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 13--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.