Thursday, August 16, 2007

New York State of Mind

I've had a love affair with New York City since an early age. I suppose there's a part of all of us that wants the opposite of what we're dealt in life. At an age when most of my friends could hardly imagine a life off of Hermosa, Manhattan, Will Rogers or Zuma beaches, I was dreaming of Times Square and Central Park and the good Chinese Food my Jersey-bred mother always talked about whenever we'd dig into takeout from Panda Express. I lived out my high school and college years to a Broadway soundtrack and counted the days until I could pack it all up and move out there to work in the theatre. I even temporarily absconded from college to try out living there-- romantically poor of course-- and discovered that I didn't just like it out there. I felt more like myself when I was in New York than anywhere else in the world.

People were different. And there were more of them. A lot more. They walked around and listened to their walkmans all the time and read books because there was a lot of time to kill while waiting and riding around Manhattan. In a bus, in a subway, in a cab. Yes... there is no driving involved. No protective bubble of steel to shield you from the life going on outside. In New York City, forces greater than yourself control the way you get around. You're at the mercy of the train schedule if you want to catch the Uptown N/R on a Sunday afternoon or the weather that day if you have hope of getting a cab at rush hour.

Though I took a path out of college that led me straight home to Hollywood, I was still able to escape to New York a couple of times a year whether for business or pleasure. I'd see old friends, take in a Broadway show or three and come home with an extra suitcase full of stuff from H&M. But in recent years, my trips east had dried up. And until Pauly decided to fly us both out for a post-WSOP getaway a few weeks back, I hadn't been to New York City in almost three years.

* * * * *

Fifteen minutes after landing at JFK, Pauly and I were in a cab careening down an access road next to the Van Wyck Expressway. As we stopped at a light, a homeless man begged for change and made some sort of untoward remark about how the cabbies "just take and take the money, they never give it." This inspired quite the war of words between our driver and the homeless man that ended in a series of "fuck yous."

"Well, there's your instant 'New York' experience" said Pauly with a smile.

Pauly booked us into a hotel called On the Ave on the Upper West Side. It turned out to be such a fantastic location-- away from all the tourists in Times Square and close to dozens of quality eating and drinking establishments. It almost felt like having an apartment in the neighborhood instead of a hotel room. The bed was comfy and fluffy and white and we had a plasma TV and a marble bathroom. Derek met up with us at the hotel and brought us herbal supplies and we absconded to the Manhattan Diner across the street for a quick bite to eat. I had a burger deluxe (deluxe, I learned, means that it comes with fries) and I dipped those fries into ketchup instead of my usual ranch dressing for fear of being mocked by the New Yorkers.

After dinner, it was onto a bar that I've long been curious about ever since reading about some late-night antics that took place there last fall on the Tao of Poker-- Yogi's. Yogi's is on 76th and Broadway and on the door it proclaims that they proudly serve Pabst Blue Ribbon. The bartenders are borderline-skanky girls in cutoffs and midriff tops and they play country music off a jukebox. Once the Rooster arrived and joined us, I discovered that he knows way too many lyrics to these songs. They have special shots at this place where the girls pour liquor into your mouth while "Danger Zone" from the Top Gun soundtrack plays, but none of us partook.

After Yogi's it was on to Citrus, a much swankier establishment that the Rooster knew I'd appreciate. He ordered me one of their house specialties, a refreshing white sangria that I seriously enjoyed. This crowd was much more yuppie-professional, with a lot of girls on dates wearing black dresses. The Rooster was definitely on his game, flirting with nearly every woman in sight. I marveled at his energy and persistence.

Next we hit the Westside Tavern and switched to a familiar drink-- pints of Stella. I think the Rooster knew the bartender, as he spent an unusual amount of time up there fetching our beers. From there we moved on to the Dead Poet and took a seat outside on the patio. I had a Yuengling, a darker beer than I'd normally choose, but I found that I liked it. The Rooster spotted a little boy walking down the street with his dad, the new Harry Potter book clasped between his hands.

"Man, you already got it? What is it, 12:30?" said the Rooster. The little boy nodded his head excitedly.

"Hey lemme get a shot of you and your book." The boy's father nodded that it was OK and he posed for the Rooster and his pocket digital camera. All I know is that if it were my kid and the Rooster asked to snap a photo... I'd be high-tailing it for the next block before you could say "Dateline NBC."

We hung out at the Dead Poet until they started shutting down the patio at 1:30 A.M. Bars are open until 4 in New York, but I guess the outdoors has to come in after a certain hour.

* * * * *

Saturday morning was lost to sleep. We finally woke up around 2 PM and were starving.

"Take me on the Pauly tour" I answered when I was asked where I wanted to eat.

We took a cab to the Upper East Side and got out right in front of Pauly's private, Catholic High School, interestingly located only three crosstown blocks from the NYC branch of my private, Catholic high school. From there we walked over to Madison Avenue to an old-school NYC Greek Diner called the New Amity where I ate a cheese omelet and listened to Pauly tell old high school stories. After we finished eating I window-shopped in the boutiques that line Madison in the 80's while Pauly ran a quick errand. I drooled over the super-luxe shoes and purses at Searle though I had no hope fitting into their clothes. I think the largest size I saw was a 4.

We spent the rest of the afternoon browsing through the Met and walking through Central Park. I couldn't believe how many girls I saw decked out in wedge heels and designer sundresses just to hang out in the park on a summer afternoon. And the bags... oh man.

"You have to make like, seventy or a hundred thousand dollars to live in Manhattan" Pauly said, very matter-of-fact. It sure helped to explain why everyone was so dressed up and even the 22 year old girls with pink rhinestone-studded cell phones were carrying $600 Botkier bags.

Pauly showed me some of the park's finer nooks and crannies including the Alice in Wonderland statue, Strawberry Fields and the John Lennon memorial, and the lake where people rowed boats. I immediately recognized it as the location of a memorable episode of Sex and the City.

"Oh my God! That's the restaurant where Carrie and Mr. Big fall into the lake and she wrecks her new Richard Tyler dress!" I exclaimed as Pauly rolled his eyes.

Saturday Night was the Main Event, the spark the prompted the trip in the first place-- Widespread Panic at Radio City Music Hall. J.B. & Co. put on an awesome show (unfortunately sans Sunny, who had a death in his family) , the highlight of which was Imitation Leather Shoes> Chilly Water> Imitation Leather Shoes. The people in the row directly in front of us were an interesting bunch. One guy got caught smoking weed (discretion, please!) and was thrown out, while another girl was so high she couldn't stop screaming. She screamed during the songs. She screamed after the songs were finished. Sometimes she'd turn around and scream at us for no apparent reason. Her second roll must have kicked in by the 3/4 point of the show, causing her to strip to her bikini top. And, well, this wasn't exactly someone you're gonna get excited about seeing in a bikini top.

* * * * *

Sunday morning... again lost to sleep. We were still 1 week post-WSOP and still catching up on rest. Once we got mobile, Pauly took me to one of his all-time favorite New York eateries-- Big Nick's Burgers. This no-frills burger joint boasts a 27-page menu listing everything from pizza to Greek sandwiches. But everyone comes to Nick's for their legendary burgers, so that's what we ordered. Pauly opted for the Bistro Burger-- a patty topped with gruyere cheese, carmelized onions, mushrooms and tomato on challah bread, while I went for the Cajun Burger which came topped with a tapenade-like paste of onion, tomato, spices, and hot sauce. These burgers were sick. Like nothing I've ever eaten in L.A. and I'm including Tommy's, the Apple Pan and Fatburger in that mix. We enjoyed our meal at an outdoor table, watching all the yuppies go about their Sunday business. The street hummed with yuppie couples, moms with strollers, and twentysomething fashionistas who were all dressed up with errands to run.

After absconding to SoHo for a little retail therapy, Pauly and I got a drink at a bar called the Firehouse. Even on a Sunday afternoon, it was packed with locals. Why weren't there bars like this in L.A.? Or really ANY bar I could walk to? (Though a bar called The Firehouse in L.A. would likely be a gay one). From there, we took the subway up to Riverdale where we had dinner with Derek at the Riverdale Diner followed by a little Sunday night Entourage viewing party.

Back in Manhattan, we met up with Rooster around midnight and took a cab down to Chinatown where he knew of a bar so posh and secret it didn't even have a sign on the front door. We walked up to the front door of what looked like an abandoned building, and just like in Rounders, a little video camera was perched above the door. The Rooster buzzed once and was immediately let in. That's just how he rolls.

Milk and Honey is a dark, tiny, sexy little bar. There are maybe 6 tables, most of them high-backed, curvaceous leather booths. As we walked in, several model-like girls looked up and gave us the once-over. I barely looked at them, going for the "yeah, I'm dressed down because I'm actually secretly famous" vibe. Though I'm not sure it worked. These girls were seriously dressed.

While in Los Angeles, social lines are drawn by the make and model of one's vehicle, in New York that is replaced by the designer of one's clothes or purse. New York girls take their fashion very seriously. In three years away from the city, I almost forgot how much so. The target audience of the major fashion bibles-- Vogue, Elle, and InStyle-- are all those girls crowding into New York City bars on the weekends, teetering on their Roger Vivier heels that perfectly coordinate (not match) with their dresses fresh off the rack from Intermix. Yes, dresses. New York girls turn themselves out, even for a trip down to some random bar on a Sunday night. It made me feel positively touristy in my jeans and flat shoes.

We took a back table and the Rooster told the bartender to make his three best specialty cocktails. I had a sweet ginger-tinged concoction, Pauly had a Chilean mojito, while the Rooster had some sort of melon thing in a martini glass. The bartender gave a lengthy explanation of the ingredients and the mixing process, which I enjoyed in a Food Network nerd sort of way.

After finishing our drinks we got another cab and headed for the East Village where we hit up at least five but no more than seven additional bars. This is the point in the story where things get blurry for our spunky young heroine. I know one was Eastern European and one was sake-themed. I neither threw up nor suffered any sort of chemically-induced freak-out. But yeah, I was a 'lil hammered...

"It's raining" Pauly whispered as I stirred and awoke. There went any plans of walking around the city in the 5 hours before our flight back to Las Vegas. While I got dressed, Pauly heroically ran out in the downpour to a nearby Duane Reade to get us some umbrellas and then we headed to MoMa-- along with every other tourist in New York that day.

I loved the MoMa. I hadn't been there in about 10 years. We saw pieces from Monet, Matisse, Pollock, Warhol, Kandisky, Mondrian, Van Gogh, and dozens more. I took maybe 100+ pictures during our stay (many of which made it to the NYC set in on my new Flickr page).

After a stop to warm up with some coffee at an adorable UWS eatery called French Roast and a trip to Barnes & Noble for some in-flight reading, it was time to start the trek to JFK and thus, back to Las Vegas. The thought of returning to Sin City repulsed me. I wanted to stay and be a New Yorker for a few days more. I wanted to walk to bars and window-shop and read books in the park. Not sit in the $4-8 game at Red Rock one last time, praying I wouldn't lose what was left of my bankroll. At least we weren't long for Vegas. The WSOP was over. All we had to do was pack up and leave.

Three days later we were speeding west across the desert, all our stuff shoved into the back of my Mazda. For four straight hours Pauly sang along with his iPod in the voice of Chaka from "The Land of the Lost." I nearly drove the car off the Cajon Pass as he shrieked the high notes of a My Morning Jacket song.

Vegas was behind us. We'd made it through another World Series. And, as it would turn out, our travel whirlwind was just beginning...


Jennifer said...

Ya know, I've never been to NY! I've always wanted to go, and you paint such a great picture of it... I'll hit you up for suggestions if I ever take the time to go.

Now go have fun in Europe! I look forward to those blogs... :)

lj said...

i love your observations on vegas and la, but it's even more fun to read your perspective on the city i live in!

fun that you went to milk and honey -- there's another bar owned by same people in my hood (little branch) that doesn't require the buzzer/reservations but still serves same great cocktails.

KajaPoker said...

lived in NYC for 6 years before heading to the deep south suburbs. I love the way you describe the insane vibe in that crazy city. I used to hate it before I lived there and got into the rhythm of things by living in Soho. On the weekends I used to go to the Museum of Natural History and stand up on the roof and look over my city. Then I would walk down Broadway all the way to Chinatown and go through 8 different neighborhoods and lifestyles in one afternoon. Before Soho I sublet a room right across from French Roast. Yum.

Jordan said...

I'm echoing the other sentiments. As a New Yorker, it was really fun and refreshing to read about your take on the city.

Anonymous said...

Sigh...I love NYC. Glad to hear you noticed the handbags. Did you at least no the words to Danger Zone?

Anonymous said...

I meant KNOW the words...

APOSEC72 said...


That's my HS - if you mean 55 E 84th - Damn.....

Joaquin "The Rooster" Ochoa said...

You have fans when you write about NYC, Change100. I think you should move here and live in can always go to the roof and dump a pale of water on those skinny girls with huge purses...what is up with that fashion, not to mention the purses cost like 400.00 please explain? In any case, great write up and I love that you described what the delux was...Viva The Delux that Vinnie serves. It was nice that you and Pauly let me spend some time with you two...round two when you all return.