The Meaning-Seeker’s Guide to NYC

There’s a reason the night sky plays such an active role in nearly every culture dating back millennia. It is our tether to the scope of everything. Without the stars, we lose our footing and forget that we are, in fact, part of something vast and glorious and, well, magical.

When we look for meaning, it’s not just about understanding why we’re here, in the very practical sense of why consciousness exists. It’s also about feeling a part of something, a great human tableau that seems to have a collective soul of its own.

We matter, just for the simple reason that we exist alongside each other, and here are some places in the city that help remind us of that.

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Central Park bench plaques: When I need to feel especially attuned to cosmic interconnectedness, I trudge to Central Park and take my time strolling around and reading the plaques attached to the benches. As I’ve mentioned before, these plaques are used as a fundraiser, and at $10,000 a piece they endow the important work of the Central Park Conservancy. More than 4,100 plaques have been added to 9,000 of the park’s benches. The inscribed messages range from marriage proposals to thoughtful obituaries to musings on the beauty of the park. Each is a tiny but intimate window into the life of a New Yorker or New York lover. I’m usually in tears a few plaques in. (There are lots of obits.) Pro tip: Go now, when you’ll have plenty of empty benches to peruse, as opposed to in summer, when they’re all full of weary park goers.

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Chuck Close subway mosaics: Art can make us feel spiritually fulfilled. Something about the way in which it captures us—our moods, our moments, our likeness—and reflects it all back in a way that makes things a tad more comprehendible. Recently, one of the installations that moved me most was not in a museum. It was public art, part of the 86th station on the newly opened 2nd Avenue subway. The station is filled with 12 large-scale Chuck Close mosaic portraits in a variety of styles, featuring tiny glass pieces, large painted tile, realistic rendering, Close’s signature circle mosaics and more. The massive scale makes each portrait especially poignant. 

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Scales of the Universe exhibit: I’m of two minds about the universe and how its scope relates to our own philosophy of relevance. On the one hand, it seems we matter less if we’re so infinitesimally small in relation to what’s out there. On the other hand, we have the power to learn and understand the “bigness” of what’s out there, so maybe we really do matter after all. Come face to face with these grand questions inside the striking Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History. The Scales of the Universe exhibit circles the Planetarium, using the sphere as a scale of reference for the macro and micro measurements of our world. It starts as a representation of the observable universe and ends as a representation of rhinovirus, so you can try to understand both the universe’s enormous expanse as well as its precision. 

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Sunset Park overlook: There are boastful views. You know the kind. They’re grand, and they know they’re grand. These include views from places like Top of the Rock and One World Observatory. Sometimes, though, it’s more low-key perches that invite a literal and figurative change in perspective. Take this view of Manhattan from Brooklyn’s Sunset Park. It feels almost like a discovery, like you’re one of the few people who’ve come upon it. The unexpectedness of it makes it that much more impactful. In a way, it’s a subtle reminder of the power of a different angle. 

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Lady M crêpe cake: Some people say that the meaning of life can’t be found on a plate. To these people, I say: you haven’t had Lady M’s signature crêpe cake. There’s no way for me to praise this dessert without coming off as melodramatic. It is a soft, delicate flower after a warm, spring rain. It is a first kiss with your first crush. It is the reason why the universe exists. Wait, did I go too far there? Excuse my sensationalism, I was mid-bite. This dessert’s perfection stems from its simplicity—20 thin crêpes, delicate cream, a crème brûléed top. It’ll help make you a believer. 

Favorite Things Lately, Volume 11

Rose Main Reading Room at NYPL: It’s almost a religious experience walking into this world-famous, recently renovated space. Behold the chandeliers, the stone archways and oversize windows, the intricately molded ceiling. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the room resembles a kind of cathedral as it seems to be a literal monument to the power of ideas and scholarship.  It’s also my favorite place in the city to write.

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Mini Zip Wallet from Everlane: I happen to be somewhat wallet-averse. I need to keep things light in a purse I lug around all day, and most women’s wallets are way too bulky. I’ve been stuffing everything into a threadbare Anthropologie giveaway change purse for the past 4 years. It’s gotten super gross. Enter this adorable mini wallet from online clothing and accessories shop Everlane. The company is all about ethical sourcing and transparent pricing, so every item has a breakdown of all related costs (labor, materials, duties, etc.). At $50 (with a true cost of $23), this wallet, made in Spain, is a very good deal as far as small leather goods go. My husband, a product developer and industry insider (who does not work for Everlane, promise) praised the workmanship and the price.

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courtesy of Everlane

Turkey Leg Sandwich at Henry Public: After half-a-dozen years, this iconic sandwich ($17) is still worthy of gushing prose. The sandwich’s juiciness is derived from the very un-Kosher process of braising the pulled turkey leg meat in milk for hours. Add crispy, deep-fried onions, a heaping side of French fries, an expertly made cocktail, and you’ve got the ideal meal for these short, dark days.

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oo35mm: A haven for beauty junkies who’ve tired of Sephora, this pocket-size, 2nd story Chinatown shop is brimming with an assortment of beauty products, many of them imported from South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. The employees are super helpful, especially when asked to talk through the dozens of single-use sheet masks, infused with a variety of ingredients like rose, honey, and 24K gold. Some even resemble animal faces! They’re an affordable indulgence at around $1.50 to $4.50 a piece.

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The “I’d Actually Want This” NYC-Themed Gift Guide

I’m by no means a minimalist, but unnecessary tchotchkes do tend to make me anxious. I’d never buy an item without first imagining where in my home I’d place it. All of the below are gifts I either already own–and think you should own, too–or things I’d happily own. Each represents the city in a specific, unique way.

1. TWA vintage NYC poster: I’ve had a mild obsession with vintage airline posters recently, and this David Klein creation (from $26 for 16 x 20) is one of my favorites. The vibrant colors, the cubist reimagining of Times Square–the design is a work of art. Which is exactly why it’s part of MoMA’s collection, with prints sold at the MoMA Design Store.

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David Klein: New York Fly TWA print; courtesy of MoMA Design Store

2. Good Morning Asshole mug: Okay, this mug ($14.95) from cheeky New York-based tableware purveyor Fishs Eddy isn’t explicitly NYC-themed, but it reads like something one New Yorker might say to another. We don’t mince words around here, and insults can actually be used affectionately. This mug is wishing you a good–versus bad–morning, right?  Give to friends or family members who need to be reminded they are, in fact, assholes before their first sip of caffeine. I’ll even forgive the missing comma.

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courtesy of Fishs Eddy

3. Serenity Now clock: Seinfeld is the archetypal New York show. More so than its story arcs, the sitcom had an overarching NYC ethos–biting, nihilistic, sarcastic–that’s difficult to properly articulate. Channel your inner Frank Costanza (possibly the show’s funniest character) with this modern, attractive “serenity now” wall clock ($30), and hope to avoid Lloyd Braun’s “insanity later” fate.

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courtesy of Society6

4. Juilliard T-shirt: When I was younger, a local college t-shirt or sweatshirt was one of my favorite souvenirs when I visited a new city. I used to focus on the bigger schools–Dartmouth, Berkeley–but apparel from small, niche institutions seems a bit more memorable. I adore this vintage-inspired T-shirt ($30) from NYC’s own Juilliard, the nation’s best performing arts conservatory.

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courtesy of The Juilliard Store

5. Katz’s Delicatessen chocolate egg cream candle: Have you ever had a chocolate egg cream? If not, you’ll be shocked to learn there is, in fact, no egg and no cream. It’s actually a fizzy concoction of chocolate syrup and seltzer. Sounds strange, but I highly recommend it! The drink was, for a long time, a staple of NYC delis and soda shops. Get it in candle form ($28) from NYC pastrami kings Katz’s Delicatessen.

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courtesy of UncommonGoods

6. Levain Bakery cookies: I have a dear friend who lives on the Upper West Side. Whenever she arrives for a party in Brooklyn, she brings cookies from Levain, a bakery in her neighborhood. Why? Because she’s smart. She knows the cookies are an NYC mainstay and that people are obsessed with them. Levain’s cookies are huge, gooey, under-baked and somehow stay fresh for days. People swoon over the chocolate chip, but I’m gaga over the chocolate with peanut butter chips. The 8-pack assortment ($49) is ideal for an NYC expat.

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courtesy of Levain Bakery

7. The Light of New York book: There is a beautiful, moody quality to the ghostly black-and-white images of New York City in The Light of New York ($75, Assouline). Jean-Michel Berts captures a city at dawn, empty of its citizens and sparking with a just-under-the surface energy. My husband and I used it as a sign-in book at our wedding.

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courtesy of Assouline

8. Hamilton cast recording: It may well be one of the greatest artistic achievements of our time, and you still don’t own it? I can speak for hours about my love of Hamilton, but you won’t understand until you listen (from $18.99). Set in New York City (“history is happenin’ in Manhattan, and we just happen to be, in the greatest city in the world, in the GREATEST CITY IN THE WORLD…”) this multi-genre-infused musical follows the dramatic rise and sudden fall of one of our more-overlooked founding fathers.

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courtesy of Atlantic Records

On Kindness in a Big City

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There are days when seemingly everyone you encounter is rude. And not rude in a subtle, didn’t-keep-the-door -open-for-those-behind-him kind of way. They’re angry and downright hostile, and it can be difficult to shake off those encounters. This is what city people are like, you start to think. They’re selfish; they’re mean; they’ve lost their humanity.

But then, just as you’ve lost hope, someone does something extraordinarily kind, and you realize it’s not about the city–it’s about how people behave in general. They run the gamut from saintly to evil and here in NYC, you have to deal with all of it. Every single version of a human is on perpetual display; there’s no escape. We can’t seal ourselves off in cars or in large-lot suburban homes. We’re crushed together–often literally–as we make our way through the day.

Some visitors might get annoyed that our faces aren’t always open and smiling, but that’s not how city residents show kindness. In fact, smiling at the thousands of people you pass on the street on a daily basis might make you seem deranged. Being aware of how much space you take up, not bothering people if they look like they want to be left alone–that’s what being nice is in NYC. Rules that make sense elsewhere don’t really make sense here. And no, the bar isn’t lower. The spirit of humanity is still very much on display.

If I slip on a city sidewalk, I often have too many people offer to help me up. When my husband and I have picked up furniture we bought through Craigslist, bystanders have helped us secure the pieces to a car, and different bystanders have helped us carry them up to our fifth-floor walkup, all without being asked. I’ve observed fellow New Yorkers help those in distress, help those who are injured or lost. And just yesterday, I witnessed something that might seem inconsequential to non-city dwellers: three separate subway riders gently touched the arms of their fellow commuters to prevent them from sitting in a puddle of water. Initiated physical contact is almost verboten here, so this tiny bit of interaction seemed almost poignant. The rescued commuters didn’t mind being touched; they were grateful to be saved from the indignity of a wet behind. It’s a delicate rhythm, and we try and learn it and live it as best we can.

None of this is to say that every NYC resident is kind. They’re everything and everyone. They’re humanity at its worst and at its best. There are too many New Yorkers, and we’re all too different, for it to be any other way.

Why It’s Easier to Walk in NYC

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There are days when my husband and I may walk 10 or more miles across the city before we realize how much distance we’ve covered.  If it’s a nice weekend day, walking is the activity, and we might cross all of northern Brooklyn, make our way to Manhattan, and then keep walking until it’s time to go home or meet up with friends. We try to choose routes we’ve never taken and streets we’ve never traversed. After 12 years as NYC residents, we find there’s still so much to see. (Like a historic Jewish cemetery on West 21st we first noticed a few months ago.) We’re not superhuman–we get tired eventually, but it’s usually after we’ve already logged more than 25,000 steps.

Last month, while on vacation in South Carolina, I thought about how much easier it is to walk in the city than elsewhere. My husband and I went for a stroll in our beachside neighborhood. After about 30 minutes, my energy began to wane. The houses were beautiful, but they were similar and, at least per New York City standards, spaced far apart.

It’s about stimuli, I soon realized. In the city, especially in NYC, there is so much to look at. And it’s all different. The stimuli–the variation–of a city streetscape can infuse us with energy. This effect was clearly evident when I walked the 25-block length of a street festival in my neighborhood, then turned down a parallel avenue and walked back home along a residential block. After the visual bombardment of the festival, the walk along the rows of brownstones, especially since it was one I’d made many times, felt like a slog.

And while a city walk may not be as ideal as a nature stroll for those wishing to focus or meditate, it’s a nearly unbeatable activity for those hoping to be inspired–writers, especially.

In an experience that echoes my own, a waitress interviewed by The New York Times in 2009 speaks about how she easily walks 20 miles a day in the city. “It’s different to walk here than it is to walk in the country,” she said. After only 5 miles of walking along a road in rural Pennsylvania, she had to call a cab to pick her up. She was exhausted and couldn’t go on. “There was nothing, just fields.”

 

Favorite Things Lately, Volume 10 (The All-Food Edition)

Ice & Vice: If I were to speak honestly, I’d posit that I’m an ice cream authority. (Humility is overrated.) By authority, I really mean: I’ve eaten a lot of ice cream, and therefore, I feel qualified to speak on the subject. This Lower East Side/Chinatown parlor is creating some of the city’s most inventive flavors. And not just inventive, these flavor couplings actually work; they’re not merely a study in senseless experimentation. To me, though, it’s texture that makes the cone. Many of the city’s buzziest spots are inconsistent–smooth one day, icy the next. Not the case here. Just fluid, milky perfection. While eating the two flavors below, Milk Money (toasted milk, sea salt, chocolate ganache) and Opium Den (white sesame, toasted poppy seed, lemon bread crouton), I kept repeating, out loud, “This is so good.”

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Emmy Squared: While the original Clinton Hill spot, Emily, slings thin-crust, New York-style pies, this Williamsburg sister restaurant focuses on Detroit-style pizza. The pies rise as they’re are baked in square trays, with the crust taking on an other-worldly crispiness. While some folks discard the crust of their NYC slice, I can envision the inverse happening here, that is, someone eating JUST the crust–it’s the star of the show. Start with the “okonomi” fries–waffle fries topped with bonito (dried, shaved tuna) flakes. And, if you’re in a burger mood, the casual bar downstairs serves an indulgent two-patty, pretzel bun version.

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Dizengoff: The Chelsea outpost of this popular Philly hummus spot, from acclaimed Zahav masterminds Michael Solomonov and Steven Cook, is a shining example of how attention to detail elevates even the humblest of foods. The hummus here is smooth, creamy and destination-worth, but the pita, baked fresh, deserves its own write-up. It’s textured, not-too-dough-y, a bit flour-y, all-in-all: perfect. The frozen “lemonana,” their frozen mint-lemonade, is my favorite non-alcoholic drink of the season.

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Sons of Thunder: Poké is having a huge moment in the city, and not without reason. The Hawaiian raw fish salad dish is fresh, tasty and healthy. One of my favorite poké bowls is at this Midtown East outpost. My salmon poké is always clean-tasting and never overly fatty. The accompaniments, like seaweed salad, cucumbers, and radishes, up the health quotient.

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Via Carota: It’s not often that an Italian restaurant really surprises you. This spot from acclaimed chefs Jody Williams and Rita Sodi, of favorites Buvette and I Sodi, respectively, was an unexpected dining experience, in a really lovely way. The plates are thoughtful and varied. Everything on the menu feels as though it was pored over–the ingredients, the pairings, the preparation. One of my favorite dishes, a snap pea, mascarpone, lettuce and prosciutto salad, felt like the culinary embodiment of summertime.

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The Been-There-Done-That Guide to NYC

There’s much more to this city than Central Park and a pastrami sandwich at Katz’s. (Though both of those things are wonderful.) If you’ve visited a number of times and have exhausted the travel guides, or if you live here but haven’t yet had the chance to really explore, then read on.  I’ve been here 12 years, and I still come across surprises. These are some of my favorites.

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Walk the length of Broadway: Sure, you’ve seen a show on Broadway, but have you walked the entire length of the thoroughfare, starting at 220th street and ending at the Battery? It’s a 13.2 mile walk, so make sure to schedule food and drink stops along the way. Celebrate the finish line with trays of square pepperoni pies at Adrienne’s on Stone Street.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park: Some of the best views of Manhattan are found off the island. Take the tram to Roosevelt Island (view from the tram pictured above), and walk to the southern tip. You’ll pass the former smallpox hospital, one of the most haunting buildings in the city. The park itself is pristine and sprawling. The trees are saplings and don’t provide much shade, so wait for a not-scorching day.

City Island: Eat your way through piles of fried seafood on City Island, a picturesque New England-like village off the coast of the Bronx mainland. In addition to being home to a handful of destination restaurants, the main street, City Island Avenue, is lined with familiar small-town spots, like ice cream and candy shops, art galleries and antique stores. Incredibly, it’s all within city limits.

The Morgan Library: Recently named one of the 50 Most Beautiful Places in America by Condé Nast Traveler magazine, the Morgan is something out of a fairytale. (I’m reminded of Beast’s castle library in Disney’s Beauty & the Beast). This once-personal library of 19th century financier Pierpont Morgan features a trove of rare materials like early children’s books and music manuscripts.

Unisphere and Queens Museum: Visiting the Unisphere in Queens’s Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, one gets a taste of what it must have felt like to see the structure for the first time at the 1964 World’s Fair. There is a futurist’s optimism to the design; it looks like something from a sci-fi film, one in which all nations work together to conquer challenges. Next door, the Queens Museum is home to the Panorama of the City of New York, a to-scale 9,335 square foot model of the city.

Morbid Anatomy Museum: Was Wednesday Addams always your go-to Halloween costume growing up? Do you obsessively look up strange and obscure medical ailments? Are you still not over that whole 90s witch trend? Have I got the museum for you! The Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus features a fascinating collection of obscura in its gift shop, rotating exhibits upstairs and an intriguing lecture series. Oh, and taxidermy classes, if that’s your thing.

Wave Hill: This former estate on the banks of the Hudson River is a schlep to get to if you live south of Midtown, but the pristine gardens and the Jersey-cliff views make up for the out-of-the-way location. I’d venture to say this Bronx park is one of the most beautiful spots in the five boroughs.

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Nargis Cafe: This Uzbek restaurant in Sheepshead Bay has quickly become one of my favorite spots in South Brooklyn. Everything here is delicious, but I especially recommend the plov (rice pilaf with lamb), fried manti (Uzbek dumplings), Tashkent salad (lamb and radish salad), lagman soup (spicy noodle soup), and ALL OF THE KEBABS. It’s BYO whatever, but there’s a $5 corkage fee per bottle, so spring for the larger size and bring a crowd. It’s always lively, especially on weekends.

Villabate Alba: Cannoli, made with ricotta imported from Sicily, is what to get at this Sicilian bakery in prime Bensonhurst. I’m also partial to the lobster tails and to gawking at the brightly colored cakes, cookies, and pastries lining the sprawling display shelves.

Taqueria El Mezcal: The tacos at this tiny Sunset Park shop are flavorful and authentic, but what really won me over was their cemita. Made on a traditional, fluffy, sesame seed-covered sandwich bun with avocado, shredded queso, black beans, and, in my case, moist al pastor pork, it might just be the perfect sandwich.

Coppelia: There’s something very old-school New York about this 24-hour Cuban diner (pictured above) on 14th Street. Past midnight it services a cross-section of nighttime revelers, from those out clubbing in the nearby Meatpacking District to local residents out for a late dinner. Dishes and drinks are inventive and way better than they need to be for a 24-hour joint.

San Matteo Pizza and Espresso Bar: This small, authentic Italian restaurant and sandwich shop is located in an unlikely spot on the Upper East Side. The Neapolitan pies are pretty good, but it’s the panouzzi, sandwich-calzone hybrids made from pizza dough, that are the real standouts.

East Harbor Seafood Palace: Come hungry and with not much money in your pocket to this Bensonhurst dim sum hall with a seafood-inflected menu. It’s the size of a small shopping mall, so while the weekends are busy, the waits are bearable. The shrimp dishes–fried shrimp wrapped in bacon, shrimp dumplings, rice noodle rolls stuffed with shrimp–are winners.

Goa Taco: The pork belly taco as this fusion-y spot on the Lower East Side (with weekend showings at Smorgasburg) was one of my most memorable recent meals. It was perfectly constructed: tender, crispy-skinned pork belly, buttery paratha (an Indian flatbread), red slaw. The entire dish is a master course in how to make fusion cuisine that elevates instead of dilutes.

Wangs: I’m still confused about why this Park Slope takeout spot isn’t a bigger deal. My husband and I have to restrain ourselves every time we walk by, and we’re usually passing by after a filling dinner. Their specialty Korean jumbo fried chicken wings are sticky, crispy, spicy, heavenly. Get them, and the cornbread with salted scallion butter and Thai chili pepper jam, and prepare to fall in love.

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Luckydog: This low-key bar on Williamsburg’s Bedford Avenue is a dog- and beer-lovers’ dream. It’s an specially good spot for gawkers who don’t actually have a pet of their own. The adorable back yard is like those dog runs you’re only allowed to observe through a chainlink fence, except here, you’re face-to-face with an array of fluffy puppy butts. On a recent weekend night, the place was filled with as many as a half-dozen pooches, from terriers to Pomeranians to labs. Oh, and the beer list is pretty good, too.

The Double Windsor: I’m a huge fan of this comfortable, airy Windsor Terrace bar, and not just because it’s less than a 20-minute walk from my apartment. It’s the rare spot where one can get an expertly made cocktail, a sought-after beer, and a stellar burger.

Blueprint: “Laid back” and “craft cocktail” aren’t words usually used to describe the same spot. The cocktails at this Park Slope bar are as good if not better than those at more sceney lounges. There’s also a lovely little backyard and a very generous happy hour until 7 p.m.

Covenhoven: There’s absolutely no pretension at this beer nerd’s haven in Prospect Heights. Pick a bottle from their expansive fridge (price vary depending on whether you’re taking out or drinking in) or try something on tap. The backyard, with its small, elevated grassy expanse and iron cafe chairs, is perfect for wiling away summer afternoons.

Ear Inn: Billed as NYC’s oldest bar, this Hudson Square institution has been slinging alcohol continuously since 1817, even during Prohibition. Most out-of-towners go to McSorley’s and miss out on this eccentric spot. Here’s why it’s a can’t-miss: the atmosphere is classic New York, the drinks and food are simple and well-made, and the crowd–a mixture of low-key locals, a post-work crowd, Soho deserters, and a smattering of tourists–is a microcosm of the city.

Red Hook Bait and Tackle: This eclectic Red Hook bar pairs well with a visit to the Morbid Anatomy Museum, mentioned above–the welcoming interior is covered in tchotchkes and an array of taxidermy. It’s not just about the decor, though. It’s also standout for its friendly, laid-back vibe. This bar is the kind of watering hole every neighborhood wishes it had.

PSA: Act More Like a Tourist

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The beauty of seeing something as others see it, like this Jackson Pollock at MoMA

As I’ve mentioned many times, I’m an observer. Yes, it’s important to see the world through your own eyes without incessantly comparing your experience to that of those around you. It can be equally as important, though, to see something from someone else’s perspective. It’s one of the reasons we travel, after all.

I like to sit on a bench on the waterfront near my office and watch as tourists trickle by, posing in front of the Statue of Liberty and the Jersey skyline. Their faces alight when they see the water, especially on breezy days, when that particular part of the city feels entirely removed from the anxious bedlam at its Midtown center. The sun reflects in the churn of the waves. The sailboats tumble across the horizon. The tourists smile at each other. Sometimes, they visibly gasp.

How lucky they are, I tend to think, to be experiencing the city for, perhaps, the very first time. And I’m jealous. Of how new and exciting it all is for them. They’re bookmarking this moment. For me, it’s an unremarkable–albeit pleasurable–lunch break. New York City is home, and when a place is home, its discernible, poetic features tend to fade into a comfortable pastiche. Everything becomes ordinary, everyday.

And so I follow their gazes, and for a moment, I see it for the first time, too. And man, is it fucking beautiful.

Sound Art and Modernity

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Janet Cardiff’s The Forty Part Motet at MoMA PS1 in 2012 (image courtesy of Britta Frahm; made available via Creative Commons license)

Maybe you’re like me: you’re a fairly sensitive person who tears up at sad movies or at the endings of tragic novels. Those reactions are guided by specific cues–that of resonance with a character’s plight or the visual impact of someone crying on screen. We can see or feel the emotion, and our brains react to it; there’s a cause-and-effect that feels, at least to me, fairly straightforward. Music, however, provides an altogether different experience. The first few chords of an especially powerful song can make my eyes well up almost immediately. The chords bring on simultaneous feelings of transcendence, euphoria, and melancholy, and those feelings often seem uncoupled from the specificity of the emotion a particular song exudes. I cry just as easily at a powerful song, with booming notes and crushing cymbals, as I do at a mournful ballad played in a minor key.

Science supports the idea that music as an art form is uniquely able to produce a “frisson” , a sensation marked by a shiver, trembling and goosebumps. Unexpected, dramatic musical flourishes, especially those that violate our expectations and startle the nervous system, release dopamine to the brain, creating a similar response in a listener as one he or she might have to drugs and sex.  (Some frisson-inducing songs for me: The Shivers'”Beauty“; Nirvana’s cover of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night“; The Verve’s “Drugs Don’t Work“; DeVotchka’s “Charlotte Mittnacht (The Fabulous Destiny of…)“)

Sound is uniquely able to give us pleasure, but as an art form, it’s often overshadowed by other mediums. Yes, music is the clearest example of sound as art, but to define it as only music (as in: the kind that gets made by musicians) ignores the versatility of hearing as a sense and how manipulating it can play with our perceptions of reality in the best possible way (the dissonance of a nature recording played in the middle of Times Square, for example). Sound art isn’t just “music” in the same way that fine art isn’t just “painting.”

All of this is to say: I want more! There are sound artists doing amazing things, and museums are catching on, but the form isn’t nearly as widely recognized as older art forms. I’ve been intrigued by the medium ever since I experienced Janet Cardiff’s revelatory “The Forty Part Motet” at MoMA PS1 four years ago. Featuring 40 freestanding speakers that each play the unaccompanied voice of a specific singer, the piece builds momentum as the voices coalesce into the moving, reverential motet composed by 16th century Tudor composer Thomas Thallis. To walk and listen closely to each speaker is to marvel at the building blocks of music the way someone might marvel at the individual bricks of a soaring cathedral. It would be hard to overstate the emotional impact of the piece. (Listen to an excerpt here.)

I felt similarly moved when I viewed Paul Stephen Benjamin’s “Black is the Color” at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Though not strictly “sound art,” the video installation manipulates sound to give the museum goer an entirely new perspective on the piece of music he or she is hearing. By looping dozens of old televisions showing a Nina Simone performance of “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair,” a turn-of-the-20th-century Scottish folk song, the artist creates a haunting round that highlights only the words “Black is the color.” These four words are played on endless repeat–their power amplified by the booming, reverberating quality of Simone’s voice, and the effect is chilling.

Sound art may be the art form most suited to our modern world. It has the ability to completely transport us, to engage with us in a wholly unique way, especially at a time when our attention is pulled in many directions by so much disruptive sound: clicking, beeping, buzzing, honking, jack-hammering. Nowadays, when everyone is looking for something real, something that moves us, something human, perhaps it is sound art that can save us.

 

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Clockwise from top left: Maison Premiere oyster bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; cherry blossoms at Brooklyn Botanic Garden; tulips in Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattain; Fried Jewish-Roman artichokes at Lupa in Greenwich Village; 1 World Trade Center

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