Monday, August 30, 2010

Living in New York When the Honeymoon's Over

Aug. 30, 2003

Our honeymoon in New York City doesn't seem quite as special now that we've lived here three years of the seven we've been married.

Yep, today's our wedding anniversary, and after we said "I do" in 2003, we hopped a plane to LaGuardia and spent a week exploring a city neither of us knew.

Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and now I wish we would have spent our honeymoon in a place we would never call home. New York will forever after be livable instead of magical, and in what fairy tales do the prince and princess get whisked off to some merely habitable locale? I guess we can't all be Cinderella.

And anyway, I can hardly call New York merely habitable. Even three years later, it still does have some of that magic sparkle, honeymoon or no honeymoon. What's more, on our honeymoon we did check off a few of the touristy must-sees that I was trying to avoid when we first moved here in my effort to feel like a local. For example, seven years ago we toured the UN building and went to the top of the Empire State Building. I haven't returned to either.

As can be expected, I was very naive about the city back then. I think we rode the subway only once -- I couldn't figure out whether I wanted to go uptown or downtown, toward Brooklyn or the Bronx, and it was just easier to walk anyway. Now I barely have to look at a subway map.

Without that honeymoon, however, I certainly would have been much more nervous to have moved to New York in the first place. In fact, as much as I loved the city on our honeymoon, New York didn't strike me as the type of place I wanted to live. Obviously that feeling disappeared -- maybe because I don't live in the city proper, but rather the city improper, Brooklyn.

Now do I love living in New York?

I do.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Bryant Park Picnic with My Favorite Cheesecake

My single favorite dessert in all of New York City is the devil's food cheesecake from Junior's Cheesecake.

An inch-and-a-half slab of cheesecake sits on top of a thin layer of cake and the richest, smoothest chocolate frosting I've ever had. Above the cheesecake is three more layers of frosting, separated by two layers of cake. The outer edge has yet another thick layer of frosting, covered with at least a candy bar's worth of chocolate shavings.

I've never been able to eat a whole piece by myself. I've never tried. In fact, after Paul and I have each had a whole meal, we've been known to reluctantly leave a bite or two of frosting behind. A slice is a little pricey at $6.95, but it's money well spent if you're a chocolate lover or cheesecake lover. Or -- like me -- both.

Last weekend we purposefully ate a smaller-than-normal dinner so we could stop by Junior's take-out counter near Times Square. The big question was where to eat our cheesecake. At first I thought we could snag a table and chairs in Times Square's pedestrian zone. It was so miserably crowded, however, that we didn't even try.

Our second thought was much better. We walked by Bryant Park on the walk to Junior's from the restaurant we ate at in Koreatown. It was still lit up and filled with people. Maybe we could grab a couple of chairs there.

We could. And it was beautiful. The sun had long since set, but the park was lit up by spotlights at least 20 stories up on an adjacent building. The lights did their best to shine through the leafy trees surrounding the park, covering the sidewalks with an eerie, magical glow. Everyone was chatting, eating or even sleeping on the grass.

The spotlight on Bryant Park

All was peaceful and quiet. That is, until 10:45 p.m., when a police officer chirped on his whistle and ushered everyone out. Yes, the parks actually close in the city that never sleeps. Paul and I scarfed down the last couple of bites of cheesecake and went on our way.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Atlantic City Memories, 10 Years Later

It might have been the worst vacation I've ever taken.

Ten years ago this summer I had just finished my first year at Ohio State and was about to begin a summer job in my hometown. But the week before I was scheduled to start, I went to Atlantic City with my parents, grandparents and younger sister, Katie.

I was only 18, and Katie was 16, so we couldn't even step foot in the casinos, let alone gamble. I expected to split my time between the boardwalk and the beach. But then it rained. And it rained the next day. And the next. It rained each day except the last day we were there, which I believe is the exact day a seagull decided to crap in my hair.

Like I said, it wasn't a great vacation.

Boardwalk and beach aside, the real reason I wanted to go to Atlantic City was its proximity to New York. I begged Mom and Dad to drive me to the city -- even just to the Statue of Liberty. I scoured the internet for day trips to New York that I could take by myself while they tried their luck at the slots. No luck for me. I was disappointed but not devastated. I was more upset at that damn seagull.

It's funny to look back on that summer now. I certainly never thought I'd be living in New York a decade later. And that summer was also the last I lived at home. I subleased a slightly ghetto apartment in Columbus the next year, met Paul and the rest is history.

I've never been to Atlantic City since.

Monday, August 23, 2010

A Soccer Fan All Over Again: U.S. vs. Brazil

Today: Paul recounts the U.S. vs. Brazil soccer match that he and his friend Ryan saw earlier this month.

I'm what you would call a casual soccer fan. I enjoy watching a game from time to time, but I never follow it closely or really understand the difference between the numerous leagues that play in Europe, Latin America and the U.S. or what they really have to do with each other.

Every four years, however, I become like a lot of my countrymen and take a liking to the game. Some of my best memories from college were meeting my friend Tom at 6 in the morning, bagels and coffee in hand to watch early round World Cup action. 

So when my friend Ryan, who is a serious soccer fan, said he could get tickets to an international friendly between the U.S. and Brazil, I jumped at the opportunity.  He came to Brooklyn from Columbus, and we took the bus to New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey to watch the game.

As soon as we got to the parking lot a few hours before the game, I immediately I felt somewhat inadequate.  Tens of thousands of people (including Americans) grilling out, drinking heavily and kicking the soccer ball around. I realized at that moment that I didn't even know the names of the players on either teams' roster, much less would I be able to tell you for which team they played.

We wandered around, looking for the promised American Outlaws tailgate party (that's the fan club that my friend belongs to) but found none in the vicinity. It was very clear from the invitation that it was in Section J of the parking lot. We soon realized, however, that was like saying it's somewhere in a five-square-mile radius.  We walked for a good 15 minutes or so but found no formal party and settled for a cook-out by some early-20-something dude who happened to belong to the American Outlaws Pittsburgh chapter. They saw my friend's shirt and invited us over for a beer.

I've got to hand it to these guys, if the level of drunkenness of fans at a game is an indicator of the seriousness with which the populace takes the sport, then these guys and all the surrounding tailgates were putting soccer right up there with baseball and football. (That's right- football is football and soccer is soccer.  Deal with it, international community!)

There was a game of flip cup that was international in scope, with Brazilians on one side of the table and Americans on the other. There was a large circle of guys passing a soccer ball around that I was awkwardly included in. The awkwardness for me came from the fact that these guys seemed to play soccer on some adult level and (due to the fact that they were three sheets to the wind) didn't seem to realize that I do not.

The excitement level only increased as game time neared. As an Ohioan, the only thing that I can compare this to would be tailgating at a Buckeye game. I was impressed. We watched an ill-advised game of chicken -- ill advised since (a) it was grown men on each others' shoulders, (b) they were wasted and (c) they were on top of pavement, not in a pool.  Luckily, not one person got seriously hurt, although someone landed on the flip cup table professional-wrestling style and sprayed Keystone Light everywhere. It was about time head to the game.

We got in the stadium and the sound level was amazing -- just constant excitement. No vuvuzelas needed. As the game started, things settled down a bit with people confining their aggression to the call-and-response cheers you might hear at a college football game. Otherwise, they closely followed the action.

After the first half, with Brazil up 2-0, things got kind of ugly and bitter. The chants became a little meaner in scope, such as the crowd pointing at the Brazilian section and saying things like "Thi-rd Wor-ld."

In the end, the U.S. was bested by a superior team, but I came away with the revelation that yeah, people in America are serious about soccer. And not just hipsters or immigrants, but regular joes too. Can't wait 'til the next World Cup when I can become a soccer fan again.

Paul blogs about our quest to read a biography on every president of the United States on Presidents By the Book.

Friday, August 20, 2010

A Ground Zero Mosque That Isn't at Ground Zero

See that big empty space in the photo? That's ground zero just a few months ago. That's also where the mosque you've been hearing so much about lately will not be built.

That's because no one's actually proposing the mosque be built at ground zero. In fact, the mosque would be in an old Burlington Coat Factory two blocks away.

To out-of-towners, two blocks doesn't seem that far. In New York, it might as well be a whole other neighborhood. Actually, in some parts of the city, neighborhoods do stretch only two blocks.

Bay Ridge, where I live, is a nice area of Brooklyn. It's crowded but certainly not the densest part of the city. You want to know how many people live within a two block radius of me? I can't count that high. Seriously? I would guess about 2,500, and I'm probably underestimating. Oh, and that's not even counting all of the restaurants and stores in the same proximity.

Take a look at the map below. Zoom in if you want. I'll wait. I've marked the location of the proposed mosque and community center in relation to the World Trade Center site.

View Larger Map

Can you honestly say that the mosque would be at ground zero? What about the Verizon, Hilton and Century 21 right across the street? And you must think I work at ground zero, too -- my office is almost exactly as far away from the World Trade Center site as the mosque would be. Last I checked, I wasn't working in a construction zone.

But maybe you just don't like the idea of a mosque so close to ground zero. Sorry. There's already one mosque 4 blocks away from ground zero and another 12 blocks away, according to the New York Times.

But you know what? Even if none of that were the case -- even if the backers wanted to build the mosque right in the middle of ground zero -- I'd say go for it. What would we prove by nixing it? Just that we can wave the Constitution and pontificate on the glories of the first amendment when it's easy. But when there's a real challenge -- well, go ahead and pass us some freedom fries.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Sidewalk We All Can Share

Tourists to the right, please

New Yorkers often complain about the hordes of tourists who stop in the middle of busy sidewalks to take photos. Or stop to gaze at skyscrapers. Or stop for no apparent reason at all.

More frequently, they don't stop. They just walk really ... really ... slow. You might be on vacation, Mr. Tourist, but the rest of us are just trying to get some dinner.

Some people recognize this. Just a couple of weekends ago, a mother told her kids to get out of the way so Paul and I could pass them and be on our way.

I can't complain too loudly, because I know I've done the same dawdling act -- both when I first visited New York and even now, when I visit new cities. Still, I laughed when I saw the labels stenciled onto the sidewalk above on Houston Street, on the Lower East Side. Now that's taking matters into your own hands.

Monday, August 16, 2010

New York's Tour Buses at Night

A Gray Line tour bus speeds through Greenwich Village

I work just a few blocks from both the World Trade Center site and the New York Stock Exchange, so I'm used to seeing tour buses. Lots of tour buses.

You can hardly venture outside in Lower Manhattan without coming *thisclose* to a double-decker with camera-laden tourists snapping away. Sometimes I wonder how many strangers' photos I'll live forever in, a tiny speck on the sidewalk as they angle for that elusive perfect picture of Ground Zero construction cranes.

But these buses aren't out only during the day. The major companies also have night tours to see all the pretty lights. I've seen a night tour bus here and there, but I've never seen more than I did on Saturday night.

Paul and I ate supper at Cafetasia, a Thai restaurant about a block from Washington Square Park and not much further from St. Mark's Place, in the heart of Greenwich Village and filled with NYU kids. (And yes, I just called college students "kids." I'm now officially old.)

We got two seats at a floor-to-ceiling window facing East 8th Street. Along with my pad thai, I got a view of so many night tour buses that I eventually had to stop counting. I'd guess we saw at least 10 in the hour or so we were there -- in addition to several regular MTA city buses.

Paul and I tried to speculate why the tour buses pass through East 8th. Maybe we're jaded now, but we didn't see anything special about the Johnny Rockets next door or the Crumbs across the street. I like Crumbs cupcakes as much as the next person, I'm just saying it's not very scenic.

Maybe the buses are using the street as a byway to get from the aforementioned park to St. Mark's Place, which really is a tourist attraction lined with so many hole-in-the-wall shops and restaurants that it truly is difficult to walk down on any day that's halfway pleasant. But I've never seen a bus venture down the narrow street.

In any case, the number of tour buses was a reminder that New York's ambiance is created just as much by the 45 million visitors to the city as its 8 million residents. And also that Gray Line's making a killing at $39 a ticket.

Friday, August 13, 2010

A Little Shop About "The Big Lebowski"

I'm not a big fan of "The Big Lebowski," but I know plenty of people who are. Like my husband.

And so I was intrigued when Paul and I were walking through Greenwich Village a couple of weeks ago and passed a hole-in-the-wall store at 213 Thompson St.: The Little Lebowski.

Yes, a store dedicated to all things Lebowski.

Paul liked looking through the ... uh, memorabilia? I was more intrigued about how the owner of this place pays the rent each month. There's really that many fans? Evidently.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sunday Night with the Upright Citizens Brigade

The one thing that's been on my New York to-do list the longest finally got checked off on Sunday: a visit to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

The theatre is well-known for its improv and stand-up shows that rarely cost more than $10 bucks a pop. Paul's friend Ryan was visiting from Columbus, so we decided to check out the free Sunday night show.

I'm not sure why it was free, because I gladly would have paid. In fact, you reserve your tickets online for most UCB shows and then pay when you get there. Not this one. We got to the theatre a little after 7 p.m. so we could snag tickets when they were released at 8:15 for the 9:30 show.

So there was a lot of waiting. The worst part: a pop-up shower forced wimpy ol' me into a nearby grocery store while Paul and Ryan held my place in line. The best part: The guy behind us in line was celebrating his birthday with friends and gave us some leftover donuts.

I love New York.

Our reward for waiting was Horatio Sanz (of SNL fame) and Jack McBrayer (Kenneth on "30 Rock") along with a handful of lesser-known but just as talented comedians in a two hour improv show.

The theatre was tiny -- only about 150 seats. Actually, about the only way our seats could have been worse is if we wouldn't have had any -- and there were plenty of people standing. Even still, we were three or four rows from the stage, so close that our location on the far left didn't really matter. And the $3 PBRs helped.

All in all, I had a great time, and Paul and I left wondering why we'd never done it before. We'll definitely do it again.

Monday, August 9, 2010

John Legend in Coney Island

The sun sets on John Legend

Coney Island hasn't been that great to me.

Thursday night was an exception. John Legend was playing in a Coney Island park as part of the free summer concert series. His music isn't the type I'm normally drawn to, but I heard a lot of him -- and a lot about him -- when I was a newspaper reporter in Springfield, Ohio, John Legend's hometown. I ended up really liking him.

In fact, Springfield held a free John Legend concert right before we moved to New York. I didn't go, and I regret it. I didn't want to make the same mistake twice.

I don't know how many people were there, but by the time we arrived we had to lay out our blanket on a part of the park that was more dirt than grass, far enough away from the stage that we could tell where he was only because of the spotlight.

I knew I would love the concert, but I was more surprised about how Coney Island has changed in the short time that we've lived here. Our apartment is a mere 30-minute train ride away, but this is only the fifth time I've been there. Most trips have been less than spectacular:

First visit to Coney Island, May 2008: Rode the Cyclone with out-of-town friends. Severe neck pain followed, and I didn't feel back to normal for four days.

Second visit to Coney Island, Aug. 2008: My first experience at the summer concert series -- this time, Huey Lewis and the News. I had fun, but I was surprised at how dingy and deserted the neighborhood felt at night, when the concert was over.

Third visit to Coney Island
, May 2009: My parents wanted a real Nathan's hot dog and to see what all the fuss over Coney Island was about. Not much, as they found out. The skies were gray, the weather was freezing and the place was empty.

Fourth visit to Coney Island, May 2009: Probably remembering how cold the neighborhood was earlier in the month, I put on a long-sleeve shirt to meet Paul near the boardwalk after he finished the Brooklyn Half-Marathon. I was nearly as hot as Paul after he finished the 13-mile race.

OK, so except for the whiplash, my visits to Coney Island haven't been that bad. But last week's was definitely the best of all. The place was lively and had new rides and bright neon lights. It made me resolve to return and take a spin on the Wonder Wheel after all . Maybe visit No. 6 isn't too far away.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What I'll (Never Again) Do for Cheesecake

I did something stupid on Friday.

I waited in line for three hours for a slice of cheesecake. Scratch that. For half a slice of cheesecake.

I feel like there must have been a psychology student somewhere nearby, tracking my motions. Actually, I hope there was. At least then I could say my mistake was for the good of science.

Here's the story:

I heard earlier in the week that Junior's, my favorite purveyor of cheesecake, was selling 60 cent slices on Friday in honor of its 60th anniversary. It's right around the corner from Paul's work and on my way home, so we agreed to meet and get a piece.

I got there about 6:30 p.m., and Paul was already in line, about three-quarters of a block away from the entrance.

"Is there a celebrity in there or something?" a woman in a cab outside the restaurant yelled to us suckers in line.

By 7, Paul was ready to go home sans cheesecake, but I wanted to hold out. A half hour later, I was the once who wanted to leave, but Paul thought we could make it. Surely it wouldn't be too much longer.

We were invested. We weren't the only ones. People started getting in fights with the guard letting a few people into the restaurant at a time. Paul called him the bouncer.

Yes, we got our cheesecake. At 9 p.m.

I made sure to enjoy each and every bite when I got home that night. Time included, I think it was the most expensive cheesecake I'd ever purchased.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Columbus and Its Search for a Slogan

Not long after I started my job in New York, I had a short email correspondence about a work-related matter with a woman I had never met. I noticed a 614 area code in the signature of her email, and I asked if she lived in Columbus. Yes, she responded. In fact, she lived down the street from one of my favorite Columbus restaurants.

Turns out she had just moved there from Boston. Her friends in Massachusetts, however, wondered why she would ever want to move to Ohio. I don't remember if I ever found out the reason that she moved there, but I do remember that she was enjoying the city.

I recalled those emails this past weekend when I read an article on page A13 of Saturday's New York Times. "There May Be 'No Better Place,' but There Is a Better Slogan" is about the efforts of Columbus to brand itself.

The first two paragraphs of the article meshes with my own experience:

Quick, what do you think about when you hear the words 'Columbus, Ohio'?

Still waiting. ... And that’s the problem that civic leaders here hope to solve.

When I say I'm from Ohio, let alone Columbus, no one knows quite what to think. If they know anything about the state, it usually has to do with college football, but they're almost as likely to confuse the state with Iowa or Idaho.

As the article says, Columbus doesn't have an image. (A slogan, yes -- albeit a boring and highly debatable one: "There's No Better Place.") That's unfortunate, because Columbus is a great city, and I often miss it for reasons beyond it being the home of so many friends and family. Good food. Gallery Hop. Shakespeare in the Park. Grocery stores with wide aisles.

It's all so accessible.

Which, I suppose, isn't the most exciting slogan either.


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