New York City, Imagine That….

Last week, I picked up an on-sale copy of Celluloid Skyline from a bookstore in the West Village. There’s a quote from Joan Didion in the preface, something about Northeasterners not quite knowing or understanding the place New York City sits in the imaginations of people further South and West. The book itself is about this other New York, the mythic city that exists in collective dreams and surrounds the real city both as halo and shadow. The book is about how the movie industry, through a thousand films and references, built this city, street by street. Consider Dorothy’s Emerald City, whose towers are visible on the far horizon: this is the figurative New York City of the Kansas farmgirl.

Coming from New York, I can understand this intellectually, but perhaps not emotionally. For me, New York isn’t the not-home of dreams and dangers; it’s the once-literal, now-figurative home, even if it’s far away on the other side of the long, lonely stretch of I-80 in northern Pennsylvania. And even if a permanent return is not in the cards: the cost of living differences are very large, and academic center salaries for attendings in New York are both relatively and absolutely low compared to elsewhere. Coincidentally, The Economist had a survey of New York City the week we were in the city on vacation. The survey closes by noting that this socialist republic run by cut-throat capitalists is traditionally a place people go to and later leave. Perhaps the old adage about having to live in New York in one’s youth is true.

So we had our first trip back after moving out. We were guests, staying at my parents’ house in Queens or at a friend’s in Stuyvesant Town, experiencing that feeling of dislocation that guests have. And yet things are familiar, with only minor changes. (Walking through the Upper West Side less than six months later was resembled one of those “sideways in time” moments from science fiction, where the writer, to indicate that the protagonists are now in an alternate timeline, made different by the flapping of butterfly wings, shuffles around names and places (spuriously if he’s bad, with some sense of why if he’s good). Instead of the Steve Madden shoestore, we have a Nine West in its place. Instead of a Starbuck’s, we have a Bank of America. The awning colors of Ollie’s are now red instead of green, and the produce aisles of Westside Market are now linear instead of perpendicular. But Zabar’s and Fairway are fixed points in this multiverse. I’m not describing the changes wrought be gentrification, as the Upper West Side has long been gentrified. Rather, this is a reshuffling of cards drawn from the same socio-economic deck: the Hale and Hearty Soups instead of the Thai restaurant.) While I had my camera most days, I didn’t feel like I should take many pictures (though I took a number of The Gates, but then everyone else in New York did, also). An odd feeling: not tourists, but not residents, either.

We met up friends, as many as could be scheduled. We got lucky with schedules in many cases: one of Grace’s friends was coincidentally in the city to meet her parents. Another had been scheduled to head out to Rwanda for an internship but hadn’t left yet because of apartment subletting issues. Med school friends and acquaintances had mornings or afternoons free and were able to compare notes on their experiences. There were a number of toddlers.

We did a lot of eating. Besides the Chinese New Year family luncheon on Sunday, our designated restaurant stops were Babbo and Gramercy Tavern. We’ve never been to Babbo before, but this was our third time at Gramery; we had the tasting menus at both. Gramercy is very good in a traditional fine restaurant way, but the meal at Babbo blew everything else away. Simply amazing. One can disparage a celebrity chef cooking on TV, but Mario Batali brings it. Besides these two places on the upper echelon of dining, we also ate at Joe’s Shanghai (soup dumplings!), Meskeremeth (satisfying this Ethiopian food craving I’ve had since seeing this quick mention of Cleveland’s only Ethiopian restaurant), Han Bat, Saigon Grill, Shaan and a renovated Luzia’s for brunch.

We tried to get into MoMA but the line was too long for the cold weather (stretching from the entrance west down 53rd Street, past the Folk Art museum entrance, into this parking lot, to wind around to 54th Street and back down; a lot of this is probably Gates tourists in the city doing the other cultural outlets). We went to the International Center of Photography instead. (We caught a few exhibits just before they closed: Bill Owen’s Leisure was amusing, and Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s collection was interesting. The whole “Whiteness” thing was neither here nor there.) I went to the roof of the Met and took some shots of the Gates from the roof. Note that you can get up there by stairs instead of waiting on the very long line (which, as I’m writing this, is kind of moot now). While moving from that vantage point to the another vantage point in the American Wing, I stopped and looked at three of the Vermeers in New York. I was a little disappointed to see that a big Diane Arbus retrospective was opening the week after we head home. I was amused by the delightfully deconstructionist “dialectic of imperalism” text in the fashion basement’s exhibit.

And that’s basically that.

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