Monday, March 26, 2012

Traveler's Disease; and our ongoing plans to visit India

I have long felt that the conceit central to many people's approach to travel-planning, that of cramming as many activities within cities and as many cities and even countries into an itinerary is complete anathema to traveling. Why go somewhere and then set a pace for yourself so strenuous that you don't actually see where you are? In other words, why experience your travel/leisure time at the same breakneck speed that is common to your work life? Isn't the whole point of taking a break that we might actually relax and change things up? I feel strongly enough about this that I need to give this phenomenon a name, so I am calling it "Traveler's Disease" - the fear while traveling that if one stops even for a moment to actually see where one is, one might miss the chance to cover every item on one's crowded itinerary.

I was happy to see Guy Trebay address this phenomenon, albeit in gentler terms than I would obviously, in his article in yesterday's NY Times, "India One, Two, Three" - see But he does back away from discouraging travelers from cramming too much into a trip, in his case, to India - "travelers are not reasonable people," he reasons, "and it is distinctly possible to absorb the essence of India in CliffNotes form."

Obviously, I am being rigid and unfair. Even in my own household, we constantly compromise when planning our travels, bouncing between versions of the two extremes - me representing the "spend an entire vacation in one city and really get to know it" position and my fiancee Therese willingly playing the role of impatient traveler who needs lots of stuff crammed into her itinerary so that she won't feel like she has wasted her travel-money. Of course, the truth is that I also like to fill up an itinerary, and am easily tempted into thinking, "oh, wait, this other city is just a two-hour train ride away - let's do a daytrip!"

I was thrilled to see Mr. Trebay's article, because Therese and I have long had India near the top of our list, but have been forced a couple of times to push it off to next year due to scheduling and monetary issues. For several months, we actually thought we were definitely going there last March, but I convinced Therese it wasn't going to work, so we opted instead for Marrakech and Southern Spain.

Part of our trepidation at putting India on the front burner is that we were previously unable to find a trustworthy agent in the country to set up a tour for us. We figure India is beyond our ability to really grasp the logistics of what traveling there would be like, and an agent there who understands the difficulties Westerners encounter in adjusting to traveling in India is essential.

After pushing India aside that first time, we were intrigued to see tours of India based in the famous Oberoi hotels advertised in Conde Nast Traveler magazine: It is very possible that when we become serious again about planning to visit India, we will book one of those tours.

But we will keep Mr. Trebay's article close at hand. After visiting India 20 times, his advice is sure to prove to be golden, whatever kind of tour or itinerary we choose to adopt on our trip to India!

And of course, writing all this reminds me how much travel planning is almost as much fun as the traveling itself, with its own set of challenges and pitfalls and triumphs. No place is ever exactly the way I picture it, no matter how many photos I see before I get there! I find that I must put other people's vision aside, since the beauty of traveling somewhere is that I am going to have the adventure of seeing it through my own eyes, at my own pace.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

TripAdvisor CEO speaks: "People like you truly make this community unique."

I was thrilled on Friday to receive an email from TripAdvisor's CEO. Here is what he said:

Dear Charming_Karl,
It's come to my attention that you've contributed an amazing 135 reviews since joining TripAdvisor in 2010. I just wanted to take a moment to express my appreciation to you.
People like you truly make this community unique. Because you've chosen to share your first-hand experiences, countless travelers have been able to plan and have their perfect trips.
Thank you so much. Happy travels, and I hope we'll be reading more from you soon.
Sincerely yours,
Steve Kaufer
CEO & Co-Founder

Thank you, Mr. Kaufer, for the recognition! I have been very diligently posting reviews on TripAdvisor over these last several months. I have gotten lots of great information on traveling on TripAdvisor, and I am happy to give back. My goal now is to bring this same sense of urgency to posting here on my blog! At the very least, I will link my blog to my TripAdvisor work to make sure that my readers get to share in the fun!

Monday, March 12, 2012

With this New York Diner, the more it changes, the more it stays the same?

Last Tuesday, upon returning to New York's Penn Station after a family visit in New Jersey, I had limited time and needed to get some dinner before an evening music rehearsal. So I went for old reliable, the Tick Tock Diner on 34th Street and 8th Avenue.

I've been going to Tick Tock on occasion for around 10 years. And I've seen it go through some changes in that time. For example, the bathroom used to be in a hallway between the diner and the New Yorker Hotel, to which the diner is connected and affiliated; but now, it is in the rear of the restaurant. However, I do not recall ever seeing any substantive change in the menu, at least not until I walked into the diner last Tuesday.

Gone are the tall fold-out menus typical of New York City diners, replaced by small many-paged spiral-bound colorful menus. Each page is a different category: breakfast, salads, sandwiches, etc. And this menu is very colorful, full of bright red and blue.

I was puzzling over what had prompted what is radical change for a diner, when I returned to the front page of the menu and found an explanation: the title clearly indicated "Tick Tock Diner & GRILLE". So, they are trying to ride the coattails of a perceived grilling fad. I mean, I get it: we all know that frying is bad for us, so if we think we are getting things that are grilled, which is I guess not quite so bad for us, we will be happy. The only problem is, that for a diner, which does the majority of their cooking on a grill, adding this name to the diner's name does not indicate a change in how they do business. It is, to my eye, a cosmetic change at best.

But, getting back to what I ordered - or expected to order - there was a big difference. Since around 2004, my favorite item on the menu at Tick Tock was the spinach salad w/grilled chicken added. A huge salad with lots of spinach, cucumbers, tomatoes, avocado, red onion, bacon and hard-boiled egg, with some tender strips of grilled chicken laid over the top. A hearty, but also what I considered healthy, option for a diner. And it was always very filling, and reasonably priced too. Well, such a salad no longer exists at Tick Tock. How sad!

I was forced to opt instead for a BLT club sandwich with grilled chicken, with added avocado. Let me explain. On their menu is a BLT club which has of course bacon, lettuce and tomato and mayonnaise with grilled chicken, and then there is a Grilled Chicken club which has chicken, swiss cheese and avocado. I was torn whether to order the BLT and add avocado, or to order the Grilled Chicken and ask them to hold the swiss cheese and add bacon. I chose the former, just because I reasoned that it might be easier to just add one item. I am not sure if my reasoning was correct, though, because it is completely possible that the sandwich-maker is eminently adaptable to whatever the customer wants or doesn't want on his sandwich.

In any case, here came my BLT club with avocado (on multi-grain bread, a nice option), and the four quarters of the sandwich, cut into triangles, were set in two rows, lying on their backs, pointy side up, covered with the accompanying french fries. Well, presentation-wise, this may have been a great way to put the dish together, but unless I was expected to eat all the french fries first, this was not a practical presentation. Instead, it required work, namely I had to remove the french fries from on top of the sandwich and move them to their logical resting place alongside the sandwich, before I could begin eating the sandwich.

After that, the meal proceeded smoothly. The portion was so huge that I could only eat half - great - and the sandwich was so big I could hardly fit it in my mouth and lived in fear as I bit into it that it was going to spill all over my plate but it didn't - very good. I had leftovers for a late-night snack, and still at a reasonable price. So, overall, I would have to say that despite my consternation at the change in the menu, my experience at Tick Tock still turned out to be a typical one. A mountain of affordable food at a decent price. Now if only they could reinstitute the spinach salad...

Friday, February 24, 2012

Inline skating in New York City

Well, now that the winter is on the wain, and after hernia surgery and subsequent physical therapy I am on the mend, my thoughts turn to getting back into my favorite physical activity: inline skating. I began skating on conventional quadratic skates in the late 1980s, switched over to inline skates in 1993, and have been skating ever since. In recent years I have gotten away from skating, but am looking forward to starting again as soon as the weather is warm enough.

I am fortunate in the sense that New York City is probably the best place to skate outdoors in the United States, and perhaps the world. Notice I say outdoors - I am not a rollerrink rat. I enjoy skating outdoors, where I not only get exercise from skating, but also varying terrain and the challenges and fun that go with that.

However, while I love skating outdoors, you will not find me, for the most part, on the streets. While I wear full protective gear - helmet, wristguards, knee and elbow pads - I stay away from the streets. There are enough places to skate in New York City away from the traffic - more on that later - and drivers have enough to worry about in New York without having to avoid skaters weaving in and out among the cars and buses.

For those who love to skate and haven't been to New York City, I thought it might be interesting to talk about the many resources for skating here. This will also give me a chance to talk more about the many things I love about skating here.

First of all, the best resource for information on skating in New York City is NYC SK8: There you can find information on all the places set aside for skating throughout NYC's five boroughs: Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island. And there's lots of other information there as well: on clubs & leagues, skate shops, lessons and a calendar of skate-related events.

Since I've lived in four of the five boroughs of NYC, I have also skated there as well. When I first started, I lived in Staten Island, and broke my wheels in skating a rather smooth loop in Silver Lake Park. Later, when I switched to inline skates, I lived in Manhattan's East Village, and honed my techique tearing up and down East River Park. Then I got married and moved to Flushing, Queens where I marveled at migrating flocks of birds passing over while skating in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park.

In 2002, I separated from my then-wife and moved to the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn, where I could walk to Prospect Park, which has a nice loop for skating. And now I am back in Manhattan, living on the Upper Westside, on Riverside Boulevard to be exact, just across the street from a path that leads down to the Hudson River paths. Running from the Battery all the way to Inwood at the northern tip of Manhattan, the Hudson River trail ( is pretty flat, but there is enough variety, I think, to make it fun. And you are usually right next to the waterfront, with the breeze and sun to keep you company.

The one negative is that when the wind is strong, it presents a formidable challenge. Some may like it, since you get a better workout when the wind is blasting you in the face, slowing progress, at times, to almost a standstill. But for me, I like to get somewhere when I am skating, so when it is really windy, you may find me skating somewhere else.

The eastern shore of Manhattan also has a trail; however, during some stretches of that trail you will find yourself skating in traffic, either pedestrian or vehicular. See the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway map for details: Personally, I find stepping up and down curbs and crossing streets and such a nuisance, so I prefer to stay on the westside waterfront.

Of course, the pinnacle of skating in New York City is Central Park. The whole time I have been skating, I have always measured my progress as a skater by whether I could skate the entire loop in Central Park - and if I could, I would measure myself by how fast I could get all the way around. When you get to the northern tip of the loop, there is a steep hill nicknamed Cardiac Hill that challenges even a good skater, and then coming down the westside, there are several more hills. By the time you get to Columbus Circle, if you are not totally wiped from climbing all those hills, you are one serious skater!

Central Park is enough of a mecca for skating that you can find places to rent or buy skates not far from the park. For example, there's Blades ( on 72nd Street between Columbus and Amsterdam, just 1-1/2 blocks from Central Park. I bought my last pair of skates there, and a helmet as well.

Generally speaking, though, when I need skating gear, I go to a large sporting goods store rather than a skating specialty store. For example, I have bought many helmets and wheels and ball bearings and such at Paragon on Broadway and 19th Street in Manhattan ( They have an inline skating department which is usually well stocked with lots of different varieties of skates and helmets. Also, you can sometimes get really good prices if you buy in the off-season, i.e., the winter (hey, I should pay them a visit right now!).

Getting back to Central Park, when I was a new skater, I skated there all the time, even though I was clumsy enough to fall frequently and sometimes get some serious road-rash. I never mastered braking technique on quadratic skates, but luckily I found braking on inline skates much easier to manage. I always tell people that the first thing you need to learn is how to brake, so it is great that the Central Park Skate Patrol ( is out in Central Park every weekend ready to teach newbies how to brake safely. You can also sign up for more extensive lessons with them if need be.

Some people like to skate for more than just exercise - to learn advanced moves like skating backwards, and perhaps even some snazzy dance moves. To see what kind of moves I am talking about, and maybe try out some yourself, look for the Central Park Skate Circle, run by the Central Park Dance Skaters ( The circle has never been my thing, since all you do is skate around in, well, a circle, but you do get to see people who honed their craft back in the Disco era, and have kept evolving ever since!

If you'd like private lessons so you don't embarrass yourself when you get to the Skate Circle, or just to build yourself into the Torville or Dean of inline skating, there are some pretty accomplished pros who give lessons: see for example, the Lezly Skate School ( - the photo just below the banner is of Lezly skating in the Skate Circle!).

In just a week or two, I am going to dig out my gear, wipe the dust off my skates and pads, grease up the wheels, and get ready to start skating again! I can't wait! I will probably start by skating from 67th street down to the Battery on the westside waterfront path, and then once that gets easy, I will head to Central Park and start climbing those hills! I hope that when you come to the Big Apple, you will join me in Central Park. Good luck on Cardiac Hill!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Joys and Tribulations of Valentine's Day

At this time of the year, while we are still in the midst of winter and the groundhog has only recently spoken in tones only the hard of hearing can decipher, we find ourselves faced with a holiday lodged securely between the birthdays of the two presidents who are immortalized in President's Day, a holiday that either celebrates love or is a poor excuse to spend tons of money on flowers, candy and greeting cards, depending on where you stand. Depending on how much you are, or are not, a fan of Valentine's Day.

I have run the full gamut of Valentine's Day experiences. Now I am thrilled to plan lovely celebrations for myself and my beloved, the most recent of which I will describe below. But there was a time when Valentine's Day seemed to me to be the most accursed date on the entire year's calendar. Or at least it was a reminder to me of how unfortunate my life was in that most crucial of arenas, in the forging of loving relationships. So before I get to telling you about the present, which is full of joy for me, let me first tell you a little of the bitterness. I promise you that it will not be depressing, but rather, you may chuckle a little bit along with me, as you see how I stumbled along the way to finding the bliss of love's sweet embrace.

My first meaningful experiences of V-Day was in my senior year of high school, when I had my first girlfriend, Nancy. For V-Day, Nancy gave me a card imprinted with a lipstick kiss and a red teddy bear. Our relationship didn't last, though - we only dated for a few weeks - but for some reason I kept the teddy bear. Some time later in the spring, I came home to find 3 of my brothers (I have four) making a game of knocking objects onto the abandoned warehouse across the street from our house with a broom handle. As I looked on with consternation, I saw that one of the objects chosen was my red teddy. They got a laugh out of it, while I felt helpless and angry. I didn't miss the teddy so much when it was gone, but seeing them so callously dispatch my keepsake brought back the pain of losing love so soon after tasting it for the first time.

In college, I banded together with a bunch of artsy geeks like myself - the sorts of folks who listened to Elvis Costello while the rest of the world was moving to the beats of Donna Summer and the BeeGees. Several of us had already had our hearts broken in bad relationships, and most of us had no loves present or on the horizon. So when Valentine's Day approached, one of us came up with the idea of having a "Candy Burning" - charging en masse down to the local department store on the night of V-Day, buying the leftover candy and V-Day cards, going down to South Beach in Staten Island, making a big bonfire, then reading the saccharine sentiments expressed on the cards with great bitterness and sarcasm in our voices and then throwing them along with the candy into the fire. Some people brought love letters from those who had broken their hearts in the past. And yes, we did end up eating some of the candy as well, in addition to consuming quantities of beer and wine to dull the pain of remembering our loves lost.

We had Candy Burnings for about 6 years in a row, many of which I attended. But after college, I moved to New Brunswick, NJ and hoped to start a new Valentine's Day tradition for myself. I began singing in Rutgers University's Kirkpatrick Chapel Choir, and the director, David Drinkwater, had an annual Valentine's Day party, to which I was invited. The party was a wholly enjoyable affair, and eating and drinking and singing the night away in the company of many new friends, I felt safe from thinking about my perrenially single status, and enjoyed a thawing of my amorous expectations, a respite from loneliness.

A few years later, I started grad school at Columbia University, and then I was too busy to think about being alone. But in 1992, newly graduated from Columbia, I had an experience unrelated to the holiday that just happened to fall on the holiday, but which nevertheless cemented in my mind the feeling that I was just not meant to enjoy this holiday.

After graduating, I moved to the East Village. My old roommate from Staten Island, Maggie Smith, called me to ask if I would look in on a mutual friend, Doug, who had been battling pancreatic cancer for several years. Doug, Maggie told me, was getting to the point where he was nearly bedridden, and if I could spend a little time with him and maybe boil him an egg or something, it would be a great help to him, and to her as well, since she wanted to attend him but her obligations to her job prevented her.

I agreed and called Doug, and arranged to come over the following morning before my afternoon shift at Tower Records' Classical department. Well, when I arrived at Doug's apartment, it was obvious he was in terrible shape, and in a great deal of discomfort. It took a couple of hours, but eventually we got in touch with a visiting nurse, who told us to call 911. On the way to the hospital, Doug lost consciousness which he never regained, making me the last person to speak to him in this life.

Late that evening, I trudged home after keeping a vigil with Maggie and some of Doug's other good friends for most of the day. I had not been prepared for the day's events, and I was almost in shock. The doctors were obliged to keep resuscitating Doug until his next-of-kin, elderly parents who lived in Oregon, notified them of the DNR order. I sat in my dark apartment, sipping beer and nibbling pop tarts. Sometime after midnight, Maggie called me to tell me that Doug's parents had contacted the hospital, and Doug had been allowed to die. I noted in my mind that, with the turning of the calendar at midnight, it was now Valentine's Day.

Luckily, my dreadful feeling that I would always feel haunted by Doug's ghost on Valentine's Day did not come to pass. Just two years later I became engaged, and my fiancee and I decided to get married on Valentine's Day. It was a cold and snow-filled winter, and a snowstorm actually prevented us from getting married on the day itself, but nevertheless, each year when V-Day rolled around became a joyous occasion for us. We had 8 years of February anniversaries, and then in 2002 we separated and later divorced.

But by 2002, the past of dreading and fearing and agonizing over Valentine's Day was gone. I turned 40 years old that year, and felt the truth to the cliche that life begins at 40. A while there were times during the ensuing years that I did not have a date on Valentine's Day, I weathered the ups and downs of looking for love with an optimistic spirit, most of the time. Which brings me to two years ago, and my first V-Day with Therese.

Therese and I are (wow, already!) on our third Valentine's Day together, and the first one, I think, set a great tone. At that point, we had only had a couple of dates, and I was thinking, "well, gee, we haven't dated that much, it's kind of overstepping things to act all lovey-dovey and such." Nevertheless, I thought the holiday gave us an opportunity to do something special, something really fun. So I got us a reservation at Convivium, a very special restaurant not far from where I lived in Brooklyn at the time. That worked out great: we had a wonderful meal, after which we walked to Pacific Standard, a nearby pub, and had a couple of good artisanal beers. We were both smiling from ear to ear: me, because I had planned a very successful holiday outing, and Therese, because (I think) I had made her feel very special. And we had both enjoyed ourselves.

To follow up on that first success, last year we went to a Moroccan restaurant in our new neighborhood, the Lincoln Center area: Les Epices. Internet reviews of the restaurant warned that the host, an older gentleman, could be quite cantankerous. But others said that Les Epices was a very romantic place to eat. The latter comments won out in our experience: we enjoyed a lovely meal, and got a taste of Moroccan cuisine, which was fortuitous since we had plans to visit Morocco the following month.

For this year, I wasn't sure how to proceed. Would another fantastic dinner fit the bill? Or should we do something more elaborate? Therese is working in NJ three days a week, Monday through Thursday, so it would have to be something the weekend before. Then I remembered that we were talking about going to Washington, DC for a weekend since Therese hasn't been there in quite a while, so I proposed that we do that for Valentine's Day weekend, i.e., Friday the 10th through Sunday the 12th.

It was a great weekend! We rode Amtrak down midday on Friday, and went straight from the train to our first museum, the National Gallery (they have several coatcheck rooms where you can leave luggage, so that's what we did). We started in one of my favorite areas, Medieval and Renaissance paintings, and then moved on to the Cascade Cafe where we ate the remainder of our snacks that we ate for lunch on the train: baguette rounds with cheese and salami and pate and slices of corned beef. After snacking, we visited the Eastern building, where the modern art is kept. I had never been there, so I enjoyed it very much.

I had planned a quiet evening. After cabbing to our hotel, the Capital Hilton, checking in, and resting for a while, we decided to walk to the nearby Wasabi restaurant, get some takeout, and then eat our dinner while we watched a movie on our hotel room tv, "the Descendants" with George Clooney. While we waited for our order to be ready at the restaurant, we drank a small bottle of unfiltered sake, the first time either of us had had unfiltered sake - very tasty! We enjoyed our sushi rolls and edamame and shrimp dumplings and seaweed salad. The movie, which has gotten great reviews, we thought to be not bad, but not so great either.

Saturday was a full day. After a disappointing breakfast in the Executive dining room at our hotel, we walked to the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I had never been there before, while Therese had been there more than 10 years ago. We were thrilled to see, among other things, two impressive paintings by Rosa Bonheur, whose painting "The Horse Fair" was the subject of the gallery talk we went to see at NY's Met Museum as our second date. Other than the third floor which is full of great 19th and 20th century art, I felt like the collection is rather slight, but that doesn't stop this museum from being very important.

Then it was time to have a light lunch at Capitol City Brewing Company. Not a bad place. The lunch had to be light because we would be going to dinner at 6 at Zola before finishing our day with a concert of the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

As we finished our lunch at Capitol City, it started snowing. And the wind was blowing pretty hard, too! Walking back to our hotel was quite a challenge. But you know, the nasty weather made arriving at the hotel and hearing the doorman's "welcome back" that much more satisfying!

After warming up and retooling, we were ready for our full evening in the Capital. Luckily, we were able to get a taxi to our restaurant for dinner – the snow had nearly abated. And dinner at Zola on F Street was fabulous, even better than I remembered it being the last time I was there, five years ago. Therese had brussel sprouts with parsnips and Korean beef ribs washed down with prosecco, and I devoured maple glazed pork belly and Moroccan lamb chops with spinach and couscous fritters with a lovely red Spanish Tempranillo wine.

We had told our waiter about our concert at the Kennedy Center, and so he moved us along just right, somehow allowing our dinner to feel unrushed but nevertheless we were done eating and paying in good time. One more taxi ride later, we were at the Kennedy Center, walking down the hall of flags, ready for a transporting experience.

I had never been to the Kennedy Center before, nor heard the National Symphony Orchestra or violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg perform. In one fell swoop, I encountered all three, and was thrilled to have done so. Ms. Salerno-Sonneberg is a dynamic, passionate performer, and her thrilling performance of Shostakovich’s Concert in A Minor started off the concert in excellent fashion. After the intermission, the concert concluded with a wonderful display of the mysteries of Bruckner’s final symphony, the 9th. Therese and I left the concert hall feeling as if our weekend in Washington had now officially become a weekend to remember.

Our final day, Sunday, began at a leisurely pace, with a lovely room service breakfast that we munched on while still in our pajamas. The first event of the day was seeing the Anglo-Saxon Hoard on display at the National Geographic Museum, once again within walking distance of our hotel. But while the previous day’s snows were gone, the day was very cold, and we found it necessary to hunt a cab down to take us to our next museum, the National Portrait Gallery. At the Portrait Gallery, I was keen to see the exhibit of Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ “Black List”, 50 photographic portraits of prominent African-Americans. But to get to that exhibit, we had to walk through the galleries displaying all the portraits of the presidents, and I’m glad we did. From the classic paintings of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart and Charles Wilson Peale to Chuck Close’s interpretation of Bill Clinton, it was wonderful to see them all.

An added unexpected bonus was that the Portrait Gallery shares its building with the Smithsonian Museum of American Art. So we were able to see an interesting exhibit of Annie Liebovitz’s photography, and various other paintings and sculptures of American art.

The Portrait Gallery’s block, F Street between 8th and 9th Streets, is a very active one. Across F Street is the Spy Museum, and Zola, Saturday night’s extraordinary dinner spot, is on the second floor above the Spy Museum. Then there are a couple of other restaurants not far away, like Gordon Biersch’s brewpub. We stopped at Gordon Biersch for our late lunch and to pick up some take out for our Amtrak ride back to New York. We found the beer, a Belgian-style ale, and the food (lobster and crab macaroni and cheese for Therese, fish and garlic chips for me) better than what we had had the day before at Capitol City Brewing Company.

Our weekend trip ended with a quiet and uneventful Amtrak ride back north. It was definitely a memorable weekend for us, and another step for me towards redeeming Valentine’s Day in my eyes, as a time to treasure the love that Therese and I share. Candy Burnings are a distant memory now, and Zola and the National Symphony playing Bruckner have pride of place as Valentine’s memories.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Scribbling in the margins

At Christmas time, I traveled with my girlfriend to Florida to visit her family. This included her mother and her brother and his family, a wife and nearly-grown son and daughter. It was a fun time, and I particularly enjoyed getting the chance to get to know the brother and his wife and the children.

At one point, I was speaking to the daughter, my girlfriend's niece Hope Ann, and Hope Ann expressed with great vehemence her disgust that anyone would ever write anything in a published book. This put her at odds with me, since I have always written notes and comments in the margins of books in my library. But to be civil, I didn't say anything, choosing instead to take the time to mull over why I write in books, and whether this is as reprehensible a habit as Hope Ann seemed to suggest.

I guess the first writing I ever did was in novels that I read. First of all, I would write my name inside the front cover of the book, because at that time it never occurred to me that these books would not belong to me for the rest of my life. And then there were times in reading novels when I would read a passage that was just marvelous, and I would want to make note of it so I could back and read it again. So I would underline or circle the paragraph, and maybe put an asterisk or exclamation point in the margin. And maybe in the flyleaf of the book, I would write the page number(s) to direct myself to where my favorite passage lay.

Then as I got older, I started reading non-fiction books - books on psychology and self-help books and mythology and so on. Now, as I read, I not only found interesting, striking passages that I wanted to underline, but I also encountered things that I disagreed with. Either way, I felt compelled to do more than just make note of the author's writing. I wanted to react to it with writing of my own, to say "Yes!" or "No!" and then give my own take on the subject being described. I wanted to, as it were, enter into a dialogue with the author, even if the author would never have a chance to offer a rebuttal to my reaction.

Then when I entered graduate school at Columbia, I encountered writing of a different sort: updating and correcting the author. In music history, which is what I was studying, as in many fields of study, ideas evolve over time, and what was accepted as truth previously, now in the light of new evidence is obviously incorrect. The problem is that books are often not published in academic circles quickly enough to reflect the changes in ideas. So professors, and some students as well, will write into the margins to reflect the current accepted ideas. Some times this was absolutely practical. I remember, for example, how a book from the 1950s included some instructions about how to read ancient notation that were incorrect. The author at the time didn't know that, but in the 1980s we did, so someone politely made the correction.

This way of dialoguing with authors has informed my recent reading of travel guides. Guides are another part of publishing where the updating and published of new editions does not keep up with change. For example, my girlfriend recently was chastising me for still carrying around a Rough Guide for Spain that I bought in 2006. Her point was that, if I bought it in 2006, that meant the book probably reflected what was correct in 2004, and therefore, by 2011, the book was probably mostly inaccurate. She had a point, but what she didn't know was that I had been making notes expressing my opinions about things I had seen and places I had gone, so that whether accurate or inaccurate, the book was becoming something of an encyclopedia of my previous travel experiences.

I think it is necessary whenever purchasing travel guides to be willing to take extensive notes. I try to incorporate changes and inaccuracies as they are encountered into my word-processed itinerary. But guide books are there with us when we are looking for sushi restaurants and hotels with softbeds, so it makes perfect sense that as we bite into tuna rolls and climb narrow staircases, we can pause for a second to jot something in our guide ("tasty!" or "no elevator!" or whatever is appropriate). We owe it to ourselves to make these emendations, and to whoever may ever borrow a guide book from us or ask for our opinion on a travel destination.

And finally, the place where I know writing to be most crucial is in using cookbooks. However accurate cooks and chefs try to be in writing down recipes, there are always things that need to be changed, or things that are implicit to them that need to be made explicit to me. So I am constantly writing each time after I make a recipe, to remind myself that the amount of sugar was woefully low in a brownie recipe, or that paella will never cook at a 200 degree temperature in my oven. I could decide to not write anything, but chances are that if, after making what I judge to be the proper change to make the recipe work, I enjoy the results, I am going to want to make the recipe again. And there's no guarantee that, a year after baking cornish hens for the first time, I will remember how to make the dressing so that it is not too mushy. So I better write my own changes down.

So, Hope Ann, I regret to inform you that I will remain an unrepentant margin scribbler. It is part of the process of bringing words to life, that I am compelled to add my own words in order to produce something that is, ultimately, useful to me. However much the author whose work I am spoiling may be a genius, their book has found its way into my hands and into my home, and now it is subject to my needs and whims. But rest assured, I am not ruining anyone's work, just adapting it, making it more useful and I hope, richer.

Monday, January 30, 2012

New York City: Food City, USA

There are many good reasons to celebrate New York City, and it has many well-earned identities. The financial capital, the entertainment capital and so forth. But to me, more than anything, it is the food capital.

All I have to do is spend any amount of time in another part of the country to realize how good I have it in New York. Because in most other parts of the country, you have to search, you have to work pretty hard, to find the kind of good food that is readily available all over New York City.

Now granted, things cost more here. I discovered that when I was a kid growing up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. In 1970, we got our first McDonalds fastfood joint in Perth Amboy. We were thrilled to be able to scrape together some loose change and get those yummy McDs hamburgers and french fries, or for a little more, maybe the mindblowing Big Mac.

So believe me, as an 8 year old with a quarter a week allowance, I kept track of how much each item on the menu cost, including tax. But then, the next time I came with my family into New York City, and we stopped in at a McDonalds for a meal before heading back to New Jersey on the train, I was shocked to see that my normal computations of how much the food was going to cost didn't work. It made no sense to me. McDonalds was McDonalds was McDonalds. How could it be so much more expensive to buy in New York City the same thing I ate all the time?

Of course, we know that with supply and demand and whatnot, it is very easy to see why things cost more here. I've lived here so long, and lived on a New York City inflated income for most of that time, so I've almost forgotten the feeling of realizing that it is expensive to eat here. But it is possible to find bargains for eating here. I haven't looked lately, but at one time when I was poor and cared about such things, I used to know which neighborhoods were cheaper to eat in.

To eat cheaper, one good strategy is that the farther from midtown Manhattan you get, the cheaper things may be. This doesn't always work - there are other neighborhoods in Manhattan, and some in Brooklyn and Queens that can also get pretty pricey. But in general, it works. I remember at one time knowing the difference in the price of bagels, for example, in supermarkets on the Upper West Side of Manhattan versus those in supermarkets in the East Village. At that time, there was a correlation between the rents you paid to live in an area and the food prices in supermarkets.

Now, who knows? Living in Manhattan, yep, it's just crazy expensive. Things have gotten out of control. How much does a square foot of real estate cost anywhere nowadays? And you know, anybody who is selling food, whether restaurant, deli or supermarket, has to plunk down serious rent money, and those exorbitant rents trickle down into the cost of each can of Coke and jar of mayonnaise and bowl of gazpacho.

But in spite of high costs, I still say this is the place to be for food. I know that Tony Bourdain recently on his Layover show said that San Francisco is the place for reasonably-priced food, while New York is mainly good for high-end food. But personally, I think you can find all kinds of eats here. Again, you may have to travel to certain less-tony parts of the City to find food that isn't priced more for the place you're eating it than for the quality of what it is you are actually eating. Some might say it is not possible to find such food. But again, I beg to differ.

Of course, I have my favorites. For example, diners. I've had some pretty bad meals in diners, and I've also had some very memorable meals in diners. Some have unexpected things, like menu items you wouldn't expect to find in a diner. Some are from the land that time forgot, or at least pretend to be.

One of my favorite diners, for example, is the prophetically-named Good Food Diner on 14th street. I mean, come on, if you call your place "Good Food" you have to deliver, right? They have kitschy decor, good basic things like turkey burgers and mushroom omelets, and they are open all the time. And the people who work there seem like they were genetically-engineered to work in diners. Can't you see some mad scientist: "this one will be perfect at mopping floors and whistling tunelessly!"

Some industries in New York City have been killed either by jobs moving oversees or one behemoth coming in and killing the others, or just from the onset of mallification (why have one Fifth avenue when we could make every shopping area look like Fifth Avenue! I'd like to imprint my bootmark on the rear-end of the idiot who is responsible for that). But we still have neighborhoody eateries. We still have those delis that make killer roastbeef sandwiches and have tuna fish salad that looks like it might've been made around the time that hair grease and shoes polish were invented. And there are restaurants that cater especially to the folks who live in any particular part of the city. Yes, some of these places also cater to tourists - see Chinatown - but blame the people who write the guidebooks.

In my neighborhood, the Upper Westside, for example, we have some great Asian and fusion restaurants. One of my favorites is actually called "Fusha" and has all kinds of great curries and sushi rolls and the like. They make an appetizer which is a combo of guacamole and Asian spicy tuna which you put on deep-fried seaweed tempura batter chips - wow, I could eat that stuff every day of the week for every meal, even for breakfast.

In the East Village, which is still one of my favorite parts of the city even though it has undergone massive gentrification in the last 20 years and does not at all resemble the neighborhood it used to be, there are all kinds of unique, quirky, reasonably-priced places to eat. For example, on Avenue A there is Bennies Burritos, which has undergone some changes (it was bought out by Harry's Burritos, but that is another story) but still manages to have some of the yummiest Cal-Mex lowcost food in the City.

Then there is Polonia. The East Village is an area of Manhattan that was occupied by all kinds of immigrant populations until the last couple of generations (and of course the gentrification got rid of the last of them). One of the groups that inhabited that area was the Polish. They are mostly gone, but on First Avenue there are still a couple of Polish restaurants. Polonia was always my favorite place to go for Pierogis and egg noodles with mushroom gravy and potato pancakes. However, the last time I went there, it seemed like the menu had completely changed. Not sure if they got bought out by someone who decided to upgrade to fit the new tony clientele or what, but it was not the food I've been eating for the last 25 years. I'll have to get back to you on what is up with that one.

Now I must confess that since I've been dating my girlfriend Therese, my tastes have moved to more pricey venues. But I feel like we enjoy a variety of places. We make a lot of use of, the site of sites for getting the sense of what people have to say about restaurants all over New York. And we try to economize when it makes sense. But once we sit down at a table, all bets are off. Life is too short, eating good food is one of the best reasons for living, and why do we work so hard making these high New York City salaries if we can't relax and enjoy ourselves now and then?