Thursday, February 19, 2009

Much More Than An Infatuation

Sticking with the theme of addiction: This past weekend I traveled to that oh-so-exotic land of New York City. As a student of limited money and means, I booked myself a $35 ticket on the Chinatown bus. Having only taken it once before with a Manhattan native en route to the city from Baltimore, this was my first time braving it alone. I made sure to pack extremely light, with only my timbuk2 bag and a purse crisscrossed over my shoulders. This was an anomaly for me, seeing as I'm the most indecisive person when it comes to packing- I feel as if I should be ready for anything, including the possibility of being stranded on the side of the road...or a freak nuclear holocaust. However, this time I wanted to make sure that I could manage the long walks that I'd most likely encounter since I had a track record of getting lost in the city, (this includes a time when I expected to take the subway to Soho, but managed to get stuck in Queens asking people how I could find my way back to Central, you can't walk to Central Park from Queens).
As a precursor to this post: I'm pleased very easily, and I very easily find myself in awkward situations. Over the expanse of one weekend, I was able to indulge in enough of these that I thought some were only worth mentioning if I couldn't bring you along with me...

In Baltimore, for me, cycling is almost a form of art- it's a statement to everyone you pass by in their cars. "Look at you lazy bums, stuck in traffic on your way home from work when you could be getting your ass into gear on an inexpensive means of clean transportation?" I almost feel bad in a way, myself. I have yet to master the utility of my bike so that it is my primary means of travel. I still manage to walk or take the bus wherever I go, only to be swept with guilt when I see someone gliding down St. Paul Street with one pant leg rolled up and their bag strapped firmly to their torso. Even moreso in New York City, it seems that your bicycle is a natural and necessary way of traversing through life. Taxis are astronomically expensive, and even the subway can be a hassle if you don't have extra cash to pay for your metrocard that week. In a city where everything costs twice as much as anywhere else, your bike is your best friend. It gets you to work, and even the grocery store. Around dinner time you spot people riding back from Trader Joe's, a carrier poised on their handlebars filled with wholesome, posh city food. (Because to me, all food in the city is classy...even the pizza. Please read ahead for more on the matter.)

Everybody in New York seems as if they were born with the "skinny gene"(...not the ones you wear...although there are a lot of men who like to sport them in all their skinny-legged glory and to the embarrassment of people like me who can't fit into the same pants a man can). This image fascinates me...the skinny people, not the skinny male legs. New Yorkers have the largest stash of scrumptious food at their beckoning, but somehow they manage to strut down the sidewalk only taking up their share with healthy grace and poise.

In turn, they have to replenish their energy from all that walking/riding, and what better way than to dive into the best cup of coffee you can possibly imagine? Coffee exists in every nook-and-cranny of the city. This and cigarettes seem to be a permanent accessory on every New York individual. I must admit that I felt particularly secure whenever I was totting my coffee cup in hand and perusing/getting slightly lost in various neighborhoods of Union Square. Here are a few places that I suggest to grab a perfect cup, whether you're looking to get in and out, or would rather sit and enjoy a book or the conversations of those nearby.

The Grey Dog Cafe: This place was packed when I went for a late lunch at 3:30pm. It was a Saturday, so that probably didn't help. If you go, be ready to wait in line...but the coffee, characters, and friendly service were well worth the wait.

(Photo courtesy of

Ceci-Cela Patisserie and Balthazar Bakery: both steam their cream WITH the coffee, perfectly infusing the two. When you step into the Balthazar Bakery, the walls glow a warm gold, and the shelves are lined with loaves of freshly-baked bread. This combination is the perfect selling point and definitely worked when I convinced myself on a previous city expedition with my sister to buy and inhale a loaf that had cranberries, sunflower seeds, raisins, and walnuts. yum.

(courtesy of

(Photo courtesy of

Tonnie's Minis: I didn't afford myself the chance to try one of these colorful cupcakes, but by the looks of two men walking out with a giant box of them, they seemed like a foody's dream. By far my favorite food porn of the weekend.

At the end of each evening, after a couple glasses of wine, I couldn't help myself- food was on the brain. New York pizza is famous. I had never thought twice about this factoid until Friday night when we stopped into a random pizzeria and I picked out the last few singles left in my coat pocket to trade for a single slice of mushroom pizza. The cheese was still gooey and when I took the first bite, it was as if God himself had enveloped those mushrooms into the crust to create a perfect fusion that lit up my taste buds...that is until the following night when we had Arturo's pizza. I'm not one to be a fan of the thin crust. However, Arturo's uses a coal oven to cook their pies, which leaves a nice smokey dusting on the crust's edge. Topped with a range of veggies and cheese, this was by far the culinary apex to a very satisfying weekend.

As much as I enjoy doting over nyc, there are things that can throw you out of whack. For me, this particular issue is subway navigation. When you're running from one subway stop to another and you're trying to keep up with the natural fast pace of things, mistakes are made, including this particular slip-up when I was looking to catch the number 2 train up to Harlem. En route to my next destination, I still had my luggage with me. Across the street I spotted it in the distance, a subway stop with the numbers "1, 2, 3" posted right above the stairwell. Caught up in my sheer luck at finding the right stop so quickly, I strolled down the stairs, distracted by the people who had just walked out of the subway car that was parked ahead of the turnstile. Hoping to catch it, I quickly swiped my metrocard, walked through the turnstile...then it hit me in the face. I stood there perplexed, like a deer in the headlights, for a moment. There was a black gate closed in front of the turnstile and I was stuck between the bar and the gate. Apparently, the NY City transportation authority likes to close down certain subway stops on the weekends when traffic isn't as frequent. Little do they know that tourists like myself are stupid enough to think they can traverse up and down Manhattan island with no complications whatsoever. Standing there in my yellow coat and bright red bag, I felt like I might as well have been wearing a string of Christmas lights to attract the attention of everybody walking out of that subway. Avoiding as much eye contact as possible, I not-so-gracefully straddled the locked turnstile in my skirt and tights and hopped back over to safety. Besides the fact that I felt everybody along the 34th street block could recognize me as the girl who walked through a closed subway turnstile, I had this fleeting thought that security officers would track me down for jumping it (if this fear has not yet entered your mind, watch the movie "The Visitor" and you'll understand why).

(above: a much friendlier subway station in Brooklyn on Sunday morning. I've never seen mosaics with relief work inside like these! The one with a relief face particularly caught my interest and reminded me of A Christmas Carol where the door knocker becomes Marley's face.)

However, I quickly recovered and ended up finding a cup of coffee to calm my nerves back to normal. It was almost comforting to realize that I could endure an embarrassment of that nature and know that in a few minutes, I would never see those people again. I could easily blend in with the bustle; I could retain a sense of privacy while still being amongst so many people. I felt like the city was a loyal dog- no matter how fast or slow things became, there was a faithful buzz of personalities and places to keep you going.

...On Sunday afternoon, I boarded the Chinatown bus back to Baltimore. Rather than leaving me exhausted, New York gave me a slight spark of energy. Walking amidst an ever-lively population had made me that much more excited to go outside and see what I could run into during day (turnstiles aside). Things suddenly felt too quiet when I sat in my seat and the bus drove off.
As I grabbed my bag out of the shuttle at Lafayette Street and stepped off the curb, I noticed that there were no cyclists swerving around the corner with a waft of food coming from their handlebar baskets, and there were only a select few taxis that rode through the intersection. The only people on the sidewalks were an older couple on their way to dinner. When I got back to campus and keyed into my room, the flourescent lights penetrated my vision. I immediately turned on NPR to fill the silence that was no longer the reliable company of people and conversations around me.

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