Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Vodka and Corn

Source: Nebraska State Historical Society General Collection & RG2053-5

This may be true for the country at large, but I know that most Southerners are under the impression that New York(ers) lack a quality that is the essence of Southern life: hospitality.* I have noted the apparent isolation mentality of people I see on the subway or pass on the way to work.  However, I don’t want to commit to that overgeneralization or give the impression that I believe all – or even most – people I’ve encountered show no kindness. Quite the contrary.

[Spoiler alert: Philosophizing ahead.  Skip to the juicy story after the break.] Set against the backdrop of aloofness that you get on the first impression (of many people) is generally a congenial spirit. Everyone desires community and connection; we all just have different ways of finding it and varying levels of openness to it. Some people have serious trust issues that deter them from any kind of intimacy, and others are perhaps too forthcoming with their inner selves, but on some level we’re all scared to trust.  I am referring not only to relationships with significant others or friends but even the person on the street.  We don’t trust them to give us the benefit of the doubt, so we go on the offensive, deflecting their imminent judgment.  We present a chilly exterior sometimes, unwilling to engage with anyone and then risk them finding us boring.  We read a “high-minded” book to avoid others thinking that we’re unintelligent. We avoid beginning a conversation with the clearly poverty-stricken lunatic on the train because others might think we’re soft or ill-equipped to handle these harsh realities of New York by ignoring them.  And, if we’re honest with ourselves, maybe we judge the lunatic, too.

These things don’t make us inherently mean people, just those untrusting and unloving enough to open ourselves to interaction.  If we’re not mean, we’re usually not openly kind, either.  In cultures unlike the South where hospitality hasn’t been culturally adopted and performed (and often mutated as a result), acts of kindness stand out, shine a bit brighter by virtue of their sincerity.

When a cashier at Trader Joe’s starts a friendly conversation about the bananas I’m buying or asks if I have big weekend plans, it actually has a profound effect on my mood, especially since I’ve just waited in lines that literally wrap around the entire store to buy those bananas.** When a fellow coffee shopper takes a minute to converse about the amazing design on the top of the latte, even share a laugh, it’s uplifting.  When a pair of random strangers at the Manhattan bar who strike up an engaging conversation with me and my friend offer to pay for my cab home to Brooklyn because it’s safer than the trains after midnight…well, bowl me over.  There is hospitality, kindness, and sweetness in New York.

What about that lunatic on the train? 

Monday, June 25, 2012

New York Confessions: I Love the City's Texture

I'm like a little kid who sees the forbidden fruit of "NO" as all the more reason to indulge.  On the subway platform, a thick yellow line indicates that you're supposed to stand back, to allow that dead space to exist between you and the rushing train as it approaches.  If color isn't a powerful enough deterrent, most platforms have hundreds of round hemispheres either sunken into or growing out of the cement in this yellow no man's land, allowing your feet can feel the difference between the safe zone and the (highway to the) danger zone.*

I always stand in the yellow zone.  No matter what shoes I'm wearing, I can feel the ridges under my feet, and for some reason, I like it.**

The same goes for the subway grates on the sidewalk, which feel like walking on metal waffles. Unless I'm wearing heels, I usually opt to walk over them, maybe just for the thrill of not "falling through," which so many people claim as a true fear of city walking.

Of course, at times, this practice gives a little thrill to everyone around - that is, in those moments when I'm wearing a dress, a subway goes by underneath, and I end up giving my best Marilyn Monroe impression (which, admittedly, is horrendous).

*They operate much like the grooves on the shoulder of the highway that wake up a sleepy driver with a horrendous noise (which my family affectionately used to call "road farts").
**A metaphor for my life?  Perhaps.***
***Nah; I only wish I was so adventurous.

This avian visitor hung out at the Nostrand stop.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Letters to New York City

Dear Women of New York,

Just because the temperature has increased, your need for chest support has not decreased.  There is not an inverse relationship between heat and the degree to which your ladies should be contained.


Monday, June 18, 2012

I Need Some W(h)ine

I realize that I haven’t been posting lately.  Part of this is due to the fact that I’ve been keeping myself busy (which I know is all the more reason to post.  Alas, alack.) Another part is sheer laziness. 

But perhaps the greatest part is that (I fear) the “glamour” and novelty of the city is beginning to wear off.  My subway trek is habitual and forgettable. On the streets, I neglect to look up, to see the towering skyscrapers or to be impressed by them. I stop being optimistic about the possibilities of the city and start seeing the aspects that frustrate me most.

Thus, I introduce to you the first installment of a new list.

What’s Pissing Me Off in NYC:

  1. People who just decide to STOP in the middle of the sidewalk, making you run into them.
  2. Tourists. (#1 and #2 are usually synonymous).
  3. Especially tourists who feel the need to take pictures of EVERY building.  Times Square looks exactly the same from every angle, people, I promise: a lot of annoying people, a lot of lights.  Take one shot and MOVE ON.
  4. Bikers who feel they are exempt from basic traffic laws and streetlight functions.  Just because you’re going green doesn’t mean you have the right to be an idiot.
  5. People who walk two abreast going up the stairs when leaving the subway, painstakingly stomping up the stairs as if each foot weighed 300 lbs.  This is especially frustrating when people do this on both sides of the stairwell, thereby disrupting traffic flow going up and down, ignoring the “slow-ass people keep to the right (please)” rule.
  6. People who ignore the “let people off before you get on” the elevator or train rule. Seriously, it’s 5 seconds, and whether you wait or not, you will make it into that claustrophobic can, trust me.
  7. People who don’t move to the middle of the subway car, then laugh at everyone in the mob by the door because the newcomers couldn’t move into the middle.  Because you’re standing there laughing.
  8. People who play their music too loud (when I'm trying to read).  It’s not my fault you’ve caused yourself to go deaf.  Get some better earphones or go see an ENT doctor.
  9. People with strollers. Yeah, I said it.  But especially people with strollers on the subway. At rush hour.  COME ON.  (I’ll extend this to bikes as well.  Ride the damn thing, don’t ride with it.)
  10. People I pass on the street who are more attractive, more stylish, or are clearly wealthier than me.  So, basically, everyone.
Yep. New Yorker in the making.

(Can you tell it’s Monday?)

Really kitschy, cheesy photo googled to serve my purposes of providing at least some visual content.  You're welcome.

On a related note, while g-chatting with my coworker today (the modern era’s version of the watercooler conversation), our complaints about our management led to a business proposition.

It began with my suggestion that we start a club called (imaginatively) the Bitter Club.  Then I suggested that we drink alcoholic concoctions involving bitters because 1) it’s thematic and 2) every club should involve alcohols of some kind.

Then we latched onto the bar idea.


  • An after-work (or anytime) bar for everyone who wants to complain about bosses, job frustrations, coworkers, family, significant others, New Yorkers, etc.
  • (We realize that an argument could be made that this is, justifiably, any and every bar, but that’s how business works, isn’t it?  Create a “new” product out of existing one by simply repackaging what everyone already has, then convincing them that they need the new.)
  • No “happy hour.”  The term would contradict the bar’s name, after all.  We will still have a time when we offer drink deals, but instead, we’ll call it “[The] Bitching Hour.”  As my business partner pointed out, “Hey, let’s go out for bitchin’ hour” sounds pretty legit.
  • A menu.  Typical bar fare at the moment, maybe some special fare in the future.  Right now, it features items with punny names such as “French Fry Your Boss.”  Eh.  Probably too cutesy/terrible.  We’ll work on that.
  • To prevent violation of the “what happens here, stays here” principle, instead of (or perhaps in addition to) a coat check, we will also have a cell phone check, thereby assuring that you come to our bar to bitch about rather than at through the means of drunk dialing/texting.

Business plan to follow.

(Now, I do realize that the ethical claims against an establishment based solely on gossiping are probably astounding and, well, correct.  Chalk the idea up to a case of the Mondays? or the Mean Reds?)

*I've been harboring some of these thoughts for awhile.  On April 27, I accompanied a friend to a strange underground art gallery event in Bed-Stuy.  Literally underground - it was in the basement of a nondescript brownstone where they served Two-Buck Chuck on top of the washer and dryer. We went because her coworker was performing (vocals and guitar), though we may have missed that part.  The reason for the show - the art side of it - was a number of self-portraits from artists in France.  (Incidentally, only about a quarter of these art projects actually made it to the show through the mail; the walls were a bit bare.)  Along with the self-portrait, the artists were asked to answer a few questions, including things such as "What do you think about when you're on the metro?"  For the thronging crowd (i.e. 10 people) in attendance at this event, the organizers had also laid out a notebook with these same questions, which I assumed was a log to show who had come to the event.  So I jokingly filled it out.

Then I learned that they were shipping this back to France for the artists.  Whoops.

What the French received (please excuse the language...not usually my style. Blame it on the 2-Buck Chuck).

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

What's Making Me Happy This Week(end)


Specifically, unexpected communication with friends

On Friday, on the advice of a haphazard Facebook message sent my way by a friend, I attended a concert/sing-a-long with Sandra McCracken (who helped begin Indelible Grace and led to all of the beautiful musical reinterpretations made familiar to me as a college student through RUF) and Derek Webb.

When I returned home after this (for me) quite emotional event, I received a phone call from a grad school friend—a very happy occurrence for a variety of reasons. First, as I was commuting on the subway that day, I had literally been thinking of how long it had been since he and I had spoken. Second, he was slightly intoxicated, which—I have to admit—is one of my favorite versions of him.  Third, what he said.  He did his best to assure me that while he may have had a few PBRs in him (to to his dismay in failing to adequately grill beer chicken), that in no way affected the truth behind his words: “Leah Rang. You’re one of the good ones, and I love you.  We’re going to be best friends forever.” At the tail end of a long, lonely week filled with career and personal frustrations augmented by the oppressive possibility of New York, I don’t think he knew how incredibly wonderful it was to hear that.
(A sidebar: in all of our relationships, I am a firm believer in constant encouragement and positive words.  We have a tendency only to reveal our true feelings or say kind words in times of strife or sadness; why?!? I could write an entire essay about this, but I’ll refrain here.)

Furniture delivery

A couple weeks back, I once again gave into mass consumerism and bought a chair and bookcase (among other things) at Ikea.  Since one of the items was out of stock, I had it delivered from the warehouse, which took a surprisingly long time. But finally, on Saturday, I confirmed the delivery.
One sign of growing older and more (sigh) adult is how excited you become about objects you once took for granted, such as chairs.  It’s a chair, after all, a receptacle for your posterior.  But now that I have it all set up in my closet/side room, I have created a nook, an escape, a place where all I want to do is curl up in my chair and read.  (I honestly look forward to retreating to my closet for the few minutes I have in the morning and at night when I return home—to read and solidify my old-woman status.) 

Even better, the delivery was early.  Usually when you receive a “11am-3pm” delivery time, it will show up at 5pm; they delivered it at 10am. Such good luck rarely happens to me; I always manage to choose the grocery line that takes the longest or the “express” train that sits in the station for 10 minutes while two local trains pass through.


The early delivery allowed me to accept my friend’s invitation to go to Governor’s Island for an event called Figment.  This brought together all things of which I am fond: picnics, beautiful weather, grass under bare feet, art, friends, history, boats, and events/people/situations of such randomness that you cannot help but laugh and enjoy the moment.

Despite some raindrops, we boarded the ferry at Pier 6 (in the developing Brooklyn Bridge Park) to Governors Island.  After a good 45 minutes of waiting to board and boarding, the actual ferry trip was a resoundingly anti-climactic 3 minutes.  But it did afford some great views of Lower Manhattan.
I didn’t even know that Governors Island existed until about two months ago.  The island is a national monument, boasting a history of exclusivity (NY royal governors only, thank you very much) and military happenings (there are three forts on the island, and it was most recently in the service of the U.S. Coast Guard before becoming a National Park).  Walking on the island is surreal: the financial district forms the backdrop, but it’s difficult to feel its impressive capitalistic power when you feel the grass under you feet as you walk through the “moat” around Fort Jay.  Abandoned buildings (old barracks?  Offices?) surround the grassy areas—I would live there in a heartbeat, making up for the ferry (kayak?) commute with some kickass parties.

According to the website, Figment is a “spectacularly colorful event” sponsoring “over 200 participatory art projects in every conceivable medium, a bigger-than-ever-before TreeHouse, a delightfully whimsical interactive Sculpture Garden and inspired Minigolf Course...And whatever you can think of to make your dreams come true!”

Need I say more?

Familiar Faces on unfamiliar streets

I decided to walk along Atlantic Avenue from the Pier to Target (I’m still assembling my room).  As I strolled through Cobble Hill, admiring the charming store fronts that assuredly contain items that I cannot even dream of affording at the moment—and, of course, wishing I lived in that neighborhood—I came across Adam, a new acquaintance (and in due time—friend?) who also lives in Bed-Stuy.  After a quick hug in greeting and a quick exchange in which we both established that we were just spending the Saturday running errands, we went on our merry ways.  Recap: I ran into someone I know. On the street.  In New York.  (Do I really live here?)

Frigid Air (and sweet friends that have cars)

My high school senior class president happens to live in Brooklyn, and he happens to be my friend.  He also happens to have a car and likes helping friends in need, so he assisted me in buying and transporting an air conditioner to my apartment on Saturday, with promises to come back and help with the installation.  If you know anything about my contentious relationship with summer heat, you’ll know that this was a necessary measure.  I haven’t needed to use it yet, but knowing it’s there is sweet, sweet assurance.


After not seeing (and hardly speaking to) someone for five years, it makes the invitation to their birthday party a little more meaningful.  I had been trying to meet up with a former classmate from my study abroad days in Florence for some time (we took an Italian cooking class together at Apicius), and attending her birthday on Saturday night was a way to guarantee that would happen—that’s right, I had never before seen her in the U.S..  So I made my way to Williamsburg and met up with her and her friends at Good Co., where I found myself having to explain to people what the game of corn hole was and how to play (it’s truly a different world, people.)

Food (that turns out well even when you’ve never made the recipe before)

This Sunday, it was my turn to make the sweet treat, and I decided to try two new recipes (via Pinterest—yet further affirmation that I am turning into a middle-aged woman already): Key Lime Bars and Healthy Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Dip (that is, surprisingly, made from chickpeas).  Both were tasty enough.  Phew.  Making them also made me miss hosting dinner parties and get-togethers (I say as I squash the suburbanite longings that threaten to rear up within the middle-aged me.)


(Yes, I know I’ve destroyed the alliterative list.  Alas.  I couldn’t figure out a way to turn this into an “f” word (heh) without leading with an arbitrary adjective, thereby demolishing my strict Scattegories ethical code.)

Podcasts are basically what get me through the week: I listen to them at work non-stop.  NPR’s Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and Pop Culture Happy Hour (from which this title is charitably stolen) always delight, and ExtraHotGreat is a weekly must, but I dabble here and there—and I am always open to suggestions. For instance, I just downloaded some iTunesU podcasts for running.  As I ran my 5k this morning through parts of Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, and Bed-Stuy, I brushed up on my Modern Social Theorists.  Yes I’m a nerd.  Don’t hate.


Governors Island
Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Dip
Key Lime Bars
Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me
Pop Culture Happy Hour

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I Celebrate Myself...and Whitman

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

One of the most problematic aspects of New York is the tyranny of choice: there is just too damn much to do, and you can’t expect to do it all.  There’s even too much to do for your particular nerd group: music nerd, sports nerd, technology nerd, art nerd, etc. It’s not a bad problem to have, to be sure, but it’s not a fun problem when you’re - shall we say - financially challenged.

But if you’re a literature nerd, sometimes you’ll luck out on free events that are wonderful in content and concept and whose excellence is only augmented by the New York setting.

And by a Brooklyn setting, in particular, where poetic clout rests largely in Walt Whitman.  In early May, I attended a concert/small festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) titled “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” after Whitman’s famous poem describing the pre-bridge ferry crossing from Manhattan to Brooklyn. (My friend Monica and I attended for one night, where we saw the bands Ava Luna, the Antlers, Buke and Gass, and St. Vincent.  Good times, indeed.) 

On Sunday, June 3, in between a million events and errands on my agenda, I found time to walk past the old home of the Brooklyn Eagle (which Whitman edited), down to Brooklyn Bridge Park.  On Pier 1, an NYU professor was hosting the annual marathon reading of Song of Myself.  As clouds and wind moved in, building gray waves on the East River beneath the skyline of the Financial District and the iconic Brooklyn Bridge, poets and volunteers stood to recite their favorite sections from the 1855 version.  Even when the rain fell in a quick and thorough summer shower, drenching Walt Whitman look-a-likes  through their big white beards, the reading lost no momentum.  The small but hearty audience followed along as raindrops splattered their diverse copies of the poem.

Although I could only stay for a few minutes, the literature nerd in me was pleased.

Click to hear the current Poet-in-Residence of the Walt Whitman Birthplace - Martin Espada - read Part II of Song of Myself (and also glimpse what seems like an anachronistic car drive through the back of the shot).

My souvenir

Friday, June 1, 2012

How New York and the South are Similar # 1

Recently, I returned to Knoxville, TN to attend the nuptial celebration of some dear friends. After a (semi-intense) reunion with my beloved car (affectionately named Rhett Butler), the first thing I did when I put the car in gear was roll the windows down and stick my hand out of the sunroof, driving up Alcoa Highway with the wind whipping through my fingers – the feeling of comfort and freedom and summer.  Oh, those su-ummer ni-ights.  (Tell me more, tell me more.  Ok, you asked...)

The first thing I encountered upon my morning return to New York City was a torrential downpour.  Naturally, I had no umbrella, so I dragged my suitcase through huge puddles and was quite literally dripping wet when I made it up to work.  Thus ensued about five days of gray, dismal city.

But despite these differences (and some obvious distinctions such as climate, cost of living, etc.), New York City and the South are remarkably similar in some key ways. 

You doubt, you scoff.  Let me explain:

  1. Each has a theme song.  Multiple, actually.

New York:

When you mention New York City in any conversation, you will receive a singing answer roughly 70% of the time.  It either starts with a vocal interpretation:

DA-DA-da-da-da, DA-DA-da-da-da

And/or one line

Start spreading the news…

Old Blue Eyes, of course. (Though I do also really love the new, quieter Carey Mulligan cover.) Guy, the desk guard at our previous office building, sang it to me on multiple occasions as he printed my building pass; even New Yorkers sometimes get a hankering for such a famous tune.

The more modern equivalent of a New York theme song has to be the Alicia Keys and Jay-Z (the self-proclaimed “New Sinatra”) collaboration “Empire State of Mind”:

New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There’s nothin’ you can’t do
Now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York, New York, New York



 The South:

 An untold number of country songs laud the south, “redneck” men and women, and general “good ol’ country life” that leave the rest of the nation convinced that Southerners really don’t wear shoes (except for the occasional cowboy boot) and deem the tractor an appropriate and preferred method of transportation to and from all events.

I‘ll stand barefooted in my own front yard with a baby on my hip. I’m a redneck woman, I ain’t no high class broad.  I’m just a product of my raising and I say hey y’all and yee-haw. (Gretchen Wilson)

With a little bit of chicken fried.  Cold beer on a Friday night.  Pair of jeans that fit just right, and the radio on. (Zac Brown Band)

You can have a lot of fun in a New York minute
But there’s some things you can’t do inside those city limits
Ain’t no closing time, ain’t no cover charge
Just country boys and girls gettin’ down on the farm. (Tim McGraw)

But then there’s "Dixie," the song most associated with and adopted by the South (unfortunately so)**:

I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.
In Dixie Land where I was born in, early on a frosty mornin’,
Look away, look away, look away, Dixie Land.

Then I wish I was in Dixie, hooray! Hooray!
In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand to live and die in Dixie,
Away, away, away down South in Dixie,
Away, away, away down South in Dixie.

Theme Song Philosophizing

The problem with both New York’s and the South’s theme songs is that they are poor representations of each location.  The “New York, New York” theme has become the hopeful picture of individual success and dream-fulfillment, the embodiment of New York idealism.  Jay-Z even acknowledges the false hope, probably because he’s “out that Bed-Stuy, home of that boy Biggie” and recognizes that New York, like most other places in America, hails the privileged few that actually do make it, the millionaires who can afford real estate in Manhattan and afford the life of indulgence that this city demands:

City, it’s a pity, half of y’all won’t make it.

I know a great many people in the South, even ones whom I have referred to as “good country folk” or “rednecks,” and they are multi-dimensional and own several pairs of shoes.  Regarding the use of y’all – well, I have long made the case that it’s a fine, gender-inclusive term that the entire English-speaking world should employ, seeing how they’ve done away with the plural “you.”  Y’all get on that now, ya hear?

But "Dixie"…now, it might be a theme song, but I acknowledge it’s not one to be proud of (though many Southerners ignorantly are, I’ll admit). Born out of the minstrelsy tradition, adopted by the CSA, the tune is far too racially charged to be acknowledged anywhere. When my family first moved to the South from the Midwest in 1997, my parents attended my dad’s company Christmas party.  When the “Star Spangled Banner” played, few people stood or showed the respect it’s given at all major sporting events.  But when “Dixie” played…you would have thought that the South had actually won “The War of Northern Aggression.”  When my parents didn’t stand, others interpreted this as a clear display of their own unwelcome northern aggression.

When I attended Ole Miss in 2004, the (relatively new) tradition of The Pride of the South band playing “From Dixie with Love” ended every football game.  This song was a mash-up of “Dixie” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” except at the end, when the line should be “His truth is marching on,” everyone joined in, raising their blue and red poms (which had only replaced Confederate flags in 1997) and chanting “the South will rise again,” a slogan identified with the Ku Klux Klan. Only in 2010 did Colonel Reb officially get replaced by the Ole Miss Black Bear.

Yeah, it’s not a college without serious racial issues and a sordid past.  But I went to Ole Miss, and most people I associated with wanted nothing to do with any of the school’s racist traditions.  I knew people who started racial reconciliation groups.  As odd as it sounds, I knew plenty of Southern hipsters who loved Oxford, not Ole Miss, who created music and embraced the vibrant literary tradition of Faulkner’s town.  The South as a whole isn’t necessarily a place dominated by country life (there are cities in the South, people – and some great ones, too) or racist tradition, though I won’t deny that those exist.  But the South has diversity, too; there are different kinds of South (Old South, New South, Deep South, Appalachia, Delta, Coast, etc.) just as there are different neighborhoods and boroughs in New York.

A recap. How New York and the South are similar #1: misrepresentative theme songs.

Next installment: stereotyped renditions of the silver screen.  Stay tuned.

*Click on any of the links for YouTube videos and performances of the songs discussed.
**Christian McWhirter contributed a piece to the New York Times op-ed about "The Birth of 'Dixie'".  Check it out.