Friday, February 17, 2012

The Legend of Zelda

New York lost one of its most colourful characters yesterday - 95-year old socialite Zelda Kaplan, who died in perhaps the most fitting way possible: while sitting front and centre at a fashion show. Kaplan sounds like she was quite the force of nature, with interests as varied as golfing and the eradication of female genital mutilation providing a background to her spectacular fashion sense. Best of all, she was a total party-animal - sleeping until 2 in the afternoon and staying up all night, she was often spotted rolling out of clubs like Bungalow 8 in the early hours of the morning ("Bungalow doesn't really get good until 2:30" she once told the Village Voice). She had style, she was interesting and committed, she could go out five nights a week with people a quarter of her age. And best of all, she had serious attitude: "It's so important that girls not defer to the penis," she said of the need for young women to have more self-esteem. What a woman; her death is a loss to the fabric of this city, which has just become a little less colourful.  

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The joys of cornbread-induced poverty

And now, a word from our sponsors (my bank account):

Enough from him. He's just being a little dramatic after being slightly overworked on the weekend, having sponsored me to attend multiple fine dining establishments, a hilariously fun gay bar (note to self: never go to a gay bar and expect to leave feeling at all good about yourself. Those places are full of ridiculously attractive men to whom you are completely invisible. Bad for the self esteem), a Broadway show (we won tickets in the Book of Mormon lottery!) and a comedy show. My bank account is just going through a small bout of post-traumatic stress disorder. 

Mini reviews of two of the places which contributed to aforementioned PTSD:

After reading multiple glowing accounts of the delicious grub and cozy atmos served up by this relative newcomer, I had to give it a try, and I was certainly not disappointed. The only thing better than eating juicy fried chicken with Ethiopian hot sauce, pickles and truffle fries is being able to mentally justify it as a gourmet meal and thus, obviously, healthier than regular fried chicken. The beautiful, unique decor in Red Rooster is mirrored in its clientele, equally as beautiful and unique (with the exception on this occasion of the two pink-faced Australians in the corner booth wolfing down mac and cheese). A special shout out to the corn bread, which far surpassed my expectations - probably because my sister had told me to expect something "like cake, but not."

Freeman's, LES
A confluence of events, including multiple non-related mentions of this place by various non-related people, led me down a dark alley off Rivington St on Friday night. Walking through the front door of Freeman's was like opening the door of the wardrobe and finding Narnia - no talking lion, of course, and all the animals were dead and hanging on the walls, but it was equally magical; I half expected an ice queen to serve me a plate of Turkish delight. Instead, while waiting for a table we feasted on life-changing artichoke dip (I almost got my head stuck in the bowl while licking it clean) and some sort of cocktail which involved both gin and champagne, which is basically an unbeatable combination. Fear not the heavily tattooed bartender, Frank, who turned out to be a big softie - one great thing about this place is that the people were nice, despite the place being crowded enough for them to justify being homicidal. The not inconsiderable wait for dinner was worth it; eating a slab of venison whilst under the gaze of a dead deer induces a certain smug satisfaction which arguably makes every meal better. Go there, post haste. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

I choo choo choose you

Unless you're one of the seven people left in the world who doesn't have Facebook, you're probably (possibly painfully) aware that today is Valentine's Day. It's pretty bloody hard to escape, what with all the instagrammed photos of bouquets of flowers and heart shaped chocolates and sweet love letters plastered on the walls of all of your happily-coupled friends. But before you complain, spare a thought for those 300 million of us living in here in the grand old US of A, where you don't just have to put up with the virtual rubbing of love and happiness in your face, but also the very real, tangible all-encompassing ever-present reminders of the day. Every where you go, every where, Valentine's Day is announcing itself loud and proud - from the wall to wall displays of Valentines-themed M&Ms in Duane Reade to the pink and red displays in the Uniqlo window to the sad, wilting carnations at the counter of my local deli which the very kind sales attendant tried to foist on me (I'll admit I was at first a little flattered, thinking he was giving me the slightly depressing buds as a sign of his affection, but then I realised he was just trying to guilt me into buying them). The normally-stoic janitor at my office (thought: if I was writing this else where I would have called him a cleaning man, but here it just seems fitting to call him a janitor; weird or not?) even said happy Valentine's Day to me this morning! 

You think you know all there is to know about the commodification of traditions and holidays, but it's hard to grasp the full extent of it until you're chomping on your heart-shaped bagel and you look down to notice you're dressed entirely in shades of pink...

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Blizzards and burritos

After weeks of suspiciously warm weather, we finally had a little bit of snow last night - okay, it was no blizzard, as the admittedly misleading title may have had you believe, but it was sufficient to make smug all of those who throughout the day opined that "it feels like it's going to snow today," and quieten the tourists who had been expecting to be ice skating and drinking hot chocolate, not sun-baking while eating ice cream. It was wet and mushy snow, and the windows of restaurants everywhere, and more than a few pairs of spectacles, were fogged up and dripping. In other words, a perfect night to eat spicy carbohydrates and down comically large and cheap margaritas. 

There are a million Mexican restaurants in NYC, and at least half of them probably serve fresher, more authentic Mexican food than Benny's Burritos, but this place is my current Mex resto of choice for the following reasons: 

1. The atmosphere is fun, colourful, and young, and no one in there takes themselves too seriously, which makes it a big departure from a lot of other places in the area.
2. The food is cheap and plentiful, the corn chips are free, and the eclectic wall art includes a painting of John and Jackie Kennedy, a kind of home-made portrait of the Beatles, and a sign that says Peace, Love and Guacamole.
3. Did I mention the margaritas were comically large and cheap? Let me add to that, potent. Just ask my sister who, after nerry more than one glass of the stuff, basically passed out mid sentence. 

All in all, a great place to spend a snow-filled, foggy-windowed evening in New York.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Rising and shining

I don't suppose many New Yorkers see their city in early morning, unless it's at the end of a big night out on the town. I certainly haven't seen too many sunrises since arriving here, struggling most days to drag my exhausted body out of the quiet, warm embrace of my bed. This past week, however, I've felt like I've been able to get a handle on my days a little better, rather than my days handling me, and I've tried to capitalise on this newfound energy - well, energy is probably a bit of an overstatement, it's more like "ability to deal with the pace of this city" - and start my days a little earlier. 

This week I ventured out for a run at some ungodly hour, and once I got over the mental and physical challenge of being awake while it's still dark, I became almost euphoric at the thrill of walking around New York before the day has begun. Accompanied only by half-asleep zombies making beelines for the subway station and rugged-up dog walkers whispering quietly to their companions, I found myself in awe of the the calmness and beauty of the city around me. The streets were quiet and clean, the sun was peeking around the building in long, warm shadows, and everywhere there was a sense of anticipation, expectation, for the day ahead. All that was possible just hung in the air. 

I've found that each day I live here more and more of the city reveals itself to me; little things - like the location of the nearest subway entrance, or the existence of a Shake Shack not two blocks from my house - as well as bigger things, like which avenues run uptown or downtown, and which subway lines have cars with seats facing the centre or seats facing the front of the carriage (well, they seem like bigger things to me). This early morning adventure was no different: in those precious pre-dawn moments, I stumbled upon a Dean & Deluca equidistance from my apartment and my subway stop (prime location), a nail salon on my street with impressively competitive prices, and a huge Church of Scientology, complete with video and book displays in the windows, right there in my neighbourhood. 

Which, really, is reason enough to get up early in the morning, right?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

On living at the centre of the world

1. The news is all around you

Prior to New York I lived in Geneva, that small, picturesque town in Western Switzerland where people eat a lot of cheese. Geneva is quiet. While a disproportionate number of newsworthy events do actually occur there, given its status as home to some of the world's most important international organisations and banking institutions, it is nevertheless what you'd call a pretty - dare I say - boring place. Something about the combination of wealth and high prices, a transient population that comes and goes and rarely puts its roots down, and unnaturally beautiful surrounds and suspicious cleanliness, make Geneva feel rather isolated from the big wide world. Living there, I became quite the news hound, CNN on in the background (it was also the only English-speaking channel available on my TV) every evening, BBC online at my desk every morning, and a variety of news blogs throughout the day. There was this conscious sense that I had to keep up, that something could happen - aliens could land in London, the US could carpet-bomb the Middle East, Australia could just float away into the Pacific - and I could go on living my life in Geneva without the slightest idea. It really had that kind of place-at-the-end-of-the-earth feel about it, and I spent half my time there trying to prove to myself that I really was engaged with the world around me, that I wasn't in fact imprisoned in some sort of beautiful snow globe, impenetrable by global forces or even by time itself. 

In New York, while I admit the snow globe feeling has remained, to some extent, I have totally lost the desire to read or watch the news. At first I attributed this apathy to the hectic pace of life, but after a bit more careful introspection I realised it was more than that. I still spend just as much time, if not more, at my desk every day, and I still am just as unproductive and procrastination-prone as I ever was. It is only that I have stopped choosing news as my form of procrastination (preferring, instead, I admit, to read various restaurant and bar reviews, a curious new hobby that will have to be explored at a later date). This shift in interest, I put down to my newfound instinct that if something is newsworthy enough, New York will bring it to my attention. News is everywhere here, sensationalised by the cable shows, shoved in your face in the form of a free newspaper on the subway, emanating from neon signs on the sides of buildings, told by one New Yorker to another in the grocery store queue. If something important happens, New York knows about it first. In fact, until New York knows about, it's not important. Why bother informing yourself with all the news of sub-par importance to be found on the internet when New York, that great arbiter of style and change and progress, will let you know if there's anything you need to worry about?

2. People come to you

I spent, all up, almost two years living in Geneva, and another almost-two years in London. While I could convince my parents that the long and expensive plane flight from Australia to Europe was worth it to visit me in London, I couldn't extract the same committment when living in Geneva. Last year, they flew all the way to Europe but convinced me to meet them in Berlin rather than traipsing to Switzerland. "You've spent the last year telling us how boring it is," they responded when I asked them whether they wanted to visit Geneva; "why would we want to come there?" They had a point. We went to Berlin instead, and they went on to visit my sister twice in the year that she lived in New York. 

Geneva was not the kind of place people visited often, despite my encouragements. When I moved there the second time round I sent out a mass email entitled "1001 reasons to visit Switzerland" in which I implored my friends and family to come and stay with me and make my life there a little less tedious. But in New York - no such encouragement is necessary! People visit here by the boatload! I've been here for three weeks and five people I know have been through town. Two more arrive this week, another two before April. I've got more visitors than I know what to do with. And therein lies the rather expensive flipside to this whole visitor-thing which I never quite appreciated while I was recruiting them back in Geneva - every visitor wants, not only your undivided care and attention, but also entry to a cool new unknown restaurant that everyone is talking about, a tour of Williamsburg, and "the best night of their lives" whether that be a Tuesday or a Friday. Oh, I'm not complaining - I find having old friends come through this big, intimidating city to be a real source of comfort, and of course everyone likes showing off what a cool and interesting life they lead. It's just that now I feel the pressure to develop a cool and interesting life (and find out what, exactly, is the new unknown restaurant that everyone is talking about) to show off. In Geneva, I'd just take visitors outside, point at the lake and the mountains, and say "well, that's about it!" Here, you have to work hard to find the real New York, and even harder to find a kind of New York you want to introduce your visitors to.

3. If you stand still, you get dizzy

I've been really sick all weekend, and have barely left the house - except to pick up supplies, including the latest Vanity Fair, echinacea tablets, a tonne of vitamin C-rich fruit, and chocolate-chip cookies, for good measure - since Friday. It is the first time in three weeks that I have had some real down-time and my aching body is thanking me for it. But at the same time, my head has been going in circles. With only a dirty window with which to peek out into the dark city around me, it has become, in my imagination, bigger and more unconquerable that I had ever thought. Ever fear I've had about settling in in this city, about making it my home and finding friends and succeeding at work and building a reputation has surfaced and grown in strength over the past two days. Fears from which I've heard not a peep since arriving in New York. All of a sudden, they're here. Because I stopped, and let them in. 

So, my new plan, once my immune system is functioning again, is just to go with the flow. When you're in the centre of the world, and everything is spinning around you, you've got to keep on moving, from one day to the next. You can't stop and think about it too long, or try to watch it all spin past. It just makes you dizzy. Just keep moving, spin with the world, and you'll be fine. 

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What lies beneath

In the naïve hope of generating some sense of a routine in this chronically routine-less city, I recently joined up to a bi-weekly fitness class. My first session was last night, and I was directed via email to a relatively non-descript, beige lobby-ed high rise on 54th Street. As I ascended the floors, peeking out onto each level as my fellow elevator-riders exited, I noticed a large number of signs for studios and production companies and wig sellers and costume designers. Snippets of bellowing tenors singing opera, or the brassy sounds of a teenage showtune solo drifted into the elevator at each stop. When I finally emerged onto the twelfth floor and navigated the narrow wooden hallway to my destination, I found dozens of rooms full of chorus lines and four-part harmonies; scores of people, crammed into each room, in fits of hysterical laughter or stony silence. One room was full of solemn applause; a sign on the door which said AADA suggested to me some sort of serious Alcoholics Anonymous meeting (I just googled the acronym, it also stands for American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which is probably more likely, in the circumstances). As I entered the room for my class ten subdued Shakespearians exited, having just audition for The Twelfth Night (according to the sign on the door). The adjacent door was labeled, “Felony for Fun”.

It struck me, not for the first time in the last couple of weeks, what mysteries and scandals and adventures and oddities are going on behind every door and underneath every street in this city. Dreams realized and discarded, friends made, tattoos received, debts incurred, chances dashed, clothes bought, meals cooked, fights fought, love consummated, rules broken, lives built behind each and every door. The most ordinary building containing the most extraodinary goings on. How often in New York does a friends lead you on a seemingly wild goose chase-eqse trip to some broken door in some grimy alley in Chinatown, only to reveal to you a vibrant, warm, colourful Mexican restaurant with amazing Margueritas? Only in New York can you find a burger joint behind a curtain at a fancymidtown hotel, and a bar accessible only through a telephone booth in the back of a hotdogstore. Sometimes it seems that the bright lights and tall buildings and big windows of the city only exist to conceal the real excitement and dynamism below the surface.

On the weekend I watched Bill Cunningham New York, the touching documentary about a man who has lived by the motto, “he who seeks beauty, finds it.” Bill, more than anyone, knows the truth about the layers of New York. He scratches the surface with an intuitiveness and curiosity that is often rare amongst fashion journalists today, and what he discovers says far more about style in this eternally stylish city than the billboards and the model-filled bars could ever communicate. He is at once a living example of the incongruity between the city’s exterior and interior (for all his fame, he lives in a filing cabinet filled semi-squat in Carnegie Hall) and a documentor of it. We would all do well to be a little more like Bill; taking the time to look behind the façade, and understanding what lies beneath.