Steven (unzeugmatic) wrote,

Tantalus in the Big Apple

I've been enjoying New York City a great deal in recent years. I've taken to reading books about the history of the city, and I've begun a series of self-paced architectural walking tours (to be completed in future visits). I walk the streets and I meet up with friends and I browse the stores and I drop by at sing-along piano bars and I have a grand old time. So it was an odd thing to be in New York City for the week my father was in the hospital when I was in no position to take advantage of the city itself. My mother and I were staying with my friends Alan and Lynda, who live by the South Street Seaport at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Every morning we'd take the M15 bus which is a direct route from there to the front entrance of NYU Medical Center at 33rd Street and 1st Avenue. Every night we'd take a taxi back, down FDR drive which has an exit both right at the hospital and right at the Brooklyn Bridge (although we learned to take the South Street exit and drive the surface road for a mile). For the most part, that was my life for a week. The banquet that is New York City was right there and I was dead in the midst of it, but the food was just out of my reach.

Well, no, that's not literally true about the food -- quite the opposite, really. Directly across the street from the hospital on 1st Avenue are a couple of places to eat, including a very good bagel and sandwich shop (very good by NYC standards, astounding by the standards of elsewhere), but nothing to swoon over -- at least right at that block, although we passed many intriguing places on 1st Avenue on the bus ride each morning. But boy, you just walk one block over to Second Avenue or possibly to Third and you are in food heaven. It's not as if this is a particularly special foodie neighborhood -- it's the Murray Hill neighborhood -- but this is New York City. If you've never lived or worked in New York City, or if you've never spent time there as more than a tourist, you might not know what I'm talking about, but there are apparently countless eateries of all stripes and an amazingly high percentage of them serve delicious food. Plus there is an amazingly high number of pizza shops -- one afternoon I took my two nephews out for lunch and we stood at the corner of Second Avenue and 34th Street and I said "Do you want to go to Rosa's Pizza" (half a block to the right) "or do you want to go to Rocky's Pizza" (half a block to the left). The cheering consensus was "Rocky's!" where the formica tabletops had a boxing glove decoration and the back room had a cheesy fake fireplace and the pizza was delicious. My almost-five year old nephew announced that the pizza was "fresh as a rock ... because we're at Rocky's!".

My first afternoon in town I took a walk through the neighborhood and picked up a bunch of takeout menus, all conveniently available in small boxes at the doorways of most of the restaurants. This was a good thing, because the day before my father's surgery he wanted something a little less bland than hospital food and the Indian restaurant across the street was closed on Sundays but I had a menu from a Turkish restaurant just up the road from which he ordered a sort of lamb-burger over rice dish (and my sister-in-law and I ordered various appetizers). One night my mother and I went to a Mexican restaurant on Second Avenue called Baby Bo's Cantina where I enjoyed the food so much that we went back a few nights later, when I ordered an "enchilada enorme" that included plantains and was served with a sweetish mole sauce; this was delicious (and the ingredients made it clear this would be sweet, so it was not a surprise) and when I asked the server if this was traditional, to have plantains in the enchilada, she said that all of the cooks but one were from the Puebla region of Mexico and that actually the tradition is to serve the plantains on the side and mush them in.

Oh, and then there was the Clover Deli at the corner of 34th st. and 2nd Avenue, with a big original neon sign and the best hamentaschen I've ever tasted (my father said the same thing about them). Plus delicious rugelah and Italian cookies and while I didn't ever get a sandwich there I looked at the ingredients behind the counter and they included fresh mozzerella and sundried tomatoes. I also found the famous 2nd Avenue Deli, which is not on Second Avenue, where I ordered a tongue sandwich on rye because I can't get that in Minnesota any longer. The sandwich cost over $20 (!) but it was a onetime thing for me and I really wanted it. It turns out there was practically a cold cut platter's worth of tongue in the sandwich. I got two very large meals from it, and that's after giving some of it to my father as a side dish for his lunch that day. Just wow.

Even beyond the food itself, I really couldn't help having New York City experiences. We saw my father immediately after his surgery, and then we had a few hours break before we could see him again (by which point he was fully awake and conscious). During that break we were a bit, well .. exhausted doesn't quite convey it. I left my mother and brother in the hospital lobby and I went back to Second Avenue to sit at the bar at a restaurant called Benjamin where I had two glasses of wonderful Pinot Noir from New Zealand as the locals dropped by for post-work drinks. It being New York City, the other patrons were happy to engage me in conversation, and give me lots of advice about local restaurants. The experience was reinvigorating, and helped me recover from the stress of the day.

And, you know, I've got to say that the general wonders of New York City forced themselves to my consciousness at surprising moments. On the morning of my father's surgery my mother and I left Alan and Lynda's place just before 5am. Now, I've returned to that place as late as 4am, but I don't think I've ever been outside on the street at that time in the morning before the neighborhood has begun to wake up at all. Alan's block is a small bricked byway containing some of the oldest structures in the city -- former warehouses, mostly. When I walked out the front door I stopped in my tracks with the wonder of it. Mere feet to my right was the Brooklyn Bridge (it makes landfall two blocks further inland). To my left was the old original New York City Seaport neighborhood. The street had an antique urban air, as if time had stood still for two hundred years, and everything was still in the cold morning. It felt very nice, at a strange moment to feel nice. Then my mother and I walked up Peck Slip to Pearl Street and caught a taxi.

I've got to get back to New York City very soon, for a visit devoted only to enjoying the place. It will balance the karma.
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