Tag Archives: Manhattan

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.


The Beauty of Travel Bans

Until recently, New York City didn’t stop for anyone or anything. But last night, a travel ban was issued, silencing Manhattan’s streets and subways. The last time the subways were stopped was during Hurricanes Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Yesterday was the first time in the subway system’s 110-year-old history that trains had been sidelined for snow.

But the Great Blizzard of 2015 was quite anti-climactic, shifting east so that the Big Apple was spared while Boston was blanketed. The travel ban was lifted this morning; cars and buses were allowed back on the streets at 7:30 am while subways started inching along around 9 am.

Which is too bad. I wish Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo had kept the ban in place until nightfall. Just for fun. The city needs the break.

You see, New Yorkers have trouble slowing down so they need outside help. Intense snow fall works. I’ve seen it.


In January 1996, I was living on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. I had just returned from spending the holidays with family in Rochester, New York, near the heart of the Great Lakes Snow Belt region (I think Buffalo can rightly claim being at the epicenter of Snow Belt fun). I lived in an overpriced studio facing the Empire State Building. To be 22 years old and to go to bed every night with your pillow facing a glowing, towering Empire State Building was truly special. The city’s fifth largest snowstorm began January 7, 1996, dumping 20.2 inches on Central Park. Schools were obviously closed, taxis got stuck in snow drifts, but Broadway performances were cancelled and the New York Stock Exchange shut down early (although the subways kept going). I had just returned from being away and had no food in the apartment. So being a true New Yorker, I ordered takeout during a blizzard. I ordered from my favorite Indian place. My saag paneer and basmati rice arrived as if it were all sunshine and daisies outside (yes, I remembered what I ate because I always eat the same thing at Indian restaurants). I ate my dinner and listened to John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” and watched the snow fall. To this day, I still associate that song with snow fall.

The following morning I went outside to walk to the corner grocery store, and that’s when I saw a different New York.

A soft silence had quilted Bleecker Street. No heaving buses. No obnoxious taxi horns. No grunts and groans of city dwellers trying to simply get from point A to B. The only sounds I heard were the giggles of a few people throwing snowballs at one another and the scraping of shovels. One guy was cross-country skiing down LaGuardia Place, the street adjacent to my apartment. If there were power outages and food shortages, they weren’t happening on my block. That morning, we were that cheap snow globe tchotchke sold in the Times Square tchotchke shops, twinkling and magical. The Twin Towers still stood then, and so between the Empire State Building and the Twin Towers, my neighborhood was having the best damn snow day imaginable. What was happening uptown or midtown, who knows, but on that day, Greenwich Village was doing what Greenwich Village has always done best: rolling with it.

Later that year, I left Manhattan to move to New Hampshire for my first newspaper job, and two years after that, I was living in Seattle where rain fell far more often than snow. I missed East Coast snow days and skiing in the Cascade Mountains didn’t alleviate that homesickness.

Today has been a fun snow day with kids sledding, homemade chocolate chip cookies and endless cups of tea. I know heavy snow fall scares a lot of people, and last night’s headlines of a “historic” blizzard sent Snowmageddon types grabbing the last loaf of bread on the store shelf. I see blizzards as opportunities to step off the wheel, and mandated travel bans help with that. Maybe that’s the Snow Belt gal in me after all these years. Cross-country ski down a street usually clogged with traffic. Throw a snowball at a friend. Build a snowman on the curb. Make a snow angel. Split a chocolate chip cookie with someone. Manhattan after a Nor’easter is something eerily beautiful and quiet and unique, a giant, gray beast silenced by fluffy white snow, a side of New York that only resurfaces now and then.

Downtown, Uptown and All Around

I spent a hot, sticky day in Manhattan yesterday covering a lot of ground, both above sea level and below. The adventures began with a 55 mph drive south on the Henry Hudson Highway in my 2002 beat up Honda Accord. During the ride in, I notice the Hudson River looks steamy. When you can’t quite tell what color the river water is, then you know you’re in for a rough, hot, gross afternoon.

10:52 am – I park the car at a garage near 5th Avenue and 29th Street and grab my papers for an 11 am meeting. The garage attendant comments that the new Honda Accord is out, and asks me if I want to sell my car. I say I’m not selling and make a mental note to check under the hood when I return to ensure the engine and supporting parts are right where I left them.

10:58 am – Waiting for the elevator in one of those classic turn-of-the-century buildings on Seventh Avenue. Love that old New York City is still a vibrant part of new New York City. I live in the ‘burbs where nothing is past three stories high, so it’s been ages since I rode an elevator. I am oddly excited for the ride. As I wait for the elevator, I grab a shot of the ceiling. My ceilings at home are cracked and need repair. If this was what I walked into every morning, I’d be bursting with motivation and giddy with creativity.

11:31 am – Meeting is over, back in the beautiful lobby with the beautiful ceiling, and I need to figure out the subway system to meet a colleague for lunch. It costs $2.50 for a single ride uptown, so the car gets to hang out downtown while I venture north for an afternoon bite. I’m near Herald Square (the Empire State Building serves as my North Star informing me which way to go) so I make my way to Penn Station and grab the C train to Times Square.

11:46 am – Penn Station. Suitcases on wheels criss cross the corridor. I dodge a baby stroller. Street musicians have taken the day off. Normally you hear music everywhere, but all I hear are announcements. The subway platform is hot. Everyone looks hot and miserable. I am feeling more appreciative for the green suburban life at the moment and am missing my town pool. I’m also wearing flip flops. I did this intentionally knowing the risks involved, but the fact is, I can move quickly in flip flops. I’m on high-alert for my feet touching fluids and solids that they shouldn’t; dog poo, other people’s spilled iced coffee, a scoop of ice cream falling off a kid’s cone. I am vulnerable. I remember in 1996 wearing open-toed shoes at the West 4th Street subway station. I was coming home from seeing “Rent” and a bum was peeing out in the open and, well, let’s just say despite my best efforts to sidestep him, I got some splash.

11:52 am – On the C train enjoying the air conditioning. Managed to grab a seat and as soon as the train lurches forward, a mariachi band arrives loudly singing what sounds like old love ballads from the Mother Land. Unfortunately, they appear to be performing before a rather jaded group. No one is offering a dollar bill or even a coin. I only have 20s on me, and I’m too sticky to feel that generous. The band moves on to the next car.

12:33 pm – I’m uptown at 77th Street and Lexington Avenue. It’s a quieter neighborhood than where I just came from. I don’t recognize anything nearby except a Starbucks. I wander to Third Avenue, find a nice looking restaurant called Atlantic Grill, text my colleague my location, and a few minutes later, we’re sitting down at a clean table, with a crisp, white, heavy linen tablecloth, and a guy with spiky hair is offering us passion fruit iced tea.

12:42 pm – It’s Restaurant Week in New York City! I’ve done everything from dives to Daniel, but I don’t think I’ve participated in Restaurant Week before. The guy with the spiky hair is eager to sell me on the prix fixe lunch menu, three courses for $24.07. This is normally what I would spend on dinner, not lunch, but it’s been a hot, sticky schlep, I’m in a nice restaurant and am feeling entitled. Sold. $24.07 for lunch it is! (Quick aside: had the sexiest cantaloupe gazpacho ever at Daniel. Dinner at Daniel cost more than the rent for my studio apartment, but Mike and I both felt the food lived up to the price.)

1:05 pm – Course one arrives. It’s a peach, watermelon, feta, greens and sunflower seed salad. It’s awesome and I wolf it down and eagerly await the main course, which are fish tacos. The mariachi band on the subway had put me in the mood for Mexican. I hadn’t enjoyed fish tacos since Isla Mujeres, Mexico. When my New York City tacos arrive, they’re gorgeously plated so I take a photo and then wolf those down, too.

Here I am eating fish tacos in Mexico in April 2011. These tacos did not cost $24.07, but were just as delicious.

2:11 pm – Oh my gosh, look at the time! I’m still a lady who lunches and my kid is going to be home from camp in two hours! I need to get downtown fast, grab the car, and then go drive back uptown and get across the Hudson River and back to New Jersey. We’re only talking about 10 miles here, from my car to my house, but if you live in the metropolitan New York area, you know getting from point A to B is always an odyssey. Sometimes the shorter distances take longer. I polish off lunch with pineapple sorbet, air-kiss my colleague goodbye, and hop the 6 train downtown.

2:34 pm – Waiting for my crosstown train at Grand Central Station. Sometimes going east or west across Manhattan is harder than going north or south. There is a family standing nearby looking at the tracks trying to spot a rat. They seem really excited about this. They are clearly tourists because they’re wearing T-shirts and shorts that look coordinated, white ankle socks and relatively clean sneakers, and fanny packs. The fanny packs really give them away, but overhearing their enthusiasm about spotting a real New York City subway rat that they’ve heard can rival the size of a raccoon really gives them away. I’m rooting for them. I hope they spot their fat rat. I look at the tracks; they’re surprisingly clean and there doesn’t appear to be anything for the rats to rummage through. The train arrives and the tourists board empty-handed. No rat shot on the iphone. When I sit down, I see a couple reading a DK Eyewitness New York City tour guide book, and I wonder if there’s anything in the book about New York City subway rats.

3:31 pm – Back at the garage. The same parking attendant is there and asks me three more times if I would ever consider selling my Honda. Do I really need to pop the hood and inspect, and even if some small part was missing, would I recognize what was gone? I tell him I’ll never change my mind, my car has been paid off since 2007, and I’ll be driving this metallic oragami of Japanese efficiency into the ground until my flip flops scrape pavement. But this is New York City and he doesn’t back off, so while he trails off with his question, I grab my keys, crank up the AC, and get into the vehicular scrum that is 29th Street. We’re all heading to the Lincoln Tunnel, unfortunately. It’s Friday afternoon on an insufferably humid day and everyone wants to be somewhere else. Some place greener, bluer, cooler.

4:37 pm – I’m stuck in the Lincoln Tunnel. Maybe stuck is the wrong word. Think optimistically. We inch along. It’s going to be a long ride home. I call my friend and ask if she can meet my kid after camp; I’m just not going to make it home in time for the camp bus. I’ll be lucky to make it back to New Jersey before the pool closes. I vow to not return to Manhattan until fall, when temperatures are below 80, when the leaves are red and gold, when the subways won’t feel like steam baths with strangers. That said, I made it out of New York City in flip flops, feet unscathed, and I can claim I enjoyed Restaurant Week.

6:45 pm – Epilogue. Just got home. Traffic stunk. Too tired for the town pool, and it closes soon anyway. Kid looks wilted from the heat, too. We eat ice cream for dinner and watch the Olympics.