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Monthly Archives: June 2014

Law And Order, K.A.W.

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So this is the story of how I helped arrest two credit card fraudsters.

In my early 20’s, I worked with an entrepreneur who ran a gift delivery start-up business. We had a catalog with a selection of 20 nice-quality “New York-y” gifts which we left in hotel rooms, and had a pre-wrapped selection of all 20 in our office. The idea was that business travelers without time to shop for souvenirs could peruse our catalog and place an order, and we’d bring it to their hotel’s front desk, all wrapped and ready to go, so it’d be waiting when they checked out the next morning.  The desk clerk would have them sign for their purchase upon checkout and send us the signed receipt after.

Cool idea, but one that was slow to take off. We were always a little financially tenuous, and a lot of my days at work it was just me and my boss, Bill, sitting there looking at each other for eight hours.

So when I took a call for an order from a guy who wanted three pricey watches, Bill and I were both very excited.  “We can absolutely do that for you, sir,” I said, grinning as I took the call.  “They’ll be waiting at the desk when you check out.”

“Actually, can you bring them to us right away?” the guy asked.  “We’re with a record label and about to go to a business meeting, and wanted to have gifts for the clients.  We’ll be in the lobby waiting for you and you can bring them right to us.”

Bill was listening on the other line and nodded hugely.  “Absolutely,” I said.  “I’ll bring them over myself!” We practically did a Snoopy dance when I hung up – a sale of three watches would triple our takings so far that month – it would cover a months’ rent on the office and then some. He stuffed the watches into one of our shopping bags as I typed up our sales slip, stapled it to the bag when he handed it to me, and scurried to the hotel, only ten blocks away.

Two guys waved me over when I got to the hotel – one a big burly African-American guy with very dark skin, dressed all in black, and a white guy with a beard and hair down to his chest, in a vaguely 80’s suit. They looked “music executive” enough to me, for sure, and I handed over the bag with a grin, gushing thanks again.  They thanked me, and we all walked out and went our separate ways when we got to the sidewalk.  I didn’t realize until later when Bill asked me – after we’d celebrated again upon my return – that I’d forgotten to get their signature on the receipt.  Bill chided me a second, but then let it go – “never mind, that’s usually the desk clerk’s job,” he said.  He was in too good a mood.

The guys called back the next day.  “Thanks for the watches! The client loved them.”

“Oh, you’re very welcome, sir!” I chirped, signalling to Bill that this was them again. “Can I help you with anything today?”

“You can, yes,” he said, and I gave Bill a big thumbs’ up.  “We’re having an even bigger meeting today, so can we have….seven more watches?”

Seven watches?” I repeated, more for Bill’s benefit than mine.  “Absolutely.”

“And you have these necklaces….can you throw in two?  We’re gonna cheat and get presents for our girlfriends on the corporate card.”

I laughed along with him.  “Absolutely sir,” I said, holding up the two necklaces to show Bill.

“And can you meet us in the lobby again?  Will it be the same person as last time?”

“Yes, it’ll be me again.  I’ll see  you shortly.”  I’d been typing the order up as we talked, and Bill had been packing with a grin – two bags this time. He handed them to me as I hung up, and I printed out the receipt and set out again. Saw the same two guys in the lobby again, and walked the bags over.  This time, I remembered – “I’m sorry, gentlemen; I forgot to get this from you last time and I got in a little trouble, so could I just get you to sign the receipt here?”

They frowned.  “Oh, our signature’s on file with the front desk.  We don’t need to.”

“Uh…er, I see, but we’re not actually affiliated with the hotel, so – ”

“It doesn’t matter,” the white guy said. “We left a copy of our signature with the front desk and that automatically covers anything we order here.”

“….Does it?” I asked, uncertainly.  I’d never heard of this, but I also wasn’t used to staying in four-star hotels.

“A lot of places do it that way,” the black guy insisted. Then sneered a bit; “I’m actually surprised you’ve never heard of it.”

“Yeah, just tell your boss to check the hotel file.”

I reluctantly gave in; it sounded fishy, but they were persuasively confident, and I was only 24. I thanked them again, and walked back to the office, still a bit uneasy.

Surprisingly, Bill also looked uneasy when I walked in. Before I could tell him about the signature-on-file thing, he asked, “Did you run into any trouble on the way there?”

“Huh?”

“Did you stop anywhere along the way or did you go straight there?”

– Oh, great, I thought, – first the customers are on my back and now Bill is. “No, I went straight there. Why?”

“They called about fifteen minutes after you left,” Bill said, frowning. “They sounded kind of nervous and asked why you hadn’t gotten there yet and if you were on your way.”

“Well, it was a ten-block walk, Bill…”

“Yeah, that’s true.  …They still seemed awfully nervous.  How about the receipt?”  I told him what they’d told me about the signature being on file, realizing as I told him just how ridiculous it sounded.  We looked at each other.  “…Something sounds really wrong about this, doesn’t it?” Bill asked me.  “Tell you what – what card did they use?  I’ll call their fraud office and see whether we’re just being paranoid.”

I hovered by his desk as he called them, correcting one or two points in our report.  The card company said that our account “strongly suggested” a case of fraud, and suggested we call the hotel’s security office to see if the guys could be kept there.  “We’ll put someone on that now,” Bill said, gesturing to me to call them.

Hotel security put me on hold while they checked on the room.  Bill was off the phone by the time they came back, giving us the bad news that their room was empty.  “But we can call the police and we can all wait for them,” they said.  “Can someone from your office come by?”  Bill nodded, hearing them on speakerphone, and started getting his jacket. It was nearly five, but I told Bill I’d wait at the office as long as need be.

Bill called from the hotel about fifteen minutes later.  “Hi, Kim – so, remind me, you saw the guys, right?”

“Yes.”

“That’s what I thought – the police think you should come up here too, because that makes you an eyewitness.”

I swallowed very hard.  “Oh.  …But…the office…”

“Don’t worry about that,” Bill said, chuckling a bit.  “Just come on by.”  I swallowed hard again, got my purse and made the scary walk to the hotel.

Bill met me in the lobby and brought me to a back room where three plainclothes cops were manning a couple desk phones. They showed me their badges when they introduced themselves, but were all dressed in casual-tourist mode; the sergeant even had on a Hawaiian shirt.  For the next hour I sat there with them; one was on the phone to the credit card company, trying to track down the card’s legitimate owner (“we want to confirm that this wasn’t just their Aunt Ethyl letting them use her card on purpose”), the other was alternately checking in with the station house and with hotel security, waiting for the guys to come back. The third took my statement, getting a more detailed description of the guys from me. Bill was in and out of the room every few minutes, first hovering around the desk where I sat and listening to my statement (and giving one of his own, at his insistence) and then flitting back to talk to the front desk and hotel security in person.

We did get through to the cardholder – who confirmed that she had not authorized anyone to use her card – but waited in vain for the crooks.  “Well, what we can do,” said the sergeant, “is try to catch them early tomorrow morning – tomorrow’s Saturday, so maybe they’ll sleep a little later and if we come to their room early enough we can get them.  So – Miss, what’s your address?”

“Wha?”

“We’ll need you when we do that,” the sergeant explained.  “You saw them, so we’ll need you when we make our arrest to confirm the identification.”  He saw me going pale.  “Don’t worry – you would be under police escort the whole time.  That’s why we need your address – we’ll send a squad car down to your apartment and pick you up, and we’ll even drop you off back at home after.  You’ll be perfectly safe.”

“….okay…”

We set up a time for my pickup the next day; Bill made one last check with hotel security and then came back to join me, and we all walked out of the hotel together.  The cops turned back towards their station, and Bill and I turned south, back towards our office. My head was swimming with the rush of activity during the past hour, and the thought that I was not only have to get up early on a Saturday, but that I was going to have a police escort for something.  It was surreal.  Bill saw my unease and tried cracking a couple jokes as we walked, to take my mind off things; I was starting to smile and laugh with him on the next block.

And then I saw the crooks pass us on the sidewalk.

They were smiling and joking to themselves as well. I froze my face in the grin I was wearing from Bill’s last joke, and willed myself not to panic when the white guy looked right at me and a flash of recognition crossed his face for a second. I made myself nod politely – nice day we’re having, stranger – and willed myself to stay calm.

Bill had also gone quiet. But then when we got about twenty feet away he grabbed my elbow hard. “That was them, wasn’t it.” He’d heard my eyewitness description too many times.

Yes.”

He pushed me at a payphone to our right.  “Call the cops and get them back,” he hissed. “I’ll follow them back to the hotel and make sure they don’t leave.” And he turned and speedwalked back up the street behind me.

We had only just parted ways with the cops three minutes before, so they hadn’t even returned to the station yet. I spent a panicked five minutes screaming into the payphone – “Sergeant HENDERSON! I need to speak to Sergeant HENDERSON! He already knows what this is about!  Send him back to the hotel! RADIO HIM or use the WALKIE-TALKIES or something!” I screeched.  By the time they calmed me down, Sergeant Henderson and company had returned – and whoever I was speaking to was no doubt grateful to put him on the phone with me. “YES!  Sergeant Henderson!  THEY’RE AT THE HOTEL!  We passed them on the street and Bill’s followed them and – ”

“Where are you now? Stay there,” he interrupted.  “I’ll pick you up.”

I hung up and stood on the sidewalk, quivering with nerves, jumping every time I saw a squad car.  I nearly missed Sergeant Henderson when he pulled up a minute later in a yellow cab and waved at me – it wasn’t until he held up a big placard with the NYPD insignia on it that I realized it was him.

Bill was by the hotel elevators when we got there, and bounded over like a puppy.  “I’ve been watching the elevators!” he crowed. “I saw them get on one and go up but they haven’t come down!  They’re definitely up there!”

“…Thank you for that,” Sergeant Henderson said, bemused. Bill was grinning like a little boy playing the best cops-and-robbers game ever. I, meanwhile, was totally petrified – Sergeant Henderson told me that we were going to try arresting them now, which meant they’d need me on hand to “point the finger” at them.  Which meant I would be in the same room with the guys I was saying needed to be arrested.  Eek.

Three more cops showed up, with the head of hotel security in tow.  “Okay, this is it,” Sergeant Henderson said, looking around at us all; me last.  “Ready?” he asked.  I nodded, swallowing hard.  The cops fell into step on either side of me, and brought me onto the elevator – and Bill jumped on along with us. We all stared at him. “Uh, Bill, how about this,” Sergeant Henderson said.  “How about you stay down here in the lobby and keep watching the elevators?  We need you to make sure they don’t get past us.”

“Oh! Good idea!” Bill chirped. He leapt out and took up a position in the dead center of the elevator bank, immediately taking up scanning each approaching elevator car.  He flashed us a big grin and a thumbs-up as our door closed. The cops all chuckled to themselves at him as we rode up; “a little excited, ya think?” one quipped.

The head of hotel security had their room number – it was down at the extreme end of the hall. But he held us at the elevator when we got off.  “Lemme call their room and make sure they’re still in there,” he said, picking up the lobby phone.  After what sounded like only two rings, he spoke in a hideous English accent – “I’ve got the wrong number, chaps, so terribly sorry.”   He hung up, nodding. “Yep, they’re there.”

I was too busy marveling at the fakeness of his accent to notice the cops all gathering themselves to move, but when they started down the hall, I followed obediently, close enough at their heels to overhear one cop reminding the others to “don’t forget they may have guns.”

“I’ll stay behind until you need me then, shall I?” I said, stopping right were I stood.  I could come into the room, I could look them in the eye and point them out, but guns? Nope.

The cops had all stopped too.  “Oh, sorry, yeah, you should probably stay out here.” They guided me to one side of the hall, standing in the doorway to a different room.  “Don’t worry – we’ll go in first and make sure the room’s safe.  When everything’s safe, we’ll let you know we’re ready; then you just come in and I.D. them.  Okay?”

“….okay.”

“Don’t worry,” the head of security said.  “You’re a good 20 feet from their room here.” But he saw my worried face and glanced across the hall; it was room number 7.  “Actually, let’s have you wait in front of this door,” he said, guiding me to that doorway with a wink.  “It’s a lucky number.”  And after one last smile, he joined the cops on the long walk down to the room.  I watched them cluster around the doorknob; watched the head of security unlock the door; watched them bang the door open and storm in.  “Hi, we need to talk to you guys, got a sec?” one cop said as he disappeared into the room and the door clicked shut behind him.

I was only waiting about two minutes, but it was an interminable two minutes. I’d forgotten the guys had been affable enough before; this was different, now I knew they were crooks.  They were crooks that I was going to help arrest.  Crooks that I was going to be in the same room with and who would be standing there listening when I pointed at them and said that they were crooks.  Crooks who might have guns in the room where I was about to point at them and say they were crooks…

I suspect that the two square feet of carpet in front of room 7 on the 15th floor of that particular hotel has since been ever so slightly thinner than the rest of the hallway, due to my pacing.

Finally one of the cops poked his head out into the hallway.  “C’mon in,” he called, waving me down.  I did, walking fast – I was terrified, but just wanted to get it over with.  I barely looked at the room – I just got a sense of unmade beds, two cops rifling through bureaus, and two other cops holding the crooks to one side, holding them with hands behind their backs.  The crooks looked at me uneasily when I came in.  “So, these guys took merchandise from you on two occasions, right?” One of the cops asked me.

“….Uh-huh.”

“Which one did you specifically give the merchandise to each time?”

“Uh…” I wasn’t expecting that.  “Well…I don’t really remember the first time, but that guy” – I pointed a trembling hand – “that guy took it today.  But they were both there both times,” I added.

“You’re sure?”

“Yes.” I nodded.  “They were both there both times, and this guy is the one I definitely handed the bag to today.”

“Great. Thank you very much, you can go down to the lobby and wait for us a minute.”

“…okay.”  I hesitated a split second – wasn’t someone going to escort me? – then walked back to the elevator in a daze.

Bill pounced when he saw me get off the elevator.  “Did you get ’em?”  I nodded. “YES!” he crowed.  “Oh, this is great!  Are they still up there?  What was it like, were they in handcuffs? And you pointed them out?” I nodded again. “Oh gosh, they’re going to walk them out through the lobby! In cuffs!  To embarrass them!”

A few moments later, that’s exactly what they did. One of the elevators dinged open and the cops walked out in a knot, two of them guiding the two handcuffed crooks out through the lobby and to the front door, past the other visitors; all of them turning to watch and gape as they passed. The white guy, crestfallen, looked at me one more time.  I just stared back, but Bill was crowing ecstatically and clapping me on the back.  “We got ’em! Look at that, we GOT ‘EM!”

Sergeant Henderson had peeled off to talk to us, and bore Bill’s excited congratulations well.  “Yes, we did get ’em,” he said patiently.  Then turned to me. “So, thank you very much, you did great.  Are you okay?”

“…I think so, yeah.” The adrenalin was wearing off.  “I’m still a little freaked out, but…yeah.”

“You did great,” he repeated.  “So – can we keep your info in case we need you to give a statement?”

“Oh, sure.”

“Okay…” he was scribbling in a notepad.  “And…if we need you to testify before the grand jury, would you be willing to?”

“Uh?” I blinked.  “Uh, when would that be?”

“Don’t know,” he said.  “It may not even happen.  But sometimes we do need witnesses to testify before the grand jury when we make our initial arrest.  Would you be willing to do that?”

“Uh…yeah, sure, whatever you need.”

“Okay, great.  We’ll let you know if we need that.” he snapped his pad shut.  “Well, thank you again.  You should be fine getting home, now – don’t worry, you saw we have the guys in custody, they’re not gonna get out.” (Yeah, we saw that!” Bill crowed again.)  “We also are pretty sure they were acting alone, so you should be fine.”

“…okay.”

I still looked a bit freaked out, so Bill gave me money for a cab.  I think he even hailed it for me; I was still somewhat dazed and don’t really remember. I do remember Bill shaking my hand a lot and saying “we got ’em!” over and over as I was getting into the cab.  I also don’t remember much of the cab ride home, either; or much of the walk up the two flights to my apartment. I don’t even remember my cat Zach coming to meet me at the door. The next thing I clearly remember, in fact, is that once I’d finally gotten a safe distance inside my apartment, I dropped my bag, let out the scream I’d been suppressing for two solid hours, and then called a friend and told them to come by and “bring plenty of alcohol because I need to be very drunk and you would not BELIEVE why.”

Bella Gelato

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A year ago I splurged on a trip to Italy; mostly to Rome, with a two-day side trip to Florence.

And I returned a gelato fiend. It’s kind of hard not to get a taste for the stuff when it is literally everywhere – Rome and Florence are as thickly-gelateria’d as we are with coffee shops here. There are open-front places with takeout windows; dim shops with wood counters that have been there since the 1930’s; pristine white-tiled places where the staff dresses in spotless lab coats.  The places where the gelato is kept sealed in steel tubs is always better than the places where it’s on display in the window in colorful billowing piles.

Because the taste is what you should care about.  “The best way to judge a gelateria,” a chef in Florence told me, “is to look at the color of their banana or their pistachio.” Sometimes you’ll see the banana gelato tinted a garish yellow; but, he pointed out, bananas aren’t yellow on the inside.  Same too with pistachios – they aren’t green.  “If their banana or pistacchio gelato are white or gray,” he said, “it’s a good place. Because they care all about how things taste.”

Same too with sorbets.  I had a double-scoop from one Roman shop, and went with two types of sorbetto — apple and grape, both wedged together in the same cup.  The two were nearly the same color – a couple of different shades of taupe.  Well, apple juice is this color, I thought, and shrugged, and tasted.

The two looked the same, but oh my word, you could certainly taste the difference.

There was one day in Florence I actually hit my personal Peak Gelato.  I had already signed up for a “pizza and gelato class” at a cooking school catering to tourists for that day, but as I began my wandering I discovered that Florence was having its annual gelato festival. All you needed to join in was a festival pass; that offered you five coupons, each of which could be traded in for a free scoop at one of the tents that had been set up in the three main city piazzas; one of the tents was entirely filled with small-batch “artisinal” gelaterias, each trying out exotic new flavors.

I went through three coupons right there. Then a fourth at another tent I came to after some further wandering around Florence. I still had the coupon for the “gelato cocktail” at the end of the night, which sounded sort of like a boozy take on a milkshake. I figured that there would be time for that after the gelato class.

Except the gelato we made in class was really good. Cioccolato fondente – the really dark and bittersweet chocolate that had come to be my crack, with so much cocoa powder in it you could feel the powdery grit on your tongue for a second before the butterfat from the milk smoothed it away.  They let the little kids from the class handle the actual mixing part and had it going in their commercial-grade gelato maker while we ate our pizzas, and then served us huge triple-scoop goblets of the stuff for dessert.  I staggered out after the class, briefly considered tracking down my gelato cocktail, but I honestly felt more like some plain water instead.

I learned a bit of a secret in that class, though – before the gelato portion of the class, I told the chef I had an ice cream maker at home in the US and asked if I could use it for gelato.  Were there many differences in technique? He got a funny look on his face and said “I’ll….explain later.”

When he got to the gelato portion, he nodded to me and said “someone asked me what the difference was between making gelato and making ice cream was.  And the answer is…nothing.” Literally the only difference between gelato and ice cream is the temperature at which they’re served.

My big churn is a bit too unwieldy to use regularly, though – it takes too much time to prep for a batch, and the batches are a bit too big to eat all at once.  But Mr. Shrimp Grits tipped me off to a much smaller ice cream maker, which comes with two separate churns so you can have the means to make a small bowl for yourself all the time. I finally broke down and ordered one, and have been happily churning out sorbetto kiwi and sorbetto amarena and sorbetto fragola for about a week and a half now. The cioccolato fondante will have to wait until there’s a bit more room in the freezer – that is getting a fuller batch.

Steffie’s Day Out

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(This is something I had on Facebook earlier this year. It deserves a wider read.)

It is 6 pm. I have just boarded the F train, transferring from the 6 for my ride home. There are actually a decent number of open seats in the car, and I take one, sitting down in front of a biggish, paunchy man in his late 50’s. He wears a dark brown shearling coat.

He also wears a long blond ringleted wig and a hairband with a fake plastic Minnie-Mouse bow on it.

I study him as we ride, doing the subtle check-someone-out-without-them-knowing-it thing. I can see some kind of little-girl costume peeping out from under the coat, all lace and ruffles and ribbons and blue gingham on the bloomers, for yes, there are bloomers, pulled on over white tights. In one hand he holds a fake giant lollipop, the kind that’s all rainbow swirls. In the other he holds a child’s backpack by the straps, and it dangles between his legs; it is a cherry-fruit-and-leaves print. There’s a Hello Kitty-shaped name tag attached to it with the name “Steffie” written on the back in red ballpoint pen. On his feet are white saddle shoes with black cats’ faces stenciled on each of the toes. He wears a faint trace of lipstick and makeup – not too much, but enough for me to tell that it’s some kind of stage-makeup pancake foundation. The scarf and mittens don’t match; they’re handknit, red marl yarn. He doesn’t really notice me looking; he just glances around him, bored, occasionally trying to read over the shoulder of the woman who sits beside him flipping rapid-fire through the pages of a glossy fashion magazine.

One stop later, at 2nd Avenue, Steffie gets up and leaves the car. I have just enough time to see him on the platform, looking first one direction and then the other, momentarily confused which way to turn, before the doors shut and the subway starts to pull out.

As it does, the woman with the fashion magazine finally looks up and gives me one glance, her eyebrow raised slightly – “you saw that too, right?” her look says – and she goes back to her magazine.

Other than her and me, no one else on the entire subway seems to have even noticed Steffie was even there.

Sometimes New York is amazing.

NEIGHBORHOODS NEW YORK: Neighborhoods I Lived In

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I figured the best way to kick this off is an overview of the neighborhoods in which I’ve actually lived. 

  • East Village; Alphabet City/Loisaida
  • Lower East Side 

Between my years at NYU and the years just after, these are the neighborhoods I lived in longest. 

I grew up in a pretty rural part of Eastern Connecticut; New York City has pretty much been the Shining City On A Hill for me all through junior high and high school.  I would regularly check New York Magazine out of our local library and pore through each issue, trying to absorb just what it would feel like to actually immerse myself in that city.  Ultimately what I had built up in my head was some sort of combination of Woody Allen and Taxi reruns – a city where erudite intellectuals talked about foreign film and exotic food, rubbing elbows with quirky aspiring artists coping with crowded subways and surly-but-kindhearted cabbies. 

I was not prepared for the degree of sheer weirdness you could see on the street. 

I got to New York in the very late 1980’s, literally two weeks after the riot in Tompkins Square Park.   For the first couple years – while the terms of gentrification were being hammered out by the police and the anarchists and artists – I was mostly in the sheltered world of NYU’s dorms, which was probably for the best – I really did need “training wheels” before jumping into New York full bore.  But I was still able to dip my toe into the weird music venues like the now-defunct Bottom Line and CBGB’s, and could still end up at an all-night coffee shop with friends at 4 am debating whether Peanuts could serve as an analog for The Communist Manifesto. Those are the conversations you just have when you’re in college, but the East Village was weird enough, anarchic enough, and permissive enough that you didn’t have to actually be in college to find someone to have them with. The bartender was just as likely to get into it with you.

 And you were also likely to see weirdness for its own sake.  In my very first on-my-own apartment – a basement-level summer sublet shared with three friends, two doors away from a nightclub that had just opened – my roommates and I got used to seeing a couple of drifters on our block; one of whom had fashioned himself a hat out of women’s panty hose with soda bottles jammed into each leg, and one who tied branches to his head.  We called them “Bunny Man” and “Tree Man”.  On another occasion, I saw three men riding a huge tandem bike they’d constructed themselves out of pipes and papier mache to look like an enormous dragonfly.  On still another, I got into line at a movie theater box office behind a man who was wearing a tuxedo to which he’d sewn several dozen plastic forks; he was also riding a unicycle.  I regularly walked by a huge ramshackle tower built in the middle of a community garden – the only motivation its artist had was, as he admitted, he just sort of felt like it. 

I actually got so used to seeing stuff like this that I started ignoring most of what was going on around me lest I end up in a permanent state of slack-jawed wonder.  After seven or so years living there, I was so blinkered that one day out on the street, I actually passed right by Quentin Tarantino – who had apparently looked right at me and said “excuse me” after nearly running into me – and I hadn’t even noticed.  

But I did have my guard up for the dicier things – especially when I moved to the Lower East Side (meaning: I moved from one block north of Houston Street to one block south of it). The gentrification had just started to make its push there, in the early 90’s; my roommate’s parents visited us shortly after we moved in and told friends that “there’s a line between the good and the bad side of the neighborhood, and the apartment is one block over the line into the bad side”.  Our building was on a largely Dominican block and had been just taken over by new management and newly renovated, so a whole influx of kids all moved in at the same time. One of our neighbors told us that they’d been at the Laundromat across the street and struck up a conversation with the owner; when he reported where he lived, the owner said “oh, you live in the building where all the white people live!” 

I’ll admit that the first couple weeks I lived there, I had this mental don’t-fuck-with-me shield up just walking around, until I noticed that the block itself wasn’t actually….that bad.  Yeah, there was that guy that whispered an offer to sell me heroin at 10 am from a stoop once, but there was also Ignacio, the guy who ran the bodega two doors down and who recognized me on the street; and the kids who played in the fire hydrant behind my building and who really dug it when I went out to join them once.  And the lady who ran the Laundromat across the street and the guy who opened that coffee shop on our corner and the doctor who also opened a practice up two doors down from him, and…it was a neighborhood, and I was part of it and I realized that being constantly on my guard was silly.

And I ended up staying on that one block for twelve years.  Long enough to see Ignacio’s shop get replaced by a trendy restaurant, to see most of the small local businesses get pushed out and other trendy places come in…long enough that I could no longer afford to eat in my own neighborhood any more, or trust that the people who lived there knew me or had my back.  My own particular building started being a revolving door of kids who landed, stayed for a year or two, and then moved on.

And the East Village’s weirdness started getting cleaned up too – the tower in the 6th Street Garden got knocked down, the club on East 2nd where Craig Ferguson was once a bouncer got razed and turned into luxury condos, the bar where I came for solace the evening of September 11th got closed, CBGB’s closed and turned into a boutique clothing store.

It’s the nature of New York neighborhoods to move on, but that’s one particular place I wish hadn’t – or at least, that it hadn’t quite so fast.  New York needs a place for its broke weirdos to call home.  But I finally had to move.

  •  Park Slope 

I only lived here for a year, but for a time this was a place that also felt very much like “oh, this was the New York I was looking for”.  I lived in a cramped studio in a graceful building with a boyfriend; things were always stormy between us, so I would often escape to the surrounding neighborhood a lot.  Today the joke about Park Slope is that it’s overrun by lots of families with parents prone to organic diapers and attachment parenting; it was a little more diverse then, with most of the hippie-crunchy activity centered around a health food store I’d sometimes prowl for funky scented perfume oils.  I also hung out at a weekly tag sale that happened at the nearby school on Saturdays, striking up a friendship with one of the neighbors from our building, or would prowl the twee little coffee and tea shop on 7th Avenue, looking for fancy teas.

Or I’d head up to Prospect Park, only a block away from me. I like Prospect Park far better than Central Park; it’s wilder and more free-form, and a bit less trafficked, so I could let my hair down a bit more there (the one and only time I’ve had sex al fresco in New York was in the Vale of Cashmere section at about 10 pm one night.)

I moved out after only a year, though, and by the time I was able to visit again, a lot of the stores I’d seen had suffered the same franchising/gentrifying fate.

  • Clinton Hill/Fort Greene

This is where I am now; it’s an odd little corner of the city – not quite as hipster as Williamsburg, not quite as hyper-family-friendly as Park Slope.  Close to Manhattan geographically, but still with a 20 minute walk to the subway.  It’s still right on the gentrification edge, too – there are some big apartment towers going up.  But you also have two college campuses there keeping the neighborhood spirit young and quirky enough, and enough longtime families trying to keep things safe enough.  And enough longtime residents also trying to put a check on everyone getting too hipster, and enough locavore-foodie types to still nevertheless try to get a couple of good coffee shops in.

I’m a block from the Navy Yard, and sometimes walk home from work around its perimeter, catching the smell of the East River on the breeze (believe it or not, I like that smell).  There are a lot of trees offering shade on my street, there’s a great bar up the street where the owners have sort of adopted me (not what you’re thinking, I mostly show up for their brunch).  I’ve turned up on the street at the block party they throw every Halloween, sometimes in costume and sometimes just to see the costumes of others.   I also joined a meetup run by a local wine store one New Year’s Eve, to go see the annual Midnight Steam Whistle Soundoff at Pratt University Campus, about 10 blocks from  home.  I got into a great conversation with a kid at a coffee shop about gentrification, and also then lamented when that coffee shop closedTed Allen lives in my neighborhood, and I once ran into him while leaving a local liquor store after a thwarted attempt to get cinnamon schnapps for a recipe; I nearly turned back and asked him “well, you’d know where I could find it, any ideas?”  But I left him alone and instead made a point of visiting the local pizzeria he raved about once.  Only just today that I found out the lovely white house on my block I’d been admiring for eight years is on the National Registry of Historic Places; I only knew it as “the house where they have that pear tree which no one is picking the pears from dammit”.  I’ve even got a favorite bookstore.

I can’t speak to how much longer this will be the case – how long things will stay as they are now, or when they’ll make the same change there as they did in the East Village.  But right now, it’s home. 

The Weirdest Bucket List Ever

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So in the interest of having a bit of a sideline pet project (read: getting myself out of the damn house) I hit upon an idea.

New York is big, y’all.  I am reminded of that every time I venture to some corner I haven’t seen before, and pass through these other parts I haven’t seen before and it’s over an hour away and things look completely different and wait, is that a yard, why didn’t I know that there were people with yards in New York…?  I’ve lived here over twenty years, and still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.

So.

I hereby declare that I will now attempt to visit – however briefly – each and every neighborhood in New York City.

For the purposes of record-keeping, I will use Wikipedia’s list as my own; I’ll report back here each time I venture somewhere new.  Sometimes I’ll have a lot to say, sometimes I’m probably gonna take one look and think “nah, not a good idea to venture in further” (or, more likely, “nah, this looks like it’d be boring”).

Let me set up a page and get a checkbox thing going….

 

Ice Cream In Excess

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Last year I went to Italy, and was delighted to discover that I’d unknowingly arrived during the same week that Florence was having its annual gelato festival. And I didn’t discover that fact until having already signed up for a gelato-making class, also in Florence. I spent a whole day wandering around the three piazzas in Florence, sampling the various artisinal flavors my gelato festival pass entitled me to; and then had yet another two scoops of the cioccolato fondente we made in class. In all I’d had about eight scoops over the course of a single day, and joked to friends when I got home that I’d reached my “Peak Gelato”.

…But recently I remembered an even bigger instance of gluttony.

In early 1992, I was wrapping up my senior year of college, living in a dorm a couple blocks from one of the Ben and Jerry’s scoop shops in the East Village. A pair of roommates in our crowd – Kim and Melissa – lived right by the shop, and they were the ones who heard about a very particular contest – Ben and Jerry’s was challenging all comers to tackle their “Vermonster” sundae. Anyone who did so – either alone or as part of a group – would have their name put into a drawing for a basket of prizes at each shop, and the winner at each shop was then eligible for the grand prize – a tour of the Ben and Jerry’s plant.

They pitched the idea to the rest of us. We were foodies – what’s more, we were college students. “This’ll be easy!” Kim said.  “There’s six of us, we can polish off the whole thing no problem!”  And we were indeed able to round up all six of our usual crowd – Kim and Melissa, Kim’s boyfriend Chris, our friend Ian and his girlfriend Shannon, and me.

We all met in the lobby of the dorm Ian and I were both in, and walked over to the scoop shop together; confident we had strength in numbers.  “Hey, I know a great place we could get tacos after,” Kim said at some point.  “We’ll still be hungry!”

We walked in, and Shannon and Melissa got us a booth while the rest of us marched up to the counter. “We’d like to have the Vermonster!” we said, proudly.

All three of the girls behind the counter turned to look at us, grinning in surprise.  “You’re sure?”

“Yep!”

Two of the girls laughed, while the third started grabbing scoops.  “Okay, then,” she said, chuckling herself.  The rest of us went to put our coats and such down in the booth while she was assembling her tools.  “Okay, time for your first challenge,” she began, as we wandered back up to the counter. “You need to pick your flavors.”  

And then she brought a plastic bucket out from under the counter, about the size of a child’s sand pail, and stood expectantly, scoop in one hand and the bucket in the other, preparing to start making up our sundae.

Oh my.

The Vermonster consisted of twenty scoops of ice cream, she told us, patiently enduring us debating the combinations of flavors. As we settled on one flavor or another, she would take a scoop or two – depending on our decision – and drop it into the bucket. Once we’d settled on that, she then added four sliced-up bananas, a whole pack of M&M’s, three crushed-up chocolate chip cookies, an entire crumbled-up brownie, a cup of chopped walnuts, an entire cup of hot fudge sauce, and an entire cup of strawberry sauce, and then she blanketed the entire thing with a two-inch-thick layer of whipped cream before dropping a single cherry on top.  “Six spoons, right?” she said, pushing it towards us with a grin.

Oh my.

Chris brought it to the table where the rest of us were waiting, and we gave it a split’s-second nervous glance before one of us impulsively grabbed the cherry and popped it into their mouth. Then we laughed, grabbed our spoons and dove in.

We were there for an hour and a half. The whole time, other customers were walking by and gawking at us, sometimes prompted by the girls behind the counter – but sometimes they just caught sight of the mound in front of us and asked, eyes boggling, “what the hell is that?”  “Are you really going to eat that whole thing?” One man asked us, astounded.  We just chirped back, confidently, that yes we were.  The first couple times that people spoke to us, we repeated our plan to get tacos after.

But then Ian’s girlfriend dropped out after only 20 minutes, pleading that she was full. Melissa soon joined her, and Kim hung in for another half hour before she too sat back in defeat. The longer we hung in, the more time we let pass between spoonfuls. Towards the end, Ian and Chris and I were the only ones still eating; I was starting to get a very uncomfortably full feeling was trying not to think of Mr. Creosote from Monty Python’s Meaning Of Life movie. Chris and Ian were looking similarly sick. But we were determined to finish.  At the end, we were pouring slugs of water into the bucket and mixing it into the melting slag at the bottom, trying to thin it out to the point that someone could drink it.

Finally we got to a point where we could see bottom and we figured the puddle was small enough that we could realistically call ourselves finished.  “Done!” we called to the girls behind the counter.  Chris slowly walked to the counter with the bucket, so our claim could be verified; then the rest of us slowly got up and each filled out the entry blanks for the contest.  Kim asked if she could keep the bucket, and we waddled off into the night.

“We don’t want tacos any more, do we?” Kim asked. No, the rest of us said, we did not.  We decided to just head back to Ian’s room at the dorm; but once we’d fussed with signing everyone in at the front desk, we didn’t even have the energy to get onto the elevator. Instead we all shuffled into one of the empty lounges in the lobby, where we sat on the floor with our backs to the wall, having the kind of conversation that you can only have when your brain is wired on sugar but your body is busy trying to metabolize over two thousand calories of butterfat.  After about two hours we started getting unsteadily to our feet, hoping we’d digested enough for everyone to head to their own homes; Ian and his girlfriend wobbled to the elevator while Kim, Chris, and Melissa wandered back out the door, the bucket still clutched in Kim’s hand.  I followed Ian and Shannon in a second elevator; I think I even sat on the floor there as well.

I don’t know how anyone else slept that night.  I slept very long.

For a few weeks we’d forgotten all about it, save for occasionally cracking jokes about ice cream and tacos to each other. Then one afternoon I came home from classes to find a message from the scoop shop – I had been that location’s winner for the Vermonster challenge drawing.  After laughing a solid two minutes, I called the others to give them the news, and went to collect my reward.  

The same girls gave me a gorgeous wooden apple basket filled with Vermont food products – cheddar cheese, a box of Common Crackers, salsa from a Vermont manufacturer, a couple different kinds of cookies, some peanut brittle, and a jar of Ben and Jerry’s hot fudge sauce. There was also some Ben and Jerry’s swag like a t-shirt, travel mug, and a copy of their cookbook. I shared some of the food with the gang over the next few weeks, and we sometimes showed people the recipe for “The Vermonster” in the cookbook so they’d realize the scope of our achievement; but otherwise I kept everything for myself. A couple months later, when I finally graduated, one of my first acts was to buy an ice cream maker so I could finally try some of the recipes (“cooooool, I can make my own Cherry Garcia!”)

That was 20 years ago, and I’ve lost touch with nearly everyone. But last I heard, Kim still has the bucket and uses it as kitchen storage – it can hold a ten-pound bag of rice, she told me once. I’ve long since gotten a bit too big for the t-shirt, and turned it into a reuseable grocery bag; the apple basket holds a big collection of knitting projects-in-process. I lost the travel mug in one of my moves. But the book I still have, and fall back on it every year – I’m gearing up to make a batch of their kiwi sorbet this week, in fact.

But only a pint. There really is such a thing as too much.

Little-Known Universal Laws

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(The busy-ness in my life is ramping up, and when that happens I get a bit punchy and try to have fun.)

There are some things which scholars would state are universally-agreed-upon constants (or at least, are so close as to being thus as to make no difference): gravity, the inevitability of death and taxes, clowns being deeply creepy on some level, etc.  I maintain that equally as true are the ones we each come up with on our own; we just don’t do a good job of publicizing them.

Here, then, is the first in what I hope will be an occasional ongoing series of lists of universal constants which are just as true, but just aren’t well known.

  • The song Low Rider is a cure for earworms. Think of it when you are trying to rid yourself of another song – it’s assertive enough that it will interrupt the cycle, but it will resist lingering in your head its own self. It is the universal solvent for shit stuck in your head.
  • If Paul McCartney takes the stage in an arena or stadium or some other similarly large venue, he will play “Hey Jude” at some point in the evening.
  • No human being should walk past a lemonade stand set up by a group of kids without buying anything. Only cases of extreme destitution are exempt.
  • Even though they’re supposedly metaphoric, the lyrics to the song “MacArthur Park” make absolutely no damn sense.
  • One from an old roommate – say you leave the house for the day, then have to turn back because you realize you forgot something.  Then you leave a second time and have to turn back again because you realize you forgot something else.  If you leave and then have to turn back a third time, that is a sign you should give up and stay home.
  • One should never, ever underestimate the ability of people to be really, really stupid.
  • There is no in-between state between the temperature of your shower being “a little too cold” and “skin-peelingly hot”.