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.

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.

Sigmund’s: Beer & Pretzels With A Twist

Sigs4

Beer and pretzels. Few things work as well together. And by pretzels, I don’t mean those cardboard concoctions you purchase in the supermarket snack aisle. I’m talking about the soft, bread-like creations you typically get at a proper beer garden.

And, in a way, Sigmund’s is a beer garden without the garden. They have beer, of course, though a relatively modest selection. And they have pretzels – amazing pretzels. These come in all sorts of varieties, always cooked to perfection, and served fresh and warm. Naturally I opt for the classic, but you can get cheddar, cinnamon raisin, truffle, feta, olive, and more. They also serve burgers and brats, along with what amounts to a modest cafe menu.

Digital CameraSigmund’s Pretzels popped up in all sorts of locations, including the High Line, while they renovated their East Village restaurant on Avenue B, between 2nd and 3rd Streets. But that has since reopened and looks lovely. My only gripe is that now they don’t open until 5:00 PM on weekdays. And while they are open for brunch on Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 AM to 3:30 PM, they shutdown again until 5:00 PM. I can only assume that this is part of a strategic move to become more of a bar/restaurant than a pretzel shop where parents used to be able to take their kids on the way home from school. And that kind of sucks.

That aside, it is a great place to stop for a pint and pretzel after 5:00 PM. And they often run a special where you get a free pretzel with every pint, which is pretty sweet.

I’ve Got A Meatball Obsession

MeatOb2All you “Nipsters,” our loyal Nipple Monkey readers, already know that I have a thing for meatballs. In fact, some might call it a meatball obsession. Which is how I found myself at Meatball Obsession, a literal hole-in-the-wall eatery on Sixth Avenue between 14th & 13th Streets in Manhattan.

There is no seating here. There isn’t even an indoors. You simply walk up to the window and place your order. And even that is simple: pick a type of meat for your balls, select a cup or a “pocket” sandwich, then choose from a handful of sauces and a wider variety of toppings.

MeatOb1Being me, I went with beef meatballs in a pocket sandwich with red sauce and mozzarella “pearl drops.” What, you ask? Let me begin with the pocket sandwich. They hollow out a piece of bread and fill it with the meatballs, sauce, etc. And the pearl drops are pearl-sized balls of mozzarella.

The verdict? Quite good, especially if you are on the run. Unlike most meatball sandwiches, this one was minimally messy. My only complaint is that the mozzarella wasn’t melted. In fact, the pearls were cold. It would have been infinitely better if they sprinkled some of the pearls in amongst the balls instead of heaping them on top.

Pork Belly on a Stick

PorkBellStickI never thought I’d utter the phrase “I guess I’ll have to settle for the pork belly,” and with a tone of disappointment in my voice. But I did just that a few weeks back at Smorgasburg (the final DUMBO day, before it abandoned the Tobacco Warehouse for an empty lot down by Pier 5), when I was told by the grillmasters at Inglorivs Yakitorivs that they were out of giant lamb chops.

I don’t know who these Inglorivs Yakitorivs cats are, as it was the first time I spotted them at the Smorg (though I did run into them last weekend at Pier 5). And they lack the fundamental decency of a Web site, thinking Facebook and Twitter will do (my dead pony has a Facebook page…that shit tells me nothing). Empirical evidence tells me that they do grilled meats, preferably on skewers – except for those lamb chops (which, sadly, they didn’t have at Pier 5 either). And the name suggests a mix of Asian and/or Eastern European influences, perhaps with an appreciation for Tarantino’s later work.

But what I do know, for a fact, is that their pork belly on a stick is literally divine: godlike; characteristic of or befitting a deity. I wanted to go back for another, but I foolishly decided to play it cool, not wanting to expose my gluttony (which reminded me of that line from Hey Jude: “For well you know that it’s a fool who plays it cool by making his world a little less full of pork belly on a stick”).

Feeling a vast emptiness, I decided to Smorg again the following weekend, for the debut of the Pier 5 location, and try another pork belly skewer as well as one of those lamb chops. But Inglorivs Yakitorivs (a midfielder for the Hungarian national team in the early 50s?) was a no-show, so I had to settle for Maple Bacon on a stick from Landhaus, which was indeed delicious but like listening to a soloist when you were hoping for a symphony.

Inglorivs Yakitorivs also grills chicken innards, and appears to be fond of serving various chicken cartilages as well. But if you get a chance to sample the pork belly, I recommend it so highly that I’ll likely pass out due to a lack of oxygen. And if you get a chance to grab one of those lamb chops, please drop me a line to let me know how they are.

Jazz and Colors 2013

The Kahlil Kwame Bell Trio play by the Pool in Central Park as part of Jazz & Colors 2013 (left-right: Chris Hemingway on alto sax, Kahlil Kwame Bell on drums, and Lonnie Plaxico on bass).

Saturday was indeed the perfect day in Central Park. I went to the 2013 Jazz & Colors Festival, which featured 30 bands in 30 locations around the park playing one incredible set list.

The Outer Bridge Ensemble took the high ground at the Mount St. Vincent Landscape in Central Park (left-right: Javier Diaz on the congas, David Freeman on drums, Mike Noordzy on bass, Mark DeJong on saxophone, and Steve Hudson on keyboards).

I started by the East Meadow with the Gregg August Quartet, who were slow to start and somewhat uninspired. And then I moved on to the Outer Bridge Ensemble, up by the Mount St. Vincent Landscape, and this quartet completely blew me away. There were a lot of people playing instruments in the park that day, but these cats were playing music. And like any true jazz artists, they took the standards and made them their own.

The following is a clip from the Outer Bridge Ensemble’s launch of Maiden Voyage, in which they got us all on board before setting sail:

As tempted as I was to park myself in front of these guys for the rest of the day, I wanted to move on and see a few other bands. After all, that’s kind of the whole point have having 30 bands in 30 locations playing the same set.

Chris Hemingway working the alto sax by the Pool for Kahlil Kwame Bell.

So I slipped over to the Pool, one of the most picturesque places in the park, to catch Kahlil Kwame Bell. It was indeed a lovely, but the music wasn’t moving me. And the crowd was more transient.

Looking for inspiration, I boogied up the hill to check out Lakecia Benjamin & Soul Squad atop the Great Hill. If it was funk night, that might have worked for me. But covering the standards, they reminded me more of Murph & the Magic Tones from The Blues Brothers movie.

So I decided to follow my heart and head back to the Outer Bridge Ensemble at the Mount St. Vincent Landscape. I hiked down through the Ravine, which is among the most densely wooded and rustic trails in the park, with the fall foliage in full swing, and arrived just in time to catch them bringing Take the A Train into the station:

I’m wondering if there’s something about that spot, the Mount St. Vincent Landscape. Last year, at Jazz & Colors 2012, the Kevin Hays Trio held that very same ground, and they were by far the best band that day as well.

Lakecia Benjamin & Soul Squad play atop the Great Hill during Jazz & Colors 2013 (left-right: Joe Blaxx on drums, Lakecia Benjamin on sax, and Jonathon Powell on trumpet).

What I don’t understand is how people can walk through the park and not stop to listen to music. Free music. Even if it’s just for a song. It’s not like anyone is rushing to an appointment in the park, on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Though I suppose I should be careful what I wish for. Like those young ladies who decided to sit down and, instead of actually listening to jazz, talk incessantly about how they don’t understand it.

As with last year’s event, the attendance seemed sparse, as if most people just stumbled upon it. If I hadn’t been on an email list for local music, even I – despite being mad with joy over last year’s event – wouldn’t have heard about this year’s Jazz & Colors. And that’s a shame.

Looking back, this is why I love New York. On a brisk but bright autumn afternoon, I can wander into the park and be entertained by a number of talented musicians with a backdrop that would make Renoir horny. I wish they did this sort of thing more often, but then maybe it wouldn’t be as special if they did.

Many thanks to the organizers of Jazz & Colors. And to the folks at the Central Park Conservancy. And, above all, to the musicians – especially the Outer Bridge Ensemble: Steve Hudson on keyboards, Mark DeJong on saxophone, Mike Noordzy on bass, David Freeman on drums, and Javier Diaz on the congas.

The Outer Bridge Ensemble at the Mount St. Vincent Landscape were the highlight of Jazz & Colors 2013 (left-right: Javier Diaz on the congas, David Freeman on drums, Mark DeJong on saxophone, Mike Noordzy on bass, and Steve Hudson on keyboards).