Wednesday, June 30, 2010

World Trade Center Site, 9 Years Later

I'm almost ashamed to say that before this month I hadn't truly visited the World Trade Center site for two and a half years. Even then, I just stole some glances through covered fences. I hadn't taken a proper look from a viewing tower since 2003.

Not much has changed since then.

I have mixed feelings about the site. I work less than two blocks away, and I walk by it every day. I may never see the pit, but I see the cranes -- and the dozens of tourists angling for the best photo from the street.

It's safe to say that Sept. 11 affected all Americans, both practically (I have to get to the airport how early?) and emotionally (Just who are our enemies?). But Sept. 11 was a very personal experience for New Yorkers, many of whom don't have to count to six degrees before they're connected to someone who died in the attacks.

So I try not to gawk at the site. That being said, I was curious about how much progress had been made. When my aunt, uncle and cousins came to visit, we found a viewing platform, basically in a mall across the street from the site. It was a study in contrasts. On one side, the dirt and destruction where the towers once stood:

Look in the other direction, and you're in a beautiful shopping center with indoor trees, outdoor seating and what looked to be a view of the Hudson River.

Time moves on. I just wish progress on the site would too. Until then, I'll try my best to commemorate 9/11 and pay my silent respects.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Revisiting Hard Rock Cafe: This Time, in New York

When my aunt, uncle and cousins visited, I fully expected to be the ultimate New York tourist for a weekend. And what says "tourist" more than a visit to the Hard Rock Cafe?

Not that I'm complaining. Really, I'm not. After all, I use to drag friends and family (some more willing than others) to Hard Rock Cafes in city after city after city. Orlando, Nashville, Washington, D.C., even London ... no trip was complete without at least a visit to the gift shop. But I hadn't stepped inside one since Paul and I made a quick stop in Niagara Falls almost 10 years ago. It was time to revisit, so I put up no complaints when my cousin made the suggestion.

First of all, I was amazed at how large the Times Square location was. I've walked by New York's Hard Rock Cafe dozens of times, but it opens into a gift shop. The restaurant is down a flight of stairs, and the tables are set up on two levels facing a stage. There was no show when we were there, but there were plenty of TV screens playing music videos (and, at the bar, World Cup soccer). It felt a little like VH1 in the early days.

Paul, staring at music videos off screen

The restaurant had the requisite rock memorabilia, of course. In fact, Johnny Cash was giving me the finger from a poster on the wall throughout the entire meal. It's OK, you gave us a really awesome cover of "Hurt" (and a few other songs, I suppose), so I forgive you.

And the food? Better than I remembered. My french fries were crunchy and my barbecue burger was tasty. I shouldn't be surprised. When Paul and I went to Times Square's ESPN Zone restaurant with another tourist-friend, I got the best barbecue burger I'd ever eaten. So I guess tourist restaurants aren't so bad after all. But don't expect me to visit Bubba Gump Shrimp Company anytime soon.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Naked Cowgirl of Times Square

Paul, Annette, my two cousins and I squeezed onto the neon bleacher seats in Times Square, resting our feet as we waited for the sun to go down and the square to light up even brighter.

Dave, however, went exploring. When we found him a few minutes later, we couldn't help gawking at what he had found: the naked cowgirl.

Times Square's naked cowboy is fairly well-known, although I've never seen him. Ms. Cowgirl, while lesser known, seemed to be pretty good at drawing a crowd -- and tips. You could have your picture taken with her for $1, with the bill going directly into her boot.

No takers in our group. We even offered to pay.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Family and Ferrara and a Visit to Little Italy

What would a visit to Little Italy be without a big scoop (or three) of gelato?

At least, that's what my cousin thought last weekend, and I have to say that I agree.

My Aunt Annette, Uncle Dave and two cousins from Indiana visited New York last weekend, and I was excited to play tour guide. Dave had been to New York before -- I believe as a teenager -- but the city was new to Annette, David (a student at Ball State) and Emily (an entering high school freshman). They arrived in Bay Ridge at 10 a.m. Saturday morning on the dot, and it wasn't long before we checked the first item off their to-do list: a visit to Little Italy.

I was happy not only to see my family, but also to take in some typical New York experiences that I hadn't done since we first moved here, or even since our honeymoon in New York almost seven years ago. Their visit gave me an excuse to do something I'm usually leery of nowadays -- be a tourist. It was an eye-opening -- and fun -- experience.

But back to Little Italy. The neighborhood is surrounded by Chinatown, so of course we couldn't see one without the other. The weather was sweltering, which made the fish markets smellier and the crowds sweatier. The black-market purse and watch dealers were out in full-force. We managed to make our way down the street without succumbing to the lures of a "Rolox" (unlike one of Paul's friends a few months back).

Little Italy is what they really wanted to see anyway, and Emily preferred not to leave with gelato -- and who are we to let her eat alone?! Of course, none of us could resist the air conditioned allure of Ferrara, perhaps the neighborhood's most well-known bakery and cafe (and just one of the places where I've searched for the city's best cannoli). Founded in 1892, it also bills itself as America's first espresso bar.

From about 15 or so flavors of gelati and sorbet, Paul and I settled for a scoop each of strawberry and raspberry gelato and blackberry sorbet. Paul didn't even put up a fuss when I nixed his suggestion of vanilla gelato. As if I'd waste one of my scoops on something so plain. Ha!

It was a good start to a pleasantly tiring weekend. More to come!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Ditmas Park: Where I Could Have Lived

When Paul and I moved to New York, we didn't have time to be picky about an apartment. We had one day to sign a lease, so we limited our search to two Brooklyn neighborhoods: Bay Ridge and Ditmas Park.

I hadn't returned to Ditmas Park since we visited an apartment or two there nearly three years ago. So when a friend told me to pick a place to meet for Sunday brunch, I chose a cafe in the neighborhood, Vox Pop.

When Paul and I were in the process of moving to New York, New Yorkers pointed to Vox Pop as a symbol of Ditmas Park's reawakening. But not everyone seemed to like Ditmas Park's label as the "next big thing." When we asked the guy showing us an apartment whether it was true that the neighborhood was up-and-coming, he immediately gave us such a sour look that I was convinced we had asked the wrong question. In any case, the apartment wasn't very nice and we moved to Bay Ridge.

Now the neighborhood had several restaurants that I didn't recall from before -- nice restaurants that would have looked more at home in Williamsburg. Not that I should be surprised. Ditmas Park looks to have its fair share of hipsters, but it also has a wealthy contingent. The area is famous across the country for its Victorian homes on hoity-toity-sounding roads (like Argyle, Marlborough and Rugby) lined with tall trees.

I'm happy we ended up where we did, but I still find Ditmas Park intriguing. It has character. After all, nowhere else have I found a flower shop/soccer bar.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Paul Runs the Lake Placid Half-Marathon

Getting up at 4:30 in the morning for the privilege of running 13.1 miles the following day doesn't sound like much of a weekend to me.

Paul, who traveled upstate last weekend to run the Lake Placid Half-Marathon, feels differently.

Alas, I stayed behind as Paul made the road trip with a co-worker and two of his co-worker's friends. He can take it from here ...


Of course I knew that the Lake Placid Half-Marathon, nestled in the Adirondack Mountains, would be a very hilly course, but it's really hard to appreciate the extreme elevation till you're trying to run over it.

The course changes elevation by up to 350 feet. Imagine running up and down 35 flights of stairs while in a 13 mile race and you'll get a taste of what this thing was all about.

As the date grew closer, I dreaded it more and more, especially when I sprained my ankle three weeks ago and ran a grand total of 5 miles in the weeks leading up to this thing. When we got there on race day, the dread really set in as I looked over the cliff (seriously, a cliff) at the mountain road winding up to the finish line and noticed it would be tough to even walk up.

On the bonus side, there was such a small crowd there that they just let us stand wherever we wanted on the street before we started the race. Normally there's a whole huge cattle call/corral ritual with panicked racers elbowing each other and leaping over police barriers before the start of a marathon.

When the starting gun went off, I calmed down a little but grew nervous again as I saw walkers after 1 mile. It was going to be a long day for them. I powered through the first 7 miles, never feeling great, but I was cheered by the shockingly beautiful scenery and quaintness of the little town.

On mile 7 I got a kind of runner's high and felt good until mile 11. During the last two miles my legs and feet were in so much pain that I almost felt like I was having an out-of-body experience. With the finish line in view, I stumbled and seriously thought of dropping out since it seemed like I might pass out. I managed to keep moving forward for the victory lap on the Olympic oval in front of the U.S. Olympic athlete training center.

I was exhausted, but very pleased that I managed a personal best of 1:57 (personal is the operative word here since the best runners can do the course in 1:20). I had two lunches and enjoyed the rest of my day in scenic Lake Placid.

It's all back to normal here in NYC now, no more birds singing or people being, you know, nice. But it is good to be home.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Naked Statues of New York

At Madison Square Park

I expect to see naked statues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Maybe even the American Museum of Natural History. (At the latter, however, you're probably more likely to encounter strategically placed loincloths.)

Where I don't expect to see them is in a popular public park and a shopping mall. Ahh, New York. Full of surprises.

I think you need three to call something a theme (or is that just the rule for a streak?). In any case, I've only seen two random statues of naked men, and I strangely saw them both on the same day on opposite sides of town.

I've been to Madison Square Park at least a half dozen times, but somehow the statue above managed to escape my notice.

I'd encountered the statue below at the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle a couple of times before -- I've even seen people take pictures with it. Notice how shiny the protrusion is? Maybe people think it's good luck to rub it.

At the Time Warner Center

Monday, June 14, 2010

Why June Makes Me Sad

My least favorite month by far is February. Cold, snowy, dreary. I firmly believe that the creators of the Julian calendar hated it as much as I do. Why else would they have made it only 28 (or 29) days long?

Each year I look forward to the day I can open up the windows and leave my coat behind. I love May. But in June, the rising mercury isn't enough to pull me away from looking back.

I'm a little too sensitive when it comes to these things. After all, I'm not old enough to reminisce! But this year I got nostalgic for last year's high school reunion. (Then again, maybe that isn't so strange. I probably enjoyed the reunion more than I did all of high school.)

In any case, every June I dig out my rose-colored glasses. I graduated from high school 11 years ago this month. I met Paul 9 years ago this month. I graduated from college 7 years ago yesterday and started my first full-time job three days later.

I think about all of the friends I've made, so many of whom I've lost touch with.

Yes, good things happen in June (see above, meeting Paul), but I tend to think of this as a month of endings.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Anthony Bourdain: On Puppy Heads, Coke & Books

Good book readings were abundant in New York this week.

On Thursday, The Daily Show's Samantha Bee read from her new book, "I Know I Am, But What Are You?" On Wednesday, Ben H. Winters (author of "Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters") read from his new "Android Karenina."

But the only reading I went to starred my travel-chef hero, Anthony Bourdain.

Paul and I always have a few "No Reservations" episodes waiting for us on the DVR, and we even went to the restaurant where Bourdain formerly was a chef, Les Halles, for Paul's birthday last December.

What's more, Paul and I both recently read his decade-old book, "Kitchen Confidential," and really enjoyed it. So when we heard he was promoting his new book, "Medium Raw," at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square, it didn't take us long to decide we had to be there.

Unfortunately, everyone else decided that too.

We arrived about 20 minutes before he was scheduled to take stage, which was way too late. By that time, it was by far standing room only, with probably a couple of hundred fans in the seats and at least another hundred standing in front of us.

You can see him at the podium, right?

I'll definitely be checking out the book, but I wasn't particularly looking forward to the reading (unsurprisingly, it sounded exactly like one of his voiceovers from the show). I was waiting for the Q&A. Here's what I learned:
  • Anthony Bourdain would rather eat heads of little puppies than upset his hosts by refusing them.
  • Fans who slip him baggies of coke at book readings baffle him.
  • The best city to visit for food is Tokyo. Paul was especially pleased when he heard this because he wore his t-shirt from the Tsukiji Fish Market, which Bourdain specifically mentioned.
The whole thing was over in an hour, and I only got a couple of halfway decent photos on our way out, before a guard or two ushered us down the escalator. No signed book for me.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

New York City Subway Stations: 23rd Street

I'm rarely on the platform of New York's 23rd Street subway station, although I'm often above it.

Where Broadway, 5th Avenue and 23rd Street intersect is a popular area, especially in the summer. The lines at the Shake Shack, the outdoor eatery in Madison Square Park, can be an hour or more long. But the wait is worth it, with a table within a stone's throw of the Flatiron Building.

Although Paul and I are often in the neighborhood, we rarely go into this subway station, opting for the pleasant walk to the 14th Street/Union Square hub. But when Paul sprained his ankle Memorial Day weekend, we did without some of our usual walks.

That meant I got to see a station -- and the hats that decorate its walls -- in person. I normally just glance at them from an express train as it rushes by. I was excited: I got to take some photos I'd long been meaning to snap.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Washington Square Park in the Spring

Grab a bench and take a load off. You're in Washington Square Park.

It's barely a park -- don't expect too much grass here! -- and the ample construction fences mean it's not quite as relaxing as, say, Central Park or Madison Square Park. But take a seat, and then take a look around. It's a public park, but it is to New York University what the Oval is to Ohio State. And remember to stay til sunset, when the Washington Square Park Arch is all lit up.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Ben & Jerry's Made Me the Most Popular Girl at Work

Photo courtesy of Katherine R.

This is the story of a girl who loves ice cream. And free stuff. And especially free ice cream.

The story starts last week, when I read about Ben & Jerry's goal to bless New York City with 50,000 samples of ice cream by the end of June, all from its roaming scoop truck. That, I thought, is a goal I can get behind.

I immediately began to follow the scoop truck on Twitter, and it wasn't long before I realized the truck takes suggestions on Tuesday for businesses to visit on Wednesday. I nominated my place of work, and when the fine folks of Ben & Jerry's said they'd be visiting, my co-workers' excitement was outdone only by my own.

Yes, I am exactly that easy to please.

When the truck pulled up to the office it was a bit like Christmas morning, except it was June and 80 degrees. But Michael from Ben & Jerry's made a superb Santa, passing out samples of the Cookie Dough and Peanut Brittle flavors. He and sidekick/driver Terrence snapped a few pictures (like this great photo on twitpic), and they were off.

The rest of the afternoon was more like the day after Christmas, but at least I had a belly full of ice cream.

So Wednesday was a good day. I scored free ice cream for the office and something of a marketing coup for the company since Ben & Jerry's mentioned us a few times on Twitter. And who knew a bit of ice cream could garner such goodwill in the office? I should have thought of this in high school.

UPDATE (6/9/10):
My Other Ben & Jerry's Adventures --
2010 Free Cone Day
Me at Ben & Jerry's in Vermont (scroll down)

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

How Times Square Is Like Las Vegas (In a Bad Way)

Memorial Day in hot and sticky New York City -- not the best way to spend a long holiday weekend.

It wasn't all by choice. Tentative plans to spend a day at Fire Island or on a beach in the Hamptons were scrapped when Paul sprained his right ankle jogging before work Friday morning. And since we were going to be in town anyway, I decided to reschedule my appointment to get a small cavity filled and got a last minute slot on Saturday morning.

Between Paul's foot and my mouth, we were (as my mother would say) a couple of sad sacks all day Saturday.

On Sunday, however, Paul's ankle felt at least a little better, and I was again at 100 percent. So we decided to try to get half-priced tickets at the TKTS booth in Times Square for the Broadway show "Promises, Promises."

Few New Yorkers like -- and even fewer would admit to liking -- Times Square. I like it ... at night. The neon lights are mesmerizing, and I don't even mind the crowds so much.

The middle of the day is another story. We got there about 2 p.m., and the temperature must have been well into the 80s. The unforgiving sun made walking elbow-to-elbow with sweaty tourists even less appealing. There's just nothing redeeming about Times Square in the middle of the afternoon.

It's like Las Vegas. It sparkles at night, but I've rarely seen an uglier city in the daytime. That's when you go to the casinos ... except in Times Square you have a choice only between Olive Garden and the Hershey store.

In any case, the TKTS booth had sold out of the tickets we were seeking just before we got to the cashier, and the tickets at the box office were too expensive. We spent the afternoon in Central Park, followed by an evening of sushi. Not the Memorial Day weekend I expected, but not bad nonetheless.


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