Monday, May 3, 2021

Small Joys

A thin, crispy crepe filled with fresh strawberries two days in a row because I have learned crepes have far fewer calories than I ever dreamed.

Hannah’s gold mules.

Finding out the tingling in my arms and legs is not a blood clot after being sent to the hospital by Urgent Care. Taking myself to breakfast at Green Kitchen afterward, loading up on lean proteins and vegetables and green tea to combat the anxiety they tell me is indeed coursing through my veins.

Almost being blown to shreds by a sudden gust of wind on Amsterdam Avenue, shivering and trying to call a Lyft, only to look down at the map on my phone and accidentally quip “Are we where we are?” At once, it is both a statement of confusion and an accidental lapse into philosophy.

A date with absolutely no chemistry to remind you what the ones loaded with all manner of synthesis actually feel like. Googling ‘chemical reactions’ to write such a statement.

A fucking incredible Caprese sandwich from Russo’s in Park Slope, bursting with sweet red peppers, tomato, and mozzarella, the bread just soaked enough for a soft yet chewy, balsamic-laden bite.

The parade of fluffy pups in the streets, in the parks, and on the sidewalks that come with a sudden burst of spring.

Taking myself to a fancy lunch at Chez Nick, unafraid of what the the oozing, greasy Cuban sandwich and French fries will do to my waistline because fuck it, I’ll just walk it off.

A thank you note from my roommate decorated with the drawing of a 1950s fashion model coated in glitter.

Reading the menu at O Cafe on Sixth Avenue and deciding what I will order the next time I’m hungry and in the neighborhood and craving something called ricotta toast.

Looking at and smelling perfumes I can’t afford from brands I’ve never heard of at Bigelow Chemist.

Walking past townhouses for sale in the West Village and wondering what it might be like to own one and live in it. Daydreaming about being left one in a will from a long-lost relative, as long as money for the property taxes is also included in the opportunity.

Short sleeve men’s shirts in a variety of tacky patterns (Melting popsicles! Pineapples! Flamingos!)

Petting the black cats at Enchantments on East 9th Street.

A challah grilled cheese and tomato soup from B&H. A fresh mozzarella sandwich with cold borscht at B&H. Carrying my B&H tote bag into B&H.

A magnificent museum or gallery exhibition that inspires you to make more of your own work (see: Adrienne Raquel’s ONYX at Fotografiska).

Picking up your camera for the first time, despite forgetting how heavy that lens is.

Sitting and reading quietly at Union Square to kill time before meeting a friend.

Walking into PANY for silk flowers and marveling at the exploding crayon box of colors--peach roses, magenta peonies, red hibiscus, none of which will ever die! And only need a slight dusting now and then. Walking around Manhattan with the flowers peeking out of your bag.

Finding a long out-of-print book you’ve always heard of but never expected to find on your first visit to a new used bookstore (Lulu in Hollywood by 1920s film star Louise Brooks at Sweet Pickle Books on the Lower East Side), even though god knows you don’t need more books but who cares?

Finding something to write about even when you didn’t think it was possible.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

"7 Questions"

Last month, The New York Times published a piece called "7 Questions, 75 Artists, 1 Very Bad Year," surveying artists about the work they made in the pandemic. I am often at odds with the idea of calling myself an artist. Sometimes I think it’s something only other people should call you and taking on the moniker is an act of self-aggrandizing pretension--I feel similarly about people who call themselves “poets,” because I always thought that if you were really a poet, you’d just call yourself a writer--and other times it’s merely a statement of fact, the naming of a practice: if you make art, you are an artist. So, my feelings about the word aside, I decided to answer these questions here, since I was not among those originally queried, self-deprecation intended.

1. What’s one thing you made this year?
I’ve written it about it before and I’ll undoubtedly write it again: my book! Glitter and Concrete and I continue to be in the throes of passion and agony. There are days when slicing open a vein and offering its contents to The Great Muses proffers merely 300 words. Other days I sit down and spit out 1380 words in two hours. I am finding that writing history is like math, in that there is only one answer, but there can be artistry in getting that answer across. My days are filled with extraordinary tidbits I occasionally share on Twitter and Instagram. These include but are not limited to the drag queen who claimed to be straight despite marrying his wig stylist and living in their home with 19 Siamese cats. The grandmother of Jackie Curtis, Slugger Ann, who owned a bar of the same name and was known to “have a half dozen Chihuahuas stuffed inside her low-cut dress, propped up by her enormous breasts." The drag king who became one of the first choreographers for television, and many more.

2. What art have you turned to in this time?
At a certain point, I wondered what it might be like to become Nora Ephron in another (read: post-pandemic, post-book) life. I took to filling my soul with what were considered great romantic comedies of these last nearly hundred years in hopes of making myself a student of the genre. I don’t know if I succeeded because, as often happens, I get stuck in the movie itself, wide-eyed bobbysoxer at the picture show stuffing popcorn in her face, and I forget to more actively “study.” Despite my bobbysoxerdom, I did still manage to fall in love, if you’ll pardon the phrase in this context, with the snappy dialogue and inventive storytelling of the following:

When Harry Met Sally (1989): Duh. Nora’s classic, which I didn’t truly appreciate the first time I saw it as a teenager. Upon viewing as an adult, what a classic and, I’m bold enough to say, not just of romantic comedy, but of modern cinema.

Sleeping With Other People (2015): Devastating and quick with a finger on the pulse of the complexities of modern love.

The Grass is Greener (1960): Ferociously ahead of its time in temperament and viewpoints about love and marriage. A magnificent-as-ever Cary Grant accompanied by Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum, and Jean Simmons (in a host of lush, loud wacky outfits and scads of sweeping black eyeliner).

If You Could Only Cook (1935): Herbert Marshall (*swoon*) and Jean Arthur in a wacky comedy of mistaken identity where an auto tycoon (Marshall) becomes a butler to help a cook looking for work (Arthur) after he meets her on a park bench. While I don’t know if it earns a place in the grand halls of moviemaking, I watched it at the beginning of the pandemic when I was so sad, and it was just delightful and sweet and fun. And I think it’s okay when movies are just those things, too.

I also read Nora’s Heartburn, I Remember Nothing, and am currently reading I Feel Bad About My Neck. I feel like she is the vivacious aunt I never had and I love looking at the world through her eyes. In her work, she developed a signature storytelling and point of view, something I hope I can continue to move toward as well.

Marc Maron’s WTF podcast was also instrumental in my survival during the first few months of the pandemic. The comedian became simply “Marc” to me, a consistent enough force in my life that I would talk about him to my mother as if he were a dear friend. “I was listening to Marc today and…” He became someone she had heard enough about that he became familiar to her, too.

I did a dive into Mel Brooks as well, revisiting his early filmography as well as his standup and television appearances.

There was, in short, safety and comfort to be found in the work of older Jews.

3. Did you have any particularly bad ideas?
I barely picked up my camera. I photograph people and cultural happenings, and I felt no desire in particular to remember this time, people’s faces obscured by small bits of fabric. I photographed the vital and historical protests last summer, running through the crowd and asking permission as they weaved their way through different parts of the city. I photographed what were in November the last days of Astor Hair (they’ve since been saved, hooray!) for a magazine. I brought my camera to some places, but I hardly took it out of my bag. I miss wanting to remember things, to capture them and hold them as images forever.

4. What’s a moment from this year you’ll always remember?
While I know the key here is “always remember,” I’m going to approach this in a different way. Despite everything, there were still so many great moments I was able to craft with loved ones in masks, and while I might not “always remember” them, I remember them now.

Visiting Alissa in Philadelphia while she was pregnant, seeing the sights around the city, buying too many books, eating delicious food we cooked ourselves and bread we got from the Lost Bread Co. at the farmer’s market near her house. Feeling her baby kick and painting her toenails. Cheeseteaks and water ice with Sean. A vintage air force shirt that was reasonably priced.

Walking to Zabar’s from my house once a week, even in the cold, a tradition I think I’ll keep up post-pandemic, because why not?

The ways we fought to spend time with people even if it meant sitting outside in the steaming heat or frigid cold, and how it meant more when people sought you out this time over others.

The time I had a panic attack and walked myself over to the local CBD monger to load up on treats to heal my aching brain and body. I took probably more than necessary (a mint, a gummy, and a lollipop) and got *REAL* high, then got a vanilla milkshake and sat in the park listening to Marc Maron’s podcast.

Getting my book deal.

5. Did you find a friendship that sustained you artistically?
I think “sustained me artistically” is far too great a pressure to put on another human being, but I did meet people who inspired me. Last summer, Meena and I started chatting while waiting for an elevator outside a gallery. Seeking a sense of normalcy, I had seen that the galleries on the Lower East Side would be open later on a Thursday night, so I put on an art-seeing ensemble--black on black, I think my soul was feeling that day--and made the rounds. Eventually I ran into Meena, a musician, chef, and sound artist, and we walked around together. We talked about art and men and New York and Los Angeles and even had dinner together. She is a force of nature, always working on a new project with interesting collaborators or on her own. I am flattered that she sees in me a fellow creative, our witchy senses often aligned.

Dean, we will call him, to me is a person who truly embodies what it means to be an artist in that he uses his day job to afford himself time to make his creative work. A musician, he made three EPs in the pandemic, all of high quality in my opinion, and is currently working on a fourth. A screenwriter and comedian, he is also developing a film. Real art doesn’t sleep, and real creativity must come out of you or it will eat you alive. It’s important to access these things about ourselves, to exorcise the demons by exercising the angels. I think he does this better than most creative people I’ve met.

6. If you’d known that you’d be so isolated for so long, what would you have done differently?
I would have wanted to do a long-term side photography project, maybe starting up something similar to Project 30, and I would have made more of an effort to sell prints of my work online. I also would have written in my blog more so I could chronicle the good things that did happen in a more active way than photo series on Instagram.

7. What do you want to achieve before things return to normal?
This is another question I don’t love. What is normal? Why can’t I achieve that thing during other times? Why can’t whatever the thing is be a work in progress?

That being said, I really do need to be better about putting a trash bag back in after I take out the garbage.

Monday, March 1, 2021

“Cool” and Now

There was a Saturday in February when I tried to remember everything I thought was cool 10 years ago. I walked the East Village, weaving my way in and out of stores bearing everything from boldly colored scarves to Thai hand salve to photography books I’ll never be able to afford. I gripped my leather jacket tighter around me because, after nearly 11 years in this town I still haven’t learned how to attire myself properly on cold days. My thoughts quickly turned to avoiding the patches of ice I’ve slipped on in the past only to fall in the exact same place every time, leaving myself with scars directly under my kneecaps. I remember some of them now, though. I remember flavored vodka sodas at Beauty Bar (agh), lengua tacos from the truck on 14th and 8th at 3am, the house band at the Village Underground. Ladyfag’s Vandam party on Sundays at Greenhouse in Soho. A now defunct Australian restaurant on the Upper West Side called The Sunburnt Calf where we’d sit in giant parties of 6, 8, 10 or more for birthdays or out-of-town-visits or maybe just a Saturday night. Pay-what-you-wish nights at the International Center of Photography. Free lectures at NYU. CHERYL parties somewhere in what were then the wilds of Brooklyn.

Few of these things still exist and my own realms of possibility have also expanded beyond them, but I remember the feeling of chasing cool across New York City. It was a feeling I duplicated recently as I searched for Kim Hastreiter’s The New Now in different locations throughout the East Village. Hastreiter, who in 1984 co-founded Paper, iconic magazine of a very specific New York kind of cool, had undertaken a new project in the pandemic, a DIY newsletter offered for free at specific businesses throughout three three of the five boroughs (Manhattan, Brooklyn, and the Bronx). I saw this newsletter popping up all across my Instagram feed, populating the grids of the capital-C chic and cool of New York and I had to have it. It would be not just a historic artifact of New York publishing, but it would be like being in on a small(ish) secret, insiderdom. Something that, as much as I love the life I’ve lived and carved out for myself in New York, is not something I’d ever say I had.

I think often of a Lou Reed quote I once saw at The Andy Warhol Museum when I was living in Pittsburgh: “If you weren’t a journalist, you’d never be invited to anything cool.” For a long time, I fully believed this was true. In many ways, I still do. I have forever thought of myself as a raging nerd, though my obsessions with and passions for cultural arbiters outside “the mainstream” have occasionally earned me opposite designations from others. Over a decade has gone by and I’m still chasing “cool,” a sentiment which I fully realize is anything but. I continually checked Hastreiter’s list of stockists on her Instagram, seeing which stores were nearby and open and supposed to have The New Now. Hastreiter refers to these as “likeminded businesses,” so the list also became a guide of sorts to the life Hastreiter leads, she who in the last 35+ years has become an arbiter of a very New York sensibility.

I perused Dashwood Books, at which I arrived by descending a staircase on the chic, cobblestoned Bond Street, a place I had never been. I marveled at its art books, its collaboration tote bag with photographer Ari Marcopoulous, its smartly designed zines, and in the back, Permanent Paper, another pandemic project, by stylist Masayo Kishi. The large-sized, elegantly designed biannual print magazine is filled with photos by Arthur Elgort, Luis Sanchis, Martyn Thompson, and more that could all be unfolded from the magazine's delicate pages and hung as art work on their own. I had been teased by the images for weeks online and immediately surrendered my credit card after turning its pages. But Dashwood didn’t have the newsletter I originally sought, so I moved on to another bookstore.

Karma Bookstore on East 3rd Street looks almost like an art gallery, unusual to anyone used to braving the stacks. A man with long dark hair in a long camel coat, fancy sweatpants and sneakers assists a customer. I wonder again about what “cool” is. Maybe it’s better to be cool without the quotes around it, to be a more subjective, mutable version of it, than to aspire to a life inside quotation marks. The thing I’ve liked about being a journalist is that I get to be in several worlds but not of them. I’ve never had to commit to a lifestyle because my life is constantly changing, perhaps not unlike New York itself. But I’m still excited about finding the newsletter, and Karma has what I’m looking for on more than one front: both the newsletter and Chantal Regnault’s photography book Voguing and the House Ballroom Scene of New York, 1989-92, which I need as research for my book. These are things I think are cool, no quotation marks. I think that’s how I prefer it.

It also dawned on me, certainly later than it should have, that I was on a scavenger hunt. But in the process I’m tasting bites of New York I hadn’t known before and supporting local businesses. It’s a relief to know that even after a decade there’s still more to learn, that even amidst its constant, and at this point uncertain, changes, New York is not dead. I don’t even know that it’s sleeping. It’s maybe just on a longer coffee break, smoking a cigarette outside, burning down to filter after filter after deep, extended inhales, waiting until it’s safe to come back inside.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Wintry Mix II

I promised myself when I started working on my book that I wouldn’t work weekends. I know how I can get, and if I didn’t set a boundary for myself, I’d just keep going and burn myself out (like I’ve done many times before). So my presence here has been, to say the least, more intermittent. It’s hard to sit down in front of the computer when I don’t have to and when I’m not supposed to be working, but I hope to try to be better.

The winter in New York always presents unusual challenges, this year by no means an exception. But in the strange haze cast over these most uncertain times, I feel grateful to have experienced some moments of light.

Like when Meena cooks at her Chateau Ludlow on the Lower East Side. During Chanukah she made latkes and we danced to Jewish rockstars in her petite kitchen. Two weeks ago, trout with cilantro and roasted parsnips, last week bolognese with leafy greens, and sauteed peppers and onions with luscious grapes dipped in whole milk yogurt for dessert. She sits on her golden velvet couch in a variety of gorgeous ensembles looking like a photograph from Architectural Digest and there are disco balls in her bathroom. We delight each other with tales about boys who make jokes and ride BMX. We are probably too old to be saying “boys” but it’s more fun than saying “men.”

On a day after I have yet another negative COVID test, I walk all the way home from 40th and Park, Lexington Avenue as my guide. It’s a walk of several miles, perhaps more ambitious than necessary, but I don’t mind. The walk is an easy one, no throngs of people to sidestep, because who in their right mind would be coasting through midtown at 10am on a Saturday? All the places that typically serve lunch to the many 9-to-5 New Yorkers normally in the area are closed, maybe just right now, or maybe forever, I can’t tell. There’s a puppy store, a college, an eyeglass store where I get new frames. It’s not too cold to be uncomfortable, even after a few miles. I treat myself to brunch at Cafe D’Alsace, a cafe au lait served in a small tureen of sorts decorated with lions that prefaces runny poached eggs and smoked salmon on an English muffin, hollandaise sauce on the side. I pull my jacket a little tighter around me. I feel my nose getting cold.

Hannah and I brave the cold to see Gloria Swansong and Maxie Factor’s christmas drag show at Don’t Tell Mama in Hell’s Kitchen. These vintage-inspired queens perform only one song made after 1970, their makeup and hair a salute to the Golden Age of Hollywood. After one dirty martini and Gloria’s performance of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?” some tears escape my eyes. A few more escape later when Gloria and Maxie perform “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” as sung by Judy Garland. Despite my best efforts, I know this is burnout, but I lean into it. Hannah and I clasp hands and watch, grateful for the people who create magic like this, that even in darkness it can still exist.

Steven Jude and I are late for our reservation at Claudette on Fifth Avenue. The host is salty because there’s a time limit on tables, but I promise him we will leave on time. The service is brisk and understandably so, but we manage to eat all the truffle hummus anyway. Steven’s beard has grown out, peppered at his chin with grey, and he looks dashing, ever the pashmina around his neck. After an omelette and sweet potato falafel and an early departure, we wander uptown to Eataly, which is mysteriously exploding with people for a Saturday afternoon. We marvel at unusual pestos and olive oils and cast scorn upon screaming children. We sniff luxury Italian soaps and marvel at neon green glassware. I am tempted by a bottle of truffle oil but I do not buy it.

I cannot drink like I used to. Or at least I thought I couldn’t, because when Andrew comes over and we order pho, somehow two bottles disappear and I am not hungover the next day. I have not seen my friend in months and in between slurps of noodles we tell each other the story of the last few weeks. It’s an evening of several hours and by the time he leaves I’m thinking of my last favorite time we did this, this past summer when we went to a drive-in in Greenpoint and sat drinking cocktails on top of his car as the sun set in front of us, a movie in itself. Tonight our movie is different, pho and beansprouts and limes and chopsticks and broth, but the friendship is the same.

Hannah and I sit on a bench outside of Punjabi Deli on Houston Street. She went out with someone recently who wrote a shitty article about how cultural Judaism isn’t real, so we sit in our furs sharing a Katz’s pastrami sandwich and drinking Dr. Brown’s sodas and prove him wrong. I give Hannah my pickle because I don’t want it and she puts it in her purse for later, which also proves him wrong. She asks me if I believe in God and I think I used to know the answer but I don’t anymore. If God does exist, I hope she looks like Grace Jones.