Life In The Big City

So I was in the express checkout line at the Whole Foods on Manhattan’s Upper East Side this past Monday, Sept. 11th. At the time, there were two female cashiers working that line. The lady handling my checkout was explaining to the other cashier that she was relocating to another Whole Foods that was closer to her home in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

The other cashier seemed surprised that my cashier lived in Brooklyn, and told her that a pregnant woman had just been shot in Brownsville. My cashier paused for a moment, as she was ringing up my bananas, and quietly said that she knows about it. And then, after another pause, calmly said that it was her boyfriend who had shot the woman.

Pauses aside, she said this so matter-of-factly that I assumed she was joking, in that dark sense of humor that New Yorkers know so well. The other cashier appeared to be shocked, though, and unsure how to respond. I looked back at my cashier, who seemed dead serious as she collected my cash before turning to the other cashier and adding: “that’s why I’m careful not to make him mad.”

Needless to say, I walked out of there a bit shocked myself. In fact, I was so disturbed that, when I got home, I checked the news to see if a pregnant woman had indeed been shot in Brownsville. Sure enough, a pregnant 19-year-old had been shot there on Sunday, twice in the head. Fortunately, after a long surgery, she and her baby appear to be doing fine.

However, the article said that the police were still looking for the shooter. I thought that if I could help them at least identify the shooter’s girlfriend, that might help the cops identify the shooter and get him off the street before he shoots someone else in the head.

With that in mind, I tried using the New York Police Department’s online tip form, but it worked about as well as you’d expect an online government form to work. So I called their tip line (1-800-577-TIPS), which worked surprisingly well. The officer who answered my call listened to this entire story before thanking me and explaining that they have already identified the shooter but have yet to apprehend him.

I felt better, for at least trying to do my civic duty. Still, I remained a little unnerved, knowing that I just conducted business with someone who showed little concern about dating the kind of person who shoots a pregnant 19-year-old stranger in the head…twice. In a city of 8 million, though, I know that statistically this sort of thing must happen far more than any of us would like to realize. But then I started thinking about what kind of world one must live in where dating someone like that seems perfectly acceptable – as long as you are “careful not to make him mad.”

And then I ate one of my bananas, which was delicious.

Thought of the Day: Bicycle Licenses

I love bicycles. And I think we should do more to turn our urban centers into bike-friendly places. In fact, I’m all for restricting access for private passenger vehicles and offering incentives to companies that cater to cycling commuters, including places to safely store one’s bike and on-site locker rooms so employees can shower and change into appropriate work attire after riding their bikes in on a sweltering August morning.

But I also think bike riders need to be licensed, at least in urban environments. Now I know what you are thinking…it’s a bike, for Christ’s sake. True, but one only needs to casually observe the behavior of cyclists in an urban environment like New York City to see the wisdom of this.

On one hand, New York is awash with professional cyclists who deliver food and other items on bikes. Many of these cyclists seem to either not understand or refuse to follow the laws concerning riding a bike in this city. They regularly ignore traffic signals, ride against traffic, and even ride on the sidewalks. And to compound that, a lot of them have what can best be described as a serious attitude problem, as if the rest of us are just obstacles in their way – even when we legally have the right of way.

On the other hand, with the expansion of the Citi Bike program, we also have many more casual riders, including tourists. And not only are these cyclists more likely to be less-skilled riders than those who own their own bike, but they are also less likely to be aware of the rules and regulations for safely riding a bike in this city.

This combination of aggressive and indifferent veteran cyclists along with the influx of inexperienced and ignorant new riders is a recipe for serious problems. And while the cycling community is the first to cry foul whenever one of their own is killed or injured by a negligent motorist, and rightly so, they tend to scoff at the idea that any of their kind are guilty of bad behavior – let alone the need to be licensed and regulated. It’s like dog owners, who always insist that they clean up after their pets, yet there is still dog poop everywhere you look. It’s never their fault…someone else is always to blame.

Licensing may seem harsh, but if you are a safe cyclist, then I imagine you would welcome such a measure for your own safety, to protect you from the reckless riders who pose just as much of a threat to you as they do to everyone else. Cyclist can easily reach speeds of 20-30 miles an hour, which are sufficient enough to injure a fellow cyclist in a collision, let alone a little old lady crossing the street. And now many of the delivery riders in New York City are using electric bikes, which can reach those same speeds without the need to even pedal. Plus, they ride these under-powered motor scooters as indiscriminately as some do conventional bikes, except now they can have a smoke or check their smartphones while they’re riding because they no longer have the need to even focus on pedaling.

Cyclists have demanded bike lanes. They deserve them – and more. And the city has complied, adding more than 1,000 miles of bike lanes to date, with at least 50 new miles being added each year – all at the taxpayers’ expense. The problem is that many cyclists use these bike lanes at their convenience. Imagine if motorists used the roads at their convenience, driving along sidewalks, through bike lanes, and across any pavement whenever they felt like it?

Despite the addition of all these bike lanes, you will still see some cyclists riding in other lanes of traffic, and even on the sidewalks. And those who do use the bike lanes we’ve set aside for them, at their demand, often use them inappropriately. Some travel in the wrong direction, riding against traffic, which is a hazard to both pedestrians and other cyclists (not to mention a risk for motorists), simply because they are too lazy to ride a block over and use the proper bike lane (again, imagine if motorists were just as lazy).

It seems like some of these bike riders only care about themselves. They want to be protected from everyone else, and insist that motorists and pedestrians both adhere to the laws and regulations, yet they totally ignore the laws and regulations regarding their own behavior. For example, most cyclists, though few will admit it, completely ignore traffic signals, preferring to weave through pedestrians and motor vehicles at intersections – even though the people and cars have the right of way. Be honest…if you are a cyclist in New York City, do you always stop at red lights and wait until they turn green? No, cyclists in this city do whatever the fuck they want. They want everyone else to have to obey the rules except for themselves.

We have made rules for motorists, to protect cyclists, pedestrians, and other motorists. As a result, more people feel comfortable riding bikes around the city (ridership has increased by 150 percent). Now it’s time to make – or at least start to vigorously enforce – rules for cyclists as well, to protect pedestrians, motorists, and other cyclists.

 

Empty Met, Empty Promise

mtmet1

I recently went on the EmptyMet tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and it was a real disappointment. The tour was a Christmas gift from my nephew, a college student who could hardly afford to part with the $125 the museum charges for this experience.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the Met, live within walking distance of the museum, and visit it frequently. In fact, over the past two years, I’ve literally seen everything they’ve put on display. Plus, being a freelancer, I am often able to visit the museum during off-peak hours, when the galleries are less crowded.

mtmet2The EmptyMet tour gives you access to the Metropolitan Museum before it opens to the public. The draw is the opportunity to wander through empty galleries and view the art as if it were in someone’s private collection. The reality, however, is far from that ideal scenario.

We had 25 people on my “private” tour, along with three staff members. Having taken numerous tours of the museum over the past two years, I know that they are more suited to informing and educating attendees rather than providing a chance to truly appreciate each artwork showcased along the way. Being in a large group like that, you have to wait your turn to get a close-up view and then are quickly shuffled off to the next gallery, so you don’t get much of a chance to examine and enjoy the artwork that was just discussed.

What drew me to the unique experience of an EmptyMet tour (beyond it being a very generous gift) was the opportunity to photograph the museum’s picturesque galleries without the crowds of people that frequent them. I love taking photographs, and the chance to snap some pictures of the interior of such a grand space was one I could not pass up.

As with most great museums, the Met is a fascinating structure. It’s actually a collection of different buildings cobbled together over the years. Plus, it’s filled with treasures. And while I can see those art treasures any time I choose, I cannot photograph most of them, and certainly not an entire gallery, without also likely capturing some slovenly oaf in a Green Bay Packers jersey and backwards baseball cap standing around looking bored shitless because he came all the way to New York to see the rectal spectacle of Times Square and then was dragged off to this giant old museum that doesn’t even have a painting of dogs playing cards.

mtmetquoteThe problem with the EmptyMet tour is that, while the museum is indeed empty, whatever gallery you happen to be in is crowded. Wherever we went, whatever artwork we looked at, I had 25 other people vying to see it – and to photograph it. That’s about as many people as you’ll have in a gallery during regular hours. And when I visit the Met at off-peak hours, rarely will I see that many people in a gallery – let alone huddled around a specific piece of art at any given time.

I tried to make the best of it, trailing behind the crowd in hopes of snatching a photo of an empty gallery when the crowd moved on to the next. It wasn’t easy, though, as our guide had a tendency to ramble, so we were always in a rush (frankly, I’ve been on shorter tours that showed more of the museum).

Fortunately, our “crowd” didn’t have a slovenly oaf in a Green Bay Packers jersey and backwards baseball cap standing around looking bored shitless because he came all the way to New York to see the rectal spectacle of Times Square and then was dragged off to this giant old museum that doesn’t even have a painting of dogs playing cards. But we did have this German guy who kept wandering off, causing much concern among our handlers. And, much to my frustration, he had a tendency to wander off into whatever gallery I was trying to photograph.

So what I’m trying to say is don’t waste your time and money on the EmptyMet tour. You can see more of the museum, and with less crowds, simply by wandering the museum during regular hours (ideally during the week). And if you do want to snap some photos of empty – or nearly empty – galleries, then arrive early, before the museum opens. The Great Hall is open before the museum itself, so you can check your coat and purchase your ticket. That way you can head straight into the galleries the moment they’re open, though it certainly helps to already know your way around and have a plan of which galleries you want to photograph before they fill up. In fact, that is how I took the photos accompanying this piece, by rushing around after my EmptyMet tour, before the galleries became filled with the day’s regular visitors.

mtmet3

Eating Options in Midtown Manhattan

A large pie at Roberta's in Urbanspace Vanderbilt.

A large pepperoni pie sans basil at Roberta’s in Urbanspace Vanderbilt.

There are many reasons to hate midtown Manhattan. And I can only think of a handful of reasons to actually love it: MoMA, Carnegie Hall, and the Radio City Music Hall. Plus, it’s a tourist magnet, which keeps all those people away from our beloved neighborhoods.

Fortunately my concert sojourns, as rare as they may be these days, are conducted at off-peak hours. But MoMA has always been a bit of a struggle, because I usually hit that in the morning – during the less-trafficked Member Previews – and then I’m left looking for convenient feeding options in the area.

I used to go to the Burger Joint at the Parker Meridian, but that’s become a tourist attraction itself. They did have a food truck thing happening on East 48th Street for awhile. But there’s really nothing to eat – or at least nowhere you want to eat (the midtown outposts of places like John’s and Shake Shack are simply too heavily touristed) – in all of Midtown.

Fortunately, the success of the wonderful Smorgasburg and Urbanspace food markets has made it’s way into even the banal blocks of Midtown. On the East Side, there’s Urbanspace Vanderbilt, at the corner of Vanderbilt Avenue and East 45th Street. On the West Side, there’s City Kitchen, at the corner of Eighth Avenue and West 44th Street.

Urbanspace Vanderbilt
This little gem makes up for the demise of the food truck experiment. It’s bound to be packed at peak hours, but at least the feeders are more likely to be Midtown office workers than the tourist scum that surely fill the West Side alternative.

I’ve managed to make it in before the lunchtime rush. I had me a big old Roberta’s pizza pie, followed by a Dough doughnut for dessert. Incredible food, and at prices that are quite reasonable by Midtown standards.

City Kitchen
This is a much smaller option, though the fact that it’s located on the second floor and not street level might make it slightly less crowded. The downside, of course, is that its proximity to the fecal magnet that is Times Square will surely make it more of a tourist cesspool than it’s East Side counterpart.

I also stopped in prior to the lunch-hour madness. I had a great burger from a place called Whitman’s, and followed that up with a Dough doughnut as well. Again, great food at reasonable prices for the neighborhood.

Deep Fried Bacon

From left to right, local craft beer, roast pork drizzled with garlic, and deep-fried bacon at La Marqueta’s Vendy Plaza in Spanish Harlem on Sundays.

Yup, deep-fried bacon…just like Jesus intended. Lightly breaded bacon, slithered onto a stick, and gently nestled into a golden pool of boiling fat.

That’s just one of the many treats available at La Marqueta, the open-air market in Spanish Harlem. Every Sunday, starting at noon, an eclectic collection of food vendors gathers at Vendy Plaza, at Park Avenue and 116th Street, to offer up all sorts of tasty treats at affordable prices. It’s like Smorgasburg, or any of the New York City’s other weekly food events, but with three distinct differences: no lines, no ridiculous prices, and a live freakin band!

When Pigz Fly calls it chicken-fried bacon, and serves it with a side of gravy, but it’s basically deep-fried bacon on a stick.

I’ve written about this event already, but I’m writing again because I’ve discovered something truly delightful. One of the vendors, When Pigz Fly, has chicken-fried bacon. Those of you familiar with the Southern staple called chicken-fried steak will recognize this dish for what it really is: deep-fried bacon. And for $3, it’s a steal.

Lately I’ve been getting this as an appetizer and again as dessert, while my primary focus has been on the delicious roast pork…drizzled with garlic oil. That’s cheap, too. Something like $5, I think. The same price you’ll pay for a local craft beer, if you can believe it.

The roast pork is prepared Puerto Rican style by Angel Jimenez of La Pirana Lechonera, a South Bronx food truck (checkout the video on him below, from Liza Mosquito de Guia of Food. Curated.). Whatever tender loving care he gives this pig during the slow roasting in the wee hours ends with skilled but sudden slices of the machete, as he serves up perfect portions to salivating swine fiends like me.

And this isn’t some stale knockoff of the now ubiquitous Smorg machine, with the same vendors, long lines, and bleeding hipsters. These are real people, serving up stuff with appliances often on loan from their own personal kitchens. All to the accompaniment of a live band. It’s real. It’s local. And it’s delicious.

The Burger Joint

The burger and fries at the Burger Joint.

The burger and fries at the Burger Joint.

When someone says “BJ,” I used to think of blow jobs. Now I think of hamburgers. Because of the Burger Joint. That’s how good their hamburgers are.

I can’t remember the first time I went to the Burger Joint in Le Parker Meridian, the hotel on 56 Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. The original Burger Joint is literally a secret hideaway tucked in the far corner of the upscale hotel’s lobby. There’s no signage, and you’d never even know it’s there unless you were curious about the line down the dark corridor, on the far side of the reception desk.

The once-secret burger lair is no more than a little hole in the wall, far from what you’d expect in such a swank place. The walls are covered with graffiti and the operation screams “no frills,” though they now offer table service instead of having to line up at the counter.

The Burger Joint’s burgers are literally the best I’ve ever had, anywhere. The best. And the fries, well, they may very well be the best I’ve ever had as well – or at least in the Top 3. Amazing.

It’s not cheap, though. A basic burger is $8.50, and an additional $3.22 for the fries. OK, that’s quite reasonable for what you’d pay at most places here in New York City, but it’s still a bit pricey compared to Shake Shack’s $4.19 burger, which is mighty tasty as well. But the Shack’s fries suck, especially since they abandoned their new hand-cut shoestring fries to return to the old crinkle cuts.

The bigger Burger Joint on West 8th Street and MacDougal.

The bigger Burger Joint on West 8th Street and MacDougal.

The Burger Joint has been my go-to spot whenever I visit the Museum of Modern Art on 53rd Street. In fact, it’s one of the few places I like to eat in Midtown. Though it’s become so popular, particularly with tourists, that it’s intolerable during the lunch rush. So I prefer to hit it early or late, and actually structure my museum visits around that.

Fortunately the Burger Joint opened up a second spot, the Burger Joint on West 8th Street and MacDougal. It’s huge compared to the original, about four times the size, and I’ve never seen it get crowded. Same food, same prices, just less tourists and less tension. So now I’m finding all sorts of reasons to head down to the West Village, just so I have an excuse to grab a burger and fries at the Burger Joint. It’s that good.

The Marvelous, Monstrous Met

As I wandered through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I stumbled upon masterpieces like Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware.

I mastered the Met. And that’s no easy task. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is the largest art museum in the United States.

Had I realized what a massive undertaking it was, I would have tracked my time – like counting the licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. But when I started exploring the museum with my new membership in January, I hadn’t a clue. I had visited the Met a couple of times over the years but never fully comprehended its vastness nor the richness of the treasures within. And its setting in Central Park, away from other blocks and buildings that could provide perspective, makes it hard to gauge its scale – 2 million square feet – from the outside.

Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja is one of those paintings I instantly recognized but knew nothing about.

My best guess is that I spent roughly (very roughly) 50 hours exploring the museum’s galleries. That’s based on the assumption that I did, in fact, visit the place once a week – with a few exceptions – and spent an average of about 2.5 hours per visit. In reality, though, I probably spent even more time there, as some weeks I think I went twice, and occasionally I’d last 3-4 hours before my feet began to ache.

The one thing I am certain of, however, is that I still haven’t visited every gallery in the museum. Of the 440 galleries, 57 of them were closed during my visits. Of course, I visited some of them twice, as certain galleries feature temporary exhibits that rotate. And I returned to some simply to marvel at the treasures, and others because of fantastic events like Jazz & Colors at the Met.

I also can’t claim to have seen every object in every gallery. I have come close, though, as I meticulously worked my way through each, giving everything a look. But occasionally I’d come across am empty space marked with a note explaining that the item had been temporarily removed for one reason or another – cleaning, restoration, on loan elsewhere, etc.

The Met features art from all around the world, including Katsushika Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa.

And the Met has a lot of stuff. A whole lot of stuff. It’s overwhelming. For example, the ancient artifacts are amazing, but shelves lined with chards of pottery can become mind-numbing while offering little insight beyond the realization that we pocketed everything from these archeological sites.

On a side note, that’s one of the disturbing aspects of the ancient treasures at the Met. What gave us the right to collect all this stuff, other than the fact that we had the foresight and finances? If you live in Cyprus, you’ll probably need to come to New York to learn about your past – and that doesn’t sit well with me.

The other art ad nauseam experience at the Met can be found in the European galleries, where you will be subjected to an infinite number of horribly similar paintings of religious subjects. If I see another portrait of the Madonna and Child I’ll crucify someone.

But there are treasures. Many, many wonderful treasures. Art and artifacts in every medium imaginable from every era and every corner of the world. You’ve got treasures from the ancient world – Egypt, Greece, Rome, and then some – including sculptures, sphinxes, sarcophaguses, and even a real, transplanted temple from 15 BC. There are tons of classic paintings along with a good collection of modern and contemporary art. And some unexpected finds, like an entire wing devoted to Africa and Oceania.

Among the many masterpieces you’ll find at the Met is Pablo Picasso’s At the Lapin Agile.

It may sound cliché, but there really is something for everyone at the Met – even folks who aren’t too crazy about art. You’ve got suits of armor and all sorts of guns and swords. Giant sculptures and carvings. Costumes, textiles, musical instruments, and even furniture.

Since few will have the time to tour the entire museum as I have, visitors need to decide what they want to see – what era, region, or art form they are most interested in. Or they can pick a wing and explore every nook and cranny of that.

I find that two hours is a good amount of time to spend in any museum. Visitors might want to linger a little longer in the Met, given its sheer volume. You can always take a break, as there are many benches and a couple of cafes. And while most of the food and drink options are as overpriced and underwhelming as one would imagine, the roof garden is worth a visit just for the views of Central Park.

Be sure to check out the Met’s Web site before you visit the actual museum because it is an exceptional resource. It offers an interactive map with overviews of each individual gallery, visitor tips and policies, and even some suggested itineraries. A little research and planning will go a long way, ensuring you get the most out of your visit to the marvelous, monstrous Met.

One of my favorite pieces at the Met is Winslow Homer’s The Gulf Stream.