I will never understand why people complain that New Yorkers are rude. New Yorkers? They’re determined, assertive, and they know how to turn their shoulders to shimmy through a crowd of people on the sidewalk. But rude? No way. Some of the kindest strangers I have ever met live in New York City.
You want proof? How about this story. When I was in New York last week, I lugged a giant blue suitcase around with me nearly every day. Friends in several different neighborhoods, boroughs, and even states wanted me to stay with them each night. Eager to spend time in the sunlight of their smiles, I happily agreed. However, that meant hefting a suitcase full of clothes, presents, and my laptop up and down several flights of grimy subway stairs every time I moved to that night’s apartment. After a week of this, I have biceps of steel.
Silly me. I actually thought I could stow my suitcase in a luggage locker, somewhere in Manhattan, during the day, then stride down the streets freely while it waited for me. My friend Carlos had told me to make my way to Penn Station, after landing, because “…they have a place where you can put it.” This resonated with me, because I remembered Holden Caulfield renting a locker at Grand Central Station in The Catcher in the Rye. Of course, it might have helped if I had remembered that the book was written in 1946. Every employee at Penn Station whom I asked about luggage lockers looked at me with disbelieving eyes, shaking their heads. What was I, some hick who had just stepped off a plane? Well, yes, apparently. Finally, I approached a muscle-bound policeman, who had a bald head and long stare. Once again, I asked if there was any place in Manhattan where I could store my luggage for the day. He looked at me with pity, then said, in his thick Brooklyn accent, “Ma’am, there ain’t been no luggage locker in New York for years.” Hallelujah, I was home. New York is the only place where people call you ma’am while telling you that you’re an idiot.
(Oh, and if you’re looking for a place to rest your suitcase, you can do what I did: buy a ticket to the Natural History Museum on Central Park West, take a cursory look at the dinosaur skeletons, then stow your luggage at coat check all day.)
So there I was on Wednesday, day four of the great luggage lugging. I had begun the morning with a friend in Harlem, then had made my way downtown on the 1 train, emerging out of the 103rd Street station to look at my old neighborhood, just to make sure it was still there. (Rumors of condominiums to the contrary, my old brick building still stands.) There, I had popped into the Silver Moon bakery, an impeccable little bakery, filled with light, on 105th Street, which opened the last year I lived in New York. I had eaten more of their baguettes than I can bear to think of now. Of course, I never thought I would be going back there, now that I knew I had celiac. But my friend Kari had told me that morning that Silver Moon now makes a gluten-free loaf. Granted, the cross-contamination issues are probably rife, and I was taking my chances by grabbing one of the little loaves with currants. Nostalgia overtook me, and I took the chance to sit in the sunny bakery with a cafe au lait, looking out at the cold sunshine flooding my old neighborhood. The almond macaroons were so enticing that I actually forgot to take a photograph of the first one before I shattered half of it with my teeth. (Here’s a whole one, if you want to see it.) No matter. They were all delicious. And I didn’t get sick. Buoyed, I walked with my suitcase behind me to 65th and Amsterdam, where I met a friend for Ethiopian food. Later, the suitcase struggled up the stairs of the 66th crosstown bus with me, then down the stairs of the 6 train to meet another friend for coffee on 52 and 3rd. My friend Cindy is a sheer delight, so the diversions were worth the pushing and pulling. Still, after an hour, I was due at City Bakery in far too little time, and I had yet another subway to brave.
I was a little tired of my suitcase, at this point.
Walking into the subway station at 51st and Lexington, I couldn’t believe my luck — an escalator. Resting my weary arms along the moving railings, I started to think pleasant thoughts and let myself be carried along. Then, I felt the telltale signs: a whoosh of warm air blowing back the hair around my eyes, a rhythmic roaring sound, then a clutch of people descending the stairs. A train had just come into the station, and I needed to be on it. Frantic, I started to run up the escalator, bumping my suitcase on every step. Suddenly, everything felt wonderfully light. I looked back to see that the man behind me had lifted the other end of my suitcase. Together, we started running up the escalator, trying to make the train. We picked up speed, my suitcase between us, as we neared the top, and then, as one unit, we darted in the doors of the train just before they closed. I looked back at him and said thank you, grateful and still in shock. He waved his hand, grinned at the ground, then moved to another car. I never saw him again.
That’s New York for me.
And the story feels like a metaphor for my trip as well. I went there dragging, and I came home unexpectedly lighter, buoyed up and hopeful. After weeks of feeling cramped and overworked, I remember who I am and where I am. Just in time.
It was a wonderful week, so full of laughter with friends, encounters on the street, and great meals that I didn’t have a single chance to update this site. Oh well. Here I am now, full of funny, wondrous stories.
There was the great, stinging wind that rocketed down the tracks and through my clothes as I stood on the open platform of the Howard Beach subway station, waiting for a train to take me to Manhattan. I was dressed in Seattle clothes, not prepared for 15° weather. But, by the looks of it, neither were the New Yorkers on the platform, who stamped their feet and wrapped their scarves around their faces to prevent their mucus membranes from drying out. At least I was suddenly awake after a long night of flying.
There was the backstage tour of the Metropolitan Opera House that Kari took me on when I met her there. Since she’s a cellist for the Met — and an amazing one at that — she had access to every part of the rabbit-warren of a place. We peeked our heads into the wig shop, brushed our fingers along the racks of ornate costumes, and snaked our way through enormous styrofoam sets from dozens of years of operas. At one point, I stood in the orchestra pit, staring up at the lavish balconies on one side, and watching a full rehearsal of sixty people or more on stage a few feet above me.
There was the suddenly warm sunlight on my last morning in the city, falling on my shoulders as I walked around the Lower East Side with my friends Gabe and Monica. We were investigating gluten-free bakeries on Allen Street, and one just around the corner from the Lower East Side tenement museum, and we couldn’t stop laughing at each other. A sudden flash of sunlight forced me to put the cupcakes down on the cement and take photographs. That prompted Monica to take out her camera and take a photo of me taking photographs of food on the sidewalk.
There was a delightful half hour with the dear Luisa at City Bakery. She enticed me to buy the hot chocolate, thick and rich, spinning consistently in a wheeled contraption that looked straight out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Of course I asked for the homemade marshmallow as well. But, as much as the hot chocolate filled me, Luisa’s company was even more delicious. We started laughing as soon as we met, and we just couldn’t stop. Why does she have to live in New York? And then, we were joined by the inimitable Jen, who arrived in an electric pink scarf tied around her head. Who could not love this woman? And oh, how I love food bloggers.
There was the spontaneous decision — after thinking about it for a year — to get my first tattoo. There are a dozen reasons as to this one (a quote from one of my favorite works of literature, a Beatles reference, a Buddhist paen, and an affirmation after nearly dying in the car accident, among others), and I love that I finally did it. Monica and Gabe followed me into the place on 2nd and 3rd, Monica sure, Gabe a little scared. “I think I need a shot of whisky to watch this,” he said at first. But it didn’t hurt, and it took about twelve seconds to finish. Clearly, the tattoo-festooned guy who branded me thought mine was a bit of a weenie tattoo. (When I asked him what I should do to take care of it, he said, “Leave the bandage on for the first couple of hours, then… whatever. I mean, you could probably throw dirt on this one, and it would be okay.”) But I walked out into the cold air, beaming. Yes.
And of course, there was the food. Thai food on Long Island. Greek chicken salads in New Hope, Pennsylvania. Impeccable vegetarian food presented with all the senses in the Village. Chicken sausages and carmelized apples in Cobble Hill. Marinated mozzarella balls from Murray’s Cheese Shop on Bleeker. Provolone-stuffed chicken breasts with spinach and oven-roasted tomatoes at Gennaro on the Upper West Side. The softest, falling-off-the-bone lamb tagine I have ever eaten on St. Mark’s Place. Lentil stew and a great bottle of wine in Nolita. Plum and walnut yogurt from Gourmet Garage. More omeletttes than I have ever eaten in one week of my life — eggs and roasted potatoes are the gluten-free girl’s best friend at breakfast. Gluten-free pizza at a glorious Italian restaurant designed for celiacs. Lemon cupcakes and madeleines that I can eat without a moment’s hesitation. Too many cups of weak or over-roasted coffee (what is the deal, New York? Why can’t you make a good cup of coffee?). Brazilian paolitas and gluten-free breadsticks. Fruit from a stand on the street. Even a couple of dogs from Grey’s Papaya — without the buns, at a stand in the airport — when I was already feeling sad about having to return home.
In the next few days, I’ll be writing more posts about my time in New York, focusing in close-up on the places where I was most easily able to eat gloriously gluten-free. Expect reports of cupcakes, avocado tartare, and corn tortilla with queso cheese and red peppers. I have so much to share with you.
But for now, I’ll just say it was a marvelous trip. Rarely have I eaten so well. Instead of feeling deprived because I had to eat gluten-free in New York, I felt inspired, by the food presented to me on beautiful plates, by the care with which every waiter and waitress took care of me, and by the experience of eating so much great food outside my kitchen. And, in spite of the moments when I walked down the street truly believing I might just freeze to death unless I found a seat at a coffee shop that minute, I feel marvelously warmed by my time in that glorious, dirty city. Laughing with friends so hard we made people on the subway look up to see the ruckus; walking down the street late at night, talking with people I love; jumping from one subway line to another with relative ease; looking at Central Park in the cold sunshine, remembering John Lennon and all the times I rollerbladed that path; wandering from one food place to another in the Village, taking all morning if I wanted, because I had nowhere to be — these were some of the best moments of a tremendous trip.
Certainly, lugging that suitcase up and down a thousand steep steps was worth it for all this.