Monday, March 31, 2014

My Ninth Month as a New Yorker

I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record with these month recaps, but guess what? March was pretty awesome. In fact, my life is pretty much all-around awesome. I don't say that to brag or to sound like some sort of super human who is above sadness or failure or general unhappiness — I most definitely am not that. But, I'm also just really, really happy — in New York, at my new(ish) job, with my friends, with the adventures I've taken and the ones I have planned.

Sometimes, I catch a glimpse of my reflection as I'm walking to work in the morning and I realize that I've essentially become (or am very, very close to becoming) the person I've always wanted to be. It's a really odd realization actually, and sometimes it's downright scary to admit to yourself that you're happy — it can feel too fragile, too precarious, too intangible.

I have always had a hard time living in the present. I'm always looking back on what I've done or planning for the future. I still struggle to live in the moment, but I'm actively trying to force myself to be present, to be thankful and alert and to allow time in my schedule for aimless wandering. I made the choice more than ten months ago (and in some ways, long before that) to start actually living my life the way I had always only ever dreamed about. It's a strange feeling when your real life and your dream life start to align, but I don't want to miss one second of it.

A few highlights from my very happy March:

I walked by one of the few remaining free-standing phone booths  /  I creeped on Kathleen Kelly's apartment from You've Got Mail before returning to Cafe Lalo for my first "meal" after being sick  /  I took a Sunday walk across Central Park to the East Side, where I picked up Ladurée macarons (my first!) for an Oscar party  /  I met Grace at the Lexington Candy Shop for lunch (and a very necessary milkshake).

I fell in love with the skull-themed tombstones at Trinity Churchyard cemetery in lower Manhattan  /  I walked around downtown and spied on the new World Trade Center (but I didn't sneak to the top)  /  I explored the Lower East Side before taking a tour at the Tenement Museum  /  Jim and I had our first (and second) knishes at Yonah Schimmel, in business since 1910  /  Daylight Savings time allowed me to walk home through Central Park and finally catch beautiful sunsets again.

Mozart continued to be the sweetest animal on the planet  /  I took a warm, sunny bench nap in the de Blasio's backyard  /  I attended a lecture on urban cemeteries and then found a skull bead on my walk to work through Central Park the next morning  /  A brochure I designed was printed  /  I continued to discover amazing and different manhole covers — this one was across the street from my apartment  /  I explored Trinity Cemetery and Mausoleum, the only active cemetery left in Manhattan.

I found an awesome coffee shop in Hamilton Heights and had a life-changing almond cookie  /  I tricked Alisha into taking a windy adventure with me to the Little Red Lighthouse and signed up for Walk MS to raise money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society  /  I walked past the most amazing apartment building every morning (a former cancer hospital)  /  I totally scored in the dollar section at the Strand  /  I visited the oldest tree in Manhattan  /  I discovered the prettiest manhole cover in the middle of a lawn in Central Park.

I tried to walk to work as much as possible and found out it was nearly 2.5 miles each way  /  Jim and a co-worker of mine took a candlelit ghost tour of the most haunted house in Manhattan, the Merchant's House  /  I crossed another stand-alone diner off of my list  /  I spent a wonderful, wandering Saturday checking out flea markets, watching a bubble-maker in Washington Square Park and visited the smallest cemetery in Manhattan.

I got my fortune from a sidewalk Zoltar in the East Village  /  Trent, Jim and I went to the Orchid Show for a glimpse of spring  /  Jim, Katie and I were tourists for a night and ate at the Hard Rock Cafe in Times Square (we made reservations)  /  My friend Melissa visited from Ohio and we walked the Brooklyn Bridge in the rain (her first time!) and ate pizza with ziti on top  /  I spent a lazy Sunday lounging with my favorite gray lady.

I'm going to go out on an optimistic limb and say that I think this winter is FINALLY coming to an end due to a forecast that has the temperature in the 50s for the foreseeable future (much appreciated). I already have a few trips planned for April — Texas to see my sister and then back to Ohio for a weekend — and my to-do, to-see, to-eat and to-read lists just keep getting longer and longer. I am totally loving my new camera and I can't wait to finally see (and photograph) my beloved cherry blossoms again. Even though it snowed yesterday, spring is so close I can taste it — and it tastes like a Cadbury Egg, which coincidentally, I am eating as I type this.

More Recaps: First Month  |  Second Month  |  Third Month  |  Fourth Month  |  Fifth Month  |  Sixth Month  |  Seventh Month  |  Eighth Month

Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Smallest Cemetery in New York

Two weekends ago I spent a wonderfully beautiful Saturday wandering around Manhattan. I've mentioned before that these ambling days usually turn out to be some of my favorites, and this was no exception. After starting off my day at the Square Diner, in TriBeCa, I made my way to Greenwich Village to see the smallest cemetery in Manhattan.

In case you haven't noticed, I've been on a cemetery kick always lately, so it was only a matter of time before I made it to the tiny, triangular cemetery on West 11th Street. Unfortunately, the gates were closed, but it's such a tiny piece of land that you can pretty much see it all just from peeking through the fence.

The Congregation Shearith Israel was America's first Jewish Congregation and was founded in 1654. The 11th Street Cemetery is actually its second, and was active from 1805-1829. It was used "primarily to bury victims of communicable diseases like yellow fever and malaria, as well as for those Jews who passed away in New York but were not members of the Congregation [source]"

Over the years, the expansion of the neighborhood has forced many of the remains to be re-interred elsewhere, but a few worn tombstones remain. Most of the stones have been fastened to the brick wall surrounding the cemetery — notable residents include the painter Joshua Cantor (that's his obelisk in the middle) and Revolutionary War hero Ephraim Hart.

It's probably quite easy to walk right by the cemetery without even noticing it, which I'm sure I've actually done a few times in the past. I am very familiar with the area, and I have no idea why I didn't visit it sooner. A co-worker of mine said she took a ghost tour that started in this cemetery, so I'm wondering if I'll ever be able to get inside of the gates — I would love to take a closer look at some of the headstones and feel what it's like to be in such a tiny oasis in the middle of the city.

As I was walking away I noticed that I could get an overhead view of the entire cemetery by climbing a few steps up to the stoop of a neighboring apartment building. While I was standing there, I noticed a flyer posted on the door of the building advertising an available apartment: a two-bedroom, two-bath apartment (cemetery adjacent!) could be yours for the "low" price of nearly $7k/month, if you want to be neighbors with the quiet residents of the smallest cemetery in New York.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Friday Food: Square Diner

On Saturday, I checked another stand-alone diner off of my list when I went to the Square Diner in TriBeCa. Although I live uptown, the Square Diner is directly off the 1 train so it's a straight shot for me, and it's literally steps away from the subway station.

Like the Pearl Diner, the Square feels very out of place for its neighborhood, which makes it all the more remarkable that it's survived the popularity surge and celebrification of the surrounding areas (aka, all of New York). It wasn't very busy when I arrived at about 11 am, but it was full when I left an hour later. There is ample seating outside, which is another quirky and somewhat unexpected perk not usually associated with diners, and I'd love to go back when (if) the weather finally gets warmer.

The inside doesn't seem to have changed much in years (the outside definitely has), from the faded pink vinyl booths and bar stools to the wood panelling and stainless accents, it's classic diner décor through-and-through.

The thing I love most about the Square Diner is that the building is actually triangular, which makes for some awkward spaces where the sides narrow to a point. They even have a circular logo — in fact, the only thing square about the Square Diner is it's name.

I ordered a waffle, and while it was perfectly acceptable it wasn't anything spectacular. It's a little bit more pricey than other diners I've eaten at, but probably a lot cheaper than some neighborhood alternatives. The service was fast if not entirely friendly, so it was a pretty typical diner experience in an above-average space.

I would put the Square Diner above the Pearl Diner in décor and architecture (although the Pearl has a better sign), but below the Empire, which I have a feeling will remain on top. The food was comparable at both the Square and Pearl — I got waffles at both — and I'll have to go back to the Empire for breakfast if I want to see how it stacks up in the waffle department (my guess is fantastically).

I still have two more stand-alone diners in Manhattan on my list, and then I guess I'll have to start on the outer boroughs. There are definitely more stand-alone diners/dining cars left outside of Manhattan and I see a lot of waffles (and diner coffee) in my future (not mad about it).

Thursday, March 27, 2014

NYBG: Orchid Show-Part One

On Sunday Trent, Jim and I went to the annual Orchid Show at the New York Botanical Gardens in the Bronx. The Orchid Show was my first experience at the NYBG last year (I went with my uncle) and having since been to other shows throughout the year — Kiku: Japanese Garden and the Holiday Train Show — I can say that the Orchid Show is definitely the best (not that the others are bad, but orchids are just awesome).

That being said, I think last year's show was better than the current show; it seemed as if there were less flowers this year, which I can't know for sure if there was, but something about it felt more sparse. Maybe it was just that a bit of the novelty has worn off since I recognized a lot of varieties from last year, which is totally understandable. It was still a great escape from the cold, never-ending winter, and we all got in free because I'm a NYBG member.

There is a seemingly infinite variety of orchids on display, from ones that smell like chocolate to ones that look like slippers or giraffes or ladies in ruffled skirts. Jim read that there are orchids you can cook with chicken and that blue is the rarest color. I found myself being especially drawn to the darker varieties — maybe the fact that they're rare makes them feel particularly special. There's always been something about a really dark flower that I love. Flowers are such a happy, beautiful thing that they aren't usually associated with darkness or dark, somber colors. It should come as no surprise that I go to a flower show and end up falling in love with the most morbid ones I can find.

I also really loved the green orchids, once again because green is not generally a flower color. It's actually quite odd to see a green flower and they almost didn't even look real.

The show was a great place to continue playing with my new camera and my 50mm lens was basically made to take a million close-up photos of weird-looking plants, so that's what I spent my time doing. The flowers are so beautiful on their own that I didn't have to try too hard to get a good photo and each one was so different that I couldn't help myself from trying to capture them all.

Becoming a member of the NYBG was one of the best investments I've made and I've gotten more than my money's worth just a few months into my year membership. Although it's currently fucking-freezing degrees outside (this is an exact measurement of temperature now) the orchid show was a wonderful taste of spring — even if we may never again get to experience actual spring in New York.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Friday Food: Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery

After we toured the Tenement Museum, Jim and I continued to party like it was 1910 and headed over to the Yonah Schimmel Knish Bakery. Neither of us had ever had a knish before, and I wasn't even entirely clear on what they were. I'm still foggy on how you pronounce the word (ka-nish? nish?), but after eating one I can tell you exactly what is in them: not much. 

Their sign says "since 1910," but Wikipedia claims that Yonah Schimmel has been serving knishes from their Houston Street location since 1890. Either way, they've been there a very long time, and the inside of the bakery looks the part. They aren't too far from the Tenement Museum, and they're right down the street from Katz's Deli — if you wanted to do right but the Lower East Side, you could do worse than spending the day eating your way down Houston Street with a tour squeezed in somewhere between meals.

They have table service, so we sat down and ordered — Jim opted for the plain potato and I went rogue with the jalepeño/cheddar/potato knish special. Jim also ordered his first-ever egg cream, which, despite my warnings, he actually enjoyed. Not wanting to ruin the old New York theme of our meal, I ordered a Cherry Lime Rickey, which I've had before and always love. 

When the knishes came, we didn't have silverware at our table so we assumed you ate them with your hands. We were almost done eating before the waitress realized we didn't have cutlery (or maybe we just looked like animals) and apologized profusely. Apparently the knish is most definitely a knife-and-fork endeavor, but if you want to look like a totally clueless tourist than there's no better way than to attack your knish with using bare-hand method. 

As for how they tasted, well... They weren't bad, per se. But I don't think I'm going to actively be craving knishes anytime soon. Mine tasted exactly how you would expect dough filled with mashed potatoes and topped with cheddar to taste. It was a bit bland, very, very dense (it was crazy heavy, which I know since — did I mention? —we ate them with our hands) and extremely filling. We both agreed that if we were ever in need of a cheap ($3.50) and lasting meal that you can't go wrong with a knish. 

I think the cheddar and jalepeño was a welcome addition to the plain potato, and dipping it in mustard (there were bottles on every table, so we took the hint) helped as well. For dessert we were so full that we decided to split a cherry/cheese knish, which was delicious and more than enough for two. Jim likened the cheese knish crust to pizza crust, which is pretty accurate, and the filling was cream-cheesy and sweet but not overwhelmingly so. 

The interior of the bakery is a total time warp, right down to the old man sitting behind us reading the newspaper. If the entire place wasn't so obviously authentic I would have sworn that he was an actor paid to add faux charm, he was so perfectly old New York. 

I love all of their hand painted signage and mis-matched décor, and I appreciate their authenticity — they're not trying too hard (or trying at all) to be hip because they don't have to. They've managed to stay in business for more than 100 years and I hope they make it as least 100 more.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Recent Reads

I have a total love/hate relationship with my library card. I'm still amazed that I can leave the library with a purse full of great books at absolutely zero cost to me (except when I can't finish them and end up paying overdue fees) but lately the hold system has been causing me anxiety. I get excited and start requesting a lot of books, and suddenly they all become available at the exact same time. Most of the books have been new releases or popular titles, meaning I only get them for two weeks (instead of three), with no option to renew.

I've tried to increase my reading speed and efficiency to keep up with the constant influx of new material, which is definitely a positive effect, but I've had to let a few gems pass by because I just couldn't fit them into my rotation. I'm totally the dad in About Time, who used his time traveling ability just to get in more reading time. There are so many amazing books in the world that it makes me sad to think that I will never have the time to read them all.

Here are a few recent books that made the cut, all of which have been from the library:

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch is the most extreme example of my recent reading-induced anxiety: I had exactly two weeks to read all 748 pages, and I actually finished with a day to spare. And then I started a new job and didn't know when I would be able to make a library run, so I kept it a few days overdue and had to pay fines anyway :|  Oh well, it was definitely worth it — there are worse things to spend my money on than a good book. This book was on every "best of 2013" list that I saw, and deservedly so. I have been much more into non-fiction lately, and this huge, sprawling novel was a great change of pace. The New York parts were my favorite (for obvious reasons), although the MET Museum bombing hit a little too close to home — I'll never look at that building the same way again. I definitely related to Theo's obsessive love of the stolen Goldfinch painting and there were nights when I just couldn't put the book down (and not only because I was on such a strict timetable). There are portions of the middle that drag a bit, but overall it's definitely worth the time investment.

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder, by Charles Graeber

With a subtitle like that, how could I NOT love this book? The Good Nurse is the true story of Charles Cullen, a nurse that may have killed as many as 300 people while working at various hospitals and care facilities on the east coast. Charlie's story is so fascinating (and very terrifying) that there's pretty much no way this book could have been bad. Sometimes the narrative style was a little too illustrative for me (there's no need to embellish here, the truth is crazy enough), but I think I got used to it after a while. It's actually terrifying to think that he was able to kill so many people and yet it took nearly 16 years before he was finally caught — and even then it wasn't an easy conviction.

As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised As a Girl, by John Colapinto

The story of David Reimer, who was born a boy and after essentially losing his penis to a botched circumcision was then raised as a girl, is pretty famous but I had never heard of it before reading this book. Someone familiar with the story might find this account to be redundant, but it was all completely new to me. The subjects of gender identity, medical and psychological issues are all fascinating to me, and this book covered all three in the telling of Reimer's story. The author was very sympathetic to Reimer (and no so much his doctors), but I don't think that's a bad thing, or that there should be any doubt that it was a mistake in every way to make such a drastic decision.

Typhoid Mary: An Urban Historical, by Anthony Bourdain

I'm not going to make many friends reading books with titles like "Typhoid Mary" while I'm eating lunch, but I can't help that I find the creepy/gross/weird side of life to be vastly more interesting than "mainstream" subjects. I didn't have high hopes for this book since I very much judge books by their covers and this one was sort of terrible. It is a stubby little book with a weird cover, written by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, yet it was everything I could have hoped for from a book about Typhoid Mary. I didn't know too many details about her story, but Bourdain chronicled them very well, oftentimes from the point of view of a fellow chef (Mary Mallon was a cook by profession). The whole Typhoid Mary affair is a great piece of New York history that I'm glad I am now more knowledgable about, and I even learned that Mary is buried right here in New York, in St. Raymond's Cemetery in the Bronx. I immediately put it on my list of must-see places, along with North Brother Island (where she was exiled) if I can ever figure out how to actually get there without being arrested (any takers?).

More recent reads posts --> click here

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Walk MS

On Saturday, after I was done exploring Trinity Cemetery and Mausoleum, I texted my friend Alisha to see if she wanted to grab dinner. She suggested that we go to Chipotle, and I counter-suggested that she meet me up north and we not only get Chipotle, but we walk over to Fort Washington Park. Being the great friend that she is, she played along and agreed to meet me at 168th/Broadway, where we bought our dinners and took them to go.

I assured her it was a short walk, but anyone that knows me well has long ceased to believe me when I designate something as a "short" walk. About 20 minutes later, we finally arrived at the park, after taking a very indirect, extremely windy and sometimes stabby-feeling roundabout route, Chipotle bags in hand. Fort Washington Park has amazing views of the George Washington Bridge (it runs right under it) and is home to the Little Red Lighthouse. Made famous by a 1942 children's book, it's the last remaining lighthouse on the island of Manhattan.

This is pretty much how it goes with all of my adventures. I have the best of intentions, but somewhere along the way they get out-of-hand, and I end up walking two or three times as much as I originally intended. Luckily for me, I love walking. I actually adore walking. I've run one continuous mile only once in my entire life, but I could walk for days and days (sometimes it feels as if I have).

In fact, walkability is one of the top things I love about New York, and as much as I also love the subway system, if I can walk to my destination then I'm as happy as can be. When I got a new job on the Upper East Side, I was initially bummed that I would have to ride the bus, but ecstatic when I discovered that walking across Central Park took me just about the same amount of time as a bus ride. You see so much more of the city when you walk and it's a sneaky and endlessly entertaining way to exercise without really feeling like you're doing much.

I am grateful every single day for my two, strong and capable legs and for all of the adventures that they take me on. That is why I have decided to draw upon my love of walking to help raise money for the National MS Society. Multiple Sclerosis affects millions of people, some of which no longer have (or live in fear of losing) the luxury of taking a leisurely walk.

My mom and I will be participating in the New York City Walk MS event on May 4th, and I graciously ask for your help in meeting my fundraising goal of $250. This is the first time I've ever done a charity event, and I'm embarrassed it took me this long to start giving back, but I'm excited to help such a worthy cause. If you can spare anything at all, just visit my personal page and click the "donate to Alexandra" link on the right-hand side — my legs and I really, really appreciate it!