Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A Long, Long Weekend in NYC (Pt 1)

There is no place on earth quite like New York City. It possesses an indescribable energy that derives from a unique mish-mash of concentrated humanity and vibrant history.

To truly get to know New York City would require a lifetime of experience. Even then it would still be impossible to eat at every restaurant, see all the shows and take in the incredible diversity of culture, not only in Manhattan, but in all the boroughs, too. Regardless of that fact, I wanted to do it all and I only had one weekend. I’d apparently have to hurry.

To help me with the Herculean task of fitting as much of New York as humanly possible into a single weekend, I drew on the services of a few special individuals. My sister Beth is a regular visitor to NYC. She volunteered to be my primary guide. Her friend Allison, an actor who has written her own guide to the city that is almost as widely used as the Zagat, was flying in for a day and agreed to join us. And, Beth’s friend Todd, who was living in New York at the time, felt he was up to it as well.

The plan had been to arrive at La Guardia at 4 PM Wednesday and start off with a big dinner in the city. Unfortunately, the friendly skies weren’t, so instead we arrived at our rental apartment somewhat haggard around 11 PM. Luckily, Beth had chosen our base camp carefully. It was a funky little 5th floor apartment on 4th between Bowery and Lafayette, straddling Greenwich Village and the East Village. That meant we were close to all the hipster action, but also happened to put us directly above the Bowery Bistro where that night I devoured a double cut pork chop the size of New York State. Add in a few cocktails and some red wine and our trip had officially begun.

We started off Thursday at a café in Greenwich that has no name (how NY is that?). All I can tell you is that it has yellow awnings and is located at the corner of Bleeker and MacDougal. Oh, it also happens to be one of the few places around that sells Intelligentsia coffee. Absolutely brilliant! I started each day with two of their large lattes. Hey, if you’re not going to sleep, you’ve got to have a contingency plan.

Allison met us at the café and led our group out to Brooklyn where we spent the afternoon haunting old foundries and antique shops. We followed our day of wacko discovery with dinner at an equally eclectic restaurant called Freeman’s, nestled away at the end of Freeman’s Alley on the Lower East Side. It’s an exceedingly low-profile restaurant that boasts a taxidermist's dream of a dining room. The food and atmosphere were fantastic, but the true highlight was the “devils on horseback”, or as I call them “heaven on a toothpick”. Imagine prunes stuffed with Stilton cheese wrapped in bacon and grilled until crispy and drizzled with some sort of wine reduction. Sounds bizarre, but tastes magnificent.

With bellies full of fun, we bode adieu to Allison, and went for a wander through the stores and bars of Greenwich. The standout for me was a place called “Cake Shop”. It’s a cool record store in the back, with a full cake shop in the front, and a bar in the basement. How perfect is that? I mean, I can’t count how many times I’ve been in a record store, flipping through the vinyl, when I get a hankerin’ for a big piece of cake. And, no sooner have I finished the cake when I get a crave on for some live music and a few drinks. How did they know?

Our next stop was the Bowery Ballroom, recently voted one of the top 40 live music venues in the country by PASTE magazine. It’s one of my favorite venues because of the incredible sound and great sight lines, a perfect combination for this evening’s show which featured Earl Greyhound. The Earls are a three piece from Brooklyn formed out of a musical collective. Their album “Soft Targets” was on my best of 2006 list. Based on their show at the Bowery, I’d say they’re better live than on record. I bounced about and pumped my fists in the air (they have Sierra Nevada on tap, what more can I say?) as their wall of sound blew away the audience.

It was now 2 AM, but our night was hardly over. As we polished off our last drinks in the Bowery Lounge, I was approached by some NY music scenester who wanted to know how I pulled off not dying my hair. He was so relieved to hear that there's still life after letting your hair turn gray naturally, that when we were finished chatting, he invited us to the band’s private aftershow. That’s right; my gray hair actually got me into a rock n roll after party! Take that all you young dudes!

So, our Thursday was topped off downing cocktails with the Earl Greyhound entourage in a sweltering private club just off Houston. When Todd and I were almost busted for peeing in a doorway down the road (there were huge line-ups for the only toilet in the club), we knew it was time to call it a night.

Thursday had taken a lot out of me, but it was now Friday AM and officially the weekend, so we had to get motivated. That’s where the two lattes came in handy. From a rather extensive list of possible activities to choose from, we decided to spend the day at Coney Island. It was an admittedly odd choice, but then again, 2007 is the last year of operation for Astroland, the amusement park portion of this icon of Americana. It would be my last chance to sneak about the rows of tattered sideshow games, calling “Warriors… Warriors… Come out and play!”

Coney Island today is almost an insult to its former glory. What was once a proud example of what America could accomplish has become an eyesore representing in some ways what America has become. The world famous “Wonder Wheel” and “Cyclone” roller coaster are looking worse for wear, and are dwarfed by a back drop of tall brick projects. The amusement parks, at least those that remain open, are home to as many gang bangers as they are to families.

We took it all in from the top of the Wonder Wheel, before risking our lives on the rickety, bone jarring tracks of the Cyclone and finished up by strolling along the boardwalk. It was quite a smorgasbord of sights, sounds and smells. There’s supposed to be a huge 1.5 billion dollar facelift planned for the park, including new condos, hotels and rides. I wonder if these will do a better job of obscuring the projects from the view of tourists?

From Coney Island we headed to a more modern freak show, that of Washington Square Park back in the Village. We grabbed falafels from Mamoun’s world famous shop (the best two dollars I have ever spent!) and lounged for an hour or two watching the jazz performers and all the crazy spectators who were hanging around the fountain in the sunshine.

Flipping through a copy of Time Out NY, we spotted a free jazz concert that evening at the summer soundstage in Central Park, featuring Cassandra Wilson. New York is a very expensive place to live or visit, but it also has plenty of free stuff to help you stretch out your hard earned dollars. We made it to the venue just in time to catch the sunset, while grooving to Cassandra's soulful stylings.

We had a late dinner that night at Peep, a marvelous Thai-fusion restaurant in Soho regularly frequented by Todd. Walking in the door it's immediately obvious that you've entered a hot spot for hip scenesters and foodies alike. The look is sleek and modern, which fits the patrons, while the food is relatively cheap and extremely yummy, which suits me just fine.

However, there was one niggling detail that had to be solved before we left. Why in the world do they call a Thai fusion restaurant Peep? The answer was provided by, of all places, the bathroom. The entire wall of one length of the restaurant was done in mirrors. That's not a bad design idea because all of the rather good looking crowd of primarily female patrons could catch glimpses of themselves. The doors to the two bathrooms, also mirrors, were set flush along the mirrored wall. Women in line were thus able to give a fair amount of attention to themselves while they waited. The trick was that the main wall of the bathroom, including the door, was made from two-way mirrors. As a result, the bathroom occupant was able to observe the entire restaurant while sitting on the throne doing his or her business! A much different sort of "Peep-show" than those offered at Coney Island.

It was getting late, but our bellies were so extended from dinner that we needed to work off the calories before calling it a night. So we wandered through Soho for a few hours, finally ending up at another of Todd’s faves - a downstairs hovel called Fat Cat’s Pub. This place is a basement’s wet dream; a never ending supply of pool tables, foosball, and most importantly, ping pong tables. The style is 70’s family den, complete with old couches and chairs, only they up the ante with live jazz bands to entertain the patrons. And, as I found out, the cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon were disgustingly cheap. Thanks to Todd, I always had one in hand as I challenged the local kids to foosball and embarrassed myself on the pool table.

After getting our fill of heaven’s basement, we stumbled out into the night. Two days down, two to go, and I was still alive. Saturday and Sunday would be no problem, right?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

NYC Here I Come!

OK, it's now official - Facebook is more addictive than sex. I know, I know, it's hard to believe that anything can beat a little of the old "in 'n out", but I tell ya, if I had as much sex as I spend time "facebook-ing", I'd be rawer than an oyster at Rodney's.

It's not all necessarily a waste of time. I've been carrying on discussions about global warming with a number of different people, whose opinions range from "Kyoto is attainable and affordable", to "The Great Global Warming Swindle". That's certainly a topic worth some of my time, yes?

I also rather innocently started an argument over a recent picture of the Beastie Boys, which showed the middle aged rappers striking the tried and true (cliched?) rapper poses. I'm sure you see where this one is going. I mentioned that, despite their constant innovation, the Beastie Boys risk becoming parodies of themselves by not moving beyond those silly hand gestures. Someone took exception to my words, and amongst a plethora of F-bombs, asked if "The Boys" should instead give up and start listening to Glenn Miller. I responded that this person should actually listen to what I was saying, which resulted in a reply laced with even more expletives, and so on, until luckily someone interceded before the gloves came off.

(I still think Madonna would have gotten nowhere if she insisted on continuing to wear her "like a virgin" era outfits, and feel that that description does in fact have relevance in a discussion concerning the future longevity of the Beastie Boys. However, I'm willing to give it up for the sake of maintaining peace in the hallowed halls of Facebook. For now...)

It is also striking to encounter all the new uses for the term Facebook, such as a verb as in "While I was Facebooking...". It is rapidly becoming as adaptable as another oft used "f" word.

But alas, I am putting all that behind me (for at least five days) as my sister and I are about to embark on a trip to NYC.
We've got quite an itinerary planned, including:
- a Broadway play called The Drowsy Chaperon (with backstage passes) written by Don McKellar,
- a Yankees vs Mets game at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx,
- an Earl Greyhound gig (Brooklyn band that was in my top ten list for 2006) at the Bowery Ballroom, and
- eat and drink to excess (of course)!

Not bad for a long weekend, and certainly bloggable. So, even though my life seems to be at risk of giving itself over to the evils of some insidious Internet social program, there may still be hope for Dave's Digglings.

Yeah, right.