Friday, April 7, 2017

Farewell, Angelica

It's not a secret that New York is constantly changing. It is perhaps a vast understatement at best. Sometimes, the more I see it change, the more I worry about its future. Especially when it comes to places like Angelica Kitchen closing.

I first went to Angelica Kitchen, an East Village vegan/vegetarian restaurant, in 2013. And what's magical about it--or, what was, as today is the last day of service in the restaurant's 40 year history--is that every time I went back, the food was just as good as the first cold winter day I went in there. Right down to my last day there, this past Wednesday, when I walked in after a photography seminar to find the place whirring with people in a way I have never seen before. Normally it's so easy to walk in during the week and have the host seat just me at a petite table for two. I'd sit out, facing the restaurant and read the menu, always thinking I'd get something different...but I almost never did. The Dragon Bowl, a plate of steamed veggies and tofu served with dressing of your choice (I usually got the house-made vegan balsamic vinaigrette) and brown rice, was just perfect as it was and, as my mother often says, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I'd sit and sip my cup of their Cranberte--a blend of teas and cranberry juice-- while I waited for the food to arrive, then delicately work my way around the plate of veggies with a pair of chopsticks until it was all gone.

Angelica Kitchen was, by all intents and purposes of the phrase, a neighborhood restaurant. Though the restaurant was absolutely fantastic, you'd never find it listed in anything like a top restaurant guide. It wasn't fancy, and the service wasn't always great, but it was delicious and reliable, the way your local diner might be. I'm curious about the number of restaurants in the entirety of New York City that have been open for four decades or more, places that have seen history come and go, that made history and made community themselves. Angelica served the community in the quirky East Village, but it also created a community around vegan and vegetarian food when it was still thought of as totally wacky 40 years ago. If you have read this blog before, you know that I'm not a vegan or a vegetarian--I simply love good food; better yet, good food that's consistent and affordable. I've also written before that finding a restaurant in New York that you want to regularly return to (and can afford to regularly return to) is no small feat. Restaurants close here probably literally every month, if not every day. In a city of so many options, you need something that makes people come back and Angelica Kitchen was one of the few places I regularly returned to.

But the restaurant had to close because of rising rents, rents that are rising because corporate chains are moving into the neighborhood. There's no limit to what rent they can pay, and landlords know that. So the independent businesses are bearing the weight of these decisions, and far too many of them--across the neighborhood and across the city--are closing. I have now seen several downtown performers like Tigger! and Penny Arcade accurately describe what's happening to our fair city: it's being infiltrated by the people we moved here to get away from. I'm scared that the closing of a beloved neighborhood staple like Angelica Kitchen will bring on many more and make the city into the suburban shopping mall I ran like hell to escape. Or, as The New Yorker headline so aptly put it this week: "The East Village Loses Another Place for the Young, Hungry, and Weird."

So here I am this Wednesday evening to say goodbye to this place that has kept me company so many nights when I wandered in alone after work or after shopping or just after a long day. I love macaroni and cheese dearly, but when you're in a rough mood and you need comfort food, sometimes the calorie count just doesn't pay. So I'd go to Angelica and treat myself to dinner, and suddenly so much would feel better. Miraculously, though I have almost always been a party of one here, I have never sat at the communal table to the left of the door. Tonight there's a rotating cast of dinner guests as so many other parties of one come in and out to say their goodbyes, too.

I am seated with a woman from Toronto, a man from Israel, and another man from Los Angeles. They have been coming here for five years, 25 years, and 17 years, respectively. We all share our Angelica stories this evening, each new person coming in and saying the same: "I'm so sad to see this place go." In between asking if you could please pass the pitcher of water or is this glass yours or mine? It's a place that has been a part of their lives: bringing new dates there, coming there after breakups, bringing family, friends, or getting take-out at Angelica To-Go next door. Later, a woman and her 20-something daughter come in and sit next to me: the daughter grew up going to music lessons across the street on the weekends, and they would come in to Angelica afterward for lunch. It may not have been the kind of place on a "Top Restaurants in New York" list, but it is definitely the kind of place that occupies a place in people's memories.

Soon my Cranberte arrives and the hot, sweet, tangy drink warms my tongue after a semi-chilly, almost-spring day.  It's followed by my Dragon Bowl, with its chickpeas, tofu, brown rice, greens, seaweed, and squash. I treat myself also to a maple tofu whip--I only rarely got dessert at the place, but I didn't want to leave just yet. A small swirl of the dessert arrives, topped with cinnamon and I take my time making my way to the bottom of its bowl, looking around at the iron chandeliers, the patterned wallpaper, the peach paint on the walls above it. There are still people waiting in line to get in, even though the restaurant closes soon. The man next to me orders a blueberry kanten parfait, a kind of jam trifle in a short glass, and shares with me. It's delicious, I think to myself, as I always did about any of the food there. And not too long after, the host spins the "Yes, We're Open" sign around and it's time to go. I look back, and the words "Sorry, We're Closed" in the window make my heart ache.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Miss Manhattan Hangs Out...with Myq Kaplan

“Celebrity comedian Myq Kaplan washes dishes!” I joke, standing in Myq’s apartment, clicking my camera’s shutter while he cleans a glass in his sink. 

“Celebrities, they’re just like us!” he laughs.

In the nearly 15 years Myq has been doing standup comedy, he has been a finalist on Last Comic Standing; appeared on television as a standup guest with James Corden, Conan O’Brien, David Letterman, and Comedy Central Presents; and released a Netflix special called Short, Dork, and Handsome. He has also recorded three comedy albums—Vegan Mind MeldMeat Robot and, most recently, No Kidding—and has a podcast called “Hang Out with Me” on the Keith and the Girl network. Myq travels all around the country for work, sometimes to several cities in a week, at least one show every night. 

Tonight there’s two, one at the “I Don’t Get It” comedy show at The Hi-Fi Lounge in the East Village, and another at the “Bitches’ Brew” comedy show at Halyard’s, a bar in Gowanus. First, though, it’s time for tea from a mug with a big K on it, an episode of New Girl, and some conversation. 

I have known Myq for a few years, and one of my favorite things about him is how you can see his brain working while he’s talking, plucking portions of words or ideas from the edges of stories to initiate new ones. To the point where it was almost unsurprising to learn he had a Master's degree in Linguistics, another field where it is a requirement to think about the placement of words for a living. 

My other favorite thing about Myq is the level of depth and thoughtfulness he offers to any question that’s asked of him. When we sit in his apartment, I ask how he is feeling. The room goes quiet and he picks up his guitar, a bright light beaming next to him. He strums, filling the space between chords with his answers, carefully constructing a response. The state of being creative in times of political crises can be difficult, he’ll say later, leaning in his doorway. Sometimes it’s important to offer an escape, and if that escape can bring people happiness, then all the better. 

We don our winter gear and head into the night. Early to the first show, Myq paces around the block talking on the phone to his best friend Zach, another comedian who is based on the West Coast and is a regular part of his day. 

The back room at at the Hi-Fi is small but has an enthusiastic audience. He’s a great first act for the night with his clever, intertwined jokes that double as studies of language, and soon the room is bubbling with laughter. After his set, we depart for Halyard’s, to a room so packed the host has to guide us in once we arrive. Myq sips a glass of wine and waits for the previous comedian to finish. He adjusts the microphone, clears his throat, and begins. 

Follow Myq on Twitter and Instagram.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Things We Do In The Back of Taxis

At 11:15pm I am in the back of a taxicab and I am thinking about all the things I have done in the back of a taxicab. I have argued with people and I have yelled on the phone, I have kissed men, I have gossiped, I have eaten granola bars, I have fallen asleep, I have texted and sent emails though I can’t really do that too much because reading or typing in a car makes me feel nauseous. I have also cried.

It’s a strange thing to do all of these things in the presence of another person you don’t know, but somehow we feel in New York like the, yes, transparent glass is enough to separate us, to create a barrier between ourselves and the person driving. They’re not looking, we think to ourselves. They can’t see. 

But they do see. It’s part of their job to look in the rearview mirror to see what’s going on in traffic behind them, and in the process they will the passenger in the backseat. The one who is sitting quietly next to the right side of the car, orange light streaming onto her hands and face, illuminating the droplets that have been continually trickling out of her eyes for the last 10 minutes. 

“How is your night, miss?” the cab driver asks me. 
“Not great,” I say, my voice with the slight tremble of a person whose day was not as good as “not great.”
“What did you do tonight?” the cabbie asks me again. 
“I drank tea,” I say, with a slight shortness this time, with less of a tremble. I don’t feel like talking and I hope I can make it known without being rude. I appreciate his effort to relieve me of the weight on my brain, but sometimes the weight can only be moved by oneself and tonight is one of those times. 

There’s something cathartic about being in a taxicab by yourself, like it’s a space you can release all of your negative emotions into that will just disappear when you’re done. In the history of your life as a New Yorker, you may never see that cab, that driver again. You can take a moment to be your worst self, to be ugly and too sensitive and too emotional and just too…too in ways that most people never see you. Because soon the one person who has seen it will ride off into the night and perhaps pick up someone else just like you, or a drunk girl who forgets her heels on the curb and makes them go back for the shoes only for her to then throw up in their car, and they’ll forget all about you. As transient as we may feel our lives are as New Yorkers, it’s possibly even more transient (no pun intended) for taxi drivers, the way they see the breadth and depth of human experience from the front seat while we only experience our own lives in the back.

Lights of Park Avenue whiz past as we head to my home, getting periodically caught in traffic on the way, because it’s New York and of course that happens and has now happened more times than I can count. At this point, it more amuses me than annoys me (though it does definitely annoy me), because how wonderful is it that even when the rest of the country is going to bed our little island is so busy there’s actually traffic? That’s something I find healing this evening, yet another evening where I feel the city understands and complements me, complements all of us, in ways we need it to when we need it to. 

I notice the cab driver periodically looking back at me and I don’t care. I continue to weep openly yet quietly in the back, my face convulsing in sadness. I am definitely what is known as an “ugly crier.” Not like the time I had food poisoning and was yelping and crying in pain, so much that the cab driver asked if he should take me to the emergency room. Not like the time I yelled through tears on the phone, stressed out about being stuck in traffic and not being able to get work done on time. I cry with sadness and fear. And as sad as I am, it feels good to release the energy into the cab. 

We pull up to my apartment building. 

“Life is sometimes good and life is sometimes bad,” the cab driver says to me. “But it is life. Everything will turn out for the best, you will see.”

“I hope so,” I say, sniffling and full of doubt but wishing to believe.