Monthly Archives: July 2012

you are where you eat

It was a warm night, a pleasant night. I’d just killed an hour slowly sipping a glass of wine in a cafe, looking at the fire escapes of the buildings across the street and listening to people talk as they zipped past on St. Mark’s Place. I half-read a book, I wrote a postcard. I thought about living here and being a real writer with a real fire escape.

We showed up at the restaurant at 9:36. Six minutes late, despite my best attempts at speedwalking in heels, because some sloppy drunk had tossed a cup of warm beer on (at?) my boyfriend in the penultimate blocks of the Second Avenue leg. I’d made a dumb joke about baptism imagery and starting over. I wanted to be chipper. We had gotten a same-day reservation at a tiny 30-person bistro that I’d become starry-eyed over after reading the memoirs of its chef/owner. I’d torn through the first chunk before I’d had it a full two hours from the library, entranced by this raw yet lyrical writing, a book suffused with a badass, salty, did-it-all-myselfedness. A writer and a cook, like I wanted to be. I craved her food before I even knew where to look for it.

But now I live in New York, where everything is, and so was this restaurant. My boyfriend was reluctant.

“It’s called Prune,” he said, making a face. “Will they have food I like?”

“You’ll be fine,” I said. “Prunes are just plums, after all.”

I wanted a Parmesan omelette, radishes with butter, pencil asparagus, and the kitchen’s speciality: bone marrow. We’d eaten it elsewhere before, and the promise of a warm and fatty delicacy spread over sourdough toasts was enough to sell him on the unappealingly chichi idea of a meal in a restaurant. I’d gone in person to get us a table that morning, and I was lucky.

But our table wasn’t ready yet. “Do you want anything to drink?” asked two separate bartenders, their t-shirts the well-fitted pink cotton of American Apparel. I said no, just water. No space for a ten-dollar cocktail in my budgeted meal. My boyfriend waved his hand, said nothing, his eyes on a two-top by our elbows that was unoccupied except by twin table settings.

Twenty minutes passed, then thirty. Then forty. I rebuffed more invitations to wine or spirits, sipping the water. My boyfriend was mute, still beer-damp, and in a sour mood not helped by crashing blood sugar. I clenched my jaw, stared at the mason jars of house-pickled onions and olives and told myself it was worth it. This place was founded by a former teenage cokehead, after all, a woman who once slept on a floor and ate cheap bodega eggs-on-a-roll like I did. It was scrappy and punky, like the female bartender with an asymmetrical buzzcut who frowned at the host for us and asked why we couldn’t take the open table.

“That’s…somebody else’s table,” he said, unsuccessfully craning out of our earshot. Oh, I thought. Well. My eyes went hot and shimmery. I felt a sharp stab of shame that I wasn’t worth the seemingly democratic practice of a timely reservation, and then embarrassment for my naïveté.

A large birthday party behind us ordered another round of drinks. I stared at the folds of my dress–Ralph Lauren, secondhand–and felt tears forming.

Eventually the group showed up. Whether they were famous or just rich I still don’t know; a four-person posse, well-heeled and gray-haired with Prada shopping bags and a round of martinis ready when they sat down. My boyfriend looked daggers at them as we were finally seated (10:27) at our table in the corner. An amiable waitress brought us a tiny plate of deviled eggs as an apology. I ate one, cool and creamy and a bit sharp with mustard, and it stuck in my throat.

I scanned the menu, looking for what I’d been waiting for. Roasted marrow bones were supposed to be their signature. I must just be missing it. I asked the waitress.

“Oh, we no longer serve it.”

She was friendly, but I felt gawky and inept for even having asked. Normally I can shrug off snobbishness in the name of a good meal, but now, six weeks into living in a city that made me overstimulated or overtaxed by turns, that muscle in me was spent. I felt foolish and unwelcome. I didn’t belong even in a place that was–or so I thought, anyway–more about craft than clique.

But my discomfort went beyond the shabbiness of my Salvation Army attire and my student Visa card with the comparably paltry credit limit. I suddenly felt sick at the thought of spending thirty dollars–almost half a days’ salary–on spatchcocked poussin. Like a tongue bit mid-chew, it jolted me awake.

Even though I’d tried to shirk destiny and teach myself taste, there was no way to avoid that I am what I’ve eaten. I felt like every bite I’d ever taken of microwaved lasagna had left me with something of its mediocrity even as it gave me halfhearted nourishment, that the cells Stouffers powered were endowed with a nucleus of intractable blandness. There was something in my essence that made me fundamentally, universally unsuited to do what I wanted. Who was I to move here, to eat these things, to try and write? I am possessed of a body as mushy and white as the boxes of instant potatoes that built it, and whatever had once lit the fire in my belly felt soggy and stagnant. I had the vague notion that someone, somewhere, had fed me a lie, and now I was choking.

For the first time in recent memory, I had no appetite.

I managed to get a full two blocks away before I began heaving sobs. In New York, when you’re nobody, since you’re nobody, nobody will notice you wobble and weave as you gasp down the street. My boyfriend threw an arm over my shoulders, and we got to Cooper Square and a strange little park of blocky seats and tables where I bawled, hard, knowing in the mealy center of my bones that I was not going to make it here. People love to say that this city will eat you alive, but that assumes it’ll bother to bite.

“You need to eat something,” he said. So we walked more, stopped twice, forking over four dollars for a pint of ice cream and a buck fifty for shitty pizza. I ate and felt nauseous, but calm, at least, angst dulled by a flood of insulin. If I can’t make art here, I thought, belly up on his dorm-room bed, I can’t make it anywhere.

I awoke the next morning feeling alive but none too vital. I washed my face, dressed, got a cup of coffee. I felt no hunger, but a combination of a maternal sense of duty and a toddler-like ache for something true and sweet saw me to the greenmarket in Union Square. Vegetables and fruits arrayed not for artistry or cleverness but pure advertising appeal. Orange-fingered carrot clusters, three-fifty. A dozen eggs, five dollars. Three boxes of blueberries for ten. All products, all priced.

I picked out some food by color and feel, filling a bag with fruit for a few crumply bills. I sat on the bench and bit into a breakfast, just some raw material to fill and fuel me. Nothing chopped or sliced or peeled or dried but still whole and swollen with juice. After all, just a plum.

unique new york

New York City is not like any other place on Earth. Everybody knows this. What everybody doesn’t know, or at least what didn’t know when I came here the first time to live, are the exact things that make it so different. You can, of course, learn this stuff just by coming here, living for a while, and just figuring it out (I guess that’s something it’s got in common with every city or place ever). But maybe it’s nice to have these things pointed out to you first.

This is not a travel guide or an essay where I lord my urban, dyed-in-the-black-wool-turtleneck savvy over anyone. These are the things that freaked me out, that took me a while, that made no sense, that betray me as the emigrée and hopeless insophisticate that I am. So let’s go!

  • Uptown/downtown. It’s what it sounds like. Don’t go, say, or ask for directions north or south. That’s not a thing here.
  • Corollary: streets go up- and downtown, avenues go laterally.  I got this backwards, and I am dumb. Just goes to show you. Blocks between avenues are super long and blocks between streets whip by. If you desperately need to navigate, put away your iPhone. I swear you can puzzle this one out. Just remember the sun rises in the east and sets in the west (but I’ll give you a break for GPS if it’s cloudy).
  • If you swipe into a subway station and you stumble to the turnstile without actually going through properly, you can’t just swipe in again unless you have an unlimited-trip card. At least I’m pretty sure. So get it right the first time.
  • “Well drinks”: Maybe this is a term elsewhere? But I never had seen it prior to coming here. Anywho, this means drinks mixed from the bottles from the well underneath the bar, i.e., the cheap stuff. But that is why they cost less. Bonus: they invite all kinds of “might as well/all’s well that ends well” type plays on words that are really only funny after you’ve had a few.
  • On line, not in it. The cashier does not mean that you are connected to the internet, but that you are queueing up. I don’t know. It’s just what people say.
  • Bodega. It’s a corner store. Like a dépanneur? And most of them have not just coffee and cigarettes but also Amy’s burritos and Greek yogurt (but at a steep, steep markup. Naïve, drunk, and hungry: ye be warned)
  • Food carts. The halal ones, I’m told, are pretty good, and cheap for how much food they give you. The coffee and bagel ones have terrible coffee and bagels that are just untoasted, bloated bread enveloping a too-small, unspread square of cream cheese product. Go to a bodega or deli lunch place instead (lots of them have scallion cream cheese, even!) The smoothie ones are probably okay, though.
  • The line at the Union Square Trader Joe’s actually moves fairly quickly considering how many people are in it. And if you just get on line right when you get there, you can pretty much do your shopping without losing your place as it winds around the store.
  • There is a Farmers’ Market near your home or place of business. I practically can guarantee it. Here’s a map. Saturday at Union Square you can get a giant cheddar-scallion scone and a drinkable strawberry yogurt for like four bucks and it is way better than brunch out. Also, buy some goddamned peaches while they’re in season.
  • Brunch. Fucking everywhere has brunch, and they will totally charge you twelve bucks for eggs and toast, which, ew. If you must, at least find a place that has a prix fixe deal with drinks included.
  • Brooklyn. Do not assume, as I did, that if you and someone else both live in Brooklyn that you will be neighbors or easily visitable by subway. Bushwick is not that close to Boerum Hill which is not that close to Crown Heights. It is a geographically large place and you will probably end up going back to Manhattan to transfer lines to get anywhere, so you might as well meet your friends in the East Village and get brunch there (though, see above).
  • You don’t get cell service on the subway. This might be the most “um, doy,” item on this list, but I didn’t know. And I still see people trying to send text messages while whipping from Canal St. to Delancey/Essex! And, also, on that note:
  • Delancey St. and Essex St. are the same subway stop. Again, I don’t know, it just is that way.
  • Times Square really does suck. Really, it does. Don’t go even for the experience. Have you ever gotten punched in the face while watching TRL on a big-screen TV inside a garbage dump? Congrats, you’re experienced.
  • A lot of people will come onto your subway car and ask you for money. Creative variants I have witnessed included a guy with a duffel bag full of free snacks, a singing group who started their act by feigning a request for the time and correcting the tourist who proffered his wrist watch by harmonizing “it’s doo wop time!“, a blind kid in a Sixers jersey with a rippling, pink scar up his arm and a guide dog, a bunch of kids, including one who must have been only seven or eight, doing elaborate backflips and hip-hop moves on a moving A express train, and your garden-variety winos, hobos, and Vietnam vets. Toss them change if they entertain you or move you to do so; it’s good for humanity.
  • Restaurant grades are bullshit. The things you can get away with and still get an ‘A’ are, to my mind, horrifying. But you probably won’t die from eating anywhere.
  • Do not ever pay full price for a hairstylist or yoga class. These things are on Groupon and Livingsocial (or just offering regular ol’ discounts) more often than anything else. You can get such stupidly low discounts on them that more than $4/class or $25 for a shampoo and trim is highway robbery.
  • Get a library card if you can. Because otherwise you will fall prey to the siren song of used bookstores and drain away your savings account three, four, six, and two-for-ten dollars at a time.
  • Despairing. You might. I did. I do. The city is huge and scary; it smells bad and is not always safe. But it’s incredible, too. It’s the only place where you can get the best of anything or the worst of anything twenty-four hours a day. So breathe. You’ll get through it, one shitty cup of bodega coffee and well drink at a time, and you might love it, too.

Bonus addendum: The Skint and r/nyc are good places to find cheap, free, cool, or all of the above type things to do. I have gone to many an outdoor movie and gotten free Colbert Report tix from total strangers just by cruising the internets. You don’t ever have to be without plans! That said, it’s okay to be bored here, too. We all need breaks.