New York days and nights (and sketches) (a tiny wee tad NSFW)

We have had a busy few days. I have walked 15 miles and taken the subway too (no buses, yet). We have eaten at home and we have eaten in restaurants serving Belgian, Japanese, Shanghainese, Indonesian/Malaysian, Czech, and French food. I have gone shopping and I have gone drawing. We have met up with friends who are writers (and we went to one of their readings), and a friend who is a pianist (didn’t get to hear him play, but we tried out his piano). It has been a rich and heady week and there is more to come.

Snapshots in words, photos, and sketches

In my last post I mentioned a Belgian restaurant we can see from our window. We went, and it was lovely. Erik ate a pound of mussels. It came with house wine, served in a big glass and a little carafe. On certain nights they serve all-you-can-eat mussels for just over $20.

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On my first visit to New York, in 1999, my best friend’s family introduced us to Veniero’s, an Italian bakery that has been in the East Village since 1894. I thought their marzipan-covered torta di mandorle the best thing I’d ever tasted. When I returned to the city on my own in 2004, I was eager to return to Veniero’s. Maybe it was the long hot walk from the Upper West Side, maybe it was four years of Berkeley eating, but the cake no longer seemed so special. Still, I felt compelled to make the pilgrimage again this time. On the mile walk from the apartment, we passed skaters in Union Square, men in business clothes out with their dogs, and a blonde girl in a white dress who was eating a wedge of watermelon as she made her way down East 11th St. The olive-skinned young man behind the register at Veniero’s had a long, elegant, classical face and slouchy old-man hipster clothes. We ordered cheesecake and a chocolate fudge mousse cake. Both were so thick they defeated us. We took a few bites and brought the rest home. As we left the bakery we spotted a discarded watermelon rind on the sidewalk and wondered if it came from the girl we’d seen.

Chocolate fudge mousse cake
Our friend Adam, the pianist, said, “New Yorkers used to wear all black. Now they wear bright colors but they still have to look like they don’t care.” Does the same go for their appliances, I wonder? Must one also cultivate nonchalance in the kitchen, regardless whether the hardware is stainless or vintage enamel?

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We found a Japanese restaurant in our neighborhood and it was like a Kyoto eatery gone supersized, Americanized, but not in a bad way. Very good food, beautiful presentation, gorgeous space with a wonderful painting on the wall and five-petaled decorations in the floor, nearly everyone in there Japanese and speaking Japanese. But the portions were so big, the interior so cavernous, it had to be an American restaurant. I loved it. We didn’t order any tea but they brought us some, anyway, with the check.

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Near this restaurant there is a set of shops housed within a 19th-century church, complete with stained glass windows. Apparently it was a nightclub even before this. I didn’t much like their clothes — and maybe no one else does either, as there were few employees about and even fewer shoppers — but I enjoyed investigating the building’s old features. The floors were so empty, it was a better church-touring experience than some of the packed landmarks I visited abroad. There was something perfectly contemplative about those magnificent windows framed by track lights and discarded clothing racks… something so delicious about Saint Cecilia next to a poster for a laser beauty lounge called Deify (“beauty deifies everything”).

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That night I went uptown to the Society of Illustrators building, where I climbed stairs past a Maurice Sendak exhibition and the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art to reach a third-floor gallery. For $15 I could draw two models and listen to Robert Ross rock out with “Black Magic Woman,” “Little Wing,” and his own songs about fracking and Big Brother and the end of the world. In the back of the room the bar never emptied, so that behind the art and the music there was always a little convivial percussion of clinking glasses and cocktail conversation. It was my first time bringing my markers to a life drawing session. I had a wonderful time. I want to go again next week.

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My favorite from the evening:

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The next day we went to Brooklyn to meet Adam. We used to take piano lessons from the same teacher, way way back “before we were people” as Adam said, and we pretty much haven’t seen each other since. This is the kind of thing for which we should all be thanking Facebook, and we did. Adam is a joy. Our afternoon was a joy. It was my first time in Brooklyn and just before we came to NY I reread A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for probably the sixth or seventh time. Another pilgrimage of sorts, even if the Brooklyn of the book and the Brooklyn of now are not the same world at all.

Adam took us to Juliette and we sat in the leafy courtyard and listened to rain overhead, and caught up.

Did you know peach lemonade would be this color?

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Braised oxtails with poached eggs and Parmigiano over polenta. They call it breakfast; I had it for lunch.

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View of Manhattan. The grey layer over everything made me remember waterfronts in Hong Kong.

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Adam has audio on his site. Go, hear him play.

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Many hours later Erik and I had dinner at a wrap place Adam recommended, where they make the wraps on the spot when you order (like naan) and the counter has seats that swing. We discussed our friend Anna’s reading and watched people walking by in front of Babeland.

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Then we walked to the subway and went home. As we passed an American Apparel store there was some kind of event + photoshoot going on inside and out on their sidewalk. We ignored it.

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Yesterday I woke at six and decided not to go back to bed. In that early-morning delusional conviction of “today I will do everything!” I made plans and then, even when it became obvious I was more tired than I realized, attempted to follow through with them. After Erik got up we went to Cafe Prague for breakfast and my morning pages. Partway through our meal, the counter guy remembered that we’d asked for water, and brought it with apologies. I’m not sure that’s ever happened before; usually when people forget, they forget. I was more impressed than I would have been if he’d brought the water in the first place. (At the Shanghainese place where we had lunch, we had to ask three times.)

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Erik went back to the apartment to work, and I set out to run errands and shop. (Incidentally, La Petite Coquette is a lovely place to buy bras. I read about it in a magazine ages ago and have always wanted to visit. They didn’t disappoint.)

Have New Yorkers gotten nicer than I remember? Or has being away from the US changed my view on friendliness? On my way to the Fluevog shop I spotted a sale sign in the window of an Italian women’s clothing store. It was one of those spare places with white walls and high ceilings and immaculate racks of minimalist, sculptural garments in black, beige, grey, and putty. In such a store one might reasonably expect the black-clad, model-like saleswoman with the European accent to be snooty, and at first I thought maybe she was, when I asked to try on a dress and she asked if I had the right size. (A fair enough question, though, when the sizing goes 1-2-3-4.) The tan wrap shirtdress fit me like a dream and made me look important (if perhaps a touch older than I am). It was also $295 on sale. I spent about five minutes admiring my hourglass shape and then prepared to leave. Sometimes salespeople act displeased when you don’t buy anything, but she thanked me for coming in, and then smiled and said, “I like your necklace,” and wished me a good day.

It’s a funny thing about that necklace. (You’ll see it in later pics in this post.) All morning I was annoyed with it because the decoration is heavier than the rest of the strand and it always makes the whole thing hang wrong, instead of merely artistically asymmetrical. But I got something like six compliments on it that day. Go figure.

Erik and I met up for lunch in Chinatown. We were going to try a xiao long bao place Adam recommended, but I got there first and I went to the wrong restaurant (a few doors down). By the time Erik arrived (I saw him walk past on his cell phone and picked up to tell him he had the wrong place, only to be informed had the wrong place), I had already sat down and drunk their tea, and so was committed. Their xiao long bao were fine: wraps a little thicker than I like, but good flavor and tons of soup. But now I hope we get the chance to go back to Adam’s rec, so we can compare!

Chinatown reminded us of Istanbul, in that there were so many people on the sidewalks, it was impossible to walk comfortably. Most New Yorkers walk fast and dynamic and aware; even with crowds, it’s possible to weave a continuous path. Not so in Chinatown — maybe because it’s full of tourists as well as elderly Chinese people. As a Chinese American from the Bay Area, it always amuses me that tourists think Chinatown a worthwhile stop on a trip to any major city. They cluster on the sidewalks with their maps and big cameras and I think, “What, have they never seen an open-air fishmonger before? Do they not know what ginseng looks like?” But of course, maybe they haven’t and don’t. Goodness knows I delight in the most quotidian things while traveling. Anyway, I myself never went to a Chinatown until college. My family doesn’t go; their Chinatowns are the white-collar suburban enclaves like Cupertino. But that’s for another post.

We popped into a bakery and I was delighted to find a mango drink with holy basil seeds, similar to one I had in Singapore.

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We were going to meet Kuukua at a nearby Indonesian-Malaysian restaurant for dinner, but by mid-afternoon we figured out we were all already in Chinatown, so we met up only about an hour after our Shanghainese lunch. We occupied a table in the restaurant basement for probably an hour before our other friend Maja showed up, but time went fast in catching up. The restaurant wasn’t busy so I hope the proprietors didn’t mind. The food was so-so but the whole ambience of the afternoon reminded me of Singapore.

Kuukua and Maja had evening concert plans and so did we, so we separated. Erik and I walked a big loop before heading south toward the waterfront. The gateway arch to the Manhattan Bridge reminded me of Admiralty Arch in London. Turns out they were built within three years of each other.

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We stopped at Pier 15 for our evening entertainment: experimental piano trio Hauschka, Kosminen, and Zeigler. They were great (listen to Hauschka here) and I enjoyed hearing live music outdoors but in a fairly intimate setting. As they played, I made sketches of the waterfront and then, increasingly, of abstract versions of things I saw: waves, lights, passing birds.

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After a few sketches I realized I was very, very tired. At the life drawing session a couple of nights ago, I was so fired up I bopped in my seat as I drew. This time, that energy level seemed terribly far away. It had been a long day.

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I stuck out my arm to take a picture of us and I thought I was smiling, but my exhaustion made itself felt. Then I told Erik, “Let’s do another one. Smiling this time!” I smiled and he didn’t, imitating me in the first one.

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We wandered a bit, looking for a subway station. Erik looked up at the gleaming edifices above and said, “This is what New York looks like in movies.” 
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We are having so much fun here, but exposed to so much creativity, we have already had several conversations about working and balance and creating and what we want our lives to look like. It feels like we are just playing and playing but I think, underneath the glee and the get-togethers, woven interlocking like the tunnels of the NYC subway, we are thinking and evaluating and learning things we will apply once we get home. I am okay with this, even if sometimes I think I should be working faster and more furious. Erik definitely thinks we should; he thinks we don’t have much time. I tend to think that there is time for everything, depending how you look at it, and also no time at all — just as I am coming to think that everything matters and nothing matters. But I will have to write about this another time. For now I am content to just live these days.

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