Thursday, September 30, 2010

Life on the other side of the fence

Despite having lived in New York over two years, there are still many places I haven't explored. These range from places I don't go because I'm concerned for my safety (the South Bronx, the TGI Fridays in Times Square, etc) to places I don't go because they're price prohibitive to a publishing assistant's budget (The Russian Tea Room, Megu, any restaurant above 57th that has a French sounding name). It's also just a large city, and it'll probably be another two years before I make it to all the places on my list. (Case in point, I still need to visit the Tenement Museum.)

However, I can say with confidence that I know the areas around where I work (Flatiron District, Union Square, Madison Square Park, and Gramercy) intimately. I tend to leave no cheap Thai lunch restaurant untasted or potential reading spot park bench untried. There has been, up to this point, one exception to my explorations. Less than three blocks from my office there is a park that until yesterday I had never stepped foot in. This is, of course, because it is Gramercy Park: the only private park in all of Manhattan. This means that the 2-acre, carefully maintained property is surrounded by a high metal fence. Only trustees of the park, who pay an annual fee and live in the expensive apartments and townhouses surrounding the park have keys. Normally, a couple of friends from work and I simply walk the border of the fence with the rest of the have-nots, occasionally stealing wistful glimpses through the fence at the lovely landscaping and quiet benches just beyond our reach.

But yesterday, our fortunes changed (well not substantively, but for the purposes of this story). A week or so ago, I was put in charge of training a new intern whose grandmother knows the owner of my company (who, incidentally, lives in Gramercy). As it turns out, during her time here, she is living with her grandmother, who happens to loan her the key to the park for her to go running in the morning. Luckily, she's a really cool girl (and not just because she fulfilled a New York fantasy for my friends and I). When she discovered our interest in the park on a routine coffee walk, she offered to let us in. Once we were assured that we fit all dress code requirements, we agreed. The key itself, which we had built up in our minds to be an ancient, skeleton key turned out to be rather mundane. (As my insider informed me, they change the locks annually.) However, this small key opened up a world of garden enchantment. Inside the confines of the iron gate, the air seemed sweeter. Despite the trees, it even seemed sunnier. The squirrels (of which there were a surprising number) seemed less bedraggled than your average urban tree rat.
You don't get this sort of whimsical statue in the humdrum public parks. Or you do, but the novelty inevitably wears off.

There was a sign by the entrance informing us that Gramercy Park is neither a "beach nor a playground." There were several other rules forbidding everything from dogs to frisbees, to encourage park goers to comport themselves appropriately. There was also an asterisk on the rule list assuring readers that this was only a partial list of guidelines. Persumbally you get the full set in the form of a bible accompanying your key every year. We started to worry that we were doing something wrong. Clearly, we were the riff raff that was never meant to be on that side of the fence. One old woman, who we decided is Arlene Harrison, the self proclaimed mayor of Gramercy Park ( wouldn't stop tracking us with her eyes. We tried to blend, but the agape mouths and the fact that I couldn't stop taking cell phone pictures clearly marked us as outsiders.

I don't know if you can read these (I have a really cheap phone that I hardly ever use the camera feature on), but it says that in order to "protect people and plantings" you are only allowed to play with soft foam balls in a small square of gravel. Naturally you're not permitted on the grass ANYWHERE.

Although I might have made it on some Gramercy Park trustees hit list, the experience was definitely worth it. There's something about being restricted from something that just makes it that much more enticing. The benches felt more comfortable than any park bench I'd ever sat on, no doubt partially because of the warmth of the jealous stares coming through the bars at me. A maintenance man left the gate open while blowing leaves off the sidewalk around the park entrance and we saw a man try to sneak in before being promptly sent away. It was nice to know, so long as we stuck close to our key holder (who was allowed to bring up to 6 guests at a time), we technically belonged there as much as anyone else.

I don't really think this one needs a caption.

Monday, September 27, 2010

My parents and the New Deal

I haven't been blogging this week because my parents were visiting me. I'd planned to make it up to all of you by making one epic update of their visit. It was going to be clever and interesting. It would have made you feel like you were there. It would have made you feel like you were my parents. Then again, a sizable percentage of my readers actually are my parents, which makes the whole process much easier. But yes...the post. I was going to do all of that, and I still plan to sort of, but I don't have pictures of much of it. This is entirely my own doing. For an aspiring photo-blogger, I all too often forget to charge my camera batteries. As it is, I now have to wait for pictures that others took. So this will be the largely photo-less update, although I do have a few photos, which I will sprinkle in thoughtfully.

The bulk of the activities of their trip, like the bulk of my time spent when people aren't visiting me, can be divided into two categories: eating and activities designed to work up hunger to eat again. One such activity, on our way to what would turn into an almost painfully good three course meal at the River Cafe was a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. It seemed the ideal way to get to the restaurant as it is located directly on the East River underneath the Brooklyn Bridge. It was as if this wonderful feat of engineering was designed expressly to transport us to high-priced crab bisques and salted caramel chantilly. The only downsides with the plan: we showed up to a fancy restaurant with hair more than a little windblown, the planks on the bridge are just wide enough to allow high heels to slip into them, and, as it turns out, the bridge sails a good few blocks over the restaurant before allowing non-para-sailing bridge walkers the change to de-bridge. Nevertheless, the view is a pleasant one:For those readers who are, for whatever reason, unfamiliar with my parents and I--you shouldn't have trouble picking out the backs of our heads. We are, none of us, the guy on the bike.

Another fine way to work up an appetite is to visit museums, of which there are many to choose from in New York. We opted to see the American Museum of Folk Art (one of my personal favorites because I honestly enjoy kitsch), what can only be described as a "walk-by" of the Met, and the MOMA. I go to the MOMA a fair amount because I'm a member. They by and large have some pretty decent masterpieces on display. The large center room with ceilings extending to all six floors of the museum is currently showing a work of "art" by Yoko Ono. It's basically just a microphone with vague instructions giving people the option of "yelling into the wind." Perhaps it's because people are conditioned to not yell into a microphone in a huge, quiet museum or perhaps it's just because people don't like Yoko Ono, but I've never seen anyone actually use the microphone. Generally, they just walk around it, eying it warily. My parents and I were no exceptions.

The hallmark of our trip involved actually leaving the city. My parents wanted to see some fall foliage (something Houston is devoid of), so we journeyed into the Hudson River Valley to stay at a B&B. Sadly, the foliage wasn't quite ready to turn, but we did see several trees that had gotten an early start. We drove through the always cute towns of Cold Spring and Sleepy Hollow, but stayed in lovely Hyde Park.

Hyde Park is the home of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Museum and Library as well as the former Roosevelt estate. As such, we learned a lot about our former president. For example, did you know he used a rope pulley elevator to lift himself up to different floors every day? He didn't want an electric one because he had a lifelong phobia of fire (due to an actually very tragic story involving seeing his aunt burn to death in front of him) and didn't want to get stuck in the elevator in the event of one. He and Eleanor are buried on the estate with Scottish terrier Fala (full name: Murray the Outlaw of Falahill) and one other dog, while their kids are buried like six miles away. You can see where their priorities were. I did get some fun greeting cards at the New Deal Gift Shop. The next person who has a birthday is going to be the lucky recipient of a card with FDR in a toga.

Doesn't living in the Hudson Valley and World War II presidenting look fun?

But that's enough about the FDR estate which, coupled with walking the gardens of the Vanderbilt estate nearby, were really just excuses to work up an appetite for another multi course meal later in the day. This time we went to a student-run restaurant at the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA), also located in Hyde Park. My mom thought her rabbit was a little cold, but otherwise it seems those kids could cook.

Okay, that's a sensible overview of my weekend. I promise to update more with pictures soon (those of my readers who have pictures of this trip currently on their memory cards can consider this a subtle nudge). I had a wonderful time, and I was glad they were able to come visit, even for such a short time. Thanks, parents!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pumpkin and meatballs--the flavors of fall

As you know, here at Living the Astorian Dream, we can't let a season change without commenting on it. Perhaps it's the fact that I grew up in a place without seasons (well okay, it had one, maybe one and a half seasons), but I never get tired of this natural phenomenon. As much as I love seasons in general, fall is my favorite. The first day of fall is technically not until Wednesday, but I'm already enjoying the crispness in the air and the joy of waiting for the train underground without breaking a sweat. But my favorite thing about fall (or any season really) is the food. Suddenly you can get everything from pumpkin donuts to pumpkin spice lattes. I also find myself baking, with pumpkin and otherwise, a lot more.

Last night, I made some pumpkin zucchini bread. It was originally supposed to be muffins, but I left both my cupcake pans at work (happens more than you'd think). Here's the recipe: Zucchini or no zucchini, I'm not sure how anyone can call this a "healthy" recipe when it contains no less than two sticks of butter.

Just picture these, but loafier

Another thing to enjoy about autumn in New York is the annual Food and Wine Festival in October. Not that I go to that, because so many of the events are rather expensive. And I'm not quite enough of a foodie to invest money in learning about food. I'd rather use my food budget on cheese. Nice cheese is never cheap. However, these is one event at the Food and Wine Festival that has my interest piqued. It is called Meatball Madness, and it's pretty much what it sounds like. Tickets are $200 a piece, and it's already sold out. I found a contest online where you can win tickets every Monday by answering meatball related questions. I need to find it to post it here, so that my New York readers (and especially those who might use the second ticket to take a certain non-food-blogger) might enter. I can't seem to find it though. Or remember how I got there. I guess I'll have to solve this snafu by next Monday or suffer the tragedy of letting another Meatball Madness go by without attending.

Anyway, I wish you a happy last few days of summer, readers! As a final note on fall, I'm also looking forward to my parent's coming this weekend as we're going to head upstate to see a little fall foliage. Pumpkin, meatballs, foliage, and family. It's really all you need.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Paddling the shining big-sea-water

Last week I went on one of the Long Island City Community Boat House's free sunset kayaking trips on the East River. (Contrary to the concern of friends and loved ones, the water of the East River is not nearly as toxic or smelly as you might think). Long Island City is an Astoria-adjacent neighborhood. Like many New York neighborhoods, it's hard to tell quite where Long Island City ends and Astoria begins. I've had apartments that received mail both with "Long Island City" and "Astoria" in the city line of the address almost indiscriminately. At any rate, Long Island City has Astoria beat in at least one arena (well two if you count the number of community boathouses loaning out free kayaks): the proliferation of incredibly expensive, very tall, condo buildings. Apparently, when there's a nice view of Manhattan at sunset, it's perfectly reasonable to charge $2,500 a month for a studio in Queens. To their credit, these condos also all provide fancy gyms in the building. I would probably be a much healthier person if this amenity was at all an enticement.

The sunset paddle was lovely, but unfortunately I couldn't bring my camera because I was concerned for its safety in the choppy water (it was a particularly windy day, and there are normal ocean currents to contend with). I had fully intended to go back to the Long Island City piers, which the big condo buildings have lovingly outfitted with really nice lounging benches, in order to take better "sunset over Manhattan" pictures from the nice dry dock. But then the best laid plans always go awry, and I haven't quite made it back over there. (In my defense, despite being neighborhood neighbors, because of my position in Astoria, it would still take me a good 45 minutes to walk there.) For a substitute, here's a sunset picture of Manhattan across from Long Island City taken by some unknown internet person. It even looks like it was taken from the river, so I'm going to say the photographer was a kayaker:

You certainly don't get that sort of view from a high-priced ocean view condo in Manhattan.

Our kayaking trip took us from Long Island City down to Greenpoint, Brooklyn. A feat that would have taken me at least 45 minutes and two bus transfers if attempted on land. We got ice cream at a local ice cream shop in Greenpoint (another fine New York neighborhood worthy of its own blog, if not for the fact that it's radioactive). After the ease of the trip, particularly the return trip when we were basically just letting the current carry us home, it was really clear to me just how much easier traversing the river by kayak is over public transportation. Now if only it were possible to paddle to work on those unfortunate days when there are problems with the N train, I'd be set. I'd also soon have Michael Phelps' shoulder muscles.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Bear masks and bison burgers

A while ago, when I was bereft of new blog content, I asked readers for suggestions of things I could write about outside of just my day-to-day activities (not that those aren't scintillating). Jess of Frugal with a Flourish (she runs a great design/decorating blog with some cute ideas: suggested I try to up my Astorian readership by chronicling a local hot spot. Of course, she suggested this about four posts ago, but I'm finally getting around to trying it. Better late than never!

Naturally, you non-Astorian readers (which basically discounts all of you that I know of, except one) won't be quite as interested in this particular post. "Why would I want to read about some fantastic bar or restaurant that exists only in the far off neighborhood of Astoria?" you might ask yourself. Well, my answer to that is this: If you come visit me, I promise to take you there. It's all about incentives. Also, once Astorians start to google this local place and are led into the waiting clutches of my blog...well then, I'll finally have the local readership I always dreamed of. And isn't it all about the greater good?

Anyway, the local establishment I've chosen to feature is one that's just an avenue away. It's a delicious organic burger place called Bare Burger. It actually only opened a year or so ago. I remember I used to walk by the "coming soon" sign on my way home. Nevertheless, it's already a very popular place, and it's quickly achieved the status of making people wait for a table on weeknights. But it's also one of those places I'm willing to wait around for. For starters, they have a cute, homey feel with exposed brick and a yellow garage door that's open on summer days. The chandeliers are made of forks and spoons and there are random bear masks on the walls. I've always liked bears.But really the cutest cutlery chandelier wouldn't be worth its welding if the food wasn't any good. And the food at Bare Burger is pretty delicious. This is not your typical burger joint. They have delicious fries (that come with a number of non-ketchup dipping sauces) and any of their specialty burger toppings can come on a patty of beef, lamb, turkey, chicken, elk, bison, ostrich, veggie, or portobello mushroom. The choice is yours. You can also choose from a selection of buns, or--for the truly health-minded burger eater--replace the bun with a lettuce wrap. Bare Burger also have some amazing organic milkshakes. I've only tried the peanut butter and the blackberry, but I hear the pistachio is nice as well. If only "organic" was a perfect synonym for "healthy."They also have a good selection of local beers, including the adorably canned Porkslap Ale. Mmm...malty.
I recommend the brunch highly as well. It's one of the few brunches in the neighborhood that doesn't come with a mimosa or bloody mary, but on those occasions when alcohol with breakfast isn't desired, it's a great choice.

So yes, if any of my readers want to travel quite a ways to grab dinner or brunch at the wonderful Bare Burger, well then you're welcome to stay on my couch. And, as you know from previous posts, it's a pretty nice couch.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A hint at things to come

As sad as I am that summer is over, I'm looking forward to winter as a time I can hopefully get a little writing done. You know, free of the distractions of beach trips and BBQs and island hopping. Of course, I say this every winter, and every winter I use the fact that it's cold and dark all the time as an excuse to hole up in my apartment and watch reality television on my laptop. It's just so hard to make any real progress when the alternative is watching Gordan Ramsey yell at people.

For this reason, I enjoy writing projects that don't involve being constantly plugged away at. As a matter of fact, you may remember that as one of the key reasons for starting this very blog. But even blogging can feel taxing at such times when I'm feeling truly lazy. Luckily, I've found a project that requires even less effort! A while ago I took one of the Gotham Writer's Workshop's free classes and have been on their mailing list ever since. Usually, I just delete their monthly newsletters, but every so often I read them for the inspirational writer's quotes and information about writing contests. Well, it just so happens, they have a contest this month in "hint fiction". That is, apparently, fiction that is written in less than 25 words and "hints" at the possibility of a greater story. The concept came from this 6-word story of Hemingway's: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn."

It's fun idea, so I've been playing around with a couple for the last half hour or so. You're only allowed to enter one, so I'll probably spend a bit more time on it, but here's what I've thought of so far:

She was huskier than he remembered, and at some point during the last five years, had apparently stopped taking her gender hormones.

Jill would forever remember that as the summer she learned to never buy sushi from an airport or a jet-pack from some guy named Stan.

He'd had her fooled, but thinking about it, Nathalie had to admit that there weren't very many synchronized swimming classes that met at 2 am.

Ben was happy to see the morning's newspaper headline made no mention of his involvement and said simply: "Alligators attack unlucky sleepwalker; family is grief-stricken."

The entry deadline is October 11. The prize is only $100, but you also get a year's subscription to The Writer and published in Gotham's winter course catalog. You also get a 10-week workshop although I'm not sure how that works for entrant's that don't live in New York City. Although they do have some online classes, I think. At any rate, I think you should all (yes, all of you--my esteemed readers!) enter and then share your ideas here. Or you could enter and share nothing with me. Or you could share, but not enter. Or you could pretend you didn't read this. Really, I'm cool with anything. But for those interested, here's the link:

Friday, September 3, 2010

When life takes your furniture, re-do your entire living room

I've lived in my current apartment, an Astorian oasis really, for a good nine months now. It's a great location, if a little loud at times, and easily my favorite of the three apartments I've had in Astoria (and four apartments I've had since moving to the city--there was a dark four months when I moved to Brooklyn). The greatest feature of the apartment is a large (and huge by New York standards) living room. The entire space was white and there wasn't any art on the walls, so when I first moved in, I briefly considered painting. The hugeness of the room quickly made me file that in the "to be done much later" category.

When one of my roommates moved out in March, she informed me that a girl who used to live in that apartment actually owned most of the furniture. The girl had been living in India for a year with her boyfriend and would come back and claim the furniture at some point in the future. At this point in time, the room was furnished mostly with decrepit book cases that fell apart when you tried to move them, an entertainment unit the previous roommate had pulled off the street (which looked rather like an entertainment unit that used to live on the street), a frighteningly uncomfortable futon that neither folded down or completely folded back up, a dirty yellow rug (although really that might have been my fault--I can seldom get fully ahead of the cat hair), and a decent coffee table with a weird groove in the wood that crumbs and dirt were always falling into, making keeping it clean nearly impossible. Basically, it was the kind of furniture I personally would bid good riddance were I ever to go to India for any length of time. But to each her own.

When the day finally came when she reclaimed her possessions, my current roommates and I realized we would actually have to replace them with something. We had a clean slate to work with, and it was time to make the apartment our own. This blog post is a chronicle of our budget furnishing process.

Here's the before picture. Apologies for the blurriness and the mess (this photo was taken while I was in the process of moving in). Also, for those readers who have been complaining about a lack of Dinah pictures being blogged lately--you will find she is in pretty much any photo I take while in my apartment. She's a star, that one.

The first thing to go was the back-breaking futon, which left Dinah slightly nonplussed.
She was also none too pleased with the loss of the yellow rug, which she had not yet completely finished covering with her hair. (I realized in my attempt to be artsy, I blurred Dinah a little. But I think I successfully captured her ennui.)

Luckily, by googling "cheap couches" I found this place: which will fed-ex your couch (to be assembled in about 2 hours) in a matter of days. The couch is pretty comfortable, and once Dinah destroys the upholstery, it's very easy to replace. Dinah was relieved.

The rest of the furnishings we acquired at Ikea (the budget furnisher's mother ship). Did you know you can get a coffee table for only $9.99? Of course, it weighs about 2 pounds, and we suspect it is made of balsa wood...but so far it has had no trouble holding up the Ikea lamp we put on it, so I guess it serves its purpose. Right after all the furniture had been taken, we got the bright idea to paint the room while it was empty. Of course, by the time we actually got around to painting, we'd already filled it with furniture again. Oh well, at least we did it. We chose the color "greenbriar beige" which is a lot more fun than it sounds. It adds a lot of warmth to the room without overpowering it. Here's the finished product or "after" picture:

As you can see, I still need to get a little art on the walls. I actually bought a Klimt poster (specifically this one:, but have yet to find a frame I consider cheap enough. At some point I might have to admit defeat and get a custom frame job. Until then, consider the above the "finished" product. I'm pleased with it.