Walking our way through NYC

Savannah Morning News column

April 10, 2015

Distance. It’s a wonderful thing to have when you visit another city, when you don’t know the players in city hall, when you don’t have to choose up sides and you don’t have a dog in a fight, any fight, pick a fight. You just walk and laugh and take what comes.

At least that’s the way it is in New York City, the ultimate walking city where there’s no such thing as getting lost, where no one will even give you a chance to get lost. Anyone who sees you studying a subway map, holding the folded and wrinkled outline of the city every which way, will stop and ask where you’re trying to go, and that’s before someone else stops by to offer an opinion and give you a better way.

It pays to travel light (and not just because of hauling your luggage up and down the multitude of knee-challenging, concrete subway steps) because nothing you could want is too far away. Colder than you thought it would be? Stop along the way, pop into a shop and buy a hat in the shape of a mohawk. Five dollars. Forget your sunglasses? (And it can be bright in New York.) Stop, look around, pick out a new pair of shades. Six dollars, the vendor says. But will you take five, you ask. Sure. Fi’ dolla, no holla.

Hungry along the way but you don’t want to stop because it’s a beautiful (bright) day with the bluest sky possible? Aha. There’s a food cart on the corner selling pickles and olives stored in barrels. Garlic-stuffed pickles, new pickles, old pickles, sour pickles, horseradish pickles, black olives, green olives, blue-cheese olives, brine olives. Five dollars. What a concept: food vendors with posted licenses, permits and photo ID badges. You can eat while you walk or you wait to find a pocket park with benches.

And when you exit the Met Breuer building (the old Whitney Museum of Art) at Madison and 75th and you think, “I’m in the mood for a knish,” bingo, there it is, right in front of you, a stand selling knishes. With mustard, of course.

Then, when you’re about to go to a showing of “City of Gold,” a sumptuous movie at the IFC Center about a prolific and daring food critic in Los Angeles, Jonathan Gold, well, you know you’re going to need a wee bit of a snack because dinner at the Pearl Oyster Bar on Cornelia Street is hours away. That’s when you stumble into Faicco’s on Bleeker Street, where one dollar buys you a fried risotto ball, maybe the best (okay, the only) one you’ve ever had in your life. In fact, you wake up the next morning thinking of this risotto ball because it’s got that “morish” taste, as in “I need more.” And that’s when you have your first NYC dilemma: to cross 6th Avenue to the Waverly Restaurant, the quintessential 24-hour diner that has the same trio of venerable indoor potted plants in its window (avocado, Easter lily and spathiphyllum) that it had last year and the year before and the same reliable service – or return to Faicco’s on Bleeker Street for that risotto ball.

Except then you remember you are meeting friends at Tom’s in Brooklyn. Tom’s is another old-timey corner restaurant from 1936. It sits a few blocks from the Brooklyn Museum, which houses Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party” (an epic piece of feminist art) and the Brooklyn Botanical Museum, boasting bonsai plants that are hundreds of years old.

Tom’s is the kind of restaurant that calls you back. Maybe it’s the freshly cut sections of orange the waiter was passing around. It never hurts to be nice to your customers (why don’t other restaurants know this?) or the hand-cut crispy hash browns or the leisurely way they let you stay at your table to talk, café-style.

But NYC is like that. It lets you talk. It encourages you to talk. People sit up and take notice. Even the d.j. at Henrietta Hudson, a cool West Village dance bar where a friend of mine bartends. When the d.j. saw us dancing she left her post to join in. Age be damned.

It’s noisy (the whining warning those trucks make when backing up: oy; enough already). Housing is expensive (more than I could wrap my arms – or my wallet – around). It’s competitive (there’s a writer and an actor every five feet). But it’s alive (even the plastic bags caught and flying in the trees have a certain beauty) and it’s unpredictable (like that facial I got at the JFK airport; perfect timing). New York is a hoot.





Time to trade (or get rid of) plants

Savannah Morning News

March 27, 2016

If the hardy amaryllis are starting to flash their lusty reds and light-hearted pinks, the towering dogwood their bright white blooms unobstructed by those late-coming leaves and the tasty snow peas their delicate flowers, it must be time for the gathering of the clan, that motley crew of intrepid gardeners (and wannabe-gardeners) who meet twice a year to swap plants, as well as seedlings, shoots and roots, corms and creepers, seeds, bulbs, stems, tubers, rhizomes and – not to be left out – tales of the garden (like the sweet smell of blooming fruit trees) and questions too (this is how mild the winter was: last year’s castor bean trees never lost their leaves).

And so it is writ. Just around the time of preparing income tax returns and fighting pollen the spring plant swap, held the first Saturday in April, rolls around.

Need some more reminders about Saturday’s swap on West Boundary Street, an abbreviated artery of artsy students, impatient truck drivers, wandering out-of-towners looking for I-16? Here are a few more ways to remember the event: It follows St. Patrick’s Day; after so many productive months the collards are anxious to bolt, put out seed and rest for a while; so too the bountiful broccoli and the early azaleas – both are starting to taper off.

Savannah’s biannual plant swap sits somewhere between two parading pageants, the venerable St. Patrick’s Day spectacle (lots of green, televised and not so easy to get permission to march; expensive, too) and the irreverent upstart, the Johnny-come-lately Flannery O’Connor parade (lots of laughs, not televised, not vetted, open to everyone with a sense of humor on April 10).

The plant swap is an airtight system of exchange without debit cards, minus credit cards, empty of card-reading squares. Can you say transactions without greenbacks? It’s downright un-American, anti-capitalist. Somehow we muddle along.

Guarantee, there will be scores of baby loquat trees (was there ever a more bountiful season of the tree some call Japanese plums?) and maybe some loquats if people want to get rid of the fruit, dozens of Mexican petunias (a vigorous, rhizomatous perennial that right about now people are ripping out of tree lawns, from the middle of their shrubbery and out of a bed that could be otherwise occupied), some don’t-pay-any-attention-to-me night blooming cereus (if they made it through some of our frosty nights), and a stash of don’t-get-too-close-to-me prickly pear cactus (they will leave their spikes firmly embedded in your body if you attempt to get intimate, which makes it a pretty darn good tool for fighting the nefarious home invader).

At last fall’s swap (always the first Saturday of October) someone brought a baby plant identified as “a hydrangea rescued from the demolition of an entire neighborhood, progress.” I’m not sure if it was a Texas star or scarlet hibiscus. If so, lucky you. This beauty – with five-pointed leaves that resemble the you-know-what herb that some people like to smoke – is a knockout. I was afraid mine didn’t come back this year since I fall into the survival of the fitness camp and it can do a pretty good disappearing act. But last week I got down on my hands and knees and saw it pushing through the ground, pointed, red leaves and all. Made my day.

A few years ago a woman with a sense of humor walked around with the following sign pinned to her back: “need male papaya to pollinate my female papaya.” No word on whether she was successful. If you’re lucky – and I remember to bring some – there might be some dotted horsemint, also known as spotted bee balm. Native bees love it; so do I.

If you’re unlucky (only in the eyes of the beholder) you’ll go home with some cypress vine (ipomoea quamoclit), a vine with a red, innocent starlike flower that will take over the world if left alone (maybe that’s why its other name is social climber). You might get it either way since it likes to piggyback on other plants.

Crocosmia is a favorite swap item though for me this underground corm-spread perennial is nothing but a big tease. My neighbor across the lane has one that is already blooming. Me? I’m lucky if I get five blooms a year.

The swap is a hoot. Everyone is welcome. No plants? Bring something to eat. Bring your stories. Bring what you’re tired of looking at in your garden. See you Saturday.