Thursday, December 29, 2016

Best of 2016: Roadside Attractions

Muffler Men

In 2016 I saw five Muffler Men and one UniRoyal Gal—two in New Jersey and one each in New York, Ohio and New Mexico. There are hundreds more Muffler Men (and nine more UniRoyal Gals) to see, but 10 seems like a significant number in just two years of casually searching. Although I usually thoroughly research before any road trip to be sure I'm not missing any roadside attractions, the UniRoyal Gal was a total surprise—we drove past her after visiting the half-wit at Mr. Bill's—which made it feel like even more of a gift from the road trip gods.

Lucy the Elephant

New Jersey is lousy with quirky roadside attractions, and Lucy is the oldest surviving one in the US. I'd been dreaming about visiting her for years, and I finally made it to Margate City this October to pay my respects. She was so much more impressive in person than I could have even imagined, proving that no photo or video can replace the visceral experience of climbing to the top of a 135-year-old elephant-shaped building.

Longaberger Basket

The former Longaberger Basket headquarters, the "Big Basket," probably owes a lot to Lucy, the O.G. of novelty architecture. The fact that it was basically abandoned when we stopped there this summer on the last leg of our ALL CAPS EPIC ROAD TRIP OF DELIGHTS, makes it even more of a dream visit for me. I didn't make it to Newark, Ohio until three years after I moved to New York (from Ohio), but it was definitely worth the wait. I hope I don't have to wait quite as long to go back—the Big Basket's future might be uncertain, but its legacy as a modern-day marvel of novelty architecture is solid.

Wigwam Motel

I saw more roadside attractions in 2016 than in any other year of my life, but our overnight stay at the Wigwam Village #2 in Cave City, Kentucky was the absolute highlight. We planned our entire summer road trip with the Wigwam Village as the top priority, and it more than lived up to the hype. When I called to make the reservation, a woman answered the phone, "Wigwam?" and just that simple interaction was a thrill. I won't soon forget the excitement I felt when we pulled up to the dark semi-circle of Wigwams (teepees, technically), guided by the neon sign proclaiming "Sleep in a Wigawam," knowing that we were about to do just that.

World's Largest Pistachio

Despite my desire to do nothing with my life except travel from World's Largest thing to World's Largest thing, I've seen very few attractions that can make this claim. I've driven around the World's Largest go-kart track and seen the World's Largest Uncle Sam, but I was beyond thrilled to add the World's Largest Pistachio to that small list. The weirder and more obscure, the better when it comes to roadside attractions, and I'm sure there wasn't much competition in this particularly category, but it was a memorable stop, nonetheless.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Best of 2016: Diners

Goodfellas Diner

The Goodfellas Diner was in the news recently when two men tried to leave without paying their bill and ended up assaulting the two elderly owners. This horrible news came shortly after I finally watched Goodfellas for the first time and had pledged to return to the diner. Hearing that the assault might force the owners into retirement made a return to the diner my top priority, and we made it back in November. I'm so relieved that it's still open, and hope that the owners are able to make a full recovery because in a city of wonderful diners, the Goodfellas (formerly the Clinton Diner) really blew me away. The interior and exterior is beyond iconic, and they have some of the best interior signage I've seen. The diner is located in Maspeth, Queens, which is a bit of a haul (and public transit options are limited), but a diner as good as the Goodfellas is worth the trip.

Clover Grill

The Clover Grill was our first stop on a weekend trip to New Orleans and it was a perfect introduction to an incredible city. Their claim on the "world's best hamburgers" might be dubious, but it was a very good burger. The service was Southern hospitality at its best and the signage, pink walls and punny menus made me wish I lived close enough to become a regular.

Lake Effect

I'm so glad we made it to the Lake Effect diner on our way out of Buffalo, even if Buffalo wasn't its original location. The pancake platter was enormous, the service was friendly and the omelette was definitely a step above normal diner quality. The faded pink and blue color scheme was dreamy, and I'd go back in a heartbeat just to sit in a padded, wraparound corner booth.

Kane's Diner

I had been charmed by Kane's hyperbolic signage (***** High Class Steak & Shrimp) nearly two years before I actually ate there, but the inside is a wood-paneled, classic diner dream. During my visit in May, I mused about the awesome possibility of adding a woman's portrait to the Presidential placemat, which is still, depressingly, not a reality.

Floridian Diner

All of the diners on this list have some variation of classic diner decor—it feels like the 1940s at Clover Grill, the 1950s at the Goodfellas, the 1960s at the Lake Effect and the 1970s at Kane's—and the Floridian's 80s-style Miami Vice decor had us instantly feeling like the Golden Girls. The Floridian is covered in mirrors and teal vinyl booths; the servers are straight out of Central Casting; a manager was adding up receipts on an ancient, beige adding machine and our waitress didn't believe us when we said we lived in Brooklyn. The Floridian is actually located on Flatbush Avenue, the street I live on—just under 6 miles but more than three decades away.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Best of 2016: Cemeteries

I think we can all agree that 2016 seemed like it was quite the garbage fire of a year—even if historically there have been objectively worse times to be alive. 2016, for all of its faults, did have some bright spots, and in an effort to not end this year in a pit of despair, I thought I'd do some "best of" lists because who doesn't love lists! First up: cemeteries!


2016 is the year I became obsessed with seeking out non-traditional cemeteries, or places with a little extra something to make them special. Abandoned places will always be interesting to me, and although Bayside is currently in better condition than it's been in the past, it's still a little rough around the edges. I loved it so much I visited it twice—once in the summer and again the fall—and I can't wait to see it covered in snow.

Old Burial Hill

I planned a stop at Old Burial Hill on our way to Salem based solely on the fact that it was a filming location for the Halloween masterpiece, Hocus Pocus. The shear number of amazing skull-emblazoned tombstones may be what makes Old Burial Hill impressive, but the beautiful location, history and incredible condition of all the stones makes it unforgettable.

Lent-Riker Smith

I never really considered it an attainable goal to wish for a house that comes with its own backyard cemetery until we toured the Lent-Riker-Smith Homestead. The family cemetery is small—with 131 residents—but historic, beautiful and fascinating.

Eastern Cemetery

Eastern Cemetery was a highlight in a road trip full of highlights. Like Bayside, it was once abandoned and overgrown, but is now being tended to by a group of volunteers. Eastern also has one of the craziest backstories I've ever heard, and I'll be eternally grateful to the kind man who stopped us to share its sordid tale.

Most Holy Trinity

I'm still shocked a little bit embarrassed that it took me so long to explore Most Holy Trinity—especially when I discovered that it was just a few blocks from one of my best friend's new apartment. Fun fact: a body was dumped on the cemetery grounds and discovered only a few days after my visit (inspiring variations on this excellent headline: Body Found in Cemetery). I've only gone once this year, but like Bayside I suspect that Most Holy Trinity will be part of my regular cemetery visits in 2017.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Best of 2016: Books

Goodreads tells me that I read 44 books in 2016 and although falling short of my somewhat arbitrary goal of 52 books, 44 still feels like an accomplishment. There is almost nothing that makes me happier than getting out of work, scoring a seat on the train and tucking into a great book for my hour-ish commute home. The subway will always be one of my favorite perks of living in New York, and the ability to spend 2+ hours a day reading instead of driving feels like the ultimate luxury to me.

2016 marks another year in which I resisted the inevitable e-reader purchase, but I just can't quite make the leap yet. However, I did just start reading Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital—a 558-pg hardcover library copy—and when I compare how I look holding a massive book next to Kindle readers, I do feel like a silly luddite. Regardless, books are wonderful things—even when they're boring or needlessly wordy or disappointing—and here are some notable reads from my 2016 stack:

Overall best:

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage

First published in 1959, Alfred Lansing's book about the Shackleton voyage to Antarctica may be one of the very best books I've read—not only this year, but in my entire life. The true story is riddled with moments that will make you think "no. way." or "holy shit" and—unlike the actual voyage—the book just flew by. Any time I'm cold or remotely uncomfortable I think of Shackleton's crew and the trials they endured and I try to conjure up even a fraction of the humor and grace that they were able to find while enduring some of the worst conditions imaginable.

Best non-fiction:

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

I stumbled upon a series of photographs taken in modern-day North Korea and immediately became obsessed with knowing everything I could about the bizzaro conditions there. The country is notoriously sealed off from most of the world and its public-facing side is mostly propaganda and farce. To get information about the "real North Korea," author Barbara Demick spoke with six North Koreans (spoiler alert: all of which left the country at some point) covering a span of fifteen years. The idea that truth is stranger than fiction definitely applies to the story of North Korea, and even after reading so much straight from the source, it's still hard for me to comprehend that this place exists.

Best Fiction:

Carter Beats the Devil

Based only on my interest in Carter the Great's incredible show posters, I picked up this novel in the dollar section of the Strand a few years ago. I try to alternate fiction and non-fiction and my fiction stockpile is always dreadfully low, but it's a shame that this sat on my shelf as long as it did. This was another book that inched me closer to e-reader land—although my copy is a paperback, it was long and unnecessarily large. But I was instantly drawn into the story—part mystery, part historical-fiction—and by the end of it I was grateful that it wasn't beholden to Carter's biography because in this case, I would bet that fiction is better than the facts.

Best in Science / Medicine:

How We Die

Months later I'm still thinking about this book, and I doubt I'll forget it anytime soon. Sherwin Nuland managed to write a book about the scientific mechanisms of death that is neither morbid nor confusing. I found his explanations and case studies to be hopeful, enlightening and entirely fascinating. Death is the one thing that unifies us all—it's also terrifying, mystifying and completely unavoidable. I hate surprises, so while it's good practice to try to live in the present, it's oddly comforting to me to be a bit more knowledgeable about what's ahead.

Honorable Mentions:

Most Joyful:

The French Chef in America: Julia Child's Second Act

A follow-up to one of my all-time favorites, My Life in France, The French Chef isn't quite as iconic (and was written without Child, after her death) but Julia Child's life is admirable and her joyful attitude—especially in the face of difficulty—is endlessly inspirational.


How To Be a Woman by Moran, Caitlin (2012)

I've seen this advertised as "the British Bossypants" and that's a great way to describe Moran's musings on everything from underwear to childbirth. I actually left this in the seat pocket of a plane (I was so annoyed with myself) and bought it again just to finish it—it's that good.

Tailor Made for Me:

Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital

I've been searching for a history of Bellevue (ever since I creeped on the hospital a few years ago during my lunch break), and this one was published recently and was better than I could have even imagined. New York history? Check. Body snatching? Check. The evolution of medical practices including bloodletting, leeches and antiseptic germ theory? Check, check and check. Every single chapter had me thinking, "man, I love this book," and I was sad when it ended, which is the true mark of a great read.

I'm aiming to increase my book total in 2017 and spend even more time reading and less time aimlessly browsing social media (me to me: good luck with that). I never tire of chatting about books so let's be friends on Goodreads or leave a comment if you have any good suggestions!

Past "recent" reads can be found under the "books" tag.