Friday, March 24, 2023
A word unfolded over cocktails (as they do) as my brother and I sat on the couch talking about New York. I don’t know why we were talking about it. I don’t know why we talk about anything we talk about, except there are usually many cocktails involved and that heightens your love-hate of things, which leads to waxing poetic about those things.
During this particular conversation we were talking about about how much we love New York. I may live in Tennessee at the moment, and he may live wherever he lives at the moment, but we are New Yorkers at heart.
I lived in New Jersey for 20 years. I have lived in Tennessee for four. I still pine for Olema. But when someone asks, I will tell them I’m from New York. Because I am. My body has spent time in other places but my soul is the shape of an apple. New York is in my heart and my heart is in New York and thus a word was born. Today we explore my heart.
It seems fitting then, to tell a story about New York. That’s like trying to count all the grains of sand on all the beaches, but I’ll do my best to describe the heart of it.
First, it’s important to understand that by “New York” I mean “that tiny little slice of New York known as the City.” There is an awful lot of New York, most of which is called “upstate” by people from the City. I lived in both parts of it, but for the purpose of this story, all that matters is the City. And yes, that’s City with a capital C.
Second, it’s important to know that I don’t want to live in the City. To be fair, if I made a billion dollars (probably by writing) then I’d own a penthouse on Central Park or a brownstone in the Village where I would very much enjoy visiting. But my sanity requires something quite different. Probably that would be another story.
The problem with drinking too many cocktails is that you’re too drunk to write things down as they’re happening and too drunk to remember them later.
So let’s see. I don’t have a real “story” in the sense of it having a beginning middle and end. It’s more of an ode.
The other problem is that there is no “one” story. There are a billion of them. The time Ralph bought me a rose with a little clip-on teddy bear from one of those ever-present vendors, and I accidentally left it in the bathroom and when I went back to get it like five seconds later it was gone and I was so mad that I hated New York and never wanted to go back.
The time – the only time – I ever went to the Rockefeller Center tree lighting with my college roommate and she dropped her Shillelagh stick (it’s what passed as “protection” back in the day) in the middle of this massive mob and it was like being caught in a sea of humans with barely enough space to inhale a full breath let alone bend over to pick something up. It was horrible and claustrophobic and I thought I was going to die, in part from not being able to breathe and in part because there was no way she wasn’t going to pick up that stick and I thought we’d end up getting trampled to death. I hated it so much and never wanted to go back.
Like the time some woman high on meth bumped into me and I was so terrified of the look on her face that I said I’m sorry and she berated me all the way down the block while I shut up so as not to invoke deadly wrath. And I hated it and never wanted to go back.
So far this is not sounding like love, right?
But what is love if not a willingness – nay, a desire! – to keep doing something that repeatedly almost kills you? What is love if not forgiveness? An acknowledgement of imperfection, of both tragedy and elation?
Love isn’t happiness. Love is stone soup, with a little bit of everything dug up from the dustiest corners, both hoarded and given up willingly.
But I didn’t say I love New York. I mean, I said it. But this isn’t an ode to me loving New York, it’s an ode to New York being my heart.
That is a very different thing.
So what does it mean… It means it’s the place I identify with the most, in the messiest way possible. The place I can love and hate simultaneously. A place that is so great you can’t contain it within one human heart, and yet you try, and you spend drunk evenings trying to explain why.
You can be anyone there. Or no one. You can be lost in a cacophony of humanity while at the same time still be recognized by the waiter who serves you mojitos.
Ralph and I, our favorite restaurant is Cuba in the Village. We started going there years ago, after our love affair with Victor’s wore off. Victor’s is a Cuban restaurant in midtown, a few blocks outside Central Park on 52nd Street.
When we were in college, eating no-bake cheesecake and diner mozzarella sticks, we used to walk by Victor’s and gaze into the window and tell each other that one day we’d have enough money to eat there.
When we got married, we were excited to finally be able to go. The paella was to-die-for and the mojitos were amazing.
Then we discovered Cuba. It’s hard to pinpoint the difference, but if midtown vs. Greenwich Village makes you nod your head and say, “Ah, got it”, then you know what I mean.
Cuba is tiny. Well, it’s probably huge by Village standards, but it’s most certainly smaller than Victor’s.
You will bump knees with whoever is sitting at the table next to you.
The band plays in a corner that can only be accessed by everyone at the nearest two tables getting up and bumping into each other and squeezing against the wall so the musicians can pass. If you are sitting at that table, you won’t have to worry about coming up with entertaining dinnertime conversation because you won’t be having any. You probably wouldn’t hear a ten bell fire alarm if it came to it.
But the mojitos are served by the pitcher and to date they are the best ones I’ve ever had.
And this is what I mean about being nobody and somebody at the same time. Because you can walk down the street, blissfully unconcerned with what you look like or who you are or whether anyone will recognize you or what kind of shoes you’re wearing, and then you can walk into Cuba after not being there for a year and Omar will throw his arms around you in a hug and have the pitcher of mojitos on the table in four seconds flat.
Grains of sand.
Ski Bar, where you’d do a shot of something by kneeling at the bottom of an ice slalom with your mouth open and waiting for it to pour down. Pre-Covid, for sure.
I recently read a book about the founding of New York. It’s called The Island at the Center of the World. And no, it wasn’t about British colonization. New York existed long before they came in with their canons and bullied it away from everyone else.
The Dutch called it New Amsterdam and it was every bit the wild, free, melting pot predecessor to what it is today. If you want a real history of New York, I highly recommend that book.
I live in middle Tennessee now, where you couldn’t tell a melting pot from a mojito, and where the steak may be phenomenal but you’re not going to get a good bagel or a slice of pizza or a plate of hummus, let alone a falafel with hot sauce, a side order of Baba Ghanoush and a seltzer, please.
Extra bonus points if you have any idea what that reference means.
The fact is, I miss the bare knuckles of New York, where there is the corner preacher screaming about end of days next to the Naked Cowboy and these things coexist because of course they do.
And there are people who believe in Jesus or Mohammed or nothing at all. And there are mailmen and cabaret dancers and attorneys and programmers and people who can talk to you about anything at all, even if you’d rather they didn’t. Where there is actual Broadway and enough museums that you could gorge on culture until the day you died and still never absorb it all.
Where there are the same kind of people who live here, except there are also enough kinds of people that you don’t feel like you’re surrounded by the same thing all the time.
In New York, I don’t think about who I am. I just am.
I feel big and small. Part of something greater than myself and lost in an ocean of anonymity. Energized and alive and electric and utterly exhausted.
Here, I am someone from “out of state” whose values nobody wants here and whose husband now wants me to walk around with a firearm because of the danger I might find myself in in this “Hallmark movie” of a town.
Yes, that is something multiple people have told me about this town. This past Christmas, I met a woman at one of the bars we frequent who was visiting for the Dickens Festival. It’s one of the many events the town hosts, and they are all entertaining and fun, so don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of redeeming qualities about being here.
They love their festivals, and I can get a really great cocktail, and there’s some of the best farm fresh food I’ve had anywhere. When it’s strawberry season, you can just stop calling and texting me because I will be face-down in a bucket until it’s over. My heart, however, remains Stoic on the matter.
This woman, she told me that she had been scouring the internet for a place to visit. And she came here because she wanted to be in a Hallmark movie.
Am I the only one who finds that more creepy than charming?
Ralph and I went back this past October, after being away for three years. I was rather nervous about it, because I’d heard some terrible things. Crime was up. People were awful. It was dirty, unkempt. The liberals were ruining everything. Maybe even the mojitos had suffered, you can never tell.
I wanted to get in and out as fast as possible, say I was there and get back to my Hallmark movie.
But then we arrived, and it was every bit as electrifying and beautiful as I remembered it. If crime was up, I didn’t notice. I mean, once you’ve had a clip-on teddy bear stolen, what’s left?
If people were awful, I didn’t notice. We went to Cuba and got hugged and served mojitos, still the best anywhere.
If it was dirty and unkempt, I didn’t notice. In fact, Covid had the interesting effect of making every restaurant construct a popup of sorts on the sidewalks outside. Now as you walk through the Village, the streets are adorned with these mini-satellite restaurants, some surrounded by flowers, or artwork, or twinkling lights. It was quite beautiful.
You can say what you want about New York’s politics and pronouns and tax rate, but that is not the heart of it.
The heart of it is pizza by the slice, and you don’t even have to sit down to eat it. You can stand right at the tall tables on the sidewalk where there were never any chairs to begin with.
The heart of it is that you can always find someone to sell you Jesus or drugs, to hold a door for you or bump you off the sidewalk if they’re in a hurry.
The heart of it is street art and pushcart hot dogs, sax players who will play in the subway for a buck in a hat and breakdancers who will do it for the crowd it draws in Washington Square.
The heart of it is everything sacred and profane.
I’ve been to Boston and Nashville, LA and Miami, New Orleans and D.C., Chicago and Paris. I even skirted Portland once, though it never invited me in.
But I got engaged on a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park and still make a beeline for the Hall of Minerals and Gems every time we visit the Museum of Natural History. I’ve traveled by subway and cab, eaten peanuts off street vendors and ridden the elevators of the Marriott Marquis even when I wasn’t staying there.
I’ve been to Big Smoke and ComicCon, drag shows and Broadway plays. I’ve played board games at a coffee shop and danced at the Limelight. I’ve eaten rare steaks and giant pretzels, toured the Intrepid and had a beer at McSorley’s.
I’ve knelt on the floor of Ski Bar, and sat more respectably at Bear Bar. I’ve smoked at the only cigar bar still in existence there, watched the lion tamers at the Ringling Bros. circus, and seen generations of Rockettes ring in the Christmas season. Somehow, that never gets old.
I’ve touched so many grains of sand and yet still barely scraped enough surface area to plant a single dandelion seed.
I love it and hate it and want to be there and want to leave and can never wait to go back.
If I had a profound conclusion, this is where I’d put it. But I don’t, and strawberry season is about to begin, so just close your eyes and imagine all the twinkling stars captured in one skyline. And smile.
Photo: a canopy of lights hung between one of my favorite bars and its satellite on the sidewalk.