, and reading your own words aloud always sounds different than writing them. Whatever happens with my writing career, at least I can say my first public reading was in Greenwich Village to a standing room-only crowd, and that the audience liked me.

There was an after-party a few blocks away at this writer’s apartment. He organized the event and lived on Bleecker Street. If you don’t know New York City, Bleecker Street is, or at least once was, the heart of Greenwich Village. I lived at the corner of Bleecker and Mercer Street 20 years ago, and as we were walking to this party, we walked past my old building. We also walked past the CVS pharmacy that I had once signed a petition to help keep out. The Grand Union where I used to grocery shop was gone. Bleecker still had record shops, a few loud bars, cafes, and a tattoo parlor, and maintained that noisy, gritty vibe I remember when living there. New York University is right there, so the neighborhood teems with students, and 20 years ago, I had been one of them, pursuing a master’s degree in journalism.

The party was held in this gorgeous apartment filled with gorgeous mid-century furniture protected by several large, clean panes of glass windows overlooking Lafayette Street, a north-south road that takes you into Chinatown, Little Italy and the rest of the Lower East Side. The street is named after the Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the American Revolutionary War, and I wondered what he would have thought of this big, garish thruway with its giant billboard about a film that sort of, kind of makes fun of war, because those big, beautiful windows offered a clear view of that promotion.

A couple of strange things were going on in my head that night, and this is without wine or Klonopin. One, that just the day before, I had been in Los Angeles looking out at the Hollywood sign and Griffith Observatory and palm trees through large windows long overdue for a cleaning. That had been my view for 10 days. Two, that I was a guest of a man who had lived in this stunning apartment for the past 23 years, and that 20 years ago, he and I and unknowingly been neighbors, unaware that in two decades, we would meet at an airport in Miami. I wasn’t invited to such parties 20 years ago, where accomplished people hung out, drank wine, talked about books, and could take in the view from wherever they stood because the view was everywhere. I was a bit of a wreck 20 years ago, very bitter about a family court battle I had been dragged through, completely broke, borrowing money from an ex-boyfriend generous enough to help an ex-girlfriend, struggling to make ends meet and to stay focused on my studies at NYU. In July 1996, I dropped out of the NYU journalism graduate program and got a job at a small newspaper in New Hampshire, basically applying my degree before I had it while earning a much-needed paycheck. I was 12 credits shy of finishing my master’s, and never went back to complete it. I do not come from an educated family, so no one was around to advise whether dropping out to take a newspaper job was a good idea or not, which means for a 23-year-old, I was quite free to chart my own course and make my own mistakes. And I did. No one stood around grooming me for success, as I see so many parents do with their children now, and as we gladly do with our 12-year-old daughter.

For years, I felt hugely embarrassed about being an NYU dropout, and for being the emotional and financial mess that I had been in my 20s. My roommate and classmates were A students from upper middle class families who summered in South Africa and Germany, who took unpaid internships at large-city newspapers because they needed experience, not cash, while I sold flowers for $8 an hour at the Union Square farmers’ market, which, to this day, remains one of my favorite jobs ever. At age 23, I lacked just about all the things my peers had to become successful. If my 43-year-old self could have talked to my 23-year-old self, she would have said “Chill, sister. It’s going to be a weird road, but an interesting one, and you’ll get there, just not in the same way your classmates might get there.”

Walking by all those purple NYU flags that dominate Greenwich Village didn’t affect me Monday night. It used to, whenever I was in Washington Square Park or bopping around MacDougal Street to meet a friend for lunch. I had enjoyed myself on stage. People whose names I don’t remember praised my work. I was a writer reading in Manhattan heading to a party at the fabulous apartment of another writer. I felt my own kind of take off. Either it was the jet lag or maybe New York was softening towards me. New York City is not easy on anyone: writers, actors, musicians, people in general. A colleague of my husband’s recently left New York for L.A., worn down by the city’s frenetic pace and stress junkie tendencies. We’re looking to move to L.A., too, and sometimes I wonder if we’ll be packing up just as New York decides to like me after all.

“Just Twist and Believe in Yourself”

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.


My Guide to the Big Apple

It’s summer and you’re looking to do a day trip to New York City, one of the top tourist destinations in the world and also my backyard. You’ve already done the biggies: Statue of Liberty, a Broadway show, Times Square, but what’s New York City really like once you start mingling with the locals? Starting from uptown to downtown, allow me.

Native New York
Grab breakfast the way I used to before heading into the office with a buttery bagel (or with cream cheese) from Bagel Express on 2nd Avenue between 94th and 93rd Streets. The bagel selection lines the back wall and you’ll get a true taste of how New Yorkers start their day as you stand in a long line that goes out to the construction work zone while the city builds the new 2nd Avenue subway line. You’ll hear every language spoken and the wait is long enough that you may become fluent in a new language by the time your order is hot in your hand. There is a rainbow of cream cheese spreads options, from vegetable to strawberry. The wait is long, the service is ok, the coffee often tepid…and the bagels are out of this world. You’ll spend about $3 and won’t need another bite until lunch. There’s also the more famous Murray’s Bagels, but I like Bagel Express because it’s a neighborhood dive that is as authentic as it gets.

Knowledgeable New York
Not far from Bagel Express is a strip of museums big and small; 10 museums along Fifth Avenue between 82nd and 105th Streets that have been officially designated by New York City as Museum Mile. The museums typically open around 10 am, so walk off that caloric bagel into the Guggenheim Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Neue Galerie of New York, which has a fantastic exhibit about Gustav Klimt running throughout the summer. Many of the museums are closed on Mondays so time your bagel and visit for later in the week. The Guggenheim has a new exhibit featuring the collection of art lover Justin Thannhauser who bought multiple 20th century masterpieces, including (in alphabetical order) Cezanne, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Picasso, Pissaro, Renoir and Van Gogh. I was at the Metropolitan Museum of New York a few weeks ago where I enjoyed the fantastic Egyptian exhibit. If you get hungry hoofing it around the cavernous Met, there are plenty of iconic New York hot dog and pretzel carts hovering around those grand front steps, but if you’re willing to hold out for a pinkilicious lunch downtown, weather the stomach growls and keep your eyes on the prize. If you’re in town the evening of Tuesday, June 12, skip admission and come back at 6 pm when Museum Mile opens its doors for free thanks to the Museum Mile Festival.

Natural New York
Who says New York is botanically challenged? Ok, maybe a good chunk of New York’s greenery is confined to a landscaped rectangle in the middle of the city, but there are also beautiful gardens high above. Where, you ask? From Museum Mile, grab a crosstown bus to the Upper West Side to see the lovely Lotus Garden 20 feet above West 97th Street between Broadway and West End Avenue. This crosstown adventure will give you bragging rights as to how you managed to get from the East Side to the West Side especially if you hit all the green lights and get across the width of Manhattan in under 15 minutes (which I did once cruising 52nd street). The Lotus Garden is one-sixth of an acre community garden maintained by residents, an urban oasis open free to the public every Sunday from 1 to 4 pm, April through November. Visitors get a real appreciation of how to garden without the earth directly beneath your feet, and all are welcome to tip toe through the tulips, just don’t pick anything. A lovely, quiet respite above the din of the concrete jungle.

Nifty New York
Ok, by now you must be starving. You’ve taken in art, crossed town, and walked through an elevated Eden. Time for lunch! True, you could take in a slice or two of pizza anywhere (remember to fold your slice if you do), and claim yourself to have enjoyed a true taste of the Big Apple, but for a slightly different experience, hop the 1, 2 or 3 subway train to the West Village and make your way to Sweetie Pie on Greenwich Avenue between Christopher Street and 10th Avenue. With hot pink seats, a mirrored ceiling, and lollipops the size of taxi wheels, Sweetie Pie delivers on all things girlie, glittery and giddy, but don’t think for a moment it’s a hot spot for the ladies who lunch crowd. This is Greenwich Village, after all, so grab your pink boa, grab a seat and grab some pink lemonade as you mull over the menu. I strongly recommend the surprisingly good fish –n- chips. If you get a chance to sit in one of the giant gilded bird cages by the window, please do. It’s a fantastic perch for people-watching.

Natty New York
Keeping with our trek towards downtown, hop the subway to Brooklyn, New York’s coolest borough, and the site of a cultural and gastronomical renaissance with craft breweries sprouting up like daisies. The mother hen of this new flock of breweries is Brooklyn Brewery, which has sat in the vibrant Williamsburg and Greenpoint neighborhoods since 1988. Brewmaster Garrett Oliver has been telling people how to pair beer with cheese long before it became trendy, and nearly a quarter century later, the lines for Brooklyn Brewery’s beer tours attract residents and tourists, and go down the block. The brewery offers guides all week now, so come thirsty and make sure you remember how to get back to your hotel. Reservations are not necessary, and tours run from noon to 8 pm.

Entrepreneurial New York
Looking for that perfect party frock? What about a chic tote? Look no further than Himane designs where every discarded item is magically reincarnated into haute couture. That cute cocktail dress? Someone’s old umbrella. That funky button on a shirt? Could be a turkey bone from a Thanksgiving dinner or perhaps an old coffee filter, depending on what was in the garbage. Based in Prospect Park, and with a new shop opening up in the other hip Brooklyn neighborhood Dumbo, Haitian designer Catherine Edouard Charlot jokes she is a “junkie” because whatever she finds on the street or in a garbage can, she sees amazing possibilities. And her clients, which include eco-conscious individuals across the country, are willing to pay for custom-made upcycled fashion. You can buy her designs online while she prepares for her move to Dumbo. Meanwhile, her current studio is filled with a rainbow of spools, hundreds of umbrellas, including vintage umbrellas from the 1950s, as well as many other materials waiting to be cleaned, dissected and transformed into raincoats, cocktail party dresses and totes. Charlot even takes tents used to shield displaced Haitians after the 2010 earthquake and reinvents them into dapper bags; proceeds from the sales go toward rebuilding Haiti. I bought a gorgeous green tote that once had a former life as an umbrella. It accompanies me everywhere now, from the airport to the town pool.

Nectarous New York
The Brooklyn Flea is a huge flea market with four locations in Brooklyn, including the Smorgasburg market, which happens every Saturday on the Williamsburg waterfront between North 6th and North 7th Street on the East River. More than 75 vendors sell a cornucopia of packaged and prepared foods from 11 am to 6 pm. It’s the perfect spot to grab what you need for a nighttime picnic. Buttermilk Channel is a new Brooklyn restaurant in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood that just this month announced its arrival to the Smorgasburg Flea; stop by the stand and get some its famous buttermilk chicken and waffles to go. Want some sides just in case? Try the maple and bacon roasted almonds and homemade pickles. Take your picnic and head to Brooklyn Bridge Park, Pier 1, Harbor View Lawn in Dumbo and enjoy your delectable chicken and waffles with a dreamy view of the famous Brooklyn Bridge. Once the sun disappears, it’s show time! Free movies are shown every Thursday beginning July 7 through September. Lawn seating is limited, so claim a spot on the ground as soon as you can.

And that, my friends, is your day in New York. Exhausted? We’re the city that never sleeps, so if you’ve got the energy to dance til dawn, try Webster Hall, back in Manhattan on East 11th Street. Although it sounds like a library from an elementary school, it’s actually New York City’s biggest nightclub. Besides, you can sleep on the bus, train or plane ride home the following morning. Come on back when you’re up for doing it all over again.