Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight

Under the Radar NYC: A local’s guide to the best non-trendy shops in Manhattan

I used to hide all my inside-spots like acorns, afraid of never getting a table again or walking in a store and knocking elbows on every aisle. But lately, I feel the need to compulsively tell everyone all about my favorite places in New York City, not out of generosity so much as fear.

Everything’s closing!

When I moved here 18 years ago (Eighteen! That’s almost 20!!), I was blown away by all the restaurants and merchants that were completely unique to the city. I refused to patronize chain stores and restaurants because there was never any need to. I’d buy Asian slippers and tiny ceramic dishes at Pearl River Mart and wander for hours at the slightly grungy Antique Boutique on Broadway, where I bought my first “winter” coat at 22. It was leather and dark purple. I bought it second-hand, and it looked like it’d been pummeled with a stick. One day I got caught in the rain and all the color drained right off of me and pooled onto the cement. I’d never heard of anyone spray-painting leather before and was completely mesmerized by the novelty. An American Apparel store now occupies the space. Blech.

 hot pink mannequin

Lately, walking around the East Village on my lunch break has become a bit of a downer, as I pass so many empty storefronts that used to be filled with tiny cafes, ethnic specialty stores and funky gift shops. With rents in the city what they are– and Amazon at all our fingertips– I worry that the owners of my favorite local businesses will be out of a job in the next few years. I just finished reading “Vanishing New York”, and if you’re as concerned as I am about hyper-gentrification, you should give it a read too.

So I’ve created a selfish little list here. These are the businesses I frequent a lot and worry most about. I want everyone to know and love them as much as I do so they get to stick around another 50 years. Almost all of them are inexpensive, under-the-radar, and not trendy in the slightest. No one instagrams or twits about these places, which means they need help to keep their spirit (and their storefronts) alive. I’ve got a whole other list of Astoria, Queens businesses I’ll share later because my sweet little hood is stocked with terrific small shops.


Dual Specialty Store: My favorite little shop in all of NYC. Just around the corner from the street affectionately known as Curry Row sits this tiny delight of an Indian and Middle Eastern spice and food store. If you love to cook, you’ll be mesmerized by the variety of spices and herbs here, all priced really well. Also a great place if you’re into incense, oils, roots, powders and obscure natural remedies. (East Village)


Kaluystan’s: This is far from a hidden gem, and it’s basically Dual Specialty Store but bigger with an absolutely stunning array of food products. This is an international culinary wonderland, and I’m not being hyperbolic. If you can’t find what you’re looking for here, it probably doesn’t exist. (Murray Hill)

The Strand: The greatest bookstore in all the land! Every morning I struggle to not spend 20 or 30 minutes browsing their dollar bins outside. This place is a New York institution and if it ever closed there’d be anarchy in the streets. (Union Square)

Himalayan Vision: I remember being mesmerized by this tiny Tibetan store when I first moved to the city, and sometimes I can’t believe that it’s still open. I love decorating with their bright and beautiful throw blankets (currently on sale for $25) and it’s a great place for tiny trinkets, jewelry and gifts. PS: there’s another Tibetan store called Mandala on the next block. (East Village)

himalayan blanket

WAGA African & Ethnic Shop: The gorgeous woven baskets out front make my heart skip a beat every time I walk by this special little shop on St. Mark’s. (East Village)

Paper Presentation: There are tons of chain stationary stores in the city, but I will always have a soft spot for Paper Presentation. The space is vast and beautiful, their selection of paper products simply exceeds all others and the prices are reasonable. A great place to visit if you’re even moderately crafty. (Flatiron District)

Zabar’s: The Upper West Side would lose their crown jewel if anything ever happened to Zabar’s! This quintessential NYC grocery store has an amazing cheese counter, babka, bagels and all the traditional delicatessen fare. Their top floor has great cooking and baking supplies, and if you ever need to send a gift basket that screams “I love NY”, this is the place to order it from. (Upper West Side)

Physical Graffitea: Physical Graffitea is a tiny tea emporium on the ground floor of the historic “Physical Graffiti” buildings that graced the cover of the Led Zeppelin album of the same name. Their selection is out of control, and the owner loves helping customers find their ideal blend. (East Village)

Tal Bagels: Old school bagels with just the right chewy-on-the-inside/slightly crisp on the outside texture, plus a huge counter of smoked fish. My favorite bagels in the city. This is the real deal. (Upper West and East Side locations)

Porto Rico Importing Company: My first, last and everything when it comes to all things coffee. Another NYC gem that’s made it over 100 years and is still kicking. I buy my coffee (French Sumatra, dark roast, whole beans) from this little stall across the street across from my office, and it’s the highlight of my week. Big bonus–it’s only $10 a pound for my favorite blend, which ends up being equal to most grocery store brands! I buy all my filters and little extras there too because I want this local business to thrive! (East Village, Greenwich Village, Williamsburg, Lower East Side locations)

Porto Rico NYC

Chinatown Ice Cream Factory  These days there are a million places all over the city to get artisanal ice cream in wacky flavors (my other favorites are Morganstern’s (Chocolate Malt and Coconut Ash are TO DIE) and a combo of Earl Gray/Bourbon Vanilla at Van Leeeuan. But Chinatown Ice Cream Factory is not trendy anymore, and in this world of Instagrammable milkshakes, that’s a real problem. Flavors like green tea, red bean and mango will always have my heart. (Chinatown)

Eisenberg’s  If Carnegie Deli can bite the dust, anyone can. The lines for Katz’s are always around the corner, but I sometimes worry about a little lunch counter called Eisenberg’s (open since 1929) in the Flatiron District. If you’re in the mood for an egg cream, matzoh ball soup or great pastrami on rye as well as a heavy dose of major New Yawk nostalgia, please plan a lunch here soon. (Flatiron District)

Yonah Schimmel’s Knish Bakery  Truth be told, I hate knish. They’re really dense and heavy and just not my thing. But this place has been a fixture on the Lower East Side for over 100 years, and if it ever went away, it’d be a real loss for the neighborhood and the city. Grab an egg cream while you’re there. (Lower East Side)

yonah schimmel knish

yonah schimmel knish

East Village Cheese– this post sat in my drafts folder so long that it’s already closed… NO MORE CHEAP CHEDDAR FOR ME!

McNulty’s Tea- Another amazing super-old-school tea shop that looks like an apothecary with huge jars filled with loose leaves. (Chelsea)

RIP: Antique Boutique, The Place, CBGBs, Broadway Panhandler, Bamiyan, Dojo’s, Yaffa Cafe, Carnegie Deli, Pearl River Mart (especially the original location on Canal), F.A.O. Schwartz, Caffe Dante (they once microwaved a croissant for me to refresh it later in the day, but still- a Greenwich Village institution!), the Campbell Apartment, the original Pommes Frites (I’ll never get over it), Yellow Rat Bastard, all the silly shoe shops on 8th Street

read more

The Day I Got Old-Schooled


My throat was scratchy so I ordered peppermint tea with honey and a croissant. Traditional Italian bakeries in Queens are great for hard, dry biscotti or crisp cannoli shells piped with sweetened ricotta or bright rainbow cookies layered with thick chocolate ganache and gooey apricot jam. They’re where you go for a tiny shot of espresso or an enormous loaf of round bread that’s crusty on the outside but kind of stretchy in the center. They’re not typically known for perfectly buttery, flaky croissants or tarty stuff like matcha tea lattes and designer donuts. But it was still morning and I needed something more bread than cake. I couldn’t handle a brittle napoleon; wasn’t ready for a butter cookie with a puddle of raspberry jelly in the center.


(photo by

I sat outside on a plastic chair, under a long green awning that ran along the sidewalk. I’d passed this place every day for months, always charmed by the people relaxing with coffee at the tables or the many benches on the opposite side of the street, mostly older Italian, Greek and eastern European men congregating with a deck of cards or silently reading the newspaper. It was clearly an established neighborhood joint with a loyal crowd, the kind of place people had built into their daily routines over the years.

I sat, and said hello to the man at the adjoining table. This was the kind of place where you said good morning to the other patrons, not just because we were basically sitting on top of one another, but because that’s just how it was done here. I’d brought my computer–I tend to equate coffee shops with writing time– and plopped it on the table in front of me, but didn’t end up using it until 30 minutes later. Instead I began chatting with my fellow Astorian.

He was retired, and had worked as a flight attendant out of La Guardia for 30 years. Like many people in Astoria, he’d lived in the neighborhood since birth. He liked some of the changes, he said, but most of them he could do without.

Then he started asking me questions. How long had I been in the neighborhood? Did I grow up in Queens? Did I rent or own? What did I do for a living? Do I work in the city? Was my home one or two-family? What are houses going for these days? Who did we rent our upstairs apartment to? Did they work in Manhattan too?

It was an interesting battery of questions, one that made me shift slightly in my chair. As personal as his questions were, there was something very impersonal about the way he fired them at me, like he was a census worker collecting demographics. I felt like he wasn’t really interested in getting to know me as a fellow member of his community; he was mostly interested in taking the temperature of his lifelong neighborhood. I’d lived in Astoria ten years already, but I sensed he viewed me as an interloper of sorts, someone too young to remember the good old days before 30th was lined with frozen yogurt shops and Greek frappes were replaced by almond milk lattes.  I wasn’t his new neighbor; I was another gentrifier mucking around with the look of the place.




Eventually a few of his friends joined him at his table– a group of presumably retired Italian men– and we stopped chatting. I started tapping on my computer. He finished up his coffee, and walked to throw it away in a garbage can across the street. Before leaving, he stopped back at my table to give me a tip.

“You know, this isn’t a computer place; it’s a social place. You wanna use your computer go to 60 Beans…or Brooklyn.”

“Yeah, she’s kind of weird though,” said one of his friends. “Most of the young ones these days are on the phones, she’s on a computa.”

“Got it,” I said. I felt a little shamed in that moment, like he’d reached out to shake my hand then slapped it with a ruler. But a bigger part of me actually appreciated the heads-up. Like any other place that I visit, I always try to respect the local custom, even if that place is on my street. Actually, especially if that place is on my street.

His friend then started talking to me about computers. “Once you go Mac, you never go back. Am I right, or am I right?” He was smoking a cigarette while balancing on a segway. He’d bought it two weeks earlier for $2,500. Everyone at the cafe was talking to him about it.

“Whatdya think? You want to ride it? If you were ugly, I’d probably charge you for it, but since you’re pretty, I’ll let you go for free.”

I thought for a second, then abandoned my laptop and took him up on his sexist offer. After all, this wasn’t a computer place, it was a social place and what was more social than trusting a stranger to ride your overpriced toy? He ran alongside me as I cruised down my little street, a place I’m still trying to get to know. I rode past Croatian men smoking outside their private club on the sidewalk, past the tiny wine store setting up for a tasting, past a seamstress fixing hems in front of an old foggy window. I rode past modest brick houses attached to one another on both sides with rose bushes and statues of the Virgin Mary in their tiny front yards. I rode by plenty of people– young and old– looking down at their hands, tapping on cell phones.

The irony of what I was writing on my computer that day wasn’t lost on me. It was an essay about my early years in Astoria, how I loved the old-school businesses and residents, that I loved hearing every type of language on each corner, loved the old barber shops and shoe cobblers and European cafes that don’t give a crumb about passing trends. I was writing about how I worried it would all go away, and all we’d be left with is another generic neighborhood without a real sense of community or flavor.

I guess I don’t need to worry about that so much. We’ve got some guys on the block making sure the change isn’t so swift.


read more

God Knew We Liked The Sun


Ask anyone what they remember about that day, and nine times out of ten they’ll mention the weather. It was the most glorious September day in New York, sunny and bright tempered by the kind of breeze that lifts the edges of skirts and makes the trees dance.  If it had rained, or been oppressively humid or boomed with thunder, our collective memories would be vastly, metaphorically different. The gorgeous weather on September 11, 2001 was a tiny shot in the arm to help us through the day. God knew we liked the sun.

I’d been living in the New York City area for only two years at the time, and had just turned 24. I lived across the Hudson River in Hoboken, NJ with roommates in a 5th floor walk-up where the fire escape attached to my itsy-bitsy bedroom. My room was smaller than both my roommates’ due to budget constraints, but I felt like I’d won the best space because technically mine had a balcony. People in their early 20s are romantically hopeful that way; they can gaze out a window and see a universe of shooting stars and possibilities, fan pillows across a fire escape and dream it’s a private balcony.

At 24, I was almost recklessly optimistic. I’d lived a safe, sheltered, lucky life and I didn’t look at anything or anyone and assume or expect the worst.

In the mornings, I took the long route to the train station, walking along the fringe of Hoboken so I could look across the river at downtown Manhattan. I always felt sort of bowled over in those 20 minutes; my brain was still adjusting to the fact that I lived and worked here, that my commute included a skyline view on one street and an Italian ice if I took another. People always complain about commuting into the city, but it was usually the highlight of my day. I was grateful for it.


On that particular day, I gave myself plenty of extra time for my morning walk so I could make a lap around Sinatra Park, which juts out right over the Hudson River. As I made my way closer to the park, I saw a small puff of smoke coming from one of the trade towers. A cabbie was parked nearby and staring at it.

“What’s going on? Is the tower on fire?” I asked.

“I was sitting right here and just watched a plane nosedive into the World Trade Center. It was the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said.

There was no part of me that thought it was intentional. At 24, my thoughts didn’t work that way. So I made my way down to the PATH train and traveled into Manhattan for work, expecting the freak plane accident to be the water cooler talk of the day.

By the time my train arrived at 23rd Street and I emerged from underground, the second tower had already been hit. People were alternatively standing in the middle of the street, staring downtown, or panicked and running as far away from the Flatiron Building as they could. This was before camera phones, before peoples’ first reaction to every event–good or bad– was to stand there and film it.

In the office, we huddled around an old TV in the mailroom, getting a better understanding of what was happening in our skies, at the Pentagon, in our country, 20 blocks away. We paired up and began our journeys back home; all buses and subways in and out of Manhattan had been shut down, so people in Brooklyn and Queens went by foot, while those of us from Jersey would need to cross the water.

It was the first and only time I ever took the ferry. The line coiled for hours until we were finally able to board, hundreds of hot, weary bodies crammed side-by-side on the boat as we drifted past the smoldering site. The ferry dropped me off in Weehawken, the next town over, so we continued to silently walk one by one down the road. My roommate Ashley and I fretted for hours about our other roommate John who worked in Building 7; he was unreachable by phone and hadn’t come home yet. We knew he was okay when we turned on the news and saw him on TV, covered in ash. My mother–who was on vacation abroad at the time–worried that I might be dead, not because I was in New York City, but because I had been set to board a plane from Newark to San Francisco the next morning and she’d gotten the dates messed up, and thought I was on Flight 93.

A friend and I returned to the park that evening with a crowd of dozens, standing across the river, silently watching the towers smoke and burn. We didn’t know what else to do. We didn’t go to work for the rest of the week. No one did. The smell lingered for a month. People covered their mouths with surgical masks. Union Square Park was littered with thousands of handmade signs and posters of people searching for their loved ones, burning candles, the ground pierced with American flags and strewn with yellow flowers. People offered hugs and prayers. The We Heart NYC posters took on new significance, many graffitied with addendums like “More than ever” or a tiny arrow drawn into the center of the heart, “you are here” scribbled in felt pen just above it.


My first counseling job in 2008 was on John Street in downtown Manhattan, blocks away from the World Trade Center. Seven years later, we still got referrals from people who lost loved ones in the attacks, downtown business owners who’d gone completely broke after having to close their shops or restaurants, people who lost their apartments, people with unexplainable respiratory illnesses, people having panic attacks, Muslim women who stopped wearing scarves and feared for their safety after having beer bottles thrown at their heads.

Even today, I’ll occasionally do an intake where the person says they’ve “just never been the same” since that day.



There was a fine dining restaurant called Windows On the World in the north tower. It was all the way up on the 107th floor, and on a clear night you could see all of the bridges to Queens and Brooklyn from there, every light in the Manhattan skyline, every drop of water in the surrounding rivers, but none of the garbage on the sidewalks, none of the dried-out old gum glued to the pavement. It was the glittering view we all know from the movies. The view that makes people travel here from all over the world, hoping to absorb a bit of magic. The dazzling city of dreams you constructed in your head the first time you read The Great Gatsby.

One of my favorite early New York City memories was drinking and dancing one night at the restaurant’s bar, named–  not-so-humbly– The Greatest Bar on Earth. There was a live band playing swing music that night, and a group of dancers turned up wearing A-line skirts and pin-curls, bright red suspenders and glistening saddle shoes. The men tossed the women across the room like ragdolls, and they all looked so happy and free it was impossible to watch them and feel anything but joy.

I refused to get on the dance floor, not from embarrassment but because — like always in New York City–space was finite, and I felt like they deserved the room more than I did. I sat in the corner sipping my $16 cocktail, my heart exploding with gratitude to witness their jubilant innocence and uninhibited glee. I looked out the window and saw a postcard below me. I felt like I was in a movie, or a really vivid dream. Fifteen years later I feel so thankful for this memory because it tempers, just a little bit, some of my other ones.

But still, at the end of the day and like everyone else, I’ll never forget.


read more

Making a House a Home

We’ve been in our house exactly a month, and I’m still not used to the place. I’ve set up my little kitchen, ordered some furniture, bought houseplants, cooked dinner, drank too much coffee. I’ve been to all my neighborhood shops. I’ve even had my first official weekend guests. But still, when I come home from work at the end of the day and prop my feet up on the coffee table, I’m facing a completely different direction than I’m accustomed to. When I go to put my clothes away, I forget that my closet’s not in the kitchen anymore. I wonder when I will belong in here. Don’t get me wrong– I’m in love with the place. But I wonder how long it will take to feel like home.


I had this vision of what it would be like to meet the neighbors when I was a homeowner as opposed to a renter. I pictured people unhinging our front gate and walking up to our front door with fresh pies and big smiles. “Hey! I’m your next door neighbor. Welcome to the neighborhood!”. Alas, not surprisingly, I was the one to introduce myself on both sides. On my right is an older couple from Georgia (the country, not the city) who speak very little English. On the other side is a family from Tibet with grown children, whose first questions to me were “What are you going to do with your front yard?” and “How much did you pay for the house?”. I wanted to be like, “Nice to meet you! WHERE’S MY CASSEROLE?”.


Lots o’ mulch. I would like to put pavers or a little deck here, but first I would like to afford furniture. Vin likes the mulch. I don’t like the mulch. But I like saying the word mulch. It’s funny. Mulch. Mulch. Mulch.


Sleeping is the hardest. The first week I slept like a rock from sheer exhaustion and cooler weather. Now, it’s a different story. It’s been over 80 degrees with no air conditioning and now that we live above ground instead of a basement, I remember that heat rises. So I crack the window above my head to let some air in and remember that with windows comes both light and sound–the car alarm that rattles every two nights, the clang of the metal gate when the young guy next door comes home, the slamming of metal storm doors.  In 2001, I slept through a live performance of STOMP, which should qualify me as narcoleptic. But here, every tiny sound makes me stir. In the morning, when the harsh, bright sunlight beams down in an effort to replace my alarm clock, I notice new things. Have I always had this many freckles? How long have I had all these tiny lines on my hands? When did my husband get this hairy?

I baked cookies the other night using a recipe I used to consider foolproof and ended up broiling them because I can’t figure out how my new tiny oven works. I had to throw out all my cookie sheets and pans because none of them fit in this this svelte oven, designed for apartment living. The cookies were black on the bottom, raw in the middle, gooey on top and embarrassing throughout. Baking chocolate chip cookies is the trademark of happy homesteading and I messed them up three ways to Sunday. My former oven was old as Methuselah, wide as a tank and reliable as dirt. Burning cookies I nail every time felt like a small failure. It made me feel out of place and off my game.

Hey, I know I read into things way too much, but trust me, it was disappointing.

That night, we were still craving something sweet, so I suggested we hang in the front yard–the one we still haven’t figured out what to do with– and wait for the Mister Softee truck. The Mister Softee truck sells delicious soft-serve ice cream dipped in that mysterious chocolate that hardens and cracks before melting all over your face. They also make a mean black-and-white shake if that’s your bag. They drive around and around in circles throughout New York City neighborhoods playing a twerpy little jingle that gets stuck in your head and reminds you of summer’s magic.


Vin and I perched in the yard, quivering hands hovering over the clasp of our front gate like kids waiting for the mailman. The street was silent for a good five minutes until finally…”Da-da-da-da-da-da-da, duh-dunh-duh-dunh-dunh-da-da!” The truck was here! It was just around the corner! We grabbed a few dollars and ran down the street. The walk back felt like a victory lap.

I may not have nailed baking in my new oven, but I live in a place where if I just wait a few minutes, my dessert will come to me.

I can get used to that.



Our cute little kitchen in progress.


This kitchen came equipped with nice counter space and no storage. Lots of the kitchen stuff is in a dresser on the other side of the room, and Vin built me the open shelves so we’d have somewhere to stash our cups and bowls. I’m still trying to find a spot to keep my dinner plates though!

IMG_4841 The only way this shot could get more hipster is if I was wearing a big hat and blending cashew milk in a vitamix next to that bearded guy.

IMG_4832 Still getting used to recessed lighting. I find that everything looks different with overhead lights, including my face. Side note: I wish selfies existed when I was 23. That was a really good skin year.

read more

Come be my neighbor! Our upstairs apartment is for rent!


If you read this blog last week, you know we recently bought a house. And technically, it is a house, but what it really looks like is three cute apartments stacked on top of one another in an orderly fashion.

One of those apartments is available for rent. Immediately. Like, yesterday. (the other one will soon be an airbnb rental–I’ll keep you posted!).

Here’s where you come in.

If you know anyone in the NYC area who would love to live in the adorable, multi-cultural, super safe, incredibly charming neighborhood I write about all the time on this blog, this might be their next dream home. Got a minute? Let me show you around. Welcome!!


Here’s the living room. Pretty, right? Clean and simple with some nice wood floors and tons of natural light pouring in from front to back (y’all know that’s my favorite part).

It opens up right into the kitchen. I will admit this kitchen is much better than mine. A dishwasher, six-burner stove, built-in microwave, all stainless steel appliances, lots of storage space and a big quartz countertop.



There are two bedrooms in the back– one is slightly bigger than the other and has a balcony which overlooks a driveway and the pretty little flower garden my mother-in-law just helped me plant. Each bedroom has a nice-sized closet with a high ceiling, and there is also a linen closet in the hallway.




And finally, here’s le toilette– subway tiles, marble countertop and a skylight. I think it’s cute. Plus, the natural light is really good for applying makeup.


Need more info?

Located in Astoria, Queens on a very charming street (but in a quiet little nook, which makes for awesome sleeping!)

Very close to the subway, laundromat and grocery store (in city apartment world, I call this “the holy trifecta”).

Neighborhood is extremely safe, with a very friendly, laid-back vibe. Great restaurants and shops nearby!

The landlords are me and a guy named Vinny from Queens. Wouldn’t you like to tell your family back in Ohio your landlord is a guy named Vinny from Queens? They’ll think it’s hilarious; trust me.

cute me and vinny

If you’d like to know more (like the address, price) or know someone who’d be interested in renting this space, please contact Jenn at The unit is available right away and ready to be loved! PS: NO BROKER’S FEE!

If you’re in a giving mood, sharing this post on your social media could really help us find lovely people to share our home with! (Tell them I make great chocolate chip cookies too. I’ll throw in a batch with the deal!)


read more

First Comes Love, Then Comes Mortgage. But first! How our basement apartment tried to evict us.


I lived in a basement apartment for nine and a half years. The lack of light warped me of energy, the railroad layout made co-habitation a challenge, and the low ceiling gave the false impression that I am, at 5’3, actually a giant. We had pipes burst and mice scurry and water-bugs creep up through the drains. We had a stray raccoon pee all over our stored Christmas ornaments; had a gigantic rat find death beneath our fridge. We had squatters to the right and a shifty slumlord to the left. We were there long enough to see a dozen upstairs neighbors come and go– listened to every step overhead, heard all their fights, smelled all their dinners. We were there long enough to see the house change owners, long enough for our first landlord to become sick and pass away.

And now, just after making our long-awaited getaway, we discovered that we’d been in that basement long enough for things to get really, really weird. The minute we bought a house, there was a shift in the energy down there. It’s like the basement got wind that we were gonna bail and was like, “Oh, you think you’re gonna leave me? Let me make it real easy for you.” Our apartment started doing the thing people do when they want to end a relationship but don’t want to initiate a break-up.  They start acting like an asshole so the other person pulls the trigger first.

I moved into that basement nine years ago without expecting to spend that much time down there. I chose it because it had a cheap price tag, a great location and an old Turkish fig tree in the yard. For seven summers, I planned my July and August dinners around those deep purple orbs– baby spinach leaves with goat cheese and walnuts. Salty prosciutto and crusty bread. Rosemary-cornmeal tarts lined with rows and rows of them, topped with lemon mascarpone cream and drizzled with lingonberry jam.

When the tree stopped producing figs two years ago after 50 years of abundance, I took it as a sign. There is no more fruit here for you. Climb another tree. Go in search of greener pastures. Find a home where guests won’t bump their heads on the kitchen ceiling.


fig tart_small


November 18, 2015: After a year of searching nearly every weekend in Brooklyn and Queens, we put an offer on our first house ever. It’s in Astoria, Queens and in great condition. We want it desperately.

November 20th: We’re out-bid by 15 people. We don’t get the house.

November 21st: We begin using the real estate agent we met during the open house for the home we put an offer on. He’s young and eager to make sales. He shows us three houses a week for the next few weeks.

December 16th: We put an offer on another house. It’s not on the market. The only people who see it are me, Vin and a group of investors. We are avoiding another bidding war. It’s also in Astoria, and appears move-in ready.

December 18th: We’re told our offer was accepted, right before Christmas, like a gift. A very expensive gift we buy for ourselves like a washer and dryer or a sports car. We basically freak out, and try to weasel out of the deal. When our realtor asks what I’m giving Vin for Christmas I say: “Debt– the gift that keeps on givin’.”

December 19th: On my way to work, I walk by a local bakery and the smell of fresh Italian bread wafting through the air vents actually makes me cry. We’re buying a house in New York City. We’re staying in Astoria. I can’t believe it.

December 26: We have an inspection. The inspector offers his hand to Vinny and exclaims, “So you’re buying a house!” He looks at me and says, “And you must be the buyer’s wife.” Vin and I are buying a house built in 1945; I didn’t realize we were buying a house in 1945.

January 26th: After weeks of nail-biting, the seller finally signs the contract. We put 10% in escrow. Things are moving. What could go wrong now?

January 27th: Vin is home alone when he hears a sharp crack, followed by a waterfall of glass crashing to the hard tile floor. He walks toward the bathroom to discover that the shower door, for no particular reason, has shattered into a thousand tiny pieces. He spends the next hour sweeping up ribbons of glass, then duct-tapes a black Hefty bag to the shower door frame. We wash in pitch darkness for the next three weeks, sudsing and shaving while intermittently batting wet garbage bag away from our arms and legs.

February 14th, 6 a.m.: I bolt upright in bed and poke Vinny, hard and fast in his side. “Do you smell smoke?!” In hindsight, I realize this is a terrible way to wake your spouse on Valentine’s Day. In foresight, I recognize that having a great sense of smell is my super-power, and one day– perhaps today– I’ll have the opportunity to save my loved ones from a smelly heap of danger.

Vin runs upstairs in his boxers to find two firemen inside our house. Firemen don’t ring doorbells; they pry open metal door frames and invite themselves in. They run past Vin, up the stairs to the third floor where they use pointy instruments to crack open the ceiling so they can get up to the roof. The house attached to ours is currently on fire, and they need to access our rooftop to put out the flames. Frankly, I could have done without all this. It’s Sunday morning and two degrees outside, and all I really want is a cup of coffee and a little light reading.


stairway to heaven

I throw on my wedding ring and puffy coat and shove my pajama pants into snow boots. We watch from across the street for about 10 minutes, then get too cold and head to Dunkin’ Donuts around the corner. Finally we get the all-clear and go back inside. For the next few weeks, the house smells like roaring campfire.

March 2, 11 pm:  I’m home, relaxing, tacking things to my secret Pinterest board called “New House” where I save articles about open shelving and packing tips and how to find decent, God-fearing tenants who pay rent on time and scrub floors with a toothbrush. I’m about to close up shop for the night, so I shut my laptop and drop my feet to the tile floor, which is currently covered with hundreds (HUNDREDS!) of tiny fluttering insects. The scene is grisly, as they all appear to be fighting for their last breath, some already dead, some only mostly dead.

It’s like that scene in The Notebook where Noah takes Allie into the canoe and they’re surrounded on all sides by beautiful white birds except google tells me these tiny winged insects are termites which is far less romantic and way more grotesque. I always assumed termites just snacked on wooden poles inside the walls until the whole house caved in on itself, but apparently they sometimes do a “swarm” inside the home to give a little sneak peek of the havoc they’re wreaking behind the scenes.

11:10 pm: Vin comes home and duct-tapes a plastic garbage bag to the heating vent that runs overhead, which appears to be their port of entry to our living room/ kitchen. This time, the Hefty bag is clear. This way, whenever we walk toward the area where we eat our food, we pass under a translucent canopy of partially-dead termites. I have a picture, but I am choosing not to post the picture.

Use your imagination.

They swarm a few more times over the next several weeks, one time after we’d already removed the plastic canopy thinking the coast was clear. Vin was so grossed out he was unable to eat dinner that night. I didn’t have that problem. I’d made lamb burgers and hell if I was letting those go to waste.


During this time, my friend Aubrey — along with everyone else– was reading The Magical Art of Tidying Up, which apparently warns against talking shit about your current house when you’re in search of a new one because houses talk to one another. Aubrey cautioned me about speaking too critically of our apartment during this delicate time, as we wouldn’t want our current house to tell our future house that we’re ungrateful jerks or insufferable whiners. We were having a tough enough time getting through the mortgage approval process and certainly didn’t need any bad house- juju standing in our way.

I took her advice to heart, and quietly swept up sputtering termites while reminding the apartment that it was still our special sunflower and looking pretty good despite its dank basement smell, terrible fluorescent lighting, and burgeoning mold issue.

new york city houses

our old street:)



(Our old apartment on the good days. When it was good, it was very good.)



(our old apartment on the bad days. some days it was quite bad. But hey– at least we didn’t have to pay for the repairs!)


In early April, potential tenants started coming in on the weekends to check out the basement. We’d told our landlord that we were under contract, and he wasted no time getting his rental back on the market. Our stuff was piled in boxes in every corner, as we waited to get final approval and an actual closing date on the calendar. This process was a bit like chasing a unicorn through a dewy meadow filled with land mines and prairie dogs- -just when you think you reach the prize something pops out of the ground and bites you on your ankle. (Have four letters written by Tuesday! Get receipts for that thing you did in 2011! Have your employer call us a fifth time! Contact the IRS and tell them to send you last year’s tax bill! Pee in this jar while tap-dancing! Sign this document in your own blood!).

When the same realtor who’d rented me the basement 9 1/2 years prior came in to show the place, he looked at me and said, “You’re still here?”

Not for long, I thought. Unless, of course, the bank finds a problem with that stool sample they’d requested.



Just before moving out, the landlord stopped by to make sure the termites were gone. I’d always assumed they appeared because of the house fire in February. I figured that hosing a place down and leaving all that wood to rot seemed like an invitation for breeding something, be it termites or mold or chlamydia or something awful.

sad tree

“We’ve gotta get rid of that old, dried out stump in the backyard,” said the landlord in his thick Greek accent. “That’s where the termites came from. Go look at it–  they ate it up from top to bottom.”

“Are you talking about the fig tree?” I asked. Was this man trying to break my heart?

“Yeah, looks terrible. Gotta cut that down or they’ll come back again.”

The fig tree stopped producing fruit two years ago, right when we started our home search. The thing I loved most about my home gave me termites and made my skinny husband lose his appetite. Vin thinks I’m nuts always talking about signs, but what else could it be? There is no more fruit here for you. Go in search of greener pastures. Climb another tree.

The new tenants moved in a week before our closing date, so we packed our stuff in a U-haul and parked it in my mother and father-in-law’s driveway. For a week we lived out of duffel bags; Vin’s guitars and my underthings splayed out across their living room floor. The new tenants texted us a few times: the dryer had already broken, the oven wouldn’t turn on and sugar ants had completely obliterated the kitchen.

They must have talked shit about their old apartment.


May 5, 2016: We close on our first house. When the papers are signed, I thank the seller and burst into tears. We drink margaritas down the street in celebration.

May 6:  It pours on moving day and I barely notice. Vinny returns the U-haul. His brother assembles our new queen-sized bed. His mother sprinkles holy water on our kitchen floor. I get to work ripping open boxes with scissors, slowly introducing my silly old things to their pretty new home. 


I come across a box filled with scented candles. The glass jars gleam under all the natural light pouring through the front windows. I unwrap them all, lining them up in a neat, tidy row on my white kitchen countertop. There’s a wide variety– Lavender and spicy bergamot. Cucumber and fresh sage. Jasmine. Warm vanilla. Fresh fig.

The last candle is made from soft yellow wax and smells like Prosecco. Across the label, its name is scrolled in fancy cursive: Champagne Toast. 

Time to light that motherfucker.



More reflections on our time in the basement. Thank you, Basement. You sheltered us for a long time and helped us save so much money. We hope your next occupants are able to do the same. 

And yes, I still live in a basement.

Neighbors & NYC: This is not a love story.

I think I’m ready to talk about it. 

I think I’m ready to talk about it (part 2).



read more

It Happened!! We Bought a House.


I’ve recently learned that buying a house is a little like the initial stages of pregnancy. There’s an initial rush of giddy excitement when after months of trying you finally get good news (“Your offer has been accepted!”), followed quickly by self-doubt and indecision (“Oh my God– can we afford this? Is it the right time?) followed by several waves of panic, a few gnarly bouts of stress diarrhea and multiple rounds of crippling nausea.

Also like pregnancy, you are apt to keep the news mostly private until you’re totally in the clear.

We are finally in the clear.

We bought a house.

(Hold on a second– I need to run to the toilet again.)

Okay, I can finally say this with enthusiasm instead of abject terror… We bought a house!! We closed on Cinco de Mayo and frankly, I’ve never needed a jalapeno margarita more.

We’re more excited now, but these past few months have been incredibly stressful.  I won’t get into details of working with banks and brokers and PMI and interest rates because frankly I’m just so sick of talking about those things I could spit. I will say briefly that getting this house was no slam-dunk, everything took longer and was way more expensive than anticipated, and we are grateful it worked out because there were many points along the way when we were pretty sure it wasn’t going to. We’ve spent the last four and a half months waiting for the other shoe to drop, and we’ve both been doing so much stress-eating we should probably just go ahead and throw out all our tight pants and start over.

House hunting in New York City was a pretty disheartening experience. The houses here are small and old, and many of them are in pretty crappy condition. They’re dated, they’re filled with problems in the walls and foundations, and they’re aesthetically unimpressive. These stats don’t preclude them from being incredibly expensive, either. Just the opposite. You’re paying for your location, not the house you get. And the competition is very fierce for these small, old, incredibly overpriced houses. There’s simply no land left to build new houses on (oh they’ll make room for new condos).

We put an offer on another house (a foreclosure) a month before finding the one we bought. There were 31 offers in four days, we bid over asking price, and still ended up number 16 in line. Still, we look back on the house-hunting days with sugary fondness compared to the gut-punch of getting a mortgage. Why don’t I hear people complaining about this more? That was brutal!


(This is not the house we bought (unfortunately). This was typical of the houses we saw in Brooklyn. GORGEOUS with classic details but newly renovated and really spacious. I loved almost all of the houses we saw in Brooklyn. They were all in our price range and under, but were all in areas where we just didn’t feel safe. One particularly beautiful one had been a well-known crack house six months before the new gut renovation. No can do.)


(This house was in an awesome location– our own Astoria, right by the N train, but it was crazy dark inside and we’d need to spend 20-30K to RAISE THE CEILING and it was already over budget. Another one we saw in Astoria tried to pass off a walk-in closet as a second bedroom and you had to enter the house through the bedroom (we forced our friends to do that in our old place for 9.5 years. We’re all over it.).


(This dump in Astoria cost almost 2 million dollars. No one cares about this crap house–it’ll be torn down immediately and transformed into condos– but it sits on a large plot of valuable land that you can’t see in the picture. But now you see the shite we’re dealing with here.)


 The first place we ever inquired about in 2014. A total teardown we saw in Astoria and thought we could get for cheap since it was in such terrible shape. Ha! Sold for 1.25 mil. Take a look at it now…1st house

But alas! All of my Texas childhood dreams just came true and I am settling into an attached brick house in New York City with my Queens-born husband Vinny. There’s a bodega across the street and a wash and fold on the corner, just down the street from an Irish pub and around the block from a large Indonesian temple. The city bus drives by my living room window every five minutes.

I grew up on a sleepy cul-de-sac on the Gulf Coast. Our house perched on a small lake where we pedaled paddleboats instead of bikes and floated lazily on hot black tires. We lived a mile from the beach, next to a sharp fork in the road called Dead Man’s Curve. Sometimes I still shake my head in disbelief that this place that’s so different is really home, not just for now, but very likely forever. I feel appreciative, excited and grateful. But still, I can’t help but find life pretty funny too. I could have never predicted this for myself. I guess I’m a real New Yorker now?

It’s been a really interesting time to work in a community mental health clinic, and a lot of countertransference has come up for me in this time. I have several clients who live in shelters and city housing projects, some who’ve spent their lives on and off the streets. Buying a house is enormously stressful, but everyday I’m smacked in the face with reminders that it’s a brand of stress I’m extraordinarily privileged to have. Vin and I worked really, really hard to get to this place together, but we are two people who also really lucked out in the family department, and to say that didn’t make a difference would be a bold-faced lie.

We’re still kind of in disbelief, but somehow we found just the kind of home we hoped for: a multi-family house where we can both live and earn passive income. So now, not only are we about to become home owners, we are also about to become landlords, which is alternatively hilarious and terrifying. Vin plans to wear a tool belt at all times, and I’m going to invest in a pair of tiny reading glasses I can push up the bridge of my nose whenever I march upstairs to demand the rent.


The happiest news of all is that we are staying in our blessed, beloved Astoria, the neighborhood I have been fawning all over in this blog for the past five years. We’re on the other side of town now, which feels fresh and new, but still the same distance from the 24-hour fruit and vegetable stand and fried chicken place we’ve grown so attached to. The first morning I woke up to sun streaming in the windows, I cried. When you live in a basement for almost ten years, you forget how something as simple as a beam of light can affect your mood. I feel like I woke up to a brand new life and I’m surprised by how emotional I’ve been since moving in. “Don’t Stop Believing” came on the radio while I was unpacking the other day and I broke down and sobbed. We’ve had friends and family pop by every night with flowers and champagne, and it makes me really emotional to think of how happy our loved ones are to see us finally reach our goal. It’s been a really magical, wondrous time, and I anticipate it will be until June 1st…when we have to make our first mortgage payment:).


Here are some old house-hunting posts if you’d like to read.

Home Sweet Friggin’ Home

An Update on Our Housing Adventures

Adventures in NYC House Hunting

Wherever I go, I’m taking you with me


Sorry for the extra-light posting over the last few months. I’m not a good stress-writer. Hope to be back soon with some home-related stuff. I have a feeling there’ll be a lot of new stories to write here.


read more

HGTV is ruining all the plans I had for my life.


I avoided HGTV for years, for various reasons. In my 20s, I couldn’t have cared less about real estate or renovations. In my 30s, I totally became interested in real estate and renovations but feared watching these programs would mess with my head too much living in New York City, where you have to sink your expectations down to subterranean levels. There’s a feature in the back pages of New York magazine where they show what you could get elsewhere for what you’re paying in NYC. One time they put two pictures side by side, same price. One was a one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. The other was a castle in Spain.

This is why I’ve avoided HGTV. I don’t need to sit in my dark basement studio knowing you can get a tennis court with your house in Atlanta, or a movie den with your split-level in Tennessee. As someone who loves to cook, it’s like a tiny pinprick to the heart when I see what they’re doing to kitchens across the country these days. That open concept thing with the island covered in a half-mile of carrara marble, topped with a big ceramic fruit basket and stools where your kids can do homework. Oh! And the storage! The cabinets that inch all the way up to the ceiling! The hidden drawers for tiny wet sponges and tall wooden cutting boards. The pot-filler sink faucets behind the stove. Those big, beautiful, 6-burner stoves…

Fixer Upper 213

Throughout the house-hunting process, I’ve submitted to watching these programs– mostly Property Brothers and Fixer Upper, though I’ll sometimes catch Flip or Flop if I have nothing better to do even though I don’t find that California couple particularly endearing. I’m really in awe of the construction process– how someone can take something so wrecked and visualize its possibilities. I’m amazed and impressed by people who can peek behind a wall and diagnose what’s going on back there, and have solutions for how to make things better. I also love seeing the overall design–the tiny tweaks like widening a doorway or choosing just the right paint color to catch the light.

But these shows make me feel some funny feelings. Sometimes I watch them and wonder: “Am I screwing myself out of an easier life?”. I know I’ve written about this before, but If I lived in another part of the country (or world, why sell myself short?), my life could look a whole lot different. I won’t deny that sometimes seeing these pretty houses makes me feel less satisfied with city living. If I lived outside of a city, I could stock up on paper towels at Costco, have an actual dining room table, spring for the extra-tall bottle of olive oil, the one that would never fit upright in a New York City kitchen cabinet. A wrap-around porch? A kitchen made for family gatherings? An extra bit of closet space? A price tag that doesn’t make me feel like passing out? These things sound nice.


(Exterior of typical “Fixer Upper” house in Waco, Texas. Approx $250K (after full gut renovation). 

queens real estate

(Exterior of typical 2-family home in Astoria, Queens…. quite a bit more than 250K)

Anyway, there was one particular episode of Fixer Upper that kicked me in the teeth a little bit. Not enough to make me uproot and move to Waco, just so we’re clear. (I went to Waco once about 20 years ago and can’t remember one single detail of that trip, which makes me feel like it’s probably not the place for me).

Chip and Joanna were showing this couple– a very young couple– a few places to renovate. The couple looked no more than 24 or 25 years old and they owned an adorable, popular coffee shop in town. Let me repeat… they were in their early 20s, owned their own brick-and-mortar shop AND were able to afford a really nice house.

And that’s not something that’s easily possible here– not unless you’re a Wall Street banker, a movie star or the off-spring of a real estate tycoon.

Several people I grew up with in Galveston own businesses in our hometown. One friend and her husband own an awesome surf shop. Another couple opened a saloon-themed bar on the Strand. There are classmates who own home-cleaning businesses, small restaurants, a party rental company. I think it’s amazing that so many people I know own businesses there. It makes the whole town feel connected. I do miss that.

My hometown is very supportive of small, family-owned businesses. Chains have never been a big deal there; they didn’t get a Starbuck’s or a Target until I’d already left. Back in the day, Dad only bought suits at Schwartz’s, which was owned by his best friend’s next door neighbor. We would never drive off the island to Lens Crafters–it was criminal to get our prescription glasses anywhere other than Patti Zein-Eldin’s. We were only allowed to pump gas at one station in town. It was owned by my friend’s dad.

I have an idea for a little shop I’d like to open one day. It came to me while grocery shopping in Texas two months ago. I could tell you about it, but then you might think it’s such a great business idea that you run off and try to make it happen in your neck of the woods, leaving me high and dry. We’re all friends here; I don’t want that kind of competition. So I’ll just keep it tucked behind my ear for a while.

It is a small and simple idea, nothing flashy about it at all, and the catch is…it would have to be in New York City because it fills a void here. Isn’t that what makes businesses thrive? They fill a void of some kind?

It’s something I daydream about from time to time when I allow myself to picture the different shapes my life could still take. Julia Child didn’t become Julia Child till she was 40, you know.

For anyone keeping track, I am almost 39.

An almost-39-year-old born-and-bred Texan who is for all intents and purposes now a bonafide New Yorker. At this point I’m used to the crowds and the potpourri of human odors and the subway tracks that flood with swamp water every time it rains. I’m accustomed to sticky summers and seemingly endless winters. I’m very used to living in relatively small quarters, and in fact, I have grown to appreciate how little space there is to clean. I mean, what would I do with a four-bedroom house with two sitting rooms and an enormous backyard anyway? Truth is, I know I’m right where I belong. I’m a Queens girl now. Those cararra marble counters will be there for me in another lifetime, or perhaps further down the road in this one.

I may need to lay off Fixer Upper for a while. They just had their season finale anyway.

Time to join the Tiny House Nation.









read more

It’s Just a Season…


There is an enormous pile of rubble where my grocery store used to be. A wrecking ball tore through that sucker, and all that’s left is a mound of crumbling red ruins surrounded by a deep green construction fence. They’ve torn it down to make room for a huge pile of glass-block condos with a shopping center on the bottom floor. The old grocery had a going-out-of-business sale a few months ago, and all I got out of the deal was some half-price tin foil and a bag of cinnamon chips. They were already out of chocolate.

Up the street, our local bagel shop swapped out wood paneling and linoleum floors for white subway tile, marquee letters, and free Wi-Fi. Another bagel shop further up started selling Bacon-BBQ cream cheese; such a blasphemous mutation of a New York classic even my Bubbie in Houston is rolling over in her grave. My corner bodega now sells kale smoothies. My hair salon, where very mature women go for their weekly wash-and-set, just got a makeover too. They rolled over the bright green paint that made complexions sallow and painted every inch soft mauve, one wall covered in that plush upholstered fabric you’d see in a rich woman’s closet. I wonder if they’ll keep the sign in the window advertising group bus trips to Atlantic City. Somehow I doubt it. They probably consider it tacky now.

Astoria, Queens

The Athens Cafe, a classic Greek coffee shop where people could sip frappes and eat flaky honeyed pastries for hours, closed after 30 years. Now a trendy Southern spot where they slip duck fat in the biscuits takes its place. We went Saturday night. The biscuits were amazing. The duck fat really does add incredible flavor. What was my point again?

It’s getting crowded here. It’s getting younger too. Hipper. More hoodies and Chuck Taylors. More ironic beards than real ones. Tin ceilings in coffee shops. There are so, so many coffee shops. And rents! Gah! Don’t even talk to me about the rents.

But who am I to complain? Am I allowed to? Aren’t I being hypocritical?

I’m not a native New Yorker. I wasn’t raised in this neighborhood, or anywhere near it. I live in a city, where change is constant and inevitable. For me to expect Astoria to look and feel the way it did ten years ago is foolish and naive. This is not MY NEW YORK or MY ASTORIA. I didn’t found this city. I don’t get to decide who and what sticks around. I’m a hypocrite. I complain about change, while absolutely LOVING most of the changes.  Vin and I have tried almost every new restaurant in town. We are those assholes rolling in with wide-brimmed hats and skinny jeans. We would put subway tile in our kitchen if we had one. We crane our necks up at tin ceilings in coffee shops and sigh because we find them so beautiful. I’m exactly who real New Yorkers complain about when they complain about gentrification– I just got here earlier. Vinny gets a pass because he was born here, and also because he is Vinny, and Vinny is so damn charming it’s hard to be annoyed with him about anything. Plus, hello…his name is Vinny and what’s more New York than that?

Meanwhile, I worry about Old Astoria being pushed out by New Astoria. I sigh about potentially losing businesses I’ve never patronized. I want the shoe cobbler to have work forever. I don’t want the barber shop to let go of their striped pole or start serving shots of whiskey like they do in Manhattan. I hate how sugary their cakes are, but I’d never want that 60-year-old bakery to lose their lease.  What if they close the old vacuum repair shop? The one that fixes only 20-year-old models? Wouldn’t it be sad if that fabric store went away? What will become of the neighborhood if we lose the European housewares stores? The ones that sell fuzzy toilet seat covers and lace tablecloths that look like huge doilies? Where will Astoria find its charm then?

When I moved to Astoria ten years ago, it wasn’t the trendy neighborhood it is now. It was safe and there were plenty of things to eat here, but it wasn’t a place where the reputation was such that they could charge ridiculous rents for small, nondescript apartments. Now it is, which sucks, unless we are actually able to buy property here, in which case… keep growing Astoria! I think you need another really great pour-over coffee place on Steinway Street! See? Hypocrite!


It’s early November, and the leaves are wearing their autumn colors. We don’t have a ton of trees on our block, but the ones we do have are definitely in their prime. It doesn’t get more beautiful than autumn leaves, it really doesn’t. Check your Instagram. Everyone agrees.

The changing of the leaves signals a last hurrah for the growing season, and the transition is fast, moving from green to red to gold to bare in a matter of weeks. We’re already through the better part of the show; the leaves will all be on the ground by next week, and the thought of it makes me sad. As the leaves fall and the branches go cold, I remind myself that time is a gypsy, forever packing up and traveling in and out of town. I remind myself that nothing is eternal; that everything–eventually– will change. That change can be good. That it’s all just a season.

sad tree




read more

Neighbors and New York City: This is not a love story

Sunday morning I was sitting in the yard drinking coffee when I was suddenly jolted awake by the bone-clattering caterwaul of a power drill. It was the guy next door, the one who’s been in heaps of legal trouble all related to his house (in these here parts we call folks like him a slumlord). In his lifelong pursuit to win America’s ugliest backyard contest, he was constructing some type of low-rent pergola, the kind of thing that looks beautiful in a country garden with vines and flowers or tomatoes growing all over it but looks absolutely ridiculous in urban settings. This pointy unfinished wooden structure had just been fashioned over a huge mound of concrete in the middle of his very narrow yard, a space that currently houses an avalanche of overgrown weeds, a few bricks of unused drywall, and in the past– a broken toilet.


Suddenly, drama unfolds…

“What the fuck are doing back here?” Hark! It is young Juliet on her balcony, calling down to her fair neighbor, the middle-aged slumlord with a power drill in his hand and a dollar sign in his heart.

“I’m minding my business. Why don’t you mind yours?!” He called back to her. Ah! Unrequited love! Heartwrenching.

“Your yard and your house look like shit! You don’t take care of anything back here, and now you’re building this stupid thing. I’m calling my landlord!” She didn’t waste time whispering sweet nothings. She yelled them– a girl who knows what she wants.

“I like it natural! Do you know natural? Do you understand NATURAL?” (I think he likes it natural).

Juliet got flustered and threw her hair over her shoulder before hightailing it off the balcony and back into her apartment. The slumlord continued to drill, muttering “crazy girl, crazy girl” to himself.

These are the people in my neighborhood.


I grew up in a quiet cul-de-sac lined with nice, unattached brick houses, manicured bushes and long driveways. It was a peaceful suburban subdivision where we all knew one another, and if we didn’t, we introduced ourselves so we could become allies, friends, compadres. Texans are a famously friendly people, and ignoring or displaying untoward hostility toward your neighbors is a big no-no. In my home state, it’s considered quite rude to pass your neighbor without a smile and a wave or a cheery, “Mornin’!” In my grandparents’ neighborhood, people who don’t wave back are assumed to be Communists. My father and his wife are best friends with their next-door neighbors; they eat dinner with them three times a week, and our families celebrate Christmas together. My wedding reception was in their backyard.

I have had to adjust to a different attitude regarding neighbors since moving to New York City. First of all, I have so many of them. I live in a three-family house, so I have neighbors on the two other floors. Our house is attached to two other three-family houses, both filled with a revolving door of interesting characters. Those people are my neighbors too. Then there are the houses that flank my next door neighbors’ two houses–people in my direct line of sight when they are perched on their balconies. All these houses are filled with people and technically they are all my neighbors, even if they never say hello back and I wouldn’t ask them for a cup of sugar if my birthday cake depended on it. If I make the choice to do yoga in my backyard wearing nothing but a pair of old boxer shorts, a scuba mask and a purple wig, there are at least 35-40 neighbors who will be able to easily witness this. Moreover, I could don this get-up, do yoga in my backyard, and I still wouldn’t be considered the weird neighbor.


Let’s start with the power drill guy to our right. For years, that house was like Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory– nobody ever came in and nobody ever came out. Then a few years ago, he started doing construction work in there– all without the proper permits and always at the worst possible times of day– Sunday morning, 10:30 pm on a Tuesday– drilling, hammering, pop music blasting through a boombox. He whittled a hideous pergola for his front steps, a ridiculous addition for a Queens row-house and an obvious eyesore from at least two blocks away. People started moving in, but the house was still in pretty wrecked shape. It always looked like it was in the middle of construction.

To make a long story short, I’ll sum up: He divided his three-family house into 9 separate units, rented them out to way more than nine people, took all their money, and ended up on the 7 o’clock news before finally hunkering down in a jail cell for a few months. Inevitably, the house filled with squatters who sometimes smoked cigarettes in the junky backyard but mostly kept a low profile as they lived in a house without a kitchen or electricity. The front door acquired a big note on the front: VACATE IMMEDIATELY: LIVING HERE IS PERILOUS TO LIFE, but that wasn’t a strong enough deterrent. The night two firetrucks and three police cars parked out front and raided the building was one of the most thrilling moments of my life. The most scandalous thing to ever happen in my childhood neighborhood was when someone tagged “The fuck?” on an offbeat sculpture in the Thompson family’s front yard.

astoria, queens
Now, to our left: The people in the house to the left are actually very nice; it’s just been really difficult to track who actually lives there because there are about 1,000 people on the front porch at all times. It’s unclear if the residents of this house are legal residents of this country. What I do know is that someone in that house is celebrating a birthday, a graduation, a retirement, or a quincinera every single week. Martha Stewart never threw this many parties, and never this festive. Karaoke, strobe lights, dance contests, pinatas– all regular features. This is a house that left their Christmas decorations up for two years straight, so whenever I would give directions to my apartment I’d tell friends to look for the sun-bleached Santa on a choo-choo train and hook a right. The other night I came home from work at 9pm (*NYC man. Don’t do it. They’ll bleed you dry!), and looked to my left to find a woman sleeping on a blow-up mattress on the front porch. I wasn’t sure if she was doing some end-of-summer camping or if they are finally running out of room at the inn.

And then there is our own house. We’ve rented this spot nine years now, and have seen top-floor dwellers come and go. Almost all of the renters have been couples around our age and we were friendly and chatty with almost all of them, save for a few who didn’t stay too long. Over the past year the two apartments above us have each changed hands twice, and Vin and I are getting tired of the old-song-and-dance/getting-to-know-you routine. I have met and spoken with each of the four other people in this house exactly once apiece, and I get the feeling all of them think that is perfectly adequate. We will not be hosting potlucks, they will not be borrowing sugar. As long as everyone puts their recyclables in the correct bin, I don’t really give a flip anymore what anyone does here. We’re not friends, we’re not allies, we’re not compadres. We will definitely not be spending Christmas together.

Several days ago a mound of soil was scooped out of a flower pot and dumped right in the middle of our front porch, blocking the path to the steps.

“Vinny, did you see the dirt on the front porch? What was that about?”. Little did I know, not only had Vinny seen the dirt, he was actually quite offended by its presence.

“Who makes a mess like that and doesn’t clean up after themselves? Who DOES that?”. On the way into the apartment, Vin kicked the dirt mound to the side of the porch, but refused to sweep it up out of principle.

It’s been five days and the soil is still there. We keep stepping around it, waiting for the offending party to clean up their own damn mess.

Vinny’s face glows red every time he steps in the door, unable to believe humans would behave this way. “Are these people savages? Do they really expect someone else to clean up after them?”.

I’m actually starting to think that the people in our house are innocent in this crime. After all, why would someone plop a mound of dirt on their own front porch? Maybe some precocious teen ran up our steps, scooped dirt out of the flower pot and dumped it on our porch for a silly prank. Maybe it was the mailman, bored or frustrated on a random Tuesday, trying to give himself some tension relief before heading home. Or perhaps it was the pergola-loving slumlord from next door. Maybe he’d confused Juliet on her balcony to his right with the blonde girl in her yard to his left. Maybe he’d dumped the soil on the porch as retribution for the verbal assault he encountered on Sunday. Maybe spilling dirt on a neighbor’s porch was his way of acting out. Or maybe he just really likes it natural. Do you understand natural?

read more

The sidebar you added has no widgets. Please add some from the Widgets Page