Sunday, July 23, 2017

Summer Slices

It's a June evening so the air is warm but still cool enough to walk through without feeling a film of moisture develop on your skin. HanOre and I are walking from Town Hall, following the sound of salsa music to Bryant Park. It turns out there's a free salsa dance that night, with tons of people crowded onto a rectangular dance floor near the 6th Avenue edge of the park. The lawn of the park itself has lots of pockets of empty space for us to sit, so we plop ourselves down and remove our shoes, memories of our evening like programs and handbags scattered in front of us. The lights overlooking the park are so bright it doesn't feel quite like nighttime, rather some amorphous otherworldly time that doesn't exist on Earth as of yet. People sit on rust and crimson blankets provided by the park, but we sprawl out on the grass. It's cool under our feet, nice enough to rub my toes between.

Not far away, there are booths set up for local vendors, one of which is Moon Man, selling kue pancong, Indonesian coconut pancakes. I get one with a Java palm sugar and flaked coconut topping, which is then set aflame with a blowtorch. It's a bold caramel flavor, and the burnt sugar crunches in my teeth where it's been burnt. HanOre and I share the coaster-sized treat and sit down again, listening to salsa music while enjoying our dessert.



When we part ways, I walk down 42nd Street to catch a train, only to find a gaggle of vintage cars parked between 5th and 6th Avenues, bachata pouring out of their speakers and into the warm, crisp night. An orange Ford GTO, a lacquer red Chevrolet Bel Air are among them. Fuzzy dice hang from rearview mirrors, cars shine with a combination of glittering paint jobs and bright white streetlamps, children sleep in backseats. Men and women sit by their cars in plastic folding chairs, sipping beers and chatting in Spanish. Under their feet, neon light radiates from the cars' undercarriages and license plates onto the ground.



*

On June 28, the "Eloise at the Museum" exhibit opens at the New-York Historical Society. Having written about it for Town & Country, I am invited to the opening party with a guest. I bring HanOre, who named her beloved tuxedo cat after the wily Plaza resident. I was older when Eloise was re-released, but I fell in love with her anyway and ended up owning all four of the books in the series. She was both an aspiration and an inspiration, this petite troublemaker who just did whatever she wanted, and I found myself especially connecting to the books' drawings by illustrator Hilary Knight. I even found a book he had illustrated, Algonquin Cat, at a used bookstore and bought it without even thinking simply because he had drawn it. His drawings were also part of my life as the elegant paper dolls that came inside the thick Neiman Marcus catalogs my mother would get in the mail. I still have them tucked away in a Ziploc bag.

I had the opportunity to interview Knight, a spry 90 years old, at an exhibit of his theatre drawings (Hilary Knight's Stage Struck World, on view until September 1) at The New York Public Library's Performing Arts Library. He walked me through the entire exhibit, sharing anecdotes from his childhood, his favorite posters he's drawn (Dance Theatre of Harlem is among them), his hopes for projects in the future. If you had asked me at 12 if I would ever have the chance to do that, I would have leapt and cried with joy. Yet there I was, walking through the Performing Arts Library, my shoe taped to my foot--in a stunning fit of Murphy's Law, it had broken mere minutes earlier as I was crossing the Lincoln Center courtyard. Imagine me, on my way to meet an artist whose work I've admired for more of my life than not, with a sandal snapped in half, hobbling into The Metropolitan Opera's Gift Shop to ask if they sell shoes. Reader, if you are curious, they do not. But they do have Scotch tape, and if you tell them your shoe has broken before you are about to do an interview, they will let you use some to gather what little shreds of your dignity are left and tape the damned shoe to your foot like the lady that you are.

Hilary was kind and gracious, and I listened as he discussed the posters and dioramas and album covers and costumes he had made over the years. I knew the man had done more than just Eloise, but the breadth and depth of his other works I did not know. For as long as I live, I will consider it one of the greatest gifts I have been given to walk through the space with him, to have had the opportunity to hear him tell me himself.

At the exhibit, HanOre and I pose with Eloise. I still hope her rambunctious spirit courses through my veins even a little.



*

SE and I are in the Catskills for 4th of July weekend with our host for the weekend, J. We have driven up to Mountaindale, New York, not far from the now-mythical Borscht Belt Catskills of my parents' (and, incidentally, SE's) youth. The air is cool and clean and clear, trees for miles, the smell of oak and fir and birch in the air. I love New York, but it's nice to be somewhere else for a little while, too. Inside the cabin, we eat Italian breads and meats and cheeses at the dining room table over a table covering that looks like a knit doily. Nearby a photo of the Pope sits in a red glass. There are pictures of J and his sister as children around the house, yellowed with age even though J is not so old.

Later, we drive around the area and see the overgrown golf courses and abandoned homes that punctuate each road. It makes my heart sad for the Catskills my parents knew, the summers they spent in Sullivan and Ulster counties that by their own admission made them who they are now. Why doesn't someone redevelop the area, rescue all of the decay from itself and give the area new life?


After dinner, we sit outside and listen to the local radio station play blocks of artists like Smashing Pumpkins and All-American Rejects on repeat. I forget to wear bug spray and pay for it later.

We wake up the next day and head to a diner then to a Walmart next door in search of sparklers and s'mores fixins for that evening's festivities. We'll also head to an auction at which boxes of tools are going for mere dollars to an enthusiastic crowd. The tools are followed by vintage or just old goods, like an armchair worth $3000 or a box of dolls. I'm surprised to find the adrenaline of bidding pulsing from the center of my chest. I win a hand-etched Sherry bottle.

That evening I remember to put on bug spray but I eat too many s'mores.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Toro Adeyemi

When I arrive at the clean, white offices of Saatchi & Saatchi Wellness, Toro Adeyemi greets me in bright red shorts and shoes with a white blouse. Red, I will learn, is her color—it is also braided through her hair. It’s a fitting color, too, since Toro exudes a confidence most women dream of, walking with a quiet power and grace along the halls of this marketing agency that focuses on promoting consumers’ well-being.

An Integrated Producer at SSW, as it’s known, Toro is responsible for managing several in-house projects at once. She gives me a tour, spending time in the photo and design studio, where she loves to check in on photography and design projects that stir her creativity. Here, and by occasionally doing voice-overs for the company’s recorded media projects, she feels inspired.

We sit and chat at her desk, sprinkled with notes from co-workers—my favorites say ’Toro, you are good at getting dressed’ and ‘Toro Pump Time' with a little drawing of a woman looking tough. Because when she is not at SSW, Toro is a certified Bodypump (a low-weight, high-repetition weightlifting class) and Bodycombat (a non-contact, high-energy workout inspired by martial arts) instructor at gyms in New York.

Graduating college without a job, the gym became Toro’s routine. An instructor noticed her technique and asked if she’d consider teaching. She did, and stuck with it even after getting hired at office jobs she ultimately did get. Not having a job after college also led Toro to start her own marketing and PR strategy business, Toro Communicationswhich she continues to maintain as well. Working with boutique arts companies across New York, she has been able to get them press in places like The New York Times.

Soon, Toro swaps her red heels for sneakers, her office attire for workout clothes, as she goes to teach Bodypump. She would love to move to Thailand for a while and get her massage therapy and yoga certification in one go. “There’s more to life than this, you know?” she says, tapping her foot on the concrete for emphasis.

She puts her braids in a bun and arrives in a room full of women who have already begun setting up barbells, mats, and towels. In her nearly three years as an instructor, Toro has developed a following of sorts, with people coming specifically to take a class with her even when she teaches at different locations. Some of her regulars are here, and she greets them by name, also introducing herself to people she doesn’t know, before putting on vibrant, bass heavy music and setting up her own equipment. Preferring not to be just a voice, Toro does all the exercises along with her class.

“This is not supposed to be easy!” she says to the class over the music as they lift first barbells then weight plates then themselves. “Your body will thank you later!” Sweat drips down her face, somehow with the same grace and power as before.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Lenny An

Monday, July 10, 2017

Pizza My Heart

Despite New York being considered one of the hubs of great pizza in the U.S., I can’t say with any conviction that I’m…especially interested. Perhaps like most people in college, I tired of pizza my freshman year, when every welcome event featured the circular treats as a means of luring in new faces. I thereby can’t say with any certainty that I have a favorite slice of pizza in New York. I thought I once did, but I really hadn't had one that truly made me understand why pizza is so beloved, argued about, and dare I say fetishized across our nation. 

On the day of the Mermaid Parade in Coney Island, however, all of that changed. My dear SE, who grew up close enough to that beach to walk there, had been telling me about a mythical pizza joint in the area for about a year and a half. It was his favorite not just growing up but has been consistently throughout his three decades. L & B Spumoni Gardens it was called, and according to him they had the world’s best pizza, a square, Sicilian slice that had no peer. The restaurant had been open since 1939, so they were obviously doing something right. Yet having heard many different answers to the “What’s your favorite New York pizza?” question in my nearly seven years here (and, at one point even having an answer of my own), and love him though I do, I took it with a grain of salt. It was, after all, possible for there to be several different kinds of amazing, world’s-best-quality pizza in myriad styles, each appealing in their own way.
I truly had no expectations when SE, AG, and I walked from the beach to catch the B3 bus to Bensonhurst, hopping off just a block from L & B’s grouping of red tables outside of a brown brick building with two lines of people in front: one for those getting slices, and one for those getting pies. SE got what’s called a half tray, a pie of twelve slices (instead of a whole tray which, if my English-major-level math is correct, would of course be 24 slices) while AG and I staked out a table. 

Soon the box arrived, and I almost didn’t know what I was looking at when I first saw it, this gorgeous fluffy bread positively swimming with deep red sauce and tiny flakes of Pecorino Romano cheese. At L & B, you see, what would normally be the pizza’s cheesy topping, the thing that differentiates the stuff from just being “sauce bread,” is underneath the sauce, baked into the bread. There were three edges of crust and one without so some slice had just no crust at all. Each slice was about the size of a CD case, a giant square I could only imagine holding with two hands—but alas, I am not a native New Yorker and have been told by several natives that one simply does not eat pizza with two hands; rather, one folds it in half. This just seems silly to me. Why sandwich something when you could enjoy more of it for longer by just holding it flat? But I digress. 

Was there a way I was supposed to eat this, a way a native New Yorker would know how to attack this particular pie that I, a mere transplant, would never know? I asked.

“Well,” SE said. “Do you like crust?”
“No,” I said. On the rare occasion that we would get pizza, I always left the hard bits for him to crunch on. 
“Then don’t eat the crust,” he said. 

Oh. 

So I went for the middle slices, the warm sauce almost spilling over the edges of the perfectly square, almost cake-like pizza. I picked it up and took a bite. And suddenly, I understood pizza. Not just this pizza, but all pizza. It was as if I was standing in a tornado of olive oil and tomatoes and mozzarella and herbs and dough, complex mathematical equations flying past me in circles while the secrets of the universe revealed themselves to me. This was it! This is what pizza was supposed to taste like! I didn’t understand for so long because nothing had compared. Nothing was as simultaneously crunchy on the bottom and fluffy, cheesy, gooey in the middle; no sauce was as sweet yet tart and savory. I had never eaten anything like this in my life, so it’s no wonder I never cared about pizza until now. I imagine there are some people who feel about all pizza the way I feel about this one from L & B, who rejoice in all sauce-dough-cheese combinations in one form or another. I found myself lapping up fallen bits of sauce, yelping in despair when I thought I had dropped a loose corner (it was safe), feeling a heaving sense of sadness when the half tray was gone as if I had lost a dear friend because I had to eat him.

I even had a slight pang of jealousy—this was SE’s local pizza place growing up, the place that, if he wanted to order a pizza, would shortly deliver to his home close by. But with a distance over an hour from my house, such a delivery for me would never be. Even now, a few weeks later, I can still taste the cheesy, saucy slices. But it is still summer, after all, and many a slice can still be consumed close to the beach. But what will I do in the winter? 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Naomi Extra

First things first: yes, she'll say, that is her real name. 

Naomi Extra is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Rutgers University, where she specializes in the way black women and girls relate to agency and pleasure, with a focus on erotica, street lit, and/or sex writing by women in the 1960s and 1970s. Or, as Naomi puts it while we are walking in Crown Heights, her favorite Brooklyn neighborhood, “I was like, ‘I want to know about black sex!’” 

While working on her Ph.D., she has written about the topic extensively for publications like Ms., Lenny Letter, Bitch, and more. In fact, I met Naomi when I invited her to read at The Miss Manhattan Non-Fiction Reading Series after enjoying her wonderful essay “On Love Jones and Searching for Black Desire Onscreen” in LitHub. In this essay, Extra describes her relationship to the film, writing that it was one of the first counterpoints she saw to the many teen romances starring white kids (like Dawson’s Creek) that had previously populated her visual experiences. 

Today at the cafe Lincoln Station, Naomi is perusing poetry by Anne Sexton and Dionne Brand, as well as a book called Blush: Faces of Shame by Elspeth Probyn. “There’s something in shame,” Naomi says to me, something worth discussing as it relates to sexuality, and she’s curious to see how these volumes can illuminate it. Golden light streams in through Lincoln Station’s yellow awning as Naomi simultaneously nibbles on avocado and eggs and pours over the texts, underlining phrases in black ballpoint pen, taking notes on a yellow legal pad. 

Naomi takes in a few more poems and we head over to the Brooklyn Museum. She’s excited about the exhibition “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-85.” It fits perfectly with her time frame of study, and as we walk through works by influential artists like Emma Amos, Faith Ringgold, Beverly Buchanan, and Howardena Pindell, Naomi is filled with joy. “I want this in my house,” she says of Loïs Mailou Jones’s 1972 painting “Ubi Girl from Tai Region,” featuring a woman’s face partly painted white with a red X. She doesn’t so much look at it as absorb it, taking in every stroke. Standing in front of sculptor Barbara Chase-Riboud’s entirely black 1972 bronze, paint, and wool structure “Confessions for Myself,” done in memory of Malcolm X, Naomi smiles. “This one looks like my hair!” She stands back and looks at it deeply from multiple angles, considering it before moving on to a group of magazine articles assessing the black woman’s experience in the era’s Women’s Liberation movement. One is written by the extraordinary Toni Morrison, and Naomi softly gasps. “I have to find this in the library,” she says aloud, reminding herself for later. 

We leave the exhibition and Naomi is already eager to return another time. She brushes her hands over the beaded curtains in the lobby then exits through the glass revolving doors, the day in front of her.


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