Saturday, December 19, 2015

Good Dates, Part II

It seems to be that time of year where we are all doing our best to tide ourselves over with the drunken evenings or brunches that define our friendships before we're resigned to spending time with our families for the next week or two. Fine by me.

SJT

Having mistaken the time we were to meet for dinner by a full hour, I am a half-hour late to meet SJT and my brain is falling out of my head. I am many things but a flake is not one of them, so I am instantly forgiven. Nevertheless, we meet at a different restaurant than we originally intended, one closer to a train we'll need later in the evening, but it's just as lovely. We avail ourselves of Nepali soups (dal, a lentil soup, for me and chasha thang, a shredded chicken and corn soup, for me) and sha momo (beef and herb dumplings) at Cafe Himalaya on 1st Avenue and 1st Street and make it to our next destination, an opera house in Brooklyn, in plenty of time.

I have written this before, but perhaps one of my favorite things in the world is to go to the opera with SJT. A dramaturg, opera writer, and self-described "opera queen," he affords me deep insights into an arts field I'm not the most familiar with, so even if I don't particularly enjoy the opera, I've learned so much about it that the evening is never a waste. Such was the experience we had on this jaunt to the Gowanus-ish neighborhood in the wilds of Brooklyn, where we saw an opera in English of which I didn't understand a word. First I thought it was me, that perhaps I was so dense about opera and that my ears just didn't work. Thankfully, though, this was not the case--SJT shared with me there were incredible problems with the diction in the show and I was so happy when, during intermission, he shared with me the story of what was actually going on. I did like that the company featured performers with gorgeous voices who were our age--so often, SJT tells me, there are 50-some-odd year-olds who will play teenagers just because their voices are so much more well-developed and, well, they're stars so who wouldn't want to come see them. But the younger age of the cast I think lends itself to expanding the notion of who opera can be for. Next time they just need a better director, or maybe even a dramaturg like SJT.

On the train back, we are both feeling nibbly, so we stop into one of my favorite haunts, the Olive Tree Cafe on Macdougal Street in the West Village, for babaganush and chicken wings. By the end of the evening my eyelids are drooping, but that's how you know you've had a full, and fully marvelous evening.

MS

On a Wednesday night at around 8:45pm, I see a text from MS. "What are you doing tonight?" he says. Having just come back from yoga, I didn't really have any plans other than to shower and lope around the house in my sweatpants. I wrote this to him. It turns out his parents had tickets to a gala at the Neue Galerie, a museum of 20th century German and Austrian art. It ended at 9:30pm. Could I make it? he asked. I hemmed and hawed probably for a little too long before I said, Oh hell, I'll give it a shot. Worst comes to worst, I said to him, we'll just grab a bite and have to actually talk to each other. I threw on a cocktail dress, smeared some eyeliner on my face and raced a razor over my legs before hopping into first heels, then a coat, then a cab to hustle to the museum. I got there at 9:35 and the girls at the front door were like, "Uh, I guess you can come in..." Thanks, guys. People were in line for their coats and the bar had closed. And I didn't really care at all because I'd still get to spend time with my friend just the same. MS got his coat and we hobbled (rather, I, in heels, hobbled) over to Bocado on 87th and Lexington for late-night vittles. We dipped bread in olive oil and I tried valiantly to stab a brussel sprout with a fork but to no avail, while we chatted about dating and MS's potential move to Nashville. We ended up shutting the restaurant down, the lights turning from dim to bright as the clock reached a certain hour and we parted ways.

RaGo

"Wanna see a Broadway show with me?" RaGo asked.

There are few things that I will drop all planned activities for, perhaps none more than an activity like this. I was raised going to the theatre--when I was growing up, my mother got tickets to almost any show that came through South Florida: Fiddler on the Roof, Chicago, Cabaret, Cats, you name it--but strangely, now that I live in New York, mecca of theatre that it is, I hardly ever go. I simply cannot afford the ticket prices, so I usually only go when my parents come to town because that's one of their favorite activities. But RaGo had a gift certificate to the TKTS booth in Times Square that was soon to expire, and she had been kind enough to think of me to accompany her on her theatrical sojourn for the day. I of course agreed, and we met on the TKTS line at 10am on a Sunday morning. A line had in fact already formed though the booth would not open until 11am. We were in line with many a backpacked out-of-towner, their Midwestern or Australian accents giving them away. I realize now that I may have appeared as a city dweller, as the woman behind me began asking me for recommendations while I was waiting for RaGo. This fills me with pride as I write this, and a small smile crosses my face. Anyway, once Rachel arrives we gossip and then decide what our top shows would be. It's her birthday present, and her top choice is An American in Paris which as a huge dance nerd I am more than excited to see. We luck out with a crisp, 60-degree weather day, so waiting is not an issue; though I can't imagine what it would be like in the summer or in the depths of winter. Sheesh.

Once the booth opens, we are in and out in 15 minutes, with incredible orchestra seats to a Broadway show for a relative pittance. We squeal joyfully for about a minute, then RaGo says, "Now let's get out of this hellhole." It's true, Times Square is most definitely the bane of most New Yorkers' existence, but it also allowed us to get these amazing seats at unheardof prices, so it's a give and take.

We go for coffee at Kahve in Hell's Kitchen and then brunch at the ever-delightful BarBacon, where we stuff ourselves with mimosas and bacon-laced treats like a corn torta (she) and a BLT with sunny-side up egg and avocado (me). Pleasantly filled, we then head over to the theatre and our fantastic seats therein. The choreography, by Christopher Wheeldon, is so beautiful I well up several times watching it. After intermission we just look at each other. I squeal and she goes, "I KNOW!" We are having a blast watching dance together, a sheer delight I only rarely get to share with my friends. The second half is just as swoonworthy, and I well up again, not only loving what I'm seeing but feeling honored that RaGo wanted to share this day and her birthday present with me. We hug and part ways and, feeling particularly sappy, I listen to George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" as I walk down Fifth Avenue.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Good Dates, Part I

I've said it before and I'll say it again: sometimes the best dates you'll ever go on are the ones you go on with your friends.

RD
RD and meet in Chelsea at around 4pm. We drink tea and talk about boys who kiss us, who don't kiss us, and who kiss us strangely. He slices an edge off of his almond croissant for me because I tell him I'm not eating dessert again until the holidays but he wants me to try it anyway. It's delicious, and I wish I could eat the whole thing.

We make our way to New York Live Arts, where one of my favorite modern choreographers, Sonya Tayeh, is exhibiting the piece she's been working on as a part of a residency at the space. The dancers wear black and the space is almost grey with low light. They flick their legs and arch their backs in time to interviews set to music, where Sonya talks about the aftermath of coming out to her mother, who has barely spoken to her since. Afterward, Sonya sits quietly for a talkback with the audience, musicians Jo Lampert and duo The Bergsons, and Janet Eilber, Artistic Director of the Martha Graham Dance Company. Sonya's hair is long and thick, shaved on the sides of her head. She wears pieces in long, draping black. RD notices how her gestures when she speaks are a dance on their own, long, lithe fingers moving perfectly in time to the music of her speech. I always like seeing dance with people who aren't dancers because they notice things like that.

After Sonya, we head to dinner at Mizu, one of the spots RD usually goes for lunch. We eat soup and sushi and talk about gender inequality in the workplace. I nibble at his black cod sushi in miso dressing and wish I had ordered it myself. He tries to get me to order dessert again, cocking his eyebrow at me mischievously. I want the green tea mochi, but I drink water instead. Somehow he forgives me, and we bundle ourselves into our coats for a brief stop at Flying Tiger. The store is originally Danish, and is kind of the Ikea of home decor--tea towels for $3, funny cocktail napkins for $1, a set of magnets for $2, and so on--where it might fall apart but at least it looks cute for a while first. It turns out we've arrived 10 minutes to closing, but the store's bright lights still welcome us and nobody shoos us away.  The store has a path you have to follow to go through it, so you end up seeing everything and snatching up what you like along the way. I end up with some kitchen cloths patterned with hearts and red lip magnets that I will immediately come home later and neatly place on my fridge.

We part ways soon after, each of us heading uptown on different sides of the island. "This has been such a nice evening!" he says. "I thought I was just going to do the requisite, 'Hi, I miss you, your hair is gorgeous' and then leave, but this is so much better."

HanOre
HanOre and I always have a fantastic evening, but this evening was made even better by an adventure to a hole-in-the-wall joint for one of the best meals I've had since moving to New York. I had taken my Sunday slow, spending most of my time in my neighborhood, and wanted to explore. Someplace new, someplace unusual! Casa Adela, a Puerto Rican restaurant in Alphabet City, had been on my radar for a long time, but probably out of sheer laziness I never made the trek to 5th Street and Avenue C to actually try it. Sunday night, though, seemed like the perfect opportunity, so I asked Han if she wanted to try it and she agreed. What better way to spend the first night of Hanukkah, we reasoned. The restaurant is almost literally a hole in the wall, with only five or six tables and bright fluorescent lights. Signs behind the counter are all written in Spanish, and stacks of Goya juices still in their bulk cardboard containers sit right in front of it. We wait for a table, but as we'll learn it was well worth the wait.

The waitress asks us for our order in Spanish, so I respond in kind. We both order Pernil Asado--roast pork--yellow rice and cual tipo de frijoles, what type of beans? Frijoles negros, por favor. Black beans, please. Y a beber? Solo agua, por favor. Muchas gracias. My Spanish comes back to me in waves, often very rocky at the start then much smoother at the end. By the time the food arrives we are ravenous, and dig in almost immediately. We are each given a giant plate of yellow rice and a teacup of black beans to pour onto it first. Then shortly after arrive two small plates of roast pork. It has that gorgeous reddened exterior flecked with seasoning and I can tell just by looking at it that's juicy. I'm able to slice into it smoothly and when I pop it into my mouth, I realize part of my food life has thus far been missing. We both MMMMM audibly while we eat and just stop talking because it's taking away from the eating experience. It is, in fact, juicy--bursts of salt pop in my mouth and combine with the juices and I think this is the right time to use the expression "I literally cannot even"? We sit in stunned silence, continuing to eat, and then soon, sadly, it's over. At least for me. I haven't eaten since the early morning and have destroyed the plate of pork. I am envious of Han, who will have her leftovers for lunch tomorrow. But I will have my memories! *swoons, faints, dies, is reborn again as a plate of Pernil Asado*

Mouths still watering, we pop into Lois at Han's recommendation. It's a wine bar just a block away, on C between 6th and 7th. All of the wine is on tap--but don't worry, the taps have been engineered to prevent oxidation and maintain the wine's original tastes--and you can order in a variety of sizes: glass, carafe, and so on. What's interesting about Lois, named for its Avenue C (Loisaida Ave) location, is that it's also a no-tipping bar; the price of gratuity and tax are both included in whatever you get. The very friendly bartender allows us to taste a few varietals before we settle on our choices, too. We both choose something light, dry and fruity then sidle up to a corner booth and talk about the book Han is writing, the books other people are writing, and the couple next to us who we think are on a first date.

Pork and wine? Sounds like a good way to spend Hanukkah to me.






Saturday, December 5, 2015

Wildlife

It was about 1am on Thanksgiving, when the blinds moved in my mother's bedroom, at my parents' house in Florida. At first we thought nothing of it. We were watching Milk Money, that awesome movie where Melanie Griffith plays a hooker who ends up in the suburbs and falls in love with science teacher Ed Harris. But then it happened again. And it wasn't a "it was the wind"-kind of movement. It was the movement the blinds used to make when our dearly departed cat would walk through them. Something living was behind the blinds.

We didn't know what to do--what if it was something poisonous??--but eventually my mom, brave as she is, went and opened the blind, and I saw it. A slimy little brown frog, half the size of the palm of my hand, was clinging to one of the white blinds for dear life, its little frog toes spread out like one of those sticky hands you used to get for 25 cents in hard plastic bubbles from vending machines.

Growing up in South Florida, I had become accustomed, as we all do, to all manner of bugs, reptiles,  and other strange, tropical creatures, but I never, ever got used to frogs. They make my heart thump in fear the way no other animal does. Upon seeing the creature in the house, my mom and I both gasped, and I definitely screamed like a little girl. I had only visions of the story my mother once told me of one of these frogs that had sprayed poison out of its mouth and killed my aunt's dog some 40 years ago. I didn't know if it was one of these frogs, neither of us did, but we knew we didn't want to get close to it or touch it. As my mother opened the blind to get closer, the frog leapt onto the ground. I screamed again as it bounded through the air, probably more scared of us than we were of it. It made its way toward my mother's closet, and I immobilized by fear. "Shit," my mother said. "I really don't want your father to put on his shoes tomorrow morning and step in frog." She was far less scared than I was. But the frog had disappeared into the closet. "Put on the light!" I said to her. I sat up on the bed and we both looked at the closet, waiting for it to come out. When eventually the frog stepped into the closet's pool of light, it stayed for a moment and, reflexes barely able to catch up with my brain, I threw an old blanket in its general direction and miraculously the blanket landed right on top of it. "Good show, Lyss!" my mother said, only to follow it with, "But what do we do now?"

We stared down at the blanket. My mother sat down for a second to catch her breath. We didn't want to kill the thing, we just wanted it out of the house. How on earth did the damned thing get in here, anyway? The occasional gecko on the house's exterior we were used to, but they were always outside and totally harmless.

There was an extra square of carpet in the closet, close to the blanketed frog. "Why don't we make a, uh, sort of sandwich?" I suggested, moving the carpet square under the blanket. My mother did this, wrapping the whole thing in a towel and moving toward the door. She threw the whole thing on the ground outside and slowly the frog emerged and casually hopped away into the night, as if nothing ever happened.

--

Friday night is a different kind of wildlife encounter. J, Z and I are at Lagniappe, a bar of sorts in Miami. They have both since moved to the area from their previous homes closer to me, so I am seeing their lives down here for the first time, the creatures in their natural habitat, if you will. Lagniappe is their usual haunt--good for both dates and hangouts with friends, they tell me. It is not a regular bar, but in a good way--in front of the cash registers, there are both refrigerators (with white wines/bubbles) and wine racks (red wines), where you purchase a bottle and you're given glasses. Then, you go outside to the space's massive patio that's attired with patio furniture leftover from Hurricane Andrew and lit up with strings of those yellow lightbulb lights and you find a table. Barely any two chairs or tables are alike, and they're all sort of pushed together in different corners of the patio in a sort of perfect chaos. Even so, there are some tables you don't want, J tells me--of one that's empty but in a very high-traffic area, she tells me if you sit there you get everyone's butt rubbed against your head. Not really what either of us were looking for this evening. We find another in a corner that overlooks the entire patio. It's booming with people, all sitting and enjoying their wine and plates of meats and cheese. We observe, making shady comments about the people around us, often punctuated with exclamations like, "Gurrrrrrrrrl," and "Oh NO, bitch. Oh NO." It's just like old times.

The crowd gathering for the five-minute rainstorm.
At one point, tiny droplets begin falling from the sky. First they're small enough to ignore, a light sprinkling, but then the drops get heavier, louder. Everyone either stays put or gathers under the bar's large overhang, but nobody leaves because we all know it's South Florida, it will be over in five minutes. And surely enough, it is. We sit down, seats a little wet but nothing drastic, and resume our discussion.

Eventually we embark on our own meat and cheese platter. Just as with the wine, you pick out your meats and cheeses and pay for them, then the kitchen assembles them for you on a platter with sliced baguette, jam, and olives if you so desire. I chose black truffle pecorino, drunken goat, and brie alongside capicola and proscuitto, and they were soon given back to me, blooming gorgeously on a silver tray. I carried it off back to our table and we dug in. In between three or four bottles of wine we discuss the trials and tribulations of dating as a twenty-something in the Tinder/Grindr/texting era and gossip about people we went to high school with. So, yes, it's just like old times, but with more wine.

--

The day I am leaving Florida, the blinds overlooking the backyard are open. Standing there in the grass like a statue is a bright green iguana that's about two feet long. It has spiky fringe on the back of its head and dark scales around its long-clawed feet. It is positively prehistoric, and it's just hanging out in my backyard. Don't get a whole lot of that in the big city, I think to myself, recalling the pigeons and rats that make up New York's "wildlife." There was an iguana by the house one other time a few years ago, a lime green thing clinging to the screen on the exterior of the house, but it was skinny and small in comparison. This one now was definitely a small dinosaur. I snapped a bunch of pictures, shaking my head in disbelief. Only in South Florida.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Things That Scare Us

People always say it takes guts to go after the things you want, and I think that's true, but I also think it takes a certain level of blindness, an inability to see or understand the implications of what you're trying to accomplish.

I find myself constantly afflicted with this aforementioned blindness, though usually, thankfully, it seems to work out in my favor. I think because if you do have that blindness, a negative response to your actions doesn't really phase you. So maybe bad things have happened when I've blindly gone after the things I've wanted, but I've just never noticed them. What's that saying about ignorance being bliss? And what on earth am I talking about?

In the past, people have asked me how I've been able to do certain things--how did you get so-and-so to appear at your reading? How did you get your article in such-and-such publication? "Well," I always say, "I just asked." There's really no big secret to it. On many of these occasions, I have been blind to negative outcomes and I just do what I want to do. If it doesn't work out, okay; or, in the immortal words of my mother, "NEXT!"

Such was the case again this week when I was presented with an interesting dilemma--there was an article from the February 5, 1985 issue of The Village Voice I wanted to read as a reference for an article I was working on for another publication, and I couldn't find it online. The piece, titled "I Spy," was written by famed former Voice film critic J. Hoberman, Jim to friends. I contacted him and asked if he had a copy I could read. I didn't think there was anything really special about doing this. I guess my mother had also told me to simply go to the top first, and if that person can't help you, then try someone else. So I went to the source, and to my delight, he responded in the affirmative--yes, he did have a copy I could read, but he didn't have a scanner. Could he mail it to me? Or, he said, I could find the Village Voice archives at the NYU Bobst Library. If he mailed it to me, the piece wouldn't get to me until after my deadline. Would I be able to meet him in person? I asked. I would be glad to get him a coffee or whatever pastry his heart desired as thanks. While I waited for his response via email, I called up the libraries just in case he wasn't available.

It turns out I could only go to Bobst Library if I had an NYU student ID (nope), an NYU alumni ID (also nope...and neither did HanOre, an actual alum, so I couldn't even borrow it), or permission from the New York Public Library in the form of what's called a METRO pass to use Bobst--meaning that whatever I needed was not available in the NYPL system so I, sad and pathetic researcher that I am, had no place left to turn except Bobst and they would take pity on me. So, before wandering down that path, I called up the NYPL--did they have what I need in microfilm? No--they only had the July to December issues of the Voice, or so it seemed. Well, that was one element crossed off my list. Now it was time to call Bobst, to see if my treasure was buried in their microfilm...and it turns out it wasn't there either. Jim was now my only hope.

And to my delight, he was available. We would meet for coffee. "See you there then," he wrote. "I'm a grizzled guy with glasses." I chuckled.

*

"Hi Jim, I'm here outside of the Anthology Film Archives in a leopard coat and cowboy boots. Thanks again for meeting me today, and I'll see you soon!" is probably on the list of the most "me" things I have ever said. 

But I am easy to spot (no pun intended), and shortly Jim appears, in a maroon beanie and black leather jacket pinned with some kind of band button I can't decipher. His beard matches his self- description and I appreciate his self-awareness. We attempt one coffee shop, but it's full so we try another. Shortly I have a latte in his hands and a tea in my own and we are sitting and chatting. He takes out a padded folder and removes his piece, a perfect photocopy, and hands it to me. After all of the library-calling and emailing, it feels less like a treasure map and more like the treasure itself. I am so excited to read it, but I am also excited to chat with him about his work and the golden age of The Village Voice. He tells stories and laughs and we talk about freelance writing, and it's a lovely time. He shares details of his life--his teaching gigs at Cooper Union and, soon, Columbia; his past and forthcoming books; growing up in Queens--and asks me about mine. I am honored that he has been kind enough to take an audience with me, but also that he is interested in my own life. On our way out, I ask him if he hates it when people ask if he's "seen any good movies lately." He does, he laughs, then we shake hands and part ways. He says he is interested in reading my piece when it comes out.

This is where the blindness comes in for me, I think. I didn't just say, Jim Hoberman, legendary and accomplished film critic, I am going to ask you to coffee! I just said, here's some research I need to do, and this is how I'm going to get it done.
So yes, Jim was the film critic at The Village Voice for almost 25 years; he has written several books about film, has taught at Cooper Union, Harvard, NYU and, shortly, Columbia; and he has twice served on the board of the New York Film Festival; and, as he writes in his website biography, "the thing of which he’s most proud is surviving for over 35 years in New York without the benefit of a normal job." But he's still a person, as we all are. We all put on our pants the same way. Some of us have just been putting them on for longer and in more distinguished places, but those of us who haven't have the opportunity to catch up and get there, too.

And this is not to say that I haven't been scared meeting other people in the past. I was notably fearful about what kind of salad I should order while having lunch with James Wolcott. But I was still there--courage is not the absence of fear, after all; it is acting in spite of it. 

I am scared of so many things, often without reason--failure, butter, rejection, every time I pitch Vogue, texting guys I am dating, mayonnaise--but I try to notice what scares me, recognize the fear is holding me back and do it anyway. Eat the butter, text the guy, pitch Vogue, fail, get rejected, then get back up and do it all again.

I guess if you ask me how end up doing certain things, if I am ever scared, this has been the very long-winded version of my answer. I just never let fear stop me.

The photocopy of Jim's piece

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Engaging

For their first date, Addison and Aggie were supposed to get hot cocoa and meet in Central Park, but due to rain they had to make other plans. Today though, a few years after they met, hot cocoa wasn't exactly on the menu.

Addison had initially reached out to our mutual friend Cassandra to see if she would take surprise engagement photos of them in Central Park, but she had recently moved to Stockholm. She was kind enough, however, to refer Addison to me. Would I be interested in taking on such a project? I definitely was.

The beautiful vastness of Central Park and the fact that I had never actually met Addison and Aggie became our dilemmas. How would we be able to meet up so I could photograph them and capture the big moment, while still recognizing them and not being seen? I would take some time to plan and plot. I felt a rush of my inner James Bond.

"If you can pick out a particular entrance of the park you'd like to go through, I could be there and I can let you both walk past me, then just begin casually strolling behind you after a few minutes, secret agent-style," I wrote to him. My fingers trembled with excitement and anticipation as I even wrote the words. We'd have to be totally stealth, but if it worked out, it would be amazing. He could text me selfies of he and Aggie under the guise of posting them online so I knew what they were wearing. I would do the same back to him, and tell him exactly where I would be standing so Addison and I would see each other, then I'd know to follow him into the park. We ultimately decided to meet outside the Museum of Natural History.

Even as I write this now, a week later, my heart beats faster. I couldn't sleep the night before. There were so many variables out of my control. What if the bus broke down on my way there? What if their train got stuck? What if Aggie wanted to stop inside the museum? What if I sneezed too loud as they walked past and she noticed me? I tossed and turned all night.

I set my text ringer very loud so the next morning when Addison texted me, I'd be on the move. Around 9:30, he assured me everything was going to plan. Not too long after, I got pictures of he and Aggie. She was wearing a long, light pink coat and he was wearing a grey puffy vest. I'd have no trouble noticing them.

And then, my checklist to myself began. Did I charge all my batteries? Yes. Did I have enough room on my memory card? Yes. Did I have every lens I'd need? Yes. I was originally going to use the longest lens I had, but I didn't want to draw attention to myself--a very long lens protruding from a very short person's face and/or frame is by no means stealth--so I went with my second longest, the one I had used before I had the other one. If it worked on ballerinas far away at Lincoln Center, after all, it would work for Addison and Aggie.

And then what would I wear? I had to be noticeable enough so Addison would see me, but inconspicuous enough that Aggie wouldn't think twice about some chick leaning on a street corner. It was not the day for my favorite leopard coat, in other words. I decided on a black sweater and black jeans with an army green jacket, tan high-tops, and a black beanie. I carried my gear in a green leather bag. I'd blend in perfectly with the scenery. I texted Addison photos so he'd know what I looked like, too.

I arrived probably way too early, but I decided I'd rather be chilled out and waiting for them then scrambling to get there. Texts from Addison were on schedule, though at one point they got on the wrong train and had to come back around to the right stop. Texts resumed after they got off the train. They were now rounding the south end of the museum. I kept my eye out for a pink coat as I leaned, rather shadily, if do say so myself, on a gate on the corner of 80th and Central Park West. Then I saw the coat. I made eye contact with Addison. It was on.

They crossed Central Park West and headed down into the park. I was a cool distance away from them until they rounded a bend but turned back around and walked right back to me. The sidewalk had ended and led into the street, so they had simply moved in another direction to actually get into the park. My innards melted. NOOOOOOO! my brain screamed. I HAVE FAILED. I stood immobile and, by the grace of RuPaul, remembered the millennial stereotype of always being in your phone like an asshole. In a swift movement I reached into my bag for my phone as they were stepping back past me and tapped on the screen indiscriminately until they were safely far enough away from me to not notice. MISSION RESUMED. No failure to speak of. Addison was totally casual and never made eye contact with me, bless his soul.

I had assumed a safe distance again, and my lens length was perfect. Every so often Aggie would turn around and marvel at nature and I would slowly turn away from her, pretending to take pictures of trees. I felt my heart pound, like at any moment she would notice me, turn to Addison and say, why is that strange girl in all neutrals taking pictures of us? At various points I darted into bushes and pressed myself up against trees and warily rounded corners so I would remain unseen. I followed them into various paths, over the Oak Bridge and into the Ramble. We went up and down stone steps, through which my brain cried out, knowing full well my propensity toward falling, Do not trip, you idiot! Keep your limbs together just once for the sake of their engagement!


As we crossed up the stones and deeper into the park, another couple maneuvered in between us. Who the hell are you? I wanted to say. Get out of here, you fools, Addison and Aggie are trying to get engaged! But eventually, thankfully, the couple disappeared. Addison led Aggie to a beautiful area covered in almost a canopy of fall leaves in gorgeous colors. They stopped walking and Addison turned to her. THIS IS IT, I thought. THIS IS THE MOMENT. My hands shook and my shutter snapped wildly as Addison got down on one knee and Aggie's hand flew over her mouth. I caught it all. She said yes, and they kissed, and she jumped into his arms. My heart rate slowed. Addison waved for me to come out and I said hello and congratulations and gave hugs and took more pictures. Addison explained I had been there the whole time. "You're so sneaky!" Aggie exclaimed. She had  no idea the engagement was coming, but Addison had been planning it for months. They laughed and smiled and danced like Drake in "Hotline Bling."

We did a couple of posed shots near the lake and the skyline. In between shots, Addison told Aggie that the ring had 26 stones in it, one for each year it took for her to get to him. My brain sputtered and died and I'm really happy I held together a speck of professionalism and didn't start weeping into my viewfinder. They are such lovely people and I wish them a lifetime of happiness (and thanks so much for letting me write about this on the blog, guys!). It was such an incredible experience to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime moment, and I will always cherish it. Congratulations again!


Friday, October 30, 2015

St. Marks is Dead

Whenever I would come to visit New York as a teenager or college student, a visit to St. Marks Place was always on my list. I had no good reason why, usually; no specific place I wanted to go or thing I wanted to see, but I knew the street was important. I've written before about my longstanding love affair with punk, and I knew St. Marks was one of the streets the punks frequented--I think part of me just always wanted to tread the same ground as they did, to feel the pulse of creative dissonance running under my feet as they had felt it.

To the uninitiated, St. Marks Place is in the East Village, between 3rd Avenue and Avenue A, in Manhattan; it is technically "8th Street" but nobody in their right mind calls it that (unless you are my friend Dan who is visiting from Boston and when he said it I think I visibly winced in pain). It has, as author Ada Calhoun points out in her new book St. Marks is Dead which comes out November 2 from W. W. Norton, often been a cultural hub of the neighborhood if not also lower Manhattan and even Manhattan in general. In this cultural history, Calhoun shows us the constantly changing lives of the street, the births and deaths of each experience of living there even before the street itself existed. St. Marks, one sees after reading her book, is always dying because it is always being born again.

People who lived on the street know the magic of it, too. In fact, one time I was reading the book on the train a woman peered over my shoulder. She had a grey pixie cut, gold glasses, a brown trench coat, skinny jeans and ballet flats and said to me in a German accent, "St. Marks! You know I used to live there! I should read that book." Calhoun writes in the book that for some people St. Marks is a place you live at a certain time in your life, either your best or your worst, and once you leave you don't return for fear of either not living up to those memories or having to relive them. This woman's experience seemed to be positive, though, and I of course recommended the book to her.

The book is one close to Calhoun's heart, one imagines, because she herself is from the street. She was raised there in the 1970s, often considered one of the most dangerous times to be living in the city in the last 50 years. While she shares some of her experiences of these moments in the book, she is still an appreciative narrator, one who inspires further adoration of St. Marks and its history in the reader, especially this reader, who is a raging postmodern history nerd at her core.

Calhoun narrates the history of the street through vignette-like stories she's uncovered, almost like buried treasure or precious jewels, from what is undoubtedly years of intense (and probably fascinating to conduct! I was jealous of all of the documents she was likely able to read and people she was able to talk to to tell each story) research. Through the tales she shares of everything from German boating tragedies to anarchist crust-punks, she reveals the ever-evolving lives of the street she calls America's Hippest. She writes in such an engaging manner that every era of history she covers, from the disrupted lives of the Native American Lenape tribe who populated the area in the 1600s to the bustling "Little Tokyo" as the street is now known, is equally enchanting. While I don't consider myself a revolutionary history buff, I was on the edge of my seat, nose buried in the middle of the book on the 6 train downtown, as Calhoun narrated to me the growth and decline of Peter Stuyvesant's empire.

What's also wonderful about St. Marks is Dead is that the snippets of history Calhoun chooses to share connect to a person's general knowledge of American culture or history, almost filling in the gaps and allowing one to experience "a-ha!" or "lightbulb" moments while one is on public transit, smiling and nodding to oneself, "I see what you did there! Look at you!" One moment in particular for me was when she writes about the Beastie Boys hanging out on St. Marks at Tish and Snooky's Manic Panic, one of the original punk stores on the street. Like, oh, casual, this group of kids idolizing these punk chicks on the street before they became a legendary punk/rap crew. The book is full of moments like these, of the famous and infamous casually spending their time on St. Marks simply because that's where the cool people were and that's why they wanted to be there.

Something else I loved was seeing some of the places or figures from the latter end of the century are still around, like "Mosaic Man" Jim Power whose mosaics still line the streets in the East Village and have for decades, or Gem Spa, the ages-old bodega/egg creamery which Calhoun notes was actually the background of photo on a New York Dolls album (I'm ashamed I didn't know that myself!). And then there are those I got to see before they closed/were removed/became something else, like the black cube sculpture Alamo at the corner of 4th Avenue, Kim's Video, Yaffa Cafe.

Even in the short time I've lived here in New York I've seen St. Marks change. I've seen noodle houses exchanged for new, trendy bars and my favorite, independently-owned frozen yogurt shop go the way of the wind; I signed the petition for St. Marks Bookshop to keep its lease, though it eventually moved instead of just closing; I've eaten at Korean dessert shops that just opened new locations and drunk half-price cocktails at a Thai restaurant that has since closed due to health violations. Like every New Yorker, I have a vision of the street in my head as I walk down it; I can picture where so many of the places Calhoun mentions are or once were. It's difficult to feel like you're a part of New York's history--the city is so big, filled with so many people who are doing amazing and interesting things--but then you see in histories like Ada Calhoun's St. Marks is Dead things that you too have experienced along with so many others, and it makes you feel like you matter, like you're not just another notch on New York's proverbial bedpost.

If you want to learn more about New York and about American culture, then this book is definitely for you. But then, of course, so is a walk down St. Marks.

You can also come see Ada Calhoun read at the December Miss Manhattan Non-Fiction Reading on Monday, December 7! Stay tuned for more information.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The View from Zabar's

My day off began at 2pm on Columbus Day--while of course as a freelancer I don't necessarily observe holidays and tend to work right through them (though I have been trying to be better about that)--it was merely a Monday that I had taken off after working the whole weekend.

After a brisk walk through Central Park seeing the leaves just begin to turn, I made my way to the New York Historical Society to catch the last day of their exhibition on caricaturist Al Hirschfeld, one of my favorite artists of all time. For the uninitiated, Al Hirschfeld illustrated Broadway and entertainment throughout his life, often for The New York Times, using pen and ink, gouache, and occasionally collage. His career spanned nearly 100 years, as noted by the title of the Historical Society's exhibition, The Hirschfeld Century. Any time I get to see a Hirschfeld I'm utterly thrilled, but to see his real live drawings in front of my eyes, watching where his pen whipped back and forth and scribbled those ever-elusive NINAs into place, was a true treat. I availed myself of the gift shop as well, leaving with more than a few Hirschfeld-drawn goodies.

Being on the Upper West Side, mere blocks away from Zabar's, I made a plan to go there post-Historical Society. There was no way I would miss one of my favorite locations in all of New York, especially when it was so close by. To 80th and Broadway I walked, stopping into their cafe for my usual: a nova and cream cheese sandwich on a plain bagel and an English Breakfast tea with milk and one Splenda.

I sat down at the long communal table next to an older gentleman chatting across the table from a female friend of his. His hair was buzzed and whitish-grey under his black beret, a smattering of white scruff around his mouth and cheeks. A black scarf hid his neck and a black coat his torso. He gossiped unabashedly about other people I gathered were also in his friend group, people who gathered at this very same cafe but for whatever reason that day were not present. The woman across from him, younger but not too much younger in a dark green sweater and shoulder-length brown hair, nodded at his every word, as if she were the Gretchen Wieners to his Regina George. I nibbled at my sandwich as he went on about this woman whose son was suing Zabar's after she fell off a stool there though she apparently knew it was her own fault. Oh my, I thought to myself, irony likely registering in my face with an all-too-unsubtle eyebrow raise. I did my best not to make eye contact with them as they continued their tales.

A woman in magenta came in and saw Black Beret.
"HELLO, JACK," she said loudly in my ear, thrusting her face and upper torso toward him as if aiming for his ear. He nodded noncommitally in her general direction but other than that said nothing. Realizing she'd been snubbed, she got in line and ordered a slice of chocolate babka. Ice burn, I thought to myself. Regina George turned out to be a great metaphor after all and this was some top-quality lunchtime entertainment.

Another gentleman from their crew strode in, balding with thick frame glasses, a Hawaiian print shirt and shorts on this 50 degree day. He spoke in a thick New York accent then went up to the counter to place his order in a perfect Spanish one. He talked about the lawsuit woman, too. "Her son's a real sonofabitch," he said to Jack, who nodded. "That's what I heard." Apparently the son lives in the family apartment on the Lower East Side and doesn't have a job. "A real shmuck," one of them offered. The woman in green was still nodding. 

I loved this idea of this crew of old people gathering every day at the Zabar's cafe and shooting the shit. Zabar's itself is a New York institution (it opened in 1934), occasionally inhabited by people who are themselves old enough to be institutions. Perhaps they'd been coming there since they were kids and just never left. Perhaps after all this time they are the people they each have left to talk to. Or maybe they just like good gossip and know where to find it.

I am finishing up my sandwich, almost sad I have to leave in the midst of their discussion. What happened to the woman with the son and the lawsuit? Am I just as bad as the gossipers? And are they going to talk about me when I leave?

Friday, October 9, 2015

A Tale of Two Betties

HanOre and I were trying to think of something to do.

"We could get really dressed up, go to B&H, then go someplace really fabulous with cocktails we can't afford," I offered in half-irony, half-excitement. And HanOre approved! A Monday evening can be really boring if you don't play your cards right, but it looked as though we would be doing just fine.

B&H, our beloved kosher dairy lunch counter (though neither of us are kosher or vegetarian) in the East Village had reopened in August after the sad 2nd Avenue gas explosion a few months ago. All was as it was before, and fortunately the restaurant had barely suffered any damages.

That day, I asked:

"What is our vibe tonight? Bettie Page? Beyoncé?"

The best evenings out, after all, require the best possible costuming. HanOre chose Bettie, so into my closet I dove for something that would pair well with red lipstick and red peep-toe pumps a la the famed 1950s pinup. After a whirligig of flying clothing, a bold, black and white striped dress with a sweetheart neckline caught my eye. Perfect! I zipped myself in and proceeded out into the night, lipsticked and heeled into a neo-Bettie reverie. Though I would have to be careful about gusts of wind so I did not also Marilyn myself that evening.

I arrived at B&H to find HanOre in her own take on Bettie regalia. Next to the restaurant's pale green walls, she was a vision in an indigo blue wiggle dress with cap sleeves, her signature magenta suede pumps, and red lips. Men in flannel and t-shirts sat hunched over the lunch counter while a crew of NYU students huddled together in the back. We were a sight for sore eyes, throwbacks to an era the East Village hadn't known for 60 years. We said our order to the man behind the counter and stood up to take the platter of blintzes (she) and kasha varnishkas (me) from him when they were ready. Diving into our Jewish soul food, we discussed all manner of magazine gossip and news of potential suitors, careful not to smudge our lipstick. Glamour is as glamour does.

Our cocktail adventures brought us to Angel's Share, suggested by HanOre. Up a set of unmarked stairs on 9th Street, there's Village Yokocho, a Japanese restaurant where patrons sit and munch on sushi or udon or what have you, and you walk right next to them as you open an also unmarked wooden door and enter the bar, a speakeasy of sorts. Over the bar there's a mural of cherubic figures and the space itself is a neat little box with small tables and chairs overlooking the street. There's no standing room in this bar, either--that is, it is not an option to stand and that's strictly enforced. Their cocktail menu changes seasonally and includes named cocktails for every major kind of liquor: this is not a place you go for a vodka soda. Well, you could probably have one if you wanted, but you'd be missing the point.

Bartenders in white dress shirts, black vests and bow ties shook and stirred gorgeous constructions. HanOre chose what ended up being a green concoction topped with fluffed egg whites, a sprig of rosemary and freshly shaven nutmeg. It was a sensory experience, tasting the bubbly beverage and inhaling its woody, sweet scent. Mine was a drink called Cheek to Cheek, which included vodka, a wildberry puree, and a mascarpone espuma. The latter was thick, so the cocktail was served with a petite silver spoon. Imagine, a drink and dessert in the same glass! We sat and savored our beverages, crossing our legs and leaning our elbows off the backs of the bar chairs like the 1950s goddess we sought to emulate for the evening. Sounds of 3rd Avenue buzzed past us, as lights from Stuyvesant Square crept in through the window and we continued our gossip. It was a Monday evening done right.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

Antacid Punks

At about 9:30pm this past Tuesday, I was heading home from a photography gig downtown. At that hour, the subway is really perfect for people-watching because it's a lot easier to get a seat and observe.

They get on the 5 train at 14th Street, big bags from punk emporiums Trash & Vaudeville and Search & Destroy under her arm, and a giant, 24-pack of toilet paper in a plastic bag under his. They sit down on the train, metal buckles clanging against black leather boots, silver chains jangling from wrists and black leather vests. His black hair is smooth and shiny, separated in the middle and flowing long straight over his shoulders, just barely revealing a runic tattoo on his right shoulder. There's a scrawling in fiery, red letters across the black t-shirt on chest of some metal band I've never heard of, black jeans on his legs. Though he is short for a man, he has no trouble nestling the the toilet paper package between his legs. His nose is pierced on the side, and his lip is pierced in the center, both marked with a silver hoop.

She is tall, much taller than him, even moreso in her platform combat boots. Her hair is jet black, but dyed that way, crunchy with a hair product that forms it into oddly perfect waves down her shoulders and back. Her skin is powdery white because it has been caked with makeup. Black eyeliner lines curve up the sides of her face, and blood red matte lipstick beams off her mouth, in high contrast to her dark eyes. Her septum piercing, a black half-ring, forms an arc shape through her nose. She's also wearing a black metal band t-shirt and a black leather vest. Long feathers hang from her ears. They chat loudly to each other in Spanish.

She opens a bottle of antacid, spills some on her leather boot, and takes a swig. It's cherry flavored. He rips open the toilet paper package and offers her some to clean it up, but she shakes her head, she doesn't need it. Do I have any on my lipstick? she asks in Spanish, pointing to her mouth. No, he shakes his head. She squeezes some antibacterial from a keychain on her black skull purse into her hand and rubs it in. She takes out a granola bar from her purse and offers him some. He shakes his head no, he doesn't want any, and she proceeds to rip pieces of the pink frosted snack into her mouth. She gets some crumbs on the skull purse and brushes them off. He changes his mind and they share.

A person sits down next to her and stares down at the massive tree tattoo running down the length of her upper arm, not looking away for a solid 15 seconds. I notice I'm staring at this person staring at this tattoo, trying to figure out how much time is passing.

Her fingers hold on long black acrylic nails and a bejeweled skull ring. I notice them when she wraps her hand around his knee. There is still antacid on her shoe when I get off at my stop, leaving them to their antacid and granola punk life.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Backstage Beauty at NYFW, Spring/Summer 2016

Another Fashion Week has passed. The blisters on my feet are healing, my eyes are less bloodshot and I'm drinking less caffeine than I normally would. Now it's back to a real life, with significantly fewer open bars, free hairspray, and celebrity sightings. Until Februrary, that is...

Here are some of my favorite shots from behind the scenes at the New York Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2016 collections.




















Monday, September 7, 2015

A Summer Saturday

BK and I meet for brunch. We are both flighty birds about town so the occasion for just the two of us to hang out is rare. We meet at The Wayland, a rad spot in Alphabet City that's decorated with exposed brick, books about blues music and portraits of someone's great-great-grandfather nobody ever knew. The tables are thick and wooden and we sit on stools staring at each other, talking about writing, dating, and wherever those twains might meet. It's cooler for a summer day, and the open windows don't make me feel like I'm going to die. BK is halfway through his iced coffee and already he's talking faster, but my pace is much slower. It's one of the few days off I've had since I started working weekends, and I feel myself breathing. I order what the restaurant calls Sausage Bread and Eggs, and really this is the best name for it because that's what it is--thick, crusty bread filled in the middle with ground sausage bits that melt into you mouth and into the yolk of the poached eggs when you break them open. I dip the bread and egg combo into the ricotta/olive oil mixture it's served with and I taste Saturday. I will be back.

After brunch, we walk over to a mural, an alphabet assemblage of street art BK has been wanting to see. As we walk there, a man shouts to me, "Look at this beautiful Jewish girl!" and BK and I both become palpably uncomfortable but don't say anything for a few seconds.

"How did that make you feel? I'm sorry that happened." he says after those seconds pass. "Should I have said something?"

"Uh, no," I said. "I wouldn't have known what to tell you to say." And really, I still don't. It bothers me more to be called out for my ethnicity than my visual appeal and I don't know how to voice that. Why can't I just be beautiful?

We arrive at the mural, which is bright blue painted on brick and shutters and wraps around a streetcorner. From what we can gather, several different artists have collaborated to do different letters of the alphabet in their various styles. We consider each letter carefully as if we've just wandered into a gallery. I like the letter "L" the best, which is formed from a pink leg leading into a pink ankle leading into a red sneaker.

Heading up Avenue B, we stop into a new vintage spot BK has found, the East Village Clothing Collective. It's two floors and independently owned by three ladies, each of whom has a distinct style and a distinct area of the store. The vintage sunglasses are inexpensive ($5-8 each) but the silken Twisted Sister jacket is less so ($100). There are funny polyester cowboy shirts and paisley dresses abound, and The Stray Cats play on the sound system. There's a room with vintage Gucci heels in it that has portholes for no reason and a room in the back where they set up air mattresses and do movie nights for free.

Time has ticked by, and shortly I must be on my way. I am heading out to New Jersey for the afternoon to visit SJT's family home.

I arrive at Penn Station with plenty of time to get the black tea with milk and Splenda I want so badly, but I am nervous, without reason, that I will miss the train. I don't take NJ Transit often and I know trains always (for the most part) leave on time. I get on the train and transfer at Newark Penn Station which, I must say, is the most disgusting place I have been since moving to New York. The length of the stairways smell entirely of piss, and the waiting areas smell like body odor. I moved through each of these with great speed and fear of vomiting and was rewarded with my train to a place called Netherwood waiting for me on the other end.

SJT picked me up in his car, which did not look too much like it belonged to him save for a Renata Tebaldi box set in the backseat. SJT, a self-described "opera queen" named his car Monserrat Caballé, hoping that it, like her, would have a long, illustrious career (he made the mistake previously of naming another car after the singer Leyla Gencer who had a tragically short career; he crashed this car into a tree). On the way to his home in South Plainfield, which he describes as "rather gay," he points out to me that the area was once known as a location for country homes for those living in the city. We pass gorgeous tudor-style mansions that support this. We pass a cemetery on our left where SJT tells me Dudley Moore is buried. "When I was in middle school, I didn't know who Dudley Moore was, but I did know who Liza Minnelli was and I knew they were friends," he said. He was delighted that, upon Moore's death in 2002, the divine Ms. Minnelli would likely be in his very hometown to attend her friend's funeral. Though SJT could not crash the funeral to see her, he did go visit Moore's grave the next day to stand where Liza had possibly stood and take in her "Liza-ness," as it were.

We turn down one street and then another and then SJT drolly quips, "And this is the Burger King," before turning into his driveway.

A crowd of people has already gathered, and we sit in the grass and on lawn chairs in his backyard. It's not too hot, and the grass is cool on my feet.
"Would you like to sit in a chair like a real person, Elyssa?" SJT says to me.
"Oh, no thank you," I say, smiling, because how often in New York do I really get to sit in the grass and look up at the sky?

For an appetizer, we eat chicken and tomato salad made with items fresh from the garden/orchard we are staring at as we eat. During this time, we are invited to remove any books we like (for the most part) from SJT's room: soon he is leaving for Eastern Europe, a months-long tour of his own design. From a hot room decorated with kelly green spongepaint, I remove We Were The Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, Ada, or Ardor by Vladimir Nabokov and The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross. Other people choose Pushkin or Thomas Hardy or a variety of choral selections SJT had amassed over the years that no longer held interest for him. I return with my haul and sink deeper into the sangria AnSha has made, a peach and rosemary elixir she serves from a Mason jar. She has just moved to Williamsburg--I joke how well she seems to be assimilating and we laugh.

SJT's mother has prepared a feast for us this evening, and shortly I stuff my face with what's easily the best lasagna I've ever had. I'm not a regular pasta eater generally and I don't come from an Italian household, so I don't often have the pleasure of having the dish, much less homemade. It melts in my mouth, as do the Penne Vodka and Sausage and Peppers. I eat enough of everything so when I go home to my empty refrigerator I won't even notice for the entire week. Everyone drinks more, sits more, laughs more. We eat sliced peaches from the garden with Friendly's vanilla ice cream for dessert as the sky turns first to a peachy pink, then lavender, then powder blue, then black.

It is time to leave, and SJT and his mother take AnSha and I to the train. NJ Transit is brimming with people heading into the city for a big night out: they wear tight dresses or jeans and some even wear Hawaiian leis, spangled tops and button-down shirts. And AnSha and I can barely stay awake. We lean our heads against the window as we leave first the Metropark station, then the airport, then Newark Penn, and finally arrive back in Manhattan. I find my way home dreamily by 11pm and fall asleep. Who needs to go out when you've had a day like this?

Saturday, August 29, 2015

PEARL

This week, I had the pleasure of photographing the new dance play PEARL at Lincoln Center for Time Out New York. This was special to me not only because I was one of three photographers there or because it was the world premiere of the show, but because for the first time, my dance photography work had collided with the work of one of my dear friends who is a dancer.

Raymond Ejiofor was cast in PEARL in one of its earlier choreography stages and had the opportunity to be a part of its development process along with only a few other dancers. The full cast at Lincoln Center would be responsible for telling the story of the life of Pearl S. Buck, the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize-winning author of The Good Earth, among other novels. One of the shows goals is "highlighting the closing of the cultural divide….'East meets West' and features a very talented cast of 30 Chinese and American dancers, Raymond being of the latter.

I met Ray in college, where I discovered what a pleasure it was to watch him dance, finding myself perpetually in utter awe of his skill and grace. All of our friends have always been pulling for him, knowing how talented he is and hoping the rest of the world could one day see it, despite the harsh difficulties of making a life as a dancer. And now, after earning his Master's degree in Public Health, Ray is a full-time dancer, and has been employed by various companies and freelance projects in Los Angeles and other places around the world (he is going to Shanghai in September for work, as well). For example, he appears in Pharrell's music video for "Happy," Fitz and the Tantrums' music video for "The Walker," and many others, especially, most recently, as the star of Little Boots's music video "No Pressure" (video below).


Now, though, I would get to see him in PEARL, which he had been working on for the last few months. It is, he would tell me, his debut show in New York. As I sat in the theatre holding my camera during dress rehearsal, snapping away at the various, very beautiful scenes in PEARL, I was so happy Ray and I had both gotten to a literal and metaphorical place in our lives where this interaction was possible. It's always been a dream of mine to be able to shout from the rooftops how wonderful my friends are and how beautiful the work they create is, and I'm honored and exploding with delight to have been able to do that in any way for Ray, who so very much deserves it, in such a good show.

A screenshot of my PEARL slideshow on Time Out New York!
You can view the rest of the images on the site here.

Choreographed and directed by Daniel Ezralow, a talented veteran of the dance world (credits include the film Across the Universe and the Broadway show of Spider-Man, among many others), PEARL is an abstract telling of Pearl S. Buck's life. The show is told in five portions, Spring, Flower, River, Moon, Night, each representing a time in Buck's life. The narrative is clean and clear but not prosaic or overbearing--in other words, I got it, but they didn't beat me over the head with it, which I appreciated--and it's so interesting to see a story told in a different way. As I said to Ray, I photograph dance all the time, and it's nice to see something new, a story told in contemporary dance. PEARL is holding only four performances at Lincoln Center, and is in talks to travel to China in 2016. Between now and then, this may be your only chance to catch the show, and I highly recommend that you do (link here for tickets).

And after the show, if you don't mind, go up to Ray and give him a big hug for me. A head's up, he might be a little sweaty.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Cold Trap

Please forgive my absence these last weeks, but I have been traveling and working! See where below...

I don't know how I was awake, but I did it.

After my flight left before it was supposed to (it was supposed to leave at midnight but instead left at 9pm without telling me), I caught the next possible flight out of Florida, where I was visiting my family, at 6am. We left my house at 4:30am. This flight would take me to New York, where I was supposed to catch a 9:30am train to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Ultimately, I had to change the train times, but luckily Amtrak lets you do that for free if you do it far enough in advance (and luckily less than 12 hours was far enough in advance). But I had to get to Lancaster that day because that's when I promised I would be there. And I don't break my promises.

I tried to sleep on the plane, but to no avail. It was more of a process of just having my eyes closed and perpetually shoving my dress around my feet to keep them warm. My nerves jittered. When the plane landed, I was simultaneously groggy and wide awake. It was time to move. I went to retrieve my bag, which was supposed to have come in on the flight the night before. Instead, the airline lost it. All out of anger, I went home and just started laughing because on top of it all, a banana I had brought to eat on the plane exploded in my purse. You can't make this stuff up.

I smiled and shook my head, showered, shoved a few essential items in my bag, went to the bagel joint near my house and grabbed a bacon, egg, and cheese on a whole wheat flat bagel and a black tea with milk and Splenda and headed to Penn Station, where I got my train (and a window seat!) with no problem. Praise be to our Lordess and Savior RuPaul.

I was excited to be back in Lancaster. I loved the clean air, the endless cornfields, the Amish buggies that occasionally pass you by; I love all the greenery, the bright blue sky, and that it's still a land where you can get a bottle of soda for $1.50. And I was excited to be there for the actual reason I was there--to do production stills on the set of the forthcoming feature film The Cold Trap.

The Cold Trap is the story of George and Rebecca, a couple who refuse to recognize each other's toxicity. Their relationship unfolds in a Paradise, PA motel room which we learn, to use the production's phrase, becomes both their haven and their penitentiary. My friend, actor Peter Ferraiolo, plays George, and his partner Bianca Puorto plays Rebecca. Their friends made up the cast and crew of the film, many from The Actor's Studio Drama School at Pace University in New York where they, along with Peter and Bianca, study. The rest, like screenwriter Benjamin Spirk, reside in Lancaster. The project came about after Peter and Ben first staged a version of the work in play form in 2012 at Millersville University's Four Corners Festival. They had been talking about making it a movie ever since, and now, after raising all of the funds they needed on Indiegogo, they and the team have done it.

I remember a few months ago sitting with Peter at a bar and listening to him talk about the project. While he's an excellent actor, he's not a bullshit artist, so when he really believes in something his enthusiasm is catching. And he's not a person who ever asks for help, so when he does I know it really means something to him. I wanted to help, but we needed to figure out how--could I write about it? Could I do something else? I wondered if they needed production stills...and it turns out they did.

The fact that they were filming in Lancaster was part of the draw for me. Lancaster gets pegged often as some quiet, little Amish cow town, but it actually has a thriving arts scene--rows of galleries, scads of music venues, a bustling downtown area with great bars and restaurants; it's a city enough that even a sworn Manhattanite like me never feels far from home. If anything, I feel more at home around the friendly people who love their city. It's a shame more films don't get made out there, that it's not more of a destination.

Shooting took place at the Amish Lanterns Motel, designated with a sign out front that must be from the 1970s, with its stagecoach-style lettering and the word 'MOTEL' in giant, blaring red letters that glow on a white rectangle when it gets dark. The walls were scratched and scraped with paint, doors in disrepair with punch-holes in their centers, peeling wallpaper, and a host of other details that made this the perfect set where George and Rebecca, in their throes of frustration and misery, could be brought to life.

As soon as I arrived I set down my luggage and started taking pictures. People quickly became aware of my signature camera snap and I was grateful that they began to ignore it--I like it better that way, when people stop seeing you and just become themselves (a little bit more, anyway). I watched as they shot take after take speaking Ben's beautifully tangled and mysterious prose, setting up the different scenes from a variety of angles. It was so interesting to see talented people doing their work up so close--because really, how often do you get to see something like that? Not only that, but to be able to interact with people I know in their line of work while I was doing my own work. It felt like one of those times in your life you're fully conscious will never be duplicated (unless they bring me out to photograph their next film! Wink wink...). I chugged a Diet Mountain Dew in the early evening to keep going, which I hadn't done since college or since I swore off soda in January. It was important to me to stay true to my word for the people who had brought me out there and not pass out as soon as I arrived.

I knew how a movie was made, of course, but I had never been on an actual set of one before. I shot their rehearsals before takes, I shot Chelsea Lockie, the director, applying makeup to different cast members, I shot everyone's smoke breaks in between takes. I shot their down time before shooting began when Jesse Stone, the sound engineer, would play the guitar and talk to Shashwat Gupta, the DP; and their down time at the end of the day when everyone would sit outside and drink Red Stripe beer and eat Twizzlers and listen to a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack playlist from Spotify. Shoutout to actresses Leah Kreitz and Olivia Hardin who, in their full-on hooker garb, were both terrifying and amazing to photograph, too. I loved absorbing everyone's energy, their nervousness, how important this was to them not just to churn something out but to really create something they were proud of because they had already invested so much. Wrapping for the day felt like a huge accomplishment even for me, so I can imagine what it felt like for them. And when I left, maybe even like George and Rebecca, part of me stayed.

As of yesterday, the film has wrapped in totality. I'm excited to see The Cold Trap in all of its stages to come, and I'm so happy I could have contributed in some way to the work of such passionate, talented, motivated people. Below are a few pictures from the set, and more will come in the not-too-distant future.

 
Shot on location
Bianca Puorto and Peter Ferraiolo as Rebecca and George
Leah Kreitz, in costume
Jesse Stone, sound engineer, with
Mike Texter, production assistant
Peter assists, with Chelsea, Shash, and Bianca
Leah and Ben (as character Bertie) in costume
Shash and Chelsea
Olivia in costume as character Heaven

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Five Years

I am covered in remnants of orange Bain de Soleil tanning gel, SPF 4. I had been sitting in the park near my house in the sun, enjoying part of the day off of my new writing job, which I did not think I would get. I ate a banana, I listened to music, I read New York magazine. And now I am sitting in front of my computer, the air conditioning pushing cold air onto my back as I type. More than anything, though, I am trying to figure out what to say about the last five years without sounding like a horrible cliche.

On July 30, 2010, my mother and I pulled up to my first apartment and emptied the contents of the giant SUV we rented first onto the concrete, then into the lobby, then into the elevator, and finally into the apartment where I would live for the next four years. A giant bucket of shoes, suitcases upon suitcases upon suitcases, neverending boxes of books, and god knows what else. I had what I always dreamed of: a job and an apartment in New York.

And now, somehow, by some stroke of pure luck, I still have those things--albeit a different job and a different apartment. I remember there were parts of me that were so excited these things I had wished for for so long were finally mine, but there were other parts, deeper, under the surface, that worried they might all too soon disappear. That something terrible might happen and I would turn out not to be as strong as I thought I was, that I would fail and never be the tough New York broad and/or gal about town I aspired to be.

Miraculously, as of this writing, that is not the case. I don't think I really understood the magnitude of what I was doing when I moved to New York at 21 years old, fresh out of college, in a city where I had never stayed for more than a few days at a time. I had this sort of wonderful blindness that shot me forward. I look at the people I meet now who are 21 and I think to myself, my god, you're a baby! Sweet little dear! I know it's unfounded because I know whatever I was capable of at 21 got me to where I am now. And where am I? Still living in New York, still writing, still taking pictures, still growing as a person and a small business. 

In these last five years, there's been a wealth of experiences that have led me here, whether in my career, my social life, my romantic life, or what have you. I have this strong feeling of liking myself, and fully owning each of those experiences, be they negative or positive, because they made me what I am. I apologize for myself less, I make sure people only treat me with the kindness and respect I deserve, and I am even learning to be a little more carefree. As AM says, "Every day, you need to practice not giving a fuck about one thing." I find I am doing it, and I am a better person for it!

But I don't think I would have had this sort of personal growth if I was living anywhere else. Because I love New York so deeply, I found myself rising to the challenges it brought my way. I knew before I got here that I was the kind of person who would fight tooth and nail for what I wanted; I just never imagined I would also be fighting tooth and nail with myself, challenging myself to become a better person, the kind who could adapt to living in this ever-changing metropolis and roll with the punches it threw my way. I am not perfect--I am still learning. But I am getting better, and that is what counts.

I would not trade one night of one too many gin-and-tonics, one night walking in the snow with an unexpected hole in my boot, one trip through the Union Square subway station in the height of summer, one meal of only frozen peas, or one broken heart for the experiences and the knowledge I have gained in return. Because for every one of those not-so-great experiences, there's an afternoon spent hanging out with drag kings, there's an evening spent at a Chelsea bakery eating banana pudding with male models, there's crazy disco performance art parties where you end up happily covered in fake blood, there's a bike trip an hour outside of the city with a gay motorcycle club, there's the best burger you've ever had, there's photographing inside legendary arts venues, there's meeting Fran Drescher at a gallery opening, and the electricity of kissing someone you've just met for the first time on a too-quiet street in the West Village. Those are the moments you live for, and you can't have the good without the bad.

To all the bad moments and all the good moments from these last five years in New York, thank you. I don't know what I'd be without you.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Scenes from a Summer

Patwig 
Aja
Merrie Cherry
Brooklyn drag queens are known for doing whatever the hell they want, pretty much. They'll arrive onstage with hairy legs and chests, they'll paint their entire faces as if they were applying warpaint, they'll have ripped tights, they'll throw off their wigs in fits of fabulousness. As famed drag king Murray Hill once said, they're a hot mess, but on purpose; the punks of the drag world, one might say. And they're glorious. I had never seen a Brooklyn drag show before but I made my way out to one recently. The annual festival of drag in Bushwick is known as Bushwig and it's held in September, where the borough's queens all come out to play; but the summer version of it is called Patwig. It was a day-long festival at Union Pool in Williamsburg, where ferocious queens like Merrie Cherry, Horrorchata, the delightfully named [untitled queen], Aja, and many others all came out to play in their own brand of drag. As if to say no, there's not one way to do drag, and anything I want to do, any choice I make will be beautiful. For the rest of my life, I will never forget seeing Merrie Cherry lip-synch Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," spinning on a pole, running across the stage and jumping onto a picnic table in giant red platform heels. It was sheer genderfuck perfection. I will without a doubt be going back.

Photos are from my iPhone. Incidentally, I am also on Instagram (@MissManhattanNY)!

video 
Part of Merrie Cherry's "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Punk in Drublic
When it comes to drinking, I am a terrible lightweight. One drink, of any kind, makes me loopy, so when JW came to visit last week and we had a cocktail--yes A cocktail-- with dinner, I was done. And after dinner, around 11pm, we went grocery shopping because I had no food and it's New York so everything is open late (my grocery store is open til 1am. God, I love this town). So we were in this grocery store, giggling and wobbling through the aisles to find strawberries and yogurt and cookie dough on two different nights, and it was a completely wacky experience. JW accidentally made jokes about the phallic shape of cookie dough as we tromped through a crowd of people in the pasta aisle, my giant shopping basket filled with cottage cheese and yogurt for me, kombucha for her. They turned and stared and we burst out laughing in each other's faces. And I have to say, it was one of my greatest moments of last week.

I've probably written this before, but one of the things about living in New York is that you have to remember that it's just like living everywhere else. Yes, there are clubs open til 4am every night--trust me, I've been to them--but you know you're a real New Yorker, or at least on your way to becoming one, when you don't have to do those things or be chasing those things to have an amazing time. Sometimes you can just be punk in drublic in your local grocery store, shopping for cookie dough at 10pm with a friend. You'll simultaneously laugh and eat the dough on the way home with her, like you're still in college, as if nearly nine years have not passed since you first met. And it'll be awesome.

Nocturne Blues
It was rather toasty last weekend--easily in the 90s for a day or two, definitely. And over the weekend was the annual Nocturne Blues dance weekend here in the city (read more about what blues dancing is here). Blues dancers from all over the country and the world came to dance to DJs and live music, enter dance competitions, take blues classes, and much more. I had the pleasure of attending for two nights, both where I danced from about 10:30pm until about 3am. Hips swirl and grind, people are kind and considerate, and you leave with a warm body and a warm heart. (Not to mention you get to hang out and dance with two friends you never get to see and it's wonderful! Shoutout to the phenomenal JB and DL).

There is nothing like leaving a building having danced out your stresses and entering the dark, quiet streets of New York in the summertime, where a heated, humid breeze hangs in the air. That's the thing I've always felt about very hot weather--while it's unpleasant on the surface, on a deeper level it makes you feel alive.

Jazz on a Summer's Day
In 1959, the photographer Bert Stern arrived in Newport, Rhode Island to direct a feature film, but luckily he decided to abandon it and focus instead on the Newport Jazz Festival. The result is a documentary of a single day of the festival, featuring Stern's gorgeous cinematography and astounding jazz performances from the likes of Louis Armstrong, Big Maybelle, Mahalia Jackson, George Shearing, and many more. I hadn't seen the film previously, but what I heard about it was that each scene from the film itself was a gorgeous photograph, reflective of Stern's still work. Seeing it on Tuesday, this was without a doubt completely true. I had been invited to the beautiful Explorer's Club on the Upper East Side for a viewing of the film in one of the club's great rooms (to get to it I had to walk past a giant taxidermy polar bear!) and was utterly blown away. When you look at the film, you feel Stern looking at each of these images and understanding why he wanted to capture them, what story he was trying to tell. And it was, frankly, the perfect movie for a summer evening. As I left, I walked into the evening, dark but still well lit in the way that all New York evenings are, inspired to listen to jazz all the way home.

Check out the trailer here, but I highly recommend watching it in its entirety!