Monday, July 30, 2012

Toddler Transit Tales: Encounters with Kids in the Subway

New York is such a “young adult city” that I’m often taken aback when I encounter the very young or the very elderly in Manhattan.  People come to begin careers and businesses, to compile university degrees, and to share apartments with other single strangers–all activities typically associated with your 20s and 30s. 

Little kids usually stand out most on the subway.  Everybody notices the gigantic stroller fighting for space in the crowded car; more than once I’ve had to shove my hand in the closing doors in order to get on the train, which almost left me because I waited so long for a parent to wrestle their child-supporting megabus onto the platform.  Or kids are particularly oblivious to the implicit “let there be silenced (or no more than hushed tones) on the morning commute” law. 

Three particular observations stand out to me:

When I was traveling through the tunnels of the Upper West Side, a very clean-cut man (jeans slim but not tight, button-down crisp but untucked for a weekend look) got on with his daughter, her 4-year-old head springy with thin blonde pigtails.  He sat her on his lap and gave her an iPhone, on which she began to play a Mickey Mouse cartoon.  Seated next to her was the most adorable, cherubim-faced little black girl about the same age, her head clicking with multi-colored barrettes at the end of her braids. When the blonde girl’s cartoon began playing loudly enough for the entire train to look, her neighbor craned her little neck to get a look, not saying a word but innocently trying to share in some good Disney fun.  The dad tilted his daughter’s hands so that both girls could see the screen, explaining, “Let’s share with this girl so she can see Mickey, too.”  Unsurprisingly, the blonde pigtails shook ferociously: “No!”  Thus ensued a temper tantrum.  As the father tried to calmly explain why sharing is a virtue and then quietly asking if his daughter understood why he was going to turn the cartoon off, her protests grew louder and more shrill, her actions stronger and more combative as she tried to squirm off his lap and back into the bag that held the confiscated iPhone.  All the while, the adorable girl who had – in some sense – begun the upset by trying to see what shenanigans Mickey and Donald were getting into just sat and watched the unfolding scene.  Her complete quietness, her inescapable innocence, and her wide-eyed stare at this father trying to quell his daughter’s tantrum revealed that she found this event far more entertaining than the cartoon would have been.

Another day, I was on a moderately busy train – it wasn’t empty, but almost everyone had a seat. A couple got on with their very chatty toddler in a stroller – again in pigtails.  The mother sat, facing her daughter towards the seats, including the abandoned one next to her.  Since children seem universally incapable of moderating their voices, this girl, Clea, started bellowing.
“Mama, tell me a story!”
“What kind of story do you want to hear?”
“I dunno.  Talk about a princess.  That can be her throne!”  She pointed towards the empty seat next to her mother.  She continued babbling, essentially telling her own story by instructing her mother to piece together elements of all the fairy tales she’d heard.
The train doors opened, and new passengers embarked.  A woman sat down in the empty seat.
The look on Clea’s face was priceless.  This woman's choice to sit down in that seat was an abomination.  Clea yelled in outrage, “Mama! Mama! That woman sat on my story!”

Last week, on the F train, I stood facing the bench, holding on to the ceiling bar.  I had been absorbed by the novel I was reading and had about 15 pages left in the tale of 1898 Alabama gang wars, in which literal and metaphorical backstabbing happens between reeking, ruthless sharecroppers, and gruesome accounts of buckshot entering and leaving bloody bodies are told in every chapter.  After a few minutes, I noticed the face of the little girl (about 8 years old) on the bench below me, shyly peering up at my opened book cover, trying to get a glimpse of the title and perhaps even the back cover summary.  I felt a little shameful since the blurb mentioned murderers and prostitutes, and the title of the book contained the word “Hell.”  (I’m such a bad influence). When the girl noticed me looking at her, she quickly turned her head, whispering in the ear of her grandmother, who also sent a glance in my direction.  At the next stop, the little girl climbed on her grandmother’s lap.  The kind woman said, “Please sit down!  She told me, ‘Grandma, can I sit on your lap so the lady can sit down?’”  Although she was too shy to talk to me, the sweet girl gave me a vigorous good-bye wave when they departed at York St., as if we were old friends.  The encounter made my day; the only downside was that my anxiousness to make up the time lost in conversing with the grandmother caused me to throw myself into the last few page of the hell book...and miss my stop.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

You Know You're in New York When...

A picnic read is a classic work on the psychological impact of colonialism on marginalized peoples. And the picnic is held in a park whose existence is partially indebted to Whitman, one of the greatest American poets. Cultural and literary connectivity, indeed.

Apologies for the poor photo quality;
my iPhone contract is up this month - hopefully better pictures to come soon

The event: free music in Fort Greene Park.

Monday, July 23, 2012

McNally Jackson

Housed in SoHo among the trendy shops and upscale retail, the cast-iron architecture and the bricked streets, the people who have much more money than I have and...the people who have even more money than they have – there lies a bookstore.

You can only overprice books so much; thus, McNally Jackson is a great attraction for me in this neighborhood, because it's affordable but mostly because of its books (obviously). 


Great displays, often on wonderful display pieces (such as old desks, antiquated typewriters, and vintage bicycles). 


 Interesting featured collections, not just the bestsellers, arranged by an aesthetically-minded eye with a little wit.

Plenty of stationery (one of my loves/great vices).  I almost bought the $20 elephant notecards because...who doesn’t love elephants?  Seriously.  And receiving a handwritten letter on crafted elephant stationery?  You know you want it.


Engaging events.  The store seems very pro-active about local Manhattan writers, sponsoring talks and hosting events with authors and panels. Their books clubs are also specific and tailored (International Literature, Essay Book Club, etc.).

While no warehouse, the selection here is pretty impressive, and it achieves a nice balance between fiction and non-fiction, books and periodicals.  I walked out with an (overpriced) artsy periodical called Kinfolk, which is a magazine dedicated to entertaining, produced in a simplistic layout with beautiful photography dedicated to my favorite thing – community.  It feeds my love of dinner parties with friends despite my lack of space, money, and, well, enough friends interested in that sort of thing. (I also purchased a tote.  You really can’t have enough totes in the city.)

Perhaps the most unique feature is the Espresso Book Machine, which allows you to self-publish books or print from the public domain. This is dedication to the written word, old and new.

The next most notable feature of McNally Jackson is its organization.  The fiction section is organized by nation.  Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about this.  On one hand, I appreciate that such organization is a statement and a stand against a certain canonization, against subsuming books as radically different and dependent on their geographical and sociocultural histories as, say, Pride & Prejudice and Midnight’s Children under one lump, overgeneralized category of “Literature.” On the other hand, separating them might also imply a more nationalistic imperative that ignores the connections and interplay between literary styles and histories that I find most intriguing.  On that same hand, some people might not know better and look for Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go in Japanese fiction. (To this statement, I imagine some of my more elitist friends (read: a part of me) to remark that if said people don't know that Ishiguro is British (Remains of the Day is about the fall of the British aristocratic system, for Pete's sake), they don't deserve to read his books...).

Of course, that’s where the staff comes into play.  Plenty of staff members were stationed throughout the store.  Though I didn’t interact with them, judging by their inviting (and plenteous) staff picks, I assume that they’re helpful, at least in terms of content knowledge.

A café thankfully invites you to join coffee (and/or tea) with book reading because, clearly, it’s a necessary relationship in our culture.  Or really, the relationship is between the coffee shop and reading because it has become the (admittedly cliché) locale of discussions about ideas (admittedly not a cliché that I mind much).


BUSY, busy, busy.  Granted, I was there on a Sunday afternoon, so the situation may be different during the week.  But the mass of people makes me anxious, especially in a bookstore.  If I feel as though I am in everyone’s way, I am going to feel uncomfortable browsing – which, by definition, is a leisurely activity not to be rushed.

The business adds to the atmosphere of “trendy” that is inherent in SoHo; for an independent bookstore, wherein we often seek universal ideas and classic thought, this is not a positive association.

Although using one customer as a representative of the clientele is a gross exaggeration and obviously a poor measure of a can’t help but associate the patron with the store when you overhear a conversation (well, monologue) of an “intellectual” guy trying to impress a girl with his profundity.  He leaned on the wooden wall announcing some national literary section, his arm at the level of the girl’s head as he tried to adopt a casual manner and spoke:

“I can never be greater than New York.  One can be great but not greater than the town he comes from because is only one...New York is such a fucking panopticon.”

Yeah. That happened.

While I loved the selection and would have browsed more if I had the time, the bustle of the store (and that guy) were off-putting, though not enough for me to give it another try sometime soon (?).

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Singin' and Dancin' in the New York Rain

Rain, rain, go away. You’re much needed in this national drought, if only to offer brief respite from the incredible heat.  But you make pedestrian transit nearly impossible—or, at the very least, incredibly frustrating.

A New York pedestrian with an umbrella actually develops quicker reflexes, ducking through and around other pedestrians, umbrellas, awnings, and food carts—Frogger style. To find the minute opening between other umbrellas and their slow-moving owners is an involved undertaking, and weaving through the sidewalks can actually become a delicate dance of graceful(less) sliding, jumping, and quick-stepping.  This is a dance with a prop, of course, which the dancer must learn to collapse-and-reopen effortlessly and quickly to skirt through small gaps in the pedestrian wall and under/around scaffolding.  With this umbrella, the dancer must also institute a constant up-down motion, above the heads of the unfortunates without umbrellas (or with height challenges), under the umbrellas of tall pedestrians or those who decide that the gargantuan span of a golf umbrella was a wise choice on the crowded sidewalk.

Of course, if a pedestrian is lucky enough to be caught without an umbrella (such as yours truly during the storm sneak-attack on Wednesday night), the event of walking (such an easy, taken-for-granted prospect on dry days), becomes less of a dance and more of a survival strategy.  First: which subway route to take?  Go one way, and the walk to the station is shorter, but go the longer route, and you get the benefit of more awnings.  Decisions. 

Once the unfortunate, umbrella-deprived pedestrian (let’s call her Leah – for kicks and giggles, of course) decides which path to take (the longer walk with more awnings and fewer train transfers, incidentally), she obviously wants to move more quickly, to walk faster despite the treadless flats she wears, to get to the subway.  This may not limit rain exposure, but it definitely lessens the time spent uncomfortably in the elements.  However, as if people walking slowly in groups two or three (or four?!)-abreast was not already a frustration, they now increase their girth by walking abreast with umbrellas.  The indecency! On top of this, many pedestrians passing by refuse to offer the courtesy of lifting their umbrellas,  resulting in swipes of the umbrella edge across Leah’s shoulder, collisions with her head, and several occasions of increased wetness from the rain streaming off of the umbrella.  Furthermore, the trains seem to run with increasing delays when it rains, even when most of the route (and all of Leah’s) is underground, which is baffling. 

If only Leah had been prepared—with an umbrella, yes—but more importantly, at home, curled up with a good book to listen to the thunder. THEN we can say, “come again another day.” 

Rainy Day family in Bed-Stuy

Westsider Books

A simple green awning poking out on the sunny Sunday sidewalk proclaiming BOOKS.  Sold. That’s all it takes to get me to visit, and that’s all it took to get me to drag a fellow bibliophile to Westsider Books to investigate its wares and its worth.  And what we found was enough to make us return the following Sunday.

Small and unassuming, the store is meant for browsing and for getting lost.  The somewhat dusty air seems to be infused with magical particles that immediately make you forget what you were searching for – which is good, because agendas are obviously discouraged. Like any good used book store (and this one claims to be the last on the Upper West Side), shopping here is an exercise in acceptance: what you will find may surprise you, and you may run across the perfect book or edition that you didn’t even know you were looking for.

It’s the kind of place where great treasures can be found, but only with great commitment.  The rows of books are two-deep and often have books placed horizontally on top of the rows, maximizing space in a small area, as any good New York establishment must. The open layout of the tiny store allows books to soar toward the ceiling, charmingly requiring a ladder and reminding me why I loved Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as a kid – because of the library; say what you want about his temper, Beast had mad reading skills.

Of course, the browsing culture of a used bookstore does not mean that specific books are impossible to find. I asked the gray, frizzled old man working the register (the owner, I would venture to guess) for a specific play, and he replied, “Drama is all the way in the back.  The top rows are theatre criticism, the bottom ones are Shakespeare. What you’re looking for is in the middle, probably the second shelf of that section.”  An invaluable resource, this guy.  Someone who knows his store and his collection in a way that reveals his deep involvement with it; he’s here all the time, and I got the sense that he would be the type of guy to whom you’d like to be known as a “regular.”

Most of the books run $6-$8 (excepting the outside bargain section, where most titles are $1, unless otherwise marked, prompting patrons to load up on armfuls of useless texts that will lie unread until the new owners decide to trade them in–probably to the same store, perpetuating the sad, circular life of the used book).  The main, bottom level of the store amazingly crams most sections you would want or think of in its shelves: New York, philosophy, literary biography, literature, Judaica, drama, philosophy, erotica, sci-fi, travel essays, young adult, and plenty more. The upstairs level (the stairs themselves lined with VHS tapes and books, enough to constitute a floor - or at least a section - on their own) held a worthwhile collection of rare books and editions, as well as some eclectic pieces such as a french horn hanging above an illustrated edition of Alice in Wonderland (fitting).

 How does Westsider Books fare according to my Outstanding Independent Bookstore criteria?  First, a few caveats: the store obviously had to deal with space issues, so my desire for reading nooks needs to be reevaluated in terms of importance and plausibility.  Also, it’s a used bookstore, so the merchandise is largely dependent on what people trade in and what is available; creative displays are difficult to conceive with a limited supply of copies and an uncertain inventory. Admittedly, the store seems to lack circulation of titles. My return to Westsider, however, proves that it left a positive impression.  Although the tight quarters can make for uncomfortably close browsing when even a few strange patrons are in the store, I like the “hiddenness” of it–the books behind books and the necessity to ascend the ladder to even browse it all.  The dustiness of it fits the quiet, settled quality of the Upper West Side, yet it also breaks the mold in the sense that it lacks polish. It has eccentric decor and bookish quotes, which add charm, as well as selections of records and old movies. But any bookstore whose checkout is overlooked by a stuffed raven named Sheryl gets my vote on quirky character alone.

"It's the books you don't buy that break your heart."  So says Sheryl [Nevermore].

New editions...
The King wants you to buy a postcard.

Perhaps the greatest measure of success for any bookstore is whether or not its customers leave with books.  On both occasions I have made purchases.  My most recent visit left me in possession of a copy of José Saramago’s Blindness, primarily because the inside cover cradles an inscription.  The book was given as a gift to “someone who has led me in my blindness.”  Such personalization and personality are the hallmarks of a solid used bookstore (even if it's still no McKay).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


In which we attended a free music festival on the historic South Street Seaport, we passed along crowd-surfers and were photographed in the process, and we endured the heat from both the sun and the fire that only temporarily shut down operations.


My view
His view.  You can't see me because I'm, well, under his left leg.  Monica and Kyle are enjoying the proceedings to the left, while Nick (who felt the need to remove his green cap for the occasion) is anxiously trying to keep in touch with the excitement.
[Image: C.S. Muncy]

Putting out the vending machine fire.
[Image (with more photos and videos):]

Still working on it as we were leaving.

The Village Voice also supplied a hilariously-captioned report of the fire "told by an idiot":

Monday, July 16, 2012


I’m pretty sure that I haven’t been to a sandy American beach since my last RYM in 2004.  Who knew that moving to New York City would be my opportunity?

Hopping on the A train, heading past JFK airport, following the surfboards and bathing-suit clad groups of friends leads you to Rockaway, home of several beaches where the chill of the Atlantic makes the high heat of the city bearable.  Crowded, yes, but manageable. 

Despite the tide rolling onto our towels twice, two bags still full of sand, and the most painful back sunburn I’ve had in many years, I had a fantastic day at the beach (due, in large part I know, to fantastic company).  I will return.  With extra sunscreen.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

After-work Socializing Spontaneity

As many pretentious people as there may be in New York, as many over-ambitious and narcissistic young adults with too much money congregate here to make it big in finance or business, and as cliche as it may be in Manhattan to go to an after-work bar, I have to say that I rather enjoy the happy hour drink in the city. Especially on a Friday. TGIF isn't just a clever acronym; it's the cry of my heart on Friday at 6pm.

I was invited to join some girls* (2 of whom I'd met) at the Standard's Biergarten.  I'd been there before and knew to expect–wrestling through the crowds of the somewhat overrated place–but it was still worth it.  Big beers, bratwurst, and good company: my German genes were well-pleased with my choices.

Afterward, I decided that I wasn't ready to go home, so on the invitation of one of the girls whom I had just met, I accompanied her to 230 5th and its rooftop bar, where drinks are pricey and you can't sit down unless you want to pay for bottle service.  Where the view is legitimately stunning and if you're cold, you can wear the provided red robes (read: Snuggies).  Where you unknowingly attend a birthday party for a very social guy from Hong Kong who studied in England, who therefore has a very thick hybrid accent that you're ashamed to say you can't really understand.  But you get a picture with the guy anyway because he's taking a picture with everybody and repeatedly telling you about how much he's already pre-gamed at the apartment (that you can understand).

A bizarre series of circumstances...but more enjoyable for the fact that it was all unexpected and spontaneous.

*I met the girl who graciously extended the invitation while I was singing with the volunteer choir at Hunter College; we all got brunch afterwards and decided to continue being social together.
From the wings of the Hunter College auditorium

Ballet Hispanico

Celebrate Brooklyn, a summer-long series of music, spoken word, and dance performance, takes over the Prospect Park bandshell, much to my delight.  Though some performances (Wilco, The Dirty Projectors, etc.) require a ticket purchase, most are free (with a $3 suggested donation.)  While my schedule does not permit me to see everything (I opted to miss Laura Marling to go see The Tempest with Christopher Plummer, in theaters), I definitely want to take advantage of as much as possible.

So on Thursday, June 28, I went to see a dance company, Ballet Hispanico.  The hot day had turned into a fantastically perfect night for an outdoor event.  Being solo, I found an ideal seat, right in the middle, not too far from the front but in perfect view of the entire stage.

My own experience with dance is somewhat limited. When I was six, my cousin and I were in Dance together in Bedford, MI.  Jazz dance.  The recital featured a cherubim six-year-old me in a magnificent ‘90s leotard of neon confetti.  The music played, and the "dancers" moved in from the wings in two rows, stepping together in unison…except for the girl on stage left, the second from the front, smiling with extra wattage because she knew she was doing it right even though everyone else was a beat too fast.  Yeah, that was me.  This glorious dance exposure has been immortalized on home video: the First Grade Leah Dance.  Truly a spectacle not to be missed.

More recent exposure has been a shameless love of So You Think You Can Dance, the shrill Mary Murphy notwithstanding.  Actually seeing a real dance company—and for free, no less—was just what I needed to begin my weekend.

The dancers were beautiful and exciting, performing with more theater and humor and playfulness than I had expected or seen before.  I didn’t take the time to capture much on film, but it is just one more excuse to love the opportunities for entertainment and personal enrichment that only a city like New York can provide.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Brooklyn Flea (& Junk)

Adorable pottery.  Want.

Millions of people + more belongings than they need + limited living and storage space = Flea Market!
(OK, you also have to throw in people with a good eye for collecting, people with talents who sell their art and crafts, etc….but you get my drift).

One very warm (read: too hot) Saturday at the end of May, as a friend and I were still trying to assemble, decorate, and uselessly fill our new apartments, we decided to go to the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, where untold treasures awaited. 

Our favorite.

I. love. these.

And. Keys.

Useless tidbits for the win!

I don't know why anyone would need this little guy, but everyone should want it.

I surprised myself with my restraint, buying nothing but a curiously flavored popsicle. But never fear; I will return.

People's Pops.  Raspberry Basil flavor, I think they were. 
This picture has some incredible color action happening. 

Even when it’s not an official flea market, I always enjoy fun antique/thrift store finds of useless-yet-alluring junk, such as this store (incidentally called Junk, I believe) in Williamsburg.

Some genius put the photo of the lake next to the vintage beer can.

President-face bottles, buttons, kazoos, alligator belt buckles

"Official Beer Pong Balls," eclectic busts, vintage beer cans