New York

My ‘hood


E. B. White, in his elegiac homage to the city, ‘Here is New York’ , wrote: ‘It is truly a composite of tens of thousands of tiny neighborhood units. … Each neighborhood is virtually self-sufficient. Usually it is no more than two or three blocks long and a couple of blocks wide. ‘ So compete is each neighborhood, and so strong the sense of neighborhood, that many a New Yorker at spends a lifetime within the confines of an area smaller than a country village. Let him walk two blocks from his corner, and he’s in a strange land and will feel uneasy until he gets back ‘. 

Not that much has changed over 60 years later, and the same sense of neighborhood still prevails. My own “‘hood” is slightly bigger than the one that White defines, but still the original comfort zone I marked out for myself in the weeks after my arrival nearly two years ago: the rectangle between Broadway and Amsterdam, five blocks up to 125th, and nine blocks to the south.

Whittier hall

I live in a tall old building with a very steep double stoop leading down to street level. If you turn left, the avenue slopes down to Harlem, past the wine seller with tastings every Thursday,  and the hardware shop selling laundry baskets, microwave egg poachers, and rice cookers for the student population. Then we have the bistro block between 122nd and 123rd, with Max’s, my favorite study bar,  and the Kitchenette, a popular breakfast place which offers comfort food throughout the day. They do a mean shepherd’s pie and braised red cabbage. The block directly opposite my residence has a hotpotch of businesses:  a thriving Eritrean restaurant,  a small Indian place (light on the spices), the hairdressers and manicurist, and and an Italian snack bar called Panini D’ Parma (always always empty).

Then we come to the heart of the neighborhood:  the Appletree Market: the students’ best friend, open 24/7,  even through Hurricane Sandy. It is here that I can arrive off a London flight at 1.a.m and take away a breakfast platter to soothe my jetlagged soul.

My hood

New York

Red letter day

March 31st 2015


I’m sitting in Max’s in my usual seat, but today is unlike any other I have experienced.  Mike messaged me a couple of hours ago to ask me to get a copy of the New York Times. This can mean only one thing – that the birth of my first grandchild is imminent. We had agreed that when Lilli went into hospital I would keep a copy of the NYT for that day. Lilli’s mother will be getting the Berliner Zeitung. I buy the paper and come to the cafe as planned to do some revising for my midterm tomorrow. In between study spurts (the Pomodoro technique. Thanks, Renee), I sip my coffee and savor the uniqueness of the day. There is some very beautiful piano music playing that I don’t recognize, and the sun seems significantly bright. The adrenaline already coursing through my veins in anticipation of the mid term is now full throttle, and all my sensations are heightened. A woman walks past the window carrying a baby in a shawl.  I try to focus on my flashcards as I wait for this everyday miracle to take place.

Jemand liebt dich

Coffee eating New York

Max cafe

If you want to read, do some work, or simply hang out and people-watch, Max Cafe in Amsterdam Avenue is the place to go. Nestled in a row of fast food outlets and unprepossessing from the outside, you step into a miraculous oasis of calm after the buses and sirens outside. It is full of warm colours and exposed brick and pipework. The armchairs, sofas and wooden  flooring create a shabby retro feel,  with large mirrors on the wall and windows looking onto Amsterdam.

If you are lucky you will get a window seat, like I have today, and it will be yours as long as you have some coffee in your cup. No hurry to move on in Max’s. You can order breakfast, lunch or just a drink and you will be welcomed equally. The inoffensive mix of music (today Sting, the Bee Gees,  Roy Orbison) is played at just the right volume.  The clientele is eclectic: a couple sitting knee to knee on what might be their first date . A young guy with a Henry IV fringe describes his take on Christianity to three international students. A couple of older women are talking animatedly over a laptop screen. The buzz is enough to create an atmosphere without distracting from your purpose.

This morning I have spent three productive hours at work and play. I really must come more often.

New York

78th street

I often have an early morning appointment on 78th street in Upper West Side between Columbus and Amsterdam avenues – two parallel arteries leading almost the length of the borough. I take the M11 from 120th, which goes down Amsterdam,  takes a left towards Columbus and creeps down to 80th. The bus fills up quickly with school kids, some with parents, others with childminders, and the bigger ones doing their homework on their knees. Then there are workers : female security officers off to their  morning shift, care workers on their way to the rest homes, and  men and women with briefcases. Its a demographic mix and cooperation levels are high.

Today a couple of women chat animatedly in Spanish and I marvel at their early morning fervour. The woman next to me checks her Facebook and crosses herself as we pass the Cathedral of St John the Divine. I get off at 80th for breakfast at a place which does really good coffee. The bar is full of the usual suspects: a middle-aged hipster couple having oatmeal – he with David Lynch hair and chunky roll neck, she with grey curls au naturel, red jeans and lace up boots. They look over curiously when I order my poppyseed bagel. There are also parents interacting a little too loudly with their kids – ‘ gimme five ‘ they say, ‘awesome choice’. I make my way along 78th in the aftermath of the snow. It’s around 8 am and the best time of day.

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New York

A free ride

Going about my everyday business, I often notice potential cameos for a Woody Allen movie. Recently, on a bus, our driver noticed a guy reversing into a no parking area alongside Central Park. He honked his horn and stopped to bellow ” you’ll get towed away. Can’t you see the stop sign? Use your eyes my friend ! ” This is a perfect example of the No Frills solidarity you find in New York. Generally, working people don’t engage in unnecessary chit chat and communication tends to be brief and purposeful,

A regular exception to this rule is on buses where I continue to be delighted by the sense of community which develops between passengers. A few weeks ago, my buddy Nancy and I were coming back from the theatre on the M104 and the ticket machine was broken. The driver’s challenge was to keep to schedule and allow the late night crowd to travel ticketless without explicitly saying so. He used a variety of ‘A Nod’s as Good as a Wink’ techniques to do this and the rest of us enjoyed watching the reaction of the passengers as they were waved on at each new stop. Most of them caught on quickly and a sense of pleasurable complicity developed between us all. One passenger, though, persisted in trying to insert his card, finally sitting down in a huff. He just didn’t get it. Overall, the feelgood vibe on that bus was high.


March 2015: I have to add a post script to this. During Christmas at my sister’s home, my son was browsing Daniel Goleman’s “Emotional Intelligence ” and showed me the very first example in the book : NYC bus drivers


New York Transport

The 9.54 to Poughkeepsie

Sometimes, summer in the the city is too darn hot and you just need to get out of town. On Sundays in May, when classes finished, I started to take the MetroNorth to explore the Hudson valley with a friend. The train, which starts in Grand Central, stops at Harlem (my stop) and then winds its way slowly along the river 80 odd miles north to Poughkeepsie ( pronounced P’kipsy). It fills up quickly with couples and groups in their walking gear, and by Yonkers there is a pleasant buzz of conversation, like a party that is just getting going. The train runs right alongside the river at a sedate 1950s pace, and the retro feel is completed by Hudsonticket inspector with a deGaulle style cap clipping tickets energetically. No hanging chads on the 9.54 to Poughkeepsie.

This train ride will not appear in a guide book,  but for me it has become the perfect andidote to the sirens and noise of the city.

New York

There’s something about tomato ketchup, or Instant Karma.

This semester is in full throttle and weekends are dedicated to study, so I have taken to easing myself into them with breakfast in a place called  Community Food and Juice. I usually go along quite early and take along an article to read over my coffee so that I’m keeping the standard of the insane work ethic around here. CF & J is quite pricey –  I could eat handsomely for six bucks at Tom’s across the road –  but it feels trendy and bustling, and it’s become a treat to myself and a nod to the leisurely weekend I would like to have.

I went along on Sunday morning jet lagged after my flight back the night before. It was already filling up and the server took me to the long community table.  I wanted to take the end seat,  but a woman sitting opposite said that it belonged to her daughter, so I sat in the next one. As I picked up the menu I unconsciously put my bag down on it, and the woman said again in a bald on record sort of way,”That’s my daughter’s seat.”.  I know rationally that this kind of unhedged communication is not intended to be rude. Once on a bus coming back from Harlem I sat down with a large bag of shopping to hear a loud voice “Ouch that’s my bad knee!’ I leapt up apologetically, and the woman behind me said without rancour ” alright dear just get it off my knee”.  The directness is cultural rather then personal. But this woman’s neurotic attitude towards her daughter’s seat narked me slightly. After all, it is supposed to be a community kitchen.

The daughter turned up and waiter brought their food. I had just settled down to read the article over my coffee when all of a sudden a large dollop of tomato ketchup plopped onto A Generative Rhetoric of the Paragraph.  I looked up to see the woman covered in red blobs  – in her hair, under her eye, and on her smart blouse. She had shaken the posh ketchup bottle without checking whether the lid was screwed on. The poor soul had to apologise to me for messing up Francis Christensen and remove the organic ketchup from her person at the same time. No problem, I said, smilingly, and tucked into my truffled kitchen.

New York

God forbid

After a trip down to the the Apple store this bitterly cold evening I decided to pop into Zabar’s for some soul food, in this case,  a hot drink and a knish. I settled myself onto one of the stools at the communal table next to three older ladies. It was Maggie Smith meets Upper West Side.

A… did she go into rehab?…

B.  oh yes she did do rehab..

A. …because they say it isn’t always successful…

C. (unclear) ….I had therapy…

B. so did I.  I had wonderful therapy….

B. I had to have the operation but I didn’t sue the handyman though I was down on the floor before he said watch your step… but he would’ve lost his job. You know what?  I have a metal femur.

B ….Anyway it doesn’t get easier

A.  No sweetheart it doesn’t

B ….but we’re still here. I had to have surgery too my surgeon was excellent . His father was the one who operated on Kennedy…. his back.

C ….(conversation switches to food in a holiday hotel) I figured it was better not be tempted it’s hard

A…. well I’m with you and he’s kosher too you know?

C … it’s too heavy I know now what my mother meant.

( B  gets up to get some ice-cream)

C. I’m just looking at that coat..

A. I don’t wear a fur coat, no way,  but I understand people who want to…

C. I had a mink coat but you know what? I never wore it..

A. Oh I had a fox fur collar, leather coats and all that kind of crap …but of course then there was  the garment district..

( B returns ) can I interest you in some ice cream?

A.   No thank you so much but I appreciate it  (comments on  man at the bar) What kind of scones?  Whaddya think for Chrissake you’re looking at them

C I wonder if theres anything on TV tonight?


New York

Semester two

Some people have signature phrases or words they tend to use, consciously or unconsciously. I remember from my childhood a local dignitary who was a frequent speaker at school events. He liberally sprinkled his speeches with the phrase “and if I may say so’, and all us kids would have fun counting how many times it occurred.
I have a few hallmark phrases myself; one of them is that pseudo-sporting metaphor ‘hit the ground running’. What started off as ironic usage has now unfortunately become part of my idiolect. But that’s exactly what life has been like the last few weeks, with the impenetrable red tape of starting a new semester, and getting back up to the world speed at which everything happens round here. During the same period Mike and Lilli came to visit so I had to prise myself out of my comfort zone – the square mile around the university – and go downtown, because that’s where people want to be. I have been a reluctant tourist so far, but, in my defence, study commitments don’t leave much time for that sort of thing. I am realising gradually that I will have to wait for visitors with a highly organised sightseeing schedule and explore the city with them.
In order to qualify for my international student visa I have to enrol in four classes a semester, which is a lot of reading and writing. This term one of my classes is Conversation Analysis, which studies how talk is structured into turns and sequences, and how speakers ‘get things done’. This involves a forensic analysis and transcription of people’s utterances, where we have to mark pitch change, micro pauses and something called ‘rush ons’. For a top-down person like me this attention to minute detail is challenging, and my first transcription was completed (semi-satisfactorily) only after a good deal of blood, sweat, and tears. But the classCA pic is conceptually very interesting and yesterday at the Nail Spa I found myself eavesdropping on two blokes having a pedicure (this is New York) and wishing I could record the conversation.

New York

The deli


This is a sandwich special.  Since I posted a picture of our local deli’s sandwich board featuring the AC Milan hero, discreet requests have been arriving for details of other speciality sandwiches.  All my friends know that I am what is called in Italian ‘una buona forchetta ”  i.e. I love my food. They also know that I form very loyal relationships with people or businesses who provide me with good service – another Italian concept summed up in the handy linguistic tail ‘ di fiducia ‘.  So it was inevitable that the Appletree deli , where I had my first bagel and coffee after arriving in New York, should become my ‘deli di fiducia’ – my first port of call when I need culinary comfort.

It is run by a team of workers of various nationalities,  and manages to be all things to all people,  twenty four hours a day. As you enter you can make a left to the small supermarket and squeeze your way down  the narrow aisles until you find what you are looking for. I spent a long time peering at products and converting prices when I first got here. If you make a right, you get to the deli proper, an Aladdin’s cave for the hungry.

The deli is divided into Healthy, in the refrigerated display on the right (bean salads, quinoa, sushi, tabbouleh and seaweed chips) , and Unhealthy, on the left (breakast bagels, burgers, chicken parmegian and something mysterious called chipotle). After a long day I sometimes seek succour in this section,  where I ponder over the giant Italian meatballs or, when self discipline is rock bottom, the Texas burgers. If you choose the ‘deluxe’ option they come with a side of coleslaw, shredded iceberg, large pickle and sweet potato chips. This is all prepared and cooked on the spot and so feels superior to a McDonalds. The tiny gleam in the eye of the assistant tells me he  has picked up my hungry gene, and I fancy he gives me an extra dollop of coleslaw.

What are truly spectacular though, are the sandwiches. They have testosterone-charged names like Bronx Bomber (grilled sirloin steak, crispy bacon, grilled onions, red peppers, brown gravy and melted cheddar cheese), The Hardway (beef pastrami, roast beef, corned beef , cheddar) or The Cuban ( roast pork, grilled ham, grilled prosciutto, melted Swiss cheese).  Even I tremble at these challenges and so far have limited my experiments to The Godmother (Turkey slices, swiss cheese drizzled with honey mustard) : it was enough for two meals. I am working my way up to a Ruebens (corned beef, melted cheese, sauerkraut, Russian dressing) and will be sure to schedule a two hour walk afterwards.

It’s been a good week work-wise.  I have found a great study buddy to do the midterm project with, my second short assignment was better, and my Round Table presentation went well.  I might be starting to see some very modest fruits of my labour. The other encouraging news is that I bought a weighing scales and found that i have lost a few pounds. I can only assume it must be the walking, and the fact that wine is beyond my wage packet.