Much To My Delight

Much To My Delight

I spent two weeks in Croatia and all I brought back was a few flowery blog posts

 

Every morning began simply, just like this.

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Breakfast, prepared by my mother-in-law, served at the long wooden table in the family’s apartment in Split. Vin’s dad, usually in a soft white t-shirt, thumbing through the local paper, following the World Cup with a kind of fervor that’s difficult to describe. A white ceramic plate stacked with slices of prsut, salty and substantial, sliced a quarter-inch thicker than its delicate cousin prosciutto in neighboring Italy. Triangles of sharp, hard cheese made from sheep’s milk, the one Vin’s mom calls “heavy duty cheese”, stacked next to a tiny mound of a softer one, wetter and more tangy, like feta. There’s always a basket of bread (torn, never sliced) and an assortment of insanely fresh fruit– strawberries, cantaloupe, watermelon– sold by one of the old Croatian women five minutes away in the market, the ones who’ve lived through it all and have no time to charm you. They fill your bag with seven tomatoes instead of the three you’ve asked for because it’s already 2pm and they need to get rid of their produce. They charge you more than you intended to pay because they have earned the right to survive.

fruit market in Split Croatia

traditional Croatian bread

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Every morning at breakfast, we discussed plans for the day. I didn’t create an itinerary for this trip because I knew the agenda wouldn’t really be my own, and it shouldn’t be, because I will never know this place they way my mother and father-in-law do—from experience, from weekly Skype calls with their siblings and nephews and sisters-in-law, from sense memory.

We drove two and a half hours, near the coast of Bosnia Herzegovina to tour Plitvice Lakes, the spectacular national park where you cross the front gate and are immediately greeted by God’s grandest waterfall. We puttered like a flock of ducks behind thousands of tourists over rail-less wooden runways, crossing over open streams of water so unimaginably blue it’s hard to believe they belong to this world. The 16 lakes change from aqua to cerulean to sapphire throughout the day depending on the minerals floating around them, the particular way they’re struck by the sun.

Plitvice Lakes Croatia

Plitvice Lakes Croatia

Plitvice Lakes Croatia

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We spent a late morning and an early afternoon at the local’s beach in Split, where my mother-in-law and I seemed like the only women wearing one-pieces in a universe of string bikinis. Everyone there looked liberated and relaxed, unencumbered by age or size—they all simply chose to wear the least amount of fabric because they liked the way the sun felt on their skin. The water was crystal clear and freezing cold and no matter how far you went out you could still make out the floor, lined with miles of smooth beige pebbles. Mothers called out to speedoed children—“Dodi ovdje! Dodi ovdje” (come here! come here!) when they swam too far and older women gathered beneath the shade of an olive tree, chatting like birds and smoking long, skinny cigarettes. No one was reading quietly or “laying out”; the local’s beach was a social place, like a bustling seaside café.

beach in Split Croatia

At night, Vin and I broke from the parents and walked through the narrow stone corridors of Diocletian’s Palace or along the restless water of the bustling Riva. We tucked into dark corners and got lost in its winding alleys. We watched young locals sing from barstools in smoky konobas, perched behind metal gates on tiptoe to hear opera singers rehearse within the palace gates. Every morning at 5, every night at 9 and basically every hour throughout the day, every church in the city synchronized their bells, a distant clang and din lasting up to five minutes. A lot of people reviewing hotels complain about the bells, but I loved them. I’m not a religious person, but it’s one of my favorite sounds. Late in the evenings, Vin and I would go on our nightly trip to buy gelato from the same tiny stall where a little girl tugged at her mother’s apron from behind the long white counter. We’d get two cones and walk around for an hour or so more.

Split Croatia

Split Croatia

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We took an early morning ferry to a tiny paradise island called Hvar, where fishing boats and chartered yachts line up like childrens’ toys and rock gently from side to side. Vin’s mother visited with a distant cousin while Vinny and I explored the island on our own. We decided it was too hot for climbing stone steps so we parked ourselves at a patio table overlooking the incomparable Adriatic, drinking frozen pina coladas because no matter where I’m on vacation, eventually I will want one. We leaned back on bent elbows with bare dirty feet, watching young boys jump from the back of suspended sailboats and sunbathers coat themselves in cream, blathering on and on to each other like we’d just met on holiday. We talked about our families and our future and the bizarre new stage of life we’ve both stumbled in. We had the kind of conversation that’s only possible when there’s limited WIFI and you’re just a little bit drunk.

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hvar croatia

Hvar Croatia

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We borrow the parents’ car and sneak away to Dubrovnik for a few days, which proves far more touristy than Split but equally spellbinding. We heave and pant walking up and down the narrow stone stairwells leading into Old Town where we snoop around 400-year-old churches and eat lemony sea bream and charred octopus grilled in an outdoor stone fireplace. We pull the brims of our hats over sticky, perspiring faces to shield them from the three o-clock sun while up high on the defensive stone walls that surround the ancient city. We spend an evening hearing a piano master shake the walls of a palace built in the 1640s, where there weren’t enough seats for everyone, so a group of children peered from the balcony above, gossiping in whispers, tossing shadows on stone walls. We spend a transformative six hours at a beach so refreshing and calm it changes my opinion of beaches forever.

dubrovnik

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dubrovnik

dubrovnik Croatia

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Dubrovnik beaches

Later that night we eat dinner on the outdoor patio of a well-known Bosnian restaurant called Taj Mahal. They’ve hired musicians to enhance the atmosphere—a cellist with long brown hair and a classical guitarist; we realize during their 10-minute break they are not just music partners but lovers too. They shuffle around a bit before playing and I brace myself for something Baltic and folksy. To my surprise, the first note is soft and immediately familiar, one of my all-time favorite songs—La Vie en Rose—which floats quietly in the background nearly every morning at home as I stir milk into coffee or dab concealer in the arc beneath my sleepy eyes.

I lift a forkful of our appetizer into my mouth— a warm, soft dish made of cornmeal served with a tiny cup of clotted cream and a salty liquid pool of fresh European butter– and between its warmth and the swell of the music, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of utter bliss and total comfort, like the universe has wound itself around me, holding me in its sublime embrace.

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I’m so happy that I start to cry, because that’s what my body does when it’s truly relaxed and at peace—my shoulders drop, my eyes well with tears and before I can stop them—out they come. I look around at the other patrons chatting and smoking and eating grilled meats served on pillows of hot bread as big and round as baseball mitts. I’m the only person who’s crying, and I don’t feel strange about it at all. I actually find it odd that they’re not.

Look where we are.

HRVATSKA.

Dubrovnik

Croatia

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Dubrovnik Croatia

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There’s too much! Too much!! More stories from my trip to Croatia…to be continued.

 

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Good Morning from Croatia

It’s not like he didn’t warn me. For years he said, “If we go to Croatia, we’ll need a month. You won’t be a regular tourist there. You won’t get to see it all. A lot of the trip will be spent in relatives’ living rooms, visiting. And they won’t all speak English.”

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And it’s true—I haven’t felt like a “regular” tourist here. We’re staying in the basement apartment of the house his great-grandfather built for the family, right before it was taken by Communists. It’s literally steps from the center of Croatia’s second biggest city—Split—and backs into an enormous maritime museum. The family finally got a small portion of the house back after years of legal battles and his parents have been staying in it since May. They share it with Vin’s sweet aunt and uncle in New York, who also stay for months at a time. You can tell the acquisition is bittersweet—just the bottom floor of a very large house. Every time my mother-in-law comes around the back and sees plants and flowers on another floors’ patio she shakes her head, says, “Breaks your heart.”

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We do a lot of visiting between sightseeing. Uncles with names like Slavko and Jakov, aunts who bring out plates and plates of food, old friends from his parents’ village, the best man from his grandfather’s wedding, cousins—there are so many cousins! I swear, Vinny has 50 cousins in Croatia and they are all seven feet tall. Most have spoken at least a little English so I smile and nod and eat and eat and eat proscut proscut proscut while occasionally tossing out a casual “hvala!” (thank you), dobro (good) or Sretan Bozich (Merry Christmas) when I want to make them laugh at how little I know.

On Sunday, before the World Cup game, Vin’s cousin Marinko and his pretty, tall wife “made a dinner” for us at their home, out in the country close to the villages where my husband’s parents grew up. As we drove through their very small farming towns, my mother and father- in-law describe what it was like growing up in a Communist country and point out things along the way.

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“See that?” says Vin’s mom. “That church was built by my grandfather…” “Over there? That hill is where I would meet my girlfriends to sing or look for cute boys while I was walking the sheep.” My father-in-law points to a small house—the school he attended until fifth grade. Then we drive past a big hill set behind a large field. “See those rocks on the hill? That’s what my father hid behind to escape the Nazi firing squad. It was dark, and my grandfather said, “You’re young—run.”

I’ve been hearing these stories for years around their kitchen table in Queens, but having them told in their setting has helped me understand so much more—about their land, their history, their family, their religion, their culture, their values. This has, by far, been the most poignant trip I’ve ever taken in my life. Beyond that, it’s been an education, and I want to learn so much more.

We have a little less than a week left on our trip, and Vin was right. We needed a month.

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Thoughts about Mental Health and a call for community

 

So…how are you? You doing ok? Hanging in there?

Things are tough right now, aren’t they? Tense. Tiring. Overwhelming. Scary.

The American political climate is beyond divisive at this point; it’s hostile and turbulent. Even the 4th of July felt a little different this year, didn’t it? I look around and it feels like people are having a harder time than usual. I know it to be true because of my job.

Anyway, if you’re reading this– I hope you are doing okay and taking care of yourself.

****

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I’m late to discuss it, but I’m still feeling sad about Anthony Bourdain’s death. He was more than a chef, a traveler, a reporter, a TV personality, an author– he was a cultural anthropologist–opening windows to worlds most of us will never see. He introduced us not to the fanciest places around the globe, but the authentic spots run by real working people, and he was always a joy and a wonder to watch. He seemed like the kind of person who didn’t waste a second of life, even in the midst of what we can only assume was immeasurable pain.

It’s been interesting how his and Kate Spade’s deaths by suicide have opened up a much-needed conversation about mental health. Anthony Bourdain certainly inspired me to be a bolder traveler, eater and cook, but it’s in my professional work where I’ve felt his greatest impact.

Anthony Bourdain demonstrated a lot of the qualities found in a really good therapist; he was extraordinarily open-minded, completely nonjudgmental, empathic, down-to-earth, respectful of cultural norms and practices, naturally curious and one hell of a good listener. He never pulled away from people who were different than him; he moved toward them, pulled up a stool at the table and said, “Teach me”.

Sharing a meal with someone is an intimate act; it’s a way we connect, bond and share with others. Food, to me, has always felt like a universal love language. No matter where we are or where we grew up, we all have memories associated with food and how it connects to our families, our cultures and ourselves.  And that was always the take-away message I got from Bourdain’s programs. Watching him try exotic international cuisine was intriguing and seductive, but it always seemed like a metaphor for the real point he was trying to make.

We’re all connected.

Sorry if that’s a little woo-woo for ya, but after ten years of community-based social work, I know it in my bones to be true. Over the years I’ve had conversations with hundreds of people who are by nearly every measure different than myself, and the experience has changed my life. There have been people who walked in my office you’d think I’d have nothing in common with– people with cultural or educational or financial backgrounds that are completely opposite of mine, people with histories dealing drugs, or working in sex industries, or gang involvement– and yet–we always ALWAYS find similarities in the ways that we think or feel.

It’s not because I’m some enlightened, revolutionary person who can talk to anyone or just naturally get along with everyone. I’m not and I don’t. It’s because all people fundamentally want the same things out of life– something to do, someone to love, a sense of purpose, a feeling of safety. We’re all so much more similar than we are different. It’s been proven to me literally hundreds and hundreds of times.

In therapy, the connection doesn’t always happen right away. Some people are harder to engage in treatment than others, and like Bourdain, many times my way in has been with food. My friends and family all know I’m obsessed with food, and so do the majority of my clients at this point. If someone is having a particularly difficult time getting started in therapy, I’ll often ask my favorite back-pocket question: “How would you describe dinner at your house growing up?” because it opens up an entire world to discover. Who was at the table? Who was missing? Was there a table? What did your family eat? Who passed down the recipes? What is the culture that influenced the dishes? Who made the meal? Who served it? Was there enough?

Like Bourdain said (in his Parts Unknown episode on Queens)– when someone shows you what they eat, they’re showing you who they are, where they come from, what makes them happy.

Several of my clients shared their feelings about the two suicides in their sessions. One person scheduled an emergency visit because she found them so triggering. Recent violent events and the U.S.’s divisive political climate also have people anxious, disheartened and upset (myself included). One client very articulately expressed his worries for the future– that he’s disturbed by what he described as “a shift away from the community”, that people feel more isolated and alone, and aren’t engaging with one another kindly the way they should.

Then he said something that I think all the time: “People aren’t able to see how connected they really are, so they disconnect out of fear.”

Isn’t that so true?

***

I’m trying to find my voice in the bigger conversation about mental health. I’ve seen a ton of posts the last few weeks about reaching out for help, calling suicide-prevention hotlines, finding a psychiatrist or therapist, dropping the stigma and finding mental health services. This will likely not be a huge problem if you have private insurance, but if you don’t– if you have Medicaid or Medicare or will have to cover the costs on a sliding scale–pick up the phone and start dialing because let me tell you, these services are getting harder and harder for people to find, and it scares me. As a mental health professional, I don’t worry as much about stigma limiting people from finding treatment. I worry about the availability of services.

I work in a community mental health clinic and we are packed to the rafters. We have nearly 50 therapists on board, and need way more hands on deck. We do not have enough office space to accommodate our current patients; we often joke about needing to build another floor. The intake line never stops ringing. I have a roster of almost 65 people, frequently do ten sessions a day and am asked every week to squeeze in more. Plenty of clinics have closed (my previous counseling center closed down after 30 years when the building they were in went co-op). Many facilities have wait lists of two weeks, three weeks, a month. Our clinic finds space right away for everyone who calls for an appointment, but our staff is stretched tight. Most skilled therapists eventually go into private practice because you can determine your own pace and the pay is better. A month ago I stepped down from my role as a supervisor because keeping a watchful eye on my own clients while also being peripherally responsible for my seven supervisees’ massive caseloads was truly stressing me out.

We are in the midst of an enormous opioid crisis– people are literally dying trying to manage their pain–but just try to get someone into a detox. There is no “holding a bed” or “making a referral” for that process (not if they have Medicaid, anyway). You send them to the hospital at the crack of dawn because beds are first-come, first-served, and even then, there’s a good chance there isn’t one available. Try again tomorrow!

Hospitals are so full they sometimes release patients who are still manic. If clients relapse or decompensate, I say a prayer and amp up our session visits, knowing it could be months before I can effectively refer them to a higher level of treatment. Many times individuals who require intensive psychiatric care find themselves homeless or in prison. There are not enough long-term psychiatric treatment options available. The biggest psychiatric hospitals in this country are our jails.

And I’m talking about New York City. We have more mental health professionals and more resources than anyone. I cannot begin to fathom what it’s like to find services in small towns. It’s not nearly enough. It’s a very, very big problem.

 

Well, super!!! Thanks Jenn, for that uplifting message! Now what are we supposed to do?

 

Here are a few things:

ADVOCATE FOR REFORM: Admittedly, in social work school I was always more interested in clinical practice than policy, but now I see just how critical it is to see things from the macro perspective, not just the micro (I sound soooo social-worky right now)

*Join Mental Health America’s Advocacy Network to receive email alerts about upcoming national campaigns to protect America’s mental health through legislative advocacy.

* Connect with NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides mental health support to millions and leads important awareness campaigns like the #StigmaFree pledge and advocacy and lobbying efforts to help promote mental well-being across the nation.

 

GET INFORMED. There are so many amazing resources available on the internet providing coping tools and general information about mental illness.

*The Mighty: The Mighty is a terrific digital health community created to empower and connect people facing health challenges and disabilities. Their articles are informative and help decrease stigma around physical and mental illnesses.

*Mantherapy: Mantherapy uses a heavy dose of humor to help men learn skills for coping with trauma, depression, anxiety, anger and stress. This is a really wonderful resource.

*Jen_Wellness on Instagram: My grad school bestie has an amaaaaazing instagram account (that all my friends and family are now hooked on) where she shares insightful, helpful and beautifully written posts to help people gain important skills for grounding themselves and coping with life’s stressors. This is an account that should have a million followers.

*Resources when you can’t afford therapy

 

GET INVOLVED. Volunteer. Go to community-based events. So many people are so isolated. Volunteer at a senior center– especially one for LGBT seniors who are less likely to have children. Adopt a veteran, who might be isolated or in a hospital.

 

SEEK OUT COMMUNITY:  The highlight of my week is Wednesday from 12-1pm, when I run a support group for isolated adults. Everyone started out feeling anxious and uncomfortable talking to one another and for months it felt awkward as hell. But nearly three years in, members frequently call the group their “second family”. I try to teach them coping skills, but nowadays they’re too busy telling each other dirty jokes, planning lunch outings and howling with laughter to listen to me. Things get real and completely raw in that room, and I can’t express how powerful it is to watch them support, encourage, amuse and empower one another. People need each other. Check in with your people, meet new people, engage with people.

There’s a new yoga studio in my neighborhood that I keep meaning to check out called the Happie House, where they host free community potluck dinners every Friday night. How cool is that? Wouldn’t it be great if more businesses or even individuals pulled together events like this?

Can’t find it locally? Try checking in with The Big White Wall to connect with others virtually.

 

BE KIND TO EACH OTHER: Give others the benefit of the doubt. Reach out. Call. Hug. Shake hands. Make eye contact. When you’re checking out at the grocery store, take out your headphones and get off your phone, for fuck’s sake. Seems like no big deal, but I think maybe it is. We’re not seeing one another anymore. We’re all here together; let’s act like it.

Wave to your neighbors. Learn the name of the person who sells you your daily coffee.  Take care of yourself. Take care of others. Use your big strong heart to pour love on those around you and I’ll keep trying to do the same.

 

 

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Tripping Around the Sun

**I’ve learned over the last few months how easy it is to break good habits. I think the last time i posted on here I wrote about completing the book of essays I wrote, polishing it up and sending it off to publishers. In the meantime, I was really going to ramp up content over here in order to get marketing going. HAHAHAHA! Well clearly I am totally full of it, because I have done none of those things in the last few months. I had two people read the book, who both gave me terrifically constructive feedback, and then I never looked at it again. I think I needed a break from writing for a while. As i tried to put this post together it did kind of feel like getting back on a bicycle, except the chains are rusted and dragging on the ground. Forgive me for being clumsy; I’m trying to get my groove back, and this little post is my way of putting the training wheels back on.**

 

I published my first blog post the day before my 33rd birthday. It’s sort of cute but not mind-blowing. That was just about eight years ago exactly. Quick! Do the math!

Today is my 41st birthday, and rather than ebullient I tend to get reflective on my birthday so I thought i’d blow the dust off this thing and clear the cobwebs from my middle-aged brain. When exactly does middle age start anyway? Is it 42, 45? When you start singing Lionel Richie tunes in the shower? When you find the first gray hair in your eyebrow? Cause that literally happened yesterday. My biology has a strong sense of humor.

I’m about 30 minutes into 41, and so far, I like it. I woke up this morning to find three yellow roses laid on top of my computer, right in the window of the rising sun. At first blush it looked like my laptop was being laid to rest. Then I went to pee, and found three more roses propped against the medicine cabinet. I stumbled toward my dresser to fondle my gray eyebrow in the mirror– and there was another one. Moved toward the kitchen for my coffee mug, there were a few more leaned against the wall, right below my beloved spice shelves. And finally- because he always knows exactly what I want– three yellow roses hugged the top of my coffee machine. The color yellow symbolizes optimism, warmth, joy and happiness and I’m pleased to report that at this phase, on this morning, I feel all those things.

I’m writing this outside on my sliver of a patio in Queens and it is by all accounts, my happiest place. The sun warms the top of my scalp and if I weren’t surrounded by so much concrete I’d swear I’d stumbled into a nature preserve–that’s how loud the birds are chirping. There’s a slight breeze, cool enough that I’m able to wear sweatpants, and it moves gently through the swelling rose bush and my stalks of herbs that are finally growing legs. When the wind hits the right direction, I catch the faintest hint of basil. The universe knew I was supposed to be born in June.

At 41, I get excited by the strangest things. Every time I replace an old sponge at the kitchen sink, it brings a small thrill. Each night I put on flip-flops and carry scissors into my garden to collect the fresh oregano or cilantro for that evening’s dinner creation. In the mornings, before the sun is in full blaze, I water my herbs and flowers with military precision, making sure each spot is adequately tended. I hang my clothes each night on slim hangers that are all exactly the same size. These are little victories that represent a more stable, settled life.

I’m paying attention to my deepest needs and making sure I take the time to get them met. I started my own therapy and am in the midst of planning some career changes that may reduce some stress from my life. More and more, I trust and follow my instincts, even if I’m not making a popular choice. I’ve taken some time to get to know myself better, and I if I do say so myself, I like what I see.

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been 41 forever– for the last 20 years at least– and it’s a delight to have the rest of my peers catch up. No one wants to meet at noisy lounges anymore or grab drinks at an expensive bar until 2 am. We’re content to linger on back patios or sit around in pajama pants in each other’s living rooms for brunch (I’m overdue to host one by the way). Friends geek out over food with me, humor me about my love for flea markets and fruit stands, send me pictures of beautiful dishes on Instagram. I always knew I’d find comfort in this phase of life, and I’m feeling good about the ground I’m standing on.

Last night, Vinny and I sat in our front yard on two orange chairs, one of which was a gift from one of my best friends several birthdays ago. We both propped cookbooks in our laps, thumbing through pages like they were magazines. Mine was a beautiful vegan book; his was, of course, a tribute to the art of making pie. The last few nights we’d heard the chimes of the Mr. Softee truck ringing down the streets and were hopeful we’d have a better chance of catching it if we waited outside.

We sat out there for an hour waiting for an ice cream truck that never came, and I’m sure if I looked hard enough I could find some type of metaphor in that. But the only thing I’ll ever remember about that night is how content I was to sit in my small front yard reading cookbooks with my best pal, overlooking this quiet street in a neighborhood I love so much. At one point, I looked at my husband–who looks slightly less boyish than he used to– and asked, “Wait, are you becoming a foodie?” Something was settling in him too. Suddenly he was captivated by a cook book and he’d recently ordered a tub of seasoning off the internet so he could cure his own Koji beef.

“I think I might be,” he said, and in that moment, all my birthday wishes came true.

 

 

 

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The Problem with Bias

 

Owning a two-family home is a very strange thing. There’s part of your house you never see, that you’re not allowed to enter, like your fancy friend’s piano room where they had all the breakable stuff and white upholstery. When it’s filled with tenants (which we always want it to be!), you wonder how it’s doing. How’s it decorated? Does the radiator make too much noise? Are they happy here? Has anyone punched a hole in the wall recently?

In January, our very first tenants moved out. They were great neighbors and we were sad to see them go. They were a Muslim family who owned hookah bars on a nearby street lined with Middle Eastern businesses. When they signed the lease in 2016, we had no idea the wife was already several months pregnant. I learned that a month or two later when I saw her taking out the trash with unshaven legs and a huge belly. Let’s just be honest– Vin and I were not happy about it.

Anyone who’s ever ridden in an airplane or lived in an apartment has worried about being disrupted by a constantly crying baby. The wife was due in December, so we enjoyed our last wail-free months as though we were expecting a baby of our own. Then the baby came on Christmas Day and was the most beautiful child I’d ever seen. His eyelashes curled up to his forehead and his full jet black hair laid across his tiny head like a rug. His parents carried him into the doorway of his first home– our home– and soon after, all (ok, most) of my fears about living below a baby went away. Obviously we heard him crying from time to time, but it didn’t disrupt my life and truthfully, his parents made more noise than he did. On warm evenings when I sat out front,  the older brother or father would sometimes prop the baby in my lap for a few minutes if they were coming in or out. There was something really sweet about having a family living above us. It gave our house warmth, and it made the street feel more neighborhoody. (I know that’s not a real word, but people use it all the time, so I’m taking liberties).

Sometimes I really like being wrong.

When our tenants told us they were leaving for a bigger space, my hope was that another family would occupy the space, or at the very least, another couple. Families and couples tend to plant roots longer than roommates, and we didn’t want to have to continuously look for tenants. There’s only so much touch-up painting I can do before I start to lose my spirits and good humor.

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For three weekends straight, we lined up showings with various pairings of couples, friends and siblings. We met two dancers trying to get their big break in the city and several sets of young lovebirds looking for their first shared apartment. One couple was only weeks away from their wedding; another was nervously expecting their first baby. Their families came from Spain, Serbia, Italy, India, Puerto Rico. One woman was even from Texas. Meeting prospective tenants was fun. It’s really nice to get to know people in your neighborhood without having to leave the house.

My top draft choice was a couple (he Muslim, she Mexican) with a little baby girl named Valentina. They were sweet, kind of quiet, and if I’m being honest, the idea of keeping our famously multicultural neighborhood diverse will always appeal to us in a major way. (*Clearly, we have no control over who actually applies to live here, and choosing or rejecting someone based on their ethnicity is total housing discrimination– just sayin’).

They kept calling us and asking questions; they wanted to know how many other people had inquired about renting the apartment, when the move-in date would be, what the school situation looked like. I was pretty sure we had found our tenants and new neighbors, and felt great relief. But then they ended up getting a place closer to the wife’s job. I was totally bummed. I’d just gotten over my fear of living below a house filled with children, and then none of them apply to live here.

Want to know who did?

THREE different sets of very young, white, male roommates.

I started picturing stacks of empty, grease-stained pizza boxes and dishes piled to the top of an overflowing sink. I thought of the marble floor in the bathroom covered in misdirected pee. I thought of noisy Friday nights with two drunk dudes stumbling up the stairwell that runs over my head. Our old neighbors grilled sheep in our driveway for Eid al Adha; I pictured the new tenants asking to borrow our folding table so they could set it up for beer pong.

I thought back to all the young white dudes I knew in my early 20s. The ones who funneled beer and belched the alphabet. The ones who asked me out and never called again. I’d had some unsavory experiences with young white guys. Never once did I consider the good experiences with young white guys (like, ummm, marrying one?). That’s how bias starts, right?

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Ultimately, we found our tenants– two 23-year-olds straight out of college, just starting their very first jobs in the big city. I was sick with the flu the day they saw the apartment, and had no idea what to expect. On move-in day, two sets of parents pulled up front and helped them move in a few humble pieces of hand-me-down furniture and cheap rugs. It was like day one at the college dorm. I kept expecting someone to drag in a lava lamp or a giant Pulp Fiction poster, but then remembered it was 2018.

After they’d settled in a bit, I went upstairs to introduce myself to our new tenants and their parents.

I saw their faces and my whole attitude switched. They looked so young, like kids. They were born the year I graduated high school. They’ve barely squeaked their way into the millennial generation. Suddenly I found my attitude toward them softening. I felt oddly protective of them, like a big sister or den mother. Once their parents drove away I found myself wanting to make sure they had sufficient blankets and nourishing snacks. As Vin and I ate dinner I wondered if I should ask them to come down and join us. They hadn’t gone out or ordered takeout, and I began to grow concerned. Why had I been so afraid of these two?

They’ve been upstairs for two months, and I have to admit– they are delightful people and fabulous tenants. They are incredibly studious and hard-working, responsible and respectful. They work out at 6am before going to the office and keep their TV at a reasonable volume. They do their partying outside the house. There is no screaming or stomping or yelling happening upstairs. They lock all the doors and separate the trash. On Sundays, they sit out front and read in the sun, just like me. They venmo the rent to us a day before it’s due. Two weeks ago they rang our doorbell and gifted us a bottle of wine to say thank you. I find myself hoping they will sign the lease for another year or two. Everyone warned us about becoming landlords, and how hard it would be to find good tenants. I was really worried that young guys would be a terrible fit, but the truth is, you never really know what people are like until you take the time to know them.

Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, sometimes I really like being wrong.

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Three Days in Charleston

 

When Vinny asked me what I wanted for Christmas last year, I replied “nothing”. Then I said, “Wait. I take that back. I want you to plan a weekend away together” because I am wise and all-knowing and pretty much always itching to get out of town if time and finances allow. On Christmas morning I opened an envelope with an itinerary he created– a few nights each in Charleston and Savannah, with print-outs of the most expensive hotels in each city because Christmas mornings are for wildest dreams and looming debt. We delayed booking until we filled our vacant apartment, but once we did, we hopped online and decided to go away for our 15th anniversary. We didn’t end up staying in the pricy, dreamy places he’d originally picked out, but that’s okay because Charleston and Savannah are pretty dreamy on their own.

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WHERE WE STAYED:

The Ashley Inn: We stayed in room 5 of this cute pink bed and breakfast very conveniently located in downtown Charleston. We booked it last minute on bedandbreakfast.com, and were very pleasantly surprised by its location and the fact that it lead out to a slightly more private section of the home’s wrap-around porch.

PROS: Clutch location! Around the corner is one of Charleston’s best breakfast spots (The Hominy Grill) and just past that are two really great restaurants– Xiao Bao Biscuit (I’ll circle back to this!) and R’s Kitchen, which we wish we could have tried. The b&b is about a 10-15 minute walk to King Street, which is the main shopping/restaurant row in town. Also, I gotta give props to that four-poster bed. It’s rare that I sleep so comfortably when I’m not in my own home.

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CONS: B&B purists will be none too thrilled at the check-in process. No one greeted us, and we never met an innkeeper. Rather, our keys were obtained from an envelope in a property down the street. Breakfast was also served down the street, but I never ended up going for it since Charleston is known for its food! But the biggest drawback (and it’s a big one frankly)… there was no coffee in the building! Not one sweet, sweet drop! Who could live like this? Seriously, this place needs to set up a keurig or something in the main area, because that’s just bad hosting, in my opinion. On the brighter side, the lack of in-house brew forced us to get up early and beat the crowds for breakfast:). Another thing to know before booking is that the hotel is a few blocks from the medical center and we heard emergency helicopters hovering overhead a few nights which scared the shit out of me until I realized what was going on.

NEARBY: The Hominy Grill, R’s Kitchen, Xiao Bao Biscuit, Sugar Cupcakes, Candy Shop Vintage, King Street

 

HOW WE GOT AROUND: By foot! If you stay downtown there’s really no need to rent a car. If we weren’t able to walk, ubers were plentiful and inexpensive and every single driver was so sweet and friendly we couldn’t get over it. Charleston is a super quick flight from NYC (I think it was less than 2 hours!) and a great weekend destination for people on the East Coast. We went in March, which was perfect timing since we’re about at the end of our ropes with winter weather.

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house in Charleston

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WHAT TO DO:

Our intention in heading down to Charleston and Savannah wasn’t to “do” much, but to stroll, soak up a little spring sunshine and eat until our top buttons cried uncle. We met all these goals. We didn’t really do that much in Charleston except wander around and explore, punctuated by feedings. Downtown Charleston is super walkable, and there are a million guides on the internet to lead you toward the most popular areas to walk around in. South of Broad, Rainbow Row, the Battery, King Street, down by the water. It’s all very photogenic, clean and charming. That’s what we did the first day and a half– walked around, dipped into little stores, ate.

We also visited a plantation in nearby Mt. Pleasant, and I certainly would recommend that as well. There are a few to choose in the area; we chose the one that offered the most insights into what life was like for the slaves on the plantations. Boone Hall Plantation is the only plantation in the S.C. Low country to present a live presentation of the Gullah culture adapted by African slaves and they have eight former slave cabins you can walk through to learn more about the conditions for slaves on the plantation. (and yes… I suppose some people will choose this one over others because The Notebook was filmed here).

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MOST IMPORTANTLY…WHAT WE ATE

Poogan’s Porch– Recommended!

We tried: Country Fried chicken with gravy and mashed potatoes (very much like the Chicken Fried Chicken I grew up eating in TX), Lump Crabcakes with creamed corn (super generous with the crab, but they could have punched up the flavor a bit), pimento cheese fritters with green tomato jam (the real MVP), and she-crab soup–very tasty but realllllly heavy. This soup is basically on every Charleston menu, but this was the only time we tried it so it’s hard to say whose is best. Very good food, super charming atmosphere, lovely service, a little on the pricier side. Oh yeah… great cocktails too!

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Hominy Grill– Highly Recommended!

We tried: Bread Pudding French Toast with Bourbon Caramel Sauce (as good as it sounds) and their classic Shrimp and Grits with scallions, bacon and mushrooms over cheese grits (like heaven, but seriously). I just loved this place, and it was literally a five-minute walk from our inn, which was perfect to beat the morning crowds. On our second visit, I had the grits bowl topped with mushrooms and leeks (and side order of bacon I got to crumble on top:), and Vin got smothered eggs over biscuits. Fantastic and inexpensive. Get there early for breakfast because it gets totally packed, but there’s lots of good reasons why. I wish this place was in my neighborhood.

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Sugar Bakeshop- Recommended (pop in if you’re already walking toward King Street)

We tried the Lemon Curd and the Raspberry. Small, light, lovely little place. Definitely worth a stop if you’re already in the area but I wouldn’t necessarily go out of the way unless you’re a total cupcake fiend (I’m not. I’m more of an ice cream gal).

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Fleet Landing- Recommended, especially for atmosphere

We tried: Fried Green Tomato Stack layered with tarragon crab salad (for $8.99, this is an amazing deal and it was delicious!), Lump Crab Cake Sandwich with Red Pepper Remoulade (we’re used to paying through the nose for any dish whispering the word “crab” in NYC, so we ordered crab at almost every restaurant in Charleston!), the fish special which was served with a tomato relish, black-eyed peas and Charleston red rice (twas just ok). Great spot downtown, very popular and super nice if you’re looking to eat outside by the water. Not my favorite meal of the trip, but did the job.

Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams Highly Recommended!

I’m an ice cream gal, and this place is indeed splendid. If you’re ever in a town that has a Jeni’s shop, you must pop in to sample their excellent flavors made from premium ingredients. Top billing goes to Wildberry Lavender and Brown Butter Almond Brittle.

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Xiao Bao Biscuit Very Highly Recommended!

All the in-the-know gals who travel to Charleston (thanks Victoria!) rave about this place and for good reason– it’s incredible! On the website, it’s described as “Asian Soul Food -  Select dishes from China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam prepared locally & inspired by kick-ass grandmothers everywhere. ” We tried the popular cabbage pancake topped with bacon, an octopus tail and a crazy beautiful spicy salad (the menu has already changed for the season and I can’t remember what any of the dishes are called). But trust me, when you need a quick break from heavy home cooking, this place really hits the spot! Charleston truly is a foodie’s paradise, and not just for Southern cuisine.

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Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit Very Highly Recommended!

Line up early because this place is small, popular and fantastic! Vin had a breakfast sandwich on a biscuit (which was bomb) and I just tried two little guys (cheese & chive, which was really good and Black Pepper & bacon which was utterly mind-blowing). On King Street, so if you’re already shopping around, pop in! This one qualifies as an absolute “don’t miss”.

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Circa 1886 - Very highly recommended (for a splurge). We went to Husk in Savannah, and I have to imagine this place beats Husk- Charleston. If you’re looking for a romantic and special meal for your trip, this is the spot! The restaurant is in the carriage house of the Wentworth Mansion (one of the fancy printouts Vin made on Christmas morning) and serves some really exceptional high-end Southern cuisine.

We tried:

Appetizers: BUTTERMILK FRIED ARTICHOKE HEART  with Parsnip Puree, Tomato Marmalade, Black Truffle Pesto, Basil, Baby Spinach, Prosciutto (good, but not as awesome as it sounds)

NIMAN RANCH PORK CHEEK  with Spaghetti Squash, Pickled Green Apple, Crispy Kale, Herb de Provence Glacé (very very good, very tiny)

Main Courses: COFFEE BRINED ANTELOPE  with Sorghum Sweet Potato Mousseline, Braised Greens, Pineapple Relish, Shishito Peppers, Coconut Crema (Amazing!!! So many flavors– everything was covered)

BENNE CRUSTED DUCK BREAST with White Peach Grits, Broccoli, Carmelized Shallots, Sour Vanilla Tea Demi Glacé (I will dream about white peach grits for a very long time–such a subtle flavor that worked perfectly with everything else on the plate. Really fantastic!)

Dessert: CHOCOLATE BENNÉ CAKE Jivara Mascarpone, Ganache, Benné Butter, Lace Cookie

This was the best dessert I’ve ever had. The chocolate was practically unsweetened and the benne seeds (which are popular in the Carolinas, and are basically sesame seeds with a more toasted flavor) added lots of texture and crunch. My life’s mission is to recreate it. Plus, how pretty is this thing??

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What we Missed: Husk, FIG, Jestine’s, R Kitchen, Leon’s Oyster Shop ( I hear the fried chicken sandwich is spectacular and I’m still sad I missed it!).

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I Like Home Too.

 

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Vin and I have this game we play every time we get out of town. He’ll ask, “Can you imagine growing up here? What do you think you would have been like?”  “Do you think you’d be different?” Vin has only lived in New York City, and I think he has a difficult time imagining life any other way.

Whenever he asks these questions, we’re usually in a car whizzing by houses that are much, much larger than ours or walking down an impeccably clean street that smells like jasmine or gardenias. Sometimes we’re in a charming local store sniffing woodsy paraffin candles or admiring jars of rosemary-infused jams. On rare occasions we’re in a place so different from home it’s almost impossible to imagine a life there– on a bone-white patio perched on the edge of the bright-blue sea in Greece, or sweating in late December on the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan.

We think about how our lives could have turned out differently if we’d grown up in really small American towns like Saugerties, New York or Fredericksburg, Texas; if we’d have liked the same music or had the same types of friends. I wonder what kinds of jobs local kids have in the summertime and what their parents cook them for dinner. I wonder what dishes are becoming the blueprint for every future memory associated with home. If I’d grown up in New England maybe I’d reach for a bowl carved from soft bread and filled with clam chowder when I was having a bad day. If Cincinnati was home, I’d put chili on a plate of spaghetti and cover it with cheese instead of pour it inside a bag of Fritos and top it with raw onions.

And because I live here, I often wonder how different I’d be if I’d spent my childhood in New York City. Would I be a little tougher, a little quicker to assert myself? Would I have spent weekends touring museums instead of laying out in the sun? I sometimes look at my husband and think he would have been exactly who he is no matter where he was. Or maybe I just have a hard time imagining him any other way.

After a while we flip to, “What do you think? Think you could live here?”

Vinny always answers no. Sometimes in calmer, smaller towns, I picture myself in my 60s and answer yes. The only time I answered “Absolutely! I could move here right now!” was in Barcelona. I cried after our last dinner there because I wasn’t ready to go home. That’s the only place that ever happened in, and I think it means something, but I’m not sure what. At the very least I should probably start brushing up on my Catalan.

 

 

Last week we took a trip to the American South, starting in Charleston then driving our way to Savannah, and I don’t know why I never realized before how beautiful that part of our country is. The buildings are old and ornate with long skinny porches that creak underfoot and host hanging baskets of pink and yellow begonias and climbing trellises of ivy. Black wooden shutters frame windows and delicate iron gates tiptoe around small front yards and walkways. Narrow alleys are lined with cobblestones and history and the scent of very old money. Fathers take their boys to fish for bass and bream in the shallow salt marshes and tidal creeks. Majestic live oaks arch overhead and drip with Spanish moss like some kind of gothic fairytale dream, and just when you think the entire world has turned green an azalea bush erupts in a riot of hot pink.

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We check into our candy-colored bed and breakfast in Charleston and take a deep breath of fresh spring air on our side porch. We dress for dinner, which we’ve already decided will be fried chicken and crab cakes, served in a wallpapered room in the back of a restored Victorian house.

We carry our craft cocktails to the table and the waiter says to us, “I knew you folks were from New York City the minute you walked in, and I mean that as a compliment.”

“Thank you, “I say. “We take it as one.”

We spend the next few days walking around, taking our time, sleeping in formal old homes where we sip peach tea on swinging benches and cutting quick paths to our next restaurant. Once we start eating we don’t stop. We eat like our time on earth is running out. We slurp she-crab soup thickened with heavy cream and sweetened with sherry, stand in line for tiny buttermilk biscuits we coat in butter and sticky honey, dive into bowls of collard greens seasoned with ham hocks and tangy vinegar.  We swipe fried pimento balls through a river of green tomato relish and swirl a tiny pool of butter into a bowl of creamy hominy grits, topped with tiny bits of bacon and shrimp the size of my elbow. We did this for five nights and six days, until our wallets and waistbands quietly whispered, “Go home. ” Vinny demolished half an apple pie in the uber on the way to the airport.

We take our quick flight, eager to land before the impending snowstorm. We’d given ourselves a quick glimpse of springtime, but were headed back to our cold New York City winter. On the plane I read a book about traveling that I’d borrowed from my friend and dream about all the delicious places in this world I’d be lucky to see.

Eventually we begin our final descent and I look to my left at the familiar skyline unfolding beneath me. A smile spreads across my face like softened butter. Vin is asleep, so I nudge him gently in the arm. “Wake up, Vinny. We’re home.”

“Yay”, he says, and rubs his eyes. “I’m glad we’re here. I like home.’

“I like home too”, I say, and reach to get my bag.

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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.

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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.

MANHATTAN

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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

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In Texas, it’s like borrowing a cup of sugar.

 

Did I ever tell you the story of how my dad met his next door neighbors? It is perhaps the most Texan story of all time. It’s really funny.

My dad lives between Galveston and Houston in a small marina town called Kemah; in the 2010 census the population was 1, 773. There’s a wharf down the road where people park their boats and a line of seafood shops sell fresh flounder and enormous shrimp shaped like bananas. Dad built his house on a large plot of land on the edge of a small lake, a body of water so placid and tranquil it barely ripples, even in a hurricane. Dad’s yard is the perfect place to drink a refreshing cocktail and watch the sun set. Every time I visit I’m reminded how different our lifestyles are.

One day, Dad was doing some work in his yard when a big snake slithered along his path. Now dad has all types of undomesticated animals wander around his area and come through his yard– coyotes howl at night, geese do running leaps across the grass and dozens of turtles line the edge of the lake, their hard shells docked along the shoreline like colossal skipping stones. One time we had to have a bobcat rescued from the top branch of an oak tree. Its eyes were piercing hazel and lined by a rim of bright white fur–gorgeous but terrifying.

Dad also has many domesticated animals, as he and his wife rescue anything with four legs. Most things wouldn’t cause a stir, but snakes could cause major harm to their six dogs and two cats. According to legend (aka: my father’s retelling), he handled seeing the snake in a very brave and masculine way, then ran a few blocks to the house next door to ask for help from his new neighbors. He still hadn’t met them yet.

Dad ran up to their front door which was framed by two box ferns and adorned with a seasonal homemade wreath.

“Hey! I live next door. Do you have a gun I can borrow?” He dropped his hands on his knees as he struggled to catch his breath.

“You don’t have a gun?” the neighbor asked. He wore blue jeans and a belt buckle the size of a salad plate. They called him Longhorn Bob, because he raises longhorns. Years later, at my wedding, he did a bidding call to auction off dances with me and Vin. He also served our friends shots from his best bottle of tequila.

“I don’t have a gun. But I have a snake I need to shoot.” said Dad.

Bob closed the door a bit and whispered to his wife Cindy, a beautiful blonde who rolls 60 enchiladas on Sundays just in case people stop by. “Cindy, this guy says he lives next door and he needs to borrow a gun to shoot a snake. What should I do?”

“How do we know he’s not gonna shoot his wife?” asked Cindy. This was a fair question.

“I don’t understand,” said Bob. “Why doesn’t this guy have a gun?”

When Dad retold the story to me, I laughed at the irony of the situation. My father didn’t seem suspicious because he was holding a gun, he was suspicious for not owning one.

Isn’t that funny?

 

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My Achy Valentine

 

Thursday, 4:15pm 

I take a sip, and immediately know. I’d just led a group in my office and had offered everyone present water or tea. I keep a little mug tree on my desk and most of the time consider it a pretty nice touch for a therapist’s office, except on the day everyone puts their dirty cups in the same spot and I mistakenly grab one thinking it’s mine.

Jenn: “OMG I’m panicking because I think I accidentally drank water out of someone else’s cup. I know I have the cold and the flu and probably Ebola.”

Vinny: “Haha, oh no!”

J: I’m going home to pour a bucket of hot salt water down my throat. This might be it for me. Game over.”

V: Ok baba. Get to gargling. You’re not going to die.”

J: “Don’t forget that I love you. We had a lot of good times.”

V: “You’ll be fine.”

J: “You can remarry. I don’t want you to starve.”

V: “Stop! You’re fine. But yeah– you better gargle that salt water.”

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Friday morning:

The staff doctor calls in sick. (in a health clinic, this is the sign of the end). The receptionist looks overwhelmed and slightly feverish.

Friday early evening:

Vinny finally arrives home after a week-long ski trip in Vermont where he’d been hurtling himself through fresh powder and guzzling hot chocolate with shots of whiskey. I pull myself off the couch to greet my husband in paint-covered black sweatpants and a dirty shirt. My head wobbles on my shoulders; its weight substantial and cumbersome. He immediately has to rush out to a work function.  I immediately rush to bed.

Saturday morning: 

I wake up to fresh flowers and crippling fatigue. I know right away I will spend the entire day on the couch with a jug of ginger tea and a remote control. Vinny heads upstairs with his father to paint the rental apartment. Throughout the day, groups of people tour the place, all of them healthy and attractive. I greet them from my horizontal position on the couch in a plush white robe. Refusing to shake anyone’s hand, I offer up a few patriotic salutes.

Flashes of warmth course through my neck and shoulders, so I’d remove the robe and immediately start to shiver. Beads of sweat pooled at the base of my neck, then they’d dry and I’d be cold all over again. Per my request, Vin went to the grocery to buy a whole organic chicken and a huge stick of ginger. I taught him how to make “my great healing soup” from my spot on the couch. The only thing he’d ever boiled before was hot dogs. Watching him skin and debone a whole chicken for me brought tears to my eyes. He takes my temperature throughout the day, presses his cool palm into my hot forehead.

Sunday- Monday:

Still achy and fatigued and laying prostrate on the couch. By late Monday, feeling better– take a walk, call clients and tell them I’ll see them in the morning.

Tuesday morning:
I’m dressed and ready to go to work when my knees start to buckle and the idea of walking a few blocks to the subway seems an impossible feat. I feel much better than I had days ago, but still worried about getting others sick.

“I think I need to check in with a doctor,” I say to Vin, who was just about to leave for work too.

We get in the car and drive to urgent care, where they should consider changing their name because we sat in a windowless exam room for an hour waiting for the PA. Vinny played with every instrument in the doctor’s office before i was finally declared flu-free. We go to the pharmacy to pick up my meds, and Vin waits another 30 minutes in the car. It’s now 12:30 and he’s several hours late for work. It reminds me of how I got sick on our honeymoon, and instead of complaining about not being able to go out and do stuff, he spent an hour brushing tangles out of my windblown hair.

Tuesday evening:

Text message from Vinny,” Make some room on that couch baba. So so achy.”

Jenn: “Oh no! Not you too!”

V: ” I think this is the big one. You should remarry. I want another person to eat as well as I have.”

After a crappy subway ride home, Vinny opens the door and heads for the couch. I lay a blanket on him, the raggedy white throw I’d been coughing into for days. I cover his feet, and start the pitcher for tea. I touch his hot forehead with the cool palm of my hand and tell him to get some rest.

It’s my turn.

On and on we go.

And I can’t think of anything more romantic.

tea

My Great Healing Soup

-one whole organic chicken (skin removed)

-1 whole stick of ginger root, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

-as many cloves of fresh garlic as you can handle (i go for 6-8)

salt + pepper to taste

Boil all this together for a long time until it tastes really gingery and really garlicky. Remove chicken and shred, then put it back in the pot. That’s it.

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About Jenn.


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About Me: I'm a 40-year-old native Texan who moved to New York, became a therapist, and married a guy named Vinny from Queens. I delight in observing the world around me, and write about it here. I'm not normally this tan, but I wish I was.

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