Sunday, October 4, 2020

Morsels

The last time I saw Julia, a man took our picture with a Polaroid camera and said the bright white of the flash would dissipate from our faces after it developed. He lied, maybe not on purpose, but he did. In it, we look like two friendly ghosts. We kept waiting for it to get darker as we ate pizza and salad in Crown Heights after a gig of hers at The Owl on Rogers Avenue, but it never did.

The day I see her again, so many months later--a phenomenon not unusual for anyone these days, I’m sure--we’re sitting under a peachy pink umbrella on a hot summer afternoon, drinking frose cocktails I’m sure meant for women who wear leggings to brunch and won’t shut up about SoulCycle. But we don’t care, it’s hot out, steamy, the kind of heat that makes your clothes cling to your chest, and a basic bitch cocktail is the perfect remedy.

*

The lightness I feel in my chest knowing B&H Dairy continues to survive the pandemic is practically levitating. SJT and I celebrate such a feat by dining there live and in person, and I am dunking my fresh mozzarella on challah bread into cold, cold borscht as if it hasn’t felt like decades since I was there last time. We slurp iced coffees and clink silver spoons against white ceramic bowls while young teens walk by dressed like they’re auditioning for The Craft. Ah youth, I smile, watching their Doc Martens amble past. I’m glad joy presents itself for me now less as trying to look cool and more like going shopping for vintage cookbooks at Bonnie Slotnick’s with SJT. While we are there, a woman named Jeannie tells us that eight short ribs is simply too many, how could you ever eat all of that. Later SJT promises to make me short ribs for my birthday, as many as I want.

*

HanOre returns from summer out of state and it’s jacket season, hers a red leather and mine the navy wool blazer I co-opted from my dad’s giveaway pile several years ago. We wrap them tighter around us as we sit at Amor y Amargo on East 6th Street in the East Village, nibbling on the roasted nuts we were required to buy by Governor Cuomo before sipping on smoky cocktails in high ball glasses. We talk about seduction and what it means to be a New Yorker, and how those things overlap. Somehow after two cocktails I am still standing and we go to Niagara a block away, the home of the Miss Manhattan reading. I miss my grungy weird little art bar and get a well drink in its honor with French fries lain across red and white checked wax paper. They’re too salty, but I don’t care. I’m just glad it’s still open.

*

Syd arrives to Le Moulin a Cafe and speaks French to the waiter. It’s so perfect he even laughs in French. I am drinking decaf iced coffee because I have been fighting insomnia but I miss the taste. The sun is hot but there’s a perfect chill in the air for my new emerald green chenille sweater, the one I love so much I have been wearing it for two days. I hardly remember what we ate because Syd--a history colleague I am delighted to also call my friend-- is so exuberant, joyful, vibrant I just remember laughing the whole time. Nobody ever comes up here, so it’s a treat when a friendly face appears. Later, we sit by the river and the sun shines and we talk about sex and television. Next to us, too close, even, an older woman undresses to absorb the sun and we’re reminded that New York is not dead.

*

As I’m preparing picnic goods for the park, I’m wondering when the last time it was that I truly entertained. It wasn’t going to be a big to-do, I was really just going to make a kugel for myself for Rosh Hashanah because last year’s turned out so well. But then I was reading Ruth Reichl’s Comfort Me with Apples and she was talking about dinners with groups of friends at Alice Waters’s house and I was inspired. I missed friends in groups and cooking for them, even with my limited skills. We found a spot near the river and unwrapped the noodle-y, dairy-full casserole laden with raisins (yes, RAISINS, because I LIKE THEM) and I gave out first then second then even third helpings. Later, I packed leftover challah and kugel into Ziploc bags for friends to take home like a real Jewish mother.

*

When Magali meets me in Long Island City, we go to a French bakery, a miraculously independent business trembling under the weight of all that too-new, too-nothing glass and concrete dotting the river and blocking the sun. I have a long, crusty (in a good way) ficelle with ham and butter and a chai tea and we sit in the sun, a parade of pups going by. I roll my eyes at dogs in strollers because honestly, what the hell is that even. Magali tells me about Zurich, where people have special bags they put their clothes and belongings in so they can swim home from work. I would never, ever want to swim in the East River, but I saw once in a documentary that people actually do it. I nibble on the ficelle as I consider the possibility. What doesn’t kill you makes you more of a New Yorker.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Ten Years

Truthfully, I didn’t notice until about 5pm. In the flurry of our global nonsense, I often forget what day and date it is, constantly having to remind myself as I look into the nearest calendar. When I realized, a small smile crept across my face, as if I had earned a badge, leveled up, added a bullet point to my resume. As of today, I have been in New York for 10 years.

This year is not what any of us had expected or maybe could have ever imagined. When HanOre asked me a few months ago what I would do for my ten year anniversary, I didn’t know how to answer. There are a million things I could have said, but it felt like jumping the shark, as it were, to come up with a grand plan when the state of the world was a total shambles. It made me sad to even plan something when the prospect of having it canceled seemed all too great. But, in true New York fashion, I almost didn’t even remember in whatever the small daily whirl of my life has become.

So, after 5pm, I continued working on my book for another 200 words before my brain gave out. I had a cup of herbal tea to soothe my stomach, achy from too much caffeine (I’m fine, Mom), and I went for a walk along the East River as I have done so many days these past few months. I’ve ordered Chinese food that’s on its way. And I’m sitting here, writing on my couch, thinking about the last 10 years.

Maybe I’ve written about this before, but I remember the day I moved in. We drove up from Florida and the last few hours forced my body into a virtual conniption fit: we got stuck at the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour. I had come so close to this dream of living in New York and I was now a matter of miles away from my first apartment. Again in true New York fashion, the city would test my patience from the very beginning, offering the first of many rewards for passing its many tests, trials, and tribulations, rewards that have consistently proven worth the trouble. Finally we pulled up to my first apartment building in this giant SUV and began unloading all of my things into the lobby, slowly but surely bringing them up in the creaky, old elevator to the third floor. It was hot and humid like it was today, what I’ve since learned is a classic New York July. This was it. I was here. I was home.

I was reading Nora Ephron’s essay collection I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections recently, and there’s a passage in her essay “Journalism: A Love Story” that leapt out at me:

I'd known since I was a child that I was going to live in New York eventually, and that everything in between would just be an intermission. I'd spent all those years imagining that it was going to be the most exciting, magical, fraught-with-possibility place I could ever live; a place where if I really wanted something, I might be able to get it; a place where I'd be surrounded by people I was dying to know; a place where I might become the only thing worth being—a journalist.

And I'd turned out to be right.

She was speaking my language. Everything she said was it. My truth, the truth. Coincidentally, the book would also come out in 2010, the year I’d move to the city. It’s almost as if she knew someone like me would find it and hear her: “Yes, I understand.”

And even in the darkest days of these international crises, I have kept writing and I have never left. Loyal to a fault, perhaps, but that’s what love is. It’s a feeling not unlike waiting for a lover to return home after a long absence, that ache of heart, that longing for what used to be, the passion that brought us together. But it will be back soon. I have learned there is nothing quite so resilient as New York City, save perhaps for the people who live in it. “She who endures with patience is the conqueror,” as my grandmother would have said. 

Recently, the writer Rachel Syme posed a Twitter prompt I really loved, asking people to offer up things they loved and missed about New York during these times of crises. Several popped into my head instantly:
 
Walking through Central Park to Zabar’s, sitting at their counter and having a bagel with nova and cream cheese and an iced coffee, then going grocery shopping next door, sampling prosciutto and whatever else they're featuring on a cracker.
 
Getting off the Q at Coney Island during the Mermaid Parade and watching the flutter of costumes go by, finding the perfect spot near the start of the route and taking pictures til the end, then heading to the beach and later sharing a half tray at L&B Spumoni Gardens with a friend.

Bloomingdale’s at 59th and Lex on a hot day.

Filthy Martinis at Cafe Cluny with NE.

A restaurant I've never tried with SJT that's been recommended by The New York Times’s Ligaya Mishan.

Listening to Chet Baker sing "I've Never Been in Love Before" at Everyman Espresso

Dancing to Kim Petras at Hardware with my boys while drinking tequila sodas.

Sitting on a bench in front of Punjabi Deli eating a bowl of mattar paneer after a concert at Mercury Lounge.

Happening upon bevy of beautiful queens performing at No Bar.

Bushwig.

Cold borscht with glops of sour cream & thick slices of buttery challah at B&H with HanOre.

Russ & Daughters egg creams.

Accidentally drinking too much wine from clear plastic cups at Chelsea gallery openings.

Caramels in wax paper at Confectionary with LM.


Here are a few more I thought of now:

Ethiopian food at Ghenet with AR before doing something, anything really, in Park Slope, or stopping by South after a photography gig at Littlefield to say hello. Also, accidental New Jack Swing parties at Freddy’s.

Walking through Nolita/Soho on a day where I have nothing to do and perusing the stacks at McNally Jackson.

Waiting in line forever for a Nathan’s hot dog on Coney Island.

How when EH comes into the city we can always find a seat at any restaurant’s bar, even if there’s a wait.

Seeing Julia Easterlin perform...literally wherever. Girl, you know I will traverse all kinds of Brooklyn neighborhoods for you.

Days spent schlepping across multiple boroughs, navigating the subway map in my mind. My office in my giant red tote bag on my shoulder, going from working in a coffee shop to having lunch to seeing a movie or having dinner with a friend, and the sweet relief of plopping that bag down at my feet upon my arrival.

Photoshoots at decades-old family-run restaurants in Bay Ridge.

Killing time by watching the skateboarders or teens flirting with each other at Union Square or dipping into one of the international magazine bodegas between work and seeing friends.

A Mister Softee soft-serve vanilla cone with rainbow sprinkles in a cone (not the sugar ones, the other ones that are fluffy when you bite them, what are they called?)

The drip of sweat across my collarbone as I’m waiting for the train--because even though I hate it, I’d rather be sweaty here than anywhere else in the world. 


I promise to keep waiting. I've made it this far, after all. 

Saturday, May 2, 2020

Bodega

The more I traveled the U.S., the more I noticed there was a particular facet of existence in New York I found more special each time I came home and even more special now: the bodega. This corner shop, catch-all of anything you could need at any odd hour of the day, has been to me and countless other New Yorkers the bearer of everything from dishwashing liquid to bananas to ramen noodles to roast beef sandwiches. It is my haven of Swiss and apple grilled cheese on whole wheat bread after an evening of too many (read: one) martinis, when I totter in after 12am, sidle up to the counter, and before I can even say hello the man behind the register says, “You want a grilled cheese, right?” He’s there often, but only asks me that after midnight when I’m wearing a little more makeup and there’s a little more spring in my step than usual.

At first, I only realized how much I had taken bodegas for granted visiting places like San Francisco, where from my friend’s apartment in Inner Sunset it’s at least a 15 minute walk to the nearest grocery store. It was something I had not counted on when preparing to go out one evening as I made the mistake of thinking to myself, “Oh, I’ll just run and get a sandwich at the corner,” without realizing said corner was not only said distance away, but they didn’t even make sandwiches after a certain hour. I found myself trotting along street after street, wondering “Who do I have to fuck to get a quick sandwich in this town?” (knowing full well the massive yet delicious sandwich from Yellow Submarine on Irving Street was much too big for my needs at the moment) and wishing for home sweet Heavenly Market on my actual corner, where I could be in and out in 10 minutes after having walked a matter of feet to get there in the first place.

Similarly, a bodega is not a thing in South Florida, whose suburbs for the most part shut up tighter than a drum after 10pm. You also cannot get a sandwich or an orange juice at any hour on just any corner in L.A., something I became privy to after accidentally eating far too much weed chocolate and being high for 18 hours. But in New York? Take your pick. Reese’s cups? You got it. Seltzer? Right this way. Deodorant? Behind the counter. The bodega becomes a partner in your life in a way, always open, always there in a pinch, and more consistent than the subway. The people behind the counter know orders by faces, recognize dogs, say to me hello sweetie how are you doing even on days when I haven’t spoken to another living soul--which, working from home on my own, is something that happens not infrequently. The bodega also becomes this wacky lens into human life. I remember the woman who came in drunk in camouflage leggings with a tiny fluffy white dog at her feet and asked for two slices of cheese in wax paper, paid for them, then left. I remember the elderly woman who racked up $100 worth of groceries, piling them on the counter bit by bit. Doormen who come through in uniforms and loosen their ties as they get $1.50 cups of coffee. Tweens getting smoothies after school.

I realized how much I had taken my bodega for granted recently, too, but in a different way. It’s normally 24 hours, which has spoiled me in countless ways, mostly as I crave the snacks that are usually not present in my home. The back of my refrigerator is almost always visible, save for two rogue containers of sprinkles I’ve never used and a split of champagne I’m always delighted to see despite not quite knowing how it arrived there. Early on in these pandemic crises, the bodega began closing at 6pm, and when I was still married to my microwave in the first few weeks of this mess and jonesing for a grilled cheese at 10pm, I had nowhere to turn. It was, weirdly, when the bodega, this bastion of consistency, was no longer there, that I began to feel most lonely, when it became most apparent to me the threads of my own life in New York had begun to fray.

Amidst chaos--i.e., the regular state of existence in New York--there is comfort in the known, in the recognizable. It’s the reason we develop favorite haunts in a city that seems to be constantly teeming with newness in the form of stores or restaurants or bars or what have you. The absence of a sanctuary can leave us feeling unmoored. Bodegas are, in their own way, sanctuaries. In the midst of perpetual growth and change, they give us roots. I am grateful to the people who own and run and work in these establishments and have kept them open even though their work right now has great risks of its own. They're an essential part of life in New York, one whose absence is all too easily felt for reasons that go far beyond toilet paper, ice cream, and Tic Tacs.

My bodega has extended its hours to 10pm on the weekend, and a wave of joy coursed through me tonight as I bounded out of my apartment at 9pm into the crisp May air to procure a small jug of milk for a baking recipe. A group of pimply teenage boys in Kappa sweats shook long fuzzy manes at each other as they gestured wildly on the iron bench outside. The bodega door was open to let in the cool breeze and welcomed me inside. Through her mask, the lady behind the counter asked me how are you sweetie and I asked her the same through mine. I thanked her twice for being open, and not because I needed milk.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

How Are You?

The other day I was going through an old stack of New York Magazines. I came across their annual ‘Reasons to Love New York’ issue and for a few seconds some tears dripped from the corners of my eyes. People had been listing their favorite restaurants in the city, their beloved spots for late-night food or sandwiches or what have you. Many of them I had never been to, but there were also several I knew better than well, places I haven’t seen in several weeks, and maybe won’t see for several more. I mourned for the New York I loved. I was having, I am having, trouble recognizing the one I’m in now. I’m sure many of us are.

I know it won’t be this way forever, but in the same way it’s harder waiting for the subway when you don’t know how long it will be, the waiting is difficult because none of us know when this metaphorical train will please leave and we can just get on with our lives, thank you very much. I miss the dirty subway tile teeming with dirt, how the arriving trains fill the station with the shrieking of their brakes and then the rumble of bodies.

The last time I took the subway was March 10, before everything exploded, before it became irresponsible to gather in public, before we arrived where we are now. While I’ve never had a problem walking around my neighborhood, and in fact I quite like the walk down the river and seeing the fluffy pups in the small dog park, it’s nothing in comparison to the days I loved best, the days spent rushing around the city from coffee shop to meeting to lecture to gallery opening to dinner--with SC at Peacefood, with HS at Beron Beron, with NE at Corner Bistro, with HanOre somewhere in Brooklyn off the Bedford stop because I hardly know anywhere to eat there--or “dinner,” hobbling into the bodega exhausted, my office in a bag on my shoulder, asking politely for a spinach salad, please.

The weeks seem to galumph along--oh, Wednesday, we’re almost done. Thank God it’s Friday. How is it Sunday night already?--in ways I never thought they did before. One of my worst habits as a New Yorker (as a human?) is making plans for every night of the week. I’m home often for work, which has not been a difficult transition, but the emptiness of my evenings has been one I’ve, well, also filled with work. After finishing my freelance work for the day or doing interviews, I go for a walk along the river (wearing a scarf around my face, keeping my distance), then work until about 10 or 11pm, and try to unwind by watching some television before bed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I’m getting a ton of research done, scheduling more and more interviews, organizing my thoughts. Sometimes they are difficult to organize, a symptom of our current state more than not, I’m sure.

Texting with HanOre this week, we came up with an idea to describe how we’re feeling--homesick for New York as it was. As it gets warmer out, killing time by sitting on the steps at Union Square watching skateboarders. Hosting my Miss Manhattan reading (in person! We’ll be digital tomorrow night on IGTV @MissManhattanNY if you’d like to check us out). Listening to Chet Baker and Prince and Wheatus at Everyman Espresso. Working at the Performing Arts Library and seeing the expanse of Lincoln Center from their window on the second floor. Wandering into The Strand for no reason. Walking the cobblestone streets in the West Village. The lunch counter at B&H for thick slices of challah swathed in butter to dunk into hot borscht. Tequila and sodas at Rise and dancing until late at Hardware to Kim Petras. Poking around Bloomingdale’s for no reason.

I remember in middle school and high school I was so desperate to leave the suburbs behind, to go someplace where I knew I would have the freedom to become the person I always wanted to be. Rather, not someplace, New York. My days and nights would be filled and I would never be stuck home alone on a Friday night again (that is, if I didn’t want to be). And yet, here we are. The “we” there is important, of course--that this is by no means a situation that’s unique to me, and the idea of such a thing is in its own way heartening even if it is sad. But there’s a low-lying ache that runs through me just the same, the one that’s homesick for the life we used to have here, the one I escaped the suburbs for. It’ll be back, of course, though it will take time. I want the city to bustle again. I want it to be safe for the city to bustle again.

In the meantime, I’ve bought ingredients to cook things with instead of feeling mournful in front of the microwave yet again. I take my walks every day to maintain some semblance of health. It feels like I know the view of the East River better every day. I eat probably more frozen vegetables than I should, but hey, it’s better than nothing. I pop into the bodega on occasion for a small coffee with milk and two Splendas, please, to my bagel place for a bacon, egg, and cheese on a whole wheat flat bagel and can you toast it please? I spent last night cooking Jacques Pepin’s mustard chicken recipe in The New York Times and, while watching Cary Grant movies, painted my nails that luscious purple color SD bought for me many years ago when we went to go see Eugene O’Neill’s stage directions done entirely as plays at Theatre for the New City on 1st Avenue. I spent Friday night talking with AS about raccoon Instagram accounts. Some days it’s hard to get out of bed, some days it’s easier. Some days I sit at my desk, some days on the couch. Last weekend I did laundry for six hours, put everything away, and cleaned the house. I’ve gotten used to the quiet and it’s manageable, but at the same time, I hope it doesn’t last.

I once said to someone that the New York you make for yourself is the best one. I know what mine is now, after nearly a decade. I’m just waiting for her to come back. We all are.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

A Book Deal

The first time I said anything about it was to AR as we walked to see the Dyker Heights Christmas lights in December 2017. We had Chinese food and got cannolis to eat, and they clunked inside their white cardboard box tied with string. I remember how cold my hands and face were. I had had the idea for a few weeks, maybe a month or two, and AR was the first person I told out loud. I knew if I said it out loud I would acknowledge how scared it made me, but it was the kind of fear I’ve never wanted to shake, the kind of fear I run to wholeheartedly because it’s the right kind of fear: one rooted in excitement, the premise of a new challenge, rather than a need to flee from danger. I knew if I said it out loud I would be challenging myself to do it. We peeled off gloves in the middle of a chilly Brooklyn evening to press the cream-filled cookie shells into our faces and I watched the words leave my mouth, the cold turning them to visible swirls in the air. “I think I want to write a book about drag history in New York.” AR approved. It was a good idea, he said.

I thought about it for a few more months, how it would take shape, if it was really something I could do. Then I sat down with FT in Ground Support and said it out loud again. Yes, he said, you are the person to write that book. I felt so encouraged I started that night, making lists, what would the book include, who would I want to talk to. Magically, around the same time, I began doing a drag history column at Conde Nast's them.

My goal was to have the proposal finished by the end of the year, and with guidance from some amazing women, I made it work. They read my proposal, they helped me find agents to reach out to. I had someone bite the same day I sent out the proposal and then...nothing, despite having beat myself into the ground writing a sample chapter, starting to get sick in the moments I hit send. A few months later, another bite, two requests for revisions, a heap of helpful edits from TS, and then...nothing. I didn’t reach out to as many people as I should have last year, but in the new year I resolved to change that.

There were multiple very kind rejections, and then a referral, and then one more. And then a serendipitous flip of a switch in my favor on a Monday, a phone call while I sat myself outside the Metropolitan Opera after working in the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center, but still nothing guaranteed. Pacing around the plaza for 30 minutes, actively trying not to fall in the reflecting pool, voice tempered, measured while sharing the details with my mother, cold enough to need a jacket but forgetting the temperature on my hands. I made myself eat lunch. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. Could this really happen?

Filthy martinis with NE at Cafe Cluny. I told her the news. I feel it, she said. This time it’s really going to happen. I have witchy senses, she said. I am mostly useless the rest of the week. Another email of good news. I take that Friday mostly off. My brain is blank but my body is flipping out. Could this really happen?

Another phone call the following Monday. Preparation. A conference call on Tuesday. Excitement and praise I don’t expect on the other end. I am useless again. I go to the gym, come home, about to relax and watch 30 Rock. Another phone call.

An offer. A book deal.

I weep, but it’s short lived. I call HanOre. There’s a bottle of Perrier-Jouet champagne in my fridge given to me as a thank you for photographing a wedding four years ago, and I’ve been waiting for a special occasion to open it. Tonight is the night. I treat myself to a giant plate of enchiladas and later HanOre joins me to drink the champagne. We laugh and tell stories until it’s too late on a school night. She sends me roses the next day. A book deal doesn’t usually happen like this, the man who is now my agent tells me, but every so often, in a flicker of hope and serendipity, it does.

Two days later, margaritas with my agent, a phrase I’m still not used to saying. “My agent.” How do you feel? Are you still floating? He says. “I...don’t quite know what to do,” I say. I still don’t.

We talk about drag, New York bars nightclubs of our youth, too many nights at Therapy, Bartini, Greenhouse that made it difficult to get up the next day. I remember a drag queen I danced with once named Anna Phalaxis who was a nurse by day. Seeing Peppermint with AS for the first time at Therapy during her new queens show Cattle Call, the lipsync she did that was entirely scat-singing. Being 23 and photographing Yuhua before she performed at The Web, underground right next to Tao on 58th Street, where there were signs in the locker room warning go-go boys not to seek payment for sex acts.

I saw To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, for the first time at seven or eight, I don’t remember which. I saw my first drag show at 19--Cashetta, may she rest in peace, who I watched disappear a feet-long balloon down her throat to much fanfare during her drag magic show at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. When I was old enough, 21, going to Lips on Oakland Park Boulevard with my parents, my mother whispering to me how gorgeous the host, Diva was. Another time, I sat at the bar there and photographed drag for the first time while sipping a frozen Cosmopolitan.

I think in some ways I’ve been working on this book for 25 years. The manuscript for Glitter and Concrete, my book that will be a cultural history of drag in New York, is still years from publication, but it’s on its way.