Once again I’m sitting on an express train bound for Penn Station, on my way to New York City for the day. I’ve begun to doubt the validity of these stories I’ve written, I mean they all seem the same lately. I keep reminding myself that the whole reason I started this Blog was to keep a sort of open diary for my own enjoyment and old age reminiscing. But lately I’m not feeling the excitement of the past stories, some of those felt like they were magically written. Now my trips are not unlike the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour; where the boys took a bus and a bunch of people driving around England and filmed what happened, the only problem was…nothing did.
My second anniversary on WordPress looms and I don’t feel this years work has really hit the mark. I certainly don’t feel as though I’ve written any journalistic pieces this year. Perhaps I’ve been too self-involved, I mean with all that’s going on in the world you would think I could write day and night but I don’t, my output is very low. Maybe if I had the freedom to be a writer and not work a full-time job I would be producing more thoughtful work and be way more productive. I am in serious study now of language and just purchased a book on sentence structure, I am hopeful that with study I will become a better writer without losing my own style. I know that my hero Anthony Bourdain said in an interview that he doesn’t stress over his sentences, but he also possesses a greater ability to talk his way into and out of trouble than I do, which he admits is where his natural ability as a writer sprang from. I don’t think he would be so successful without that talent.
The main reason I’m going in today to pick up a dry aged steak from Moe the butcher at the Albanese Meat Market in Little Italy, and I’ve decided to have my breakfast at Russ & Daughters, the best bagel and lox in NYC. I really don’t need all the bread but I’ll walk it off so I’m not worried. (Sidenote: at the time of this writing despite a pain in my spine which has curtailed my bicycling, my total weight loss as of this morning was 30 lbs!) I am trying to check off places that a good tour guide in NY should be able to say he or she has been. I also have tentative plans to eat at Sigiri, the only Sri Lanka restaurant in New York, which promises to be a mix of Thai and Indian cooking discipline’s. We arrive quickly in Penn and I waste no time getting to the subway heading downtown, negotiating the maze of stairways only to find one side closed due to track maintenance. So I have to take the uptown tracks to go downtown. This is a first for me and when I get to the uptown tracks I’m told I have to go to the center track for the downtown train. Then I begin the crawl back up and down and up and down the stairs till at last I drag myself up the last set of stairs to the center track. How many sets of stairs I climbed to get here? Honestly I lost count. But at least I got some good exercise before breakfast so I catch my breath, and breathe the stuffy subway air with many others who found the same path and the train arrives a few minutes later. The subway car is cool, a refreshing opposite to the furnace like subway station and my stair master training ordeal. This is also an express train so I make a speedy exit at the West 4th St station and soon find myself topside.
The weather is a study in contrasts as the shade feels very cool because of the strong winds, while the direct sunlight is very hot on one’s skin. I walk a little to get my bearings and then consult my map. I have to get to the east side and decide that W. Houston is the most direct route. I’m not usually in the city this early so the sun in my face tells me I’m going in the right direction. The city is just getting started in some ways, many places are not open yet-and those that are seem sleepy and needing a coffee to get going. I pass Pulino’s Bar and Pizza so I know I’m close now and soon I see Russ & Daughters in the distance.
Russ & Daughters is long and cramped but at least not too crowded. to my right the confection and dried fruit counter, to my left an array of fish and cream cheeses and salads to make your head spin. In the back and behind the counter are canned and jarred specialty foods. It’s a little confusing, so many people moving behind the counter, all of them seem busy. Suddenly, someone yells out “78!”…”79!” I don’t even see a ticket machine to pull numbers from and the crowd milling about instead of keeping place doesn’t help. I realize that everyone is already being helped. I finally order two mini bagels, one with cream cheese and Norwegian Salmon and the other with chopped liver and pickles and a decaf English Breakfast Tea. I get my order and head out to the center island between the two sides of Houston St where some benches are set up and tuck into my brunch. The salmon is the best Nova I’ve ever had but the liver is a little too mushy for my liking. I’m used to French Pate ( to be a right snob I guess) and this is not to my palate.
I finish my meal and watch the world go by and write a little while I finish my tea. A couple waiting for the light to change begin to slow dance, leftover passion or free spirits? You decide, I admire their carefree way in a judgemental world where it’s getting so hard to just “be”. I think I’d better get up and walk off some calories even though I don’t think that I’ll be hungry for lunch any time soon no matter how far I walk. It’s just as well because I can’t find the address of Sigiri anyway, the little sticky note is gone. I know it’s nearby so I start walking in squares, coming back to my starting point and overlapping a little, noting points of interest. I begin to see how close to Prune I was at Russ & Daughters, and how Katz’s is just steps away from the Mercury Lounge and Ashara, old landmarks from my first stories-that seem so long ago. I eventually wind up in Little Italy and find Moe the Butcher busily engaged in trimming meats in his quiet humble way. “Hi Moe, how late you open today?” I ask enthusiastically. “Hiya” he says looking up. “Seven O’clock today” he says and goes back to his cutting. “OK see you later” I say and move off to find lunch, it’s actually been hours since breakfast.
I walk down Elizabeth to Prince St and mosey around a while finally settling for Jacques, a French bistro I know is not that good but the outdoor seating in the shade beckons so I sit and decide to eat clean. I order a Merguez sausage omelet and a screwdriver and write a little. I was alone but soon the tables around me are filled with hungry locals and travellers who sit down one by one. Two young guys pull up in a car and park on the street, they are parked illegally but on a Saturday I don’t think anyone cares, they sit down at a table next to me and begin to peruse the menu, one of them says “Maybe the Merguez omelet” to his friend who looks at my plate and suggests that’s what our neighbor is eating. But I warn them against it as it is not very nice, this is like a dog food sausage packed inside a thick omelet with no sauce or any redeeming quality. I suggest they go to Marseilles, not the place but rather the restaurant near Penn Station to get the Merguez meal they want. So they thank me for the warning and order other things from the menu. I polish off my unlikely meal and enjoy a decaf coffee and write while listening to these two fellows talk. I find out (by asking) that they are originally from Oregon but moved here to work and are heading upstate for a hiking trip for a few days. The young owner of the car is absolutely paranoid about the car which is sitting about ten yards away with its flashers on, he is convinced he’s going to get a ticket. Suddenly a whistle is blown and he jumps out of his skin, poor kid. The whistle-blower is a drugged looking middle-aged hip looking black dude talking to himself. He says he’s not afraid, and he doesn’t give a s**t as he acts up strange and strung out and walks away, another mind taken by drugs I guess. Unfortunately, my neighbor has had his nerves frazzled and it’s almost comical how fast he and his buddy stop eating, ask for containers to pack the leftovers and the check. Then they jump in the car and try to leave in the congested village traffic. You could see the kids nerves jangling as he walked away, I laughed quietly to myself and thought how much easier it would have been to find a legal parking space and walk a few blocks than to go through all that. I pay my check and head back to Moe’s for my steak.
I find him trimming more meat from fat to give to people who have dogs, nothing is wasted at Moe’s, food is too precious and the animal is respected here. He insists on finishing his work and asks if I mind and I say” Take your time, I’m not in a rush.” I ask him “How is business?” and he says “Ok, the holiday comes and everyone leaves town for a few days and then they come back, the kids go back to school and it’ll pick up again. I’m going to Florida for two days anyway.” Good for him, I wish my parents were as active and sharp as he is. Just then a guy in his late 30’s walks in and says “Hello, I just wanted to let you know I’m still alive.” Moe seems to know him well and asks the handsome guy with perfect hair and teeth how he is doing. He says “Not bad for a 68-year-old man.” This must be an inside joke and he and Moe laugh and I do too in spite of myself, although I don’t really know why. Then as my steak is done (it is a giant too) and is tied and wrapped an attractive woman walks in and says “Hello Moe, I see you’ve already met my 68-year-old man!” They all laugh and I exclaim that “I’m in on that joke and I’m not even from here” which sparks even more laughter. I thank Moe with a pat on the arm and wish them all a good day and I’m off. I wish my dad was in as good a shape as Moe.
I walk down Lafayette heading north, from this point I can take the 4th St subway or the 14th or the 23rd for that matter but naturally I walk a little (hours really) to burn some calories and see the city above ground. The sun is hot on my back as I make my way to Union Square, but I need a loo rather badly so I leave the marketplace and the wonderful smells of fresh basil and mint and find myself sitting in the Old Town Tavern enjoying cold melon soup and Stella Artois. A little tyke runs down the length od the bar towards the door followed by his dad, mom, uncle, whoever can keep up. He wears an Ireland shirt and may end up playing soccer. The juke box plays classic rock while a silent baseball game is on the TV’s to occupy the eyes of patrons to tired to talk. This is an old bar, rustic with tile floors and filigree ceiling panels with chandeliers, it even has an indoor phone booth! One can easily imagine James Cagney using it in a gangster film in the 40’s. I finish my refreshments and take a call from my mom to see how my day went. I give her the rundown and she just for a few minutes gets to live vicariously through me, she used to work downtown New York and is always interested to hear of my adventures although she doesn’t read my stories on paper or on-line…odd isn’t it? I pay my check and tip the cute middle-aged waitress who served me, I promise myself I will come back and chat her up a bit the next time I’m in New York. I leave and resume my walk through the crowded city streets, heading for home. it was a pretty good day after all and in reality any day in New York is way better than at work. I feel happy to be going home early with plenty of time to enjoy the evening ahead. But as Penn Station looms in the distance I already miss my adopted city.