Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Days Off

I did a marvelous thing recently. Rather, I did two marvelous things recently: I took two days off. Yes, I, freelancing workaholic robot woman of the Western Hemisphere, scheduled myself time to tell the rest of the world to fuck off. And, if I do say so myself, I did so to great effect.

I went out to San Francisco over Memorial Day weekend to photograph a wedding and stayed with AS for a few days. Tuesday she returned to work and I resolved to do nothing but sit in Golden Gate Park and read my new book: John Waters’s Role Models, purchased at the city’s beloved independent bookseller Green Apple Books. I didn’t know the last time I took a day off, and it started to take a toll on my work. I didn’t care about anything anymore and I felt like I was just going through the motions. I hope even one day away from the computer would make me care again.

Waking up and answering a few emails (old habits die hard), I took myself out to an early lunch at Nopalito, the little sister restaurant to the impossible-to-get-into Nopa. Nopalito’s dinner rush is a similar experience, I was told, but I figured for a lunch right after they open the doors, it might be a little easier to get into. I was not wrong, and was immediately seated outside at one of their long green tables. The food, of the gourmet Mexican variety, was delicious but not filling--I spoiled myself by spending more than I normally would on two plates because, fuck it, it’s my day off and I’m (sort of, kind of) on vacation. The Mole Enchiladas are deliciously creamy, spiced but not spicy, and I practically lick the plate. The Calabacitas quesadilla is made of a hand-rolled blue corn tortilla with summer squash and jack cheese that gets interestingly chewy but not melty. Everything looks and tastes clean and fresh.

And then I walk to the park and read my book for hours and hours, sitting in the grass of two unused ball fields. The sun is bright and the sky is clear blue but there’s just enough of a chill in the air to keep my leopard cardigan on. I go back and forth to the park all day, eating up Waters’s words and then a coffee; more of his words and then an avocado sandwich from the local health food store. I almost want to go to the vegan restaurant in the neighborhood AS says is run by a cult, but I don’t feel like getting wrapped up in anyone’s dogma but my own today. As I sit and read of John Waters’s love for Rei Kawakubo and local Baltimore burlesque dancers, I wonder when the last time I sat and read a book anywhere that wasn’t the subway. I don’t know if I have an answer.

By the time I return to New York, by wherewithal to power ahead is significantly revived. The battery percentage that was once dwindling in the single digits has increased, enough that I know when I take my next day off in a few weeks, I may even be fully recharged.


Initially the plan was to go to Brighton Beach and sit in the sun reading all the copies of New York Magazine that had been piling up on my desk, begging to be read. I proceeded accordingly, but arrived on the beach in 68-degree weather to swirling, whipping winds that made what should have been a delightful temperature feel like something perhaps 20 degrees lower. I tried to brave it for a while--this was my day off! I wanted to go to the beach!--but I realized it was perhaps futile. I needed to go someplace that had some kind of enclosure around it, so I would be warm but not wind-slapped. Prospect Park was the next best thing, I resolved, and I boarded the Q train accordingly.

Cool enough for a hot coffee, I procured myself a cafe au lait at Hungry Ghost and walked to the park, through the faux Arc de Triomphe at Grand Army Plaza (it always tickles me to think about arriving in Paris last year and seeing the real one, joking to myself, “Hey, we got one of those in Brooklyn!”). I stop and pet a small floofy Pomeranian named Coco who doesn’t so much walk but toddle, and I stare at him much more than I should as I cross into the park. The sun is still shining brightly with a cool, this time refreshing, breeze as I set up camp in the middle of the park, encircled in a giant field by endless trees and green grass. There is something even more wonderful about taking a day off in New York when everyone else is working, knowing that you’ve carved out a space for yourself in this bustling city at a time when comparatively few others have. In a place that’s usually significantly more crowded, no less. I read issue after issue after issue of New York Magazine until I just can’t read anymore and start looking for places nearby to eat.

Puerto Viejo is a Dominican restaurant in Prospect Heights, and I sidle up to the restaurant and sit at what perhaps was once a student’s desk and has been transformed into a two-seated table. I order Pernil (roast pork) with yuca and maduros (sweet plantains). Complimentary banana chips with a delicious garlic dipping sauce arrive first and I make my way through them--I didn’t realize how hungry I was, but admittedly at one point I’m just using the chips as a vehicle for the creamy, savory, heavenly garlic sauce. But then my food arrives and dear sweet Jesus I have not had a meal that good in a very, very, very long time. The juiciest pork is utterly decadent, dripping with flavor. The yuca is boiled and soft, almost cake-like, topped with pickled onions that pop. And the maduros are practically caramel, melting soft in my mouth. I almost sit there agape for five minutes afterward. It’s lucky I live so far away otherwise I’d be there all the time and gain 9,000 pounds.

I leave Puerto Viejo in a perfect haze of sun-soaked warm skin and full tummy, trotting myself back to the subway, batteries recharged.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Velvetina Taylor

When I arrive at Velvetina Taylor’s apartment building, she is already decked out in her burlesque makeup, sparkly silver eyes accented with black shadow and black eyelashes that curl upward in a perfect C-shape. Both match her jet black hair. Earlier today she performed at a brunch in the Financial District, and tonight she’ll be at The Slipper Room on the Lower East Side.

Also decked out in black is her Harley-Davidson. It’s named Rita, after iconic 1940s film actress Rita Hayworth. Velvetina will be riding Rita all the way to San Francisco this summer, doing a cross-country burlesque tour of her own design. It’s her third “Pistons and Pasties” tour like this, though the others were from New York to New Orleans. On the way, she’ll stop in her native Indiana for the state fair she never misses. Rita is Velvetina’s second motorcycle but first Harley. It makes a massive, throaty vrroooooooooooom when she moves it across the street. A group of women walks by offering snaps and applause.

During the weekday, Velvetina works at the Conjuring Arts Library, dedicated to all things magic. She received her master’s degree in Library and Information Studies from University College Dublin and previously worked as a freelance social media specialist and ballroom dance instructor.

Velvetina began doing burlesque about three years ago after taking classes at the New York School of Burlesque with her sister. At first it was just for laughs, but Velvetina really loved it and just kept going. She started hosting her own shows, and now has Velvetina’s Vixens at Beauty Bar on the second Monday of every month and Mistress Velvetina’s Variety Hour in the Red Room at KGB Bar on the second Friday of every month.

As Velvetina prepares her suitcase for the night--she can’t think of a burlesque performer who isn’t constantly trailing one behind them--she looks through a clothing rack bursting with costumes like an orangutan suit and the sparkly pink confection she’ll wear tonight to perform her “La Vie En Rose” number. She’s also assembling her costume for a number she does to “What’s Inside a Girl?” by The Cramps, stripping out of a skeleton suit and then a light-up muscle suit, down to tasseled rhinestone pasties made to look like especially sparkly nipples.

We arrive at The Slipper Room and Velvetina begins to change. There’s a tattoo on her right thigh of a moose playing a banjo. “It’s my favorite animal,” she says, putting on a curly blonde wig and earrings, then fastening herself into the “La Vie En Rose” gown. During the performance, she’ll toss pink petals from ruffled pink bloomers to great applause. Later, she’ll go-go dance between shows in a bright red leotard and thigh-highs. Sitting on the stage with a bouncy black ponytail attached to her dark hair, she looks like a maraschino cherry on top of a sundae. The audience slides all denominations of bills to her or tucks them into her stockings as she teases and twirls.

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Miri Hoffman

Miri Hoffman is not her real name. It is not her real name because by day she teaches English, History, and occasionally Sex Ed to seventh graders at a charter school in Manhattan and they know a little too well how to use Google, she laughs.

At Westville--a restaurant known for the veggie-forward market plates she’s enjoying right now because she’s starting a cleansing diet--Miri sips a neon green concoction that turns out to be a rather herbaceous mint lemonade. We sit outside and she shows me a teeny cabinet she just purchased from a gal online--she loves other people’s stuff because she loves other people’s stories, she says.

Miri is originally from Canberra, Australia--pronounced “Can-bruh” for the uninitiated--but has been living in New York going on six years. She originally came to the city to work as an intern at The Drama League, staying in a friend’s apartment in the West Village for the summer. She points it out in the distance as we walk up Hudson Street from Westville. She left and came back, and has been in New York since.

Living in Australia never really resonated with her, she says, because as open-minded as the country might appear, she felt there was only really one type of person you could be there, and it was not one she wanted to be. Moving to New York, she finally felt like she could be herself.

She loved it, yet found herself scraping by. After eighteen months here she sold some of her eggs in order to be able to stay. She did it two more times after that. It’s strange knowing there are at least three humans walking around the earth that are half you, she says, but she’s happy she was able to give people an opportunity they may not have had otherwise: the eggs of practicing Jewish ladies are in high demand because of the belief that Judaism carries matrilineally.

I'm surprised she’s telling me all of this, almost. Miri and I attended a seder earlier this year and she came over to say hello. We began talking about religion and men and the intersection (or lack thereof) in our lives. I shared more of myself than I do with total strangers, perhaps due to the flowing wine, but she shared in kind. I admired her openness and warmth and positivity, and we became friends. She continued to share her experiences with me and, as I learned, there is hardly anything about her that is a closed book (except, understandably, when it comes to her students).

We sit in Christopher Park and chat for awhile, light fading into dark, before walking uptown for a treat at Chloe’s Soft Serve Fruit Co., where they make desserts out of pressed fruit and a little sugar. It’s a cheat from Miri’s cleanse, but a good one--she tops hers with raspberries and coconut and it becomes quite a beautiful production. Sitting at the edge of Union Square Park, she dives in.

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Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Alissa Sexton

When Alissa Sexton describes how we met nearly 13 years ago, she uses the phrase “nerd camp,” which is not entirely inaccurate. We were both rising high school seniors taking college classes for the summer at a university we hoped to attend (neither of us did, and for the best). We fell out of touch a bit but reconnected once we both arrived in New York in 2010. This insanely intelligent and considerate, dry-witted, wacky and graceful woman has been a constant presence in my life ever since, and I’m proud to say I will be her maid-of-honor at her (totally non-patriarchal) wedding in September.

Alissa moved to California a few years ago and became a social worker at Stanford Health Care in Palo Alto, where she works with the inpatient psychiatric unit. To say her job is not easy is a wild understatement. But even though she often works with florid psychotics on a regular basis, she keeps her sense of humor not just intact but thriving--there are few people on this earth who can make me laugh like she does.

Since I had been to San Francisco before, my goal was to just hang out with her this time--upon arriving at the airport, I realized it had been over a year since I last saw her in person, even though we talk on the phone for hours a couple of times a month. Alissa made a list of things she wanted to eat and we checked them off. First up, the Ricotta Cheese French Toast Sandwich at Lale in Inner Sunset, filled with fluffy scrambled eggs, avocado, chipotle aioli, and salty, sweet bacon, all with maple syrup for dipping. The avocado throws me, but I decide to trust the kitchen and order as is. It is extraordinary, all sugary and spicy and savory and soft and crisp all at once.

We follow this carb fest with a walk through Golden Gate Park, then past the famous “Painted Ladies” at the Alamo Square park--which are not, as the name might suggest, old-timey prostitutes, but rather boldly painted Victorian and Edwardian houses. The sky is a bright, cloudless blue and the wind whips Alissa’s hair as we walk past the many architectural delicacies San Francisco has to offer. Our next stop is in Hayes Valley, at Salt and Straw, an ice cream shop that originated in Portland, Oregon and is known for its unusual flavors, like black olive bark and goat cheese or almond brittle and salted ganache, the latter of which Alissa chooses.

And though we cannot eat it, we also stop into SFMoMA for a brief inhalation of art (Alissa is a member, so there is no pressure to gobble up every floor). She is a big Richard Serra fan, and there is one of his massive sculptures in the lobby. We continue inside, making jokes about Alexander Calder’s sexual preferences and whether it’s appropriate to touch the ferns on the third floor’s living wall. It’s probably not.

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