“Live each season as it passes: breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit…”
Henry David Thoreau
The year’s events have made us feel more vulnerable and more conscious of our precarious human lives. Maybe that’s why the passing days seem all the more precious.
Lately I can’t bear to spend a sunny day indoors. I want to get fresh air into my lungs, even if I have to surreptitiously pull down my mask to do it. I want to drink the drink — that would be wine, normally. I want to make beach fires, take walks, visit parks and see all the sunsets I can — especially the sunsets, in their infinite variation. They are the closest thing I’ve had lately to a religious experience.
Though the existential dread of climate change is ever-present and the intractability of this pandemic has taken us by surprise — yes, I know we were warned there would be a fall/winter surge, but who really believed it would last this long? — the seasons go about their business.
For the moment, we are still heirs to a glimmering world. Seize each day, consciously and gratefully. Evenings, too.
(Top) Where I find myself now and for the next few months: Brooklyn, N.Y. (Below) Where I found myself in September and October: Long Island, N.Y.
There are any number of heartbreakers, aside from the human toll, of this virus’s effect on my home town. It’s brought New York to its knees. People are fleeing for the suburbs. No wonder, with schools opening, then closing, on a mayoral whim, because of an arbitrary number. The glass towers of Manhattan have been standing mostly empty, their millions of square feet of office space unoccupied and unneeded, perhaps forever. Broadway has been dark for the longest period in its history. The subway ended its century-long tradition of 24 hour service. Ridership is a third of normal, while crime has gone up, a result of the mentally ill going uncared-for elsewhere, the NYT says.
All of that worries me when I consider the city’s future, but it’s the restaurants I find most touching — their desire to stay alive, their ingenious reinventions as greengrocers and purveyors of raw ingredients, their cute promotions (show us your ‘I Voted’ sticker and we’ll give you a free cookie!) and makeshift arrangements for outdoor dining. The set-ups range from ever-more-elaborate plywood structures with rudimentary roofing, partial walls and seasonal décor like hay bales, pumpkins and baskets of mums, to orange traffic cones and clear shower curtains as space dividers in two former parking spots.
They seem to be meeting with varying degrees of success. Some of the impromptu sidewalk cafés, attached to restaurants that lucked out by being located on a pleasant corner, attract lines for Sunday brunch. My local high street, Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights, has many good restaurants — Olmsted, Maison Yaki, Amorina, White Tiger, Alta Calidad and more — and they all seem to be hanging in there. But many others report that they’re struggling, and the city may lose half its eating establishments by the time this is done. New York’s restaurant stock is a collective institution, of generally excellent quality and unimaginable variety, and it mustn’t be allowed to disappear.
The city has now extended outdoor dining year-round, but I fear for those half-enclosed huts, even with heat lamps, when winter winds start whipping around the corners. I’ve occasionally wondered why New York doesn’t have a thriving sidewalk-café culture like Paris. Then I remember: I’ve been to Paris in mid-winter, and it’s not that cold. Not by New York standards.
I have a bulletin board on which I tack the cards of places I’ve gone and want to remember, almost always for their atmosphere (I rarely remember what I ate). There’s Cotenna, a hole in the wall on Bedford Street in Greenwich Village, into which a friend and I once stumbled on a rainy afternoon after a movie, and sat for hours at the end of the bar. Wild Son, on a sunny industrial block near the river, where the food was so healthy and fresh and the bartenders so friendly and the margaritas so tart and well-priced. Jones Wood Foundry, the nearest thing to a cozy, unpretentious British pub on the Upper East Side. Not only haven’t I been to any of these favorite spots lately, I’ve only been to Manhattan twice since last winter, both times for doctor’s appointments.
Here in Brooklyn, I wonder how Café Paulette on Fort Greene Park and Cobble Hill’s Henry Public, with its tin-ceilings and marble mantels, and the quirky June on Court Street, are faring. I hope they’re all doing a booming business in take-out and delivery, and I look forward to rediscovering them on the other side of the vaccine. Myself, I’ve dined inside restaurants not at all, outdoors maybe five times, and have rediscovered home cooking. (This is as well in some ways, as I had been in the longstanding and very expensive habit of eating out practically every meal, and balance was needed.)
I imagine the city will eventually come back, will glitter and sparkle once again, like it did after September 11, like it did after Hurricane Sandy, picking up where it left off and continuing on its way, like the shape-shifting organism New York City has always been. ##
My four days in Oaxaca last month are a fading dream. I was already starting to feel nervous about riding in crowded vans, as we did one day to get to the nearby ruins, and my hand sanitizer got a lot of use. But basically it was in the Before Times, when one could still move about freely, go into restaurants and shops at will, and travel on public conveyances, faces unobscured by masks.
Oaxaca, in a southerly crook of Mexico, is a lovely place, a city of fine neoclassical buildings and magnificent airy cathedrals set back on broad plazas. But the buildings that struck me most were the simple two-story attached houses, with ornate carved-stone door and window moldings, painted bright yellow, orange, blue, the sun etching sharp shadows across their fronts.
Some are used as inviting coffee shops set in hushed interior courtyards, where young folks with laptops while away the day. Some are mezcalerias, glitzy and cool or funky and old-school. Some are restaurants, many with steep staircases leading to rooftop bars.
And many are crafts shops — of varying quality, but mostly pretty high. Oaxaca has a number of specialties in that realm, including black pottery, textiles, filigreed jewelry, tinware. There are scores of shops large and small.
The city of a quarter-million centers on a zócalo, or central square. Unlike Mexico City’s barren one, Oaxaca’s zócalo is green and shady, thronged with people and surrounded by cafes. Street musicians, women selling textiles from bales slung over their shoulders, children playing, outdoor dance groups. It’s a lively place for sure.
We stayed at Las Golondrinas (“The Swallows”), below, a hotel a little ways from the center, secluded behind a gate. The garden setting is lush, our familiar houseplants grown to Audrey II size. Outdoor breakfast under an arbor was a little disorganized the first morning, because it was a national day of support for domestic violence victims. Women were staying home, and men were cooking and serving. Chaos ensued.
I loved my pink room but for one thing: the glary light from the compact fluorescent bulbs. I spent part of the first full day in Oaxaca on a quest for warm bulbs (I’m exquisitely sensitive to bad lighting), which took me to a large electrical supply store near the central market. Once again, I surmised, the women who normally work the front counter were absent, and the men, who I’m guessing work in the back somewhere, though very kind, didn’t seem to know where anything was or how to ring it up. It was adorable.
The Mercado Juarez is the phenomenal central market, bigger even than the one in Mexico City. I approached it cautiously, spending less time there than I might had I not been getting paranoid about crowds. It’s everything to everybody, aisle after aisle, from meat and produce to pet lizards, bunnies and fish, bolts of floral-patterned fabric, cut-paper decorations, woven bags, colorful clothing, floor to ceiling and overflowing onto surrounding blocks.
Everything’s so cheap to an American vacationer. At one of the high-end restaurants, Casa Oaxaca, it was all we could do to spend $40 apiece, including tip, on an incredible multi-course dinner — salsa made at the table and served with crisp green tacos sprinkled with cheese, a striped bass entree, a beet salad, a fancy dessert and two glasses of chardonnay from Baja’s renowned wine valley. That was by far our priciest meal. Most other full-on dinners in very nice restaurants, half indoor-half outdoor, ran $16-$18. Huge portions everywhere. Sorry to go on about prices, but for me one of the chief pleasures of a Mexican vacation is not feeling stressed about overspending.
At Las Quince Letras, I had a giant squash with chocolate mole sauce (strange), and a pepper stuffed with mushrooms in a different mole. There were seven moles in all, brought on a tray for sampling. At Marco Polo, a more casual place filled with locals, it was snapper baked in a wood-fired oven and for dessert, mamey ice cream, my new favorite flavor.
The tour of Oaxaca City’s botanic garden, above, on the site of the Santo Domingo monastery, is two hours long, a leisurely pace for a six-acre space. Offered in English three times a week and very popular, the official tour is the only way to visit the garden. It’s all native Oaxacan plants, and naturally beautiful, of course, but not a masterpiece of garden design. It’s called an ethno-botanic garden, so the aim of the tour is to tie the plants in with the native people, which was fascinating, though the guide shared way more botanical information than even I needed to know.
We easily arranged a half day small-group bus trip to Monte Alban, below, the Zapotec acropolis, through the hotel desk. That cost $15, inclusive of the services of our personable and well-spoken guide. The extraordinarily impressive site was in existence for 1,200 years, from 500 BC-800 AD. The reasons for its decline remain a mystery, but one theory is that getting water up to the elites who lived on the high ground became a problem when the peasants in the valley, who had been carrying it up there for who knows how many generations, got tired of doing so and moved on to other regions. Excavated and opened to the public only for the past couple of decades, Monte Alban is the partially reconstructed remains of a broad plateau of pyramid-shaped temples to various gods, their construction based on astounding astronomical calculations. It was good to get out of the city, which is sited in a valley, and take in the surrounding topography from on high.
Wrapping things up on our final day entailed a walk around Los Arquitos (“The Arches”), a quiet neighborhood, built around the remains of an old aqueduct, with good-quality craft stalls where artisans sell jewelry of their own design and making. Of course, I wish I had bought more. At the magnificent Museo des Culturas Oaxaca inside the Santo Domingo cathedral complex, we sought out the tomb treasures of Monte Alban, a hoard of beaded and hammered gold jewelry which rounded out the picture of the culture we’d gained from visiting the temple structures the day before.
Four days in Oaxaca was a bare minimum. A visit there could be pleasurably stretched to months. Will I ever go back? I really don’t know. I’d like to. In any case, I’m glad I got there at least once.
Quarantine is rooted in the Italian words quarantenara and quaranta giorni, or 40 days, the period of time the city of Venice forced ship passengers and cargo to wait before landing in the 14th and 15th centuries to try to stave off the plague.
How’s your enforced staycation going? For me, a single woman who lives alone and works from home, quarantine is very much like my regular life. I’m used to plenty of solitude and have no problem with it. What’s different now is that the pressures, external and internal, to go out and do something, anything at all, are completely and relaxingly absent.
I’ve been holed up in my garden-level brownstone apartment for eleven days, and so far, haven’t been bored for a minute. Early on, I placed delivery orders for groceries and wine, which I’d rarely ever done. The supermarket was out of half the stuff I wanted and the delivery window was four days out. It looks like I’ll have to cut my own fingernails soon and possibly my own hair, but that’s about the worst of it.
OK, I’m being flippant, and yes, I’m acutely aware of my privilege. If doing one’s own nails was the worst of it, we’d all be in great shape. People are fighting for their lives on ventilators as we speak, and nurses and doctors are working double and triple shifts without proper supplies, while my anxiety takes the form of being weirdly abstemious with such things as postage stamps, hair products and, yes, toilet paper (food and alcohol not so much).
When I landed at JFK Tuesday night, March 17, after an aborted Mexican vacation, my coronavirus worry was at a peak. I’d spent the last long day of travel first in a crowded van, then in an airport, then on a 5-hr flight and in a stuffy taxi which brought me to my Brooklyn door. To assuage my own anxiety and make sure I didn’t infect others in case I had been exposed, I committed to adopting the slightly more stringent NYC regulations in place for vulnerable over-70s, even though I’m 69 for another few days.
No problem. I didn’t really want to go food shopping or to the drugstore anyway, even with gloves, even for a few minutes, if it meant being extra-paranoid and/or guilty afterwards.
And no, quarantine is not an exact replica of my real life. Most days, under normal circumstances, I get up at an early hour, get dressed and go to the gym, and many evenings, after a day’s work at my desk, I go out for drinks and dinner with friends. Now I’m doing none of those things (except for the work part). I’ve left my building only for neighborhood walks.
This morning, it included the Farmers’ Market at Grand Army Plaza, where vendors were sparse, the produce tables — mostly root vegs and apples from last fall — cordoned off to keep customers at a distance, and people in masks and latex gloves lined up with six foot spaces between.
NYC is not as quiet as those ghost-town photos of Times Square would have you believe, or as Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio would like. Yesterday, Friday, was springlike, and Fort Greene Park was a de facto gym, with people doing every form of exercise from jump rope to crunches to stair climbing. Vehicular traffic was light but not that light. The sidewalks were emptier than usual, but hardly empty.
Our elected officials’ approach, of asking people to cooperate with the new regulations on a voluntary basis, worries me. Kids have even been playing basketball, a game in which avoiding close human contact is obviously impossible, in city parks and playgrounds the Mayor has been reluctant to padlock. With such lax enforcement, how much longer will this go on than it needs to? Maybe we can be sanguine about quarantine for a bit longer, but soon the charms of vegetating in place will pall.
My personal health panic faded after I watched (and half-believed) a YouTube video touting a best-case scenario, and passed the average incubation times for coronavirus. I’m feeling fine. Meanwhile, I self-isolate, shelter in place, lock myself down, willingly place myself under house arrest. I haven’t even made a dent on the procrastinated-on projects I call my “Winter List,” which I have already blown off several winters in a row. It includes such things as “Go through travel files” and “Go through old photos” (pre-2000, bursting out of a seven-foot wide credenza).
Directly as a result of the pandemic, I lost one of my two freelance clients to budget cuts, so I have a lot more free time than usual. I just don’t know what happens to it. I haven’t done any Pilates or yoga. I’ve cooked only a little, and haven’t cracked a book.
I have, however, raked up the back garden and cleared out under the deck stairs (my domain), throwing away stiffened hoses and broken snow shovels. My landlords are away at their country place, so I have the whole overgrown garden to myself. Early spring is its moment of glory, with forsythia and a magnificent star magnolia in bloom.
Last week, when this was new and things seemed on the verge of catastrophe, I found myself thinking of Anne Frank and her family’s 2-1/2 years in the Secret Annex, as well as my own confinement at age 14 with rheumatic fever. At first, the doctors said complete bed rest for 4 weeks, and that was bad enough. It turned out to be four whole months, from March to June 1964, before whatever it was they were measuring in my blood reached the correct level. But I made it through. The time went by and, in retrospect, it shaped me.
That experience was different, because I wasn’t contagious and could have all the visitors I wanted, but full-time bedrest throughout the entire spring of ninth grade was pretty extreme. I started a voluminous correspondence with an English penpal that remains a rock-solid friendship to this day. Our letters were masterpieces of adolescent reportage, unique sociological documents, largely about our mutual Beatles fandom. I read some memorable books (I remember two, anyway — Gone with the Wind and Of Human Bondage), and immersed myself in music, fueled by the AM radio stations I listened to on my transistor. Beatles, Stones, Motown, R&B, Dylan, Orbison — 1964 was a great year for pop music, and the hits of that season still carry a powerful emotional charge.
I know we’ll get through this as a society and live to fight at least another day (climate change has not been mentioned in weeks). Like everyone else, I’m worried about what happens next. As cozy as I am and as well-stocked, I hope this quarantine doesn’t last long enough for me to get around to sorting my CDs.
SIX DAYS AGO, I got back from two weeks in Mexico. It was supposed to have been a three-week vacation, but fears of the U.S.-Mexico border closing suddenly and the possibility, if flights were cancelled, of having to rent a car and drive cross country from Baja California to NYC (38 hours – I checked), caused my holiday to come to an abrupt end.
When a friend and I left JFK on Tuesday, March 3, there were a couple hundred coronavirus cases in New York. I had heard about it, and checked three drug stores for hand sanitizer before I left (to no avail), but it wasn’t something that would cause me to change my long-arranged travel plans, for gosh sakes. When I got back to NYC on Tuesday, March 17, the number of cases was in five digits.
I hadn’t ever been to CDMX (the new official acronym for Mexico City, for Ciudad de Mexico). I expected chaos, noise, maybe a little danger. Instead, I found it as rich in art and architecture as a European capital and cleaner than New York City, with parks full of jacaranda trees in purple bloom. Our two-bedroom, two-bath Air B&B was ridiculously inexpensive and more luxurious than my normal lifestyle, located in the Roma neighborhood, just around the corner from where the movie of that name was filmed.
Roma and Condesa, the adjoining nabe, about 3 miles from the Centro Historico, are both terrific, but Condesa is where I’d live if I lived in CDMX. It was built in the 1920s and ’30 around the jungle-like, oval-shaped Parque Mexico, on the site of a one-time racecourse. I wandered around, taking in the Art Deco architecture that flowered in Mexico City after the devastating economic effects of the 1910 Mexican Revolution had resolved.
All this wonderfulness was enhanced by the fact that I wasn’t paying much attention to the news.
My main goal was to see the murals of the great social realist Diego Rivera, with visits to his monumental works at the Palacio National (nothing less ambitious than the history of Mexico from pre-conquest times to the 1930s); the futuristic “Man at the Crossroads” mural at the Palacio des Bellas Artes, which also has towering murals by Orozco, Tamayo and Siquieros, and another at the Diego Rivera Museum, a personal and political riff on Seurat’s painting “Sunday on the Grand Jetté,” at the head of lovely Alameda Central park.
And we weren’t about to miss what is surely one of Mexico’s top tourist attractions, Frida’s Kahlo’s famous “blue house” in the Coyoacan neighborhood, a 20-minute taxi ride from the center, as well as the extraordinary modernist home and studio built in the nearby San Angel neighborhood for Rivera by his friend and neighbor, architect Juan O’Gorman. They didn’t disappoint. In fact, they astounded.
A street food tour with Eat Mexico was a highlight. It satisfied my curiosity about the famous Mexico City street food stalls without my having to risk digestive upset. The small-group tour took us to a central business district, Cuahutemoc, where there are tall glass office towers. It’s mostly office workers and construction workers who find these carts, set up in the morning and broken down at night, some that have been in the same family for decades, so convenient.
The food we tried at a dozen stops, ably guided by Ariana Ruiz, was uniformly fresh and delicious, and incredibly high in carbs. There was atolle, a warm sweet rice drink; samples from several tortillerias (of 65,000 in the city), round discs of corn dough, salted and eaten as a snack; cemitas poblanas, another bready thing, with string cheese, avocado and an herb called papalo. I also tried chamoy, a sweet/salty salsa, Asian- influenced, with tamarind, papaya, pineapple and other fruit; pombazo, a way to use day-old bread by soaking it in salsa and frying; shrimp burritos and a seafood tostada, Veracruz- style. It’s cooked ceviche, basically, sushi-fresh and delivered daily from both coasts, each 5 hours away by truck.
Food in general was a highlight of CDMX. We ate everywhere from a retro lunch counter in an 18th century Baroque building entirely clad in blue and white tiles, to the vegan cafe down the block where we sat outside one evening under string lights, to Dulce Patria, a fancy restaurant for which we had made advance reservations, that took us into Mexico City’s poshest neighborhood, Polanco.
We did many of the things you have to do your first time in CDMX, including the 14th century Templo Mayor excavations and museum, dating from when Mexico City, called Tenochtitlan, was on an island linked to the mainland by causeways, and the dizzying, world-class anthropology museum. I’m not sure one of the things you have to do is take the subway, but we did, as an adventure. It was impressively efficient. But Ubers are too, and hardly more costly.
Five days in Mexico City was perfect for must-dos and a bit of wandering, with guidebook in hand. Call me old-fashioned, but I still like to carry one around.
By the time we left for Oaxaca March 8, the coronavirus news was casting a pall. We encountered worried Americans there, which we had not in MCDX. Mexicans, too, were conscious of it and big on the hand sanitizer.
Oaxaca, sleepy by comparison to CDMX but of great charm and interest, will be the subject of another post. I’ll have plenty of time to put that together, from quarantine here in brownstone Brooklyn.
Hope you are all doing well in your seclusion during this weird, anxious time. I have faith it will eventually be over, and we’ll get back, not to the old normal, but hopefully better. After our enforced staycations, we’ll be well-rested and well-read, less crazed consumers, more appreciative of the low-wage workers who keep us going, less frenetic, more introspective. We’ll have caught up with old friends and cleaned out our closets. And I, I hope, will have revived my dormant blog.