Eating the Big Apple (20081223)

Making pizza at Di Fara's, Brooklyn. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2008. Besides being criminal, it is socially unacceptable to go to New York and not eat well. This is not to say that I am one of these deluded folks that thinks that the food there is better than the food in San Francisco, but the overall quality of grub is mighty fine indeed, and nothing less than world-class. You know this. However, the trip that the FMA and I took in December was her first encounter with the Big Apple, so it was only appropriate that the food we would eat would be different than what we could get in S.F. We had proper Tokyo-style ramen at Ippudo, a recently-opened branch of our favorite Japanese ramen joint. Ramen in Tokyo receives at least the same scrutiny that pizza does in New York. That's not to say that the best ramen in Japan is in Tokyo, but if you go to a place that's half-decent, you won't be disappointed. I first discovered Ippudo when I was living in an improbable gaijin house in the center of Tokyo's fancy-pancy Hiroo district. On the walk from Hiroo to Ebisu there was one of three branches of the local Tokyo chain of Ippudo. Open until 4 a.m., populated with a typical Tokyo mix of college students, partiers, and the occasional starving English teacher, they were known for their chashumen and their super-strong lemon sours. The FMA and I ate not once but twice at Second Ave Deli, which is no longer down in the Lower East Side but up in midtown, off Lex. Same people running it, same excellent food. Jewfood is in the FMA's blood, clearly, by the way she devoured the fried kreplach and the stacked sandwiches and the pickles and the Cel-Rey to wash it all down, and insisted we go back on Christmas morning. We beat the crowd by 10 minutes. We savored the divine garlic knishes at Yonah Schimmel's Knishery, had falafel from a cart near MOMA, had a not-kosher-in-ages meal for three days from the Carnegie Deli. You don't need a link to Carnegie. Check out 2nd Ave., trust me. We brought back two months' worth of bagels from Ess-a-Bagel and ate them in a month and a half. We had morning bagels regularly with craptacular machined coffee near the Avenue M station in Brooklyn, near where we were staying. We had a bartender who was a friend of a friend charge us $10 for $50 worth of drinks, we had two martinis for $5 in Midtown just to say we could. I think they used rubbing alcohol in place of vermouth. I took the FMA to a nice little French joint on 50th that suffers only from the goofy name of Chez Napoleon, just before hitting her first Broadway show - Spamalot, what else? Oh, and we had pizza. In New York. Shocking, I know. Now, for those who know me, I've been raised on as much on my Bubbe's kugel as I have on Tommaso's pizza. I'm not extremely picky about the pizza I eat: as long as I know in advance I'm getting ghetto crap, I can prepare myself to not be disappointed. Regina's in Boston has impressed me, and thanks to the recommendation of a friend the FMA and I met while traveling in China, Di Fara's ain't too bad, neither. So to speak. The line at Di Fara's, near my friend's place at which we were staying in Brooklyn, took about two hours to get through. The pizza was near-perfect, from the thickness of the crust - neither too doughy nor too crunchy - to the quality of the rich sauce or the ridiculously extravagant toppings the FMA insisted on. The massive leaves of basil were a nice touch, cut by the owner and sole chef Domenico. During the wait, his adult children helped with the prep cooking, but from throwing the dough to pulling it out of the oven, he was the only one to touch the pizza. I could've done without the extra layer of oil that he added after the pizza was done, but that's a small quibble for a pizza that's worth trekking off the beaten path. Six months later, I've finally worked off most of the extra weight I put on from this trip. I think.

Bridge for Sale, Not Cheap and Not Warm, Either (20081220)

The Brooklyn Bridge. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2008. As I write this, I'm listening to "Wamono" by a Japanese band called Hifana. I found out about them through a guy on a mailing list that I joined back in the mid-90's when I left San Francisco for Boston, although that introductory Hifana e-mail - which came with YouTube links, not MP3s - was only sent last year. I never heard of them when I actually lived in Japan. I have found it utterly, ridiculously impossible to escape the trajectory of my personal history at times, and taking the FMA to New York last year only served to emphasize the point. Sometimes it can feel like a supernova three seconds from collapsing on itself. After only a day traversing Manhattan and Brooklyn, she turned to me and said, "It's great! But smaller than Tokyo..." I nodded in agreement. New York is smaller than Tokyo, home to fewer people who, one could argue, move at a slower pace. Thankfully, New York is also different, and in trying to eliminate the differences between them is to ignore the nuances that make them unique and worth visiting again. Then again, my favorite ramen joint from good ol' Toks, Ippudo, has opened a restaurant near NYU, and the ramen there was so close to identical to the original that I figured they cloned both the pig and wheat. I used to haunt Ippudo in the tiny hours with Phil from Sydney, surrounded by Japanese before they exited their larval state of college rebellion for the comforting dullness of sarariman life. Phil, of course, I haven't seen in years but I'll probably hang out with when I visit Sydney this fall for a wedding. The spirals of life widen and tighten just that much more, and that much more often, and sometimes it seems simultaneous. Last winter, though, I had no idea what to make of any of it, and I found myself walking across the Brooklyn Bridge. Not metaphorically, not semaphorically, but well and truly hauled my butt from one side of the East River to the other. Despite having visited New York at least a dozen times before, I'd never walked the Brooklyn Bridge. So on a day that would be far better suited to carving slalom trails into hillsides, or hunting wild game with chainsaws perhaps, the FMA and I instead trudged through the harsh wind cutting through downtown Brooklyn. We stopped for White Castle before leaving the comfort of the concrete jungle, and it was about as American as you could get. The Australian gal who'd never heard of sliders before she encountered two guys named Harold and Kumar was making smalltalk with the African-American server, who'd neither met someone from that sunburned country nor encountered a soul who hadn't eaten at White Castle at least once, and this was all happening down a small street off of Jay. Sufficiently filled with regurgiburgers, we headed towards the bridge. On a clear, warm summer day, it would've been staked out by a film crew. Five days before Christmas, it was empty but for a few nutso joggers (don't forget the soft "J"), couples basking in the romantic Atlantic winter blasts, and ice. Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge is not like crossing the Golden Gate, although both are endemic to their locales. On the Golden Gate, you are given priority by proximity: You are physically closer to the bay and vistas, with cars sequestered in the center. On the Brooklyn, you are raised above the traffic. Those differences represent a shift in the philosophical approach of the times. Both bridges represent significant architectural achievements for their times, but from a pedestrian's perspective the Brooklyn Bridge emphasizes the importance of man with its raised walkway that covers vehicles passing underneath and highlights the towers of Manhattan. The Golden Gate is flatter at the foot level but higher: the danger of the cars ever-present, bay looming beneath like a giant blue maw, and orange towers teasing you with their gaudy luminance. The Brooklyn Bridge is steely and foreboding, but that doesn't mean that it's not beautiful. That day, though, it was just friggin' cold. I have no idea what is taking a migratory break on my head, but at least the FMA looks good.

It’s like a kind of torture… (20081218)

The Muppet Workshop, FAO Schwarz. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2008. "Why do we have to come here," the grumpy cloth-covered doll pretends to sing. "I guess we'll never know," comes the response from its evil twin, although, let's be honest - they're both a bit fucked. And in the following lines, Jim Henson and his writers captured the soul of every perambulating curmudgeon, despite the fact that Statler and Waldorf never moved around much. I'm not sure if I qualify for such lofty company, but everybody else seems to think so and so here we are. No, I don't want to be here, except of course I'm here and enjoying the heck out of making you think that I don't like it. As I said: it's a slightly fucked way of looking at things. But there it is, and here I am, and you've read along so far so you might as well just keep on. Astute Big in Japan watchers have probably noticed a distinct lack of bloggety output in the past year. There's no one excuse, nor any particularly good one. Work blah blah tired blah controlled violence wah-wah. So last Saturday, I skipped on a house-warming that I was looking forward to because it felt like my head would explode if I didn't get some funwork done. You can now see the results of being a shut-in on a beautiful day at the Cold New York photo gallery linked. Clicking on the photo above works, too. I wrote briefly about two of those pics when I shot them back in December, as the East Coast did its usual schizophrenic weather pattern before deciding somewhere in early January that yes, it really was time for winter. Today's photo is slightly different. It's one of the hidden complexities of New York, if you have the money and you happen to have laughed at the muppets during your formative years and you can handle the crowds of stupidity sauntering through FAO Schwarz specifically and midtown Manhattan in general: You can buy your own muppet, chosen from a limited but expansive collection of parts. It is a strange time we live in. It's not enough to buy a replica of the characters that capture your imagination, to remind you of their stories and take screwdrivers to when you're 10 and bored on a Saturday afternoon. No, now we must make our own versions of them, manipulating the original tales to shove our own real-life avatars alongside Kermit and Miss Piggy and that freak with the beak, Gonzo. And Animal! Or Beaker... You can see the problem here. The corruption of the canon gets you to buy into the stories just that much further, but how much of your original experience is forgotten and replaced by that of your obsession with Your! Very! Own! Muppet! It weakens the original story that impacted on you and friends that you wouldn't meet for 10 years, but are eventually able to connect over because the narrative is shared. When you pay $200 for some well-trained technician to put together a series of cloth and plastic parts into a take-home device derived from a common pop-culture story, but essentially unrelated to anything in that narrative except perhaps your reactions to it, you're cheapening the story itself. Even at its core, the story doesn't matter - how it affects you does. The FMA routinely earns her nickname, and in discussing the commercialization of character crafting with her, she made an excellent point. It's one thing to choose muppety parts like you're making body modifications in a futuristic movie, but it's quite another when you're given a kit of wood, fabric, plastic, paint, and a glue-gun and shown how to make your muppet. There, the learning experience of creating merges with the entertainment of story-telling into something entirely different. And yet, when it comes down to it, who doesn't think it'd be cool to have your own muppet? There's hardly any delineation between where the story ends and the marketing begins.

Oiling the Gears (20090606)

Decorative bike wheel at the Art94124 street fair in Bayview, San Francisco. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2009.

Decorative bike wheel at the Art94124 street fair in Bayview, San Francisco. Seth Rosenblatt (c) 2009.

Yesterday, the FMA and I checked out a newish street fair in San Francisco, the ArtFest94124 at 3rd and Fairfax in the heart of Bayview. This is also my way of saying, as dem yewts would put it, "o hai im blogging agn." One of the best things about San Francisco in the summer months are the street fairs. ArtFest94124 was small, but had energy that far surpassed the shoulder-to-shoulder lurching crowds of other SF street events I've been to. This was due, in no small part, to the presence of kid-friendly pedal-powered rides built by Cyclecide, a bike-based art collective. The rides included a bike carousel for little kids, a seesawesque contraption that swung participants 15 feet in the air, and a rotational vomitron. It looked like what a vomitron would be, anyway. There was also breakdancing, live music, food, screenprinting, and art on display and for sale, but all of it was made worthwhile because of the high level of energy brought to the fair by the dozens of kids running around. These events are no place for cynicism. Unfortunately, the current San Francisco government is doing it's best to kill Fun in a back alley and with a crowbar. "Crowbar" here means "excessive fees," and "back alley" means "NIMBYs who want to bring suburban attitudes to urban life". Jerkos. More photos can be seen at my Flickr photostream.

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